Peaches vs. Coconuts

April 12, 2008

They say Germans are like coconuts, hard on the outside, but sweet once you break the shell. I’ve heard this analogy many times during my various stints in Germany, usually during some kind of cultural training. The idea is that Germans are hard to get to know, but once you do, they’re really nice. Americans, in contrast, are very friendly, but it’s harder to get them to commit to a long-term friendship. Americans are said to be peaches, soft and sweet on the surface, but on the inside is a pit that is impossible to penetrate. After a combined two and a half years living in Germany, I would say this generalization tends to be true.

I didn’t expect Germany to be so different from the U.S.. After all, we’re both industrialized, Western countries. There are strong economic and cultural ties between the two countries. Americans claim German ancestry more than any other ethnic heritage. I am one of those Americans, with a mother that was born in Germany, and a father that handed me his German last name.

Perhaps that’s why it’s been so difficult. I expected to encounter cultural differences when I went to Senegal, or to the Middle East or Peru. But I have had the hardest time adjusting to Germany more than any other culture. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been here the longest. Or perhaps it’s because I wasn’t expecting it to be difficult. I don’t physically stand out. I speak the language. I have a German name. The differences are more subtle, and harder to grasp. They creep up on you, until you just can’t ignore them anymore.

I have never been so lonely in my life. After six months of living in Germany, I still have no one to do things with, no one to go have coffee with, no one to share things with. It’s not due to a language barrier, I do speak relatively fluent German, or for lack of trying. I purposely moved into an apartment with three German students about my age. I work in a German office stocked with young people. I joined the frisbee team. I invite people out all the time. “Hey, it’s your birthday, let me buy you a beer.” “There’s a light festival going on downtown, wanna go check it out?” “How about a movie? Bike Ride? Pool? Museum? ” No takers. People always have some kind of excuse, from not feeling well, to being tired, to having to much work, to the weather. Since I’ve been here in January, I’ve managed to go to the movies once with one of my roommates (which required two weeks of planning), and gone out for drinks one night with a few coworkers, two freakishly isolated incidents that have yet to be repeated. I am lonely, even though surrounded by other people. I am a peach living in a world of coconuts, and I am starting to bruise.

I noticed how withdrawn I’d become during a recent trip to Brussels for a media conference. I quickly befriended an American woman around my age. Within hours of meeting each other, we were talking about our goals in life, past relationships, religion and most importantly we joked around. It was the first time I’d really laughed in months. It made me realize how starved for friendship I’ve been since moving to Frankfurt from Osnabrück in January. I think most Germans would have dismissed such a brief encounter as superficial, but for me, it was a much-needed exchange of ideas and experiences.

I mentioned my frustration at a recent Fulbright conference for American grantees currently scattered across Europe. I heard echoes of agreement, especially from the other grantees living in Germany. I know I’m not the only one dealing with this.

Loneliness and depression seem to be taboo topics when talking about study abroad. They rarely come up when people talk about their experiences. It’s usually “oh, I had a such great time,” followed by stories of adventures, interesting characters, and maybe a slideshow of photographs with smiling faces in front of postcard perfect scenery. No one recounts breaking out in tears on the subway for no apparent reason. Or sitting alone at home, watching Scrubs reruns online or wasting hours on facebook or calling home, hungry for every scrap of communication with friends and family back home.

My experience as a foreigner has made me think a little harder about how hard it must be for international students and immigrants in the US. I think I will have a slightly different perspective when I go back home. Perhaps that Serbian neighbor isn’t as happy as I thought. And perhaps that South African co-worker wouldn’t mind being invited to a weekend hike or barbecue. And I think I will try to stay in touch with people I know are living abroad. Maybe send them a letter or two, maybe even pick up the phone and call.

Although this year has been difficult in many ways, I think I have learned a lot, about Europe, about Germany and Germans, but mostly about myself. I know what I need to be happy. I need friends, which makes me more appreciative of the ones I have.

In the meantime, I have four more months here. I want to make the best of them. I have to come to terms with the fact that I may not make any new German friends during my time here. But I won’t give up trying. I still invite people to do things, but when they say no, I don’t take it personally. Now I just go out by myself. I am still a peach, after all, but perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to have slightly thicker skin.

Since my best friend here has become my camera, I’ve been taking a lot of photos lately. Here are some of my recent favorites:

The following photos are from Luminale, Frankfurt’s light festival, which happens every two years. My roommates called it a “Stromverschwendung,” or a waste of electricity. I thought it was cool.

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One Response to “Peaches vs. Coconuts”

  1. Reader Says:

    thanks for posting this. the time I spent as an international student in the Midwest was the most hellish I’ve ever experienced. I experienced the peachy side of isolation, where strangers would strike up conversations and throwaway acquaintances and invites to parties and art shows where people needed a large turnout were plentiful, while actual friendships were nonexistant. The winter months were the worst, with black ice lining the streets and 30mh winds violently rubbing my misery in my face making it impossible to even go on solitary walks along unremarkable cookie cutter streets.


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