4 Ways to Find Yourself in a New City
For many millennials, it’s not uncommon to change cities several times during one’s twenties or thirties, particularly for a job opportunity, relationship, or adventure. If you’ve been in this camp, then you already know the advice you’re bound to receive upon building a brand-new start in a different environment. Suggestions like “get involved,” “expand your network," and "meet people” are nice enough but when you’re (literally) navigating unfamiliar territory, those sentiments are often too broad, overwhelming, or inauthentic to be of real use.
Instead, here are four tips based on my personal experience to help you find your path—and yourself—in a new city.
Create a routine.
One of the best parts of knowing a city is all the little things: where to get your favorite pizza, the cheapest tacos, the best happy hour wine special. I had a regular yoga studio, a church, a coffee shop; I knew which bus to grab for the quickest route home, where to get a decent haircut, and when to move my car on snow days to avoid towing. I also took advantage of major attractions available on a regular basis: weekend mornings at farmers markets, an incredible running path, museums, picnics alongside free outdoor music, the endless festivals of summertime.
Finding yourself in a new city requires time and effort; you’ll need a reservoir of patience, a willingness to switch gears, and the wisdom to recognize that the person you become along the way is an ever-evolving part of who you are.
Then I relocated and had to start all over, which was frustrating as hell. So I made it a priority to create a short list of the types of places, people, things, and activities I needed to feel whole. To feel like, well, myself. I signed up for classes at all the area yoga studios. I joined the local art center’s young professionals board, though I hadn’t yet set foot in the museum. I drank a lot of coffee until I found a spot where the barista remembered my name. I applied for a part-time gig as a writing instructor at the community college. I drove around, a lot, and got lost as I tried to figure out neighborhoods and street names and suburbs. And slowly, these small efforts made a huge difference; creating small routines for myself allowed me to find my footing in a city that didn’t yet feel like home.
Explore like a tourist.
When people heard I moved to a place like Des Moines, Iowa, I frequently heard the question: “Why?” Most of the time, friends and family just wanted to know the personal backstory (yep, I moved for a guy and a J-O-B), but some of those inquiries were rooted in a little bit of sass and snobbery. After all, I didn’t move somewhere trendy like LA or New York or Austin; I decided to pick up and start over in the middle of the Midwest.
But here’s the thing: every city—seriously, every city—has cool shit happening and usually a boatload of civic pride to match. You just don’t know about it until you live there, which is why it’s entertaining and educational to explore your city like a tourist. Be hokey about it: Look up lists of the “top 10 things to do” and check out your chamber of commerce calendar. Ask co-workers and acquaintances and friends of friends what they love about where they live, where they like to eat, drink and play, and then go check out those very things. Lose the attitude that you need a buddy to go on adventures, but welcome anyone willing to take you someplace. (Well, I mean, besides creepy strangers.) Some stuff will be super lame and you’ll never want to do it again, but you just might find a unique, favorite spot in town as well as a deeper understanding of your community.
True story #1: I once went to a boutique opening by myself where I fan-girled over Lulu Frost jewelry next to a young woman who seemed to be doing the exact same thing. I introduced myself; she explained that she just relocated from Boston. And while it may have been the three plastic cups of white wine, I found myself saying out loud: “Do you want to hang out?” She laughed and said yes. Now we joke about how I picked her up, but we’ve been good friends ever since.
True story #2: I have gotten coffee, went to lunch and had dinner and drinks with so many people that I never connected with again . . . or ended up crossing paths in an unexpected way days, months, and years down the line.
You see, just like romantic dating, you never really know how an interaction will turn out. You’ll meet people who you think will stay in your life, and then they don’t. You’ll hang out with someone who you think is awesome, but for some reason “we should totally get together” never turns into actual plans. You’ll pair up with a pal insanely different from you only to discover you have much more in common than you originally thought. You’ll sit through awkward small talk and dread running into the same person over and over again. You’ll randomly get to know a friend of a friend who becomes one of your most loyal confidantes.
Moving isn’t the challenge, because anyone, given the right resources, can pack their things up and leave. Staying is hard.
You can’t predict who you’ll click with, so don’t try too hard to control your interactions. Introduce yourself (you’d be surprised how many people feel intimidated by this first step of networking!). Focus on being genuinely interested in a person rather than trying to impress them. If you’re invited somewhere, try to go—because nowadays, you’ll stand out by simply showing up. Above all, be kind. Because that person who was really annoying at that one party might be in a position to help you someday, and you don’t want to be the asshole who burned an unnecessary bridge.
One more thing: “Date” people whether you’re in a relationship or free as a bird. Having your own friends is healthy, and the ability to hold your own in a crowded room by yourself is a skill that’ll never go out of style. More importantly, your life in a new city is yours alone, so make sure it feels good to you outside of the company of a romantic partner. (Even though that’s nice, too!)
Stop comparing and be patient.
Ever heard that phrase, “Wherever you go, there you are?” I convinced myself that I hated Des Moines at first. I talked constantly about how Chicago was much better (sorry, everyone), and tried to move back repeatedly by applying for jobs and keeping it in my mind that I would not be living here long. Except...nobody made me move; I chose to do so, and yet for a long time, I felt impatient and wanted to go back to my comfort zone.
Now I look at my life here in Des Moines, and I’m proud of it. I like it. I know how to get around without using Google Maps. I’ve made wonderful friends, started a family, and took advantage of all sorts of personal and professional ventures—ones that panned out and ones that didn’t. My roots are more entrenched in the Midwest than I ever anticipated them to be, and even though I grew up in this same part of the U.S., nothing makes me happier than driving back into town or seeing the Iowa Capitol building from the small window of an airplane. Finally, it feels like home here.
But that journey wasn’t easy, which is the reality that can be hard to swallow. I tell friends considering a move all the time: Know that it will take at least a year to find your footing, whether you’re moving across the state, country, or world. The sooner you can make peace with that fact, the better. Remind yourself that after a year, you can move again, back to somewhere familiar or off to yet another untrodden space.
Finding yourself in a new city requires time and effort; you’ll need a reservoir of patience, a willingness to switch gears, and the wisdom to recognize that the person you become along the way is an ever-evolving part of who you are. Moving isn’t the challenge, because anyone, given the right resources, can pack their things up and leave. Staying is hard. Looking for silver linings is hard. Being away from friends and family is hard. Remaining open to possibility is hard. Allowing yourself to change and grow is hard.
But allowing yourself to really change and grow by testing your limits, expanding your horizons, and seeking fresh experiences is worth it.