THE HUNT II: THE BASE LAYER

Remember when I started my Hunt by stating that finding an apartment is not easy? Turns out I am starting to understand why as the dots are slowly connecting before my very eyes. Back when I chose Erlangen over Nuremberg and Herzogenaurach, I knew that the room I was applying for was limited to a six-month lease. Back then, I thought I was buying time I could use to find my dream apartment. Little did I know, it was not so easy after all to find a roof to put over my head. This post tells the story of how I found my current apartment.

My views on Erlangen

As my six-month lease from my previous room in Erlangen was about to expire, it also meant that open season was back in service. I guess the first question that needed to be answered was: Should I stay in Erlangen or move to Nuremberg? Staying in Erlangen meant I could keep benefiting from the geographic proximity to the office. That also meant I could keep getting there every morning in 30 minutes tops by riding my beautiful road bike I brought with me from Montreal. Moving to Nuremberg meant I could finally play in the big leagues and have access to a significant cultural life outside the office.

My experience in Erlangen did not turn out to be as interesting as expected. I thought that living with five (5) Germans would help my cultural integration into my country of adoption. Turns out I overlooked an important aspect of the German culture - introversion. The stereotype around Germans being introverted revealed to be true. In Montreal, it does not matter whether you know people or not, you can still sit at their table at a bar and engage into interesting discussions. Here, this scenario is practically impossible. If you are not part of a common circle with them, chances are you will never get the chance to get acquainted. As it turns out, being roommates does not count as a circle. I remember running into two of my roommates on a Friday evening as they appeared to get ready to go out. So I followed through with asking them what was their plan for the evening. They were indeed going out to a party where they did not know much people. They returned the question to which I answered I did not have any plans and was totally free to go anywhere. Statement to which their answer was: "Well, good luck with that! I hope you find something to do!" Now... am I crazy or in a similar situation any decent human being would have included the new comer in his plans to contribute to his cultural integration? Well, I might be overlooking the situation. So, let's forget about this isolated case and try to focus on my apartment search.

When I first looked into Erlangen, I thought I could benefit from its cosmopolitan population that shrewdly combines academic life, internationalism, cultural events and environmental initiatives. These characteristics somehow reminded me of Montreal. Although, I once more overlooked the same important aspect of the German culture. Again, if you are not part of a common circle, chances are you will never get acquainted. And since I am not a student anymore, I am not necessarily aware of the X & Y of any organised activity. Moreover, besides its few caf├ęs, Erlangen is not exactly the hip city I was looking forward to live in. In the apartment I used to live in, there was no livingroom and all bedroom doors were practically always closed with my roommates locked in as they preferred to live in their own space instead of sharing the common areas. Let's just use this example as a metaphor to represent how it is to live in Erlangen.

To share or not to share?

And so my hunt began as I was scrutinizing every accommodation posting website to find a suitable apartment for a young professional like me. The first question that arises was whether I would rather live in a shared or a single tenant apartment. To this question, let's just say that over my first six months in Germany I got served much more than my share of dirt, lack of respect for private space and property, and dirt again. Between dirty pans left on the stove overnights (with an "s"), fruit flies colonizing the kitchen, freshly washed laundry pulled out of the washing mashing and left on the kitchen table with no notice - and many more delightful experiences I could write about for pages - my choice was pretty obvious. It was time for me to get my own space. I still tried to get a shared apartment so I could save more money. However, the types of answers I got from the current tenants only confirmed my choice of flying solo. Here is an example so you can see for yourself what I have been through:

My email:

"Hello, 
I am new to this region, from Montreal (Quebec). I just started working for adidas. I would like to find an apartment in Erlangen. I am a very sporty person. I blend in with pretty much everyone and I am a very friendly person. I was hoping I could meet you guys and see at least if the chemistry is there! :)
I think your apartment is ideal for my needs and would very much like to meet you guys!
By the way, I speak English, French and Spanish, and I am starting to learn German in 2 weeks!
I would like to schedule a visit if possible.
Thanks a lot for your help!
-James"

Current tenant's answer: 

"Hey James,
You sound interesting, but i have to say no. My flatmate favors German native speakers and since he does not like sports very much, it would probably be a burden to see you "sporting" all the time :)
Nevertheless, good luck finding a flat. 
Cheers!"

As you can witness by this small exchange of messages, the hunt was not exactly going to be easy.

The Hunt continues

So I have decided to refocus my apartment search to a single tenant apartment in Nuremberg. As I insisted to specify in the countless amount of emails sent out to landlords the specific elements:

  1. I am Canadian;
  2. I work at the adidas Group;
  3. I am a Senior Project Manager
  4. I am employed on an unlimited contract. Therefore, I plan on staying in Germany for several years if not my whole life, and;
  5. I don't speak German at the moment, but I am currently taking classes.

More than 90% were left unanswered. To the remaining 10% I have managed to book appointments to visit the apartment along with the real estate agent. As I have probably visited about 30 apartments, I have started to spot a pattern. Perhaps I am mistaken, perhaps not... who's to say... Unfortunately, I will never know what the truth is and my perception on my apartment search is purely subjective. That being said, my apartment visits usually went a little something like this:

  1. Door is opened by either the landlord or the real estate agent with an unexplained astonishment expression painted all over their face. Again, I am not positive about this allegation, but I have the feeling it is somewhat related to Point #5.
  2. I mention my name and reinterate that I am here for the apartment visit. What I understand based on Point #5 is that they find it hard to believe that a man with a year-round tan, dark hair and brown eyes could possibily be Canadian. Hence the question mark in the middle of their forehead(s).
  3. We proceed with a high-level visit of the rooms. Throughout my several visits, I have very rarely gone through all the rooms with detailed explanations. It was usually a very rough visit immediately followed by Point #4 and/or Point #5 (not necessarily in the same order).
  4. An unreasonable request is being made. German apartments are handeed to the new tenant with nothing in it. And when I say "nothing", I mean "nothing"! No furnitures, no appliances, no curtains, no lightbulbs... Actually, the only thing you could possibly find in your apartment if you are lucky is a kitchen counter which the new tenant will have to pay a lot of money to get despite the fact that it has probably been in this apartment beyond its useful life. Truth is that Nuremberg apartment do get a lot of appplicants given its high amount of large companies in the area and its student population. Therefore, landlords usually use this as leverage to filter the applicants. In other words, we are right back to Economics 101: low supply + high demand = high price. So who will be the sucker willing to pay 3000 EUR for a laminated kitchen counter from the '90's? Not me!
  5. A subtile but misplaced question about my ethnical background is placed into the conversation. That question is usually formulated as follows: " So, where are you from, James?" Question to which I proudly answer that I am Canadian, as mentioned in my visit request. It is then followed by a statement about the fact that I don't look Canadian. Statement to which I usually ask if they have ever been to Canada. And when the answer is no (which is 100% of time), I ask them: "So, what do you know what Canadians look like, then?" See, what they meant is that they were expecting a blond to chestnut man with blue eyes, which represent to their eyes a typical Canadian. I guess they also expected me to show up to their door wearing a red plaid whool shirt with a strong beard on my face, a beanie on my head and an axe on my shoulder. Flash News: all Canadians are not lumberjacks, neither do we live in igloos and commute around the city using a dog sled. Truth is, what they were not expecting a Canadian-looking applicant, but rather a European descendant. True Canadians have dark skin, dark hair and almond-shaped eyes. The New World was founded by immigrants coming from the Old Continent, leaving the Native Nations the only true Canadians.
  6. A closing statement about the high number of applicants for this apartment is made. Basically, what the real estate agent is trying to do here is to manage my expectations by telling me politely that many people who actually suit the landlord's preferences have also applied. This means that high level of cultural affinities primes over low risk of nonpayment.
  7. A follow-up statement is made to mention that should I was selected by the landlord an email will be sent to that effect. In other words: " Don't contact us, we will contact you!" Also known as: "Better luck next time, buddy!"

I guess open-season will be longer than expected. And with my brother's visit in December followed by my own visit back home in January and a business trip in February, the clock is ticking and I am definitely running out of options.

The Base Layer

Friends have warned me about Bavaria. Even Germans have warned me about Bavaria. I don't like to stigmatize so I did not want to believe it. Plus, I knew that I would only have to go through this process once and I am not the type of person who lets an obstacle block my way no matter how big it is. Truth is I should have listened to my boss when he told me I should just accept overpaying for an apartment and get on with it. You would think that humans learn from their past mistakes and from all people, some would now be open-minded and welcoming. But, there seems to be a base layer under their skin that is impossible to wear off. It must have been passed on from generation to generation and it's impossible to remove.

The Indiana Jones Stunt

I was lucky! Very lucky! I have practically managed to slide under the closing door and caught my fedora before it closed on my arm. I kept a good relationship with Larry - one of the people I have met last year when I first came to Germany for my look/see visit and final interview step. We used to meet for coffee break every now and then to chit-chat about any given topic. This man was granted with the opportunity to relocate in Japan. So he invited me to his going-away party that took place at the world renowned Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Market) in Nuremberg's Altstadt (Old Town). My brother was visiting me at the time so we decided to go there together. We have spent the whole evening piling up glasses of Feuerzangenbowle - a special German specialty which consists of mulled wine topped with a flamed sugar cube soaked in rum melting into the drink. It is absolutely delicious!

About fifty (50) people showed up for Larry's going-away party. Hour after hour people started leaving and soon enough we go to about twenty people. As the Christmas Market was closing we have decided to transition into an Irish pub to carry on with the party as it should. Again, pints kept piling up over pints as we were talking and laughing all evening long. As people started slowly to leave, we soon found ourselves a group of four (4) people which included my brother and myself. Needless to say that we were all very far from being sober when Larry suddenly asked if I finally managed to find an apartment. I found in that question an opportunity to empty my bag and discuss the misery I have been through while trying to find an apartment. So I told him everything. Then, out of nowhere, he told me that he was looking for someone he trusts to take over his apartment while he is away under certain conditions. In my mind, it was a done deal as I was ready to accept anything based on my unfruitful hunt.

A few days later, my brother and I went to visit the apartment located in Maxfeld and we absolutely loved it. Granted, the rent was a little over my budget but at this point I did not have much time or the luxury to choose. I was out of options. But, looking back, it is not so bad after all to pay a little more if I get a bigger apartment that is also furnished. In the end, I did not have the choice, but I was luck in my misery since I am very happy in my cosy apartment. I like to think that honest people always win. Let's hope my experience in Germany continues to be a great one.