I feel as if I stay in touch with my friends and family as an expat more than I ever did in the States. It’s not a case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”—I was, with the exception of a few friends, at least 100 miles from my core community and over 1,000 miles from most of my family. But something about putting an ocean between us has made those relationships seem more fragile and made me more determined to stay in touch.
As it turns out, it’s easy to stay in touch with people. You just need to set that intention. The rest is pure mechanics.
I am putting this one first because it’s the one that I will be least helpful on and it may well be the one you need the least help with. The first thing you need to know is that I am not a whiz with my smart phone. In fact, if you call me, there’s a better than 50/50 chance that I will cut you off while trying to answer the damn thing. I now have two phones, my old US phone and my new Portuguese one. Apparently I could have something called a “dual SIM” where I can merge the two phones, but that is way too advanced for me. Yes, I have watched ALL the Bourne Identity movies in awe as he slams a new SIM chip into a phone. (It turns out it’s just a piece of cardboard. Who knew?) It never shows him struggling with a little paper clip trying to open the damn tiny chip door. (I’m looking at you, Matt Damon.)
Happily, my plan with MetroPCS (which was bought by T-Mobile or vice versa) has wifi calling. That means anytime my US phone is connected to wifi (like at my apartment), I can use my phone the exact same way that I do in the US—just dial or text. And people can do the same with me. I spend an extra $10 a month for a certain number of international minutes, but I don’t think I’ve ever used that function and I’m removing it. Wifi calling works wonderfully at no extra charge. I pay $70 a month for my unlimited talk/data plan from MetroPCS (including the extra $10 which is going away) AND it also gives me US Amazon Prime shipping and video. That’s great for sending gifts to my US friends and family and gives me one more channel to catch movies and shows.
My savvy friends told me I needed WhatsApp if I was going to live in Europe. So I dutifully downloaded it from the Google Playstore (yes, I’m Android). I have friends who connected to me on. You can use it for regular or video phone calls, as well as to text back and forth. I was today years old when I figured out how to reach out and connect with people on my phone’s contact list through WhatsApp. It’s ridiculously simple; I just hadn’t done it. ALL of my WhatsApp connections (until today), had contacted me. I tell myself I haven’t added any contacts to WhatsApp because of wifi calling—there just hasn’t been any need to duplicate. Really, I thought it would be harder than it was. Nope.
I also downloaded WhatsApp on my Portuguese phone and chat with friends over here on it. Since this is the phone I walk around with when I am out and about, I need to add some of my US friends that I do business with and speak to most often. And now that I know how to add them, I will.
Again, this is a free service. I don’t know how it works; I just know that it works. It is the magic of technology. (Okay, I know it’s Internet-based and blah blah blah, but isn’t magic more fun?)
Facebook and Facebook Messenger
Yes, I know it’s the evil empire. But almost all my friends are on it and it’s an easy way to stay in touch, see what is going on in their lives on a day to day basis, and really, maintain some level of normal communication.
I purposely did not put Facebook on my phone because I was already wasting too much time on social media. (Watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix if you want to know exactly why you’re addicted to Facebook.) However, I do have Facebook Messenger on both phones. I hardly ever use the video call feature, and when someone calls me on Messenger, I have a good thirty seconds of total confusion (What the hell is RINGING? Where’s that coming from?”) where I am flipping screens and mashing buttons. Then I realize it was a Messenger call and I call them back on… Messenger.
I do message back and forth on it. If you want to stay off Facebook but still be able to get any important private messages, it’s great to have Messenger on your phone, whether you’re in the States or anywhere else in the world.
I use Zoom.us for my business (yes, that’s an affiliate link!) and years ago I splurged (ABSOLUTELY SPLURGED!) and bought the pro version for a whopping (hold onto your wallets!) $15 a month. As a business tool, it pays for itself multiple times over each month—I use it for client meetings, recording interviews, and recording presentations. (Yep, you can have a meeting all by yourself and record it.) When COVID hit and more people started working from home, Zoom became a household staple.
I stay in touch with friends and family on Zoom and while it’s not as good as sitting in the same room, it’s lovely to see people and just chat. I have friends who host cocktail hours and Zoom parties. For holidays, some expats open up their Zoom to share their meal, opening of presents, or candle lighting with loved ones.
Newsletter and Blog
Before moving to Portugal, I was not consistent with sending out a newsletter to the folks on my business list. Most of the people on my “business” list are people I have met, clients and peers, and people who I therefore consider friends (with a few new friends I have yet to meet in real life). At some point in the COVID lockdowns, I changed the tone of my newsletter to more personal stuff—things I was thinking about more than the how-to of writing and marketing. When I moved to Portugal, I got a clear signal from people—on my blog comments, on my list, on social media—that THIS was what they were interested in. (Twenty years of trying to help people write and market books down the toilet. LOL)
I gradually moved into writing more blog posts about my expat life and fewer articles on marketing and writing books. (Oh, there are still more of those coming—it’s what I do!) Many of the expat blog posts answer the most common questions I get about moving to Portugal, the how and the why. I get private messages from strangers asking tons of questions and it is easier to refer them to a blog post rather than write out the answer to the same question ten times for ten different people.
The weekly newsletter—Friday Happynings—has become more of a thought piece. It may be about business, it may be about life. (Yes, of course you can sign up for it—the opt-in form is in the sidebar.) There’s a resource section that has a link to the weekly blog post as well as books I’m reading, shows I’m watching, and a few shameless plugs.
What’s cool is that people respond to the newsletter. I am more in touch with people who have been on my mailing list for years than I ever have been. It’s much more personal and I feel more connected. I hope they do, too.
Because I’m in business, I use an email platform (autoresponder for you OG) called ConvertKit. (Yep, another affiliate link.) If you want to do a personal newsletter, you don’t need the paid version. You can have up to 300 subscribers with ConvertKit’s free version. (Most of the email platforms now have a free version to send out broadcast messages. Convertkit is my platform of choice after trying many.) Or you can create a group email in Gmail or whatever email software you use. I still have separate lists of emails that I just copy and paste into my Gmail bcc for some of my groups.
Bonus: Stay in Touch with Email and Snail Mail
Of course, there is always regular email. I have kept up my regular email correspondence with friends, the normal back and forth that went on when I lived in the States.
I don’t send snail mail from here, at least not yet, because I hardly ever sent snail mail when I lived in the US. There are companies like Postable.com that let you design your own cards and then mail them out for you. Postable runs about $4.60 to mail out one custom card. Postage from Portugal to the US is about a dollar. Add in the cost of a card and you’re pretty much even.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Maintaining relationships—no matter where you are in the world—takes work. There are people I think about often and I mutter, “Oh, I need to call him or email her” and then… I don’t. Nine months into this I realized that I need to add a little structure to my relationship tending. I already have reminders in my calendar to stay in touch with a few friends on a regular basis. I have a standing Zoom call with a friend every other week that I look forward to. I text with several friends almost daily.
But there are people I love and because I’m not in physical contact with them on a regular basis, I feel I have neglected. People I just think are cool and yet haven’t kept up with.
I used to send out holiday cards every year, for business and personal, and in doing so, I went through my list of contacts, adding and culling. I know I am not the only person who doesn’t send cards anymore. And that means that the list doesn’t get reviewed and people get overlooked.
There is a lovely slack time for business the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. (And let’s face it, very little work gets done between Thanksgiving and January 5th or so.) That’s a great time to organize your contacts, go through your old address books, emails, torn return addresses that you stuffed in that drawer (just me?), phone contacts, and get them all in one place. If you look at a name and think, “I miss them” then damn it, call them. Send them a card. Email them. Make an appointment on your calendar to talk to them.
We have so many ways to stay in touch with our friends and family no matter where we are in the world. If you have the luxury of an in-person visit, then do it. If not, there are so many ways to reach people. No excuses, boys and girls. Stay in touch.