For seven years as a child, Stacy Weiss lived on a Air Force on Germany’s western border. Twenty years later, the Texas native decided to revisit, reaching out to the family her parents had rented a house from.
But her trip was more than the brief hop overseas she planned: after she reconnected with the family’s son, the two began a long-distance relationship. Within a few years, they were married, and Weiss bought a one-way ticket to the Eifel region.
Despite immediately feeling like she had an in with her husband’s family and friends in their idyllic small town, she felt alone. People seemed unfriendly and distant, and making friends beyond acquaintances was hard. She held onto connections back home through social media, crying during holidays when it seemed like life there had moved on without her.
“It was really difficult at first,” says Weiss, who found a job teaching English at the local university. “There’s that expat honeymoon phase the first couple of weeks where it’s very exciting and then the newness wears off. At first I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t working. I was trying to fix my loneliness by looking back to the States.”
Loneliness among expats
Whether in small towns or big cities, whether moving abroad with a significant other or solo, many expats in Germany have experienced loneliness, or an often sombre sense of being cut off from others. The feeling is often magnified by struggles to learn the language, form deep connections, and generally integrate into the culture.
“The loneliness that expats experience comes generally with a sense of alienation,” says Jan Kaspers, a Berlin-based psychologist who works with expats.
Indeed, learning German to at least a conversational level and interacting with Germans themselves helps subdue these feelings, according to a survey of Spanish expats conducted last year by University of Cologne psychology master’s student Juan Serrano.??
Yet social interaction on its own isn’t always a cure for loneliness, says Kaspers.
“People start to realize after a while that they have made a lot of new acquaintances, but that deep down they are still mostly unknown by the people around them, and this can cause loneliness. Friendships can take time to develop, especially in larger cities.”
Introversion can actually be an advantage over extroversion when it comes to dealing with loneliness, he adds, as “introverted people tend to have less, but also more high quality contacts.”
In order to meet more people after moving alone to Munich, Indian expat Ashish Anand attended event after event organized through InterNations, a social activities network for expats. But after a few years he still found them quite superficial. To fix that, he adopted a “quality over quantity” approach, interacting with the smaller pool of people who reciprocated his openness beyond small talk - to his surprise even becoming friends with Germans he previously believed to be somewhat reserved.?
“I think that when people start sensing that you’re coming from this genuine place, then the vibe is completely different,” says Anand, an author who has now lived in Germany for 10 years. ?“And then quickly you can get into a discussion, a common point.”
A lonely society?
It’s not just expats who feel lonely in Germany. In 2018, Christian Democratic (CDU) families spokesman Marcus Weinberg called for?“a removal of taboos” on the subject of loneliness so that “it doesn’t remain a dirty issue.” He joins other politicians and religious leaders in the country who have advocated for Germany to follow the example of the UK in combating loneliness.
“Similar to most other Western countries, many people in Germany don’t like to admit that they are lonely,” says psychologist Maike Luhmann from the Ruhr-University in Bochum, pointing out that it can affect all age groups. In a recent study of 16,000 Germans, she found that the age of 30 - a transition time for many - is when there are elevated levels of loneliness.
“Probably people tend to think that lonely people are often to blame themselves for being lonely,” she adds. “Especially among young adults, admitting to feeling lonely may be akin to admitting to being unlikeable, socially incompetent.”
British expat Rebecca Hilton was no stranger to expat life when she moved to Wiesbaden, having spent the previous three years in Bangkok. Yet she found herself feeling more alone in a society more similar - “I don’t stand out as an expat until I open my mouth” - but less outwardly friendly.
Yet she found that being honest with others about her loneliness, whether other expats or Germans, helped her overcome it by forming connections with people “who operated on the same wavelength.”
Seeking to meet more like-minded foreigners, she also created the Expat Book Club. Their first read was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine about a young woman suffering from isolation and loneliness. “On some level it resonated with everyone,” says Hilton, who is originally from Bolton, near Manchester, “that on the outside it looks like you’re doing just fine but on the inside you can feel completely isolated.”
Making friends amid different social norms
It was a feeling of loneliness that caused Belgian expat Marijke Hermans to co-create Supermamas, a volunteer network in Berlin for expat mothers of newborns. Moving to Berlin while pregnant, she didn’t know a soul in the city except the friend with whom she formed the support group. Despite having studied German for years, she felt overwhelmed by the bureaucracy and the lack of friendliness in comparison to what she found at home.
“Here I wouldn’t ask the person next to me at a coffee shop, “Wie geht’s dir?” I wouldn’t even know if I could say dir,” says Hermans, sipping a tea in a quiet cafe in the residential neighborhood of Steglitz.
Moving to Bad Mergentheim, a town just shy of 30,000 people in Baden-Württemberg, Jim Geren also felt a sense of isolation springing from very different social norms. Shortly after his arrival in 2013, “people would whisper at each other, point and stare,” he says with a laugh, “as though word got around that I was the new American in town.”
His biggest barrier to integration was the German language, and learning it largely through an intensive course has helped him mingle with the mostly German inhabitants.
“It takes people here a while longer to make friends,” says Geren. “People here are a bit more standoffish but when you break through that, they’re essentially friends, well, pretty much forever.”
Solitude versus loneliness
It’s important to separate solitude, or “the state of being alone with yourself” from loneliness, which can cause anxiety and depression when not addressed properly, says psychologist Kaspers.
He suggests creating a structure in one’s life in order to be more at ease with the uneasiness that being an expat often entails, be it getting up at similar times or meeting the same people.
Such predictability pushed Weiss to embrace expat life further and feel less alone. Looking to improve her German and get out of the house, she began taking an integration class five days a week.
“I just started forming connections with people,” says Weiss, who now blogs about expat life in the Eifel. “I wasn’t making best friends with anybody but I was getting to know people...who understood what I was going through.”
Yet above all, says Kaspers, “it is important to stay in touch with yourself. Be gentle and compassionate for the extraordinary situation you are in.”