How to win friends.
A funny thing happened the other day when Joe let me know that his work travel might be picking up a bit in the coming weeks. Instead of filling with a sense of dread as I anticipated lonely days and even lonelier nights in a too-big-for-one-and-maybe-too-big-for-two house, I heard myself replying “oh, that’s OK. I have friends here now.”
The words rolled so nonchalantly out of my mouth that it took me a second or three to realize what a huge thing I was really saying: I. have. friends. here. now. As in, not just Joe and not just one.
It took me longer than I anticipated but I’m not entirely sure why I should have expected anything different. There’s been a lot of news lately about the dangers of loneliness and the vexing fact that it’s just plain hard to find friends in adulthood. Even major news outlets are publishing how-to pieces on making and maintaining friendships, so I suppose I shouldn’t feel so bad that finding new buds just doesn’t seem to be as easy as it was in preschool.
Real talk for a second? I thought perhaps the problem was me the first few months I was here. I’d see people who had arrived in Brussels about the same time show up together in #squadgoals pics and posts on social media and I was transported right back to being the new girl in 4th grade.
I had come to Hidden Valley Elementary in the middle of the year from a corporate classroom experiment in the inner city. I wasn’t prepared for the shift from a Montessori to a traditional setting. But I really wasn’t prepared for Liz and Leah, the dynamic duo that ruled Mrs. Henderson’s room with an ever-changing list of who was cool and who was decidedly uncool. Let’s just say that my matching sweatsuits and pixie haircut landed me on the uncool list rather quickly.
I don’t entirely remember how I got over being a 4th grade outcast. I’m sure it involved pep talks from Mom and a trip or two to Kohl’s for much more stylish windsuits. What’s even more of an unsolved mystery is how I found myself leading the 6th grade girl pack that last year of elementary. Maybe it was the Girbaud jeans. (Or maybe it was the fact that I wasn’t an asshole.)
After 7th grade, I transferred schools often enough that I was the new girl five more times. Some places were easier to break into than others but I always managed to make a connection and usually had a BFF or two by a couple of months in.
It’s been harder to grow instant friends in adulthood. And it felt doubly hard here in Brussels. I’ve heard from others that it’s not an easy city or an easy post for making friends. Locals are so used to expats coming and going that there’s not much mingling. Expats are coming and going. And the embassy community is large and somewhat spread out, making it difficult sometimes to find your people. It’s a bit like the paradox of the big campus — you’re more likely to find a person who shares your values and interests but it’s harder to find them. It takes some patience. (Have I mentioned that patience is not one of my virtues?)
How to win friends.
I figure this is good of a place as any to drop a few pieces of advice for the wannabe friend maker. Some of these are specific to the Foreign Service and some are just good life tips.
Slow your roll. This nugget came from one of Joe’s colleagues not long after I got here. She cautioned me against glomming on to the first person who showed interest in a relationship because it could get awkward if either of us decided later that maybe we weren’t destined to be besties. This is especially true in the Embassy fishbowl where you’re likely to run into each other over and over again. (Full disclosure: I only listen to it about half the time.)
Be persistent. But never annoying. It wasn’t until I started admitting my own inclination to hibernate over the grey Belgian winter that a few of the women I’m interested in getting to know better admitted that they too had spent November and December in a cocoon. I’m glad I didn’t assume that they just weren’t that into me. But if you keep getting turned down after 3-4 invites, it might be time to move on.
Get over yourself. If you’re like me, Ladies Nights with a gaggle of women take you far, far outside of your comfort zone. Do whatever you need to do to push yourself to go and then focus on making a connection with one or two women there. Same goes for Bunco nights or CLO field trips or anything else that isn’t entirely your thing. Another thing you can get over? The idea that your house has to be perfectly spotless to invite a friend over for coffee. (You’ll know you’re REAL friends when you start folding laundry in front of each other.)
Be OK with being vulnerable. I’m not saying you should treat everybody you meet as your next therapist, but a little vulnerability goes a long away. Admitting that it wasn’t easy to adjust here and asking for advice helped me deepen a couple of relationships that now have a two-way exchange of wisdom and celebratory high fives.
Be interesting. I realized pretty quickly here that I needed to make a life of my own, independent of Joe. I’ve found friends more easily in the places that are connected to my interests rather than to his work. So go find a fitness class or a language class or a group of folks into whatever hobby nerds you out. At the very least, you’ll be less bored.
But above all, be interested. Sure, it’s Friendship 101 but it’s also easy to get caught up in our own lives sometimes. Chance and frequent encounters — which happen so easily in a campus environment and make college friendships stickier faster — just don’t happen as often now. Do the work. Send a quick text or Facebook message to let somebody know you’re thinking of them and that you’re glad you’re in the same place at the same time.
Maybe I didn’t grow instant friendships in my first eight months here. But last week I realized that I had indeed, and almost to my surprise, managed to plant enough seeds to find myself with a handful of honest-to-goodness friends in Brussels. And — better yet — a couple of them are the type that I’d feel only mildly mortified calling to help get me to the E.R. if I needed stitches while Joe’s gone. (Don’t laugh. This was always one of my biggest fears about living as a single gal: that there’d be nobody to give me a ride to the hospital if I needed one. I suspect it might actually be a somewhat common fear amongst otherwise wildly independent and resourceful women.)
I am, of course, carefully tending those now-seedling friendships because growing deep bonds takes time, care and love. I’m still planting seeds as I meet even more new people. But I already have a feeling that it’s going to be a beautiful, colorful spring.