Friday, May 25, 2012

The revolving door (a post about expat friends)

I actually don't really have too much time to hang out with my friends right now.  That's ok, most of them probably don't expect to see me for another month or so.  I mean, babies take up a lot of time.

I've lived in Germany for almost five years.  When I look back on what a long time that is it kind of scares me.  My best friends back home still email and Skype with me because they're awesome, even though I haven't seen anyone is over a year now.  My friends in Chicago will be my friends forever.

My expat friends have been a little bit different.

Being an expat is like riding a merry-go-round.  You jump on and at any time you can jump off.  My merry-go-round ride has lasted five years.  A bit longer than the typical expat.  About half the people I've met only stay in Germany for a year or so.  Then they leave and it is really sad because I go from having a couple great friends to having zero friends.  I have to start meeting new people all over again.  That can get tiresome.  It takes energy to make friends.

I am the kind of person who come across as self confident and outgoing.  (A therapist told me that so I'm pretty sure it's a neutral opinion.)  Secretly, I will never ever let on to this in public, people I don't know make me nervous.  Like palm sweating, heart pounding, anxiety nervous.  The only exception are my students.  Four years of standing up in front of strangers and teaching them stuff made me get over it.  There have been several times in my years in Germany when the thought of going out and meeting new people seemed exhausting and overwhelming. It wasn't worth the effort.  Of course, that meant that I became somewhat sad and lonely.

Another thing is that expats sort of drift together because they all have one great thing in common, they're expats.  For the first couple of years I lived in Germany I wasn't choosey about who my friends were.   Almost none of those friendships lasted.  Sometimes I didn't have enough in common with people, other times there were personality clashes and some people seemed nice but were expats because they had deep seeded issues that I didn't discover until I knew them better.

It took me a while to realize that part of the problem was that I was looking for friends in the wrong places.  I mostly met people in bars and coffee shops.  Most of the people I met were single.  They were hipsters looking for adventure and faux intellectuals who claimed to have fled the USA when George Bush got elected president.  Really.  I heard the 'I left the country because of George Bush' so many times that it became a running joke.  For whatever reason I have never gotten along well with anyone who labeled themselves 'intellectuals'.  I knew a lot of intellectuals in Chicago and I generally thought they were narcissistic, navel gazing, not so young adults who needed to feel superior because they dropped out of college. 

Now maybe you are thinking that I should have made friends with Germans instead of hanging out with expats all the time.  Hah!  I did have a German BFF in Hamburg.  In 2010 she met a guy, fell in love and moved to Marburg. I still go visit her and we're still friends but I was very sad that she moved away.

I have fewer friends now than when I first came to Germany.  However, the friends I have now are staying put for a while.  They do not have plans to hop off the merry-go-round because they have spouses or jobs or kids firmly grounding them in this country.  I also have more in common with my friends than just being expats.  And none of them are crazy or intellectuals.   Because so many of my friends have moved within Germany I know people all over the country.  That's pretty cool.

The expat pool is smaller than the normal pool a person would swim in.  There are always less than six degrees of separation between expats.  Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody.  People get reputations.  I once guest taught at a school and ended up having lunch with the ex boyfriend of someone I was friends with.  We only figured out that we sort of knew each other by association half way through lunch.  It was beyond awkward since I'd heard all sorts of stories about him.

To sum up: making friends is easy.  Making really good friends is hard.  Expats who come to the country for a year will have no problems finding other expats to drink beer with and have experiences.  People like me, who are staying much longer, might have to put in more effort to have true, lasting friendships like they left behind.

On a random note, while a ton of my friends are vegetarians I never seem to get on well with vegans and organic food people.  That's why I found this article to be so funny.

The end.


  1. So much of what you said here is totally, totally true. It gets exhausting trying to make friends when you know they might be gone in a few weeks or months, but the ones that stick are some of the best friends you'll ever have.

    Oh, and the hipsters and faux intellectuals... bless their ridiculous little hearts. When I was back home for my friends wedding last summer, I met a guy who had been living in Berlin. I told him I had just left Prague for Nuremberg, and he started giving me crap for only having spent time in the "southern, Americanized Germany." Which of course was totally not German at all. The only REAL Germany was the former GDR which he knew since HE lived in East Berlin. I took it for a while and eventually couldn't listen to him anymore... after 2+ years in Prague DO NOT tell me what it's "really" like to live in a formerly communist country. So I told him he was arrogant and left the conversation. Later I found out that he no longer lived in Berlin (but was still presenting himself that way), and in fact had quit his 'doctoral research' and was back living with his parents in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Yes, you sir, are edgy.

    The other guy was more funny than anything. He was a friend of a friend in Prague and he used to talk about wanting to start an intellectual 'salon' a la Paris at the turn of the century. He's saying this while sitting in a bar surrounded by legions of study abroad girls who can barely look up from their Crackberries. My friend and I were like, "well, if you can find anyone with something remotely intelligent to say that does not involve 1) social media, 2) study abroad, or 3) study abroaders ON social media, we wish you luck with that."

    Ok, rants over. And that article was a riot. Having lived with a vegan once, I don't think I would do it again. I can do without the preaching, thankyouverymuch.

  2. Lol, yes that guy sounds exactly like the kind of person I'm talking about. If someone started talking about the 'real Germany' I probably wouldn't be able to roll my eyes hard enough :)

  3. I love this post! I've only been here for about 7 months but after a couple weeks I came to the shocking realization that the only people who qualified to be my new friends were the ones who spoke English. It really put things into perspective.

    I've been branching out when I can and you're right-- it's amazing how small and intermingled the expat community is.

    Skype dates keep me sane!

  4. Good post! Up until recent years I avoided expats because I wanted to integrate into the Dutch society, but when my daughter came along I found I needed to expand my world. Dealing with expats has been harder than I imagined, as you said they come and go, and generally the only common ground is being an expat. Along the way I have made a few good friends, expat and Dutch, and every time I'm taken on the "merry-go-round" again, it makes me appreciate my good friends even more. :) Danica Martin

  5. I think everyone has a little trouble with it to some degree, either because of the language or just because people are always coming and going. Glad you guys liked the post and could relate!