Expat friendships – fast and furious!

“I’m new”

“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?”

“Of course!”

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.

It starts with a coffee...but soon it could be friends for life.

It starts with a coffee…but soon it could be friends for life.

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

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20 thoughts on “Expat friendships – fast and furious!

    • It’s true! I also think that as an expat I have more in common with people from all over the world/different cultures and backgrounds than with many of my friends back home simply because we are both going through the same thing of being far from home and loved ones….

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      • Initially we didn’t, but came back when one was 18mths. Now we have a 2 and 7 year old. The older one is excited but I think more anxious. I am at a loss on how to help her feel better. We went there six months ago for a visit. She knows what to expect. Though just can’t verbally tell me. What do you do to help your kids out?

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      • It’s really hard and we are still experiencing issues with our 7yr old three months on. BUT I see it get easier every week. Lots of positivity about where you are going and the adventures you will have, but acknowledge their feelings, tell them it’s normal to feel apprehensive. Reassure them you can keep in touch with friends via Skype, email, even writing good old letters and postcards (which my daughter has been enjoying). When you go, pack some familiar things for their room to take on the plane with you to help with the immediate transition eg bedclothes. We took her fairy lights, put them up the first night. If you haven’t already discovered it, the Your Expat Child website is fantastic and full of ideas and resources. Good luck and keep in touch, I’d love to hear how you get on.

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  1. Fabulous! I have often wondered about writing about expat friends on my own blog. I’ve been lucky enough to have met some wonderful, wonderful people. Some were a just brief but intense friendship and some have gone the distance. All, without exception, have enriched my life. Lovely read xx

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  2. I saw the story about the birth partner too and thought it was lovely. There are so many people I met as an expat that I hope I keep in touch with for a long while, even though I have only known them for a relatively short time. And you are right about the memories, even if I don’t see some of them so much in the future.

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  3. This is totally spot on! My husband and I have observed the people we’re friends with abroad, and the English-speakers are always the most random batch of people, most of whom we would never have been friends with in the USA! But we love that living abroad has given us the chance to broaden our friendship horizons, and we love “instant-friending” wherever we go.

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  4. Wonderful post! Makes me cry because making lasting friendships as an expat has been my biggest personal challenge. I’m actually meeting up with another American this weekend who has only been here for two years so is keen to meet other expats. I do actually know a lot of people through work but in terms of good expat friendships I don’t have many because they’ve either moved back to their home countries or moved on to another place!

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  5. Pingback: Sisterhood of the World blogging award |

  6. What a great post. I especially appreciated the comment 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.” Unfortunately for our family, we had an extended family visit before moving abroad that ended very badly. So, not only due to moving & due to moving abroad, but due to extended family drama created just prior to our moving, our family felt a great need to find new friends in the new location. We tried to befriend spouses of work colleagues, but found that we had too many differences. The greatest difference we discovered was that we also wanted to spend time meeting people in the new location, where the work colleagues & their spouses preferred their expat colleague & spouse group instead. I appreciate the comments about the “friendship dance,” since experiencing the cultural differences of people we met in the new location presented challenges to getting to know the people that we met. I will say that I have greatly enjoyed meeting an ethnically & culturally diverse population in our location ( learning another language)! We have been expats (from the U.S.) for 2 years & are currently friends with people from Canada, Brazil, England, Ireland, Scotland, Poland, Morocco, Malawi, South Africa, Syria, India, & Australia! We feel so blessed to have this experience, since we never had similar experiences while relocating within the U.S.

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    • Thanks for your comment Heather. I totally agree, I love the fact that I have friends from all over the world. This is such a great way not only to learn about a totally new culture to me (in my case SA, which is really lots of different cultures in one!) but also to meet and get to know people from all over the world. I wish everyone had this chance, the world would definitely be a nice and more tolerant place for it.

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