Moving to Germany
We are moving to Germany. It was a long and difficult decision process.
Is it the right decision? Who knows. These kinds of decisions are rarely right or wrong, but just are.
What about your job? I am thankful to the Wikimedia Foundation for allowing me to move and keep my position. The work on Abstract Wikipedia and Wikifunctions is not done yet, and I will continue to lead the realization of this project.
Don’t we like it in California? We love so many things about California and the US, and the US has been really good to us. Both my wife and I grew here in our careers, we both learned valuable skills, and met interesting people, some of whom became friends, and who I hope to continue to keep in touch. Particularly my time at Google was also financially a boon. And it also gave me the freedom to prepare for the Abstract Wikipedia project, and to get to know so many experts in their field and work together with them, to have the project criticized and go through several iterations until nothing seems obviously wrong with it. There is no place like the Bay Area in the world of Tech. It was comparably easy to have meetings with folks at Google, Facebook, Wikimedia, LinkedIn, Amazon, Stanford, Berkeley, or to have one of the many startups reach out for a quick chat. It is, in many ways, a magical place, and no other place we may move to will come even close to it with regards to its proximity to tech.
And then there’s the wonderful weather in the Bay Area and the breathtaking nature of California. It never gets really hot, it never gets really cold. The sun is shining almost every day, rain is scarce (too scarce), and we never have to drive on icy streets or shovel snow. If we want snow, we can just drive up to the Sierras. If we want heat, drive inland. We can see the largest trees in the world, walk through the literal forests of Endor, we can hike hills and mountains, and we can walk miles and miles along the sand beaches of the Pacific Ocean. California is beautiful.
Oh, and the food and the produce! Don’t get me started on Berkeley Bowl and its selection of fruits and vegetables. Of the figs in their far too short season, of the dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes and their explosion of taste, of the juicy and rich cherries we picked every year to carry pounds and pounds home, and to eat as many while picking, the huge diversity of restaurants in various states from authentic to fusion, but most of them with delicious options and more dishes to try than time to do it.
And not just the fruits and vegetables are locally sourced: be it computers from Apple, phones from Google, the social media from Facebook or Twitter, the wonderful platform enabling the Wikimedia communities, be it cars from Tesla, be it movies from Pixar, the startups, the clouds, the AIs: so. many. things. are local. And every concert tour will pass by in the Bay Area. In the last year we saw so many concerts here, it was amazing. That’s a place the tours don’t skip.
Finally: in California, because so many people are not from here, we felt more like we belong just as well as everyone else, than anywhere else. Our family is quite a little mix, with passports from three continents. Our daughter has no simple roots. Being us is likely easier in the United States than in any of the European nation states with their millenia of identity. After a few years I felt like an American. In Germany, although it treated me well, after thirty years I still was an Ausländer.
As said, it is a unique place. I love it. It is a privilege and an amazing experience to have spent one decade of my life here.
Why are we moving? In short, guns and the inadequate social system.
In the last two years alone, we had four close-ish encounters with people wielding guns (not always around home). And we are not in a bad neighborhood, on the contrary. This is by all statistics one of the safest neighborhoods you will find in the East Bay or the City.
We are too worried to let the kid walk around by herself or even with friends. This is such a huge difference to how I grew up, and such a huge difference to when we spent the summer in Croatia, and she and other kids were off by themselves to explore and play. Here, there was not a single time she went to the playground or visited a friend by herself, or that one of her friends visited our house by themselves.
But even if she is not alone: going to the City with the kid? There are so many places there I want to avoid. Be it around the city hall, be it in the beautiful central library, be it on Market Street or even just on the subway or the subway stations: too often we have to be careful to avoid human excrement, too often we are confronted with people who are obviously in need of help, and too often I feel my fight or flight reflexes kicking in.
All of this is just the visible effect of a much larger problem, one that we in the Bay Area in particular, but as Americans in general should be ashamed of not improving: the huge disparity between rich and poor, the difficult conditions that many people live in. It is a shame that so many people who are in dire need of professional help live on the streets instead of receiving mental health care, that there are literal tent cities in the Bay Area, while the area is also the home of hundreds of thousands of millionaires and more than sixty billionaires - more than the UK, France, or Switzerland. It is a shame that so many people have to work two or more jobs in order to pay their rent and feed themselves and their children, while the median income exceeds $10,000 a month. It is a shame that this country, which calls itself the richest and most powerful and most advanced country in the world, will let its school children go hungry. Is “school lunch debt” a thing anywhere else in the world? Is “medical bankruptcy” a thing anywhere else in the world? Where else are college debts such a persistent social issue?
The combination of the easy availability of guns and the inadequate social system leads to a large amount of avoidable violence and to tens of thousands of seemingly avoidable deaths. And they lead to millions of people unnecessarily struggling and being denied a fair chance to fulfill their potential.
And the main problem, after a decade living here, is not where we are, but the trajectory of change we are seeing. I don’t have hope that there will be a major reduction in gun violence in the coming decade, on the contrary. I don’t have hope for any changes that will lead to the Bay Area and the US spreading the riches and gains it is amassing substantially more fairly amongst its population, on the contrary. Even the glacial development in self-driving cars seems breezy compared to the progress towards killing fewer of our children or sharing our profits a little bit more fairly.
After the 1996 Port Arthur shooting, Australia established restrictions on the use of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, created a gun buyback program that removed 650,000 guns from circulation, a national gun registry, and a waiting period for firearms sales. They chose so.
After the 2019 Christchurch shooting, New Zealand passed restrictions on semi-automatic weapons and a buyback program removed 50,000 guns. They chose so.
After the shootings earlier this year in Belgrade, Serbia introduced stricter laws and an amnesty for illegal weapons and ammunition if surrendered, leading to more than 75,000 guns being removed. They chose so.
I don’t want to list the events in the US. There are too many of them. And did any of them lead to changes? We choose not to.
We can easily afford to let basically everyone in the US live a decent life and help those that need it the most. We can easily afford to let no kid be hungry. We can easily afford to let every kid have a great education. We choose not to.
I don’t want my kid to grow up in a society where we make such choices.
I could go on and rant about the Republican party, about Trump possibly winning 2024, about our taxes supporting and financing wars in places where they shouldn’t, about xenophobia and racism, about reproductive rights, trans rights, and so much more. But unfortunately many of these topics are often not significantly better elsewhere either.
When are we moving? We plan to stay here until the school year is over, and aim to have moved before the next school year starts. So in the summer of ‘24.
Where are we moving? I am going back to my place of birth, Stuttgart. We considered a few options, and Stuttgart led overall due to the combination of proximity to family, school system compatibility for the kid, a time zone that works well for the Abstract Wikipedia team, language requirements, low legal hurdles of moving there, and the cost of living we expect. Like every place it also comes with challenges. Don’t get me started on the taste of tomatoes or peaches.
What other places did we consider? We considered many other places, and we traveled to quite a few of them to check them out. We loved each and every one of them. We particularly loved Auckland due to our family there and the weather, we loved the beautiful city of Barcelona for its food and culture, we loved Dublin, London, Zürich, Berlin, Vienna, Split. We started making a large spreadsheet with pros and contras in many categories, but in the end the decision was a gut decision. Thanks to everyone who talked with us and from whom we learned a lot about those places!
Being able to even consider moving to these places is a privilege. And we understand that and are thankful for having this privilege. Some of these places would have been harder to move for us due to immigration regulation, others are easy thanks to our background. But if you are thinking of moving, and are worried about certain aspects, feel free to reach out and discuss. I am happy to offer my experience and perspective.
Is there something you can help with? If you want to meet up with us while we are still in the US, it would be good to do so timely. We are expecting to sell the house quite a bit sooner, and then we won’t be able to host guests easily. I am also looking forward to reconnecting with people in Europe after the move. Finally, if you know someone who is interested in a well updated 3 bedroom house with a surprisingly large attic that can be used as a proper hobby space, and with a top walkability index in south Berkeley, point them our way.
Also, experiences and advice regarding moving from the US to Germany are welcome. Last time we moved the other way, and we didn’t have that much to move, and Google was generously organizing most of what needed to be done. This time it’s all on us. How to get a container and get it loaded? How to ship it to Germany? Where to store it while we are looking for a new home? How to move the cat? How to make sure all goes well with the new school? When to sell the house and where to live afterwards? How to find the right place in Germany? What are the legal hurdles to expect? How will taxes work? So many questions we will need to answer in the coming months. Wish us luck for 2024.
We also accept good wishes and encouraging words. And I am very much looking forward to seeing some of you again next year!
Sam Altman and the veil of ignorance
Little One's first GIF