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Expat Friends in Isolating Times: The Story of Gene and Jen

Gene and Jennifer are both expats currently living in the Netherlands. They met each other as well as three other expats at an InterNations event just before coronavirus and restrictions came to the country. We spoke to them about life as an expat, living in lockdown, and keeping in touch.

Finding Friends in a New Country

Gene had lived and studied in Rotterdam from 2017 to 2019. Earlier this year, he realized he qualified for the orientation visa program and decided to come back to work in Rotterdam. He is originally from Canada, but he has not regretted his move: “from a day-to-day perspective, it has been lovely to live in the Netherlands.”

Jennifer, or Jen for short, quit her London job in 2018 and spent all of 2019 traveling. When she returned to the UK, she thought she would like to continue living abroad and “get some international work experience”. After applying for jobs in various countries, Jen ended up taking a position in Amsterdam and finally relocated in February 2020. “It is a good fit for me as I love working in an international environment. I can speak English at work while learning Dutch alongside,” she says.

Both Gene and Jen wanted to use InterNations to find friends in their new home-away-from-home. When Gene was studying in The Netherlands, he used to attend lots of InterNations events, and his strategy was to do the same again this time. Luckily, he and Jen managed to meet just in time before the world ground to a halt on account of the coronavirus pandemic.

Timing Is Everything

Gene and Jen met at one of the last in-person InterNations Official Events before lockdown and social distancing measures were brought into place. As well as each other, the pair also met two expats who had just moved from Brazil, and a Slovakian expat who had been in the Netherlands for a few years already. Gene mentions: “that was the first, last, and only time that all five of us were together, before the lockdown started.”

The friendship group formed at the perfect time: the four new arrivals were facing many of the same challenges that expats face when moving to a new country, such as opening a bank account or finding an apartment. “It was a really good way to get support and ask questions and see what people were doing,” Jen explains. “Everyone had the same experience and we could empathize with each other.”

According to her, it was a natural bond from day one. When they first met, the group didn’t just stick to small talk, they jumped right to playing games together and getting to know each other on a deeper level. Gene loves that, “beyond being working professionals, what we also have in common is that we all want to learn more.”

Sticking Together through Challenging Times

Lockdown during the corona crisis has been a challenging time, especially for expats. Everyone had to find new ways to stay entertained and stay connected, especially during the weeks of the tightest lockdowns.

Gene mentions that he “could not go to the pub for a drink to meet some folks”, expressing the frustration that many have felt from not being able to socialize in the usual ways. However, once they were able to do so again, the group met for coffee or a socially distanced walk. Jen mentions that, being new to the country in February, she only had two weeks in her office before she had to work from home. “It’s not the same as seeing people face to face, but it is going okay,” she says.

One classic side effect of the group’s international friendship is that sometimes they have trouble understanding each other. Gene jokes that “sometimes we are chatting, and when Jen says something, Victor — our Brazilian friend — just stares blankly at her, trying to figure out what she means!” The group figured out that Victor simply understands Gene’s accent better than Jen’s!

Jen appreciated the generosity that other expats have shown. “Everyone is in the same position at the moment, people do understand and are willing to help and share experiences and stories to support you.”  A very poignant thought for International Friendship Day!

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