Growing an Expat Empire in Berlin, Germany

What is it like living in Germany’s capital and building a project that’s helping thousands of expats a day? David McNeill from the USA chatted with Susanne of MyExpatCommunity on what it’s like to live in Berlin and run Expat Empire.


Hi David, thanks for meeting with me today for MyExpatCommunity. My first question is: How did you end up in Germany?

Hey Susanne! In 2014 I got the opportunity to live in Japan for two years, working for a Japanese sportswear company called Asics. So after that experience, I still had Berlin in the back of my mind as a place that I would like to move to. I visited it in 2014 and thought it was fantastic. The first company I applied to in Berlin gave me an offer, so a month after I got the offer, I was on a plane to Berlin and I have been here for about two and a half years.

Awesome. So… what would you say are the challenges of living abroad?

I think the real challenges come in the time after your tourist visa expires, and you now have to actually get a proper work or living visa, you have to figure out how to deal with the government, you have to get all the paperwork done and make the appointments, maybe have somebody come in and translate for you if you can’t do this in English. You have to find an apartment, which may sound easy, but depending on the city can be very difficult.

I think most people living in Berlin have had experience about how difficult it can be to find an apartment here. It is easy to tell people it will take two to three months, and then they easily brush it off as “That won’t happen to me. That may be other people but I’m in a different situation, I’m sure I’ll find something.” And you have to have an optimism to make it work abroad anyway, that’s a great mindset to have. Ultimately that is not going to keep people away, but the reality is it takes some time. You’re not exceptional in that regard and you will probably have to go through a lot of the same things other people are, so it’s good to keep your eyes and ears open for tips from people who have been there before, who are living there now, to get connected in your network as early as possible.

And certainly the feeling of isolation, if you don’t know anyone in the place that you’re going to it can be pretty intense, and in my experience, it took about twelve months before I was fully settled and I had my network built up. One may expect three or six months, and so it can be frustrating when thinking “how long is this gonna take”, but I think you should mentally prepare for a solid twelve months to get settled and setup.

I can see how difficult that must be for expats and how these challenges drove you to create Expat Empire.

Yes. The whole point of the site is to really get the word out about interesting locations around the world and to give genuine feedback and help, advice and tips for people that move there. It is really hard to find good information online, you go on a message board, you go into a Facebook group, it could be posts that are from a couple of years ago.

The goal of Expat Empire is through the podcast, through our guides, and future books coming in the next months is really about giving this honest impression about how to make it happen, how to get a job, how to get a visa, how to find housing. Really all those tough questions, that are difficult to find answers for. I hope I have all that there from my own experiences.

Nice! Now… what is something you enjoy most about Berlin and Germany in general?

I think Berlin has always something fun and interesting going on. You can say that about a lot of cities, but what makes it different here is history. There are a lot of interesting celebrations, there is a lot to see in terms of exhibitions and museums, the Berlin Wall everybody knows about, the Cold War, World War II, also this difference between East and West Berlin, even though the wall has been down for 30 years.

You can still feel the differences between the two sides of the city. So even if it’s one city, there are different vibes, if you want a little more relaxed, quiet and comfortable and chilled out, you can get that in West Berlin, the East side there is still protest, there is a lot of graffiti, there are still underground pubs and bars.

I’m always waiting for the beautiful Berlin summers, which can be hard if you get six months of winter, it definitely makes it worth it when times comes around.

What are some of your favorite activities and food places in Berlin?

In terms of activities is seeing some of these abandoned buildings, you can actually check it out on abandonedberlin.com. There is a particular one called Teufelsberg, it is an old radio tower, and you actually can go to the top of it, and there you can go into the dome, and it’s an amazing place full of graffiti art and murals. So you basically walk up on top of this hill overlooking the city, you walk up the stairs to the different stories where they have all this art, and you can go to the top and see the remains of this building from the Cold War. So that is like my top spot or general activity that I like to do here.

In terms of food, it goes back to the pizza. There is a lot of great pizza here, but what I miss from home, here it is very Italian style, which is great. But I’ve been to a couple of places and one that has really been amazing and helped me feel more at home. It’s called “Salami Social Club”, and it is really close to my apartment. It got really great American style pizza, craft beer on tap, and you can have a slice for one Euro on Thursdays. I take my friends there a lot and it is also a place I recommend to people coming to the city.

Thanks so much for taking the time to be interviewed for MyExpatCommunity. Best of luck to Expat Empire and your future adventures!

Thanks Susanne.


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