Rolling out the Welcome Mat
Four expat groups that help women find new friends and settle in
“Move to a new country and you quickly see that visiting a place as a tourist, and actually moving there for good, are two very different things.” ― Tahir Shah, Travels With Myself
Now ain’t that the gospel truth?
Moving to Madrid and settling in can certainly try the nerves, especially when you have your first non-tourist encounter of the worst kind: Spanish papeleo. Your initial bright-eyed optimism about being in Madrid and eating tapas all day suddenly turns into despair. Yes, the honeymoon is now over. Welcome to stage two of culture shock: distress.
Most people know this phase as homesickness. You begin to dislike Spanish culture, start idealizing your own culture and from there, it’s an easy jump to becoming that complaining guiri. But if you have a network of friends to call on, you’ll get through the stages of culture shock much quicker and finally be able to feel “at home” in your adopted city of Madrid.
Meet the few women who not only have ridden that emotional rollercoaster all the way to the end, but set up women’s groups for those just getting on.
Americanas in Madrid
Erin Ridley started Americanas in Madrid a few years ago “to share the American love” among “20-something to 30-something chicas from the good ol’ US of A.” The Facebook group is a free but closed group, meaning that it costs nothing to join but you’ll need to request permission first.
“When I moved to Madrid five years ago, I felt like I left more than just my friends, profession and worldly possessions behind: I felt like I’d left my identity.
“Complicating this was the fact that for the first year I was here I didn’t have many friends, simply because I couldn’t find them. Then I made a friend — a best friend — and it changed my world.
“Since then, I’ve never forgotten how lonely that first year was, and how difficult it was to not only figure things out, but to do so without having someone (anyone!) with whom I could really relate. I also haven’t forgotten the difference a good friend made in my happiness here.
“So, when I started receiving inquiry after inquiry via my blog, La Tortuga Viajera, I realized I had to do something. You see, all of the people contacting me were American women around my age, and in the very same situation I was — honestly, they were all the kind of girls I would have easily been friends with back home.
“And that’s why I decided to start Americanas in Madrid — so that other women here could have that network of support that I so wished I had in those early days. Now, I’ve seen so many (probably) life-long friendships come out of the group. To know that my lonely first couple of years in Madrid might have led to making other people’s lives here better is just astonishing and humbling to me.”
Today, Erin’s group has around 150 members — young women from from California, to Missouri, Ohio and New York — bonding through a shared cultural background.
Girl Gone International
Tamara Bonilla setup Madrid: Girl Gone International to “help expat ladies make the move from their hometowns to Madrid a bit easier.” Although the group was founded just a few months ago, it already boasts over 160 women between the ages of 20 and 45 from America, Europe, Asia and Australia.
Tamara says she got the idea of setting up the group when she was living in Hamburg as an expat. “I had the chance to meet Anne Scott who manages Girl Gone International in Hamburg. We talked about the group, I joined the girls and then I shared my experience with other girls who were in my exact same situation. And when I had to come back to Madrid I thought, ‘Why not have a group here?’”
Tamara was born here in Madrid and finds that being a local with experience living abroad in cities like Hamburg and San Francisco puts her is in a unique position to ease the transition for women relocating to her hometown.
“I think it’s also helpful because I already know many places here in Madrid. I know places where you can go and eat where maybe as a foreigner you wouldn’t know. I can also help girls who are moving here… like if they have any questions regarding the culture, or where to find a house, or things like that, I think I’m really helpful there.
“When any of them have any specific doubts, they contact me for help or guidance. For example, I’ve been proofreading some CV’s lately.”
It’s free to join Madrid: Girl Gone International on Meetup and Facebook but membership applications require approval. “I want to prevent guys from joining the group! They contact me a lot because they see that it’s this huge women’s group and they want to get in,” Tamara laughs. “And having just a ladies group is more fun.”
InterNations Madrid Expat Women
“Most expat women move to a country with a spouse, for a job or to study, so they either come with some initial family support, or have more structured opportunities through work or classes to meet and make new friends. I came as none of these,” says Christina Chaplin, the founder of InterNations Madrid Expat Women.
“When I moved to Madrid in 2005, I had very few options for meeting and making female friends. I wasn’t making lot of money to be able to join tons of clubs, my work colleagues were rather transient and constantly changing, and social networks weren’t as developed as they are today.
“I actually made some of my first friends by searching on Facebook for women who lived in Madrid but had lived abroad, hoping that having been an expat themselves, they might understand why a perfect stranger would send them a message out of the blue asking if they’d like to meet for a coffee. One of my best friends in Spain is one of these women that I contacted on Facebook.
“As a woman, it can be difficult to make other female friends – opportunities abound to go out in the evenings, meet guys, go on dates, etc, but it’s difficult to make lasting friendships at a bar or party, and one’s need for a few meaningful friendships is not fulfilled by a long string of acquaintances.
“Social media has come a long way since 2005, and I wanted this group to be a way for expat women to meet other women in a fun environment that wasn’t centered around ‘going out’ and hopefully make some lasting friendships – and have an easier time at it then I did.”
Since starting the group in July, InterNations Madrid Expat Women has signed up over 140 members who represent more than 30 countries. Most of the women in the group are between the ages 28 and 38.
The group is hosted on InterNations, an expat community which itself is free to join, but an upgrade to a paid membership (3.95€/month) is required to be able to join activity groups such as Christina’s. The site also prescreens potential members.
The International Newcomers Club of Madrid
Founded in 1988 by three expat women, the International Newcomers Club of Madrid is one of the oldest groups around. Not surprisingly, there are many long-standing members among the 250 women who have joined this “newcomers” club. Women here represent 42 nationalities, with the US, Spain, Italy, UK and France making up the majority.
INC’s objective is to “provide a social and support group for international women passing through Madrid as well as a way for Spanish women and permanent expats to enjoy an international circle of friends while sharing their knowledge of life in Spain with others.”
“Friendship, great activities and a welcoming atmosphere go way beyond helping people get settled into their life in a foreign country. The club is a fun way to socialize in addition to learning more about Madrid and Spain in general,” says Andrea Isiminger, who serves on the Board of Directors in charge of promotions.
The club is open to join but charges a membership fee (75€ annually) which includes entrance to all regular events such as the monthly General Meeting and the Area Coffee activities, which are held in five different parts of the city on different dates.
About Anna Bitanga
I've been living in Madrid since 2007, married to a madrileño since 2008, and mom to our son since 2011. Tech is my thing. I love salmorejo, matrimonios and cazón adobado. I don't watch football.