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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Tales From A Middle-Aged Marriage

I have a weak spot for sap and sloppy sentimentality, especially when it comes to music. I mean, truly. I get misty just thinking about Total Eclipse of the Heart.

So you can imagine how fraught with emotion my middle-aged self was last week when John Legend’s All of Me came up on my son’s Spotify playlist. It’s one of those songs you hear and think, Jesus, I want someone to write a song like that about me. One of those songs full of vocal yearning, embodying those feelings of early love when the sun rose and set with the person you were falling for. When you laid yourself bare and took a risk, said love me for who I am and the other person said, I do.

All your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections. 

You know what you never hear songs about? People who have been married for seventeen years.

There are lots of songs and movies and stories about falling in love, about that first flush of passion. And then?

And then we sort of skip ahead to the sweet, almost platonic, romance of old age. We look on in wonder at elderly couples who have settled into some sort of understated love where you’ve almost fused together into one being, two turtles sharing a shell.

What you almost never hear about is the bridge between those two things. How you got from one to the other.

You never hear songs about the quiet ferocity of middle-aged love.

You never see movies about couples who have been together for a few decades, unless it’s about the problems they face or hurdles they’ve overcome.

I guess songs about sitting next to your spouse on the couch night after night on your respective laptops and separate vacations just aren’t catchy. Maybe it’s hard to find words to rhyme with mid-life crisis, menopausal, and middle-aged spread?

But there should be more songs and stories a movies about it, because the truth is, falling in love is easy.

Staying in love is hard.

We tend to completely gloss over couples who have been quietly and fiercely keeping the flames of love under their relationship burning. It’s not really sexy, is it, to think of the regular maintenance that goes into keeping a marriage going. Far easier to focus on the rush of fire you get when the kindling and newspaper goes whoosh-all smoke and bright flame. Or to feel the pang of emotion when the fire is slowly dying, nothing but embers in the grill.

No one wants to read about forty yeas of buying logs and wadding up newspapers and for Christ’s sake, I did it last time it’s your turn and oh, shit, it’s nearly gone out we need to do something fast.

But of course it’s more than that. I can’t tell you how  many times I look across the room and see my husband and catch my breath. Or when I listen to him tell a joke, or recount a story, and want to reach out and touch him. How safe I feel in my life, in my love, and even in my rage. I know that when I lose my way, he’s there. And I know that sometimes, when I need to find the way myself, he’s waiting at the end. Recently I’ve taken to calling him my thunder shirt, because  after 17 years of marriage I finally realized I sleep better when he is next to me. It’s like he keeps me weighted and tethered, even in my dreams.

Take that, young love.

After seventeen years of marriage, we still have things to talk about. Granted, sometimes we talk about how we can’t remember it was what we were just talking about, but still. And maybe I don’t dress up in lingerie, but hell, I shave my legs and sometimes, that’s enough.

The hard work of staying in love isn’t sexy. Not the stuff of songs. But I promise you, we are out here, us middle-aged couples, quietly and yet fiercely keeping the fires burning, more in love than ever.

I am full of curves and edges, and plenty of imperfections too. My husband is not writing love songs to me–not on paper. But he has written rock operas and librettos worth in his actions over the last seventeen years. I laid myself bare and took a risk, said love me for who I am. And he did. And seventeen years ago today we said, “I do.”

Dear Reader, I stayed married to him.

Happy anniversary, my darling.

We Should All Be Weeping

If I had a daughter, I would want her to be little like Emma Gonzalez.

Or perhaps a lot like her.

There are a hundred reasons. There is her buzz cut for starters. As a woman who used to shave her head I promise you, bringing a set of clippers to your scalp is a statement, bold as brass.

There is her voice, honest and loud and cracked through with emotion. She is passionate and raw and real and as ragged around the edges as the shredded jeans she sports.

But as I watched her stand in silence for the better part of six minutes, shutting her eyes against what must have been a groundswell of emotion from both within and without, what struck me — or more accurately smacked me around the head with a 2 x 4 — was the ferocity with which she embraces her tears.

Emma Gonzalez keeps allowing us a window into her heart, and by doing so, she is normalizing the act of crying. By refusing to hide her anger and rage and grief but instead allowing us a front row seat to those tears, she is telling us it is ok.

It is ok to cry.

Because really, we should all be weeping.

We teach our American boys to man up, be strong, grow a pair. We teach those sons to suppress and repress and deny. We teach them to show emotion is shameful and weak. We decry boys and men who do show emotion as pussies, as feminine, as damaged and less than.

Crying is for girls, our boys are told. Which has somehow unmistakably become synonymous with weakness.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez wipes away tears during a CNN town hall meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, at the BB&T Center, in Sunrise, Fla. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

We teach our sons that boys don’t cry. We teach them that real men do not feel.

Except that boys do cry. And men do feel.

Why? Because they are human, and this is what humans do. We feel. That ability along with opposable thumbs, that’s all that’s really separating us from our red-assed, chest-thumping ancestors.

You can’t keep suppressing something as natural as emotion. You know what happens? All of those pent-up feelings explode outward. In a fist connecting with a cheekbone, or a crowbar to a window, or a spray of bullets.

It’s a fucked-up crazy upside-down world when we demonize tears and normalize rage.

Humans feel. We cry. Out of sadness or fear or pain or rage or frustration, of joy or happiness or pleasure. Crying is nothing if not a reboot for the soul.

We should all be weeping.

Yet we keep encouraging our boys not to. And by default, our girls. Because as women we know firsthand that a show of emotion will be held against us, used against us, a black mark against our souls when it is time to have our hearts weighed and measured.

And then here comes Emma Gonzalez and her tears.

Perhaps if we encouraged more crying things would be different. We might be sopping up tears, but perhaps we wouldn’t be cleaning up so much blood from classroom floors.

Maybe if we encouraged more weeping, we wouldn’t have to spend so much time figuring out why all that pent-up emotion with nowhere to go then explodes like an active volcano, taking the rest of us with it in its red-hot wake.

I spent a long time after the last US election in a pit of fiery rage. It took me a long time to understand that rage was a finger in the dike, holding my grief inside. I knew if I let that grief out, it would sweep me away. It would knock me under and drag me out in its undertow and spin me until I didn’t know which way was up and which down.

I was terrified of showing my vulnerability. I was terrified because I knew it would be held against me. It would be seen as a weakness, held over my head like a Damoclean sword.

It took me even longer to understand that vulnerability, far from being a weakness, is one of a woman’s most powerful strengths. Because it allows me to feel. And to grow and learn and manage and channel and adapt and change and live.

We should all be weeping. At the world we’re fucking up. At the blood stained floors and the hate-fueled mess we are creating. We should be weeping with the mothers and fathers who have lost their sons and daughters, over the children who are washing up dead on foreign beaches, with the brothers and sisters who are being shot and killed for nothing more than being black at the wrong time, with the people across a globe being bombed into oblivion.

We should all be weeping.

Yes, if I had a daughter, I would want her to be a little and a lot like Emma Gonzalez.

But I do not have a daughter. I have sons. But I have sons who will grow up unafraid to express emotion. Who will be encouraged to cry and fear and feel. Sons who will watch me cry and rage and feel. Because how else do we teach our children to embrace their feelings — all of them — sadness and anger and fear and joy — how do we teach them what to do with those emotions if they do not see us experiencing — and surviving them?

Emma Gonzalez’s tear streaked face is a symbol. Not of weakness, but of strength and determination. And yes, of vulnerability.

We should all take a page out of Gonzalez’s book. We should all be weeping.

This post first appeared on Medium. I’d be grateful if you’d give it some love over there.

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The Magic Quilt of Expat Life

I’ve been an expat for nearly ten years. Blimey, that’s a long time; long enough to start using the word blimey in a non-ironic way, even. Nearly ten years overseas means I have said more than my fair share of goodbyes. I’ve gone to a lot of leaving lunches, farewell festivities, and tally-ho teas. I’ve drunk kegs full of coffee, ingested numerous kilos of cake and watched the resulting kilos materialize on my ass. I’ve given speeches, listened to speeches, presented gifts, bought gifts, assembled slide shows, written songs.

I’ve done it all.

It never gets any easier, not really. I almost always cry.

Not big, gulping sobs, though sometimes it has come close. But that sort of crying when you can feel it coming down the track: the tight throat, the sting behind your eyes, the stuffed up nose. It bears down upon you like a freight train and there’s little you can do to get out of the way in time. A whistle of warning, someone choking on a word, and that’s all she wrote, folks.

A room full of weepy women.

I wrote a post a long time ago about the importance of not crying during these things. Five years later I’ve changed my mind.

Cry, cry, cry.

Cry a river if you need to. It’s good for the soul. More people should cry. And more often.

Newsflash: Women cry. We cry when we’re happy. When we’re sad. When we are frustrated or overwhelmed or raging like a menopausal witch (No? Just me?). We cry over car commercials and Christmas commercials, during movies and reading books. We cry when someone else’s kid’s feelings get hurt. We cry at the very idea of something happening to someone we know. We cry when we meet our family at the airport, when they leave, when we fight with our partners, when our kids say something hurtful. We cry as we watch our kids walk across a graduation stage, when someone else’s baby is born, when things go awry.

We cry.

So, when you get a room full of women in a room, women who’ve spent a few years getting to know one another, giving each other rides and acting as emergency contacts, getting to know each other’s kids and families, seeing each other through difficulties and partners working in other countries, clinging together for dear life on this life boat of friendship in a foreign land–when you get a room full of women like that together and someone gets choked up? You almost always end up with a room full of weepy women.

These ritual goodbyes and all the emotions they evoke is a kind of exquisite torture. It’s incredibly poignant to hear stories and reminiscences, to look at years worth of pictures, to see the evolution of expat friendships play out in celluloid. It’s like watching a time-lapse of a child growing up.

I’ve been tasked with putting together a few of these slide shows. When I do, I always include a montage of people who have already said goodbye, though it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to remember whose paths have crisscrossed after this many years, whose lives have become entangled with whose. But I do it so that those folks, the ones we’ve already said goodbye to, remain a part of the whole. A panel that when stitched together with all of the others makes a quilt of a certain time and place.

It’s one of those magic quilts that keeps on growing.

Saying goodbye is hard. We should cry. And laugh. And rejoice and give thanks and feel sad. This is the reality of our life. Sometimes it can seem like the life of an expat is glamorous vacations and non-stop parties, but the edges of a life lived outside the borders of your own country can be rough. It’s just that no one takes photos of all those tears, those rooms full of weepy women, and posts them up on Facebook.

But maybe we should.

As a storyteller, it’s an incredible privilege to hear the stories that belong to others. As a human being, and a friend, it’s humbling when I get to be a part of that story. A panel on someone else’s quilt.

So many times those stories start off with feelings of loneliness and isolation, feeling stranded and out-of-place, nervous, unsure footing on choppy seas that are taking you far away from everything you know. And then the magic: one day, one coffee, one conversation, one friend. The tide begins to turn. The seas calm. Coffee doesn’t slosh out of your cup when you’re trying to drink it. You look around, and far from being alone, you’re at a table for forty eating kilos of cake.

 Just look how it ends: a room full of twenty, thirty, forty, sixty people who have put aside a chunk of their day to celebrate a friend, a friendship, to say goodbye and good luck. It ends in a room full of women to whom you mean enough that they hold back a tear, wipe a wizened eye, choke back a sob. A panel on that magic expat quilt that never stops growing.

Just look what you mean. 

Blimey, indeed.