My Personal Story About Why I Moved To Berlin

I’d been living in Berlin for almost a year before I managed to write about why I chose to give up my life in Canada to start anew in the German capital. I’d moved here in June 2011 and months later, found myself without words or an ability to share what was a very personal story. I’d typed dozens of drafts but felt none of them ever seemed fit for publishing. I guess I needed more time to realize why I’d really moved here and what exactly it meant to me.

Finally, the day came when I ended the suspense by sharing why I moved to Berlin in the first place.

Some people move to Berlin to be part of the city’s creative community, others to work at a startup, while some come for love, and many simply, for the hedonistic party and clubbing lifestyle.

My story’s much more different. I moved here never having visited the city, completely alone, without a job, and not knowing a word of German.

My “Happy Life” In Toronto Was Anything But Happy

From the outside looking in, my life in Toronto seemed like a really good one. I was lucky enough to have close friends, an amazing apartment, and a job that paid well. I kept busy by playing sports, taking classes, and going to events and parties. I traveled a few times a year and did awe inspiring things like cruise the Galapagos Islands and hike the Inca Trail in Peru.

What most people didn’t know was that I was deeply unhappy. I loathed my job. I was ashamed I didn’t have a steady boyfriend, never mind a husband or children. I felt guilty for not being able to appreciate what I had. To be honest, I didn’t feel deserving of my good life. I cried each day, regularly had full blown panic attacks, and suffered from unrelenting insomnia. I was tired and drained all of time and even though I didn’t realize it yet, was sinking into a deep depression.

There Was A Slew Of Traumatic Events

I was in complete denial of my depression for a very long time.

A lot of traumatic things had transpired in the decade leading up to that time of my life:

I’d married an abusive man, only to get divorced a year and half later. It had been devastating, as he’d been unfaithful and never once showed any regret. I’d also been pregnant and when he found out, he pressured me into having an unwanted abortion. When he left, he immediately moved in with his new girlfriend as if our seven years together meant nothing. Our parting was the best thing that ever happened me and my life immediately improved when he left, but I never once took the time to process what damage the relationship had done to my well being.

Just a couple of years later, I found out my father broke his 20+ years of sobriety. Things went downhill pretty fast from there and it got to the point, that every time the phone rang, I would collapse into a panicked state. The phone calls never meant anything good. He was either in the hospital from overdosing, getting picked up by the police for public drunkenness, and once, even arrested for driving under the influence. These events continued for quite a while until one weekend when I went home to visit him and my sister and I found him dead on the kitchen floor. As much as I’d been expecting something like that happen, there isn’t too many things as devastating as finding your father’s decaying body. I’ve never been able to get the image out of my head, or even the smell.

As if his death wasn’t enough, my siblings and I had to take care of my dad’s estate which involved a lot of work and stress. My sister and I ended up taking on the bulk of the responsibilities, a huge burden to say in the least. To make matters worse, no of the kids could agree on anything and what followed, was two years of pointless arguments and disputes. When it was over, one of my sister’s stopped talking to the entire family.

During that time, we also had to care for my elderly grandmother who was dying from Alzheimer’s. She ended up passing away just one year after my dad did. Even though it sounds wild and totally unbelievable, when we arrived at the cemetery for her burial, we discovered that they’d dug up the wrong grave site, my dad’s grave site! Trying to cover up their mistake, the grave diggers had carelessly tossed my dad’s cremated remains into the forest adjacent to the cemetery. My family and I had to comb through piles of dirt to find them and on the day we were supposed to bury my grandmother, we had to rebury my father as well.

So much insanity in such a short time would challenge the best of us, but I kept going by avoiding any and all opportunities to face the enormity of all of those life events by all means possible. I played sports, took classes, went to parties, and threw myself into work — just so I could keep busy and avoid checking myself into a mental hospital.

It Was Time For a Sabbatical

In 2005, I’d bought a house with the proceeds from my divorce. It was an investment property, as I purposely bought in a developing area so I could sell at a profit later on. Five years later, I did exactly that, leaving with a very handsome amount. Around the time I sold my place, I was also laid off from work and scored a decent settlement package.

It was the perfect chance to take a sabbatical and figure out what I really wanted from life. I could breathe and not worry about things for a while, perhaps finding the happiness that’d always eluded me. I ended up taking nearly two years off of work and spent the time being a lady of leisure, a champion lady of leisure actually. I slept in, got day drunk, watched countless reruns of Golden Girls, took cooking classes, and most importantly traveled. And once I started, I couldn’t stop.

Meeting My Big (European) Love

A woman previously obsessed with South America, I finally decided to give Europe a chance. Figuring there was no better place to start than Italy, I ended up having my best vacation ever. It was then I felt free, happy, and joyous for the very first time ever in my life. I lost count of how many times I cried simply because it felt so surreal, to be there in a place I’d always dreamed of visiting and to feel happiness that I still didn’t feel I deserved. The new emotions overwhelmed me, but it became some kind of natural high I started to chase.

Upon arriving home, I ate and drank Italian food and wine at every opportunity, enrolled in language classes, and even vowed that someday I’d move there. I took comfort in dreaming about what life abroad would be like and indulged in silly movies like Under The Tuscan Sun for inspiration.

Not wanting to stay away from my new love for long, I returned to Europe again for Christmas to do a tour through Munich, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, and Vienna. To be honest, I’d low expectations for the trip and thought there was no way that Italy experience could ever be topped. To my surprise, the Christmas tour turned out to be even better than I ever could’ve imagined. One cold snow filled night, as I walked across the Charles Bridge in Prague, I suddenly just “knew”. I was someday going to make that big move abroad to Europe. Not only did I want to do it, but more importantly, I knew I could do it.

Those trips were pivotal for a few reasons. First, it solidified the fact that I loved the continent. The happiness of that first trip was repeated with the second. Second, I discovered there was more to Europe than Italy and I knew I’d be happy living almost anywhere. I started thinking about Germany, France, and even Spain. Third, I felt a new and very surprising confidence that it was something that I could really do on my own.

Taking The Plunge

The new year arrived and so did a new job in Toronto. The adjustment back into being employed was not gentle and again, I found myself feeling completely and utterly miserable. The honeymoon was over and I wondered what had really changed. Even though I still planned to move, I hadn’t taken any concrete actions to make my dreams a reality. I felt stuck and didn’t know how to move forward.

Then while in Cuba on vacation three months later, I received a call from my landlord announcing that they were putting my flat up for sale and public viewings would start the very next day. At first I was deeply upset with the news but then realized this was the time and a perfect opportunity. I decided right then and there I’d move to Europe. I cancelled my vacation and flew back to Toronto the very next day so I could start the process.

Just a few weeks later, I quit my job, gave my landlord notice, and applied for a working holiday visa in Germany. Without it being approved, I sold all of my possessions, booked a one way flight to Berlin, and secured a holiday apartment in Prenzlauer Berg. I was finally ready to move to Berlin.

After I put the wheels into motion, everything happened really fast. I was so busy taking care of details, I barely had time to think about what I was doing and one day, the enormity of all suddenly hit me. I was ending my way of life as I knew it and had no idea what the future held. I didn’t have any real plans except to try and make my blog successful, get to know Berlin, and see as much of Europe as I could. I knew it was possible (even likely?), I’d fail miserably and would have to come home. I made sure I had enough money to last about six months.

I was scared, exhilarated, and stressed but mostly, excited.

The Long Kiss Goodbye

Saying my farewells was the single hardest thing I had to do and it wasn’t without tears. I had to bid adieu to some of the best friends in the world and of course, my family. It finally got to the point during my last week in Toronto where it was all getting to be too much and all I wanted to do was hop on the plane. Time was dragging by much too slowly and I was ready to start my life with a vengeance.

Reactions to my big announcement were mixed. While most expressed their support and wished me well, others weren’t so kind. Some were jealous, worried, and even thought I was crazy (which I now realize I was!).

These were just some of the comments — “Are you experiencing a midlife crisis?”, “You’re so naive. You’ll never succeed at travel writing. It’s not really a profession.”, “You need to grow up.”, “Aren’t you taking the whole Eat, Pray, Love thing a little too far?” “I’d do the same if I didn’t have a mortgage, spouse or children.”

While some of the concern was certainly warranted, the narrow mindedness of some people also shocked me. How can you not be thrilled for someone who wants to embark on a new adventure? I wondered, how couldn’t they see what I saw? The possibilities, the potential, the chance for true happiness.

Why Berlin Of All Places?

As expected, everyone asked me why I was moving to Berlin. I’m still asked this question on a regular basis and still find it a hard one to answer.

I can’t really narrow it down to just one reason. My answers varied but went something like this:

  • “To travel more. I want to explore every nook and cranny of Europe!”
  • “A change in lifestyle. I needed to escape the shackles of an office job to join the ranks of creatives in Berlin and try my hand at travel writing.”
  • “It’s way cheaper to live in Berlin than Toronto. Once I get a job, I can start to save money again.”
  • “To challenge myself and try something new. It’s a six month experiment to see I can succeed. If it doesn’t work, I’ll come home.”
  • “I feel happy when I’m in Europe. I want to see if I can make the feeling last.”

It wasn’t at all because I watched this amazing video.

Of course, there are usually more questions:

“Do you have a job in Berlin?” I didn’t have a job when I first arrived.

“Do you speak German?” I didn’t know any German outside of bier, kindergarten, and scheisse but planned to take classes. I quickly become quite good at saying “Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut.” to get through daily situations.

“Have you ever been to Berlin?” No. Based on the advice of two girls I met in Cuba and a friend that had lived in the city previously, I chose to live in Berlin as opposed to Munich, Hamburg, or Frankfurt.

“Are you moving there for a man?” Nope. Although the idea of dating fashionable, well educated, multilingual men who watched movies with subtitles was definitely appealing.

“Do you hate Toronto?” I didn’t hate Toronto. It was just time for a new beginning. I’ll always consider it home.

The Verdict On My Berlin Move

Did it work out? Yes, and no. Shortly after my arrival, a fellow newly arrived Berliner remarked to me over late night beers, “I don’t know whether you’re fucking brilliant or fucking crazy, but you certainly have balls.” Now that I look back, I admit that I may have been just that but I harbour absolutely no regrets.

I ended up staying in Berlin for 18 months. While there were plenty of ups and downs, moving to Berlin was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. Unfortunately, those downs caught up with up me with untenable work and relationship situations, so I took the very right decision to go back to Canada to figure things out.

It was also another opportunity to make myself feel grounded myself again and take stock about what I wanted from life. It didn’t take me long to realize that I missed Berlin a lot and I soon began plotting my way back. After two years in Canada, I returned in November 2014 and have been here ever since.

And What Now?

A decade later in 2021, I sometimes still find myself astonished that I’ve been in Berlin for all of this time. I’ll admit that I have moments where the urge to go back to Canada has been strong, most especially at the beginning of the pandemic.

Looking back, I can really see in the years following those traumatic events I discussed above, I took every possible action to avoid confronting my emotions. While I thought travelling around the world and moving to Berlin made me happy, I also realize that this was only furthering my escapist behaviour.

Following my move back here, I fell into bad habits like smoking and drinking, partying, and excessive travel. My happiness was superficial and even though there were plenty of fun-filled moments along the way, my unhappiness and depression only deepened, and as time went by those cracks only became more open and exposed. The depression was always lingering there, just under the surface, ready to bubble up and explode at a moment’s notice.

Then the pandemic came and I hit rock bottom, fast and hard. The lockdown, uncertainty surrounding my job, being so far away from home, and completely alone was just too much. While I’m still not so ready to write about that whole experience, I can say that I was in really, really, really bad shape.

Thanks to support from plenty of cool people who spent time with me on video calls, understanding doctors, a sympathetic employer, and regular therapy, life looks much differently than it did before. I’ve put absolutely everything into bettering my well being. I quit smoking, found a new job, and managed tough events like losing my grandmother and cat in the same week. The panic attacks have stopped (for now), I’m off of antidepressants, I sleep through the night, and wake up many days with a smile on my face. My life is all the better with the recent arrival of a new rescue cat from Poland, who sports such a thick moustache that I named him after Burt Reynolds.

I (cautiously) say that I may be finally be feeling happy. Something I never thought I’d be able to say with any conviction. While I have a lot of work ahead, I’m in a really good place and look forward to building a much healthier and happier life here in Berlin.

A Canadian from Toronto in Berlin. Agile coach working in tech. Travel blogger @cherylhowardcom.

A Canadian from Toronto in Berlin. Agile coach working in tech. Travel blogger @cherylhowardcom.