How to Make–and Keep–Expat Friends

And so another season of goodbyes is upon us. I’ve written extensively about the art of saying goodbye to good friends. I’ve walked the walk, talked the talk, and all the rest. Nearly ten years of saying goodbye to acquaintances, friends, good friends, and the ones who feel more like family than friends has left me with lots of feels, many days of runny mascara, and a handful of trite, but true quotes.

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened, right?

Dr. Seuss-isms aside, when you get through all the coffees and teas and tears and goodbyes…then what? 

Set up a group chat. And USE it. 

When we started this journey ten years ago, I was a social media neophyte. Facebook you say? Nah, that’s for the whippersnappers. What’s App? More like What’s That?

Touching down in Cyprus, little did I know what a huge part FB would play in my life.

At any given time, I’ve got five or six different message groups going. They are the first line of defense in keeping long-distance friendships up and running. There’s an ongoing dialogue: who’s doing what, who’s fed up with their kids, who got a puppy, or a job, or a divorce. It’s casual, like meeting for coffee. You can pop in and say hi, let loose with a rant about how your teenager is driving you crazy, or update the group. It works across countries, seasons, and time zones. My only advice is to make sure you’re replying to the right group before you hit return.

Keep up with the day-to-day 

Those Messenger or What’s App groups? They’re fantastic for  keeping up with the day-to-day maintenance of friendship. By sharing the tidbits and highlights, the everyday stuff,  there is no pressure to do a massive “this is what I’ve been doing for the last year” catchup. And when you do meet up in person, you don’t feel like you’ve missed out–because you’ve kept each other in the loop.

Understand it won’t be the same

When you’ve moved on or have friends that have, the original bond that held you together, being in the same place at the same time, is broken. You’re not experiencing the same endless shitty winter or worries about math class together. You may not be bemoaning the cost of a new pair of sneakers or even gossiping about a mutual acquaintance. Your conversations will flow differently because you’re experiencing different things. The sameness is different-ness. But that doesn’t mean the friendship can’t or won’t survive. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that expat friendships can’t–or shouldn’t–evolve. They can.

Technology isn’t going anywhere so you may as well use it

Skype or FaceTime work great for many expats. I can’t stand seeing myself on video but I have issues, so don’t use me as an example. My kids are actually much better at this than me. Technology allows them to play video games with a friends all over the globe. Social media means they don’t need to reconnect because they never really disconnected. For all my bitching and moaning about technology, this is the upside. And it’s a pretty amazing one.

Make plans

If ten years of expatriation has taught me anything, it is this: the people meant to stay in your life will stay in your life…as long as you make the effort. So make the effort. Make plans to see each other. Put aside an annual weekend to get together. (Hooray for the vajayjay vacay!) Make long-term plans for get togethers and reunions. Use having friends all over the world as an excuse to travel to far away places you might not have gone.

Just do it

Travel to see friends who have moved on is expensive. Traveling back to the place you left friends behind is expensive. Do it anyway.

Make Time

Sometimes friends travel back to the scene of the friendship crime. The timing almost always sucks. It may be a busy time of year. Maybe you’ve had a string of guests and all you’ve been doing is washing bed sheets. Make the effort and put aside the time anyway. If someone comes into town and invites you to lunch or coffee or dinner? Go. In the large scheme of your life it’s an afternoon. Someday you might be the one traveling backwards, hoping your friends will put aside the time for a cup of coffee for you. Karma is a mocha flavored latte, my friends.

It’s ok to make new friends

Not everyone you meet on your journey is going to be your BFF. Not everyone you meet is going to bring you to tears it comes time to say goodbye. And that’s ok. You’re moving on, they’re moving on. You have to live your life, and so do they. They will make new friends, and so will you, it’s the nature of the beast. You can honor the time you spent together and put it in a little special box somewhere. The hard truth is there are people who you meet, maybe even people who you really, really like, who you will likely never see again. It’s ok to be sad about it. None of that takes away from what you shared.

Just because there are new friends filling in the blank spaces doesn’t negate or diminish the friendship you shared. It’s like having another kid. You don’t love the first one any less–your heart expands to love the next one just as much.

Losing friends is never easy, no matter how many times you do it. Keeping those friends, especially when they’re hopping around the globe, is hard too.

But hard is different from impossible.

So as you get ready to say goodbye to good friends or casual acquaintances, or your BFF, whether you’re the one staying or going, remember, don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.

And then go set up that messenger group.

 

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Friends in All the Right Places

Recently a friend in Denmark announced she was moving to Paris. So I, of course, did what any expat would do.

I reached out to a British woman I met in Cyprus who now lives in Warsaw but used to live in Paris to ask her about schools. Then I got in touch with another British women who lived in Copenhagen before me (she moved to New York and I gave her some tips), and now lives in Paris.

Simple, right?

The British friend from Cyprus who used to be in Paris but is now in Warsaw is soon moving to Ottawa. So I promised her I would hook her up with the folks I know from Copenhagen who are in Ottawa.

Paris? Check!

Next I got in touch with an American woman and a Kiwi by way of Oz, both of whom I know from Denmark who now live in The Hague (though one is soon moving to the US)  to see if I could hook them up with a Brit who came to Denmark via Qatar and is now going Dutch.

Den Hague? Check!

As I was tapping out messages and typing requests, I was astounded at the sheer size and capacity of the global network that hums along behind the scenes. And no one’s the wiser.

Forget the movers and the shakers, the back room deals and the golf club promises, there is a whole lot of dealing going on in FB messenger chats, closed social media groups and list serves. Got a question about moving your goods from Singapore to Seattle? Post a question and you’ll have sixty-four answers within five minutes, from the container companies who will break your Great Aunt Agnes’s china to the ones with the hunkiest haulers. Want to know how the schools in Entebe compare with the ones in England? No problem. I guarantee you someone has the answer.

In a lifestyle in which your whole world can turn upside down with one layoff, one big oil company buyout, one dream job offer, information is currency.

And let me tell you, there’s a whole lot of trading going on. It’s like those old-fashioned telephone operators sitting in front of octopus tentacles wires, connecting one party to another.

Expat Moms. Getting shit done.

Signing the contract is the easy part. It’s the rest that haunts your dreams. Having to move is hard. Moving to a country you’ve never been before, not knowing where to start? That’s paralyzing.

There’s a village out there. And it’s organized and on social media. It’s a whisper network of expats, mostly women, out there helping other (mostly) women. Not for money or fame or fortune, not even for the golden goose of an expat package, but just generally out of kindness, and a desire to help, and the kinship which comes with moving to a country not your own.

That ready-made global community at your disposal–it gets lost in all the wheeling and dealing, the packages, the glitz and glamor (as if!) of moving abroad. But its important.

Information and advice about schools and sports programs, neighborhoods, where to find gluten-free groceries for your celiac child, where the best cardiologist is for your son with a heart problem. How to get around, where to go, what to do, where to stash your mother when she comes for a visit. Buy or lease, take off your shoes or not, what do I need to bring with me from home, how are the OTC drugs??

I have an eight year old, a three year old, and an incontinent terrier, where’s the best place to look for a house and doggy diapers in Dubai? 

I need to fly back and forth to care for an ailing parent, where’s the best place in Uruguay to secure an au pair who drives, cooks Thai, and speaks Mandarin ? 

Don’t get me wrong. A package is nice. But so is having a list of schools to look at before you hit the ground, especially if it means you can cross a few off your list. A paycheck is necessary, but on the ground advice about which neighborhoods to skip and which to put on your wish list? That’s the real deal.

All of the things which help smooth the transition, which help keep the nibbling anxiety at bay. Schools, housing, childcare, doctors. Tips and tricks. Advice and areas to avoid. Dos and Don’ts. Musts and Mustn’ts.

It’s all there. Yours for the taking. Or the asking. You just need friends in the right places. Or friends who have friends who used to be in the right places who might know someone who might know a gal.

 

 

 

 

 

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

I hate asking for help.

But…living away from family and the familiar, I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s a necessity. And while my natural inclination is to come close to killing myself trying to do 600 things by myself, I have gotten much better at asking for help when and where I need it.

Example: Like many Americans, I learned to drive in an automatic car… and that’s all I’ve ever driven. (This is stupid, by the way. Americans should learn to drive, like the rest of the civilized world, with a stick shift). After three and half years in Denmark with nothing but bikes, we finally got a car. Guess what? It’s a stick. There are a hundred reasons why I didn’t learn to drive it, none of worth going into here, but only a few involve my fear of careening into a Danish cyclist while I am busy trying to figure out what gear to be in.

Anyway, my kids go to this amazing brand new school out in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by water. It’s great. It’s also a complete and utter pain in the ass to get to. If my husband drops them in the morning in the car, our transport options home are limited.

Pro tip: biking home in sideways wind and sleet is environmentally friendly. It is also not fun.

So sometimes (ok, often), I shuffle over to a friend and if they’re headed my way, ask for a ride. Like a teenager looking for a lift home. I suck up my pride (or embarrassment at the notion of being a 47 y/o woman who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift, a la Driving Miss Dina) and ask for a ride. Sometimes people say yes, sometimes no. And that’s cool. But they always say “just ask”

So I do.

And you know what? It makes my life so much easier to get a ride home. So I ask.

I need a little help, so I ask.

Almost every woman I know will literally run herself ragged because she doesn’t want to ask for help. I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s fear of appearing weak or incapable. It’s the same reason that women get pissed off if their partner suggests getting someone to ‘help’ them clean the house.

Pro-tip: If you say “maybe we should get a cleaner because it looks like you could use some help,” a woman is going to hear “you think the house is a mess and I’m incapable of keeping it clean.”

Pro tip: Just do it. Just hire the damn cleaner, don’t outline the reasons why you think your partner needs ‘help’.

I think it’s a byproduct of having to do everything twice as hard and three times as well to get a foot in the door. I think it’s fear of giving anyone a window into a vulnerability or a weakness that can be used against you. Fear of not living up to expectations, or perhaps a fear of proving someone’s negative expectations right.

Pro tip: Everyone else is lying about what they can do as well as they say they can all by themselves, and if they’re not lying, they’re probably miserable, over-tired, or sex-starved.

This is….not me. Not even in my head.

(Note: I’d be interested to hear if stay at home males–more and more common on the expat circuit–are averse to ‘help’, and/or internalize the suggestion as a failure to keep up….or, if, as I suspect, they are smart enough to take the damn help and free up their day for other things.)

There are only so many hours in the day and you only have so many hands and there are only so many directions you can stretch in at once, even if you’re Elasta-Girl.

Sometimes you need to ask for help.

The most successful people are successful because they don’t try to do everything by themselves. They hire other people to do the stuff they aren’t good at or don’t have the time for or just can’t do. But so many of the smart, successful women I know insist on doing everything, driving themselves into the ground. When I ask them why they don’t reach out, they always say “I hate asking for help.”

The twist? These are usually the very same women who will bend over backward to help someone else in a pinch, who will take on extra kids and extra volunteer hours to help out another woman who can’t, who will stay up until midnight cooking enough spaghetti Bolognese for seventy-two Boy Scouts. (You know who you are…)

Here’s the thing: asking for help, far from being weak, should be a sign of strength. We all know what we’re capable of. Smart people recognize when and what and where their boundaries are and don’t try to do it all. CEOs are not writing checks and answering phones and setting up meetings for the designer who’s going to re-do the conference room. They pay other people to do that stuff. It’s all important stuff that needs to get done…but it doesn’t all have to get done by one person.

What women do, what mothers do, what stay at home partners do is important, but even when presented with the evidence of a hacked up lung, so many won’t ask for help.

Pro-tip: Ask for help when you need it. I’m not talking about asking an acquaintance to loan you fifteen thousand bucks. I’m talking about help here and there as you need it. A ride home, an unscheduled playdate, a sleep-over. And trust that if it’s too much, the other person will say no.

Pro-tip: If someone asks you for help and it’s going to throw not just a wrench, but the whole toolbox into your plans, say no. Help is a two-way street. The person asking must abide by the answer, and the person being asked, must manage their own answer.

I hate asking for help.

Nah, scratch that. I used to hate it, but you know what?  I have accepted I can’t do everything. Nor do I want to do everything. Like bike home in the Danish wind, which blows in every direction at once.

I get by with a little help from my friends.

 

 

The 2nd Best Decision I’ve Ever Made

How many decisions do you make in the course of your life? Cereal or toast? (Neither) Coffee or tea? (Coffee) Open the bottle of wine or not? (Is it Friday? Then yes.). Life is chock-a-block with decisions, from the mundane to the momentous.

Every now and then you’re whistling along happily enough, tearing through the mundane decisions like a boss, when you come face to face with a giant one.

Marry me?
Should we start a family?
Should we buy a house?
Should we open the 2nd bottle? (Is it Saturday? Then yes.)

Sometimes they’re expected decisions you’ve been sort of prepping for your whole life, but sometimes they come out of nowhere.

In the back of my brain I knew my husband’s job might offer the opportunity to move overseas. But you know, when you’re talking about it, it’s all sure, great, what an adventure! It’s in the future. It’s the abstract. It’s not real.

Until he comes home one day and says, “Hey! There’s a job opening in Cyprus. What do you think?”

What did I think?

****

Have I told you how much I love NYC? Really? I mean have I really told you? Have I told you how the city boogied down deep into my bones until it became part of my DNA? Have I told you…oh, I have?

Forget Leaving Las Vegas, if there was an alcohol sopped memoir movie of this mid-section of my life, we could call it Leaving New York.

Leaving the city of my heart, where I fell in love, got married, had my babies…was tough. Like drag me away tough. Kicking and screaming tough. New York, man. It gets into your blood, it seeps into your pores, it worms its way…but enough about New York because I was leaving it.

On a jet plane, with two kids, a couple of suitcases, and a plan of action so loose it was jiggling like my post-baby muffin top.

And then there I was, in the middle of The Mediterranean. Me, my two kids, and a Yiayia down the street named Poppy. That was it. Me and a Greek Cypriot Granny. My entire life turned upside down because one momentous decision we made sitting in bed on a sunny Sunday morning while our second son slept a few feet away in our too small for two kids apartment.

****

For the first year, I was convinced it was, quite possibly, the worst decision I’d ever been a part of. Worse than the plaid pants with the ribbed yellow turtleneck get-up in 3rd grade. Worse than my hair in high school. Worse than every shitty financial decision we’ve ever made. (Note: Should you buy the one-bedroom apartment? Hell, yes you should).

I cried because I missed the election of Barack Obama. I cried watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. My mother and my sister came to visit us and when they left, I ugly sobbed on the sidewalk as the car pulled away. It was…not good. It was in fact, bad. Really bad.

Of course things improved, even within that first year. As nice as Poppy the Yiayia was, I made friends who were slightly closer to my own generation, more Breakfast Club than the Early Bird Special club. But still, it wasn’t until after we left Cyprus and, if I’m honest, well into our Copenhagen cycle, that I started to really think about the decision we made all those Sundays before.

****

It’s not always easy being an expat. There are times it is appallingly hard. Being a family unit without the support of nearby relatives as a buffer can be–well, let’s just say intense. Family time, I am often caught saying, is overrated.

Some things about it actually are great. Being abroad has given us an opportunity to bond in a way I’m not sure we would have had if we’d stayed in NY. I’m not saying we wouldn’t have had a bond, it would just be a different one. This one is born of living a specific experience all together, simultaneously.

Our horizons? Not broadened as much as exploded.

I’ve learned to stop fearing change, and, dare I say, embrace it. Or at least more so than before. I’ve gone so far outside my comfort zone, I’ve gotten jet lag. Bizarrely, I’ve learned how to relax. Let’s just say I’m now type B- rather than type A.

Is it Friday? Drink the wine.

Living as an outsider in a country that isn’t yours, when you don’t speak the language, or understand the nuance of the culture itself, often at the mercy of a job, teaches you nothing if not this: you can’t control everything. Some stuff yes, other stuff, no. I think, for a long time I got them mixed up.

It’s taught me that I really only truly need the people I love around me and a decent wine shop. Should we open the wine? (Is it Sunday? Sure.)

Being an expat has taught me how to offer my friendship..and receive friendship in return. It has redefined my concept of home, on every level imaginable. It has honed my criticism of my own country, but it has also deepened my love of it.

It has given me an understanding of being the odd one out, of being on the back foot, of having to pay attention. It’s deepened my appreciation for difference, from the minor to the major.

It’s taught me how to bake from scratch and how to live with less choice, and how to start using cloth napkins because paper products in Denmark are stupid expensive. Also that I don’t know how I survived as long as I did without an electric kettle.

It’s taught me that when someone is meant to be in your life, you find a way to make sure they stay in your life.

No dinner, no drama.

This decade long adventure has allowed us to get to know each other in a completely unfettered way. It’s just us over here. No insulation. All family, all the time. No Sunday dinners, but no Sunday drama either.

It has, quite honestly, fundamentally changed who I am as a person.

For the better.

So as I meander through the mundane, bus or train? (Bus) Pizza or Thai? (Pizza) Should we open that bottle of wine? (Is it Monday? Then no, you big lush), I can look back at some of the momentous with more clarity.

That decision we made all those Sundays ago, saying yes to taking that chance? It hasn’t always been easy, but it was probably the 2nd best decision I’ve ever made.