I finally had it: the lease to a Berlin apartment. It was open-ended, and thus my oasis in a sea of swiftly rising rents and scarce housing. For a freelancer who considers homeownership basically unattainable, this was the golden ticket, the sign that the city could be home—maybe for good.
The first room I saw was the small, rectangular one immediately to the left of my new front door. It was supposed to be my kitchen, the heart of my home, the place I would cook basic meals for myself and occasionally wash dishes. And it was nearly empty: There was only a grime-covered stove; a kitchen sink atop a water-damaged particle-board frame; sweat stain-gray wall tiles with dark, cracked grout on full display; a putrid green PVC floor; and a bunch of pipes with their ends uncovered. My situation wasn’t unique. In Germany, rental apartments typically come with only an oven and a sink. Theories for this kitchen Wahnsinn (insanity) abound. First off, Germans are more likely than Americans to be long-term renters, since only 44 percent are homeowners, according to the most recent data by the European Central Bank’s Household Finance and Consumption Survey. For a long-term renter, investing in a kitchen is arguably worthwhile.
Many renters also take their kitchens with them when they move, despite the city’s unorthodox building shapes, so the no-kitchen problem perpetuates itself. Standing in my new apartment, I had two options: keep the kitchen as it was (empty), or find second-hand appliances, select countertops and cabinets, and make it the long-term home I was hoping for.
I’d recently turned 32 and had lived in several different countries, landed a job as a foreign correspondent, and even gotten the hang of the byzantine German tax system, yet building a kitchen on my own seemed an insurmountable task. Though I grew up in a once-dilapidated farmhouse my mom and dad renovated almost entirely on their own, I’m not a particularly “handy” person—the idea of trying to put up a shelf straight made me anxious.
And although I had been learning German for a decade and could communicate relatively well, I worried about expressing myself accurately with the new vocabulary I would have to learn—words like Doppelseitiges Klebeband (double-sided carpet tape) and Reparaturspachtel (spackle).
But the main problem was not knowing who I could turn to for help. I was feeling hard-hit after a breakup, and many of my friendships were still burgeoning. I wasn’t sure I could ask a pal I occasionally met for drinks to spend an evening moving a washing machine.
Though I’d spent my childhood embarrassed to live in a home that was perpetually under construction, in the back of my supposedly adult, independent mind, I wished more than anything that those built-in helpers and expert DIY renovators, my parents and sisters, were nearby instead of thousands of miles away in Michigan.
My challenge wasn’t selecting cabinets, but rather facing loneliness and a disconnect from my roots that I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge. Berlin had become home, and I wasn’t planning to move back to the States, especially now that I had this apartment. Was I doing the right thing sacrificing my long-standing relationships across the pond for the life I wanted to live in Europe?
As it turned out, I could handle browsing renovation forums and watching DIY YouTube videos. In fact, I kind of liked it.
The first step was painting the tiles to make them look less like a sweat-stained gym T-shirt. Armed with a couple of pricey cans of paint and primer, I was joined by my friend Mattias, who had made the mistake of saying “painting sounds fun,” for an evening of beer and disco tunes. The white tiles immediately brightened up the space, and as it turned out, Mattias was happy to help. So was another friend, who also accepted an offer of beer in exchange for helping me lay the diamond-patterned PVC flooring I had purchased online. I realized perhaps it wasn’t so difficult to ask for help after all.
Many of my friends in Berlin—a city whose cherished tagline is Arm, aber sexy (poor but sexy)—have chosen to design their kitchens as economically as possible, purchasing wood at the hardware store to create basic shelves and a countertop. Being ever-so-slightly less broke, I decided to shell out a few hundred euros. After a quick look at my local options, it became clear that Ikea was the only game in town.
Armed with a basic floorplan I had sketched in pencil with what I hoped were accurate measurements, I waited a solid two hours listening to children cry and couples fight in the kitchen section before sitting down with one of the Ikea “architects,” an endlessly kind soul who spends his days helping customers design kitchens using the company’s software. Employing the measurements I had taken, he helped me determine how we could arrange various sizes of cabinets in the small space, which options were in stock, and what it could all look like on a digital floorplan we created. After an embarrassing number of additional visits and many late nights on Pinterest, I opted for light green high-gloss cabinet fronts to give a pop of color that contrasted with light-marble laminate countertops and a black quartz sink with golden faucet and cabinet handles. Eventually, my order was scheduled for delivery.
To put it together, I found a portal for hiring carpenters and handymen and -women called “My Hammer.” I uploaded my project and soon had several quotes from various bidders. I went with Georg, a Berliner who seemed to specialize in mounting Ikea kitchens and who could start the day after my delivery. Well over 60 years old, the white-haired overalls-wearing man was a gruff and generally unfriendly Hulk who managed to assemble the guts of my new kitchen in just a few hours.
Now, as I sit at my kitchen table sipping coffee a year later, I can hardly believe I managed to pull it off. More than the simple process of building a kitchen, it was a test for myself: a chance to solidify my independence in Europe and begin to overcome loneliness as a long-term expat in a transient city. I asked for help when I needed it and found I wasn’t as alone as I felt.
My kitchen is far from perfect, but I love it. And if I ever move, I just might take it with me, German-style.
Sarah Hucal is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. She has covered topics ranging from human trafficking in Thailand’s fishing industry to the performing arts and trends in architecture and design in Europe. She is currently Germany/Austria producer for ABC News, and has contributed to the Guardian, Al Jazeera English, US News and World Report, and Deutsche Welle, among others.