Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Girlie Breakfast: Expat Bonding at its Best

About once a month, I eagerly run the kids off to school, kiss the hubby goodbye, and race out the door dressed up pretty for "Girlie Breakfast." This morning was one such occasion.

But it was special, because the expat bonding celebrated at these gatherings was extended to a new girl, and in a way, it was for me an example of friendship coming full-circle.

Less than a year ago, I was the lost and lonely "new girl" in town. Then I was invited to my first Girlie Breakfast. Nothing in the world could have done me more good at the time, as I was wallowing in the "overwhelmed new expat" blues.

It started with Rachel, a lovely British woman I met at an Expat Quiz Night (via MeetUp). Rachel reached out to me, the newcomer, and welcomed me to join her and a group of her friends the next morning at a beautiful little boutique and cafe very close to my home (Villa Landleben). I was a bit apprehensive about going, but also desperately in need of connecting with other women, especially anyone who could relate to my experiences as a mom in a foreign country. So I went.

And it was one of the BEST things I ever did! During the two or more hours we lingered over lattes and a splendid breakfast buffet, we talked and laughed like I hadn't done in months.

I left that first Girlie Breakfast feeling, for the very first time since moving to Germany, like everything was going to be ok. I was so grateful for the warmth and easy friendship of this group of near-strangers. They made me feel like part of a family and gave me perspective and hope. Over the next half year or so, I learned their individual stories, the reasons they came to Germany, the reasons they stay. Each month the group in attendance at breakfast may vary between 5 and 8 ladies who manage to get there between jobs, kids' appointments, household repairs, etc. In total, there are about a dozen women in the group. Each one is very different - who knows if we would even be friends in other circumstances. But here in this little corner of Germany, being expat moms is a pretty powerful common bond.

My new girlfriends, who hail mostly from the UK and US, all call this country "home." None of the women in this particular circle of expats are here on a temporary basis. Some, like me, are married to Germans. Others have expat spouses, too, but their children were either born here or have lived here long enough that it is the only place the kids feel at home; so the parents have put down roots and decided to stay for the long-term. I think that makes this group unique from many expat communities. And it makes it the perfect fit for me. I feel enormously blessed to have found them!

Now I am able to "pay forward" the tremendous gift Rachel gave me, when she extended that first invitation to breakfast....

Last night I was at a German Parent-Teacher Meeting for my son's 8th grade class. It was the first one I attended at his new school and I didn't know anyone. But then I realized the woman sitting behind me (the only one who had brought her child to the meeting) was whispering in English with her daughter. My son had mentioned a new girl from South Africa had joined their class. And she didn't speak ANY German. And they just moved here. Over the last week he'd mentioned the new girl and her family a few times and I was already feeling a bit sorry for their apparent struggles, never having met them.

I leaned over and asked them if they were new to the school. Bingo. I introduced myself as the American whose son had just come to school mid-way through last year, and we proceeded to chat and pass notes in the back of class like "bad kids" :)

I couldn't help but invite her to breakfast. I knew EXACTLY how she felt. So this morning, I swung by her apartment on my way to Girlie Breakfast and took her to meet the best expat group there ever was. And just like they had done for me, they welcomed her with open arms. By the end of breakfast there were hugs for the new girl and offers of any help she needs. She was so grateful. So relieved. And I know exactly how that felt for her, too.

She has a very tough year ahead for herself and her family. But every month or so, we've got Girlie Breakfast.

In between, we've got good old-fashioned Girlfriends (and Quiz Night, and Book Club, and Birthday Cocktails, and lots of other excuses for getting together!).

And like they did for me, these Girlfriends will do for the new girl: We've got your back. Welcome to the Girlie Breakfast Club!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Looking Back on a Year: Birthday Reflections

Yesterday I celebrated my 43rd birthday. The day was fantastic, and I'll get to that in a moment. What is important for me now is that it marked an occasion to review and evaluate the last year. This past year has been, hands down, the most difficult year of my life. It was filled with tears, heartbreak, frustrations and desperate moments. But I made it through, and recently have found more frequent days of hope and happiness. So on this particular birthday, I had a lot to celebrate. Here's a little recap of the incredible 12-month journey.

Flashback Beginning August 2011

On August 1, 2011 I signed the papers closing the sale of my beautiful home in Maryland where our family had lived for eleven years. Several days earlier all the contents had been packed onto a 40' container and sent ahead to Germany. My kids had also departed for Europe and were staying with their grandparents on the Baltic Sea. My husband and I remained with friends for a few days to settle affairs and say our goodbyes.

On August 4th we flew to Hamburg, stayed for a night, then drove to North Rhine-Westphalia, where, during a house-hunting trip a few weeks earlier, we had made an offer and begun the contract process to buy a house in Essen. We were expecting to finalize the deal and move in within a week or so.

However, after arriving in Essen, we learned that the person with whom we had negotiated the house purchase did not possess the appropriate inheritance paperwork required for him to legally sell it (The Housing Crisis post). For the next several weeks, we were left in limbo: homeless with our container sitting in port storage amounting massive daily fees as we had no place to unload our household goods.

With the start of school looming and the prospect of finding a home looking impossible, I was sure I had made a monumental mistake by moving my children overseas. I had no way to provide for them, no place for them to live or go to school, not even access to their clothes and other things we shipped. I had failed them and was already desperately homesick. By my birthday at the end of August one year ago, I was severely depressed.

By the grace of God, we found a rental home in September and things started to look up. The house was under renovations, had no lights or kitchen, but we had a permanent address and were reunited with our belongings. The kids started school and by end of October we had completed unpacking, had phone and computer lines, and a kitchen (Kitchens, Closets, and Light Fixtures post).

In November, I was feeling very lonely, had not really made any friends yet, and was still homesick. As the new year arrived, one child was struggling so badly in school that we had to move him to a different school system. All the children were overworked with school, tutors, and social adjustment in a new language and culture (Helping Teens Transition post). I was overwhelmed trying to support them and feeling isolated. Most of the time, I hated being in Germany. The incessantly cold, rainy weather didn't help.

But as Spring approached I connected more and more with some friends I made through the Expat community (Expat Resources post) and a couple parents from the kids' friends. I was able to get out more socially, began exercising regularly (Will Walk 1000 Kilometers post), kept busy with a part-time tutor job, and began blogging for personal therapy :)

Summer came, the kids all passed their classes, my brother and his family visited from the States, and then we ended the year with an amazing dream vacation to the Maldives (more on that another time).

A Year Later: August 21, 2012

Then yesterday was my birthday. Just over one year since we moved. And it was a wonderful day from start to finish. Two nights ago I met up with a German girlfriend early in the evening - just wanting to catch up after not seeing each other most of the summer. Claudia made a wonderful salad that we enjoyed with a couple bottles of wine outside on her beautiful roof-top terrace. We had such a great time and talked so long that it was suddenly midnight, and we ushered in my birthday with a toast to all that I've survived in the last year and hope for a much better next year. I went home very reflective of what a significant year it has been.

When my children awoke me early yesterday, they had set the table outside for breakfast, decorated my place with the red You Are Special Plate, gone to the bakery for fresh Brötchen, and made my coffee. I was regaled with funny home-made cards and thoughtful gifts. Later in the day, I was ready to get moving and set out on what has become my "usual route" for an 8k jog. It was the first time I had been able to do that in at least 5 weeks and it felt good to return to "my woods" and "my river." I was acutely aware of how these places felt like part of me, and that I was feeling at home and even missing Mülheim after my absence. Wow.

For dinner, we grilled burgers and again were able to eat outside because the weather, in a rare streak, has been sunny and warm all week. This might have been the best birthday present :) But my celebration didn't end at dinner. After calls from three different German friends to congratulate me, I headed to a favorite local beer garden and restaurant where six of the wonderful Expat women who have become among my closest comrades in this adopted homeland treated me to an evening of cocktails, conversation and fits of laughter! (Special thanks to Emma, Julie, Rachael, Rebecca, VeDonna, and Verena for a fantastic, fun evening!)

Final Reflections

I suppose its true that time heals all wounds. And sometimes it doesn't even take as long as we might think. A year ago, my heart and soul were deeply wounded. Today, I am well on my way to a full recovery. I feel grounded and even happy. I'm aware of my abundant blessings. And thankful for my life.

Happy birthday to me... and many more :)