“I’m new too”
“Can I be your best buddy and do lots of things with you and chat every day and feel like we have known each other for years instead of basically 0.3 seconds?”
So goes expat friendships – there’s nothing like being in a totally alien place with literally not a single contact in your phone to force you to find friends. And quick.
I’ve written about friendships a number of times on this blog already – perhaps an indicator of how important this aspect of expat life is to most of us. I wrote about Finding my Support System in this post, My New Best Friend (my GPS) in this one and about how and where you meet people when you first arrive somewhere in this one. But what I have been pondering more recently is not just about how you find those friendships, but what those friendships really mean when you are an expat.
So far I think I have been extremely lucky here in Pretoria. Thanks to the fact that my children are still primary/elementary school age, I have found it reasonably easy to meet other parents. But already even though it really is only a matter of weeks since I met these new friends, I feel like I have known them for years. Once you find those friends, your bond is often a very strong one.
As I was pondering this fact I read two stories from expats who confirmed this view – that there really is something special and different about expat friendships, where you meet in a vacuum and fill it as fast as possible with coffee dates and Facebook chats and playdates with your kiddies and evening get-togethers with your other halves.
First, there was a beautiful tale shared in an expat Facebook group from a woman who ended up being the birth partner for someone she had only just met. The pregnant lady’s husband was out of town when she went into labour so she called on one of the only people whose contact number she had in her phone (having very recently arrived in her new location).
But even though they were still relative strangers, the fact that they were both living somewhere with none of their usual support groups (family, old friends, long-term colleagues) meant the woman telling the story felt entirely comfortable and okay about performing this role. I feel sure that now these two will remain in touch for a long, long time even if their lives are scattered to the winds as our expat lives so often are.
Secondly, I read this post by now ex-trailing spouse Liz who writes about the “end of her journey”:
“Over the past year I have really enjoyed sharing stories with other trailing spouses, both in real life and online. I know it won ‘t be as easy to find a sense of community when I move back, the sort of close community spirit that exists here amongst the trailing spouses is very rare indeed. I’ve learnt how other people can surprise you with the things they are willing to do for someone they may not know that well, or how much effort friends will go to – when there are no family members nearby to offer their support, your friends often offer a lifeline.”
The words “close community spirit” really sums it up for me. I have joked many times about how we desperately find friends in our first few weeks in a new location – and then spend the next six months trying to shake them off. Or about the “friendship dance” we do when we meet someone new and spend the first few meetings trying to work out whether we actually like them or not.
But in reality, this life brings us together – often with people we wouldn’t naturally be friends with, but people with whom our situation bonds us. Having no-one else to rely on but each other means that we turn to these new friends for support, comfort, entertainment, reassurance, companionship…..all the things friends and family back home have been giving us, but now we need it all at once and all in double-quick time.
Some of those people will be “just now” friends – the ones who you spend time with while you are both living in the same place, but who you won’t stay in touch with apart from perhaps the odd Facebook comment. Others will be friends for life – the ones you long for, visit in new places, whose children you will watch growing up (even if from afar) and whose birthdays you will still mark. But every friendship is valid – as expats, we all know how important they are. And each friend we make helps this strange peripatetic life just that little bit easier, that little bit less lonely and that little bit….well, friendlier.
When we move on, to another country or back home, we may not take the friends with us but we take the MEMORY of those friendships. We know how it feels to be alone, to be the one whose only daily adult interaction is with the supermarket checkout person or the security guard at the gate to our compounds. And we know how it felt when someone reached out to us and offered us even just a smile, a few words, an invitation or a recommendation. We remember this and hopefully we take it with us so that we in turn can become that person. The one who offers friendship to those who need it most.
Here’s to our expat friends!
Have you got any special expat friends? How and where did you meet them? Have you kept in touch with friends from previous locations?
Picture credit: Luis Cerezo