Friend Dating

by Susannah Grant posted on 4 May 2024

This past week in the INC social whats app group we´ve been discussing the various ways we make friends as expats or returning Spaniards in Madrid. In a city where a lot of people are born and raised here, with extensive friends and family networks on tap, breaking into new friendship groups can pose a challenge to a 35+ year old from elsewhere. In London, I remember counting down the days to my son´s start at the local nursery so that I could scour the playground for other seemingly-fun and frazzled mothers.

Spanish conversation flows

Most UK primary school parents are subjected to a jam-packed calendar of coffee mornings, class dinners and fundraising activities for a new 3D auditorium for the Nativity play. These events are great hunting grounds for the shark parents looking to find fellow finned friends with which to share summer villas in Crete so that Johnny can splash about in the infinity pool with Richard from Class 1B while their parents polish off their second bottle of rosé before 11.30 am.  

Enjoying some Spanish equestrian culture

In Madrid Juan and Ricardo´s parents may well be having a weekly bottle of Rioja with their in laws on a Sunday followed by a few Estrella Galicia cervezas or three in their grandmother´s pueblo on a puente weekend or even a copita of fino in their holiday house in El Puerto de Santa María. So where does that leave the midlife expats or Spaniards looking for new friendships in this vibrant city? Well actually, in quite a good position …if you know what to look for and how to find it.

Ana, a native Spaniard from Area 2/3 points out that Madrid is teeming with diverse cultural options ranging from book clubs to dance groups and language classes in addition to the international clubs and societies. “Some examples are the Madrid Players theatrical group, St George’s Church, The Madrid International Choir, The James Joyce society and The Yeats Society. Many of the members of these international groups are Spanish people who value international social contact.” It´s fair to say that compared to when I first lived here in the 1980’s, Spaniards are far more mobile than ever and many are keen to enjoy a parallel social life with an international crowd.

However, as with any fast-paced capital city, lack of time seems to be a recurring barrier as Area 2/3’s Sinéad , who advises expat families on schools explains, “A common disappointment I encounter from clients is how difficult it is to make meaningful friendships beyond the playground chit chat.”  Apparently making Irish friends can be equally challenging for Spaniards in Dublin. “A lot of them only have foreign friends despite working with Irish colleagues,” according to Sinéad. A sentiment echoed by many Spanish friends who have lived in London as I recall.

So how can we go about successful friend dating? Holly from Area 2/3 seems to have had some success expanding her and Spanish husband´s social circle beyond his school and university network,  “I hosted a dinner party on Saturday for English speaking mums and their Spanish speaking partners, and I think the men were surprised how much fun it was and would probably do it again.” I agree, a bit of social engineering and creativity can go a long way. Why not turn the fact that you have been exposed to other ways of socialising to your (and everyone´s) advantage?

Ten years ago, when I arrived here I decided that an 11.30 am breakfast for flexi-workers represented the ideal opportunity to invite acquaintances to crumpets (good old Warburton´s frozen ones from Carrefour) and a pot of Earl Grey.  Whereas lunch is for more intimately acquainted people and dinner is more formal, a rolling breakfast is a bit of a free for all. People perch happily on sofas either indoors or on the porch and come and go as they wish or can. You can mix up lots of social groups, maintain one conversation with a group of 5-6 or enlarge it to several concurrent conversations by inviting 10. I maintain a list of attendees and rotate people so that their common interests are stretched just enough so that they feel they´ve learned something new without them feeling they´ve been beamed up to Mars for two hours. That way everyone leaves refreshed and invigorated for having stepped out of their ubiquitous bubble for a morning.

Amigas on my porch

Another winning formula is dressing up….whilst less common in Spanish circles, this provides the ideal ice-breaker. “Why exactly do you have an axe protruding out of your head?” can trigger an hour-long conversation at the bar area. I once organised a dinner party on a Wednesday (again, breaking with protocol) and 2 of the couples dropped out at the last moment. Faced with a mountain of marinading chicken curry, I managed to creatively fill both spots with 2 couples who had nothing in common with the other 2. So, I rang all 4 couples at 6 pm and explained that they had to come dressed up as someone from the country beginning with the same letter as their first name. Three hours later, a buxom barmaid in Oktoberfest garb rang the bell, at the same time as a flouncy Flamenco dancer and a man with well-worn lederhosen to name a few of the outfits. I finally chased them all out of my dining room at 3 am. Goodness knows if they would actually recognise each other today in a regular suit.

Various nationalities represented at our Leaving London party

Whilst you are coming up with ingenious ways of socialising it´s worth bearing in mind that you are living in a city where “el mundo es un pañuelo” or rather, everyone knows everyone or is even possibly related to everyone. The fact that people use two surnames narrows the potential anonymity further as both the maternal and paternal side of the Spanish family tree can be identified.

Shortly after my arrival here, I took my 18 month-old daughter to a Spanish friend´s house for our weekly informal playgroup. On my first day there, I met a Spanish girl from Andalucía who said she had Scottish cousins. As a Scot myself and having worked with quite a few Jerezanos with Scottish connections in the sherry industry I decided to inquire what their names were. To which she replied with the name of my brother´s best friend from Southampton University in the UK.

INC coffee at my house in 2016

That evening my husband went to a funeral and met up with one of his long-lost friends. His friend hadn´t seen him during my husband´s 11-year stint in London and asked whom he had ended up marrying. When my husband replied his wife was Scottish, his friend remarked that his wife had just met a Scot that morning at a playgroup. This “small world” scenario can be played to an outsider´s advantage, as you only need to scratch the surface before you come up with friends or acquaintances in common.

Huge coincidences or twists of fate also happen within INC. Years ago, after an enjoyable Museum Forum visit we trotted off to the museum café for a coffee. At the time I was on the look out for a Spanish INC member to interview for my next Spotlight blog so I deliberately sat next to a woman speaking Spanish. Whilst eavesdropping on her conversation I was bemused by her reference to Claudia and Andrés. Eventually I interrupted her and we discovered that Loreto and I are the exact mirror image of each other. She is married to a Brit and has a Claudia and Andrés whilst I am married to a Spaniard and have an Andrés and a Claudia. Not only that, both our Andreses have ADHD so Loreto has become an invaluable source of tips as I have struggled to navigate the ensuing parental challenges with Spanish psychiatrists. We are firm friends today.

INC Quiz time

INC is also a source of meaningful friendships for many members long after they´ve flown away from Madrid.  In fact, Loreto and several members of INC, both past and present are about to meet up in Scotland later this month with 2 Scots, 2 Spaniards, 1 Japanese, 1 Lebanese and two others flying over from Brazil and Saudi Arabia. This is testament to the bond that this club provides and also to those that take the trouble to cultivate and maintain the relationships formed within it despite busy diaries and the distance that separates them.

The Menina Race

For friendships are like plants, they need nurturing and tender loving care.  Madrid has many gems to offer, both new and long-term residents. Starting anew or returning home after years away gives us an opportunity to look within ourselves and see how we can enrich other people´s lives before we look to enriching our own. What´s your favourite way to make friends?

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