Erika Tepler is an American expat living in Seville, Spain. She works for Panion, a community-building app that helps people find like-minded friends and form meaningful connections and she would like to share her tips finding and building your community abroad.
Four years ago, with wide eyes and determined optimism, I decided to move to Seville, Spain. It was an enormous leap and while I was terribly scared, I was also fiercely excited to begin a new life.
I threw myself into Spanish culture. I religiously attended Spanish classes and refused to speak in English with my classmates during the break. I devoured books in Spanish, reading with a pencil to underline words I needed to look up later.
I was a question machine, speaking to every taxi driver and bartender I could about “la vida Sevillana”. I spent a small fortune on flamenco dresses for the spring fairs and then, of course, spent another small fortune on flamenco dance classes. What’s the point of the dress if you can’t dance, right?
When it came to friendships, I mostly relied on my partner at the time. I spent weekends with him and his family and friends on the coast, sipping local wine and eating seafood. My afternoons were often in neighborhood bars with his coworkers, where we’d stand for hours chatting about everything from politics to sports to the latest flamenco dress trends.
Those first few years were rich in cultural learning and I am so grateful for them. Yet I neglected to create what would make my move truly sustainable- my own tribe.
After the novelty of living abroad wore off- when I had run out of questions to ask and flamenco started sounding repetitive- I felt lonely. I no longer had to focus on survival and fitting in. Everything that was once really hard, started to feel a bit easier and I was left with an emptiness.
Without the need to focus on surviving daily life in a new place, I turned inward to think about what really mattered. I yearned for meaningful connections and deep friendships. I was able to form my own community of friends by following a few basic steps.
In every city, all over the world, there are groups for runners, salsa dancers, musicians and foodies. When I lived in NYC I joined a bowling league to meet people. I’m possibly the worst bowler in the world- think gutter balls- but I had a blast and met lots of other bad bowlers who wanted to hang out. In Seville, when I joined a faith community, I suddenly had a circle of friends to spend time with. The religious piece was there, but most of us spent way more time hanging out in bars together than focused on prayer. Starting with group get-togethers, I was able to naturally get close to individuals and have since formed some of my closest friendships.
Reach out to everyone you know and tell them where you are. We often don’t realize how many connections we have all over the world. Post your location on social media and see who reaches out. If you went to a large university, chances are that you can connect with people in your alumni network.
If you go to the same place to buy your fruit every week, you’ll be pals with the store owner and the other regulars before you know it. By being a regular face, you integrate yourself into the community and people come to expect your presence. I go to the same place for breakfast every day so if I skip a day, they ask me where I was when I return.
It sounds really awkward, but every time I’ve done it I’ve made a new connection. It’s best to ask someone new to do something specific to you. Plan to go to a concert, or to a park so you can share a new experience. Sometimes it’s hard to meet new people and find activity partners but the app Panion makes it easier. Panion connects you to people with similar interests that live nearby. They even have public communities you can join to find groups of people with common values and passions.
To maintain a network, focus on giving and nurturing the connections you make. When a dear friend of mine got pregnant, I was worried we would spend much less time together. What I realized was that if I came to her house and was there for her when she felt sick, our friendship would continue to grow and develop. When she gave birth I kept coming and we are closer than ever.
All of this takes effort, but forming a solid community in a new place is a challenge. Once I got past the basic challenges of everyday life abroad, I was able to really focus on creating the network of friends that makes this life meaningful and sustainable. Sometimes I still feel lonely, even though I have so many friends, but I recognize that creating a community is a constant process, and investing energy into it always pays off.
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