In the series “Off Duty”, various members of the InterNations team share their personal stories about a global lifestyle and the international experience.
For this blog entry, we’ve talked to Kaja, who regularly hosts activities for our Munich Craft Group.
Since when have you been working at InterNations? And what do you do?
I’ve been working here for just over a year now, since September of last year. As one of several community engagement specialists, I’m part of the Community Experience Department. This means, I take care of all InterNations Ambassadors and Consuls in the communities that make up my regional portfolio.
Ambassadors are InterNations members who organize large monthly events for the whole community, while Consuls share their hobbies and interests through smaller get-togethers we call “activities”. I’m there for them if they have any questions; it’s my job to provide them with information and to guide them through the first steps in their respective roles. I also make sure that our communities stay active and vibrant, so I’m on the lookout for new groups we could open and for members who could be good Consuls for these groups.
My portfolio includes all InterNations Communities in Southern Germany, including the one in Munich. The Munich Community is the third-largest one worldwide when it comes to the number of members, but if we think about the number of official events, groups, and activities, it’s actually the biggest. Apart from Munich, I’m responsible for all the communities in Bavaria, in Baden-Württemberg, and in Hesse, as well as our community in Trier. Next to Munich, Frankfurt and Stuttgart are the other major communities in my region.
What’s your personal and professional background? How did you find out about InterNations?
Unlike other team members, I didn’t know about InterNations before applying here. Technically, I’m not even an expat myself, though I had lived abroad for three years when getting my bachelor’s degree in film studies from Bangor University in northwestern Wales. But I was born and raised here in Germany, and Munich is my hometown.
However, my parents are both expats. My mother is Greek and my father originally comes from Jamaica; though his family emigrated to Canada when he was 15, so he’s more of a Canadian, I guess. Back in the 1980s, when they moved to Germany, they did not have a network such as InterNations. So, I heard a lot of stories about what it was like for them to newly arrive in an unfamiliar environment, especially as non-German speakers. That’s why I think I still have a lot of insights into what life as an expat is like, and it’s also why I could really relate to the work that InterNations does when I found the job ad.
After receiving my master’s degree in media and cultural studies from the University of Munich, I decided to become an English teacher for adults. I obtained further qualifications with the CELTA certificate and worked as a freelancer. But, after a while, I realized I would prefer to work in a more structured environment as an employee, and so I just went job hunting. I thought that InterNations looked really, really great. I enjoyed the principle it’s based on — that it’s a product specifically for expats — and I was very excited to apply and very happy when I got the job.
Let’s discuss your experience as an InterNations Consul. How did you get started?
I moderate the Munich Craft Group as a Consul. I became aware of this group when I first started working at InterNations, when browsing the different groups and checking what we had on offer here in Munich. Coming across the Craft Group, I signed up immediately just because I love crochet so much!
I discovered crochet a few years ago, teaching myself how to do it by watching YouTube tutorials and working on projects for hours on end — one of the benefits of being a student, you know. I can go really overboard with my nerdiness when it comes to crochet, for example, discussing different yarns and techniques. This was also one of my motivations for joining the group: I do have a lot of friends, but unfortunately, none of them likes crochet, let alone hearing me ramble on about it.
I knew right from the start that I wasn’t just interested in going to InterNations Activities, but that I wanted to host some myself. Since I have a teaching background, I very much enjoy sharing my skills with other people and teaching them something I love. When I hosted my first activity in January — an intro to crotchet — I wasn’t a Consul yet, just a normal group member, but I realized I definitely wanted to do this on a regular basis. The group did have a Consul then, but she wasn’t too active at the time. And she soon stepped down altogether because she no longer had the time to run the group.
I now organize one activity per month and I’ve even found a Co-Consul. I met Daniela at my very first activity, and she’s been to every single one ever since. So, I asked her this past summer if she wanted to step up as a Consul, too, since she seemed so enthusiastic and friendly.
I thought it would be a nice way to get more people on board to help organize the group. Different people obviously have different ideas, and the more members actively contribute to a group, the livelier and more diverse it gets. Daniela and I have mostly co-hosted activities since she became a Consul, but for example, she also ran her own activity while I went to Greece on my two-week summer vacation in August.
What’s a typical activity of the InterNations Munich Craft Group like?
Our activities are fairly small. On average, I’d say there are about half a dozen participants, depending on the venue and the topic. I usually limit the number of people who can attend, so it’s never larger than ten. Having such a tight-knit circle really allows everyone to get to properly know one another.
I usually host my activities on a Saturday afternoon. They start around 13:00 or 14:00 and last for about four hours. But most of that time involves chatting over coffee and cake! I like going to venues that have an amazing selection of cake and pastries, for example, Café Lotti, our favorite, or Wir machen Cupcakes. We usually order a drink and something to eat first and chat for a while before the crafting starts. If it’s an intro to crochet, I ask everyone about their previous experience and try to get a good understanding of who knows what and who has brought which materials.
Then I’ll get started on the basics of crochet — teaching, for example, the “slip knot”, the “chain stitch”, and the “single crochet”. I normally go through all the simple stitches, and I might suggest something specific to work on. During my Easter activity, for example, we made little Easter baskets out of yarn to put candy and chocolate eggs in. Some people take to crochet within, like, five seconds, but it can be more frustrating for others. You’re learning to do something new using your hands, which involves movements and motor skills that don’t come naturally in the beginning.
These introductions can also be a bit challenging for me because, as the teacher, I have to make sure everyone is moving more or less at the same pace and feels comfortable with what they’re doing. And if somebody struggles a lot, I need to offer them support and encouragement — they don’t have to produce the perfect work on their first try. That’s why we take a lot of breaks, and we don’t actually crochet for more than about two hours.
I realized during my first couple of activities that what I offer is not a full-fledged crochet workshop. If this were the case, I’d have to book larger venues, set a strict agenda, and have more people to teach all the attendees. If you’re serious about teaching a practical skill, one person for six newbies is not enough. It’s not like language teaching, where one teacher for a class of 20 students may still work.
So, it’s not just about crochet — it’s really all about getting people together and having fun, while trying something new in a light-hearted way. I think some attendees use it as more of an excuse to get together with other members, but that’s okay. Using an activity to meet new people is also a good way of taking the pressure off.
If you just have a coffee together in a small group, you kind of have to focus on everyone, and everyone will focus on you. I think, especially if you’re not used to meeting complete strangers, this may create certain expectations, like you need to have great conversations or be funny and entertaining all the time. If you have something else to do, that’s an icebreaker right there. You already have a topic to talk about, you can ask other people for help or you can even be silent for a while without it being uncomfortable — and that’s totally fine.
Are you also considering branching out from your crocheting activities?
We do have an open-night format, where people can bring their own projects and just work on them individually. I remember one of our members working on a crocheted blanket for months. It’s a common technique that you make small squares first and then stitch them all together, and she had dozens and dozens of these granny squares. I had a lot of respect and admiration for her for sticking with it. I’m a one-project kind of person, and I’d be far too impatient to tackle such a big project made up of many smaller ones!
My Co-Consul, Daniela, will be hosting a knitting activity in November, and one of our group members has some experience with jewelry-making, so we might create handmade earrings, necklaces, or bracelets sometime. This kind of activity would be great as it’s completely different from what Daniela and I organize, so it would broaden the range of things on offer for the group.
I’ve really seen the group grow and develop since I’ve become a Consul, but as I’ve said before, it’s less about the activities themselves; though, of course, I do enjoy crafting. The crafting aspect is just a great excuse for people to get together. I’ve also seen members meet for the first time at one of my activities, and then I can see on the platform that they attend other activities together, and there’s friendship growing. That’s the most rewarding outcome for me.
And I even experienced that myself. I went to that an amazing trampolining activity. — Yes, there is an InterNations Munich Jump on the Trampoline Group. While I knew this group existed, it hadn’t occurred to me to sign up myself until a member who attended one of my events talked about it. The way she described it, it sounded so amazing that I said I’d join her.
So, I basically went trampolining because I was persuaded by the really friendly person who hosted this activity. That was a far bigger incentive for me to attend than just browsing the Groups section on our platform. Even though I consider myself pretty outgoing and sociable, I still feel a bit apprehensive about joining an activity where I don’t know anyone, especially if it’s something I’ve never done before, like trampolining. I might feel a little self-conscious, and other members probably feel the same way.
Anyway, it was the Best. Thing. Ever. I didn’t know how much childlike joy I was still capable of, until I stepped on a trampoline. In fact, it was so much fun that I went again just a few weeks later, but I never would have tried it without first chatting to the host in a completely different setting.
How has becoming an InterNations Consul changed the way you view your work in the Community Engagement Team?
Being a Consul has definitely helped me with my job. I can empathize much better with the Consuls in my communities, and I also understand what kind of issues they might have.
For example, we all know in theory how to use our website or app to create an activity or to check in attendees with our special Guest List Manager, but it’s good to get a reminder that theory does not always equal practice; having that hands-on experience has made me understand our own platform better, and especially how people use it in real life.
My role as an InterNations Consul has also made me appreciate my work a lot more and feel more connected to what I do. Even though I really liked the concept of InterNations when I first heard about it, things feel different when you start working behind the scenes.
You find yourself sitting at a desk — from Monday through Friday, nine to five — and although you know it’s your job to make expat life a great experience, you risk losing the focus on making connections. Everything feels a little more abstract. Having a personal experience of InterNations, and actually creating a space where InterNations members can make friends, brings back this focus and leads to higher overall job satisfaction, too.
If you could visit any InterNations Community in the world, where would you go and why?
I think I’d like to visit the Jamaica Community. Though my dad is originally Jamaican, I’ve only been there once. Most of my relatives on my father’s side now live in either Canada or the UK, but when I was 23, we traveled to Jamaica on a family trip: my parents, my brother, and me. It was the first time my dad returned there ever since he’d left as a teenager. This was a big emotional moment, and it was nice that we could all share it as a family. But I’d still like to know more about Jamaican culture and get in touch with my Jamaican roots.
Jamaica has a large diaspora worldwide, with lots of Jamaicans moving away, but I have never heard of people moving to Jamaica, though there must be plenty of them. I’d be really interested in meeting expats who’ve decided to go to Jamaica and hear their stories.
Image credits: InterNations / iStock