6 Steps To Making Local Friends While Studying Abroad
Erasmus is not only about going abroad, it is also finding new friends.
One of the main reasons why people go and study abroad for a semester or two, or even for many years, is because they want to meet new people and immerse themselves in a new culture. Why not do both at the same time and make local friends who will be your loyal guides while you try to cope with the novelties and strangeness of a new country? It might be easier to stick with other international students but we have a few tips and tricks for befriending locals we’ve tried ourselves that might work for you as well. Here goes:
1. Get a buddy / mentor / tutor
Most universities or ESN sections around Europe offer such a service: a local student who will pick you up at the airport or train station, take you to your dormitory or help you look for a flat, help you get settled and will go with you to apply for your residence permit, etc. The way studies are organised in your host country might be different, so it’s always easier to ask a peer rather than professors who might not see your point of view. While at first it will be them helping you a lot and you feeling like you’re taking so much but giving so little, you will soon realise that in return, your buddy is getting insight into your culture - just give them a chance. You can cook for them, teach them your language, share your experience. Of course, not all people are meant to click but if you do, hold on to your buddy. Speaking from personal experience, my buddy was a crucial part of my Erasmus; we spent many nights together learning about each other and our countries, I visited her many years after my Erasmus and even she has visited me.
2. Give the local language a chance
Coming from a country where the local language is spoken by less than 1 million people in the world - yes, you guessed it, Estonia - I often see international students not bothering with trying to learn it. And yes, every time I see this, a part of me dies. No, it’s not that bad but I’m always a bit disappointed when I hear that a student has come all the way to Estonia for their Erasmus and decides to take Spanish or Italian when there is a very wide selection of Estonian courses to choose from, absolutely free of charge. I admit that there is an issue here: when you do decide to take up the local language, there is no one to practice it with - I totally understand that’s not an issue in bigger countries like Spain, France, Italy or Germany - because everyone speaks English to you and they have no patience to hear your broken attempts. But keep going at it, ask your buddy to meet you once a week and only speak the local language with you and you will realise that every time you open your mouth and at least try to speak the local language to locals, their icy hearts melt a little bit and they warm up to you and can’t wait to introduce you to their family and friends as the ONE who speaks a little of their language!
3. Go where the locals go
Most cities and towns receiving international students have some hot spots that all the foreigners gather at. It’s usually the same bar or pub or street or club every day or week. In Estonia, these large groups of international students - because, let’s face it, it’s usually a herd of people - often scare off locals, so there you are again with your friends Pablo and Jose from Spain with no locals in sight. I encourage you to try different places for your regular outings and approach locals yourselves. The deal with Estonians, at least, is that you usually need to be the one who makes the first move but trust me, that night, they will go home and have sweet dreams about how they made a new best friend from another country. They might not express it but more often than not, they’re thinking it. Ask your buddy or local classmate or ESNer to show you the spots they go to. And it’s okay to bring Pablo and Jose but why not mix with others every once in a while? You can also check out Like a Local Guide to get you started.
4. Immerse yourself in the local culture
Find out about art shows, concerts, theatre pieces, read books by local authors that have been translated, watch movies. When you go to local cultural events aimed at locals, you’re bound to trip over a local interested in meeting a foreigner who is interested in their culture. And if, upon this conversation in let’s say, Estonia, you can quote something from Oskar Luts’ “Kevade”, you will get brownie points that will last you till Christmas.
5. Join a local club or society
Many universities offer an opportunity to join various sports teams, choirs, dance groups (folk dance, why not?) or degree-related societies that are open for international students also. This is a great way to meet locals. Going for something like this means that you most probably have at least one similar interest with these locals already, so this will make breaking the ice a bit easier. Or simply join ESN and meet and befriend the hard-working volunteers who do their best to make your stay as unforgettable as possible. ESNers are a safe starting point because they are sincerely excited about you visiting their country.
6. Give it time and make it last
The friendships might not be instant the way they are with other international students with whom you are experiencing the same thing: you’re all on an adventure. With locals, it takes time because you’re like an alien who has landed in their life and who they need to fit into their routine. But if you feel like this is the real thing, persist until you succeed and you’ll have a friend forever. Also, it’s important to ensure your new friend that when you leave in a few months, this will not be over. It’s always easier to leave than to be left behind (yes, I quoted REM). So make sure you both keep working on the friendship and visit each other. Your new friend may be very happy to visit you in your home country and see your home and culture through your eyes the way you did through theirs.
Studying abroad is a wonderful opportunity; an experience that will stay with you forever. You will make many friends - that’s almost certain. But make it your goal to befriend a local this semester and when you succeed, your adventure will be that much more meaningful.