Dancing in the Fountain: Making amigos as an expat
Not knowing anyone in a new city offers the opportunity to reinvent yourself, but it certainly gets lonely too. How can you make friends as an expat living abroad?
Moving to a foreign city is an opportunity to reinvent yourself that rarely exists outside of the witness protection programme. You get to hit the reset button on your life. It also reduces to virtually nil the chances of running into people from the past you’d rather avoid: ex bosses, former lovers, people who witnessed your most humiliating moments in high school.
When you are so new in town that your entire social circle consists of a handful of people, it’s actually thrilling to spot a familiar face in the crowd. Actually, in Seville, most people treat every chance encounter with the excitement of Stanley greeting Livingstone, exclaiming with surprise and pleasure at the astonishing good luck of running into you. Then everybody kisses each other on the cheeks (right first, then left), unless it’s two men, in which case they engage in a firm handshake or, in the case of close friends and family members, a manly hug.
Of course, you don’t jettison your real baggage; you’ll still be carrying around your childhood traumas, the twin hobgoblins of regret and remorse, and all the rest of your deep inner past wherever you go. But you do get to expunge your social record. No one will know anything about you except what you choose to reveal.
Making new friends, however, does take you on some unexpected paths.
Expect a few cultural blunders
When we arrived in Seville, the first people Rich and I were on kissing terms with were Luz and Toño. The first time they invited us to join a small group for dinner at their apartment, I was thrilled. I’d been told repeatedly that the Spanish do all their entertaining in restaurants and cafés, and that I should resign myself to the fact that I would never see the inside of a Spanish home. True, Rich and I had attended cooking classes in the apartment of our teacher, Yolanda, but this was the first time we were visiting someone’s home for purely social purposes.
We arrived on their doorstep in our best clothes, carrying wine and flowers. Luz was far too polite to say anything, but we soon learned that in Seville, the proper hostess gift is nearly always a dessert, preferably something laden with whipped cream.
Practicing our Spanish was equally amusing. Rich, wanting to trial his new Spanish without any help, once accidently ordered a big bowl of menudo (tripe stew), a dish he particularly loathes.
When the tripe stew appeared in front of Rich, he paled. “What’s this?” he said to me. “I can’t eat this!”
“Look, why don’t you just tell Vicente that it’s delicious, but you’re just not very hungry tonight.”
The bar owner, Vicente, came by a few minutes later, looked at the untouched menudo, and asked if everything was all right. Now at this point, what Rich meant to say was “No tengo hambre,” literally “I don’t have hunger,” meaning “I’m not hungry.”
But what he actually said was “No tengo hombre,” which means “I don’t have a man.”
“¿Qué?” said Vicente. (Say what?)
“¡No tengo hombre!” Rich repeated more loudly. Vicente looked confused, then nervous. He backed away from the table and left us strictly alone for the rest of the evening.
Being polite means being flexible
Luz turned to me one dinner and asked, “How do you feel about bullfights?”
I thought they were about as much fun as seeing one of my beloved dogs thrown into a ring and tortured to death as a public spectacle. However, feeling a more tactful reply was called for, I said that while I naturally respected their place in the Spanish culture and admired their artistry, I found them difficult to watch because I had sympathy for the bull. They invited us, and as this was an opportunity to witness something in the Sevillano culture, I decided not to miss it.
After we watched two toreros kill their bulls with what seemed to me a reasonable degree of amateur skill, Luz suggested we take a break. We headed down the stairs just in time to watch one of the recently dispatched bulls being hoisted up by its hind feet on a pulley.
I was vegetarian, but before I could say “Do I really want to see this?” one of the men was skinning it, cutting up the flesh, and throwing chunks of it on the barbeque. The next thing I knew, someone handed me a plate of sizzling chunks of grilled bull meat and a fork.
Having just watched this animal fighting for its life, the sight of its seared flesh sitting on my plate made me feel a bit queasy, almost like a cannibal. I had to remind myself sternly that this was the way humans had been eating since the dawn of time (or at least since the dawn of fire and cooking). Besides, to turn up my nose at food offered in kindness would offend both the cooks and the friends who brought me.
Part of belonging to any community is joining in the communal feast, and I knew that I was lucky to be offered the chance. I took a bite of the bull meat. It was hot and salty and delicious. In fact, washed down with the crisp local beer, it was superb. As usual, saying yes to one of Luz’s invitations had proved to be a great idea.
New experiences allow the unexpected to happen
But a few weeks later, when Luz suggested that I join her art class, I tried to say no. I felt I was learning about so many new things as my brain could process without imploding. “It doesn’t matter whether or not you want to learn art,” Luz explained. “It’s a great way to meet people. It will be good for your social life.” Well, when she put it that way, how could I resist?
I gradually got to know my fellow art students, among them a nurse, a baker, a musician, a teacher, a hotelier who had worked in Germany and had a German husband, several housewives, and a rather fragile man in his seventies who liked to live up to his reputation as a golfo by painting nude women. All of them were extremely kind and patient with me, explaining techniques and repeating the choicer bits of news and gossip more slowly to make sure I didn’t miss them.
This was one group of Spanish friends that hadn’t know each other since birth, which meant it was a great deal easier for me to become a part of it. Of course, as a foreigner, I would always be the odd one out, practically the class mascot, and we all knew it.
But being introduced to them as Luz’s friend meant that a little of her high social status rubbed off on me, and they made every effort to overlook my strangeness and incorporate me into their circle. I enjoyed their company and felt lucky to be there, and I made sure I showed it. Luz was right; the class was wonderful for my social life.
Every session included a break for coffee, cake, and chitchat, and every couple of months Ricardo organized an excursion to a museum or gallery, outings that included our spouses and inevitably ended up in a café for beer and tapas.
Embrace the cultural differences
Out of the blue, Luz’s sister, Violeta said to me, “Where do you get your hair done?” I looked at her blankly, not sure I was hearing her correctly. Why was she asking about that?
“My sister told me not to mention this,” she went on. Luz stared hard at her sister, and the others shifted uncomfortably in their chairs and looked away, clearly knowing what was coming. “But I need to talk to you about your hair.”
“My hair?” I’d arrived in Seville with one of those short, boyish cuts that are so delightfully effortless to maintain. “I go to a little salon downtown, near El Corte Inglés. Why?”
“We have all talked about it. And we’ve decided that your hair is too serious.” At first I couldn’t take it in. It was an intervention. About my hair. “Don’t you want hair that is happier?” she went on. “You could make it more blonde, give it some curls...” Violeta wanted me to look more like them.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that where I come from, their hairstyles hadn’t been popular since Farrah Fawcett Majors left the original cast of Charlie’s Angels. Although the elaborate styles looked perfect in the context of Seville, if I showed up in California with that kind of big, fluffy, streaked hair, everyone would assume I’d taken up a career as either a country and western singer or a hooker.
One day over coffee I was telling the story of the hair intervention to an American friend who has lived in Seville a long time. “They said I should change my hair because it’s too serious,” I exclaimed.
“They only said that because they love you.” I instantly realised she was right. In the US, unsolicited criticism of someone’s hair, weight, or clothing could end a friendship. But here in Seville, where a greater degree of frankness is common and there’s a higher priority placed on conformity, I could see it was kindly meant. Violeta and the other women were cluing me in about what I needed to do in order to be one of the gang. The implication that this kind of belonging could be achieved by a mere change in hairstyle made it the loveliest insult I had ever received.
Karen McCann / Expatica
Karen McCann moved to Seville in 2004 and writes about her expat experiences in her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. "I loved this book,” wrote Lonely Planet. “I must have laughed aloud at least once in every chapter... The advice in the book is terrific." Wanderlust has taken her to more than thirty countries, including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling microenterprises. Today, she spends her time writing, blogging, painting, exploring Seville, and travelling the world.
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