Expat Loneliness & Making Friends 101

by Rebecca A. Watson on March 27, 2014

in change, expat, friends, Germany, life, relationships

Today my friend Amy is going to stop by. I make coffee although she never has any. It’s my excuse to drink the extra cup. We sit in my sunny living room on the couch, knit and talk.

Although I’ve only known Amy for about seven months, we got close pretty quickly. Part of that could be because our energies just connected so easily. Another part could be that I, for the first time in my life really, opened up to a stranger before I felt comfortable.

Usually she comes every Wednesday. The reason she’s coming Thursday is because the movers came to pick up her stuff yesterday. To bring back to the United States. She’s leaving. *Sigh* 

As a kid I was always told I was an extrovert, but as I grew up I think I was just trying to get out of the house. For the past several years I’ve noticed I really enjoy being home, reading, writing and knitting. Most of my hobbies and my occupation, as my therapist pointed out, are solitary.


How sweet it is … most of the time.

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” Ernest Hemingway said that. When I read his biography I can’t believe he ever felt alone. He seemed to constantly surround himself with people and be doing the most outrageous things. But I guess if you just read my blog perhaps you might think the same of me.

Sante and I were talking last night about what I should do about feeling this way. Making friends isn’t easy if you don’t have a built in social network in place. It’s not as though my husband has close friends at work, but at least he sees people every day and interacts with them. In English.

I, by my own choice, do not. Most of my time is spent alone in the house or making small talk in the shops in my limited German.

Having Amy here was a total blessing — it made it suuuuper easy for me to feel like I’m at home, like I belong. It took two-plus years for me to find anyone in Santa Cruz that I felt truly close with.


At least she was here to get me through my first German winter.

Me finding Amy so quickly and her moving is like giving a kid the whole bucket of ice cream and then taking it away when you think he’s had enough, instead of simply dishing his portion into a bowl: Unfair.

At least, that’s how I looked at it last week when all of this really settled in. I am lonely. It’s no fun. I got a little sad. But not as badly as I would’ve thought.

I think reading this blog post about treating your loneliness and other “negative” emotions as sacred — here to help us and teach us something — really helped. Also running, yoga, meditation, writing, going to bed early: My basic self-care package.

It got me thinking about what I did in Santa Cruz to make friends. And how I managed for two and something years without anyone close to me living there. Then I started thinking about some of the stuff I have been learning as an expat too. I thought I would write it down for others to read and for me to refer to later, when I’m having a pity party or just need to take my own advice.

Get comfortable being alone. This was not the first thing you wanted to read was it? It wasn’t the first thing I wanted to write either.

The truth is, I’ve moved to a country where I know no one, I don’t speak the language well and I work at home. That, my friends, is an equation for spending a lot of time by myself. It’s not all bad, really.

But if you’re not used to it, it can be a shock. There are things you can do to make you feel less alone. My friend would turn on Netflix TV just for English background noise. I listen to loads of podcasts (Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me is my favorite because I’m a big quiz/news/comedy fan.) and a stand-up comedy channel on Pandora.

If you’re reading this and thinking, I can’t access that stuff in the country I live in, let me introduce you to Hola. I won’t bore you with the details, but basically it will tell the website you’re trying to get to that you’re in the country you want to be in to watch YouTube videos, stream Breaking Bad and listen to Kendrick Lamar radio.  Brilliant.

be ok with being alone

Being alone can be frightening, all by yourself, with only your brain for company. And when that bad-boy gets going (at least in my case) it can take you to some seriously effed-up places. Which brings me to my next point.

Be your own best friend. OK, a bit cheesy maybe? Yeah, but oh, so true. Like that whole thought, how can you love someone else when you can’t love yourself, the premise applies to friendship as well.

Start by getting to know yourself. I do this by writing in a journal, where often times I will talk to myself in the third person.

I also talk to myself. Asking, “What’s up?” or “How are you feeling?” when you’re a bit restless can really bring out the crux of an issue. Or even just congratulating yourself on making a dentist appointment in your new country. These things matter. You need to feel appreciated and understood by yourself. At least I do.

It’s also important to give yourself time to practice self-care. Like I said above, working out, meditating, reading, and writing are all keys to feeling like I matter, like I am good enough and deserving enough, which is the right attitude to cultivate.

Open your mind to new things. Yeah, I know. You moved to another country. That’s a pretty freakin’ open-minded thing to do. But are you planning on doing the same hobbies and living the same life you had before?

Wait, you mean I *can't* run along the ocean when I move to Germany?

Wait, you mean I *can’t* run along the ocean when I move to Germany?

I thought that’s what I’d do and it was clear from the beginning my expectations were absolutely silly. I needed to create a social network in order to do that. Going to the coffee shop to write is fine, but sometimes I want to have conversation. I needed to find people to do that with.

So I went online and found a club that met every week that spoke English. I went there once; it wasn’t quite my scene but I met a nice woman whom I will get coffee with and go shopping for knitting supplies occasionally.

When I was in Santa Cruz, I checked out the platonic personals on Craigslist and went on a walk with a lady. She didn’t turn out to be a friend, but it wasn’t more than a few weeks later that I met the woman who turned out to be my bestie.

I think just trying, showing that you’re willing to make an effort, gives the Universe something to work with. Sitting at home isn’t going to make you friends any more than not buying lottery tickets is going to win you the million-dollar jackpot.

Understand that not everyone wants new friends. This was something that I knew to be true in the States only because I had a friend who wondered aloud to me why I was chatting with the new kids at work.

I said it’s nice to make friends, and she replied, “We don’t need any new friends.” Now, I know that makes her sound like a mean-girl, but she isn’t. She’s actually a sweet person.

Some people are just happy with the status quo, and that’s that. I have found this to be doubly true in Germany, because not everyone is interested in spending time with foreigners. It could be they like their status quo or just aren’t excited about speaking English or really bad German.

I try not to look at this as too much of a loss, because I want people in my life who are interested in traveling to expand their knowledge and ideas about the world. People who fit that mold are generally quite interested in foreigners, speaking new languages and helping others fit into their culture.

Check, check and check!

Check, check and check!

Become a joiner. So I never really heard this word until I went to some AA meetings, but I think that people from the States are particularly averse to clubs or groups. It’s probably got something to do with our rugged individualism … or something.

In other parts of the world, and particularly in Germany, people join clubs and spend time with a vaguely organized intention, whether it’s to knit, go hiking, mountain biking, speak English or sing.

It was this particular group that I stumbled into last week. A choir, or Chorverein. We met in a university building and sang with a director. There was no accompaniment and no music to read from. There would not be a concert at a future date. We just sang for the fun of it.

This was an odd idea for my goal-oriented mind, but I turned off my “judging machine” as my therapist calls it and just sang. I’m planning to go again this week. Once the weather gets warmer we’ll go out to the Biergarten after to chat. In German. So yeah, joining feels all right.

Be resourceful. Use what you have around you. If your neighbor offers to have you over for coffee, do it. Or better yet, invite your neighbor over.

If you’re in a language class, plan to meet up with the other students. You can practice your skills and get to know new people, even after your classes end. I have a standing Friday coffee with a friend from Tunisia that I met this way. He speaks excellent English but we only ever talk in German.

We’ve also invited my husband’s coworkers over for dinner, gone out to the Biergarten and even traveled to Venice with them. If the opportunity presents itself, say yes.

Venice during Carnival? The answer is yes.

Venice during Carnival? The answer is yes.

Not everyone has to be a bestie. This was a lesson that I’m still learning. When I moved to Santa Cruz, I was looking for someone to replace my dear friends in Minneapolis.

Instead I got a lot of surface friends who I got a drink with or ran into at parties but never had heavy connections with. (This, of course, doesn’t include my sweet Sante.)

It took me awhile to realize that having friends like that was OK. In fact, it was pretty normal. You didn’t have to want to solve world peace together to enjoy going for the occasional run. There’s no pressure to share your darkest secrets while you grab a pastry.

I am a fan of being close, but I don’t want to be everything to a bunch of people. So I don’t expect a bunch of people to be everything to me.

Stay in touch. Just because you moved away from close friends or they moved away from you, doesn’t mean friendships stop. There’s Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook, yada yada yada.

No, you don’t have to write long letters to each other or chat on Skype every week, or even every month for that matter. Just a quick text can be all that a friendship needs to keep you practicing what it takes to be part of a good relationship.

The friendships that you have are important and do take a little work, if you want to call it that. Showing yourself and others that you can keep up with those you love regardless of a little distance is a great way to show your ability to be compassionate and caring. In short, a good friend.

Life is long, this I know. And the friends I make will be with me throughout all of it, no matter how far away they are physicially. But being far away gets lonely.

This time I’m treating that feeling like I should — with reverance, listening to its sacred lessons. Remembering this stuff has helped me through this in the past. I’m writing them down so they can help you too.

Do you make friends easily? What tips am I missing here?

Want more? Read all of my expat stuff here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Laila November 25, 2014 at 10:48 pm

Thanks Rebecca. It feels great to read what I’m going through, written by someone else 🙂


Rebecca A. Watson November 26, 2014 at 8:40 am

Hey girl. Glad I could help you 🙂


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