Probably the biggest thing people think about when they move abroad, besides all the vital stuff like securing a job, work permit, place to live, etc. is finding a community. Will I be lonely there? Will I ever feel like I fit in? Will being away from my friends and family be too hard?
Even though I was thrilled to have a chance of fulfilling a lifelong dream, those same questions still plagued me before I moved to Switzerland. After all, I’d spent my entire natural life living and working in the greater Boston area. Everyone and everything I loved most was there, including friends from childhood right up through college and adulthood. Thanks to my involvement in local community theater and other creative groups, there was never a reason to sit in, unless I wanted to. My social calendar was almost overwhelming sometimes. The idea of starting over in a completely new place where I’d have none of those outlets was pretty intimidating.
If you dream of picking up stakes and moving someplace new, be it in a new state or a new continent, don’t allow your fear of social isolation to stop you from doing it. I am by no means a social networking expert, but I am here to tell you that there is a such thing as finding a community after a big move. This is how I’m doing it…
Before you go…
Tap into your existing social network.
Even if you don’t know anybody who lives where you’re moving, chances are that somebody amongst your 428 Facebook friends, your Twitter-verse, your blog-o-sphere or what have you does. When I decided I was moving to Switzerland I’d never even been to Zurich before so I put up a Facebook status saying I was moving to that area and asking if anybody I knew was friends with anyone cool over there that they’d be willing to put me in touch with. Believe it or not, several of my friends had pals that they were willing to introduce me to and these connections have yielded some of the most quality friendships I’ve made since I got here. Before I left these friends-of-friends were an invaluable resource on things like how to find a flat, what the best neighborhoods to live in are and so on. Now that I’ve moved here they’ve become great buddies for nights out on the town, travel and commiserating about life abroad.
Tell absolutely everyone that you’re moving abroad.
In the months before I left I told absolutely everyone I met, folks at parties, people in my writing class, the lady who ran my first aid certification course, ev-ery-body, that I was moving to Switzerland. I was like a broken record. I started to annoy myself. But random people in bars can be an unexpected font of information. Maybe they’ve lived where you’re moving themselves and have some insight for you. Maybe they know someone who knows someone who lives there and loves it. Stories like that can be immensely comforting when you’re about to make literally the biggest change you’ve ever made in your life, even when they’re about people you’ll never even meet.
Maybe they have a resource for you. I found out about the writer’s group I belong to through a friend of a friend that I met at a bar after a book signing. Turns out they knew the person who runs it and gave me their email address so I could get in touch with them. Protip: When somebody gives you contact info for somebody who has done what you’re about to do… no matter how awkward cold emailing a stranger feels, DO IT. There’s a little bit of an expat mafia going on and people like to pay it forward and help out the newbies. Chances are you’ll probably get a friendly reply that’s jam-packed with useful information.
Do your research.
Think about what makes your out-of-work life feel fulfilling and connected at home and research some similar groups and communities in your destination country before you leave home. Work can become your entire life when you’re an expat, and chances are with those first few months of settling in, figuring out your new job, setting up your utilities, filling out those threatening forms in a foreign language from the local government, you are not going to have time to figure out where the best salsa dance lessons or yoga studios or Karaoke bars in your area are. Do some googling, and when you find an organization, club, community, even a bar or restaurant you think is cool, follow them on Facebook or Twitter. There are also plenty of online communities out there where you’ll find tons of resources for English speaking expats. Meetup.com and Internations are the two that immediately come to mind for me. Join those groups even if mingling with strangers isn’t your thing. Guess what, if you’re about to move to a foreign country… you’re going to have to make mingling with strangers your thing.
Once You Arrive…
Follow through on the connections you’ve made.
Invite that friend of a friend out for coffee. Show up to an Internations event or two… even if you have to arrive by yourself. You’re going to have to get very cozy with the idea of flying solo or else you’ll be spending a lot of nights on your own in your flat with a frozen pizza. Now is not the time to retreat into social anxiety. Remember, expat life is not like life at home where everybody’s already made all their friends and aren’t super keen on making new ones. Other expats want to hang out with you. Especially if they’re also showing up to networking events. Repeat this mantra to yourself every time you feel squeamish.
A friend once told me that for the first three months he lives in a new place he says yes to every single social invitation he gets… no matter what! Adjusting to living and working in a new culture is exhausting, and the temptation to shut everything out on the weekends and hibernate is very real. Resist that urge, or before you know it, you’ll be spending weekends alone even when you don’t feel like it. Say yes to everything, even those goofy after work social mixers that chances are you avoided like the plague back home. Even if you don’t make a new friend it will help you learn the lay of the land and give you ideas about what you do want to be doing. Every time you go out and discover a new bar or restaurant, master the bus schedule, and chat up a stranger, life abroad gets easier. I promise! Pretty soon, you won’t feel like such an outsider. I didn’t say yes to enough when I first moved to Switzerland, and as a result, I feel like it took me much longer to feel connected.
Take your social life into your own hands.
Don’t wait for other people to contact you. One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first moved here was not reaching out to cool new people I met right away. If you meet somebody at an event that you think you’d like to be friends with, follow through with an email or a Facebook invite within a week of meeting them. It’s going to be even more awkward to ping That Cool Girl Who Was Into Acro Yoga or that Nice Guy With The Improv Troupe a month or two down the line than it is if you just met them last Saturday. Make an excuse to invite them out as soon as you can, even if it’s only for a casual after work drink.
Keep in touch with folks at home, but don’t compare you past and present lives.
There’s a corny old saying that true friends are like stars, even when you can’t see them you know they’re there. Nothing has proved this more true to me than expat life. From the moment I announced that I was moving abroad, my friends and family back home have bolstered me with unfailing support and encouragement. I can just feel the big old Care Bear Stare coming at me from across the Atlantic. I’m one lucky gal. And I want to share it all with them. I want to Tweet and Instagram and blog every moment of my adventure so they can feel involved in it. I want to share my joy with them when I discover something amazingly beautiful, and share my sorrow when life gets rough. Most of all, I don’t want to lose the closeness we have.
When the going gets rough, don’t beat yourself up! Learn about how I manage social expectations (and anxiety!) here.
With so many free and instantaneous ways to keep in touch, it can be tempting to be constantly connected. But as we all know, constant connectedness has it’s pitfalls. As much as I love trolling Facebook for the latest pictures of my friends having fun, seeing a constant stream of parties, concerts, plays and social events that I can’t be a part of can make me feel lonely. And it can really spoil the sweetness of the moment I’m currently living in. It can be hard to be proud of myself for managing to find the Starbuck’s in Europaallee to go to a meet up and hold my own chatting with strangers for an hour when I’m comparing it to pictures of a wild Halloween party that all of my favorite people from home were invited to.
So how am I trying to live more in the moment? Friends, it’s not easy. I’m trying to get more in the habit of exchanging letters and postcards with my friends from home instead of instant messages. I’m trying to integrate more people and things from Switzerland into my online social network so I can use it to connect with people on my own continent and I’m not constantly looking at a stream of things that are happening 2,000 miles away. I’ve tried unplugging completely, but that doesn’t always work for me. Chances are that I’ll always be a big old Facebook whore, I think the real trick is using it as a method to stay connected and not to monitor how your old and new lives stack up to each other.
Venture out of the expat bubble.
I know I just spent the majority of this post telling you what a great resource other expats are, and it’s true, especially when you first arrive. There’s nothing like meeting other people who’ve chosen the same crazy life that you have and understand what it feels like to have that hunger to see the world.
Other expats will be invaluable partners in crime for exploring this new place you’ve chosen to call home. And when you’ve had it up to here with expat life, when you’ve gotten late fines for that bill you didn’t even know you were supposed to pay, when you got yelled at in German by an angry train conductor, when you’re bummed because you haven’t been able to find time to Skype with your family at home in weeks, they’ll be there for you. But if you only hang out with other people who are also strangers in a strange land and share a lingusistic/cultural background similar to your own, you’re going to reach a baseline level of comfort living in a foreign country and you’re never going to get beyond that.
Venturing out of the expat bubble is a work in progress for me, and I know it will be for as long as I live abroad, but there’s a few things that have been working for so far. Number one, don’t be afraid of the language barrier. Haven’t learned German yet? Don’t sweat it. I’m not advocating not bothering to learn the local tongue. What I am saying is that in Switzerland, as in most places in Europe, people are multi-lingual and enjoy speaking foreign languages. Chances are that foreign language will be English, you lucky dog. Don’t feel like a fool when your Kindergarten German runs out and you need to continue chatting someone up in English. As long as you’re polite about it they probably won’t mind.
Joining English speaking activities that aren’t specifically geared toward Americans, Canadians and Brits is helpful too. For instance, my writing group is a nice mix of English speaking folks from all over the world, as well as some Swiss people. I learn so much at these meet ups just by listening and asking a well timed question or two.
Also, keep and open mind about the locals. Before I moved here I was warned that Swiss people are unfriendly and that the Swiss wouldn’t want to make friends with me. I haven’t found that to be true. What Swiss people are is reserved. When you take an interest and ask questions, they tend to open up and become warm, welcoming and incredibly helpful. It’s useful to try chatting up Swiss strangers at a local festival or celebration like Fastnacht, where they’ll be on their own turf and well lubricated. Who knows, you might even end up joining the local Guggenmusik band. Some people I know have had a great time dating the locals, and if you’re open to that, then go for it! There’s nothing like a recommendation to a hip local bar that’s not in the guidebooks from somebody with a sexy accent!
Do it Your Damn Self.
Whether it’s hosting your first party or starting your own club, if there’s not already an outlet for you to do what you want to be doing, create one. One of the greatest things about living abroad is that it’s a chance to totally reinvent yourself. Being the new kid in town gives you in opportunity to be bold in a way that you might not be at home. What do you have to loose? Start your own a capella group or ultimate frisbee league. There is no excuse not to when it’s so darn easy to reach out to people on the internet these days. This is perhaps black-diamond level stuff that you might want to attempt after you’re a bit more settled, but it’s totally doable. In the next year I’m in Switzerland, I’m hoping to start my own English speaking theater group.
Recognize that settling in and feeling connected is a process.
It’s a fact, sometimes you are going to feel lonely. Read all about how I embrace it here.
Whomever said that taking two steps forward and one step back is a fox trot, not a failure, was on to something. Some days you’ll be on top of the world, other days you’ll want to crawl under the duvet with a bottle of wine and not come out until your next vacation. It’s all part of the dance. Whether you think of expat life as surfing a wave or riding a roller coaster, expect the ups and downs and learn to roll with them, because neither of those feelings is going to last forever. Keep focused on how far you’ve come and not how long you have to go to be where you want to be. Remember when you first moved here and you cried because you couldn’t figure out how to use the washing machine? That sure sucked! Now you’re slowly but surely making friends with new people from all over the world. Look at you go!
What happens when expat friendship gets real? Read about my experience with love and loss abroad here.