The Last Sleep Over – Making Friends in the Pandemic

By Karen Heilemann | June 7, 2022

Everyone always remembers where they were when a crisis hit and, when you’re lucky, you remember the day just when everything was still normal. It’s March 2020 and I’m at my best friend’s house. We talk group costumes, pajama day outfits, and time travel dress ups, all excited for “motto week” that was two weeks away. We order pizza and watch a Netflix classic in our pjs before one of us dozes off. A week later, everything seemed to fall asleep. In my friend group and my grade, we all sensed that something was going to happen. That Thursday, March 12th , Trump barred foreign nationals from entering the U.S. After hearing the news, my mom said: this might very well be your last day of school tomorrow. And it was. No motto week, no prom, no summer-after-high-school and no more sleepovers.

The first few weeks, everyone was scared of everything so people turned to jogging. Trying not to get overrun by runners, my friends and I tried to walk at 1.5 meter distance to compare study notes. The first time we met again was a few weeks before the final exams in May, and the first time we hugged again was when I left for Groningen in September 2020. 

Naturally, moving to a new country, I would once again have to do what I did three years before: talk to various different people, and eventually figure out who I belong with and who feels the same about me. But I was roaming a lot on my own in that first year. Groningen was not to blame and neither was I. I went to ESN events that were too Covid friendly to sound like fun, joined EPU committees, and jumped at every chance to meet new people. 

After six weeks in a new city, Groningen had its first lockdown of the academic year. Occasionally, I met with the few people I met during those first events, but that got interrupted by months spent in Germany. We went for walks until we ran out of things to talk about or circled Noorderplantsoen one too many times. I had contact with my high school friends more than ever and got to relish what it meant to have a friend you don’t ever have to mention the weather to.

Meanwhile, I became my own best friend. Hanging out with myself because a lockdown or a quarantine forced me to turn into something I really wouldn’t miss. I went for walks, took care of plants, revived old hobbies – all in a city where it was completely acceptable to just be alone. I spent just enough time with myself to fall in love with solo traveling. 

On the road, I met people I felt most myself with. Some I saw multiple days in a row, others let me into their world for three hours. Everyone was on their own schedule and I could abandon all the overachieverism ingrained in the academic year, because I was never supposed to meet these people in the first place.

A few weeks later, university reopened for physical classes and everyone was relieved. We gathered in large groups enacting a fake sense of belonging. The first year shaped the conditions for the second year. You stuck with who you knew, which for me was largely internationals. Like most maniacs I talked to, I danced at too many weddings and was soon overwhelmed with all I had signed myself up for. In the first weeks, I had to constantly negotiate what to say yes and what to say no to. Making friends got inevitably harder that way, because where would you start? Courses, study associations, hobbies were all a great way to meet people, but how would you bond on a real level? Everyone has their own unique set of relationships, hobbies and passions to turn to and people only had a limit of time to share until they would move on to another part of their bubble. 

It was not like people didn’t take time for each other. But they took it differently. You may not stay after university classes as much and see where the day takes you, but you would schedule a cooking or going out date. You might not always do the one-on-one, but you would see each other at events.

And over these things, I bonded and made some friends. I see them at university, in the streets of our village city. Some I see on an almost daily basis, some for an occasional catch-up. Some I have known through the very first lockdown day, some last a season of the year.

None feel like the high school friends I country hop for. You talk to them with a level of consciousness you abandoned with your longtime school friends a while ago. It becomes familiar but it’s not quite natural, because every friendship is accompanied with the same sentiment that is presupposed in university: You have to make something out of this time of your life, because it will all slip away in an instant. 

The most connected I feel with people is when I meet them during a deep talk at night, because nothing slips as nothing is expected. At night, all the rushes of the day are forgotten and if you ignore the tiredness and the upcoming deadline, there is nowhere to go but stay. You let your guard down in front of a stranger, because they know exactly what you are going through. And in that moment you feel a rare sense of belonging in this fast-paced life and this is what I’ll remember from this time here, not the people that may or may not last.

Maybe knowing this, I can finally let June be June and just breathe. I can miss events and not miss anything and let some nice conversations be just that. Because in a few weeks, I will fly out again and do this all over.