Is it really Expats versus Locals?

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Many travel guides and blogs talk about getting to know the locals when you travel. As a expat though, it makes me rethink where is the line between an expat and a local. I like to feel what it would be like to live in a place. I like that the guy at the little breakfast bar notices when we don’t come around or that a waitress knows our order after only a few days. This is that sense of “home away from home” that I enjoy. Connections with locals can make you feel like you belong even when you obviously don’t.

Locals, Natives and Travelers, oh my.

I was on the tram just this weekend helping an older woman with her walker onto the tram. We started talking and when I mentioned that I have been living here 4 years, she responded with “well then you are well settled then.” It loses a bit in the translation, but I take that to mean that I am at least an honorary local. Maybe it helps being in a university city. With students coming and going all the time anyone that stays longer is a local. I certainly know the old town here very well. As a long term expat in Germany, I am not a traveler here. I sort my trash and pay my taxes. I am not a native either. I don’t necessarily feel like an outsider, does that make me a local?

Depending on how wide a net you want to throw (just your town or region or the whole country) the label of native is fairly clear. (Yes yes, there are people that grew up all over the place so don’t really fit anywhere. They are wonderful to talk to but disturb my tidy little picture here, so out they go.) Travelers are also fairly clear. These are people that for one reason or another are only around for a short amount of time. A day, a week, perhaps even a semester. This leaves the local.

Locals know stuff

See the gargolye butt thing wasn't just random. Freiburg Cathedral.

They know where the best food is and what bar to avoid on Tuesday because of the grumpy bartender. They have a history in the place and often great stories. Think the amateur tour guide that points out the quirky gargoyle with his ass hanging out on the church and talks about walking home at 2am from the best party over there. For me a true local also knows people. They know who to take a bike to get fixed. A location is not just the physical but also the humanity that inhabit it. A local is then someone with a connection to the place. This can be natives with long history or like me an expat of four years.

As an expat we often want to integrate to one degree or another. We want to feel like home, if for no other reason than it makes it easier and more fun to live in a place. I would argue that the closer you get to being and acting (honestly) like a local the closer to that integrated state you are.

Willingness to talk

Talking to people is pretty much the only way to get to know them.  In the world of cell phones and head phones and automated everything, people always seem to be interested in connections. It is so easy to go through a day and not have to talk to anyone. It doesn’t take much to get a lot of people to open up. Weather is a unifying topic in nearly every culture I have been in. “Cold/wet/hot out there” has started a large number of conversations. Most of them come to nothing, but for me those tiny human contacts in a new city help me feel that I am welcomed even if I don’t technically belong. I also like talking to bartenders, as “beer” is a pretty easy word to pick up in any language.

Think you can’t do this kind of thing with a language barrier? At least in Germany most people speak some English. Though if you start out with one canned phrase in German, then open up that you don’t speak much, I have seen conversations last a while. I talked to a guy on a tram for 10 minutes about how weird it was that Americans don’t normally speak German. I am also on the look out for other English speakers. “What a lovely accent” is a great starter there.

Even individual incidents of talk can be strung together with…


If the goal is to get to know people, then talking is the way to do that (see above). However language and culture barriers often stand in the way. If you don’t know someone it is really hard to start up a conversation. Routine is one of the ways that I find is actually an icebreaker. Going into the same store every week or ordering the same thing in your (new) favorite restaurant can go a long way to breaking the ice to talking to people. The routine itself can be a talking point.

This is my prime way of building a sense of community. I go to the same pasta place for lunch a few times a week. They are from Naples (not German) and I try my basic Italian every so often.  I have gone to Burger King often enough that one of the ladies knows my order and gives me a small discount. I haven’t been in a long while, but at one point last year I was buying dried nuts at the market and chatting to the woman who ran the stand. I’ve been going to the same Irish Pub on and off for nearly 10 years across several trips to Freiburg. Of course I know the woman who runs it by her first name.

Where some people know my name.

You don’t have to live in a place long for people to recognize you. Studying in Bologna the man at the coffee bar knew us after only a few days. Don’t have favorite places, or not getting good “localness vibes” from your current ones, branch out and …


The hidden crocodile in Freiburg

This is the one that I kind of fail on. I know the center of Freiburg very well. Nearly all the nooks and crannies of the area that I tramp every day. I only rarely venture outside of this area. I totally need to though. Exploring is my favorite part of travel. I like walking around and poking my nose into new little places. By being an explorer in your new expat home, you can increase the number of people you meet to talk to. Finding new little stores and parks is also a great way to be able to “know stuff” as a local.

Travel guides often have a section of “local’s tips”. These are often then overrun by travelers, but still. It is nice to be able to take visiting friends to your favorite little hole in the wall that noone would know of unless they lived here.


All of this builds together as a sense of community. This is the humanity aspect I like. None of this is necessarily specific to the expat life. Finding the sense of local-ness and belonging can be good for travelers and for people living in their native culture too. I am a firm believer that although the Net has enabled us to meet people all over the world, we still enjoy local connections. As much as I love skype and my own comfy chair at home, there is something invigorating to me about meeting a friend for dinner face to face.

The building of a sense of community helps you enjoy your knowledge of place as well expand it. If you are going to live some place, you might as well get to know it.

“I know I’m in my own world. It’s OK, they know me here.” – Magnet on my fridge.

Read more about interactions between locals and expats here in the December German Bloggers Roundtable:

13 thoughts on “Is it really Expats versus Locals?

  1. Pingback: Culture Flows Both Ways » Grounded Traveler

  2. Good point. I sometimes wonder if expats ever become truly local… tend to think we can get very close, but never quite there. And I think I wouldn’t want to either. Even after so many years in Texas, I want to feel like a German. I’ve started changing a little and probably have become more American (or just Southern?) in the sense that I am more chatty with strangers and have an easy smile that might not actually mean anything other than trying to be nice. I love the exploring aspect and in fact I have noticed after 7 years in West Texas, I am now the one the locals come to for advice on where to spend a weekend in the area 🙂

    • That was the point I was trying to make. I think expats definitely become locals, but never native. I have a kiwi friend who has been here for 18 years and knows more about town than most natives I have met. And yet she is very definitely a kiwi. Locals are people that know their area and usually are enthusiastic about showing it off. Given this definition, i totally think you qualify as a West Texas local. This distinction does not remove your german-ness, but adds to it.

  3. After a year in Korea, I started to get more familiar with aspects of the culture because I’d travel a lot on the weekends. But I wish my survival Korean worked better for conversation. I found it hard to make Korean friends. The language barrier is a frustrating thing cause you can only go to a certain point in your relationship and then take a U-turn to head back. My neighborhood grocery store folk and sidewalk food stands got to know me and it helped me to feel a part of the neighborhood community. Sometimes you can eek thru with broken bits of language but it really helps to know so much more! Oh well, I guess I’ll keep trying!

    • Yeah, in Germany at least English is very common. They all take it in school to one extent or another. And the difference between German and English isn’t as wide as to Korean. So I guess sometimes the barriers can be so big that it alters the dynamic.

      Indeed keep trying. Having the neighborhood community know you sounds good. Even with a few words and a smile, connections are built.

  4. I also love exploring and do it on a regular basis. My local friends tease me that I know more about the off-beat places than they do. I also agree that having a routine is a great way to meet locals. I used to go to the same coffee shop on my break from German class and the barista started teaching me a new word in Germany everyday and quizzing me on the previous words she had taught me. Seeing her friendly face everyday was incredibly comforting and thanks to her I learned “zu mit nehmen” “to go” a very important phrase when ordering coffee.

    • This may be one of those differences between a native local and a foreign local. That phrase of “you live here all your life and you never really see certain things until someone comes to visit.” I hear it often in relation to New Yorkers never going to the touristy things. Foreign locals have that urge and need to explore, so do so and learn from it.
      That is so cool with the barista teaching you things. BTW how is your locals post coming?

  5. I suppose it depends a lot on the place on how long it takes to “become a local”. I’ve lived only some four years in London now and I feel like a local to some extended, more so than in many of the other places I’ve lived. True, I don’t feel like one of those proper old Londoners who’ve been going to the same pub for the last fifty years, but local in the more wider definition of London… if that makes sense

    • This is why I tried to make a distinction between a native and a local. Those guys that have been going to that pub for 50 years probably know some great things, but more in depth than breadth, I would imagine anyway. Maybe there are degrees to “localness”. Four years though should be enough to feel a perfect local in your area. London though is so wide, I can’t imagine anyone really feels a local in ALL of it.

  6. Fun read! Exploring and experiencing a new environment without only seeing the “tourist stuff” can be a tough thing to do. Going to the same places on and on again is actually something I did for a long time in Berlin as well. Doesn’t always help though… I went to buy bread at the same bakery for about 1 and 1/2 years and the lady behind the counter kept on pretending she didn’t know me. Oh well.
    I think it’s the “locals know stuff” where the magic happens…

    • Indeed, “locals know stuff.” Maybe I’ll get t-shirts with that.
      The trick with avoiding the tourist stuff, I think is time. The first few days is definitely time for touristy. Maybe even a few weeks if you do one thing every few days. By spending time and getting out of the vacation mindset the daily thigns that have to be done, that is daily life; sets in. Eating without it being overly special, laundry and other things as such just have to be done, so you get into contact with the environment more.

      The routine is something that has to be changed every so often. Weird about the bread lady though.

  7. After being in Germany for 10 years (and in our little town for 5 of those), I still have trouble feeling like a local sometimes — but I also think that’s a problem of Hessen in general. The people here are often really terrible when it comes to customer service — to the point that you think they should just close the place down since it’s clearly an inconvenience to them to run it. 😉

    But there are few things like starting to feel like you belong somewhere and knowing that people recognize you on the street or when you go in your favorite shops. That’s part of the reason I appreciate our small town of 2,000 people versus the hustle and bustle of a city like Frankfurt.

    • Yeah, that “small enough to be recognized” is a nice thing. I like that Freiburg is big enough to be able to sit and watch new people and not be watched by all the same ones. We also get enough tourists that are funny in their own right. That is so weird about the customer service. I have seen such a wide range of it here. From like you say, so bad they should just close, to really friendly talkative people. Is that general in small-town Hessen or Hessen in general, do you think? I can imagine in a small town that there isn’t competition so they can “get away with it”. Or maybe it isn’t so unfriendly, just seems so to us.

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