When you live abroad and someone on the other side of the world is gravely ill or passes away, normal rules don’t apply. No one pops round with a tuna casserole to help the family out. There is no Shiva sitting or sympathy cards with the promise of masses held on the behalf of the deceased. Despite this, the lack of what may normally be expected–the food, the family, the familiar– there is an understanding. There is rallying of a different sort.
When I had to travel to a funeral in the U.S. not too long ago, no one brought me a lasagna. Instead I had friends offer to watch my kids while I flew across the Atlantic. I had other friends offer to make their lunches, pick them up in the morning, take them home after school if my husband needed to be at work. As yummy as a chicken pot pie might be, as traditional as sitting with the bereaved may seem, when you are an expat, the offers of help with the everyday, the standing in for family, those things mean far more.
You might be reading this thinking, that doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary. What you must remember, however, is that these are not life long friends. This isn’t Jodie from high school or Sandy from college who saw me puke my schnapps up or lied to my parents when they asked where I’d been the night before. This isn’t Julie, neighbor of fifteen years or Sue the woman I’ve known since Mommy and Me music class. These are people who, on the timeline of life, I’ve really only just met.
That’s the thing about expat friendships. Somewhere in an older post I referred to expat friendships being counted in dog years. It’s an analogy I come back to over and over again. When you make a friend as an expat, you slice through the niceties. You dice through the getting to know you phase. Normal time is compressed, allowing you to get closer faster than you normally would. Whereas maybe you saw Sue every Wednesday morning at nine when you rolled your eyes together singing The Hokey Pokey, expat friends are often present in every nook and cranny of your life abroad. They are defacto family as well as friends. They make up your community as well as your social life. They are kith, kin, village and vicar. They are who you turn to for advice, for an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on. They are the ones who listen to you vent and understand, because they are right there with you. Because they are there all the time, not just on the end of a messenger chat or a signature at the bottom of a Christmas card, it truly feels like you’ve known them just as long as Jodie or Sandy or even cousin Jane who used to cover for you when you fed scraps of food to the potted plant at Great Aunt Edna’s house.
There is an intensity to expat friendship that reminds me of the friendships of middle school, when the sun rose and set with the movements of your best friend.* There is a camaraderie about expat friendship that makes me think of the first mom friend you made after the birth of your first child, when you heaved a sigh of relief that you had found someone who wouldn’t roll their eyes if you discussed poop colors. There is the free-fall experience of falling in love thrown in as well, a sudden need and desire to unburden your secrets and fears, though you’ve only just met. I’ve told expat friends who I’ve known for mere minutes things that friends I’ve had since high school don’t know.
There is a bond, a togetherness, a Band of Brothers-esque sense of getting each other’s back. I’ve looked after someone else’s child for a weekend so her parents could escape for some well needed time together, something I can’t imagine doing for more than one or two people in ‘real life’. I have had countless others offer to take my own kids so that my husband and I can get away. I’ve hugged people I don’t know very well upon hearing about the death of one of their loves ones, across another ocean or ten countries away. I have listened in as others have planned, with military precision, how to organize meals and child care and dog walking for a fellow expat going through chemo.
These are relationships based upon the bedrock of a shared experience, a profound experience that for a time, defines everything about you. I have been a part of this shared experience, have witnessed the compressed, intense bonding of expat relationships, both in myself and in others. Necessity compels you to disregard all the small, quirky things that would normally prevent you from being friends in some other reality, some parallel universe. Sometimes you dispense with the big things as well. Of course not all expats are friends with one another simply because they are in the same place at the same time. It’s not as if everyone gets naked and frolics in the hot tub of life abroad. Far from it. There are cliques and groups and people who don’t like each other with an intensity bordering on manic–in other words, it’s just like real life–the one outside the expat bubble. What is different is the closeness you feel to those you do like–and the speed at which that closeness develops.
These distilled friendship are one of the best parts of living abroad. They are relationships filtered through cheesecloth. They are sifted and sieved until you are left with the simple core: a mutual admiration and respect for the person sitting across from you. The one offering to look after your kids or walk your dog or pop in and feed your guinea pigs while you are gone.
I was only away for a few days. The house was still upright when I got back. The boys had been fed and watered, nothing was broken, homework had been done. This time I didn’t have need for the assistance of my little village, but there will eventually be a time when I do, when I need to reach out and ask for the type of help I wouldn’t dream of asking of another kind of friend.
I won’t hesitate because I know they will say yes, the same way that I would, that I do.
*those intense friendships of childhood play a big part in my fiction writing. The Space Between Their Names in based on the thick and thin of best friends.