I read a Japanese proverb about friendships a little while back and it got me thinking about making friends as an expat in Germany. It said something along the lines of, if you are a flower, you will attract butterflies. Butterflies are there when you are beautiful and in bloom, but when you’re struggling and your flower fades, butterflies move on to the next flower. If you are a tree and work to build strong, deep roots, you will attract other trees and be part of a forest.
I was thinking about this and how it relates to German and American cultures. This is a generalization, of course, but it seems to me that Americans often have the flower/butterfly type friendships. When things are going well, you are surrounded by friends, but the moment you need help, they vanish, and if you’re lucky, you have one or two friends left who do stand by you and support you through the hard times.
I went through a couple rough patches before moving to Germany and experienced this myself. I had a large circle of friends, until I was sexually harassed, or when my dad died, and then suddenly I found myself pretty much alone. I always found, during these times, that my true friends who stuck by me, were people I never expected, and the people I thought were my best friends were suddenly very “busy.”
I think Germans tend to be more of the tree/forest type of friends. Sometimes, as an expat, you move to an area where the forest is so thick and dense, that it’s difficult to establish your roots. Sometimes the forest wants to see that you make it out of the sapling phase before you become incorporated. Luckily, I live in a village that nurtured and encouraged me while I established roots and I now feel part of life here and have friends in the village that went above and beyond to help me through my pregnancy with Leo.
I had a difficult time making friends when I first moved to Germany. I was trying to make friends in the typical American way. I had parties and invited everyone we knew. They would come, but it never seemed to go anywhere. Same with asking people out for drinks after work or for coffee on the weekend. Finally, someone told me to stop trying, to take things slow. Say hello to people for a while, then ask them if they perhaps would like to have a coffee together sometime, then invite them for that coffee. This can be a multi-year project, I was told, and it was probably the best advice I ever got on adjusting to life in Germany.
On the other hand, Rainer says he doesn’t think this is the case. He thinks Americans and Germans both have these few strong friendships that take a long time to develop, but that Americans are more open and willing to spend time with new people, while Germans tend to be less open to these types of relationships.
I think this is also true, but I kind of like my (admittedly cheesy) plant theory. It can be tough for a flower to survive in the forest, the trees block out all the sunlight. You can cluster together with a bunch of other flowers in a small patch of sun, or you can take the time to grow roots and become part of the forest.
What do you think? Do you have any thoughts or advice on building friendships?