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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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.

The Evolution of Friendship: From Mean Girls to Meaningful Women

Every year for the last three, along with a group of friends, I’ve packed my bags, left color-coded instructions for my family, and flown off for a long weekend. If our annual women’s weekend (or as I christened it this year, Vajayjay Vacay) were a movie, here’s how I envision the poster:

Six full-grown females, running, suitcases clacking on the cobblestones. For good measure, they’d throw in a harried and clueless looking dad. There’d be one mom checking her e-mail ‘on the go’–in business wear and heels, natch. And in the background, a gaggle of frowny kids, except the demon child with the cute, but mischievous look on his face.

There’d be a dumb tag line, something like With No Kids in Sight, Will Moms Go Wild at Night? perched tipsily on a margarita glass or something. Because of course the first thing mothers do when away from the daily grind of spit up, vacuums, and carrot sticks is to let their hair down, flirt with every hunky man they see, and drink themselves into a stupor until they end up passed out on a park bench in the middle of Madrid.

At least that’s the stereotype, the tired and trite and perhaps sometimes true trope.

I don’t know. Maybe that happens when you’re a mom in your twenties. Or thirties. Maybe it happens when you’re still breastfeeding and one glass of wine gives you a hangover. I’m in my late forties. My kids are older. My tolerance for red wine has built up like an impenetrable armor.

In my reality, a weekend away with women in their forties can best be summed by this comment, made by one of our group:

Eating a bag of chips in bed, without having to share them with my kids, napping under the covers at 5 pm? Bliss.

*****

I’ve always had close friendships with women. Some, in my teens and early twenties, were intense. Others sizzled with a live wire of competitiveness, even if we weren’t aware of what, exactly, we were competing for. This is how girls are…or at least were…conditioned. To find a guy. To marry. To have kids. That was always the end goal. Even if your goal was to be an astronaut, there was the assumption you’d be a married astronaut. The catch phrase for girls growing up in the 70s and 80s was not You Can Have One or Two things. It was you can Have It ALL. 

All most definitely included a husband and kids.

Girls absorb those assumptions. We marinate in them, soak until our blood expectation level is over the limit. You’re not always aware of it–I know I wasn’t–but it’s there all the same, the idea that a girl, a woman, is defined by her ability to get a man. Preferably one who puts a ring on it. Datable, marriageable men are presented to us as a limited resource. A rare Pokemon siting, a nugget of gold in an otherwise barren mine of rock.

And so the societal stage is set for mean girl antics and bitch behavior. Most of us play along, unaware we’re not much more than girl pawns in a game of social conditioning chess.

None of this is to say I haven’t had emotionally connective and cherished friendships with women and girls throughout my life. I absolutely have.

But….there’s something especially nice about the friendships of women in their forties.

Less competition, more chips.

****

Here’s a sneak peek into what a weekend away with six moms in their 40s really looks like…

Drinking sangria in the middle of the afternoon without having to worry about the school run.

Talking about labor, kids, periods, the future, sex. Exchanging stories about our husbands. Sure, there’s the odd complaint, but more often than not, the stories are of how we met, the sweet things they’ve done, they do.

Walking through a museum actually looking at what’s on the walls, not trying to stop your kids getting too close to the rope or bribing them with gummy bears to let you see the exhibit.

Deciding what to have for dinner as you’re sitting down. Not worrying about what to make for dinner and who eats what and who hates that? Heaven on Earth.

Long meals filled with constant conversation. There are no silences in a group of six women. There are no gaps, no awkward pauses, nothing left unspoken, no reading between the lines. When you do not have to worry about second guessing what the person across from you is thinking by what they’re not saying, there’s a lot of room for real listening.

No one is interested in flirting with the cute waiter. Oh sure, we comment on the cute waiter, but it is more important he bring us our Cava fast than make our hearts beat faster.

We talked about finding a substitute in our now long marriages for those first butterfly feelings. We talked about what the next few years hold, our fears for our kids. We joked about the weight we’ve gained. Ok, I joked (mostly) about the weight I’ve gained.

We compromised and took each other’s ideas into consideration. They toured around the feminist art exhibit with me and I sucked up the overpriced 19 Euro hotel breakfast for them.

We walked. A lot.

We walked more.

And then collapsed on the bed without having to make sure everyone else was ok first. With a bag of chips we didn’t have to share.

****

This is what female friendship in your forties is like. There’s enough room for everyone. There’s no drama, no competition, no let’s hang out with her because she makes me look good. Not mean girls, but meaningful women.

Oh sure, we dress up, slap on a little makeup, put on a little sparkle, but it’s so we cover the grays and the laugh lines in the inevitable photos rather than to attract attention. There is no seeking attention. Unless it’s signaling to the waiter we need another bottle of wine.

Female friendships are often portrayed through a filter of cattiness, of snide comments and back stabbing. I’m sure those relationships exist, even for women in their fifth decade.

Not here. Not mine. I’ve only got a limited amount of time left and choose to surround myself with meaningful women.

Even if they don’t share their chips.

Women of a Certain Age

I currently have zero f*cks left to give.
I currently have zero f*cks left to give.

Every now and again I come across a clutch of women in a corner. They’re usually talking in low voices about some new atrocity of aging. Some fresh circle of hell that comes with getting older, some hot flash of inspiration that goes hand in hand with reaching a certain..ahem.. age.

I am that age. But damn if I haven’t earned these chin hairs and this peri-menopausal pot belly. And because I’m on the older side of a lot of these groups, I often find myself running from clutch to clutch answering questions like a walking, talking public service advertisement.

It’s not hard. The answer is always: Yes, it’s because you’re in your mid-40s.

Because I love you I’m willing to lay it on the line. I’m ready to take on the role of wise, old(er) crone as long as I can be the wise, old(er) crone who is still kind of cool with pink streaked hair.

Ready? Here are some of the things you have to look forward to as you make your way through your forties.

You have to eat two-thirds less and work twice as hard to look half as good as you did 5 or 10 years ago. It sucks.

You will have vivid, violent fantasies that involve ripping the face off of someone for taking your parking spot. You will have to physically stop yourself from punching a family member in the throat for breathing too loudly. Or possibly just waking up in the same country as you.

Your period will get wonky and suddenly you’ll realize you’re three weeks late. Unless you’ve taken permanent solutions, you’ll probably have at least one march of shame down to the drugstore to buy a pregnancy test like a teenager.

They really just tighter elasticated pants...
Don’t fool yourself: They’re really just tighter elasticized pants…

You will look at a piece of bread and gain 5 pounds. In order to lose those 5 pounds you will need to do some sort of dietary sci-fi physics which involves time travel and gouging your eyes out in a quasi Oedipal Greek tragic event to avoid looking at the bread you’ve traveled back in time not to look at. Remember way back in your 30s when simply not eating bread was enough? Yeah. Not so much.

You will have some sexual dry spells that make the Sahara look tropical. Seriously. Your libido will approach the missing status of Jimmy Hoffa. It’s possible you may see it on a milk carton one day.  (Don’t worry too much..even the desert gets rain sometimes.)

With the sudden clarity of a EUREKA! light bulb moment, you will gain some understanding into how the world works. (I had one of these Open Your Eyes to the Matrix  moments when I suddenly and with perfect clarity realized that just about everything in this world revolves around male sexual posturing, i.e. willy size. When I confronted my husband with this, he looked around to make sure no one was watching before he briefly nodded, confirming my suspicions). Everything starts to make a whole lot of sense. Which usually, in turn, makes you want to punch lots of people in the throat.

You will truly have no more whits, figs, or fucks left to give. You know that song the kids were singing a few years ago that seemed to just repeat the phrase “I don’t care…” over and over? That’s you. You are mid-40s and gloriously whit, fig, and fuck free!

You will realize why your Nana bought pants with elastic waists. You can try to call them performance wear or yoga pants, but the fact remains–if they don’t have a button, they may as well be elasticized.

At some point you’ll put on a pair of those cheap reading glasses they sell in drug stores and suddenly realize why you haven’t been able to finish a book in the last two years.

You will discover a fully grown, black chin hair at three p.m. which was decidedly not there when you checked at 8 a.m. This will, naturally, be your husband’s fault and you will want to punch him in the throat.

Don't make me do the jumping jacks. Please!
Don’t make me do the jumping jacks. Please!

You will eventually pee your pants a little (or a lot) while you are exercising or sneezing or laughing too hard. I used to poke merciless fun at my younger friends for not being able to do jumping jacks while I jumped around like loon, pee-free. Until that one day in class when I suddenly felt a dribble free-flow of its own accord and spent the rest of the class stinking like a wino. I’ve shut up since then. And wear protection. Karma is a  bitch. And apparently smells of pee.

So, if you’re in your late thirties or early forties and you find yourself crossing your legs while doing Pilates or squinting to read the font on your iPhone to track the date of your last period before you remember that you haven’t had sex for two months? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Don’t worry…it’s gonna be great!

(It really is. The no fucks left to give really makes up for almost everything else. Ok, maybe not the pee, but mostly everything else. Promise.)

Love,
Me