Rebecca, a rocket scientist (yes, rocket scientist) from near Cambridge in the UK, met Dutchman Reinier, a grid analyst at Vattenfall, by chance in summer 2013. At the time, Rebecca wasn’t even living in Hamburg and Reinier had only lived here for just over a year.
Today, they are a happy hard-working couple enjoying the Hamburg urban hubub and their international lifestyle.
I wanted to know what brought each of them to Hamburg in the first place, and what keeps them here. Why Hamburg?
By the time Rebecca and Reinier met at a garden party in summer 2013, Rainier had been in Hamburg for around a year. He had been head-hunted to work for Vattenfall as an electricity grid analyst. In simple terms, his job is to analyse how much electricity can be bought and sold across international borders. These days, with ever more energy being generated by wind turbines, this means working closely with meteorologists to anticipate where excesses of elecricity will occur.
Despite not living in Hamburg when she met Reinier, Rebecca’s connection to Hamburg goes back a lot further. She had a good friend at university in Southhampton who happened to come from Hamburg. After university, she visited her friend four or five times and it was during one of these visits that she got to know Rainier at the party.
The two visited each other regularly and in February 2014, the Sunday before Rebecca left, they were talking about how nice it would be to live together either in the UK, Netherlands or Germany. After Rebecca made a snap decision to quit her job in the UK, the decision of where to live together became easy.
Having made the decision, she followed through and moved to Hamburg in April 2014. Her life was made easier by having a support network:
My friend in Hamburg and her family helped me to find my feet in Hamburg.
Speaking the lingo
Rebecca already spoke elementary German when she arrived, having taught herself the language since leaving school. So getting by to begin with was no great problem.
The job search began, and although it felt like an eternity at the time, she found a job within three months. Not as a rocket scientist, but at Statista where she conducts data analysis and researches international markets and builds forecast models.
Reinier’s first impressions of Hamburg
Whereas Rebecca knew Hamburg before coming here, Reinier had barely heard of the city:
I had heard of the name, but other than that I didn’t know anything about Hamburg. To most people, it’s a surprise that Hamburg is Germany’s second biggest city.
On the day of his interview at Vattenfall, Reinier had a brief walk around the city and his first impression was that it was a relatively average large city and a good place to live.
Since living here Reinier has been impressed with Hamburg:
The Stadtteile – neighbourhoods – all have their own unique character.
Rebecca and Reinier agree on their favourite neighbourhood: they love Eimsbüttel, where they live. They are very close to the Schanze, an edgy urban haven for punks and increasingly property speculators.
The best thing about Hamburg is that it is very walkable, at least where we are. You can get to restaurants and bars easily. We are near enough to them to enjoy them, but far enough away that we don’t hear the noise.
I asked Rebecca whether she had lived elsewhere and could make a comparison with Hamburg. Indeed, she lived in the Prairies in Canada for a while, which she found rather monotonous. There, the big cars, the buildings, the neighbourhoods are all pretty much the same.
Hamburg is big enough to have a lot of variety, but not too big. I’d never want to live in London or New York. That’s why I liked Oxford and Cambridge too.
Both Reinier and Rebecca are keen cyclists, but their appreciation for the cycling infastructure in Hamburg differs greatly:
It’s awful! There are cars parked on cycle lanes, and they are full of potholes. When the snow is cleared from the street and the pavement, it all ends up on the cycle lane.
You can probably guess who thinks what: Rebecca, being British, has rather lower expectations; Reinier, coming from the Netherlands, somewhat higher.
In the Netherlands, Reinier says, cycle lanes are more thought through. They don’t suddenly end, they are wide, they are surfaced with tarmac instead of cobbles and don’t have dangerous signs in the middle of them.
Here for the long-haul
They tell me that they are here for the medium to long term. The only circumstances in which they could imagine leaving would be if something were to happen to close family members, or if there were major changes at work.
The Hamburg local elections happened last Sunday. Although non-German citizens (even those from the EU) are not allowed to vote for the local parliament due to Hamburg’s dual city-state status, I asked them what they would do to make life easier for expats if they became mayor.
The first answer, which both agreed with, was to improve infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians and to make the city less car-centric. The second was to offer German language learning opportunities that are more tailored to the needs of individual learners. At the moment, Rebecca says, there seems to be a tacit assumption that people are either complete beginners or already advanced but not so much for people in between.
This brought us onto an interesting point, which inspired me to write a blog article after our meeting: German-learners have a problem learning the language because so many people can speak English here. At the first sign of difficulty, or hint of an English accent, many Germans will answer in English. This is a dilemma that the expat community needs to think about: on the one hand, we want to be able to learn the language to get by; on the other hand, life is easier for newcomers if business can be conducted in English. Reinier, for example, has more international colleagues than Germans, meaning that the language he most often works in is English.
Hamburg: love and work
Rebecca’s and Reinier’s story is quite typical of the people I speak to for this blog. Neither of them came to Hamburg because of Hamburg’s international image, nor because they considered it their dream destination. Any old-dog expat in Hamburg will tell you that people come here either for love or work. Reinier came here for work initially, but Hamburg is the place both fell in love.
Like many people who end up here, they have no intention of leaving quickly. Hamburg is big enough, but not too big, combines urbanity and nature, and has enough unique little quarters to keep you exploring for years.