UPDATE: Lonely expat problem and making friends abroad

Written by Diane on. Posted in on life in France

making friends abroad

Hi all, about two years ago I published a post titled The lonely expat problem: Making friends is harder than it looks which resonated with so many expats out there. Frankly, it was sad and surprising to know that so many of you were experiencing the same thing I was and also comforting at the same time to know I wasn’t alone in what I was going through. A recent comment on that post asked for an update and since the situation in the friends department has changed a little bit — for the better! — I figured I owe you all an update. So here it is…

Read my update on making friends abroad!

UPDATE: Lonely expat problem & making friends abroad

When I wrote that lonely expat post about making friends abroad, I had been in France about one year. I’ve been here three years now and the change for me has been over the last six months. What changed? Something really simple. I joined my town’s gym. And it was the best thing I could have done for myself — both socially speaking and for my fitness.

So let’s back up. In that post from January 2013, I wrote:

I think it’s very easy to focus on creating that perfect expat facade, but the truth is, once that honeymoon period of a new place wears off, the reality not so gently becomes painfully obvious and real life issues tend to creep on in. Living away from your friends and family is hard sometimes. Plain and simple. Anyone who tells you otherwise is living a lie or hasn’t gotten out of that honeymoon period yet.

At the time, making friends abroad wasn’t going well at all, and I pretty much put the blame on myself. I felt guilty for not trying hard enough to put myself out there.

But it’s easier to say you’re going to put yourself out there than to actually do it.

One of my first steps way back when was to put up a profile on the meetup site OnVaSortir but shortly after joining I had a stalker “friend” who was very hard to shake. That discouraged me from sticking with that because I wasn’t meeting compatible people. I’d put my time and effort into work and friends back home and just enjoying France, letting the whole making friends abroad thing just get worse.

To put this in perspective, let me clarify what I mean by saying I didn’t have any friends in France. I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Well, maybe she means no friends of her own, surely she’s friends with Tom’s friends and family.” No, actually. Aside from Tom’s twin brother who lives hours away and his parents, I’ve never met any of his other family members. And since he’s not from where we live, he doesn’t have any friends from the area either aside from work acquaintances that we don’t see socially (see, it’s hard for French people too! And I’ve heard that from several French people). So at that time, my social interaction consisted of talking to friends/family from home, Tom and smalltalk with other dog owners in the park or the occasional weather chat with neighbors or shopkeepers. That’s it. Really.

But since joining the gym, that’s changed.

The gym employees probably think Americans are gym happy or something because I am sure I looked a little too excited to slap down a 150 euro initiation fee and 46 euros a month.

But the point here is that I made a change. I’m a big fan of taking action if you don’t like the situation you’re in (after you’ve wallowed for a bit, that is). If I kept going the way I was going, I’d still be sitting around wondering why I didn’t have any friends. But again, that’s not to say that it’s the expat’s fault if it’s hard to make friends. It really is HARD and I stand by that. But it’s hard anywhere. It’s hard if you move to a new city in your own country. I do believe we have to do our part though in making things happen for ourselves. And I finally found something that worked for me.

lonely expat problem making friends

So how’d the gym turn into friends?

Long story short: After a month or so of hitting the gym consistently, I became friends with one of the employees at the gym and friendly with all of the staff and a few other members I see in classes. Do I consider them close friends? No. But I do have that one friend at the gym that I’ll get coffee with or meet up with here and there, eat out with, go to a basketball game with or call just to say hey. And a handful of acquaintances and people I look forward to chatting with at the gym. Like actual conversations beyond smalltalk. Major improvement, right?

So I put myself out there, made the effort to talk to random people despite being scared and the obvious outsider and it’s worked out. Through the gym, I met an American couple where the guy plays on a local pro sports team and also met some Canadians in the same situation. I never would have even heard of them if I hadn’t joined the gym and at least tried to be social. It’s just lucky for me that I am into working out so it’s a win-win. 😉

I’ve also connected with so many of you via my blog in the comments and through emails (and most recently in my holiday expat exchange), so thank you for that. And even a few of you in person!

I think part of putting yourself out there is admitting it’s scary, that you’re going to mess up and be uncomfortable — and then getting over it.

It’s hard talking to new people because I get nervous and mess up more than I normally would, but who cares. At this point, I don’t. I’m doing the best I can and my “otherness” actually adds to my charm, or so I’ve been told. People find the accent intriguing and some people talk to me because I’m different and they think it’s cool. And I’m sure others hear me talk and steer clear. But all you can do is keep on trying and I promise you that things will turn around.

What else can I say on making friends abroad?

Use every tool at your disposal to connect with people. Maybe you have a blog or an old neighbor who knows someone who lives in France or a colleague who used to live in France or a sports association in town or a volunteer opportunity. Follow every single lead you have because honestly, what do you have to lose? Nothing, and everything to gain.

So for any expats out there interested in making friends abroad, I think it’s important to find one activity or group that you connect with, whether it’s a church or sports affiliation or hobby group and pursue meeting people through that — and do it sooner than later. (Total aside: Did I ever mention I met up with American Mormon missionaries in town — they bumped into me on the street when I was walking Dagny — and actually went to church a few times? I’m not Mormon (or religious in general) but it was a way to connect with people. As it turned out, no friends came out of it but you never know.)

If you have no groups or activities near you, start something or set up a Facebook group for those who may be in the area with the same interests. And of course, make sure you’re at least decent with the native language. If I didn’t speak French, I’d still be friendless since there are very few English speakers out where I live. But don’t let the language stop you either. My underlying point is to do something, anything, and let the cards fall where they may. Doing is what produces results.

To wrap this up, I’d just like to remind any struggling expats out there that time, positive thinking, some major effort and a little bit of luck all go into making a crappy friend outlook into a better one. I’m proof. And you always have a friend here. Write me anytime.

Any expats out there want to chime in about making friends abroad?

 

making friends as an adult is hard

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Comments (37)

  • Punaiz

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    Glad you could make yourself friends.
    In some time, if you decide to have children, you will see how powerful your child classmate are to bring to you new friends with interesting parents at home, who will actually become true friends to you.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Thanks 😉 I know that many people make friends with their children’s parents, so maybe I should hang out by a school. Seriously though, I know that’s one avenue that works for a lot of people. Guess it just depends on what works in a particular situation.

      Reply

  • Jessica @ Absurd, She Wrote

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    I lived in Russia twice when I was a grad student while I was completing archival research. I really had to motivate myself to leave my room at my host’s house because otherwise I was too prone to self-isolating and being homesick. I got better at reaching out to colleagues who were also in town – even if I didn’t know them very well – and doing dinner or touristy things with them. Also – no matter where you are in the world, the gym is such an easy place to meet people!

    Oh, and my motto has long been “If you don’t like something about your life, change it.”
    Jessica @ Absurd, She Wrote recently posted…Getting Back to NormalMy Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Completely agree with your motto, Jessica. Where are you living now? Did you enjoy Russia overall?

      Reply

  • Melissa Bauer

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    It’s definitely hard to make friends in many places. When my husband & I moved to San Diego years ago, we had a hard time making friends. Not for lack of trying either. We probably didn’t make friends, good friends, for years. Sure, we had acquaintances but that’s not the same. We eventually met our great friends through the universal connector – wine & beer.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Love it, wine and beer fixes everything! Yeah, even though my post is about making friends abroad, I made sure to point out that it’s hard anywhere — because it’s true. It’s not a French people problem or an American issue or anything. Just a mix of factors that all contribute to the fact that making friends as an adult is difficult. Acquaintances aren’t the same but I feel like having a few acquaintances that you chitchat with feels a lot better than having no one. So maybe with time I’ll convert some acquaintances to friends. We’ll see. Thank you for chiming in. And I’ll remember to load up on wine and beer.

      Reply

  • Annie Andre

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    I have plenty to say about the matter. I had the same problem too my first year when we lived in Marseille.
    When we moved to our small town near Toulon I decided to take action. I joined the gym too. Mine was only 19.99 a month. My new cross fit gym is gulp 80 a month.
    I also volunteer teaching English once a week for older people.
    I also have kids in school, so i use every opp to invite the parents over with my kids friends.
    I tried getting to know the neighbours but the French have this saying, “a good neighbor is a neighbor you can’t see”. or something like that.

    Anyways, I totally agree. you just have to put yourself out there. I am shy like you too. And it is hard. But once you get over the hump it gets easier. No not really.

    Interesting enough, i had an easier time of making friends when i lived in Japan.
    Annie Andre recently posted…What Is “Je Suis Charlie” And Why Did Terrorist attack In France?My Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      I’m so jealous that you have CrossFit. Had to get that out. And 80/month is a steal. I know people back in the US paying over $200. How do you like it? Would love to get your take on how your “box” is. Do they even call them boxes in France?? So cool.
      And yup, never heard the saying about the neighbors but makes total sense. Same sentiment here! If you’re ever up by Nantes or Angers, Annie, do let me know!

      Reply

  • Cynthia

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    You are spot on, Diane ! I’m not an expat, but I speak french and I wanted to use the language. Though there were a lot of expats living in my area they didn’t want to make friends with Americans. I did exactly what you did, I put myself out there. I met a wonderful woman from France who wanted to make friends and share her language ! I now have French friends in her group who I meet with over coffee. They are most kind and helpful ! It was amazing because it all happened very quickly ! I think it’s important to keep an open mind and not judge a culture of people by the actions of a few. There are good people everywhere in the world and those are the ones who are worth knowing ! Congrats, Dearest Diane ! You deserve it !
    Blessings
    Cynthia

    Reply

    • Diane

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      SO, so happy to hear this, Cynthia. I know you were having some issues with a few groups in your area and I’m so glad you found this woman and other friends in the group. Bonne continuation! 😉 And thanks for your kind words.

      Reply

  • Terry

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    Getting involved was key for me too. Not at the gym, but through a couple French-British associations in Saumur and the Anjou area. As you noted, it took between 6-12 months to find the associations, then by going to the events and meeting like-minded folks with similar interests. We’ve gone out for “aperitifs” and coffee more times in the last year, than we can remember (wine & coffee I guess). About the only annoying thing, is that many French are too eager to correct your language, rather than have a conversation. So I’ve started asking for a “correction time out”, either you understand me or you don’t, but stop correcting everytime a get a verb tense wrong or a masculine/femine disagreement.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Awesome that you were able to join some associations and meet people that way. Friendship is gradual and takes time like you said. I usually tell people to correct me every time (only way to learn) but if they were jumping in and getting in the way of the sentence, I think I’d kindly tell them to shut the hell up. Ugh. I bet their English isn’t perfect either. And if you specifically did NOT ask to be corrected, it’s kind of rude. In fact, my in-laws NEVER correct me (are they embarrassed, think it’s rude? i don’t know) and I have to tell them to do it. Same with people at the gym. I know I’m making errors but since I’m understood, people just don’t correct. Maybe I should befriend the people in your association? hahahah jk i know it’s really annoying.

      Reply

  • Mel

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    I have lived in a few cities in the U.S. and at first it was all friends of my husbands, ie, their girlfriends. As I joined the workforce, I made alot of my own friends. But it wasn’t until I had kids that my opportunity to meet people open to friendship really flourished, suddenly the neighbors with kids were playing outside, we would meet people at the park and at daycare. I have found that I have finally met other Irish expats purely from my daughter doing an Irish related activity. I had given up on meeting other Irish after 8 years in Florida. I have a friend who joined zumba recently and she has met so many people from it that have become good friends, so any extra activity where you are mixing with people with similar interests will give you an opportunity to make new friends.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hi Mel, yup, finding people of the same nationality can be a great way to connect as well as your kids’ friends’ parents. I’ve heard that from a lot of people. So glad your friend met people through Zumba — always an enthusiastic crowd in my opinion no matter where you are in the world. Are you still in Florida?

      Reply

  • Karine

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    Hi

    I’m French and I’m expat in California since September… and I confirm, it’s hard to make friends! I have new friends here, but their french expat too… I can’t work for the moment and I don’t really know how to met some americans. I go to sport too but I just say “Hi, how are you?” and thats all for the moment.

    But when I was expat in Switzerland (before US), it was exactly the same thing. I stayed 5 years in Switzerland and I have one friend… a french again. Fortunatly with my husband job (postdoc in a university) he can meet some people (french and swiss) and have friends 🙂

    Bys
    Karine
    Karine recently posted…« Vacances prolongées », retrouver la motivationMy Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      How do you like California? Are you in the north or the south? It really does take time and Americans can be friendly but we can come off as busy and superficial. I mean I guess any nationality can but sometimes Americans will act really friendly and then never follow through and actually make plans. It just depends on the person and the connection I guess and what else people have going on. Stick with it at the gym and keep saying hi. Maybe ask some questions or anything to further the conversation. It’s not easy anywhere, but I have faith that you’ll meet some great people. Bon courage!

      Reply

  • Vicky

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    I wish I’d seen this post when I arrived in Darwin but it is the perfect advice for anyone in the same situation. I finally started to feel settled when I found a job and met some great friends there, now I feel very settled here

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hi Vicky, so happy you’ve settled in and made some friends. Do you feel like you met them through really trying and joining groups and clubs or was it more of a natural process or by chance? Thanks so much for checking out the post and commenting. Have a great weekend!

      Reply

  • Britt@MyOwnBalance

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    I lived abroad for two years and it was very difficult to transition at first. I was actually in school part of the time and even there I didn’t really make any friends since most of the other postgrad students were way older. I eventually made a lot of friends and years later some of these very friends came to my wedding! It’s definitely hard but the more you put yourself out there, the better!

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hiya Britt, that’s interesting that you said that even while in school you didn’t really make that many friends. Sometimes I feel like it’s easier if you’re in school (even if people are of different ages) because at least you have the school in common. But it’s not a given anywhere and making friends and transitioning to a new place is hard work. So glad that you were able to make friends in the end and that you’ve stayed in touch. Totally agree that putting yourself out there is key. Even if nothing changes at first, in time, it will. Have a great weekend!

      Reply

  • Catherine

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    So happy for you Diane! I remember reading your first post on the subject and thought that’s going to be me one day, and sure enough! My husband and I were walking along the street yesterday and he was surprised I waved bonjour to the gentleman who mans the kiosk across the street and our pharmacist…. I told him they were my only “friends” at the moment 😉 I’ve recently looked up some Meetup groups I could join (i.e. Photography) and hopefully will make some connections that way… fingers crossed 🙂 p.s. they even have a group for shy folks!
    Catherine recently posted…Children + Charlie HebdoMy Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hi there! Thank you. 😉 So glad you have some friendly acquaintances in your neighborhood and meetup groups are a great way to start. If you meet weirdos, OK, well you tried, and hopefully in Paris that won’t be the case and you will meet awesome people you connect with. Crossing my fingers for you!

      Reply

  • Nellie @ Brooklyn Active Mama

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    Bravo to you for finding ways to make your social life better as an expat! The gym is such an awesome place to meet folks, between all the endorphins and all, it can be a really happy place! Plus non gym goes don’t quite get gym goers so that is also great. I have met some really great people in the gym myself, and the great things about meeting people is that its usually leads to meeting more and more. 🙂
    Nellie @ Brooklyn Active Mama recently posted…The Tale of the Missing Gym PantsMy Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Yup, couldn’t agree more. We’re all there to better ourselves regardless of our individual goals so it’s an automatic connection. Hope the momentum continues!

      Reply

  • Stella

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    Like you I arrived in Brussels 3 year ago and I only stated to make friends on my own few months ago when I started daily Dutch classes. That is really nice to do things with people! I hope that when the classes end, we will continue to get in touch but I’m not quite sure about that!
    I started aqua bike last week and hope that maybe i’ll meet people.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      It’s so crazy how long it takes. As kids, we don’t think about making friends and for most of us it happens naturally. Then as adults, it gets harder and it’s even worse if you move. Then you start to stress and worry and then get sad and then mad. I’ve been through it all. I’m so glad to hear that taking Dutch classes has helped connect you with new people. I’m rooting for you! How did you like Aquabike? My gym has it but I’ve never tried.

      Reply

  • BacktoBurgundy

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    Thank you for the post – it struck a chord with me. We moved within France last year and due to his work, my H is rarely with me at the new place, which makes the lack of friends more noticeable. I also find that despite being married, I’m often perceived as a single woman and I think it’s much harder for single women to get invited/included than for a single man – but maybe single men would disagree.
    I’m with you on enrolling in classes – it’s great, and it just takes time for that to transpose into friendships that can work outside of the class. I’m not a gym person but maybe I’ll have to be – I hadn’t thought about how it can be a staff member that becomes your friend, not another attendee.
    It also takes time to find people who have similar outlooks and ages to oneself, but you have to start somewhere, so even regularly using the local shops and attending some Mairie events can help. Auspiciously, there was a street party a month after our arrival, so we got to meet a lot of neighbours then, which has helped.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hi there, sorry for the late reply. Yes, just the fact that you’re in a couple here often means you get invited more places, or so I’ve heard, but single or not, I still find it really hard!
      Classes of any kind really do help — you’re all there because of a common interest so there’s already one thing you have to talk about. But yes, it takes time. As it turns out, the one friend I mentioned in this post just started dating a guy and it’s fast in furious. Haven’t heard from her in weeks. SO I’ll have to try harder to meet people. Hang in there!

      Reply

  • Holly

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    I can really see how this would be better than the way I have done it – which is to make friends through work. Then there is this element of having to be careful what you say etc because you work with that person as well as being friends with them. You can’t always complain at the end of a hard day at work if that person works with you also. I think I should join the gym or a club. I did join in with a knitting club but, because I don’t drive, it was hard to keep up with.
    Holly recently posted…Dear World…it’s me, HollyMy Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      I think any action is a step in the right direction. If you have coworkers, start there but like you said you have to be careful what you say. Gym, knitting club, dog walking group — just keep trying because eventually we’ll find somewhere we fit in. At least that’s what I’m hoping! Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply

  • Ci

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    I know exactly what you mean, been an expat in Paris for almost 3 yrs and its so damn hard to find real friends and I consider myself to be somewhat outgoing 🙁 I just recently enrolled in crossfit so lets see what comes out of that. Actually I go often to Nantes in business trips, we should meet up 😉

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hang in there, Ci. So cool about Crossfit! Nothing like that near me but have heard good things. Let me know if you’re ever out in the Pays de la Loire!

      Reply

  • paul dubois

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    American expatriate in France for over 37 years, was a member of Moving Club (gym) here in Corbeil-Essonnes for 15 years. Then one day was attacked verbally in dressing room and calumniated in f’ront of other members at club by a North African Muslim. At issue was claim by Muzz that undressing completely to put on swim suit was indecent and insulting to him, though I was assured of my right to do so by the managers of Moving. But when they made only a limp attempt to intervene and refused to send the dude packing on the spot, I resiliated my membership with reimbursement. Now, I go jogging in Senart Forest where I meet civilized retired people FOR FREE! And it’s mostly, for now anyway, veil-free.

    Reply

  • Amanda Simons

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    i am from Atlanta, Georgia and moved here to Paris one month ago with my two young sons . My fiancé is French and travels a lot for business so I am finding it really difficult to meet ppl. I didn’t realize how much I would miss interacting with other adults. I managed a organic outdoor market/cafe back in the states six days a week and interacted with customers all day. I didn’t even think about not having anyone to talk to except for my fiancé until reality hit! I do love how everyone spends so much times outdoors and the boys are enjoying exploring the city but I really wish it was easier to meet people. Most of the people I have tried to strike up a conversation with only give short replies back and don’t seem to follow up with any questions. But I’m only one month in so I have hope for a more intimate relationship with the people here!:)

    Reply

    • Diane

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      It’s not easy at all, Amanda, but congrats on making such a big change! I’m sure a lot of thought went into your decision to move. I think just try to keep at it and hopefully you can meet some other parents once school starts up. You’ll discover small talk isn’t something the French really do so the short replies back are pretty common. Try to see if you can get involved with local markets or organic farmers in the city. Maybe you can find your niche through what you were doing at home. 😉 Best of luck and thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

      Reply

  • Cynthia

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    Hi,
    wow, I was sitting here writing on my new blog about career and recruitment, when I thought that what I really wanted to write about was exactly this. How HARD it is to make friends as an expat!!

    This is my third round in a new country and every time it took me well into my second year to make even one friend! In my previous two countries I was working for someone else so I made friends in the office eventually.. But now I am working from home so I am becoming that weird lady that stays too long at the register in the super market just to have someone to talk to for a while!!! 😛

    Now we are in the Netherlands and we’ve been here for six months and I am SO lonely and feel SO sorry for myself LOL but getting to the point where I feel I need to actually get my butt out the door and do something about it! It’s just so hard because there are no expats in my town and I always have the feeling I don’t want to impose myself on people. Like they have their lives sorted out already so why would they want to make new friends?

    But ok, I’ve joined the gym, I’m starting dutch language class in september and I’ve been checking out a lady down the street that I will invite over when I gather the courage to do so lol. I have kids but the other parents just do a drop and run when they see me, I think maybe the language is the problem..

    I’m so happy to read that things got better for you! It indeed is a matter of DOING something. Like a friend back home said to me, “nobody is going to come knocking on your door to ask if you want to come out and play”.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      I love what your friend told you. It’s completely true. Waiting around for people to come to us won’t change anything. I know it’s not an easy road but I hope you meet people at your gym and that the Dutch language classes go well!

      Reply

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