The Moving Diaries: How Do You Make Friends in a New City?
More specifically: how do you make friends in a new city during a global pandemic?
New Yorkers like to think of themselves as tough, and usually I am no exception. I lived through my share of roaches and mice (and one terrifyingly large slug), relentless street harassment, strangers coming to blows on the subway (with umbrellas!), and hauling loaded grocery bags across several avenues in heels. After living in New York City for the better part of 19 years, nothing surprised me and nothing really intimidated me about big city life.
But as tough as I am regarding roaches and subway drama, I am not above feeling intimidation. Moving to Asheville, North Carolina, last fall taught me that I actually feel quite intimidated when it comes to making new friends.
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I have made new friends over the years, of course. But making new friends in New York City felt like it took barely any effort. When I made new friends, they were primarily colleagues in journalism, other feminist activists, partners of friends, or friends-of-friends — in other words, people who I was somehow connected to. I hadn’t moved to a new location where I did not know anyone since 2001. Asheville presented an entirely blank slate.
And what worried me primarily is that the lifestyle of many people my age — mid-30s — has changed recently. So many of my peers are parents now and their lives understandably revolve around their children’s classrooms and sports teams. My husband Kale and I love other peoples’ kids, but don’t want to have any of our own. Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, I worried that being childfree-by-choice could make it difficult to meet new people around our age in Asheville.
That was in the Before Times, though. I can’t believe there was a time that I actually thought meeting people with similar lifestyles would have been my biggest concern. Frankly, the Covid-19 pandemic has made it so we have struggled to meet anyone new.
Some Americans are trying to get through the pandemic like nothing has to change. That is not us. Kale and I lived through the first wave of COVID-19, which was a traumatic and frightening time, back in Brooklyn. In fact, The Brooklyn Hospital Center was only a few blocks away from our old apartment. We know people who have died from the virus, and others who have gotten ill. For those reasons — and because my best friend was immunocompromised for most of 2020 while fighting cancer — I take the precautions advised by Dr. Fauci, et. al. very seriously.
In addition to mask-wearing and handwashing, COVID-19 precautions are anti-social by design. In Asheville, as in Brooklyn, we do not go to parties in anyone’s homes. (Okay, I haven’t been invited to any — but if I was, I wouldn’t go.) We have only eaten out at restaurants a couple of times and we wore our masks when we weren’t eating. We don’t sit indoors at bars or music venues. And when we have sat outdoors at bars or music venues, we have intentionally stayed six feet away from other people. The bar in Asheville that we have visited the most, which is actually a dog park with a bar in it, is a huge outdoor space where we seldom interact with other humans. We haven’t gone to any trivia or board game nights. I see my new, North Carolina-based therapist over Zoom, and the most consistent social interaction that I have is with the (masked) cashier at our local grocery store. Nearly every evening, Kale and I pile onto our couch and watch Netflix — just as we did in Brooklyn.
I’m not complaining about any of this. These are the sacrifices all of us have to make for everyone’s safety.
But playing it safe has absolutely limited our ability to make friends — let alone meet anyone besides the Ingles cashiers — in our new city. At times, I have felt a little isolated here, and sometimes it seems as if Kale and I are the only two people on an island who aren’t allowed to swim to the mainland yet.
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A saving grace, actually, has been meeting some of our neighbors in our apartment complex. Even though we had wanted to move to a house in Asheville, moving to a large apartment complex turned out to be ideal for COVID-19’s weird social experiment (anti-social experiment?). It puts a lot of people right there in front of us, picking up mail or walking their dogs.
Slowly, Kale and I have gotten to know a few of our neighbors and their dogs. Hanging out is obviously different from how we’ve done it in the past; we usually just hang around in the apartment complex’s outdoor common area and chat, or go for a long walk together. I would much rather be drinking a mojito in a bar, but this works for now. What is crucial to making new friends during a pandemic, I have realized, is trusting that their commitment to COVID-19 safety precautions is as strong as ours.
I already felt intimidated by the prospect of making new friends. But moving to a new city ended up being more isolating than I ever could have imagined on account of the pandemic. I feel strongly, even three months after moving here, like I do not fit into the fabric of the city yet. Our budding new friendships have been essential for me to feel like I have a future here.