Retiring abroad is usually portrayed as a glamorous endevour. But, today, I’d like to offer an alternative perspective on one aspect of moving to another country in retirement… how to make friends.
I’m not embarrassed by the fact that I crave human contact. Unlike my kids, who seem like they could be perfectly happy floating through space in a lonely little metal capsule, I need people around me to thrive.
It’s not just deep conversations that I crave; I also love sitting in coffee shops and people watching, talking to complete strangers on buses, trains and plans and smiling at people on the street. I guess this is one of the factors that ultimately led me to start Sixty and Me, now a community with over 500,000 baby boomer women.
So, it was a complete shock to my system when I arrived in Switzerland, the country that I had decided to retire in, only to suddenly find myself without friends. Oh, I still had Facebook friends. And, I knew that I could use Skype to stay in touch with people back home. Somehow, it just wasn’t the same.
Since moving to Switzerland several years ago, I have struggled to make friends. Despite my naturally open nature, I just couldn’t find people to build deep connections with. Now, looking back, I realize that many of challenges that I faced were of my own creation.
So, to help all of the men and women in our community who are retiring abroad, I want to share a few tips about staying social in another country. I learned all of these the hard way so that you don’t have to!
Before moving to Switzerland, I had never lived in a country that spoke a language other than English. So, as you can imagine, I was quite intimidated by the prospect of having to communicate in German.
I’m ashamed to say that, for the first year or so, I let my lack of confidence with the German language hold me back. I falsely assumed that no-one would talk with me if I didn’t speak their language. So, I stuck close to home and, when I did go out, I didn’t initiate conversations quite nearly as often as I did when I lived in the U.S., Canada, or England.
Looking back, I realize that my reluctance to start conversations, either in German or English, was a mistake for several reasons.
First, I now know that the great majority of people here speak at least a little English. Moreover, they LOVE practicing it with me. Now, I practically have to beg my German-speaking friends to let me speak a little German with them!
This may or may not be the case in your country, but, you have nothing to lose by reaching out to people. I find that people usually appreciate you asking them in their language if they speak a little English. This takes the pressure off. But, in my experience, most people who speak some English are happy to use it with you.
Second, I now realize that many of the people that I avoided striking up conversations with were foreigners themselves. So, like little kids at a school dance, we just sat there looking at each other, no-one wanting to make the first move.
Finally, while learning a foreign language is difficult and takes time, you can learn the basics in a surprisingly short time. You may not form close friendships immediately, but, developing your language skills can lay the foundation for future relationships… especially if you plan on staying in the same city for many years.
When we are younger, we have so many “accidental friendships.” As mothers, coworkers and wives, people come to us. We go to work BBQs, attend school events, go to baseball games, help to babysit each other’s kids and experience a hundred other small social interactions every year.
Retiring abroad is different. Instead of having a built-in social life that revolved around my family, I found myself sitting in my little studio apartment, wondering what to do. Fortunately, I had my business to keep me busy. Otherwise, I think I would have gone crazy!
Then, one day, a few years ago, I decided that enough was enough. Instead of waiting for people to come to me, I was going to start some of my own events.
So, I went to meetup.com and started a group. I invited people to meet once a month for a coffee. This group ultimately failed because it didn’t involve a shared interest. Oh sure, people would come to the first meeting, but, then they would get busy and we would never see them again.
A much more successful group that I started focused on train lovers. For the last 6 months or so, a group of us meets every two weeks to take a train journey somewhere special. We have people ranging from their mid-30s to their late 70s and we have so much fun! This group, more than any other, showed me the importance of finding people who share your interests – not just people who want to chat.
I stopped looking for my socks years ago. Convinced that my focused attention sent them directly into another plane of existence, I just got on with my life and… voila! … they would eventually show up!
This is perhaps the worst analogy that I have ever drawn, but, in many ways, finding friends is like finding your missing socks; the best way to find them is simply to get on with your life.
If you are the kind of person who spends all of your day watching TV, not many people are going to find you. Presumably, one of the reasons that you decided that retiring abroad was a good idea is that you wanted to have a completely unique cultural experience.
So, don’t sit at home feeling sorry for yourself. Get out there and follow your passions. More importantly, explore your hobbies and develop your skills without the intention of meeting other people. After all, the best way to make friends is to find people who love the same things that you do. Ask yourself the following questions:
What hobbies or skills have always fascinated you?
What charitable organizations or causes do you want to support?
What new sport or skill would you learn if you had no fear?
How do you love to spend your free time? Could you do this socially?
How can you help out in your neighborhood?
Does your country sponsor free (or cheap) language lessons? Take them!
If there is one thing that I have learned from my time in Switzerland it’s that making friends and living well are deeply connected. There is a pleasant tension between the two paths that lead to friendship. One path pulls you towards independence and acts as a magnet for new friends. The other path pulls you towards taking the first step and not waiting for people to come to you. Both are essential to staying social when retiring abroad!
Are you thinking about retiring abroad? Or, have you already made the move? What do you think are the secrets to making friends overseas? Please join the conversation!