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.



Under the Banner of Friends

friends 3Marta is the first and only Basque I’ve ever met. Jill, an American Jew, one of so few in our community we jokingly refer to her as our Token (which if you’re familiar with South Park you will only take slight offense to). Marta has been our go-to for all things Spanish, Jill when we need to know the right kind of pretzel sticks to make marshmallow dreidels at Hanukkah.

Both are mothers, though the ages and makeup of their families differ greatly. While Jill’s oldest was starting middle school, Marta was still changing diapers for the twin toddlers she had at home. Both are married to Americans, both have dogs. And that’s where the similarities end. In most circumstances, they’d be been like friend ships passing in the night. In fact, I have trouble imagining a scenario when Jill and Marta would have been friends.

But four years ago, they both wound up in Copenhagen.

I may doubt the likelihood of their friend ships meeting in the night, but what I cannot doubt is that over the four years they’ve shared, they have indeed become friends. Good friends. Their husbands and their kids too. They’ve shared dinners and vacations and parties and inside jokes. For most of that time, I’ve been a part of that friendship, but I’ve also had the pleasure of observing it as well.

You see, in expat life, friend ships that should simply pass in the night but instead go bump is one of the best things about what is sometimes a strange and tiring way of life.

It’s easy to assume a relationship of differences, one based primarily on the where and now would be on shakier ground than one formed on a foundation of similarities and sameness, but often the opposite is true. In my experience, the bonds that hold two different friends together tends to be even stronger. Maybe it has to be in order to get things to stick in the first place. Or maybe you work harder at it. Or maybe, as I suspect, you look after it a little bit more because you know how unlikely it was to begin with.

friends 2

Jill and Marta didn’t have much in common but they found enough common ground in the cold, Danish soil which welcomed them both. They built on that ground and in doing so, proved sometimes being in the same place at the same time is the only foundation you need.

Of the many friends I’ve made on this expat journey, most have been unlikely ones. Folks with different political views, different parenting philosophies. Different religions, different ethnicities, different views on life. Sure, I gravitate toward people to whom I have things in common—that’s a part of human nature—but the fact that this experience has thrown us together in a giant melting pot—which has then fused together some freaky combos? It’s my favorite part of the whole damn thing.

Tazza, my decade younger Aussie friend, mother to only girls, who doesn’t swear or like tattoos. Somehow it doesn’t matter. Liz, who pulls a different electoral lever than I do. There are Jill and Marta, my age-tribe mates who do swear but differ from me in many other ways. There has been a bevy of Brits, more than you can shake a stick at, most of whom turn a blind eye to my loud, American ways and strange way of holding a knife and fork. Canadian, Spanish, Dutch, French, Norwegian, Irish, Indian. Many of them I have nothing in common with other than being on this damp, Danish soil together. Together we’ve scratched our heads over Danish customs and consulted Jeanet, our resident Danish expert when perplexed. She graciously indulges our curiosity and allows our exasperation.

Yet in the time we’ve spent together, we’ve learned to embrace our adopted Danish flag and wave it about. Under this red and white flag which doesn’t belong to any of us, but now belongs to all of us because it is the place we made these unlikely friendships.

I’ve spent the better part of this week saying goodbye to many of them, swallowing tears, and at times, failing rather spectacularly. But this life and these friendships–they’ve allowed me to shed the weight of should. Being an expat has allowed me the freedom to be friends with people I have absolutely nothing in common with other than this Danish flag we’re all living under. It’s allowed me the chance to explore these unlikely friendships and watch them grow.

friends 1It has been one of the biggest and most unexpected gifts I can imagine.

For four years Marta’s Basque flag and Jill’s Stars and Stripes took a backseat to the red and white Dannebrog, the same way my own colors have taken a backward step to allow me to make friends. Perhaps it has been the same for you, putting aside differences to gather together under the banner you’re temporarily living under–be it Emerati or Swiss or Canadian, Thai or Scottish.

Under the banner of friendship.