The hardest part about moving to a new place is making friends. For me, friends are the glue that connects me to a place. It’s only when I have established a social network that I feel settled.
So, moving from Madison, where I had a fabulous collection of friends (miss you all), to Munich, where I knew no one, has been a challenge, to say the least. And, as an expat, an extra layer of difficulty is added, since you also have to assimilate to a different language and culture. Making friends is not very easy when you can’t express yourself properly in a conversation.
In other words, the flip side to the glamor and adventure of living abroad is the (initial) loneliness.
The Internet abounds with articles from expat blogs and websites stating the importance of making friends in your new country. There are even e-How instructions on how to do so. The collective thesis of these articles can be boiled down to: 1) you are not alone in your loneliness–it happens to nearly all expats; 2) making friends is essential to an expat’s happiness, but it can be hard to do; and so 3) you just have to put yourself out there.
Thus, as I have done before when I’ve landed in a new place, I’ve swallowed my natural shyness and put myself out there. So far, it has reaped some interesting, sometimes comical results.
Scoping the English-speaking crowd
Each major city in Germany has an online community for its English-speaking crowd called Toytown. One of its key functions is a digital bulletin board for “meetups,” which members organize. There is a meetup for practically any activity one might be interested in: from knitting to cross country skiing, home brewing to the general beer drinking.
Although I don’t want to build a social network entirely of English speakers, I will admit, they are the low-hanging fruit. So, I have been experimenting with the meetups in hopes of finding at least a couple people with whom I make a meaningful connection.
The first one I tried out was the weekly German Stammtisch, an informal gathering for non-native German speakers to practice the language, while also drinking alcoholic beverages. I thought speaking German with other non-native speakers would, at least, be a safe way to polish my rusty German. However, at the time I had not yet been in Munich a week, so I was still scraping off the thickest layer of rust. Needless to say, I had a hard time carrying a conversation with anyone. My confidence was further dashed by two young Russian women who kept telling me they couldn’t understand me with my American accent.
I ended up falling into a decent conversation (in “Denglish”) with a young German man who, oddly, had come to the Stammtisch to learn to speak in his native language more slowly (apparently his grandmother kept complaining he talks too fast). While he indeed spoke in slow pace for me, my brain and confidence eventually hit a wall and I had to leave…quickly.
Next up was girly cocktail night. “Yes! Potential female bonding,” was what I excitedly thought to myself when I discovered this meetup. But, based on my first foray, I fear my bonding needs might be different from what girly cocktail night can offer. The night was, well, very girly.
Don’t get me wrong; the girls were very warm and friendly. But as a not-very-girly girl, at times I sipped my cocktail uncomfortably (I was the only one who ordered a whiskey cocktail; everyone else ordered a Mai Thai or other sugary concoction). I feigned interest when the conversation turned to shopping, and my mouth hurt after a couple hours from the constant smile I had plastered on my face. I left feeling both judgmental and socially exhausted.
The most recent meetup I attended was a Democrats Abroad event. At least there I would find like-minded folks, I figured. And I did. But the event was sparsely attended, and I found myself pondering whether it would be healthy for me to become heavily involved in a group bound together by the same opinions, especially at a time when I am seeking to expand my perspective.
Despite my hesitations about each of these meetups, I intend to give each another shot. One shouldn’t make judgements based on first impressions, after all.
Friends in workplaces
My organization (a research center) is a hub for smart, interesting people from around the world, who like to have deep, intellectual conversations. They provide a refreshing alternative to the boring-but-necessary getting-to-know-you chitchat about where you’re from, how long you’ve been in Munich, what you’re doing here, etc.
Every Friday brings a work happy hour, each week at a different establishment. Not only has attending these been a great way to become familiar with the city’s menu of restaurants, but it is a guaranteed evening of thoughtful conversation. For example, so far, I have learned about disability literature, the decline of funding for the humanities in the UK, the environmental efforts of the British army, and what it’s like to be a professor at a college on the US-Mexico border. Most exciting, for me, was the lengthy conversation I had with an American academic who is big in the field of religion and nature. He lent me an interested ear as I talked about my Masters research (it has a life after grad school!).
The only unfortunate thing about this social outlet is that the people are transient. Many of the happy hour attendees are the center’s visiting fellows, who are here for three to nine months. So friendships I may form here will likely be fleeting. But I guess one’s social network is never really static, anyway.
Making friends with the locals
Several of the “How to make friends as an expat” articles I found emphasize that, to create a happy life in a foreign land, it is crucial to also make meaningful connections with “the locals.” Speaking from previous experience, I concur.
Interestingly, according to one survey, Germany is one of the least friendliest countries for expats. Thankfully, my experience has been the opposite (one survey does not a sound generalization make, after all). For example, my German flatmate and I became quick friends, and she’s been very proactive about introducing me to her friends, who have all been equally welcoming and friendly. To them, I say, “Danke fuer eure Offenheit und Freundlichkeit!”
Outside of my flatmate and her friends, I have not yet been terribly daring about immersing myself in a German-only crowd. But I did find one group that piqued my curiosity: Munich Bluegrass Friends.
That’s right, Munich has a community of American folk music enthusiasts, who are not themselves American. Perfect.
Last week my fiddle and I attended their monthly Bluegrass Stammtisch (similar concept to the German one, only substitute conversing in German for strumming the banjo, but keep the alcoholic beverages). The jammers convene at a bar called Oklahoma Saloon, which touts itself as the “oldest honky tonk in Europe.” The saloon is covered in stereotypically western kitsch: from the swinging door to the mounted bull horns. It’s pretty awesome.
The Stammtisch strummers were incredibly welcoming. The group consisted of about a dozen older men (i.e., in their 50s and 60s), one younger man (and the only other American), and one other woman. I had the feeling this group might be representative of Munich’s bluegrass crowd in general. Pretty much every bluegrass instrument was present: guitars, banjos, mandolins, a stand-up bass, two other fiddles (in addition to me), and even a steel guitar. And the repertoire was authentic: traditional old time, bluegrass, and Irish tunes. Were it not for the German-speaking between songs, one could have easily mistaken the scene for one you’d find in your average American folk music bar. I was tickled by the whole experience. I think I’ll definitely become a regular.
So, as my hunt for friends continues, I expect more slightly awkward moments and more of the same getting-to-know-you conversations, but I am hopeful that I will eventually forge a few ties that branch into a social network, thereby emotionally binding me to this place and enabling me to feel fully at home. Onward.