Any expat can and will tell you that being an expat can all too often be a lonely experience. To meet people and make friends in a foreign place, you really have to put yourself out there - something that's not easy to do especially if you tend to be a bit of a loner, more comfortable in your own company and in the company of one or two friends than a whole crowd of people, like I am.
And being in a country where you don't speak the local language makes it infinitely harder to get to know people. And truth be told, Germans aren't the friendliest lot. Sure, they're courteous enough when required, and will engage in conversation with you, but becoming friends with a German (unless they're already connected to you in some way) is a whole different story.
Fearing that my days in Karlsruhe (KA) will be quiet and lonely once The Husband started working, I decided to google up 'English-speakers in Karlsruhe' before moving here to see if there was already a community of expats living in this city I'd never heard of. And lo and behold, there was! I was quickly led to the Karlsruhe English-speakers Meetup Group website, which I was happy to see already had a few hundred members - all of whom clearly speaks English! A further link led me to a Facebook page created for English-speaking mums in the area. I felt like I'd stumbled upon an oasis in the desert. Suddenly, moving to KA didn't seem quite so daunting anymore. I had people I could turn to, who may not yet be friends but at least could understand me, should I need help in any way.
I immediately posted up a small introduction on the Facebook page, and within minutes I'd received welcoming responses from ladies who'd all somehow ended up in this little obscure German city through one serendipitous act or another. Actually, most of us have German husbands, so go figure.
I connected with this group of women via Facebook easily enough. Some of them having lived here for years, they are a helpful, resourceful bunch - leading me to pediatricians, restaurants, shops, and telling me how certain things work - a shortcut for me to getting to know my new home without bumbling about too much.
It was a couple of months however, before I summoned up the strength and motivation to actually meet them in person. Once we'd settled in a little, I knew it was time to 'put myself out there'. Now, I'm definitely more comfortable in meeting people spontaneously via other friends or through introductions. But as an expat who knew no one, this wasn't an option for me. It was meeting people on my own initiative, or not at all. Unlike my first months in Auckland, I don't even have the choice of going to work, so there's no chance of me making friends via work colleagues or having any sort of a social life unless I make it happen.
So on a Friday morning a few months ago, I turned up at one of the ladies brunches, which happens every other Friday, Liam in tow, and introduced myself in person to a group of about 15 women who've all known each other for awhile.
It was a strange experience to say the least. I felt equally excited, giddy, exposed and vulnerable, even though everyone was more than friendly and nice. It was perhaps also not the best place to start as it was loud, noisy and slightly chaotic as only 15 women with children running around can be. I think I only managed to talk to the three or four people sitting directly in front of and next to me that first time. But it was the first, necessary step to me building some friendships here in Karlsruhe, and absolutely necessary. This IS the expat experience after all - going beyond your comfort level, breaking your own barriers, living outside the box.
Over the weeks, I kept meeting up with people. I tried not to say no to invitations unless I couldn't help it, which unfortunately happens quite a bit when you have a baby to adhere to. Some ladies, I met one on one for coffee/wine, which I enjoy a lot more as you actually get the chance to talk and get to know someone better than when you're in a large group. I also went for a few more brunch sessions whenever I could make it.
But the other thing I quickly came to realize is that trying to arrange a date with another mum is not always the easiest task. I'd be invited out for lunch, only to refuse because Liam naps from 12pm to 2pm. I'd suggest coffee/wine at 3pm instead, only to be turned down because the other mum has to pick up their child from kindergarten at the time. Evenings are out unless we both have babysitters. How about meeting in the morning at 10am then, we suggest? And we do. Except by 11am both our babies are grizzly and restless and getting sleepy, so we leave in a hurry.
So it really hasn't been the easiest making friends. But somehow, against all odds, I do. Last week, I attended my first 'Girls Night Out', while The Husband stayed at home with the baby. And sitting at that large table amidst all those women, I realized that I no longer felt uncomfortable. That I've had breakfast if not coffee with most of them, had long, meaningful conversations with a few, and know the rest by name at the very least. We may all come from different countries, different backgrounds, with different stories of how we ended up where we did, but we have three key things in common: we are all expats, we are all mothers, and we all speak English, and that is enough to bind us all together in a friendship that I hope will continue to flourish over the months and years.
Yes, there are many moments when I still feel like an outsider. When I feel left out of conversations and 'inside jokes', or when I have to try a little harder to join in and fit in as you do when you're the newcomer.
But I'm getting there. And I'm thankful to have met these women and to have them in my life. These ladies have made my days in Karslruhe a little easier, a little brighter, and a lot more hopeful. And I look forward to many more brunches and Girls Night Out to come.