A few days ago I was sitting by the window in my new temporary home in Florence, talking to a friend, who had just moved into her’s in Atlanta.
We’ve lived together in Denmark a few years back, so hiding emotions from each other is nearly impossible.
The conversation quickly pivoted from talking about how exciting this new experience is to how it can at the same time be a very lonely one – particularly in the beginning.
Whilst going abroad for a longer period of time is a first to her, I have changed places a bit more frequently in the past. And yet I must admit, I’m not quite sure whether it was her or myself I was talking to when I said:
“That feeling of excitement, everything you’ve imagined before going, is going to kick in as soon as you meet people and find your tribe in the new place. Just wait and see.”
I know this for a fact, and yet a new place in the very first days always requires a reminder.
Those of you who have read my words for a while now know that I am a firm believer of travelling solo and that I am convinced that you can have just as amazing an experience when you get on the plane by yourself, as you can when you take someone with you.
One of the reasons for this is that travelling alone doesn’t necessarily mean being alone, if you don’t want to be.
In my experience, it’s the connections to people you meet on the road that make the trip or chapter of your life unique and memorable.
So here are a few lines on what I believe is the very most important thing when moving abroad or travelling solo: connecting with people on site.
But how do I do that, when I don’t know anybody yet, you might ask.
I’ve earlier written about how staying with locals is a great way to travel solo without being alone, but I would like to dive in a little deeper here and give a few more suggestions on how to make friends and connect with people in a new place.
Whether you’ve moved for good or you’re just on the road for a while, the first very important point to make here is that:
if you want to meet people, you need to make an effort.
Get out already!
You don’t have to go all the way out of your comfort zone, go directly up to people and ask them about their life story, if that’s a step too far for you.
You can take the smaller and much more crucial step of actually making sure that you are somewhere where there are, in fact, other people.
A lot of us are guilty of lamenting that we’re on our own and we haven’t met anyone in the new place yet, while sitting comfortably on the couch of our airbnb watching Netflix or posting pictures on instagram.
Well, guess what – you’re not going to meet anyone there.
So the first little step to a social life abroad is to get up and go out.
Grab a book or pack up your laptop and go hang out at a local café, bar or square. A good idea is to check google for good places to study (instead of good places to work) in the city you’ve moved to.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re actually in university or not, but this way you get search results that are more tailored towards cozy places to hang out and get some work done, rather than being redirected to a search engine for available jobs in the area.
Be open to conversations…
The next step of finding your crowd in the new place is to be open to casual conversations with strangers.
I know that to a lot of people this is a huge, even uncomfortable step. And that’s okay. Take your time and break it up into baby steps.
Even just being out and surrounded by people instead of cooped up in your apartment with jet lag is going to make you feel less alone and more at home.
And maybe with time, being in a relaxed environment of easy conversation all around you, you might feel more inclined to join in on one, too.
Also, a conversation doesn’t necessarily have to start with you walking right up to a complete stranger and asking a million questions.
Sometimes a genuine smile to the girl across the room, who is also having coffee in front of her laptop, can be the start of a great conversation – or friendship.
I know that the most difficult step of them all is to directly approach people.
But fortunately, this is something you can practice – and with every single time you do it, it becomes easier.
I struggled quite a bit with this at some point, but every now and then I did it anyway.
And everything I’ve gained from those short moments out of my comfort zone has been so rewarding and affirming, that by now it’s almost second nature.
Whether it takes you a while to get there or you’re already a social butterfly, the important thing is to be open to casual conversations and not to shut down every single attempt of human contact (exaggeration furthers understanding), because you’re overthinking everything or because the person sitting next to you doesn’t fit a certain image in your head.
That exciting life you’re dreaming of? It’s right there, juuuust outside your comfort zone, on the other side of fear.
Taking classes in something you’re interested in or continuing a hobby that you’ve pursued back home is a great way of making friends in the new place.
A big advantage of meeting people this way is that you already know you have something in common with them, and because of that the conversation will come much more naturally and easily, than in the scenarios mentioned earlier.
Another advantage is that there are almost endless possibilities. You could take a cooking class, for instance, or join a book club.
Yoga class is a great option, too. Who wouldn’t want to connect with someone who’s interested in kindness and mindfulness?
I did it just the other day, when I asked a girl at yoga class whether she’d like to have a drink with me later, because I’m travelling on my own and would love some company. We had a great evening and wonderful conversations.
If you’re a sports freak, you could play tennis or badminton, sign up at the local gym or – my personal favourite – join a climbing club!
I’m vouching for this one, people. Not only is it a great sport, but you also become part of an incredibly open-minded, laid-back community that’s always welcoming newcomers. And, as soon as you get started, there’s loads of awesome adventures ahead.
Alternatively, you could also try to get a job related to your language or work expertise or you could sign up for volunteer work.
Participate in walking tours!
I love this one.
Almost every city offers guided walking tours around the city – many of which are free. This is a great way to meet other travellers and get in touch with the locals (usually the guide), while getting to know and learning more about the place you’ve chosen to set up camp.
Whilst the big city tours are often rather anonymous, I’ve found that GuruWalks are a really nice alternative.
GuruWalks are guided walking tours offered by locals, who have a particular area of interest and are passionate about sharing their knowledge about their home with visitors.
You simply search for the tour that interests you the most in your current destination, get directly in touch with the local offering the tour, and then you show up.
You do not have to pay anything to sign up for the tour. Instead, you tip the guide according to how much you enjoyed your experience.
I’ve participated in such a tour in Florence just a few days ago, and it was a great experience. My “Guru”, Irina, had a particular interest in history and is studying to become an archeologist.
I was the only one on this tour, which made it very relaxed, cozy and tailored to the areas I was interested in. It also gave me the chance to really get some inside tips on Florence.
And I was lucky enough to make a new friend.
This is the one I’ve personally struggled with the most. Saying yes to strangers who ask if you want to join them for a drink, an art exhibition or a party they’ve planned with their friends.
I was always worried that someone might judge me for just saying ‘yes’ to something like that. That I might seem naive, or that it wouldn’t be a good idea for some reason.
Of course, if it isn’t something you feel like, or you’re getting a weird vibe from that person, it isn’t a good idea.
But when that’s not the case, I personally ended up regretting that I didn’t just go with it 9 times out of 10. Fortunately, I’ve learned from that feeling.
The trick is not to hesitate, but to act, react and answer right away, so hesitation doesn’t give way to overthinking – making you miss out on something that could have been really fun.
Since I made that my philosophy, I’ve had so many highly interesting conversations and exciting experiences.
It turns out, a lot of people simply know what it feels like to travel solo or to move to a new place where you don’t know anyone.
So the next time someone asks you if you would like to go for a coffee, to join a dinner or a conversation, just say ‘yes’!
Worst case scenario, you don’t have that much to talk about and you don’t see each other again.
No harm done.
Best case scenario, you end up with amazing new friends and already feel much more at ease on your travels or in your new home.
Make sure to be safe and listen to your gut feeling – if you have a good feeling about it, and the situation isn’t dangerous, go with it.
Don’t automatically expect the worst or let overthinking stall you until you say no. Instead, go ahead and dive (head first) into everything this new, exciting place has in store for you.
I hope these tips are helpful to you and that they will lead you to connect with the amazing, interesting people out there in the world, to great conversations and amazing adventures.
Got some more tips for making friends abroad? Please – share, share, share. I would love to read them. Love, Kim.