Tag Archives: living as expat

Home is where the taste buds are

Home is not just where the heart is; it’s also where the taste buds are. This seems to be especially so when in a foreign land.

This past week, I went to dinner with four other expats and one German (but who is part British and part Indian), and we got into a long conversation about where in Munich one can find the best Indian food. One of my dinner-mates was Indian, and he was praising a hole-in-the-wall Indian joint, claiming it sells the best [insert name of said Indian food that I’ve now forgotten] he’s ever had outside of India. Specifically, he described this food as tasting “just like home.”

Another dinner-mate, who is British by birth but Pakistani by heritage, was lamenting the lack of good Pakistani food, saying she just can’t find food like her family makes.

As I walked home from this dinner, I pondered the connection between food, taste, and homeland. People do seem to end up missing certain foods when they have left their home country, which sometimes induces an endless hunt for home-like fare. For example, one of my American friends here, with her German husband in tow, has been on an ongoing search for the best, most American-like hamburger in Munich.

Sure, ethnic restaurants can help satiate one’s desire for that home-like cooked meal (although, if McDonalds and Starbucks are considered “ethnic American,” I can’t say they do anything for me). Some may call these restaurants the globalization of food, but I wonder if they are just expats’ own remedy for their craving for “home-food.”

A brief Google search for attachments to food revealed one article stating that people associate certain grub with specific childhood memories, and another claiming people find comfort foods, well, comforting when feeling stressed or lonely (both emotions that accompany moving to a new place). So there seems to be some science behind the food-home connection.

But whether scientific fact or experiential assumption, seeking out familiar foods does seem to be a fact of life abroad. For example, I asked my flatmate, who lived in Vancouver, BC for a while, if there were any German foods she missed while she was there, and she immediately exclaimed, “Brezen” (pretzels, of the soft variety–a very Bavarian snack).

Brezen! Image by Jonathan M

In my own experience, when I was living in St. Lucia (in the Eastern Caribbean), I recall having strange cravings for vittles like for flour tortillas and cheese that was not yellow, because these were hard, if not impossible, to come by on the island. What was strange about these cravings was that, aside from the cheese, many of them weren’t things I eat on a regular basis in America. My flatmate agreed that you end up longing for food you don’t normally crave at home.

Here in Germany, I tend to cook meals that are close to home (i.e., what I cook in the States). Granted, the food available here is not drastically different than what is available in the homeland. In fact, in some cases, I think the food here is much better. Even so, I haven’t yet ventured into trying any German recipes, even though my flatmate has a healthy collection of German recipe books.

Perhaps if I were living in a small Bavarian village, rather than a big city, with less access to home-like foods and a higher consumption of traditional Bavarian fare–e.g., Bratwurst, Brezen, and Kaesespaetzle (what I consider the German version of mac and cheese)–then I would start pining for quinoa, kale, and the rest of my usual hippie-vegetarian provisions.

Though, I will admit that I do miss my favorite comfort food: Annie’s mac & cheese (note to friends and family: if you send me a care package, please throw in a few boxes of that…especially the organic shells and white cheddar). Kaesespaetzle just isn’t the same.

How about you, dear readers: if you’ve lived in a different country before, what home-food(s) did you miss?

Kaesespaetzle. Image by Wiki der Wikinger

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Adventures in making friends

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.

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“Field notes” from Munich

Spring arrived in Munich a little earlier than I expected it to: Friday, February 24. (Well, at least I hope that was Spring’s official arrival and it’s not just being a tease.)

The day’s blue sky, sunshine and warm(ish) air demanded that I abandon my work and go exploring. So, I obeyed.

For this excursion, I headed to Munich’s famous Englischer Garten, its equivalent of Central Park, only bigger. A quick trip on the U-Bahn (the subway), followed by a short walk down a cobbled stone street brought me to one of the park entrances. Judging by the hoards of joggers, walkers, strollers, dogs, and bikers that bustled past me as I walked through, I was certainly not the only one that had obeyed the sunshine’s demand.

I followed a wooded path that ran adjacent to a tributary of the Isar River, the river that runs through the middle of Munich. I was struck the crystal clarity of this urban stream.

The warm weather had hastened the thawing process, turning most of the park’s dirt paths into mud, which required careful steps in places where many feet and bike wheels had already tread.

After wandering for about 30 minutes, I came upon a big clearing. Its network of paths were, in places, lined with benches, all of them occupied. This was certainly the place to be today.

At the farther end of the clearing a Greek-style temple called the Monopteros sits atop a hill. The temple beckoned me, and my feet turned in its direction without even consulting with my brain.

What Monopteros will look like when Spring is fully here. Image by LuxTonnerre

As I meandered around mud puddles toward the temple, the sounds of strumming guitars and singing voices came into earshot, which only further piqued my curiosity. When I came to the top of the hill, I was greeted by a few dozen people sitting or milling about. The guitars and voices belonged to two men standing in the center of the temple, putting on a show for anyone listening. I decided to sit on the temple steps for a bit and join the audience.

The interesting thing about being a foreigner is that I sometimes feel like an ethnographic “researcher,” observing Germans’ in their native habitat, watching them do what they do, and taking note of their behavior, language-use, and other cultural idiosyncrasies. As a “trained” qualitative researcher, a geeky idea came to me as I sat on the steps: I’ll make some “participant observations” about this day. And so, I took out my pen and notebook, and I observed.

The performance “venue” was pretty magical. From the hilltop, you get a fabulous view of the park’s expanse below. On the horizon, the steeples of several of Munich’s cathedrals tower above the park’s trees. The temple’s dome offered wonderful acoustics, allowing the music to echo down into the park.

The “band” was actually quite good. Their harmonizing led me to think this was not entirely an impromptu performance…they’d clearly done this before. I was very amused by their repertoire: all but one of the songs I heard them play were from English speaking countries…and from the nineties. For example, they sang lovely renditions of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” and Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Globalization is not all economics, after all.

The “audience” was quite a motley crew. Several groups of college-aged kids were camped out, some drinking beers as they basked in the sun and music. An older woman sat alone, leaning against a temple pillar. A pair of well-dressed men joined the audience and pulled out pipes to puff (unfortunately, I was sitting directly in the wake of their smoke, which eventually forced me to move from my well-positioned perch). A couple of moms stood chatting, while their rambunctious sons played on the hillside. Two young women sat and gossiped (in English, so I was privy to their conversation. One was clearly upset about a boy). Several dogs were also in the audience, obediently by their owners’ sides (German dogs are very obedient, according to my observations). There was a constant flow of people climbing the hill, stopping at the top for a listen, some taking pictures, and then walking back down again.

The view from the "venue" (but not from the same day). Image by Ludmila Pilecka

I listened to about 10 songs, until I was eventually chased away by more smoke billowing into my face, this time from the cigarette of a man standing next to me (factoid: Germany has one of Europe’s highest smoking rates).

When I got to the bottom of the hill, I navigated my way through a muddy field to yet another muddy path. I was then greeted by more music: an old man playing the accordion. Yet another talented street musician. I couldn’t tell if the songs were Italian or French, but they sounded like the stereotypical accordion songs you hear in Italian or French movies. I didn’t stick around to listen to his performance, however, as I was anxious to keep moving.

As I walked out of the park, I ruminated over my research exercise, which I guess brings me to the point of this otherwise pointless post. As I continue to get acclimated to my new life and surroundings, I can’t help but feel a bit like a wallflower, standing at the edge of the party, watching, but not (yet) ready to dance with everyone else. While, appearance-wise, I blend in pretty well with the Germans, I am still an outsider peering in.

And “peering in” has a couple of connotations. For one, I am observing a different culture, trying to learn their ways in an attempt to adopt them, so I can eventually become at least an honorary member of the club. Secondly, since being “the other” can, at times, be isolating, it leaves a lot of room for peering inside myself. I haven’t had this much space for self reflection since, well, before grad school held all my time, energy and mental capacity hostage.

Being an outsider also gives you empathy and compassion for other outsiders–perhaps something we need more of with the increasingly migrant human race.

In any case, a quick Google search revealed that I am not the only expat with a blog to write about being the outsider. At least I am not alone in that.

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So we meet again, Germany

Ten years ago, I left my comfortable college town (Charlottesville, VA) to try out one of life’s uncomfortable, but worthwhile opportunities: living in a different country. I studied for a semester in Freiburg, Germany–a quaint college town in its own right. But, as a twenty-year-old American woman with only a beginning German language ability, life in Freiburg, at first, was by no means comfortable. I struggled with the frustration of feeling unable to express myself, the confusion around understanding a new culture, and then the growing pains of learning about myself in how I respond to such uncomfortable situations. In fact, I distinctly remember bursting into tears one day after my German literature class, as I attempted to ask my professor a question, but just couldn’t get it out nor could understand what she was telling me in response.

But, thankfully, with time, my German got better (much better!) and life became increasingly more comfortable–as they always say it does. And I learned the value of throwing oneself into uncomfortable experiences: you grow…a lot.

And so, here I am, ten years “older and wiser,” doing the same exact thing to myself. This time, I left a different, but equally comfortable college town (Madison, WI) and headed in the direction of another German city: Munich (or Muenchen, as the Germans call it). A much different town than Freiburg, Munich is one of Germany’s “big” cities, and while it’s also home to a university and also has quaint aspects to it (it is, after all, the capital of Bavaria, from where most stereotypically German kitsch comes–Lederhosen, Oktoberfest, etc.), this is by no means a quaint university town.

A fortunate job opportunity was my ticket to Munich, but I also came here to satiate my desire to reconnect with Germany and, once again, expand my perspective. However, unfortunately, the years of letting my German language ability lie dormant have paid their toll. While I have not regressed all the way back to how it was when I first arrived in Freiburg, I’m not that much better. But, as they always say, it will get better with time.

And so, with this blog, I will chronicle my reconnection with “der Vaterland” (it is literally, for me, the land of my forefathers), as well as muse over my expanding perspective. Since my job–and my professional (and personal) interests, in general–lie in the environmental studies realm, many of those musings will likely be related accordingly. In fact, another reason I decided to come to Germany was to flavor my otherwise primarily domestic environmental perspective with some international spice (granted, Germany is not the most exotic of spices, but it is an important one in environmentalism’s recipe nonetheless).

Without further ado, welcome to my blog. Please come again.

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Filed under Germany