Networking and friendships in the new ‘Burg

You know the hardest thing about living abroad is this continuous battle inside your head to keep going and keep going and keep going when things don’t come easily. In the last couple of years, culminating in the ditching of my old facebook account, I’ve had no patience for people who don’t understand how hard I work, and have been working to get where I am.

That kind of disconnect with how ambitious I am and the success I’ve achieved, by simply out-stubborning every obstacle in my path, and misinterpreting that into somehow me just being spoiled and bending people to my wishes cause I can be pretty and charming and speak with a cute accent when I feel like it, is just so insulting to me.

This requires more explanation. I know I’ve talked about it before, but hold on a sec, I’m getting somewhere I promise. I’m not just rehashing obsessively. 😉

Over a year ago I was with one of my besties in the city, in one of her rare visits, and she looks at me and says you know Rachel, I really admire you for being so brave and going at this whole visa process by yourself. And I just kinda looked at her out of the corners of my eyes, like yeah whatever, what are you getting at? saying, sure but I’m not doing this alone, I have the bf helping me. Then it was her turn to contradict me. Don’t be silly. He helps you, but it’s not the same thing. Going on to tell me the specific things she just finds cool about what I’ve done. And in the end after calling me out for my crap a couple times, I finally accepted her compliment (yeah, Germans don’t get this self-deprecating thing all the time, lol) and I remember clearly thinking, this is why we are best friends, cause she sees not just what I do, but how I do it and more importantly how it takes its toll on me, cause that’s the thing I pretty much hide from everyone. Or try to joke off, cause sometimes the stress is so much that without poking fun at it, I’d lose perspective.

And that reminds me of another incident. The bf and I in Athens, meeting an old old  schoolmate of mine. One of my best friends and someone who I practically worshiped at the time. It was so odd. Now back then, my Greek was still a beginner. (In European standards of A1-C2, A1 being a beginner and C2 nearly a native speaker level, my German for instance, I can finally confidently say is a C2 on most days, but my Greek then was a A2 vs. B1/B2 nowadays). In fact I was still embarrassing my bf with it on occasion, but I was determined to step outside my comfort zone and use it when I wasn’t surrounded by teenage kids eager to make fun of me. So speaking a mix of German and Greek to each other, we met up my old friend, and he looked at me and was like so you can speak German and Greek. And I answered a few questions, and he complimented me for being able to speak a language, and it was a funny surreal moment, where I was like, huh, like what kind of person would I be, living and working in a country with no language skills, when all Americans want of immigrants is perfect English skills as soon as they come. Then I sorta thought back to the compliment and was kinda like, it’s weird being complimented by someone for a skill that he has no way of knowing is real or not. We could have been speaking gibberish or called it Dutch and he wouldn’t have known. Or for instance he didn’t know that the bf doesn’t sound German even though he speaks it perfectly, or that my accent is embarrassingly noticeable.

Oh God I thought, Amis are weird. Europeans don’t usually compliment something if they aren’t capable of knowing whether it’s true or not. I continued giving him the benefit of the doubt for far longer than I should have and listened to him gushing about Greek-American traditions that he lived out during his summer camp, only thinking that the whole time he was here, he probably never once got a whiff of the anti-American sentiment always bubbling just beneath the surface in Greece and probably directed at him without his knowing. Then later, he completely insulted me when the bf popped out for a second and he leaned over and was like he’s a great guy, a keeper. Honestly, I sound like a jerk but I don’t care. I was just thinking, oh yeah, you think so, thank goodness. Cause without your approval 5 minutes after meeting him, I totally would have dumped him. And it was at that moment really, although I spent the rest of my time in that city trying to meet up and be nice to my old buddy that I was like, yeah you don’t have the first clue about my life and even though I once hoped we’d be friends forever, I’m actually ok with never speaking again.

Cause the 5 minutes when I’m with my friends and they see through my crap and give me a real compliment means so much more than someone just saying nice things but not getting who you are as a person. That’s all I wanted to say. Those were just the two most extreme examples.

Versus the kids right, who I miss so much right now, who gave me such a hard time and who I barely got a day off from, but who you could never pull the wool over. Like when they knew the bf was gone to Greece without me and they’d give me extra hugs cause they knew I missed him, even when I said I was fine. Or who rolled their eyes at my bad jokes, but when they laughed, I knew it was a good one. Or who made fun of me for never getting Greek humor, and spent class saying outrageous lies about me and singing Canada’s praises, but left the class giggling and saying we love you miss Rachel. Or the kids who I knew that I was trying so hard to make my classroom a safe place to be yourself and knew that serious teasing wouldn’t be tolerated, and those times where they looked up at me, red in the face, after I defended them but pleased cause they knew I liked them just how they were. Or when they lingered to get something off their chest or because they were little boys with their first crushes. Or when they raised their hands to ask something no other adult would explain to them, talking to little girls about how rape, is always rape, even when the rapists are Greeks and the little girls shouldn’t have gone into a nearly empty bar. Talking to my 14 year old boys about no gun control rules in America, after the Aurora shooting, seeing their mouths hang open when I told them I could pick up 2 hand guns with my milk if I wanted to and nearly crying when they asked me, if Americans are just stupid. Because I wished so badly I could record the conversation to show politicians what even a child can see. About how the N word can’t be said in America, no matter what comes out rapper’s and film star’s mouths and thinking to myself how the stupid entertainment industry has no idea of the hatred they are importing to ignorant children. About how most Americans are really not racist, especially compared to the things Europeans have said to my face but cops killing black men certainly isn’t helping our reputation. Telling girls, all the time no dieting, but more importantly, that they are smart. Cause without hearing it one time from an adult, they’ll never have the self-confidence to see it themselves and will spend all their energy on their appearance. And then one day, when one of them finally gets it and stays after to proudly tell me the improvement in their grades, I float home, grinning like a fool. And without all of this my life feels very empty and meaningless.

I’m here in Freiburg about to start my studies. It’s all very interesting and everyone has been only friendly to me. And I really can hardly wait to see what my classes and classmates and professors are like. But I don’t want to be anyone’s token American and although I can understand their motivation, I’m not going to be fooled by people being nice to me, just cause they are hoping for free English help.

I’m networking, asking questions, getting my name out there, sending my resume out, starting a couple trial waitressing shifts at a brewery, chatting with my new roommate, keeping it professional with my private students. But I am currently not looking for friends. Maybe it’s my cultural heritage, but I can’t help feeling guilty putting people quickly into categories and not leaving the door open for friendship, like the Germans, not my fellow Americans, would do.

You can’t say that my students were my friends. Although some of them certainly wanted to think that. And perhaps we will be in the future, if their constant messaging is an indication. But I just can’t bring myself to go from seeing 100 faces who were overall honest with me about their like and dislikes, hope and dreams and who when they liked me, did so, cause they understood I was a teacher who told them about rap slang, dropped the board eraser without fail every lesson, laughed at herself for it and then told them that reading is cool, all while standing under a sticker saying school is stupid!, which was my attempt at teaching irony.

But I’m not an American that these Uni people are looking for. I put on this act but it’s such an out-dated and unnatural version of myself. I’d rather sit in my room and focus on why I’m here. I’d rather sit in my room talking to my family and friends and the bf during his study breaks.

I’ve thought about it. I have talked to more strangers in the last 1-2 months than I probably have in the last 3 years. (I’m not exaggerating. Nbg is just that anti-social. Ha!) It’s actually really hard. And that’s the thing right now that I am struggling against. Here I am feeling lonely without my kids, lost walking home in the evening without my bf’s hand to hold onto when little 17 year-olds try to start conversations with me, and instead of my over-sized sofa I have a desk and hard wooden chair waiting for me.

And that’s the point where I have to kick myself into the next gear of extreme stubbornness and not feel sorry for myself, but focus on the reasons we took these steps in the first place, and remind myself that true friendships take time, but I don’t have money for going out anyway. Not if I really want to pay off my student loans. That this is the chance I’ve been waiting 3 years for, so I can’t just give up cause I’m alone here. And then a few days ago, as I was walking home, I realized, it doesn’t really matter anyway. I am the girl who will always, no matter where she is, be missing someone somewhere. I was born to be missing people, from the moment my parents left my grandparents in Indy for Cali.

But now’s when I have to convince myself to keep going, cause even if it’s hard at first, it will lead to friendships later, so I’ve got to keep getting myself out of the house, when the opportunity presents itself. And when I write in here and I know that the people that I care about can read this, then I feel more connected to those I love and miss and that keeps me going too.

Because as much as I love my life here, I gave up a lot to be here.


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