When I started grad school in the stunning city of Copenhagen back in 2002, I was still considerably young and certainly inexperienced in finding my place in a new environment. I came to Copenhagen as one of three German girls, who after receiving our bachelor’s degree in a marvelous little town called Flensburg (high up in the north of Germany just at the border to Denmark), simultaneously decided to relocate to Copenhagen to pursue our Master’s. Our bachelor program had been conducted partially in Danish and we wanted to expand on our language skills by relocating to Denmark (the happiest country in the world, did you know?). It felt like a cool thing to do, and the three of us looked forward to our new adventure.
What initially seemed like a blessing – not being on my own and having close friends to relate to immediately – turned out to become a bit of a curse. Soon after we settled in, we put ourselves on a mission to meet other people, yet we realized that in order to be successful in that endeavor, we had to break our established circle and act more like individuals.
Quickly said and done, we would find ourselves sitting at opposite ends of the classroom, barely looking at each other to not leave the impression that we are an established group. Although we lived in the same building, we also agreed to commute to and from class on our own and to be as proactive as possible about widening our circle of friends. In the end it even seemed like some sort of competition, as to who spoke to more strangers and made more friends within a certain period.
Well, I sure did not win that game. Being an introvert, this for me was hell on earth. I was in a new country and city, not allowed to be around the people I felt closest to and had to throw myself at others that I was not even interested in or ready to meet yet. Looking back today, I cannot even say that this approach created lasting friendships either – at least not for me. But to cut us some slack, we did not know better and tried what we thought would be the best way to be social.
Almost 20 years and a considerable number of moves later, I am much more relaxed about this topic. Chicago is the 12th city (besides my hometown) where I pitch my tents and I can say that meeting new people has gotten a lot easier over time.
I am aware that if you have never lived anywhere else than the place where you were born and raised, one of your biggest fears might be to end up all by yourself in a new city – lonely and in despair. I can tell you: you are not the only one carrying this anxiety, but it is a fear worth overcoming if you are juggling with the thought of potentially living somewhere else one day.
My secret recipe to meeting other people is very simple: do not force it, give it time, but do not wait for the red carpet to be rolled out for you. Now what does that mean?
I realized over the years and with every move I made, that the easiest way to meet new people is doing the things I enjoy. I am personally not a big fan of networking events with the sole purpose of meeting others (you wind up spending the entire evening either introducing yourself or listening to other people’s introduction – booooooring). If this is something you favor, totally go for it. Facebook, MeetUp, Internations and many other organizations, which are dedicated to connecting people worldwide, offer something for every taste and budget. And you do get to meet nice people, too, speaking from experience.
I am more the kind of person who plans her own schedule around her interests (here we go again, introvert speaking), in confidence that I will eventually bump into others who are likeminded. This has worked well for me and is also the approach I am – so far successfully – taking in Chicago. If I see a cool event, I sign up for it. If I discover a new type of sports I want to try, I jump at the opportunity. If there are volunteer activities that spark my interest, I call and make an appointment. If there is a skill I have always wanted to improve, I register for a training. If I have a hobby I wish to continue, I find a club. If I am invited to a party, I might decide to go.
You have no such interest and prefer to stick around at home? Well, as much as I can relate, this may not get you anywhere. So, leave the house, try some new things even if your enthusiasm might be very limited at the beginning and approach other people with an open mind. As soon as you leave your comfortable sofa and overcome the initial discomfort of being the new kid in town, you will realize that there are lovely people everywhere you go.
You might end up enjoying a pleasant but one-time-only conversation with some folks and never see them again. Others you might develop a casual “once in a while for coffee” acquaintance with. And there might be very few people who could become friends for life. I never leave the house in the hope that the latter will happen, but when it does, I feel grateful for the surprises that life offers to us.
I want to end by sharing a sweet little encounter I experienced this week. I was on my way to the metro and took the stairs up to the station, along with a man in his fifties. We were both wheezing from the number of steps that had to be climbed and as we finally made it to the platform, he looked at me, laughed and admitted that he thought he was in shape (so was I btw). He shared where he worked and asked if by chance I was employed by the same company.
While entering the approaching train, I gave my elevator speech on what I was in Chicago for, and when I mentioned that I am originally from Germany, he pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of his 12-year old daughter who apparently played soccer with a friend who was German. He asked if I liked Chicago, told me how proud he was of the two girls just winning a soccer tournament and wished me the best of luck for my adventure as the train came to a stop and I took off.
This got me to thinking how this situation would have unfolded in Germany, where we typically not talk to strangers and if we do get approached, almost fear that they are up to something. Quite different here. And as I mentioned before and am a firm believer in: there are lovely people everywhere.