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.

 

 

 

 

 

My Life as a Sponge

We’ve all had shit days.

We’ve all had days when it feels good to unload on someone else: a secret we’ve been carrying, a ball of anxiety knotting its way through our digestive tract, a fear, an embarrassment, a hazy memory of dancing on a table after that shot of tequila…

If we’re lucky, we have a friend or a spouse or a parent who listens. They take on a bit of our worry, making our own burden a little bit lighter. They absorb it.

Like a sponge.

As a mother, I’m an expert sponge. Seriously. As a wife, I’m pretty good too. Actually, I think I’m an all-around decent sponge. There are times though when it feels like my sole job in life is to be a giant sponge. There to sop up excess emotion and tears, to take a little anxiety or unhappiness onto my own shoulders. I shift. I accommodate. I rearrange the already heavy pack on my back so I can add another load like that ass from Buckaroo.

Mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend. This is what we do for one another, right?

Right.

Most of the time I don’t think about it too much. I sop. I absorb. I soak up everyone else’s worries and anxieties like a boss. And usually there’s enough time in between major spills to dry out. But every now and again you’re sopping up one mess after another, absorbing one hurt after another, mopping upset and stress and baking cupcakes and trying to figure out where this new fear of the dark came from and making sure football socks are clean and calling your mom and double checking that your son’s sandwich doesn’t have cheese and because God forbid he have cheese it’s the end of the world and freaking out over the news and–

Basically you’re taking on water from so many directions you get saturated.

There are only so many leaks you can plug. After all, even sponges have their limits. Without time to dry out they disintegrate and fall apart in a big, crumbly mess.

Ideally, there should be a sponge-share agreement, whereby you take turns. Most of the time this works. My husband and I seem to have an unspoken understanding that only one of us is allowed to freak out at any given time. If I am in free fall, it means he needs to be up to bat. And vice-versa. Two parents in meltdown is never a good thing.

But life is life is life and things happen and unpredictability and everything else and sometimes there’s only one sponge left in the cupboard.

When this happens, I recommend a week by yourself in a sunny location to dry out.

Of course all you usually get, if you’re lucky, is five minutes in front of a 200° oven while you stir the casserole you made for dinner. The one you hope has enough in it to shut everyone up for a few minutes.

That is, just enough time to dry out enough to sop up the next mess.

 

 

 

 

 

The One in Which My Son Attempts Origami Jujitsu and I Learn a Lesson

I spend a lot of time reminding my children to do things. Shut doors. Flush toilets. Turn socks the right way out before they go in the laundry. Brush teeth. Make good choices. Be kind.

Kindness costs nothing, I say.
To treat others with kindness, I say.
Be kind, I say.

And on an on.

The other day I was sitting with the ten year-old, he of the high anxiety and high self-expectation. He was attempting some ridiculously complicated advanced origami witchcraft. And, as usual, he was being incredibly hard on himself. There he was, frustrated to the point of near tears over this ridiculously stupidly complicated origami voodoo contraption that he couldn’t master on the first go–because you know, it wasn’t good enough to start with the origami equivalent of “is this your card?”.  No, it had to be some jujitsu paper engineering feat with moving parts. Whatever.

It suddenly became painfully clear I’d neglected something crucial in my kindness reminders.

I’ve forgotten to remind my son to be kind to himself.

Be kind. We teach it. We preach it. We speech it. We cross-stitch it on sweet needlepoint circle things. We put it on posters with cute otters. We repeat it, endlessly. Be kind.

But how often do we remember to teach the necessity of including yourself in the group you’re being kind to?

Be kind to the new kid, the awkward kid, the one who sits alone at lunch.
Be kind to the asshat who is not so kind to you, to the teacher, to old people crossing the street, to dogs, to frogs, to the environment.
Be kind, be kind, be kind.

We keep forgetting be kind to yourself.

Would you be so hard on someone else who couldn’t do this folding wizardry on the first go, I asked him? If a friend was trying to do something, even something easy, let alone an origami self-perpetuating motion machine, would you make fun of them? Would you tell them they were crap? Would you make them feel bad about themselves?

So why would you do that to yourself? I asked him. You need to be kind, not just to others, I told him, but to yourself too.

Cut yourself some slack, boy. Give yourself a break, son. Understand you’re not going to be a Jedi origami master when you’re still a paper padawan.

Did Luke give up and go home to Tattooine when Yoda was riding his ass? No.
Did Rey leave the rock in the middle of nowhere when she didn’t master the force right away? No.
Was there any real reason to bring Star Wars into this?
Correct answer: there is always room for Star Wars references.

I’ve spent so much time teaching and preaching kindness, but I forgot to teach him to be kind to himself.

There was no ice cream this time. But together we mastered the origami force. Or really he did while I sat next to him and reminded him to go easy on himself. And the ridiculously complicated paper engineering feat with moving parts worked. And he celebrated by making sixteen more and now my house is filled with them.

Be kind. Absolutely.

But don’t forget to be kind to you while you’re bending over backward to be nice to everyone else.

I may not be an origami Jedi, or even a paper padawan. But I’m getting pretty dang good at learning what this ten year old is teaching me.