Recently some fellow Americans moved in down the street. We figured this out before we talked to them, as there were some telltale expat signs around the house. One day I stopped the new neighbor while he was out walking his dog and we had a brief chat, marveling at how small the world is and how connected our distant lives actually are. After this chat, I had every reason to swing by and welcome them properly to the neighborhood – isn’t that what we Americans do for our new neighbors? And yet, I hesitated. You don’t just drop in on people in Germany. There is no such thing as a welcome wagon. Don’t bother the neighbors… everyone is packed in tightly enough here without having to socialize on top of it.
Eventually I reasoned that I have simply lived here far too long, and if I remember back to being new myself, I would have greatly appreciated others reaching out to welcome me. Shortly after our initial meeting, I stopped by my new neighbors’ house unannounced, and brought food, and I think they even appreciated it.
In fact, if I’m honest, I was hoping for more of a welcoming reception when I moved here 12 years ago myself. I knew a few people in the area as acquaintances, and had they moved halfway around the world to my neck of the woods, I certainly would have made an effort to help them settle in. Having moved in this direction, however, I was sorely disappointed when I received little support from them. My problem, of course, was expecting them to act according to my cultural norms, and that leads to disappointment every time.
The good news is that in the last 12 years I have built up a good network of friends and Bekannte (acquaintances – the difference is important to Germans). In the conservative South it can be difficult to forge new friendships, as many locals grew up here and already have their circle of friends. Add to that the amount of time it takes to build a real friendship – in any culture – and it’s obvious that newcomers have difficulty plugging into a real-life social network. Want to know the trick to meeting people, engaging in informal Du conversation and starting new friendships in Germany?
Join a club.
Social life happens here within clubs, or Vereine. I have belonged to a few different groups in my time here and have enjoyed the opportunities it gives me to pursue my hobbies and interests while building a network of friends and acquaintances. Are you into chess? Find a chess club (Schach) at the local Sportverein (sports club). Want to sing in a choir or play in an orchestra? There are professional-level volunteer music groups everywhere, as well as hobby groups singing both secular and sacred music. Love hiking? There’s a club for that. Fußball (soccer)? Take your pick – every Sportverein has a few teams for all ages.
Regardless of the activity, the participants always sit down together afterward, usually over a few beers in a local pub. Without fail, I have found that etiquette in sports clubs determines that the members refer to each other in the informal Du. This makes life easier, especially when you are hanging out after an exhausting soccer match and rehashing all the best plays. This is your opportunity to practice German and connect with people who share your interests. It is the best way I have found to integrate into local culture and become accepted into a network of friends. Sometimes as expats it becomes easier to stick with other foreigners, people who understand our culture and speak our language. Making the effort to pursue your own interests with a group of Germans allows you to discover more about their culture and become part of it in the process.
Now go have fun!