Dinner for One: The Truth About Moving Abroad Alone

Someone sitting alone by a river

I can hear the scraping of a broom but can’t see anyone, just blue, glittery static, unsure if my eyes are open or closed. 

I sit, enjoying the cool surface beneath me. The static grows lighter and fades away. I’m in a long, dark hallway. Where, though? The movie theater still?

“Theater 7?” Someone asks me in German. I look over and see a cinema employee casually sweeping at the end of the hall. 

I nod. Why am I sitting on the ground? It clicks and I remember everything. I’d passed out again. Dammit, Hollywood.

“Happens a lot with that movie. Apparently it’s pretty realistic, that part when he cuts his own arm off. Are you alone?”

“Yea,” I answer, reminding myself that there’s nothing wrong with that.

“I guess that’s why you shouldn’t go to the movies by yourself,” he laughs.

“Hm.” I half smile and head back into the theater to catch the end of 127 Hours, avoiding the seat in which I’d just slumped over unconscious.

I’d been enthralled by the gore and couldn’t look away in time. I heard the ocean in my ears and disappeared into a relaxing blackness, before waking up hunched over like an alcoholic and scrambling for the door only to black out again.

After the movie I swing by the store for dinner supplies. There’s still time for my day to improve. I’m wearing too many layers, but I’m not yet sure how to dress for this climate.

While waiting in line I mentally prepare myself. Few things blow my mind like the speed at which Germans bag their own groceries. It doesn’t matter if they’re 10 years old or 90. It’s a sight to behold.

I don’t yet have the hang of it (still don’t) and usually crack under the pressure, my items piling up in front of me as I mumble “Entschuldigung” and scramble to get out of the way as the cashier rings up the next person. Today is no different, as two customers pay, bag and pass me. It feels like I’m being lapped on the track.

My afternoon ends with a run. The rain is coming down in sheets and I have to squint to see where I’m going. At the crosswalk I stop and jog in place while waiting for the little green man. Nobody is out today and I don’t blame them. A truck speeds past. SPLAT. A wall of brown water hits me squarely. I wipe grime off my teeth and try to determine if my contacts are still in.

A noise nearby makes me turn. Ten people stand about 15 feet back from the curb in the shadow of an overhang. They stare at me quizzically, some laughing, some smiling apologetically. 

I run home, storing this experience in my list of lessons I’d never considered before: respect gutters during rainstorms. 

Maybe tomorrow will be better. For the next month this would be my motto.

My days seemed to consist of one part anxiety, one part confusion and two parts frustration. At the beginning I felt cursed, escaping to my room and thirsting for Skype sessions.

Here’s what I knew for sure. I was:

  1. Putting on weight like a champ
  2. Offending people regularly with my failed attempts at translated sarcasm
  3. Becoming increasingly more Vitamin D deficient with each passing day
  4. Living off of French fries (hence fact #1) and curry ketchup, which is basically crack in tomato form

Why was I here again? Twenty-two, recently graduated and living in Germany alone?

It started as most life choices do, with a list.

Moving to Germany
Pros: Learn German, try something new, see relatives more
Cons: Gap in resume, scary, leave all my friends, end relationship, risky, lonely, harder to be vegan, weather, expense

My lists didn’t add up how I’d wanted them to, so I followed my gut and bought the ticket anyways. What else was I going to do? Get a job?

In the nick of time I found four 30-something-year-old German roommates online and moved into a Harry Potter cupboard on the fifth floor of a picturesque old building. The price was right: 250/month.

I quickly started full-time German language courses. The class was like a mini UN with representatives from Russia, Iran, Italy, Japan, Spain, the Ivory Coast, China, Argentina, Syria, Poland and Turkey.

Initially our friendships were about as substantial as our German skills, but they grew with our vocabulary.

At some point my days became less of a struggle and more of an adventure – a playground of new bbq spots, festivals, concerts, underground hiphop joints and rooftop beach bars, all experienced through the kaleidoscope of cultures that surrounded me.

The rainy days were overshadowed by eye-opening conversations over hot drinks in cozy cafes. For every desperate tantrum there were a hundred experiences that made it all worthwhile.

I was right about the cons on my list – except for the career gap, that’s just an illusion – but what I’ve learned is that the line between pro and con is a blurry one.

“That must’ve been tough, moving abroad alone,” I was often told. Yes, it was and maybe that’s the point. It’s not just about “learning a language” or “experiencing a new culture,” two vague concepts that mean almost nothing now that I think about it.

What those phrases really represent are one-person dinner dates, high-stakes charades, awkward silences, self-sufficiency, misunderstandings, subtle breakthroughs, hesitant friendships that either grow or wilt and constant input – eventually leading to a string of vibrant, sometimes confronting days that make up your colorful new life.

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7 Comments

  • Reply
    Jackie Hallerberg
    February 6, 2016 at 3:18 am

    Honest and humorous look at starting a new life in a different country. I loved your formula: “My days seemed to consist of one part anxiety, one part confusion and two parts frustration.” You put yourself in a position to have an everyday experience of the unknown. Good for you, Natalia!

    • Reply
      Natalia
      February 8, 2016 at 9:21 am

      Thanks, Jackie! Now that it’s behind me it’s easier to see the humor :-)

  • Reply
    Teresa Oefinger
    February 6, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    Your writing makes me feel like I’m experiencing the adventure too. Love it. T

    • Reply
      Natalia
      February 8, 2016 at 9:24 am

      Thanks, Teresa. I’ll keep sharing them then!

  • Reply
    Kathy Myers
    February 6, 2016 at 8:03 pm

    I appreciate your reflection on a pivotal moment in your life— always grist for the mill of blog notes. I like the way you blend the physical frustrations of being alone in a foreign country with your personal- emotional narrative— makes it all too real. Laurie and I almost had a fainting spell watching the movie Revenant. Yikes! Plenty of cover-your-eyes moments in that one. It’s not for the squeamish; but does provide a vivid argument for vegetarianism.

    • Reply
      Natalia
      February 8, 2016 at 9:26 am

      Haha, I had to close my eyes for that last fighting scene in The Revenant too! I’ve learned my lesson.

  • Reply
    Nancie
    March 5, 2016 at 11:12 pm

    I can totally relate to this article. I moved overseas 15 years ago, solo. Each days is still an adventure!

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