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The Single Expat: you are now an extrovert – whether you like it or not (fake it ‘till you make it, baby!)

My sister Kate – The Single Expat – is sharing some of her insights into finding – nay!  – creating community wherever you go. The importance of having a community and a place where you can let your hair down and be yourself cannot be emphasized enough. This applies for all of us, but especially for singles as they don’t come home to other people and are at risk of isolation. It can be hard but the rewards will be worth it.

Be sure to read to the end where Kate shares her recipe for “Chicken Panzanella for One”.

Next-level settling in: Finding a home away from home

When I left Boston after living there for 5 years to pursue an entirely new direction in my life, the pub where I had been a regular patron for most of those 5 years hosted a going away party for me. It sounds a little odd that a pub would do that, but they did! And it was a blast. I have a framed collage of pictures from that night with all of the amazing people that made up my community in that phase of my life and I sometimes take a moment and consider each of those lovely faces even now, more than 20 years later. 

The owner of the pub said to me that evening that she was a little worried about the potentially significant decrease in her revenue my leaving might cause. And she wasn’t joking. No, it’s not because I drank so much that my absence would be felt, financially. It was that I had made the pub the place where my community, my friends, my “chosen family” met and ate and drank, learned and laughed, celebrated important events, and lived a lot of our lives.

You see, that pub was the first of many in my life that became my safe haven. The place I found when I first moved into town and settled into. It is the place that I made “my turf”, an extension of my home where I felt comfortable and confident and could be the architect of my own life and social circle.

Extrovert or Introvert? Yes.

For as long as I can remember, I have been accused of being a happy extrovert: comfortable in the spotlight, thriving on human interaction, a social butterfly. In actuality I am naturally a homebody who craves quiet alone time away from others. I used to try to convince people that I was, in fact, very shy but nobody believed me. In truth, it’s a lot more complicated than being one or the other. Like most of us, I am a little bit of both. I am most comfortable – and my most extroverted self – when I am in control, on my own turf. That means my home, clearly. But it also means the place that feels like an extension of home, like my pub in Boston.

So, I live with this weird internal dichotomy where I love new adventures and exploring new places and cultures and all of the things that come with being an expat, but I also have very introverted tendencies that cause me to hermit (see previous blogpost) and, frankly, fear plays a part. Fear of the unknown, fear of making a fool of myself, all of the fears you would expect to push you to stay inside and never meet another human being. But that is not why you’ve chosen the expat life. And that doesn’t sound very fun at all.

It seems like it would be a lot easier to have a partner with whom to forge those new alliances, explore new things, etc. but that isn’t necessarily the case. What if your partner doesn’t like the same kinds of things you do? What if, like me, you are happily single? (The multitude of issues that come with being a single adult in most cultures, where you are considered somehow wrong or incomplete as a person, is worthy of its own blogpost, possibly an entire book but I’ll leave that for another day.)

How do you create a community on your own?

I have spent the vast majority of my adult life as a single person who tends to move to new locations on a 5- to 10-year cycle. And while I do crave and truly need alone time, I also enjoy being social, having friends, being part of a community. But how do you do that when you have to rebuild that community every time you move to a new country or city? How do you do that when your natural tendency is to shy away from the scary unknown or to bury yourself in your work and conveniently forget to go out there into the unknown and meet people? How do you go about meeting new people?

Well, you push yourself. Put on your extrovert hat and take a big giant leap (I promise you can take that hat off when you get home and curl up on your sofa to recharge). As I mentioned in the previous blog post, it is extremely useful to find a place (like my pub in Boston) where you feel comfortable and can become a regular. It’s easy to meet the staff and the owners of the establishment that way. They have to talk to you! And over time, you may become wonderful friends with some of them.

I recommend choosing a place that serves whatever kind of beverage you are partial to (tea, coffee, beer, wine, cocktails? Entirely up to your preference!) and, crucially where you can order food. Food is an easy conversation starter and it helps create connections, it nourishes your soul and it literally nourishes you. It’s also a wonderful introduction to the culture and flavours your new home.

Also, bring something to read that is not on your phone. That way you are not bored or self-conscious about just sitting there alone with nothing to do. A physical book or magazine or newspaper is a wonderful conversation starter and it is much easier to approach someone reading a book than someone who is buried in their phone.

The thing that happens when you are a “regular” is that you start to feel comfortable. That place becomes “your turf.” If you have any introverted tendencies, this can be your soft transition to being more extroverted. You will meet other regulars, who may very well become dear friends over time. (In fact, I have met some of my closest friends in this way.) People will suggest new restaurants, shops and events to explore. People will invite you to things. Accept those invitations (unless they feel unsafe, obviously!). I had no idea (nor had I ever considered it) how fun laser tag could be. I have fallen in love with incredible new music by accepting invitations to hear local musicians play. I learned about groups from one of my favourite bartenders (literally any interest you have, there is likely a group of people with similar interests out there, meeting regularly in your new community). People love talking about their home, their city. Let them! And ask questions. Be curious. And, importantly, listen. You never know what you might learn.

Long-term benefits of making friends: more friends

About 10 years after I left Boston, a dear friend from another new ‘home’ was going on a work trip to Boston and asked me where he should go for a bite to eat and a beer while he was there. I suggested my old pub. He called me while he was in Boston saying he had found it (and a picture of me on the wall of patrons – eek!) and even got a free beer after spending the evening chatting with the owner about me. Worlds colliding and circles closing. Sometimes it really pays to pretend you’re an extrovert. Give it a try!

*Covid-19 caveat: much of this socializing is likely not possible or only possible in a reduced way at the moment. Covid-19 seems to have caused people to be even less outgoing than usual. But humans still crave interaction and connections can still be made. I promise. It may take a bit longer, but all of this still holds true even in the more socially distant world we all live in now.