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How We Socialize

This rather unique Expat Experiences entry is a series of interviews by two long-term travelers. Hope and her husband took a RTW gap year in 2008, and Hope is currently re-establishing her law practice in Albuquerque after returning from life as an expat in Florence, Italy, where her husband worked for a year. Bobbi and her husband are a year into their nomadic expat lifestyle, currently slow-traveling and living throughout southern Africa.

How do you keep in touch with friends and family from home?

Bobbi: I have a handful of close friends, including my sister, at home; my biggest concern about traveling for an extended time was losing my connection to them. I was right to worry; I really do miss the joy they bring to a simple walk or cup of coffee. One way I try to counter this feeling of isolation is to stay active on social media. I used to avoid Facebook, checking it once a week to say happy birthday to distant friends, but otherwise finding it too much of a drain on my time. Now, though, monitoring Facebook and a few favorite blogs gives me a sense of connection to family and friends. Emails mean a lot to me as well, but I know from experience that those at home are still as busy as I was a year ago, and while I have more down-time these days, they don’t. So I periodically send postcards to let them know they’re in my thoughts.

Hope: I have to say, now that I just got home, it feels a little surreal answering these questions in retrospect. Part of me feels like I was gone forever, but part of me feels like I never left. But, to get back to the actual question – and I am not a paid spokesperson, but the answer is SKYPE, SKYPE and SKYPE (with an occasional snail-mail card thrown in there for good measure). The thing that was so great about Skype was that not only could I video chat with all my friends and some family, but we could use Skype as an old-fashioned phone to call folks not in the computer-age (like my mom-in-law) for pennies a minute. I also used it to make tons of calls to arrange internet service, buy a car, and many other things when we were planning our move back to the States. I think I’ve shared this story with you, Bobbi…. When I was a kid (WAY before people had computers, let alone Skype), my grandmother used to pretend she could see me on her “magic TV phone” when we would talk. It was such a fantastical notion at that time!

Describe your successes (or difficulties) in making friends/socializing.

Bobbi: While traveling slowly has allowed us to meet many more people than ever before in our past travels which lasted 2-4 weeks at most, two experiences in this first year of traveling stand out. My friendship with Hope is the first; although we met because I read and enjoyed her blog while I was visiting Florence, we have maintained a strong friendship because we have other things in common in addition to a love of travel. The second is a group of friends who evolved during our stay in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. KC and I rented an apartment from a couple near our age and became friends with them. Simultaneously, we began meeting a combination of locals and expats through InterNations website for informal social activities like a game drive at the local wildlife park, an outdoor concert, or an Easter barbecue. The group grew even after we moved on to South Africa, and we even recently reconnected for a weekend at Sun City, a South African mini-Vegas.

Hope: Wow, this one’s really tough. I think overall, it was much more difficult making friends with “natives” than I thought it would be. I think part of this is that the place I lived (Florence) is pretty much known as being somewhat closed, and the other is that I could not communicate in Italian on a level that would facilitate people really getting to know me, my sense of humor, my more profound thoughts, etc. It seems like I fell into the pattern I observed with most other expats – making friends with each other. The interesting thing is, the expat community anywhere is a tiny fraction of the entire community, already severely narrowing your options for friendships. It seems that at least some acquaintances, lunches and coffees were based simply on the fact that we were both Americans. Once in a blue moon (I’m talking to you, Bobbi), there would be real, deeper connections discovered and formed, but to be honest, in the year I was away I did my best to make many acquaintances, but only made a couple of real friends.

Can you give advice on making social connections while traveling/living abroad?

Bobbi: When we’ve traveled for short periods and only spend a few days or a week in each city, I’ve often made fun connections with other travelers I’ve met in our hotel restaurant or on a tour. But if you’re on a slower schedule like us for the past year, you may have time to broaden your horizons just a bit.

A few ideas come to mind which have allowed us to mingle with - if not always native-born locals - at least some English speakers who are living in your area.

  • Embassies and government-sponsored organizations are a great source of social events where, even if you’re only in town for a few days, you can drop in and enjoy an evening of chatting in your native tongue. The American consulate may host a weekly brunch for American citizens in your city. Or in Gaborone, Botswana, the French Alliance (sponsored by the French government) puts on concerts, classes, and even a Bastille Day ball – all open to the public and hugely popular with locals and expats alike.
  • has become one of my favorite organizations this past year. It’s literally all over the world and each city has an “ambassador” who receives a top-level membership in exchange for organizing monthly get-togethers at a bar or restaurant. They send reminders to attendees to be nice to the new members, and having attended events in three countries now, I have never felt awkward or unwelcome. In bigger cities, members also create specialty groups for anything from hiking to attending symphonies; in Istanbul, there were literally 3-5 events nightly to choose from if you followed all the specialty groups. One of the best things about InterNations is its appeal to all nationalities; locals seem to love it as much as expats, so it’s also been a great way to meet natives who speak English, not just other travelers or expats.
  • Google for the English-language newspaper in your city. Expats have a vested interest in finding other English speakers, so they’re diligent about posting where you can find a movie in English or the schedule for the weekly language exchange.

Hope: Wow, Bobbi, I’m impressed – that’s a pretty good go-to list for expats! The only addition I would make is to try and find a language exchange partner – people all over the world want to improve their English, so it’s a great way to get to know and spend time with a local, as well as improve your language skills. While you need to be cautious, as with any unknown, and the newspapers Bobbi mentioned usually have ads for language exchanges, or you can run your own. One of my two language partnerships came about by my answering such an ad (though the first time I answered an ad I believe I found a gentleman who may have had more than language on his agenda), and the second occurred organically from a chance conversation at a pool. These were the two closest connections I made with Italians, plus I learned some great idiomatic expressions!

What do you do for entertainment that’s different from your typical weekend or evening plans at home?

Bobbi: Without friends nearby, we often stay in more than usual. To pre-empt any homesickness that might come with missing the newest Bond movie (KC’s a big fan) or not being able to understand the evening news in Korean, KC and I planned carefully to avoid feeling deprived of our usual comfort-habits while on the road. For example, we bought a bluetooth Bose Soundlink speaker so that we have quality sound when we listen to music, stream NPR news over breakfast, or watch movies on the laptop. And we subscribe to TunnelBear, a VPN service that permits access to accounts normally only available in the US (Netflix, Pandora, and Amazon movie rentals) (thanks for the recommendation, Hope!).

Hope: Before Italy, we were pretty much homebodies. Usually we would throw a party or have a bbq if we wanted to be sociable on the weekends (forcing everyone else to come to us). One thing we definitely did more in Italy was to get out of the house! This was in part because we didn’t love our apartment the way we love our house, but also because there was also always so much going on right outside our door. In New Mexico if you want to go out to happy hour or a wine festival, you need to drive there, forcing one person to be the designated driver. In Italy, since we had no car and everything was within walking distance, we could go to “apperitivo” (buy a drink, eat a buffet free – great budget dining tip) or a festival and have a glass of wine sans concern. For festivals and festivities in general, we only had to drag ourselves down 3 flights of stairs instead of into a car, driving in traffic, finding parking, etc. We’re trying to maintain the “going out more” lesson Italy taught us. And…in all honesty, we used tunnelbear and hulu to watch a lot of American TV...

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