How to Make Friends in a New City (where you don’t even speak the language!)

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When you’ve spent most of your life in one place, you tend to take many things for granted – your aging collection of books, for instance (don’t you love it when the pages start turning yellow?), or sharing wardrobes with your sister (mostly against her will), or that little bakery down the street that sells your favorite lemon rolls (you don’t want to know how they make them, they’re just really good).

Lemon Swiss Roll...mmmm
Gooey Lemon Swiss Roll…mmmm

Most of all, you take your friends for granted.

Imagine the last time you were out with a group of old friends. There you are, huddled together around a big table at your regular hangout, chattering nineteen to the dozen, laughing uproariously about something no one else would find funny, cracking jokes with the embarrassed waiter; spooning mouthfuls of steaming pad thai or bread-and-butter pudding into your mouth, faces beaming, teeth flashing, shiny heads bobbing. There, at that moment, you and your friends are the center of the universe. Everything and everyone else is in orbit around you. You are beautiful; you are invincible.

And then, in the midst of that irresistible merriment, your gaze falls upon a forlorn corner of the restaurant, where, at a table for two, somebody is sitting all alone; quietly sipping a coffee, or wrestling with a bit of leftover pasta on the plate; sometimes pretend-texting on her cell phone, sometimes looking up and smiling expectantly at the restaurant. And you think, pityingly, a little smugly, “Oh, that poor lonely human being. She has no friends!”

Well, meet the newest member of Coffee, Tea and No Company, or, My Best Friend is an Android Mobile App – me!

Crumbs and scribblings
Crumbs and scribblings in a coffee shop

I could never imagine being in a situation like this in my hometown, Lahore. Even in that sprawling metropolis of 12 million people, you invariably bumped into a friend, or at least an acquaintance, wherever you went. It made sense: you had friends from school, friends from college, friends from work. You had cousins, cousins’ friends, cousins’ cousins. You had neighbors, family friends, brothers’ and sisters’ friends. You just knew a lot of people, and you all frequented the same handful of upper-class restaurants and retail stores. So in a place like Lahore, it was impossible to be ‘friendless’, to sit by yourself in a cafe writing pensively in your diary – because somebody would find you out, and cheerfully plop down on the seat beside you for a catch-up.

But, navigating a new city, adjusting to a new country, fathoming a new language – you were nobody. You knew nobody. You had to start from scratch. Desde cero

In Madrid, there were no cozy International House socials to dive into, like at Berkeley, or late-night bonding sessions in the corridors with your floormates; there was no common kitchen like at Democracy Now!, where your like-minded, socially-conscious colleagues from around the world congregated to dissect America’s latest foreign policy misadventure over cups of fair-trade coffee; there was no lively Pakistani expat community that materialized, without fail, at every Eid, Independence Day and birthday party, to enjoy haleem and chicken tikkas at a New York dhaba.

The buzzing Democracy Now! Kitchen in New York
The buzzing Democracy Now! kitchen in New York

No. Madrid wasn’t like Berkeley, or New York, and of course it wasn’t like Lahore. Everything was different, from the streets to the sunlight to the food, people, shops, signs. Everything was new.

When we landed, we didn’t know a thing about the city. Sure, it was exciting, but we weren’t just there as tourists, for a few days or a week, staying at a plush downtown hotel, taking the double-decker tour bus to all the monuments and museums, posing for pictures with the matador in Plaza Mayor, eating out at TripAdvisor-recommended restaurants, buying flamenco figurines at the souvenir shops, and then happily heading back home.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid
Plaza Mayor, the largest public square in Madrid, and the first pitstop for most tourists

No, we were there to stay. To make a home.  And roaming around the streets of Madrid in search of an apartment during our first week, more than once I got that funny feeing in my stomach – like the feeling you get as a kid, standing outside the principal’s office for some primary school misdemeanor you may have committed. I suppose you could call it panic. “How am I going to do this! Where are we going to live? Where will I buy my groceries? Where will I find my turmeric and green chilies and Shaan masalas? Where on earth can I buy bathroom slippers, a 7-Watt light bulb, square-shaped tupperware, 16″x16″ cushion fillings, hummus and baking powder, apart from the ludicrously-priced El Corte Ingles?”

Which cell phone package has the cheapest local rates? Which internet service provider has the least hidden costs? How do I apply for a monthly metro pass? What do I do if I lose my monthly metro pass? What do I do if I get robbed! (Incidentally, these are not hypothetical questions)

Most important of all, how was I supposed to make friends? I could not enroll in a university (95% of the Arts & Humanities courses I was interested in were taught in Spanish), nor did I have the proper visa for a regular job, at a company or organization. My level of Spanish was too low to even apply for volunteer gig. How was I ever going to meet people, and engage in a longer-than-five-minute conversation with anybody, apart from my husband and the Carrefour checkout lady?

Faced with these sundry, seemingly insurmountable challenges, I could let myself sink into despair. That was always easy, and poetic. I could happily wallow in nostalgia – double, triple, quadruple layers. I could become a hermit, pottering about the house in a white robe, watering my herbs, sipping ginger tea and people-watching from the balcony. I could also live quite a gregarious virtual life, through Facebook, Skype, What’s App, Viber. There were just so many options.

Socially Awkward Penguin
Socially Awkward Penguin, displaying hermit-like behavior

But I had a plan. The location was Madrid, and the objective, “Friends”, those slippery creatures that every new immigrant or expat craves….

Read the complete post on BootsnAll, the ultimate online resource for the indie traveler!

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5 thoughts on “How to Make Friends in a New City (where you don’t even speak the language!)

    Salima Feerasta said:
    November 11, 2013 at 5:25 am

    So glad you are posting again – love to read yr blog, you write so well and I can really relate to you. Looking forward to the best update!

      manalkhan responded:
      November 18, 2013 at 5:03 pm

      thank you salima! :)

    Mehwish Fatima said:
    November 11, 2013 at 5:50 am

    Hey,

    I have written to you before and I write again just to tell you that I am in LOVE with your words. and your life! this is the kind of life I would have wanted had anybody waited as I penned down my wishlist. MashAllah you are very lucky! keep moving, keep discovering and keep writing! Love the new outlook. very refreshing!

    and yes, when you were not writing regularly I checked from work EVERYDAY to see if you had written that day.

    Don’t stop. Ever.

      manalkhan responded:
      November 18, 2013 at 5:04 pm

      dear mehwish, you’re too kind really!!! it touches my heart that there are readers like you out there. i won’t stop, if only for you!! *hugs*

    […] My recent series of blogposts, recounting my (mis)adventures as a fresh-off-the-boat expat in the splendid Spanish capital of Madrid, was published today as a feature article on BootsnAll, the largest and most popular online resource for independent travelers! Of course, I’m muy excited about it, and would love for you to read and share the article with your friends! […]

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