My emigration journey
I'm Chris. In 2019 I moved to Germany. This is my story.
I'm a South African. I was born in Johannesburg, and moved a fair bit between Johannesburg and Cape Town between 18 and 24. I started working as a software engineer for a gap year, which is on its way to becoming a gap decade.
I'd always imagined an ephemeral life. Be born, enjoy life, and die. I could talk about that for hours, but that mindset had always pulled me between different places, depending on my state of mind that particular month. I'd moved between Johannesburg and Cape Town a few times whilst learning more about tech and exploring different roles.
When I turned 24 I started thinking about moving back to Cape Town to improve my outlook for the future. I was just hanging on for my girlfriend to finish off her Uni degree, and then we'd pack up our stuff, and be on the road to Cape Town.
We'd always spoken about moving to Europe in the future. We'd had crazy ideas about retiring in Italy on a lemon farm, making Limoncello whilst bathing in the warm Mediterranean sun, reading Shakespeare and contemplating the human experience.
Do you know Murphy ? I thought I did.
A former colleague and friend contacted me about the possibility of moving to Europe and working with him at his new employer. A company called Container Solutions.
I'd been contacted by European companies before, but had never applied as I was quite skeptical. Especially when being contacted by recruiters. My fear is always that recruiters are looking for that sweet commission, and would sell a wool coat to a sheep if they had to (Not all, but many).
What if the work was going to be life draining. Remember that ephemeral life thing ? Life draining work would not fly. What if my immigrant status would be used against me and I get stuck in a spot I can't get out of. I know nothing about the European market. What if they are vastly underpaying me for cheap labour, unbeknownst to me ?
All of these fears had kept me from even considering applying with the recruiters.
After-all ... They are expecting me to flip my life upside down. I needed assurance that the end state of emigration would be at least as good, or better, than my existing state of work-life.
When my former colleagues called me, I had a better sense about applying. He had moved to Germany to work for Container Solutions a couple months before me, and had told me about his work-life there during some of our catch ups.
When I applied, I had zero chance of getting in. I had only worked in the industry for 4/5 years, and only had 2/3 years of experience of the tools and technologies that they were touting. I genuinely thought I had no chance of passing the interviews.
I didn't even tell my girlfriend that I was applying. Why would I ? I could tell her on the weekend when she got back from Uni what I'd learnt. There was no reason to tell her about it just yet. It would just scare her. I saw applying the same way as popping some popcorn in the microwave. A non-issue. A nothing. Just another thing that happens. Maybe a learning opportunity. Maybe I'll find some insights into what I need to learn or improve. It's the European market. It's going to be vastly different than the South African one. Maybe I get some insights so I can start prepping for our Italy days.
After a quick call with one of their HR folks, I got a take home assignment. I completed the assignment in about 2 hours. It's not a massively hard assignment, but I did some extra pieces to impress and to be honest ... show off a little. Why not ? I won't make it anyway.
I got invited for an interview with the Managing Director and one of the folks working in the Berlin office. I was bricking myself knowing how hard I was going to fail this interview, and I was just hoping I don't embarrass myself too hard.
We went through a couple scenarios in consulting and how I would approach each of those scenarios. Some of them were pretty tough and difficult situations. But I went in with all honesty and told them how I would approach each situation in the current context of what I know and what I don't.
I was then asked some high level technical questions as they relate to what I would be consulting on, and again was completely straight and just spouted what I knew. One question popped up which I honestly did not know the answer to, but knew that I could make an educated guess. I made it clear that I did not know the answer, but told them I'd take a stab nonetheless, and did so.
Then they asked about salary expectations. I honestly knew not-a-jot about the European market. I mentioned to the MD that I really did not know the market and I would have to do some research and get back to them. We ended the interview with some niceties, and said our goodbyes.
I reached out to my former colleagues for some advice, of which he had plenty. I also did some light scouring of the inter-webs to better understand the market, and came up with a figure that I would like. If I remember correctly, I think I emailed the Managing Director my expectations.
At this point I was just patiently waiting for them to give me a call, give me the hard news, and - fingers crossed - feedback on where to improve for the future.
That's not what happened. Not at all.
The Managing Director called me with a formal offer. Yes ... I couldn't believe what had just happened ...
So I picked up my jaw from the ground and got back to my senses. We exchanged some formalities, and said our goodbyes.
But I'd somehow made it. A sense of elation set in, and not long after, a deep sense of dread. The fantasy of moving to Europe had just become concrete possibility.
I don't have money to move to Europe and settle in. Screw the money, my girlfriend was going to be pissed. I was a dead man walking. A poor, dead man walking.
Not long after I got a notification with an email from the MD with the offer ... and a relocation allowance letter. Wait ... a relocation allowance ?
After reading the document I realised they were giving me a relocation allowance which would cover most, if not all of our relocation expenses to Germany. Things like flights, first months rent and deposit, and some left over for a bicycle. So I no longer needed to worry about money.
But there was still the issue of being dead by the weekend. My girlfriend was going to beat me with the very crutch I would need to walk the next day.
How was I going to break it to her ? Maybe flowers. Maybe a spa day away. F*ck.
The weekend rolled around, I picked her up from Uni, and on the drive home she noticed I was a bit on edge. She could tell by the streams of water running down my face. My shaking legs and arms also didn't help the situation. Why is it when you need your limbs most, they just ... quit.
She asked whether I was alright, and I started explaining what had happened. I didn't lie, and I didn't sugar coat. I just told her what had happened. I have an offer and we can talk about it over the weekend.
The silence that followed reminded me of my birth. I'd never experienced it before. It was something unfamiliar to me.
I'd rather have a crutch bent over my head at this point.
After a little while we started talking about what had happened. I apologised profusely for not telling her about the interview, trying to cover up by explaining the whole "popcorn in the microwave" thing. That went as well as you'd expect it to.
After some time talking, she did however say that she had always dreamed about moving to Europe, and was just surprised that it had happened so quickly.
She was still finishing Uni, and had a couple months left, and I would need to travel to Germany in the next few months to start my career there. We spoke a bit more about details over the weekend, and decided to take the opportunity whilst the door was still open. With one promise. I would go over to Germany, settle in, and fly back home to spend the holidays there, and then we would get her Visa sorted.
I was slightly shocked that it had gone down that well. In hindsight I can clearly see how I dropped a bomb on her and risked a bit to get to Europe.
I called the MD to accept the offer and sent an email afterward. I wrote out my resignation for my previous employer in South Africa.
I worked for a company called Tangent Solutions. They are an incredible company to work for. They gave me a tremendous amount of experience and support to grow. If you are in South Africa and looking for a great company to work for, I would vouch for them no matter who asked. I miss the crew there to this day.
I tried my best to make it clear to Tangent that this was not about money, but about the chance to move to Europe, and I can only hope that they understood. If you're reading this: Sup Champs ! Luv yah !
But I digress. back to the story.
I handed in my resignation on the Monday and explained the situation. I can't say they were happy, but they understood.
Whilst completing my last month with Tangent, I started working out how the Visa situation worked, and how I would about it. I don't know if you've heard, but Germany has some bureaucracy. I made an appointment at the Visa offices in Pretoria for a month later, and started prepping documents. Everything from Offers, CV, proof of skills, Employment contracts. They wanted my life story.
After prepping all the documents I rocked up 30 minutes early for the appointment. At the security gate they took everything from me. My phone. My bag. Everything. I was only allowed my documents. I entered the offices and waited to be called. A lovely lady called me over at the offices for my documents and we spoke a bit while she was filing my documents into the system. She had noticed an uptick in emigrations from South Africa to Germany. I wonder why that could be.
After filing all my paperwork, she took my passport, and said they'd email me once they had news.
I drove home with a feeling of accomplishment. I had taken the first step towards emigrating, and I would receive my Visa soon ... 😐
About a month later I received an email from the Embassy. My visa had been declined. They needed more information about my skills and experience to support giving me a Visa.
I called the MD to explain. He mentioned that they usually have these troubles, and I have nothing to worry about. We'll take as long as it needs to get the Visa sorted and get all the help we need along the way.
In the meantime they paid me to my South African account as a freelancer at my new salary.
I jazzed up my CV, extended the example of my skills, and emailed them back with the new papers. That should do it ... right ?
I continued to work for them for another month. Basically skilling up, getting some certifications, and getting introduced to my new colleagues. They were fantastic. We were working on helping people move to the Cloud, or modernising their technology stacks with new technologies and strategies. It was a great time.
Another month later I got an email from the Embassy. They had rejected my visa again. How much more skill do I need to have. There is only 1 Steve Jobs after-all.
I contacted the MD again to explain. Together we did some research and realised there is a thing called a pre-approval letter. Basically the company could request approval from the Labour department in Germany directly, and I could just hand that in with my request and that would get me in.
You want to know what we did next ? You guessed it. We applied for pre-approval, and got it 3 days later. I handed it in and got my Visa a week and a half later.
I was surprised, shocked, annoyed, and a myriad of other feelings rushed over me as I read the email.
I booked my tickets for the 19th of November, sent that to the Embassy so they could put that date on my visa and picked up my visa a couple days later.
I noticed the Visa was just for 3 months. I asked why that was. German bureaucracy got me again. When you get a Visa for Europe, you get a temporary first Visa. Once you have registered yourself on the other side, they issue you with your full Visa. A bit panicky about what that meant, I left the Embassy and headed home.
After some inter-webs searching I found out what it actually means. Once you arrive in Germany, you need to find a place to stay and then register yourself as living at that address. First you need a Wohnungsgeberbestätigung from your landlord. A WHAT now ? Basically it's a form from the landlord confirming you live there. You'll usually get one when you sign your lease. But more on that later.
Then you go for an Anmeldung (registration) and they issue you with your tax ID and confirmation that you have been registered. You then rock up at the Visa offices and they issue you your full Visa.
Who knows how long this will take, but it needs to be done. Let's give it a go shall we ?
Time for takeoff.
My former colleagues, now close friend, offered to let me stay at their place for a couple days while I got settled. They didn't know it yet, but that was a grave mistake.
I picked up my girlfriend from Uni, drove home, picked up my bags, and drove to the airport. I knew that this was going to be a hard goodbye. Even though we knew where I was going, more or less how long I was staying, and that I'd be back soon, there was still a feeling of dread. I had no idea what was in store for me, and I felt bad leaving her in South Africa.
She was visibly sad that I was leaving. I don't know what gave it away, but I think it was the expression on her face, complimented by the tears dripping from her chin.
Sidenote: I am now writing this with a lame arm. My wife walked past whilst I was writing that last sentence 😂 Call me what you like, but dedicated I am.
After a very long goodbye in the extremely romantic parking lot of O.R. Tambo Airport, I grabbed my bag and walked away knowing if I'd stayed longer, my shirt would be covered in both our tears. And yes, I'm back to husband status after that one. This is my story. Shhht.
I headed over to the checkin counters, struggled a bit getting across that this was my shiny new Visa, and got on a one way plane to Frankfurt, where I would layover to Berlin.
Overall it took about 15 hours to get to Berlin. I was however so excited to get there that I was like one of those tourists in Cape Town. Everything was dazzling and new and I wanted to play with everything. I had never left South Africa, so to me this was novel and I wanted to make sure to capture every moment. If you think crying babies are annoying, how about the guy who doesn't allow you to sleep for the want of asking questions ?
I did eventually fall asleep and made it to Berlin Tegel Airport. This was when it was still open.
Once I reached the Visa checkpoint, I came to the very sudden and real realisation that everyone around me had prepared some rudimentary German to get past the border control officers. I had done the grand total of zero German preparation, and was just hoping for mercy from the fairly intimidating border control police.
Remember at this point that my South African number no longer works, and I have no way of contacting anyone until I connect on the wifi.
I got to the counter and explained that "Mein deutsch ist nicht gut" and the border control officer reassured me I'd be alright and that they can help in English. After asking some fairly easy questions around my purpose in Germany and how long I intend to stay, he hammered down on the visa stamp like he was trying to turn my passport to pulp. He passed me my now-not-so-new-anymore passport, and showed me the side door where I would leave.
My friend was waiting for me at the exit with a trolley, took my bag, and we made small talk while we walked to his car. Once we put the bag in the car, he asked me to return the trolley whilst he pulled the car out.
I noticed as I put the trolley back, that all of them were held together by a chain, which is released with a 2 Euro coin. Once you return the trolley and put the chain back, your 2 Euro is graciously returned to you. It was at this moment that I knew this was going to be a great trip.
We drove away from the airport, through Berlin, and out of the city to the place they were staying in. I knew I had not prepared properly when we arrived at their place. As we got out of the car the cold hit me like a midnight train to Georgia. I had definitely not brought enough winter goodies for the cold of Berlin in November. And it would get colder as the month rolled on.
I stayed in their spare bedroom. Everything inside was well heated, but outside was instant death. (I smoke. I had to step outside every hour or so for a quick cigarette. The cold and I have become one.)
My friend showed me around the town and the shops, taught me a couple German phrases to get by, and helped me settle in.
My first task for my new job was attending a conference in Mannheim. I'd hardly been in Berlin 2 weeks, and I was already travelling. How cool is this ?!
I met up with some of my new colleagues and we spoke to some really interesting people at the conference. Here is a picture of me, my friend, and one of the greatest project managers in the whole wide world.
The week after, if I remember correctly we went to go sort out my registration. As we weren't in Berlin, we enlisted the help of their neighbour to help us translate at the Burgeramt (registration office), and got my registration sorted.
For a couple weeks more we travelled quite heavily. Amsterdam, Brussels, Dusseldorf, Prague, Warsaw. Consulting gigs, conferences, and everything in between.
I also found a Wohngemeinschaft to stay in in Berlin. That's a shared apartment where you stay with a bunch of international Randos. But I was closer to the Berlin parties and could find my own way. I hadn't moved in yet, and was planning to move in as soon as I came back from my holidays in South Africa. I had collected a bunch of goodies from Germany, Belgium and Amsterdam to make my girlfriend feel better about having been gone so long, and was ready to see her again.
I finally boarded a plane back home for the holidays, and was so excited to see my girlfriend. We had an incredible holiday together in Johannesburg. We knew however that I had not gotten my full Visa, and my Visa would expire somewhere in early February. Once our holiday was over, we had another long goodbye in the exquisite parking lot of O.R. Tambo Airport, this time knowing that I wouldn't be back until I had got my new visa, and who knew how long that would take.
So I walked away once more, this time with both our tears staining my shirt.
I got back to Berlin, and as a first priority I went to the Berlin Immigration office for my new visa. I rocked up at 4AM as the inter-webs advised.
We're queueing outside as well. In Berlin. In March. It's 5 degrees. It's - for the lack of a better word - a f*cking miserable experience, but necessary if you want a visa.
Come to find out, that I couldn't apply for a Visa, as my registration had been done outside of Berlin, and I first needed to get a new registration in Berlin.
They gave me a Fiktionsbescheinigung. A temporary extension for my Visa, which allowed me to move freely for another 3 months, but not travel at all. I needed to get my registration sorted , again. Only this time it was different. You can't just walk in and register the same as you do outside Berlin.
Due to them being so busy, you need to make an appointment for your registration and so I did that, and a couple days later I went over and got my registration sorted.
I then went back to the Immigration office.
This was in early March 2020.
Would you like to take a guess what happened around that time ? I can't quite remember but I think one of my friends mentioned something about a beer that's causing people to cough a lot, and you had to wear a mask to stop the beer from making you cough a lot.
Anyway. I rocked up at 4AM at the immigration office as the queues are ridiculous. Home Affairs feels like sitting on a bench having a cold beer on a blistering Saturday afternoon compared to the immigration office in Berlin.
What I found was the least encouraging thing in the world.
The Immigration office would remain closed for another 7 months.
That meant that I could not travel home for 7 months.
We'd gone from month to month back and forth. Taking a chance on emigration. All the the way to being separated for 7 months. Would this be the last straw for emigration ? Would I just give up and go home ?
No. We stayed determined to make this thing work. Besides, I couldn't go home, even if I wanted to. The first flights only took off 7 months later. After 7 months of lockdown and being stuck in an apartment with my flatmates, I could not wait to get back home.
The repatriation flights finally came around. I got on one of those flights home. And those flights ran us R20K ONE WAY !!! How insane is that. Usually it costs R12K for a return flight.
Anyway. When I got back I had to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days, and finally got released to my girlfriend. I had missed her intensely for 7 months, and it was one of the greatest feelings in my life being re-united with her.
She was however able to sneak me in some snacks and goodies whilst I was in the hotel, which made things a bit better and a lot more bearable.
After the 10 days, we went home and settled in. I'd stay around for another 5 months before going back. For tax reasons I had to be out of South Africa for 183 days a year. Basically the majority of the year.
After being back with my girlfriend for a couple months, something dawned on me. I didn't want to have a girlfriend anymore. My life was moving so fast and so many things were happening at the same time, that having a girlfriend just didn't fit. A girlfriend didn't fit.
What I really wanted, was a wife. And my girlfriend was perfect for it.
We did a road trip in November of 2020 travelling down the Garden route in Cape Town. We would also pass by Betty's Bay, which is a tiny little town. Betty's bay was also the place where we had our first romantic endeavour.
There is a beach called Pebble beach, which is quite literally a beach covered in perfectly shaped, white pebbles. It was on this beach that I told her about how penguins will bring their partner the perfect pebble to court them. Shortly after I dropped the heaviest pebble I could find at her feet.
I wanted to film the engagement. I don't usually go camera heavy or anything like that, so pulling out a camera would be pretty obvious. In my infinite genius, I came up with a plan. I bought a camera, a mic and a tripod, and told her I was going to make a vlog of our entire trip down to Cape Town. She was of course skeptical, but I had been talking about doing videos for some time, and this was probably just another phase I had to go through.
Vlogging is such a weird experience, but I had to keep up appearances so that I could capture just one single moment.
The day we got to Betty's bay we were greeted by a lovely lady at our lodge. She also mentioned that it would be raining the next day. That unfortunately was also the day that I wanted to propose. Tiana would never go to the beach in the rain.
Fine. We'll just go now. So we packed up the camera bag and started searching for pebble beach. After an hour searching I got frustrated that I couldn't find it again. We did however drive past a penguin sanctuary, and my wife was adamant we needed to visit the penguins.
And it could not have been more perfect. We walked down a boardwalk to the beach, where the penguins were relaxing. The weather was dramatic, the penguins had beguiled us with their presence just a few feet away, and I was armed with a ring and a camera.
Due to COVID we had a tiny wedding with 7 people and got married on the 12th of December 2020.
We then proceeded to do some investigation to see what it would take to get a Spousal Visa.
We got an apostle for our marriage certificate, and my wife started with her German lessons. You need an A1 language certificate in order to get a spousal Visa. We did this through the Guthe institute in Johannesburg, which had mostly online classes, and then had some physical appearances for the final exams.
Once we completed that we applied for the Visa.
A week later we received an email that the Visa had been rejected.
Because we got married after I received my Visa, I needed to have my Visa for at least 2 years. They do this to protect against fake marriages used purely for emigration. Although infuriating it does make sense so we went with it.
I would once again have to travel back and forth quite heavily, until we hit the 2 year mark. I travelled back to South Africa every month and a half, for a month. We had everything setup perfectly for it.
I also got a new apartment in Germany to accommodate us both as a shared apartment would not allow us both to stay in one room. I got us a private apartment. But due to it being so incredibly difficult to find an apartment in Berlin at the moment, we are paying inhumane (according to a local) rent for our apartment.
After the 2 years had passed, I sent in some updated paperwork, and we collected my wife's Visa in the following weeks.
She finally moved over to Germany in January of 2022, and we have been saving for our actual wedding since she's been here.
I've had to travel a couple more times for work this year, but I try to minimise that as much as possible. I work for Container Solutions to this day and don't regret it for a moment. After COVID, conferences and in person events are slowly returning and it's lovely being able to see my colleagues and meet them in person.
Travelling is also so much easier now that we are settled, and are able to go to different places due to freedom of movement in Europe.
We might end up on that lemon farm after-all.
We are planning on moving again after the wedding in September of 2022, so stay tuned for an update on what Visa transfers look like !