A friend is the only person you will let into the house when you are Turning Out Drawers. ~Pam Brown
To an American, it is always something of a slap in the face to be told you are “not friends” with someone, even if you are only just getting to know that person.
To be sure, one of the critiques from Europeans that I often hear about is how superficial the notion of ‘friendship’ is in the US. We smile too much, make promises we don’t intend to keep (“We really have to get together sometime. Do call me!”), and effortlessly prattle off intimate details of our personal lives – whether it’s salaries, the number of houses/cars/boats we own, or famous people we’ve met and/or dated – to relative strangers.
This, of course, tends to horrify our neighbors across the pond. In fact, I really should not have been so surprised; I still remember those painful experiences at our Grenoble flat back in the day, when my French flatmates would invite their friends over, who always seemed so sullen and reserved, and I would smile and laugh in my overly-friendly expat way, chatting animatedly about myself and so on, hoping they would relax a bit and open up as well. Later, my flatmate told me quite bluntly how in doing so, I came off as (and I quote) self-centered, over-bearing, and arrogant. On one particular evening, I remember rushing to my room, utterly crushed, and sobbing as they continued with their party.
I am told that the meaning of ‘friend’ for the French, Germans, and others is considerably more profound as a concept. You don’t call just anyone a ‘friend’ here, certainly not. Friendships are only built after many, many years of connaissance and cultivation. Not to mention the fact that you will rarely get a glimpse into the personal life of a prospective friend until you acquire that esteemed status. Which of course, makes it terribly difficult to get there in the first place. Therefore, when two Germans or two Frenchmen initiate friendly relations, they do so by expounding on their political opinions, breadth of literary and historical knowledge, and/or the weather. Trust and mutual respect is obtained by how well you can match the other in these discussions.
So but, how are close friendships made in the US? Is it really true that Americans make no distinction in their notion of friendship? Perhaps it is linguistic problem; with only the singular term, we often fall back to the, “Oh, that’s just a friend, but she’s a friend friend” or “she’s a close/good friend of mine”.
As a disclaimer, what follows is entirely subjective. But it seems to me that Americans often put up a front to the outside world. This image is usually made up of our own successes and achievements. Name-dropping is quite common because it shows our importance and influence in the world; the amount of money we make, the toys we own, or the awards we win, illustrate the fruits of our hard work (which we value above most all else); and our personal preferences for books, movies, music, hair stylists, and so on, reflect our individuality and unique personality (also strongly valued). Therefore, when two Americans go about striking up a friendship, they tend to share these personal facts, little by little, as appropriate, and trust and mutual respect is built by gauging the similarity of values. In fact, not sharing personal information of this sort is likely to be mistaken as mistrust and dislike, and would be difficult to overcome in the long term.
And still, how would a European know if they had made a ‘close’ friend with an American? Well, I think you would know this when you start learning about the not-so-rosy details of one’s personal life – the failures, disappointments, and humiliations – that one would not otherwise share, even with family.
In the end, the friendship, no matter what side of the Atlantic you’re on, does not change; I’m talking about the kind of friendship that never fades, never sours, never gets old, no matter how many years go by. It’s the getting there that’s the problem. I think I solved this with one particularly close friend upon arriving in Germany: after the third time we’d met, I simply asked her if we could be friends… and there you were!
Amid the festivities of the night before, I was asked what would make a good ‘typical German’ gift to some Czech friends. As a foreigner, it makes sense that I should know these things (of course! you say..). This question, however, immediately brought to mind our discussions in the German language course. What do people think of when they think of Germany? Well..
Germans are punctual, hard-working, serious folk.
Yeah right. Punctual? Consider yourself lucky if your train makes it to the station and leaves on time. And just say to yourself, “At least it wasn’t postponed till the next day,” when you skip a class to sign your apartment lease at 2pm, but don’t manage to get that far till 8. Hard-working? German shops are closed on Sundays, ostensibly to allow people to go to church (uh-huh, who goes to church on Sundays?), but really to protect those lower-class gals from having to work longer hours for crummy pay, since the shops aren’t going to take on extra hands. Serious folk? Well I guess I won’t comment on that. I’m still hoping the running joke in Germany about Belgians who horde children in caves, molest them, and leave them for dead, will die down at some point in our household.
So what has stuck? Recycling (which has become a big thing for us in view of the impending arrival of Tobi, the green voter), crossing the street on a red light, and…I have to say it…Wurst, Cheese, Bread, and Beer. I still remember scouring the streets for a head of broccoli, and finally coming across some limp, sad thing. But there is also.. Angela Merkel, kaffee and kuchen on Sundays, that nice lady outside the bakery who came to us three times to help us find what we were looking for…
Not to mention the fact that I am slowly becoming a savvy shopper. I now know that the best heads of lettuce are found ‘underground’ in the subterranean halles below the hauptstraße. No longer will I balk at a 22E clothes hanger, but will go directly to C&A and ask for a handful of the loads they throw away every day. And finally, there’s beer, but then there’s also Caipirinha.