I've always been an outgoing person and have made many acquaintances and a couple of friends along the way, too. Looking back, however, I can't help but notice how much easier it was to make friends as a child compared to now. I was barely a teenager when we were on holidays in Italy, and I spent most of my days swimming, playing and exploring with a couple of Norwegian kids, having a total of maybe five minutes worth of dialogue between us due to language barriers. Still (or maybe that's why), we got on so well and had a great time together, while our parents stuck to smiling at each other, nodding their heads, and pointing at us kids, shrugging their shoulders.
Moving to Cologne as a high school graduate and beginning my apprenticeship was a different kettle of fish. There was rivalry amongst the girls in class, and cliques formed according to lifestyle preferences and socio-economic background. In the end, the friends I made that I'm still in contact with today are the expats who were there on international assignment, not so much my German classmates. Ha! Funny how that worked out.
I moved to Scotland aged 22. Now, being a student I loved. The atmosphere on campus, learning, partying, growing into our selves - what a great time. And so easy to find like-minded people to connect with! Sitting next to people in class, doing study groups, taking breaks in the library, not to mention the social activities - so many opportunities to start a chat and see where it leads. Scotland felt like home, I took on the accent and felt integrated into Scottish life with Scottish friends and a Scottish romance.
Fast forward to my late 20s in London this was not the case anymore, nor in Barcelona, and here's why I think that was: we got older. I got older, the people I wanted to make friends with were older, and by older I mean relationships and social circles had been established and there was little space for new additions.
I remember feeling excluded and on the margin of the Barcelona crowds, worrying I had become un-befriend-able, thinking they were closed off, and maybe even a little hostile towards Germans. Me missing Scotland and getting defensive when being called a tourist probably didn't help, either. After all, I wasn't just a tourist, I lived there! Not getting into a Catalan circle of friends bothered me for the longest time, so I connected with other expats. When in Scotland, I declined joining the German society on account of "if I'd wanted to hang out with Germans, I'd have stayed there!" Now, other Germans (and some Brits, wa hae) were my only contact.
Stepping into the shoes of a local Barcelones in his or her late 20s, it makes perfect sense not to invest too much time in friendships with foreigners. The Barcelones has lived there all their life, has childhood friends to go out with, is living with their parents, working on their careers, and saving money to get married and move into their own place. Expats stay for a few years, party on the beaches, and move on. What's the point?
Mobility and change are US American concepts that are not quite celebrated to the same extent in Europe. Given our different orientations to time and privacy, people from more long-term oriented cultures like some European and Asian ones may seem a little less welcoming and flexible than the US American counterparts. Remember the peach and the coconut? The tip here is persistence. When trying to make Catalan (or German, or Asian) friends - not giving up pays off eventually.
The questions I have for you today is, what's your definition of friendship, and how have your friendships changed over time? Especially among expats and other frequent movers, a large part of the social circle happens online via facebook nowadays.
As expats/movers, how much time do you spend trying to make new local friends and integrating into your new environment, and how much time staying in touch with old ones? If you're relocating as a couple / with family, are they enough for you, or do you still go to local gyms, chambers of commerce meetings, networking events, or meetup.com groups to make new friends?
Here's a thought from the other side of the coin: you're enjoying your life as it is, you have your established circles and routines - how can you reach out to make someone new in your community feel welcome?
Til next time, have a good one!
Image by Vilhelm Gunnarsson, flickr, Creative Commons license