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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Speed Equals Distance Over Time

Living far away from family does funny things to what should otherwise be a straight forward equation. Especially when it comes to speed. And aging.

Yes, I’m quite sure speed gets ramped up when you factor in long-distances and divide them by time spent with family.

I see my mother and sister twice a year. Once here, once there. It’s not ideal, but it’s more than a lot of expats get, and so for that, I’m thankful. But when family visits are limited to bi-annual hugs and semi-yearly dinners, you notice the passage of time more acutely–etched out on a loved one’s face, in the gray of their hair or the stoop of shoulders. And that’s just me.

Each and every time I face it I am slammed with the inevitability of time. And distance. And the speed at which they seem to be colliding.

Time? Time is a wall I keep trying to scale, but instead of climbing it, I keep running into it headfirst, knocking myself most of the way to unconscious.

And distance? Well, distance is the one thing in my control.

I don’t get homesick very often, not anymore, but I do miss my family. I look forward to their visits, and to mine. In my head I map out great big plans to relax. We’ll laugh and have long conversations and go for long walks! We’ll spend quality time! The kids will be gracious and happy to see their family and actually converse with them instead of retreating behind a screen anytime I leave the room!

I worry that the reality is….less than great. Or relaxing. I think I may come across as…well, for lack of a better word, grumpy. Instead of being all hunky and dory, sometimes I get snippy and snappy.

Bear with me. It took me nine long years to figure this out.

I realized I must come across as resentful. Or annoyed. Or just garden variety grumpy-pants. The truth is, there’s often an emotional orgy going on in my head, decisions battling reality–decisions which benefit US, but sometimes come at the detriment of extended family.

So when I’m being snippy, it’s sometimes because I’m fending off  the guilt that come with choosing to live far away. Sometimes when it seems like I’m short-tempered it’s because I’m trying to gauge how long can I justify keeping the grandkids away. If it seems like I’m a bit low on patience, it may just be because I’m trying to calculate how much longer I’m going to ask my mother to get on a plane for Christmas. If it seems like I’m sulky, it’s probably because I’m trying to remember the formula to figure out how time speeds up when there’s a greater distance involved.

I think my brain switches into efficiency mode due to overload. And efficiency mode? Well, everything gets done, but sometimes at the expense of emotion. AI’s got nothing on me when I switch over to efficiency mode. Just ask my husband.

Sure, there’s Skype and FaceTime, and it definitely helps, but expats know that E.T. was right: phoning home is really just a substitute for being there.

Then the trips are over. Bags are packed, flights checked-in on, passports stamped. It takes me a few weeks to recalibrate my emotions, to pack them all back into the neat boxes they live in. I get caught up in day-to-day dramas and hourly ados and I’ll sit down to put my feet up and suddenly it’s Sunday, or summer or six months later. And I gear up to do the whole thing all over again.

I’m in the midst of all that now. Long enough removed from the family visit to be able to take a step backward and say “Ah! Of course that’s why I was such a miserable Mabel, because I worry about how our choice to live away affects you. And you’re getting older. And I’m getting older. And the kids are getting older. And oh, my God, for the love of all that’s holy make it stop.”

Eventually I guess the scales will tip one way, or another. But there are few weeks a year when they swing wildly from one side to another, bouncing up and down.

Every time I watch my mother say goodbye to my kids something small inside me dies. Like that flower in ET, the one that wilts and falters. But…. I also know this. You know the final scene of ET? The one when Eliot is crying and Gertie has snot running down her face and ET is about to get on his spaceship? He touches his light-up heart, then points his long, wrinkly finger at Eliot’s head and says…”I’ll be right here.”

It doesn’t matter what the formula is for calculating distance, or speed, or even time. Because that’s where we are.

We’ll be right here.

 

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.

Skirting the Issue

The long or short of it? We're at risk regardless.
The long or short of it? We’re at risk regardless.

The foreign minister in India just made headlines for a newly published list of tourism tips. They run the gamut of normalcy, common sense mingled with observance of local custom, but with an interesting caveat for female tourists.

Don’t wear skirts.

After a string of high-profile rape cases in India against foreign women, (not to mention the appalling rape and sexual assault statistics for Indian women themselves), I’m sure the foreign minister thought he was helping by giving women tips to lower their chances of being the victim of sexual assault.

That right there is the problem.

Once again we’re putting the burden on girls and women to AVOID being assaulted or raped when the burden should fall squarely on the shoulders of men. Women should not need to avoid getting raped. Men should avoid raping.

Don’t drink too much.

Don’t go out at night.

Don’t go to an area you’re unfamiliar with.

Don’t go out alone.

Don’t go out for a run.

Don’t wear suggestive clothing.

Don’t wear skirts.

You may as well just issue a blanket statement: Don’t be a woman.

No matter the intention, when you give women a list of dos and don’ts to follow like a checklist of rape avoidance, you’re reinforcing the notion that it is somehow IN THEIR CONTROL, that rape or sexual assault can be avoided if they’re careful and follow all the rules. The corollary is that if it happens, it must mean it was their fault, something they did wrong.

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Not only is it damaging and insulting, it’s flat out wrong. There are plenty of women who are assaulted and/or raped who are wearing pants, or sober, or at a party with others. There are plenty of women raped in broad daylight, in their homes, by men they know.

There is one commonality. They are women.

We still haven’t truly changed the way we look at sexual assault and rape. We still haven’t changed the way we talk to boys and men about it. And we still haven’t come up with solutions to stop men from doing it in the first place.

Again, women don’t need to avoid being assaulted and raped. Men need to avoid assaulting and raping.

How do we do that? Education. Training. Punitive consequences. Zero tolerance for sexual assaults. More education. More training.

A friend told me this morning about a college in Canada which suspended their entire hockey program because two of the players were involved in a sexual assault and several more were complicit. Suspending an entire hockey program sounds harsh, right? Especially for the ones who weren’t involved at all. But…

The school put its foot down and took a zero tolerance approach. The school actually put the welfare of women above its hockey team. Imagine that. By taking a resolutely punitive stand on the issue, perhaps the next generation of hockey players will think about the consequences, because the consequences will actually have meaning to them. Maybe it will stop someone in their tracks. Maybe a friend will stop a teammate from committing an assault. 

But in order to have that work, the consequences must be real. We must reach a social and judicial point where raping or assaulting a woman just isn’t worth it.

Until we do, assaults and rapes will keep happening. Two recent cases of young, white men convicted of sexual assault who walked with a slap on the wrist are just one example of why the justice system needs to look at the way they sentence men convicted of sexual assault.

Harsher sentencing and stricter consequences for assault and rape isn’t about an eye for an eye. I’m not arguing that a woman’s life is irreparably changed and therefore a man’s should be as well.

It’s about changing the way we look at assault and rape. It’s about putting the burden on the potential rapists, not potential victims. It’s about making sure that assault and rape are not viewed as ‘youthful mistakes’ or indiscretions that can be overlooked or forgiven, but crimes. With sentencing that means something.

Instead of ‘don’t wear a skirt’, we need ‘if you rape, you’re going to jail.’

Instead of ‘dont’ drink too much at a college party, we need ‘this university has a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault and should you be found guilty of such, you will be expelled in addition to legal consequences.’

Instead of ‘don’t wear suggestive clothing’ we need ‘clothing never equals equal consent’

Instead of ‘what have I got to lose?, we need ‘here is exactly what is at stake’

skirtWe need to change the entire mindset. And that starts with the way we talk to our kids. Both girls and boys. Yes, we need to teach our kids to be safe. We need to teach them to use common sense. But we need to hammer home the difference between right and wrong when it comes to sexual assaults and rape.

We need to shift the burden.

Otherwise, all we are doing is skirting the issue.

34 Things Women do to Feel Safe: The Burden of Being Careful--how many have you done?