Birthdays and Friends

This year is a momentous one in the eyes of some people, because I am turning forty. I’m turning forty in a new country, and all of my oldest and closest friends live in other ones. But I am not despairing, and I am not ignoring this runden Geburtstag. (A runder Geburtstag is one that ends in a zero.) If I were still in Germany, I would most definitely be having a party. So, we’ll be having one here in Ireland as well, and as expected, many of my German friends have already said they are coming. What a perfect excuse to go on vacation! With 30 days of holidays at their disposal and a booming economy, my German friends can afford to come over to the Emerald Isle.

Ah, but what are friends? Americans seem to call everyone their friends. Facebook has turned even the most distance of acquaintances, from someone you met on the bus yesterday to someone you knew in preschool, into “friends.” One of the first things I discovered when I moved to Germany to be with my future husband, having already lived there for seven years in the previous decade, was the meaning of friends in a German context. Many of his friends have been with him since childhood. Part of that is because people used to grow up in a house and stay in the area. This may not apply as much nowadays, what with Fernbeziehungen and the global economy, but it was still true for my husband, until I dragged him off to Ireland.

What I learned is that German friends truly mean it when they say, “I’ll call you.” They are really with you through thick and think. When you are moving, as we did approximately seven times when we lived in Eppelheim, they are there to help — in droves. When you have to empty your house in two weeks to leave the country, they are there, day and night. When you have a baby, or someone is in hospital, or are suffering in some way, they are there. If you have a party, they come, bearing Nudelsalat and Sekt and group presents, wrapped more beautifully and creatively than I would ever attempt. And they help you clean up the mess afterward. Speaking of gift wrapping, on our wedding, we received a present from a close friend of my husband’s parents. She had created a beach diorama, complete with sand and sea, and had rolled up money and crafted it into parts of the scene. How cool is that?

Now I am not saying that American friends don’t do that. But when I got divorced and was leaving the US to move back to Germany, who was there to help me move out of my ugly, scary, post-divorce apartment? My German friends. And these were people I had only known for six months. They came, they took on my junky hand-me-down furniture, and they cheered me on.

So what of birthdays? In Germany, when it’s your birthday, if you are not having a party, you might invite people out. But invite does not mean, turn up and celebrate. It means turn up and I, the birthday girl, will buy you a drink or six. I’ll never forget the English friend of mine who invited her colleagues to a birthday brunch at a restaurant, not knowing the rules of birthdays, and was stunned to find that many of them left without paying for their breakfasts. So remember, if a German person invites you, and uses the word invite or Ich lade Dich ein, know that it is their treat. Don’t break out the wallet at risk of insulting them.

But back to my birthday. I am happy to see that my closest friends are coming over, and even some that I haven’t known that long. Because friends are friends, and I like it like that.