What It's Really Like to Make New Friends in a New place During a Pandemic (Spoiler: It's Hard)

Sarah Levy
·6-min read
Photo credit: Jovana Rikalo
Photo credit: Jovana Rikalo

From Cosmopolitan

Like so many 30-somethings living in a big city during Covid-19, the pandemic ripped apart the foundation of my old life. My group of friends scattered. Some bought houses in the suburbs, fast-forwarding their inevitable timelines. Others settled back into their childhood bedrooms, sending SOS text messages when their moms chimed into private phone calls. My fiancé and I quarantined in our cramped New York apartment for three months until our lease was up, then moved to California in June 2020. His business was based there, and we were both ready for a change of scenery.

I had a handful of acquaintances in California, many of whom reached out with warm welcomes when I shared that I was moving. But I didn’t have the kind of sisterhood I had cherished in my old city; there was no one to call at 6 pm let alone midnight. Making new friends as an adult can be challenging in general, but the restrictions imposed by Covid-19 made it especially complex.

Over the last decade, I belonged to strong communities of women; my college friends, the women I met in sobriety, and former startup colleagues. Now, I found myself in a community of two.

I worried about becoming overly dependent on my fiancé, my only real friend in this new city. He had a local network; former colleagues and college pals with friendly partners he reassured me would become my friends too. But we spent the last 100+ days in a one-bedroom apartment, working and eating all of our meals together. I was nervous the modicum of romance we had left would vanish if I didn’t find some source of independent socialization.

My first “date” was an outdoor coffee with a friend of a friend who lived nearby. “Just be yourself,” my fiancé reminded me before I left, giving me the kind of hug reserved for a proud parent.

She was nice, but it was difficult to connect behind masks. We sat on opposite ends of a bench, lifting our masks only to sip our iced coffees. We chatted about quarantine; the panic we had all settled into and our respective work from home routines. It felt like we were both reciting a sad script we spent months writing.

When I got home, my fiancé bounded into the kitchen excitedly to ask me how it went. “It was fun,” I offered unconvincingly. My coffee date didn’t text me again, but I didn’t mind. Socializing was strangely draining.

Next, I had a phone call with a friend of a friend’s sister. She’s funny, I mouthed to my fiancé as he poked his head into the bedroom. I shot him a thumbs up, working up the courage to ask her if she’d feel comfortable meeting in person. “It’s too bad you just got here,” she sighed. “We’re leaving tomorrow to spend a couple of months with my boyfriend’s family in Maine.”

By mid-July, I was starting to get discouraged. One morning, my fiancé was scrolling through his Instagram feed when he stopped on a woman’s post. Let’s call her Zoe. They matched on a dating app years earlier and met up to go furniture shopping and grab tacos. While there wasn’t a romantic connection, they remained friendly through social media and mutual friends. Now, she lived nearby with her husband.

“I think you would like her,” my fiancé said, offering to reach out to her on my behalf. I was stubbornly resistant; I was supposed to be making friends independently. But he gently reminded me that it was okay to accept help, especially from my partner. Plus, he seemed genuinely happy to introduce us via text.

Zoe and I arranged a time to talk on the phone, and I called a couple of days later as I was unloading groceries. I tried to keep my expectations measured. She was friendly and spoke quickly as we chatted; her sunny Australian accent gave her words a relaxed warmth I immediately found comforting. She lived a short drive away.

“This might be weird,” she offered at the end of our call, “but I’m doing an outdoor exercise class tomorrow after work if you want to meet me there.”

I was pleasantly surprised; I thought she may have just been taking the call as a favor. The next day, our socially distant workout provided an easy mix of small talk and endorphins, and we chatted happily afterward. Back at home, I felt cautiously optimistic. Had I just made my first new friend?

A few days later, Zoe called and asked if I wanted to join her on a hike after work. I was still brushing up my driving skills; after eight years in a city, I became accustomed to public transportation and wasn’t exactly a confident driver, especially on busy freeways. Zoe was happy to drive, and we kept our masks up and windows down as she pointed out her favorite spots along the way.

Zoe started sharing her plans with me for the week ahead on Sunday nights, inviting me to join in on (very) early morning hikes or outdoor workout classes. It was a gesture I appreciated deeply; the kind of outstretched hand and direction I desperately needed. Adjusting to a new city in the middle of a pandemic was overwhelming, and it was a relief to follow Zoe’s lead.

Over time, our conversations became more personal; I met her for breakfast after an argument with my fiancé, needing someone to vent to in-person. She shared her experience closing on her first home with her husband and introduced me to her two dogs and cat. Over eggs at an outdoor cafe, we learned we were both very close with our grandmothers and teared up as we exchanged stories about them.

On my way home from breakfast, I realized it had been years since I had this kind of time to devote to a new friendship. It reminded me of early college days, when making a friend counted as an important and exciting accomplishment. While we both had demanding workdays, Zoe and I didn’t have commutes to sit through or business trips clogging our calendars. With fewer distractions in our pandemic lives and a renewed appreciation for social connection, we were able to be truly present.

There are a few life chapters where adults typically make new friends: in college, after starting a new job, and, later, through spouses or children. This pandemic has altered many of our traditional communities, but new, smaller communities are also sprouting in spaces where they might not have been born otherwise. And in the absence of our old structures, it’s nice to remember that there is still power in an outstretched hand, even from a social distance.

A little over a month after we met, Zoe and her husband moved into their new house about 30 minutes away. I recently drove to meet her for an outdoor workout class in her new neighborhood, carefully avoiding highways. Afterward, she asked if I wanted to grab dinner at a nearby restaurant with outdoor seating. “We have to take the freeway,” she warned, knowing I was still a nervous driver, “but I’ll drive ahead of you.”

I gripped the wheel nervously as I turned onto the freeway ramp for the first time, cars whizzing by around me. Zoe gently flipped her directional on, slowing slightly so I could follow her as she changed lanes. I finally relaxed as my new friend guided me through traffic.

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