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A young woman in a t-shirt and leggings sitting cross-legged in her home. Outside there is a small garden and a collaged newspaper clipping-style image of a tree. Illustration.

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Building community in an unfamiliar place

Being a regular at a bar offers routine and a sense of civic involvement, but real relationships can only be built at home

When I moved to Germany from the United States in the spring of 2017, I was ready for a change. After the political nightmare that had played out the previous November, I was waking up in the middle of most nights to check if some new trauma had swept the nation—if I managed to fall asleep at all. The atmosphere at my tiny liberal arts college in New England was hostile in a way that had become suffocating, and I was experiencing a kind of emotional fatigue I had never felt before. Germany, which at the time was accepting more refugees than any other part of the developed world, promised a safe haven, a place of rest. So, equipped with a rudimentary knowledge of German and even less cultural context (beyond far too many names of dead philosophers), I packed my bags and landed in Heidelberg, a small city in the south of Germany.

Designed around a large public university, Heidelberg was nothing like the tiny, cloistered campus I had left behind. There were museums and bars and cafes, buzzing with the promise of community. Consequently, I did what everyone tells you to do when you’re in a new place. I went to pub crawls and movie nights and receptions. I networked and drank with perfect strangers and smiled patiently at the men (yes, plural) who asked me if India really was the rape capital of the world. I developed an impeccable public face, adroitly performing a version of me that I knew was likeable in the most unobjectionable of ways. Soon enough, I had a group of acquaintances to get drinks with, go to workout classes with, post on Instagram with. Yet it was the loneliest time of my life.

I went home from these public spaces to a tiny one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of the city where no one I knew had much desire to venture. Unlike my childhood bedroom, which felt like a space of respite where I was free to be with my thoughts, this home was alienating. I spent most nights eating shawarmas from the deli nearby, bingeing mediocre TV shows to create some semblance of a dinner with friends. My front-stage self, as sociologist Erving Goffman might put it, was entirely different from my backstage self.

Being alone hadn’t been much of a problem for me in the past. As an only child, I grew up comfortable with having just myself for company, constructing worlds out of characters pulled from fiction and the real world alike. By high school, this imaginative capacity had transformed into a much deeper sense of separation from the world around me. Even though I had a tight-knit group of friends, lingering below the surface was a need to protect the world in my head—a world I couldn’t entirely share even with the most important people in my life. I was one of the only international students on an overwhelmingly white campus when I got to college in the U.S., forcing me into a sort of readymade community with people of color. That meant that for most of my adult life, I didn’t have to exercise the community-building muscle, one that seemed to require a calculated extroversion I was convinced I didn’t possess. With these relationships anchoring me, I was happy, for the most part, to be left alone. But in Germany, without those friendships to return to after disappearing into my head for too long, being alone became a lot lonelier.

In Heidelberg, my backstage audience was only myself. While I was spending a lot of time around people, these were public interactions that necessitated putting on metaphorical stage makeup and reading from a metaphorical script. Perhaps as a consequence of my only-child syndrome, I didn’t think this would be a problem. It’s not like I was actually isolated, I kept telling myself. Yet, inevitably, I began to crave something more intimate, something that allowed me to discard the public performance, just for a little bit, and to cocoon myself in care.

One of the eeriest consequences of urbanization is the normalization of our extremely isolated lives. To counter the perennial fog of loneliness, cities, organizations, and even corporations have taken to building third places: cafes, bars, bookstores, libraries. These, according to sociologist Ray Oldenburg, are “neutral grounds” that facilitate conversation among the regulars that frequent them. They are distinct from the home (the “first place”) and the workplace (the “second place”) and, consequently, offer low-stakes forms of engagement free from the burdens of invitation and regimentation. But low-stakes engagement often prevents real intimacy. Being a regular at a bar offers routine and perhaps even a sense of civic involvement, but can it offer more? What happens when friendships built in bars and cafes linger in these third places, never actually coming home?

What happens, I think, is what I experienced in Heidelberg: participation in the routines of sociality, but no sense of intimacy. I had friends in classes, people to sit with on the bus, but I didn’t have the camaraderie that builds backstage—friends to laze in bed with, to binge terrible soaps with late into the night. That kind of relationship building happens in the moments when someone walks into your home, goes through your baby pictures and DVDs, and finds weeks-old vegetables sitting untouched by an almost empty container of mac and cheese. There’s something deeply intimate about letting someone into the menagerie of your life, the place where, even at its most polished, your innards are splayed out in some fundamental way. There’s a version of you that exists only within the confines of these four walls. It’s difficult to fish out that version at a quick lunch, a rushed drink after work.

Last August, I moved to a small Midwestern town for graduate school, filled with apprehension about finding community in yet another unfamiliar space. I was determined not to experience the loneliness of Heidelberg again.

So on Diwali last October, instead of lighting a lone candle in my room and stewing in nostalgia as I had in college, I invited a group of people I would have called, at best, acquaintances for a small gathering in my home. I sent my mom frantic messages asking for recipes palatable even for the white tongue; bought flowers, candles, and wine on a grad student stipend; put together playlists for each “mood” I could see the evening taking on; and spent hours agonizing over whether I’d fail miserably as a host. After years of guarding my space fiercely, not knowing how to let anyone in for fear of having my inner world transgressed, this evening was a gargantuan task. It felt like a risk, opening my precious personal space to a bunch of people I’d interacted with maybe five times. But by the end of the night, pleasantly buzzed and trading secrets in a circle on my living room floor, I had friends.

Mallika Khanna is a writer and graduate student in media. She writes about film and TV, diaspora and immigrant experiences and the environment through a feminist, anti-capitalist lens. Follow her work on her website or on Twitter.