The expat strategy to establish meaningful relationships



"Why on earth am I doing this?", I thought while I was disentangling my home made gnocchi before boiling them. I was attending one of the usual expat events that we were used to arrange in Gent. Those house parties where everyone brings something. You know, that mix of coziness, chaos, companionship, competition. That evening I cooked a rucola pesto and around a kilo of fresh gnocchi. I naively put the gnocchi in a pot and brought them to the party with the wrong idea that it would take me not more than half an hour to boil them. The nasty surprise that crashed my mood came when I realized that the gnocchi became one ball of dough despite the layers of wheat by the time I got the party. To make things worse, other people had already invaded the kitchen so I was probably the fourth. I had to wait a couple of hours before getting my hands dirty, literally, with the disentangle of the gnocchi.


Luckily, a friend of mine offered me his help, not really sure if out of pity or hunger. After forty five minutes the gnocchi were placed in the hot water. My friend and I looked at them with satisfaction and pride. We made it! When I served them with the rucola pesto, the dish was a success. So much so, that a female friend of mine got on her knees and proposed. I blushed and giggled and finally kindly refused to marry her.


The success of the dish partly balanced the frustration that I felt while I was working on the dough. I felt miserable not because I was wasting a lot of time in redoing something quite boring, but because deep inside I knew that the reason why I was so busy with cooking whenever I attended a party had nothing to do with enjoying the company. I could cook very tasty dishes (I still can) but the click I felt in the back of my mind triggered a reflection. "Why am I really doing this?" During the following days I started devoting more and more time to this haunting question.


Finally, I could see that the true reason why I was so obsessed with cooking was because I wanted people to enjoy my dishes so that I could get the approval that I so much craved. As an expat, I wanted to feel at home and I thought that being among as many people as possible, would fill the void. I got stuck with the following wrong equation: more people = bigger family.


What I learnt with time and a lot of work on myself is that in order to develop a sense of belonging it is better to start with one human relationship per time. I tried blending in a big group of people and the dynamics were constantly pulling me to be who I didn't want to be anymore. They held me back from the change I wanted to actualize. Thus, I decided to change strategy and I am going to share with you why it worked and what exactly I did.


I started with one to one relationships. I started from scratch. I selected a few people with whom I got along pretty well and I decided to deepen the relationships by interacting with them outside of the group. I quit attending gatherings with more than six people, even when it came to brunches or dinners. They were too distracting. Such a waste of energy if I thought about all the small talk that went on during the whole dinner. I noticed the amazing connection that a one to one relationship brings.


When I went out to grab a tea with only a friend of mine, I could be more focussed, open and curious about my friend. The relationship evolved much faster than I could imagine. Sometimes, I realized that there were too many awkward silences and that we both felt unease. Perfectly fine, after only one tea we departed from each other with a smile on our faces. We knew that our relationship wouldn't turn into a friendship.


Friend after friend, I made my own selection. I got no more than ten close friends and I was fine. More than those would make the maintenance of the friendships too complicated. I would need to invest time that I didn't have in nurturing them to the detriment of all the relationships that I built up to that point. Those ten people were my family in Belgium. They were the people with whom I felt at home.


One to one relationships can be uncomfortable. We can feel too vulnerable. It's ok to feel some resistance, but I urge you to give it a try. It's part of the game, a high risk - high gain game. You need to be willing to play this game with yourself. No need to judge yourself, but being open and curious about all the emotions and resistance that you can feel.


Once you develop your own way to feel at ease with doing an activity with one friend per time, you'll notice that your roots are sprouting and you'll feel more grounded. Bit by bit, you'll be able to expand your network with a keen eye for who can become a new close friends and who can be an acquaintance. You will build your family, member by member. You'll be in charge to shape your own family as much as you want.


If you are ready to boost your life abroad, book a free consultation where we can explore your case and see how I can help you.

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