‘Surprised by the kindness of neighbours’ in German rented home

Wild Geese: Niamh O’Reilly, Düsseldorf

The German city of Düsseldorf is home to Germany’s fashion industry, birthplace of legendary Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld and a hub of international business and trade. On the banks of the river Rhine, it regularly features in global top 10 best places to live polls.

Niamh O’Reilly says it didn’t take much to convince her to move to the German city during the pandemic. “I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to live abroad again, despite being perfectly settled at home.”

Originally from Newtownforbes in Co Longford, O’Reilly studied maths and science in Maynooth after completing her Leaving Cert in 1998. It was the beginning of a long academic career, which brought her to Queen’s University in Belfast for her PhD in chemistry and post-PhD studies. “Belfast was incredible. There was such diversity in the university, especially in science. People came from all around the world to study there, which was so inspiring.”

After completing her PhD and postdoctoral studies in 2007, almost a decade after starting university, O’Reilly wanted to experience something new, “so I moved to Tanzania to volunteer as a chemistry teacher and get to know the sub-Saharan country with Africa’s highest peak.”

Upon returning to Ireland, she worked briefly in the pharmaceutical industry, “but I missed lab work, so I found a position with the German multinational chemical and consumer goods company Henkel, which is headquartered in Düsseldorf”.

“I worked in product development as a chemist for almost seven years, during which time the company sponsored an MBA at Smurfit Business School. I was very well versed in the scientific end of things but, by the time I started the MBA in 2011, I was getting more interested in the business side and it was a great addition to my skills.”

By 2014, O’Reilly took on an innovation management role, thanks to her newly acquired qualifications. By 2019, she and her husband had bought a house, and were settled in their careers in Ireland.

“But we always wanted to live somewhere else, so we had an itch. When Covid-19 came along, we decided that we didn’t want to look back when we were both 50 and ask ourselves why we didn’t just go ahead and do it. So after some but not too much discussion, we decided to move to Düsseldorf during the pandemic.”

As the couple owned a house in Dublin, it was relatively easy to find renters. “I had the added advantage of having an innovation portfolio management role at Henkel when I landed. When I started at the company headquarters in Düsseldorf, I was amazed how many people working here had PhDs, and many had MBAs and other qualifications.”

Düsseldorf isn’t the biggest town in Germany, with around 619,000 inhabitants, but rents are cheap once you can find a place.

“It took us a while to find an apartment, and we were somewhat perplexed when it came empty with no fittings. But in Germany that’s the norm. You rent for a very long time, so you make the apartment your own. We found a place with over 100sq m and lots of storage.”

O’Reilly says she was also surprised by the kindness of her neighbours. “When we moved in, a neighbour knocked on the door to see if we wanted to join them for a drink and get to know the other neighbours. There’s a great community, even though you’re renting. In Ireland, apartment living can be transient as people come and go, but here rented apartments are very much home to people.”

Germany lives up to cliches when it comes to amenities and standard of living, she adds. “There are great swimming pools and tennis courts. Things work here and people spend a lot of time cleaning their cars. I joined a tennis club and it’s been a great way to meet people and speak German too.”

What I love most about living in the centre of Europe is that you don’t need a car; you can get the train anywhere

Though highly skilled, O’Reilly didn’t have any German prior to moving there. “People have great English, so it can be a struggle to get them to speak German, but we both get lessons and, for me, joining a local tennis club has been a great way to immerse myself in the language.”

O’Reilly’s husband, a consultant engineer, set up a company in Germany, but still commutes between the two countries. “Thanks to Covid-19, it is possible to work from home in one country and have clients in another.

“Modern life has its virtues. What I love most about living in the centre of Europe is that you don’t need a car; you can get the train anywhere — Paris, Rome, Barcelona or the local areas like the Moselle Valley or the Nürburgring racing track. The possibilities are endless and we’re really looking forward to exploring it during the summer.”

Despite paperwork and the usual bureaucracy that comes with making a big move, O’Reilly says, it was relatively easy. “You think it’s going to be harder than it actually is. Of course there was red tape and it took us a good while to get everything in order, but once you’re settled, you realise that changing your life and starting somewhere new isn’t that hard. Looking back, we’re so glad we did it and are looking forward to enjoying our new life in Germany.”