Four Expats and a Funeral

800px-Old_Salem_Church_and_Cemetery_Dec_09When 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.

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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.

1400805427202.jpg-620x349These 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.

 

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33 thoughts on “Four Expats and a Funeral

  1. Jeneva December 16, 2014 / 4:03 pm

    Love this, Dina. Thank you for writing it. Jeneva

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Elyse December 16, 2014 / 10:01 pm

    At this time of year, I’m always back in Geneva, and not in a good way. My Dad died on Christmas, and my sister at my birthday in January. So thank you for reminding me of the folks who did all these things for me and more when I most needed it. They will always be my friends.

    This post was beautifully written, too, Dina.

    Like

    • dhonour December 16, 2014 / 11:10 pm

      Oh, Elyse, I am sorry. It was not the first time I’ve had a death in the family since we’ve been away, but I was alone for the weekend and it was very odd. I am so grateful that I was able to go back though and be with my immediate family. And of course I am grateful to my expat family for stepping up, as they always do. I am glad that in this time of sadness I could remind you of something happy too. My thoughts go out to you this Christmas season. x

      Liked by 1 person

      • Elyse December 17, 2014 / 4:03 am

        Thanks. 2000 was when I lost both, and it was long ago. But it was good for me to recall that there people there who helped me through it.

        I spent many years struggling with the holidays. A few years ago, I blogged about these deaths in Both Sides Now. And I managed to make it through the holidays. These days, I don’t dissolve into tears, and can even have some fun. Healing takes time! But I’m getting there!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Teddi Robeson ( Aunt T) December 16, 2014 / 11:24 pm

    Dina,
    You say things in such a wonderful way. I can identify with the feelings as though I were able to pen the words myself. Please never stop writing. You have a real gift. Please keep us informed as to how the book is coming along. Teddi (Elizabeth’s Aunt)

    Like

    • dhonour December 16, 2014 / 11:37 pm

      Thank you so much, Teddi! I surely will.

      Like

  4. why i am not skinny December 17, 2014 / 4:56 pm

    This is SO true!

    When my aunt passed away in July in South Africa & I was in Belgium – the family told me NOT to fly home… so I stuck around here grieving by myself – or so I thought – because I was so wonderfully surprised that my expat community of friends turned out to be the best support network that I could have asked for!

    Counting their friendship in dog years makes TOTAL sense!

    Liked by 1 person

    • dhonour December 17, 2014 / 7:24 pm

      It’s amazing, isn’t it? I really think it’s one of the best parts of living away. Times like this it is hard to be far away from family (I was very lucky to be able to travel home), but having a group of friends around makes all the difference.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. promisepainter December 18, 2014 / 8:59 am

    Wow. That is so good. and so true… I can’t tell you…

    Like

    • dhonour December 18, 2014 / 10:57 am

      Thanks! I am always grateful when a blog post resonates with other people. It helps reaffirm that I am not crazy and alone in this often muddled brain of mine. But I know for sure these friendships we have or are making are special.

      Like

  6. Sarah M December 18, 2014 / 9:14 am

    I think that rapid closeness of expat friends is something only others who have lived as an ex pat can understand. I did at one time think it was unique to me, until I found other bloggers talking about it. Good to know I”m not (so) crazy

    Like

    • dhonour December 18, 2014 / 11:00 am

      Ha! I just said that above, (glad to know I’m not alone in my muddled brain). You often read or hear about similar things happening to soldiers, people who are in the ‘trenches’ together if you will (in the case of soldiers, quite literally). I know it is not unique to the expat crowd, and I remember feeling it with ‘mom’ friends at the beginning of my parenting journey, but there is something even more resonating when you are away from ‘home’.

      Like

  7. Naomi Hattaway December 18, 2014 / 1:17 pm

    This was shared with our “triangle” facebook group (those who have adapted their shape because of having lived abroad) and it resonated with a bunch of us! It is so true that those friendships that are started get deep quickly. I wouldn’t trade my expat friends for anything!

    Like

    • dhonour December 21, 2014 / 5:06 pm

      I love the triangle analogy. A long time ago when I had the ‘people come in all shapes and sizes’ conversation with my son, he told me he wanted to be a rectangle when he grew up. Little did I know back then he would really be a triangle. I am glad you too have found lasting friendships in your expat experience!

      Like

  8. ms-havachat December 18, 2014 / 2:24 pm

    Beautifully written.
    A friend thought to share on facebook and so glad she did.
    Love your analogy of expat friendships are counted in dog years – fabulous!
    I’ve been an expat for several years in 4 countries and have participated in similar supoort groups.
    Touch wood we’ve only had to reach out once and the community was amazing.
    I often think how odd it is we cant just drop everything and fly ‘home’for all the wonderful celebrations but illness or death seldom keeps us away. Its back to front in some ways.
    hugs from a new follower

    Like

    • dhonour December 21, 2014 / 5:10 pm

      Thank you so much! The outreach and community among expats is truly extraordinary. This is our second country and I’ve been amazed both times how quickly things come together and how much of themselves people are willing to give. This year I am making it a point to go home for a birthday, so a good celebration, so I will balance out the funeral, but there are so many things we miss out on. Having those great friends does help make up for it. Thank you again for taking the time to read and comment!

      Like

  9. lynne December 18, 2014 / 4:49 pm

    Thank you for writing this. Expat friendships … nobody else understand except other expats. You put it so beautifully.

    Like

    • dhonour December 21, 2014 / 5:10 pm

      Thanks, Lynne. It’s true. They do hold a special place in your heart.

      Like

  10. Elizabeth Nunziato December 18, 2014 / 5:38 pm

    I’ve been happily surprised by the expat friendship style here on our first post, and your article puts it into words perfectly.

    Like

    • dhonour December 21, 2014 / 5:11 pm

      Thank you, Elizabeth. I was happily surprised too. And I continue to be. Each time I think about the things I’m missing, it sometimes helps to think about the things I have instead. Enjoy your experience!

      Like

  11. doublewhirler December 25, 2014 / 4:10 am

    Sorry to hear your news Dina – I’ve not been so consistent in blog world this last month. I’m in need of that much talked about blog summit w you…
    x

    Like

    • dhonour December 25, 2014 / 10:12 pm

      Yes. Come here to CPH, we’ll summit :-). If not, definitely catch up in the summer, but I am only an e-mail away. Thank you for the condolences. It was a sad event, but it was nice to be back among my ‘tribe’. Speak soon?

      Like

  12. Commander in Chief At home December 29, 2014 / 8:45 am

    Well said and so true. I am glad to have read your thoughts because I have, in the past, felt sad that I would not have those long lasting friends close by in my later years, having moved so often. Now I have perspective. I have those dear friends, the friendships are cemented more quickly and solidly because of the circumstances in which we live.

    It is hard, though, when the death back home is not immediate family, but leaves you feeling empty, just the same, and the obvious needs are not there, especially when you’ve just recently arrived at a new location. I’ve recently experienced two of these.

    Thanks for writing.

    Like

    • dhonour December 29, 2014 / 9:53 am

      I’m so sorry for your loss. I lost my only aunt about 6 months after we moved the first time and there was no way I could get back and to this day, nearly 7 years later, I still forget she’s gone. I think that is in part because I didn’t get that sense of closure. Oddly, my own family happened to be visiting for the first time when it happened, so we had each other. Otherwise, it would have been very odd indeed.

      Like

  13. MStokyo December 29, 2014 / 1:08 pm

    As an expat for many years your words in this article ring true. Well articulated. Will be sharing your writing with some of my closest friends…all met on “expat assignments”

    Like

    • dhonour December 29, 2014 / 1:17 pm

      Thank you so much! It is a special bond, one which I hope to keep up with in my own future–wherever our next assignment takes us.

      Like

  14. Sally Turner January 1, 2015 / 4:27 am

    Some of my dearest friends are those from ex-pat days 50 years ago. Oh wait, that’s only a little over seven years ago…..almost yesterday.

    Like

    • dhonour January 1, 2015 / 11:06 am

      EXactly! I love that you’ve had friends for half a century, and that you still consider them close friends after all this time. Beautiful!

      Like

  15. Anonymous April 5, 2016 / 11:14 pm

    Love this post. It puts into words so much of what my non-expat friends try to understand and have difficulty grasping… because you need to have lived through it to understand it.

    Like

    • Dina Honour April 6, 2016 / 11:33 am

      Thank you. I think you do have to experience it to truly appreciate it. I’ve been astounded at the generosity and camaraderie of the expat friends I have made in the last seven and a half years. And they are friends I’ll have for life.

      Like

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