One of the most poignant feelings I have experienced as an expat is loneliness. It was an emotion that I knew very little of before I moved abroad. In some sense, I was probably naive in my adventurousness; I wanted to experience things that were new and different, I wanted to absorb another culture. I jumped into expat life without ever reading a book or blog post about what life abroad entails. Had I known anything before I boarded the plane, I might not have gone at all, so it is probably for the best that I was naive.
My first time abroad, studying in England, I had little chance for loneliness. After all, I was still speaking my native language, and in a university town there is no shortage of young people to meet. It was, however, my first experience with what happens when you leave somewhere: Out of Sight, Out of Mind. My friends from university went on with their lives and were unable (or unwilling) to keep in touch. I received occasional emails, dwindling as time progressed. Facebook didn’t exist in those dark ages (perhaps to my benefit, according to my friend Sarah), and airmail was too complicated for my friends back home. They couldn’t figure out the time change, phone calls were expensive, and there was no Skype. Still, I wasn’t lonely. I made new friends, had fantastic times, created new memories, and enjoyed my adventure. It was so addictive, I wasn’t ready to return to the US when the school year was over. I wanted more of this European lifestyle.
And so when I decided to move to Germany, I was unafraid. This fearlessness bewildered most people I encountered. The woman who took our engagement photos was shocked… “you are just going to leave your family here? I could NEVER do that! I have to see my mom every single day!” A friend of my parents, herself an expat who relocated for an American spouse, said “oh, don’t make the same mistake I did. I love my family but I regret leaving home so much…”
I didn’t reflect on their comments for even a second, so convinced was I that everything would just work out, somehow.
When I moved to Germany, I knew just a few people – I can count them on one hand. I thought it would be an experience like living in England, that I would meet people easily and find a new network of friends, have adventures, make memories. All those things happened, but at a snail’s pace.
Loneliness hit within the first two months. Upon reflection, it was the first time in my life that I experienced true loneliness. I had no friends. Nobody to commiserate with when I was homesick, nobody who understood the culture shock I was experiencing, nobody with whom to have a good belly laugh or a late-night talk.
There are a few things that made it difficult to find friends and connect with other people. The first is cultural: Germans are more reserved; they differentiate between acquaintances and friends, and real friendship takes years to develop (this is true in all cultures, but is more palpable in Germany). Another difficulty was my location within Germany: Swabians are less outgoing than Northerners, and Stuttgarters are particularly insular. Many of the Stuttgarters in my generation had grown up there and already had a solid circle of friends: they didn’t need to seek out new friendships. And of course, there was the realization that life in the working world is markedly different from life in the student world – meeting people becomes ever more difficult. Lastly, there is a language barrier. My humor doesn’t translate, my sarcasm doesn’t translate, and at the time I couldn’t tell a story in German if I had to (and honestly, it still doesn’t always work out for me!)
Happily, while taking a German language class, I met other expats my age at similar stages of life. At the office I met other expats while hanging around the coffee machine. Slowly but surely, my network expanded. It took years before I could count local Germans amongst my network of Freunde (not just Bekannte – acquaintances), and I am proud to have them.
Despite my success in building a new real-life social network in a foreign country, loneliness hit me occasionally throughout my time in Germany. I suspect that it is the life of an expat. There is nobody there from my childhood, nobody who knows my war-stories of adolescence; every story I tell requires background explanations and sometimes cultural references. It gets tiring sometimes, having to constantly explain who you are.
There is also freedom in that loneliness. This is the part of expat living that I enjoy the most: the freedom to not conform. You are free to choose which cultural norms you want to adopt, and which ones you reject. You are free to reject norms from your home culture, and keep the ones you enjoy.
A new expat to Germany once said to me “I wish someone had told me to worry about myself. With the move, I worried so much about the kids and how they would settle, I worried about my husband in his new job, but I didn’t worry about myself. The kids were fine after one day of school, my husband can focus on work and has a network of colleagues, but me: I am alone. I should have worried about that more and done something about it sooner.”
If you have read this far, it is probably because you either remember how this feels or you are experiencing it right now. If the latter, take heart: you are not alone. Learn the language, join a club, and start building your network.