Making Friends Abroad – Germany

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A few weeks ago I wrote a post about finding a partner in Japan, but today I’d like to write a little about how to make friends – focussing on doing so whilst in Germany.

Making friends abroad is probably one of the hardest things I have done. In Japan, I felt very lonely; it took me a long time to find people I really connected with and then once I found these people I couldn’t see them until the weekend – often every other weekend. Now in Germany, once I started to see the pangs of loneliness in myself, I knew exactly how to get myself a social circle.

I’d like to point out now that all these methods require effort, patience and a lot of guts. When looking for new friends you will find yourself being forced out of your comfort zone, into a group of people you don’t know, maybe in a language you don’t speak, with people you don’t know you’ll even like and repeating the same conversations over and over and over. “How long have you been here?” “Did you come here for work?” “Do you like it here?” If you go to a meeting and come away with one phone number of one person with whom you meet up with occasionally, you’ve been successful. If you don’t, then don’t worry. If you don’t find someone who meets your friendship requirements to a tee, then that’s ok.

In a certain sense, you need to drop your friendship standards somewhat when you’re abroad. Most of the people I’m closest to here are people I have very very little in common with. But at the end of the day, they are amazing people and I love them very much. You need to let go of the idea that you’ll find your BFF at these meetings and focus instead on finding someone who will go to the cinema with you at the drop of a hat, someone who will try out that new restaurant with you, someone who will sit and listen when your boyfriend has been a wombat yet again. This is what’s important. So, let’s jump right in to finding friends….

Once I knew I was going to be in Germany, I soon found the online forum Toytown Germany. Being a forum, it is of course full of grumpy people, people who only want to argue, people who are mean and unhelpful. However, there are also lots of really good points and pieces of information for living in Germany. (Pro tip, unless you are looking to get shouted at by the long-timers there, you should always do a search of what information you are looking for before you start a new topic of conversation).

Within this forum, you can find people new to the area who want to meet up, and also long standing groups of people who meet more regularly. I joined one women’s dinner group once and met one girl who I became very good friends with, so it was a good success for me. I also go to a few of the meetups when I have time.

A step up from this would be Couchsurfing.org. I joined it after a good friend of mine mentioned how he has made a lot of friends from that site. On the surface it’s a place where you can find somewhere to stay for free when you are traveling. But it is so much more than this – from weekly meetings to random messages from people wanting to meet up, it is a hotbed of people wanting friendship. Within a week of joining, I saw a message from a lovely French couple who wanted to invite people to their house to play boardgames. It sounded right up my street so I went along and managed to befriend not only the lovely couple but also a person I consider to be a close friend. Aside from that time, I have also been to a massive brunch meetup and a handful of Christmas market spontaneous meetups. The thing that makes Couchsurfing different is that all the members are explorers. They are people who have been places and know what it’s like to be on your own in a place away from home. The website has changed for the worst in recent weeks in an effort to make money from the site and now the helpful forums are replaced with Facebook style pages, where one has to almost call out in order to connect with people. I’ve lost the details of the people I was to meet up with in Paris, as well as those in Goa and have to repeatedly write on the pages of these places, asking if anyone will be in those areas at the same time as me. Bewelcome.com seems to be the next Couchsurfing so be sure to check that one out as well.

Though mainly a dating site, Okcupid.com is also a good place to make friends. I like to call it a social network rather than a dating site. I have made one guy friend and one girl friend from this site. It might be a little scary for some people to venture into but I do say it’s well worth at least making a profile and seeing what kind of messages come.

Speaking of social networks, Facebook is the king as usual. Try to see if there are groups for your area – for Frankfurt I am a member of the English Speaking, Neu im Frankfurt, Photography, Friday Night Drinks Club, Drinkstag, International groups and many, many more. With these groups, I can go to a meeting pretty much every single day, meeting new people. The hardest one of these is the German Stammtisch events I go to with Neu im Frankfurt.

Other websites worth a mention are My Language Exchange and Shared Talk which are primarily language exchange partner websites, but I have actually made friends through them as well.

If you have any more links to great friend making websites, please link them in the comments!

More German Food!

 

The other week we went out for some German food to celebrate my friend’s birthday. I LOVE German food. I’ve already done a review on the place where we went, Apfelweinklaus, so I thought I’d just do a simple post on the types of things you can expect to see in a German/Frankfurt restaurant.

First up is the sweinhaxen, which is probably my favourite food in the whole of Germany. The ones at this restaurant aren’t that good, actually, but it’s still very yummy. I’ve just been fortunate enough to have much better ones.

 

Some fish – Germany isn’t all about pork, you know! They love their cold, pickled fish. I can’t stand it – even the thought of cold pickled fish makes me shudder. If you go to a German hotel, for breakfast you will probably see pickled fish as part of the breakfast.

 

This is very Frankfurt-y. Eggs, potatoes and green sauce. I don’t get it, really. But it’s good for vegetarians!!

That Awkward Moment When You’re Not Fluent

Back when I was an exchange student in Japan, I went to a small gathering at a friend’s house. The people there were a few Japanese girls, my Korean friend, and myself. I’d been dating a Japanese guy for a few months, so I was pretty good at conversation (if you don’t know the correlation, you’ve never tried dating someone from a different country ;) ) but I wasn’t fluent.

When people would aim conversations at me, I was ok and could answer. But when they spoke between themselves, I was lost and just shut off. Now this isn’t me saying my friends were bad – they weren’t. I had a lovely time, and they made a Japanese name for me (which is Sayuri), and taught me how to cook some Japanese food. But I just wasn’t quite at the level where I could be a proper member of the group. One girl next to me turned to me and said “I studied in London for a year. I can see the look on your face and I know that feeling. Don’t worry, you’ll get there.”

I mention this now, because I had the same feeling the other night. On Wednesday night, my German teacher put down the grammar book after half an hour, sat back and said “ok, let’s speak in German. Tell me about your week”. I spoke, in German, for the first time. Not just ordering a beer or some food, but actual conversation.

I don’t know if this is just me but I get a real rush from this. Speaking in another language… it’s just such a great feeling and I can’t describe it. So, naturally, I wanted more.

On Facebook I’m part of a number of Frankfurt groups, one of which is an all-German group. They had a meetup on Thursday, so I decided to go.

It’s one thing to click “I’ll join” on Facebook but it’s quite another to walk into a bar, see all these people you don’t know, speaking a language you don’t speak and just jump right in. I had a mini freak out inside, wondered what the hell I was doing, but then bought a massive beer and just stood at the side and looked awkward until two guys doing exactly the same started talking to me.

I did pretty well. I’m proud of myself. They didn’t realise I wasn’t German for quite a while, but that’s mainly because I answered with single words for a while until I got into the swing of it. But it was hard. I had to keep asking them to repeat stuff, and I got into the habit of repeating everything in English to make sure I had understood it before I answered. I didn’t initiate anything, because, quite frankly, I forgot how very tiring it was. But also because I felt so sorry for these two guys who got stuck with me. I wanted them to know they could escape at any point, so I kind of zoned out when they were talking to each other.

One guy left after a little while and the other sat down with me and we just spoke in English for the rest of the night. I’m pretty proud that I did such a long time in German. But it’s not a nice feeling to be a burden on someone in a conversation. I want to keep going to these meetups and trying again and again until I can speak German for real.

Online Dating

 

I don’t think it’s something to ashamed of these days so I’m going to say it – I’ve been using the online dating site OK Cupid for a while now. I signed up around March, when my long term ex and I split up. I met someone on it in the summer, and I am recently back on it now after that didn’t turn out so well.

A Frankfurt friend of mine recently blogged about how, due to online dating, we don’t treat relationships in the same way as we used to. And I couldn’t agree more.

Like he says, there are pages and pages of single guys there apparently waiting for me to message them. I can be choosey. I AM choosey. I’ve created a list of things in my head that are absolute deal breakers, things that are really stupid. Like, I will only talk with a guy on there if he lives in Frankfurt. Nice guy, but in Darmstadt? Nope, sorry. Sounds interesting but is in Wiesbaden? No can do. If I can bike to his place from mine – then it’s perfect. If I have to change trains more than once to get from my place to yours, then I will reconsider. If I can’t get to you on my monats card, then forget it.

And it seems that I’m not the only one who is suddenly really picky.

I’ve found that people are more likely to treat relationships like they are disposable, too. I like to see the good in people – even if I know they are not right for me, I want to at least try to make it work. You never know, it might work out. But when a relationship ends now, I just have 100s of other guys to choose from. It’s no big deal.

Another factor in all this is that we are expats. I’ve only been on one date with a German from Ok Cupid. Expats are funny creatures. Most have been plonked here in Frankfurt by their companies – many didn’t choose to come here. All are in various stages of culture shock/acceptance. The chance of finding someone who is in the same frame of mind as you are even slimmer than back home. Not only do you have to find a partner who is the same maturity level as you, who wants the same kind of relationship as you, but you need to consider their plans as well. Do they want to stay here in Frankfurt for the long haul? Are they just staying here for a few months? Do they treat everything in their lives as it comes, and fear to think of the future?

I’ve never tried online dating before coming to Frankfurt, so I can’t tell how it differs if you are in your country, and with your own solid community – not all thrown together like expats. OK Cupid is free, and it’s a great place to meet new people – I’ve met quite a few girlfriends on there, and actually become closer to colleagues who use it too (“hang on, I know you, don’t I!”). But I’m starting to wonder if this is causing both a desperation – a need for contact in a lonely expat world – as well as an aloofness, when contacts and relationships are treated as disposable and replaceable.

Hmmm…

Keeping Warm in Germany

 

Someone on facebook just posted this amazing blog post about keeping warm through winter in Japan. The joke is that Japanese buildings don’t have insulation and the way they heat their homes is ridiculously expensive, not to mention dangerous.

I am very, very happy to report that Germany is very different to Japan. My apartment is old but the walls are lovely and thick and my room is nice and toasty without having to go OTT on the radiator. At the end of last winter, when my heating bill came through I was outraged because my share was 200 euros (shared with my old flatmate). But when I think back to how much I was spending on kerosene in Japan, 200 euros is a bargain.

My Japanese flatmate lived in Germany for a year, but some things about western life still baffle her. I taught her how to drain her radiator the other day, which confused her no end. The heating/electricity companies work very differently here, too. Firstly, they predict how much electricity you’ll use in a quarter/half year, then when that time is up they’ll either ask for a little bit more money if you went over, or give you back if you didn’t use as much as they had thought. I got a lovely 150 euro payback last year because my German flatmate and I didn’t overuse stuff. I think the situation will be different this time round…

With the heating, we have little machines on our radiators which calculate how much we’ve used each individual one. This is great because my flatmate can use all the energy she likes and only she’ll be charged for it. The radiators in the kitchen and bathroom will be shared.

It got to “feel factor” minus 20 last winter. The actual temperature was something like minus 7, but the wind brought it down so much lower. I survived through by enjoying mulled wine at the xmas market, but I also followed the locals in stocking up on good quality clothes and boots. Say what you want about German style (and I often do..) they know their quality products. I spent out on some leather boots last year that were good for the whole season – they look very worn now because I really did over wear them, but they are still good. They were actually actually Japanese (or at least had a Japanese brand name..) but this year I have invested in some German boots.

German people seem to put quality over style, which explains their crazy love for Jack Wolfskin clothes (though according to the boyfriend, Jack’s coats aren’t as high quality as it may seem…) But it’s best to follow the locals and invest in an ugly massive puffy coat. I didn’t last year – I survived with my wool coat with a hoodie underneath (layering FTW) but I am considering buying the prettiest ugly puffy coat I can find.

Up until xmas I don’t mind it being cold and wet and horrible. But once the Christmas market is gone, and once Christmas is over it does suck quite a bit. Do you have any tips on staying warm in winter? Let me know if you do!

Thoughts on Living Abroad

 

The other day, we were looking in a photo gallery/shop when I came across the photo above. It is of Meoto Iwa in Mie, where I used to live in Japan. Known as the “wedded rocks”, this popular destination was a short moped ride for me and I’d often go there to walk by the sea and collect my thoughts. In the summer I’d dip my feet in the water as it was the nearest beach to me.

I saw it and wanted to cry. I’ve not missed Japan in a long time, but just this sudden scene of a familiar place made me feel lost where I am right now.

On the whole, I love life here in Frankfurt. It is an awesome city to live in, I have loads of lovely friends and now with added boyfriend, things are going well.

But, of course, there are always hiccups.

Last week, I took over @WeAreFFM twitter feed, which has a different curator every week and posts lots of cool stuff about Frankfurt. It’s listed as an English and German feed so when I replied asking when the English was going to happen, they asked me to take it over for a week.

I was really excited. I spent a week beforehand planning out a different theme for each day and finding things to talk about. It started on the Sunday and I tweeted a few times while I was out and about, but it didn’t take long before negative comments started rolling in. “Why are you tweeting in English?” came first. Then, when I listed 4 or 5 different blogs about Frankfurt, I was accused by a few people of being spammy. I felt the need to stand up for myself and replied to each negative comment, but of course, this never works with “haters”.

Throughout the whole week, I’d say 2/3 of people were perfectly nice. However, many Frankfurt locals were just downright rude and wouldn’t accept that I was doing things a little differently to how they wanted it.

It got me thinking into whether this is actually a reflection on life in general – there are really separated groups here; the locals, the bankers, the teachers/au pairs, and the stragglers like myself, who work for a company here but don’t fit into the banking world. There are times when these groups mix – for example, at events such as Cafe Crawl, or by joining a language exchange group (known here as “round table” events).

But if you are a person who wants to break the mould and get out there then I think it’s pretty hard. Frankfurt is a place where few call home but many live, more of an international city than a German city and has an amazing mix of people from all over the world. And yet, we just stick to what we know here and socialise (if, at all) only with the people we see right in front of us, for the most part.

Though it comes with the job of being on a popular Twitter feed that there are going to be negative people. But I really thought that it would be a nice way to break out of the bubble and get under the skin of local culture. And I’m quite upset that Frankfurt wasn’t more welcoming towards me in return.

Nevertheless, I did make some great friends through the experience, and I have a hope to continue to speak with them and maybe spark up friendships for real there. I also have a few groups that invited me to join so maybe I can blog a little more about them at some point too. And at the end of the day, what doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger, right?!

Strange Questions from Japan

As you may know, I used to live and work in Japan on the JET programme. During my few years there, I lived in the countryside – nothing but rice fields and mountains. The most beautiful place. But I was the only white person in my village – there was a Brazilian family and quite a few Chinese who worked at the factories nearby.

I just read a really interesting blog post by new Frankfurter Roots, Wings, and Other Things about questions American people ask her about Germany. I really hope that some of the things on that list are exaggerations!! It made me think back to my time in Japan and the funny things my Japanese friends and coworkers used to ask me.

Though it’s not a cultural question, coming in 3rd is this one exchange that happened in a class I was teaching along with my favourite Japanese co-worker, Mrs I. She’s retired now, but has so much passion for English – as soon as she retired she went back to university and started studying English again! Anyway, this happened in a 2nd grade class – kids around 12 years old. Mrs I was explaining all the different ways the work “by” can be used… “get this done by 2pm”, “I went by train”… when one boy put his hand up.

“Mrs I, my dad says that ‘by’ means when a man loves women but also men as well. Is this true?!”

Mrs I looked bewildered – she’d never contemplated such people existing before – and turned to me, expecting a reply. Luckily I was saved by the bell…

In at number 2

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the students of the school have to take out 20 minutes to clean the school. I say clean… it was mainly lazy, useless efforts of general doing-stuff and rarely benefited to how clean the school was. There isn’t any hot water in the school except for the one hot water tap in the teacher’s office, which is turned off in summer. I have another funny story about how I had to explain to my current 30 year old Japanese roommate about why we have to clean things with hot water, because Japanese people just don’t get it… They wash their hands in cold water after going to the toilet, they clean things with cold water… even their washing machines use only luke warm water at best…

I digress.

So one day I was helping the children sweep the teacher’s office. Mr S, the humanities teacher who was the only non-English teacher who ever bothered talking to me, came over and said -

“Say, Charlotte! You’re pretty good at sweeping!”

I looked confused, and said thank you.

“Especially since you don’t have brooms in England!!”

After a massive face palm, I tried to explain to Mr S that we do, in fact, have brooms in England – he had thought that because we have carpets, we use hoovers and not brooms. I said that my home back in England is over 300 years old and has oak flooring… definitely not hooverable!!

In first place for the most outrageous thing I have ever been asked, ever, in my life is…

In Japan I was so very, very lonely. After about a year of rolling around complaining about how lonely I was, I decided to go pro-active and go out and find friends. I used the Japanese social network Mixi, went to bars by myself, even went to singles parties and other events that foreigners aren’t exactly welcome to. It was at one of these singles parties that I met a guy called Mi-chan. He was there just because he was the organiser’s friend and not really looking for a girlfriend (the friend who came with me fell for him – a nice guy who baked cakes like a dream AND played the piano like a pro?! Japanese girl’s wet dream!!!)

He invited us (much to my friend’s delight) to his house for dinner the following week. When we got there, we met his lovely fiance… (haha, sorry friend!) and we all made dinner together. After dinner, we were sat down by a motherly woman in the group, who had brought along with her a white board and pamphlets. It was an Amway meeting.

After that first meeting, I didn’t see my friend again, but I made a few friends there in the Amway group and became a solid member of their gang. They knew full well I didn’t appreciate their spiel at the end of the activities they planned. But I was always happy to go along and learn cooking with them or have them do my makeup, and then I’d just go and help clean up the kitchen or something when they started to talk the members of the group into buying ridiculously expensive pans, or average makeup products. In return they got to be a classy section of the Amway club – they had their very own foreigner!

At one of these meetings (actually, it was the one where we all had our eyelashes permed… yes, this is a thing…) I met a woman who turned out to be the mother of one of my students. We became quite good friends, and I went over her house a few times for the meetings, and we were often at the same events together (much to the embarrassment of her son). After knowing her for about a year, we were at a BBQ together when she came to me and said -

“You know, I’ve wanted to ask you something ever since we first met… is it ok if I ask you? Uhm, so, you know how Japanese noses are very small… and foreigners’ noses are very tall… and you have that ridge thing in between your eyes at the top of your nose that we Japanese don’t have? Well… because of that part of your nose, do you have blind spots because it blocks your vision?!”

Japanese people are very conscious of the differences between their noses and western people’s noses. It’s one of the things people are commented on the most in Japan. But this…

I never minded when people asked me stuff like this – after all, it was my job to interact with normal people who wouldn’t get the chance to speak with foreigners. I just find it so funny to see myself as a foreigner through their eyes.

If you’ve ever been asked something crazy paving by people from other countries, I’d love to know!

4 Frustrating Things About Germany

After reading a wonderful blog post on things that annoyed the blogger about her adopted home of Senegal, I decided to write something similar about Germany.

Especially on my blog, I am a lot kinder to Germany than I ever was to Japan. I think it’s because I feel closer to Japan, so I’m harsher on it and want it to be better. On my old blog and also on Lang-8 I was forever annoying Japanese people with my posts about how my coworkers didn’t accept me, or how someone was racist to me, or how I didn’t like certain other cultural differences. Japanese people really don’t like you being critical… But it wasn’t that I was necessarily looking at Japan in a bad way, I think it’s because I had wanted to live there for so long, and I wanted Japan to love me as much as I loved it, that I was overly harsh on the country and its people.

With Germany I came here not expecting anything. I expected to just suck it up and get on with it because I wanted to work at Nintendo. But I really do love it here. Not in the same way that I love Japan. Japan was my dream – where I had wanted to live since I was little. I love Germany in that it’s safe and clean and a nice place to live. The people are lovely, the city is exciting. My work is fantastic and the people around me are amazing. But, of course, it’s not perfect here…. So here are my 4 frustrating things about Germany!

1. There are no 24 hour shops.

Anyone who has lived in Japan will tell you how amazing it is to have convenience stores open all night. In the UK, supermarkets are open 24/7. In Germany, shops in the centre close at 7 or 8 depending on what day of the week it is, and the supermarket closes at 10. When I’m coming in from a night out it’d be nice to be able to pop into a shop and buy something to snack on.. or when I’m late back like I am when I come home from Zumba, it’d be nice not to feel rushed because I only have 20 minutes left until the shop shuts.

2. Things rarely get delivered to you.

Unless you are/have a housewife/househusband, and are able to be there at all times during the day, don’t expect anything other than spam mail and small letters to be delivered to you. You will be sent on wile goose chases across the city (if you are in Frankfurt) to find which small corner shop (that closes at 4pm, by the way) your online purchase/stuff from home/care package has been sent to.

If you are very, very unlucky, your goods may be sent to the Zollamt – customs office, which is on the edge of town, about 30 minutes on the tram and another 15 minutes walking after that. Word of advice if this happens to you – always say that your stuff is a gift!! Otherwise you may have to pay extra on it!

3. The food is pretty salty.

I love German food. I don’t eat the crap stuff in the canteens anymore, so I really appreciate the good German food that I have once in a while. However, German food is really salty. I’m not sure if they, as a nation, feel particularly bad about this, but there doesn’t seem to be any obvious efforts to cut down on this.

4. (Frankfurt mainly) There are lots of homeless people.

The cities I’ve lived in before Frankfurt are Liverpool in the UK and Nagoya in Japan. In Liverpool there was a cute old man who used to play the violin on Bold Street all the time. Otherwise, there were no obvious homeless people. In Nagoya there are visible homeless people, but they are pretty sophisticated, and sit in Sakae station and paint and play instruments and watch tv on little handsets. They’re pretty pro-active about their situations.

In Frankfurt there are people with stumps for limbs, women wrapped in head scarves, young girls, men on crutches… all manner of people who make you feel so guilty for all that you have. It was one of the very first things that struck me about Frankfurt, and I tried to get involved with a soup kitchen. But no one would have me due to my lack of German skills. I was (and am still) very upset about this. A smile is the same in every language. I do give money to the women and young girls I see on the streets, but I don’t have enough to be able to give them as much as I feel I should. I feel constantly guilty about it – especially when they come into restaurants and go from table to table asking for money. I wish I was a big enough person to be able to offer them more than I do.

So, there we have it… they aren’t such bad frustrations. I think I am very mellow about living as an expat now. I’ve come to accept cultural differences as things that should not be debated or fought, but discussed and learnt from. The German way of life is constantly making me see things in new ways – I really do love it here.

If you’re an expat, I’ve love to hear your top 4 frustrating things about where you live!