It’s Hard to Make Friends When You Move to a New Town
“I think we both experienced some culture shock coming here. It was lonely.”
Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks to two women who struck up a friendship last summer and started walking miles together every day. They discuss the difficulty they had making friends after moving to their town, how meeting during the pandemic led them to get close quickly, and what it’s like when a friendship born in quarantine starts to emerge into “normal” life.
Cathy Kendall, 63, a retired writer who lives in Longview, Washington
Yeni Woodall, 48, a school counselor who lives in Longview, Washington
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: How did you meet?
Cathy Kendall: I had all these irises that I had brought with me here from California. But they weren’t doing well, because it was too shaded. So I decided to put them up on Nextdoor and just give them away. She answered my ad. She was actually the only person who showed up on time. I think we talked for almost an hour that first day. What we first connected on was the fact that it’s hard to make friends here. The Northwest chill is a real thing. People tend to be reserved and insular, especially in Washington. I don’t want to say mean things, but …
Yeni Woodall: I think things are clique-ish here. It’s very hard for people to let you in. Even at my work at our local school, I will come out of my office, people will be gone, and I’m like, Where’d everybody go? They’ll all be walking a [hiking] trail. And no one ever asked, “Do you want to join us?”
[Some] are people who have known each other since day care. That makes a difference, as a new person moving to the town. I moved here in summer 2017. That first year, I was a little bit depressed, I think, so I did a lot of sitting on my couch. There’s a permanent indentation in one of my cushions of my butt.
Cathy: We moved here in 2016. It’s a beautiful little town, and it does have a lot going for it. But when the pandemic hit, all the political stuff really started to heat up. I felt like even more of an outsider. There are a lot of very vocal Trump supporters in this town. There are a lot of people who didn’t want to wear masks. You would go to the grocery store and see people without masks.
That was another thing we connected on—we feel like we’re just trying to keep our families safe and like there’s not a lot of support for that in the community. Her being from Austin, just like the Bay Area, where I come from—[both of those places are] a lot more liberal and progressive. So I think we both experienced some culture shock coming here. It was lonely.
We connected immediately—we have different backgrounds, but we kind of see things the same way.
Beck: When you offered up the irises, was that during the pandemic?
Cathy: August 8, 2020. We stood outside, far apart. We talked for almost an hour. I said, “I love to walk. If you ever want to come walking with me, let me know.” That’s a very California thing to do. You don’t set a date, you just go, “Oh, let’s do this.” And usually it never happens, because I don’t know if they really want to be friends with me or not. But she’s like, “Well, let’s do it tomorrow. I’ll see you at the park.”
Yeni: So she had to show up. She couldn’t get rid of me. That was it.
Cathy: Then we walked almost every day, weather permitting. If you had told me six or seven years ago that I would be happily sitting outside a café on the sidewalk in 37-degree weather drinking coffee with my friend, I would have laughed at you. But that’s what we did in the winter, because we couldn’t go inside.
Beck: Did your walks become part of your pandemic routine?
Yeni: I always looked forward to her texting me: “3 p.m. today.”
Cathy: Now we go to get coffee at our favorite coffee shop every Saturday morning, unless something comes up. It’s a long walk—a couple of miles each way.
Yeni: I will not have coffee at the house until I know that she’s busy and we’re not going to get coffee.
Beck: What was it like to make a new friend during quarantine? I didn’t even do an amazing job keeping up with the friends I already have.
Cathy: It felt like a lifeline to me. I am an introvert. I prefer people one-on-one or in very small groups, but even so, I got lonely. I was tired of just talking to my husband. It was this ray of light. Also, this friendship means so much to me because even before the pandemic, I had not been able to make a close friend here. I look back, and I’m not sure how I would’ve gotten through that last year without Yeni. I would have been depressed.
She’s so calm, normal, smart, and rational. The fact that she’s very grounded and has a great sense of humor means a lot to me. I had a close friend who lives in California and I lost her to QAnon at the beginning of the pandemic. Completely down the rabbit hole. It’s really sad. We used to talk several times a week; now we just don’t talk. It’s like she’s dead to me. Having a rational, normal friend … We would look at the bumper stickers around town and just roll our eyes together. Having somebody to commiserate with is so good.
Yeni: I was just happy to talk with someone who also loves to read.
Cathy: We love the same music too. We love ’90s alternative.
Yeni: I came as an adult to the United States, in my early 20s. So I learned English with TV and music. It’s just nice to have someone who mirrors your likes. We never run out of stuff to talk about. Sometimes we get into some intellectual conversations.
Cathy: Yeah, very deep conversations. We could solve the world’s problems if people only listened to us.
Beck: Are you vaccinated now? Are you getting back to some semblance of normal life?
Cathy: I’m still super careful. My daughter is pregnant through IVF. It’s a big deal. And they won’t vaccinate her until her second trimester. So I don’t want to take any chances. But yeah, we got vaccinated as soon as we could.
Beck: I’m curious whether your friendship is changing as you are moving out into the world a bit more.
Yeni: We’re still hanging out. I mean, I love her.
Cathy: I love you too.
Yeni: I do have other friends. I belong to an international coffee club. But I have a lot more fun with her. We’ve gone to lunch already a couple times. I have done a little bit of lunch with other friends also. But it doesn’t affect my ability to go walk with her. I’m like, “Yes, I can go with you. Let’s go. But I have to be home by four because I’ve got to go walk with Cathy.”
Maybe you were asking if now that the world is open, we’re going to go our own ways. But I don’t think so. I’m still going to ask her to go have a nice meal with me. We celebrated my graduation and my new job; we celebrated that we got vaccinated. We had a drink, and then we were saying, “Okay, if we start celebrating everything, it’s no longer a celebration.”
Beck: There’s a lot to celebrate.
Yeni: The celebration is getting out of hand.
Beck: The way that you got to be friends, it’s almost backward, right? A lot of the time, you meet somebody in the world, at work, through other friends, through a club or something. And then as you get to know them more, you might have those deep one-on-one talks.
Cathy: We started with the deep talks. We went deep right away, talking about politics, religion, family, and sex. We probably got to know each other better and faster than we might have in normal times. Whereas if it wasn’t the pandemic, we probably would have started off chatting over coffee and then maybe eventually moved to walking.
But because we started walking, we have spent hours and hours together. Miles and miles. That’s a lot of time to spend talking to somebody.
Yeni: Freely, because it’s just the two of us and we’re outside. Nobody can hear us.
Cathy: This is the first time I’ve ever had a friendship start this way. I love it because when you get older, you realize you don’t have infinite time. We’re going to make the most of it.
It also felt a little fragile. I don’t think we ever voiced this, but it was very scary last summer. [I had the] thought I don’t know if I’ll survive it. Even though we were being careful. So I’m going to make the most of every relationship. That means something to me. That’s definitely something the pandemic has taught me: which relationships are important and the value of those relationships. Those that were more casual kind of fell away. There’s only the really strong connections [left]. My husband, my family, my best friend.
Yeni: I agree. My husband is pretty much my best friend. We’ve been together for 26 years, and for us it’s still like we just married last week. But sometimes you just talk about the same thing and you don’t realize that. It was a good change for me to have someone who has fresh ideas. Also, I think that makes my marriage stronger. Because I come back home and I’m like, “Oh, Cathy read this book, and it’s about this and that.” So I have these new stories to share with him, because I’m having new experiences by being with her.
Cathy: This is a really good point, because one person cannot ever meet all of your social and emotional needs. Having a really strong female friend is really important. I’ve always loved the company of women. I’ve always felt real strength in that. I didn’t have that since we moved here, and it was a big hole in my life. And so that means the world to me, especially in such a difficult time.
Beck: It’s a good thing that your irises wouldn’t grow in your yard, I guess.
Cathy: It is. Sometimes those things turn out to be a blessing.
If you or someone you know should be featured in “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.