Time, Space and Relate-ivity: An Expat’s Take on Friendship Across the Globe

The Road AheadWhen I was seven years old, my best friend moved across the Atlantic. It made a lasting impression on me – the newfound feeling of loss, having to strike up new connections with other children without feeling as if I were betraying our unique connection, and the frequent reminder of her absence each time we drove past her house which was just around the block from mine.

Even though the distance that separated us was immense, we kept in contact by post and the occasional long-distance phone call, where the first person you spoke to was the operator. I always had a sense just as the phone started ringing that it would be a call from her and, while we were growing up in two very different worlds, our connection was just as strong as it had always been. We could just pick up where we had left off the year before.

Over time, more friends moved away and it was easier to deal with – e-mail messages replaced the memorable long-distance phone calls as well as long-winded letters sealed in envelopes that had never gotten their stamps and were still stored in my cupboard, waiting to be sent.

I went to university, made more friends, started working, had children, made friends with the mothers of my children’s friends and life was good.

Then WE moved. Not to another neighbourhood or province. Oh no, we took a huge leap and landed on another continent entirely.

Missing my friends and family, it only took a South African Tourism advert on an international news channel to reduce me to a puddle of tears. The longing and grieving for life as it was, was real and strong. Skype and Facebook are my lifesavers, keeping me in touch with those dear to me on a daily, or at least frequent, basis.

There is something rather unique about being uprooted like a turnip and deposited neatly in a foreign country, surrounded by similarly uprooted turnips expats from all around the world. At first, the experienced expats are the ones who tuck you under their wing, chatting away to you as if they’d known you for years. This ‘familiarity’ is rather overwhelming and you back-off rather quickly. After all, you’ve just known them for all of five minutes! The ‘newbies’, however, seem to cluster around like puppies tentatively sussing one another out until there seems to be a mutual tail-wagging and a new friendship becomes a possibility.

Ah, this all sounds so hesitant because it is! Being without your usual frame of reference leaves you starting to ask questions about who you really are and what you really like. You don’t have your usual people to knock you back into shape and you also don’t have their expectations of who you think they think you are dictating how you think or behave (this sentence could be a test to see if you’re concentrating). Simply put, one of the most basic human needs is the feeling of belonging. By the time we’ve grown up and have addressed the “I need to find myself” and “I want to fit in”, you’re likely to have addressed this need and are reaching towards higher levels of fulfilment and striving to master all aspects of your grown-up life.

Ha ha. Nothing brings out the child within faster than when someone moans at you in German/*insert applicable language*, you have no idea what you’ve done wrong and you have no friend’s shoulder to cry on because something wildly irregular just happened. Nobody is going to Skype their friends online to cry over a petite woman having virtually picked you up and lifted you away from the refrigerator door you were standing in front of at the grocery store, whilst dithering over whether to buy yourself the low-fat or full-cream chocolate chip tub of yoghurt. Ok, this is not really a good example because my sister happened to be standing right next to me when it happened, but it’s these kinds of crazy stories that don’t sound that relevant to cry over 8 hours later when everyone is at home from work on the other side of the globe. You know they’ll laugh. So, you opt to keep them as part of your comedy routine or blog in the future.

Right, getting back to the point… Slowly, you start getting to know people and this is where the fields of relativity and quantum physics or some such in-depth science in the expatriate universe kicks in. Inevitably a crisis crops up and in the absence of friends, family and often your own spouse/partner (due to work and travel demands), you find yourself faced with the option of calling on a person you have known for only a month or two. If you are lucky, as I was, you find people you hadn’t really spent much time with coming to your rescue. Suddenly, you are on the receiving end of a level of kindness and support that you would normally only expect of your family and very close friends. Before you know it, they’ve worked out a schedule amongst themselves to fetch and carry one of your children to and from school, while you are house-bound with the other child who has pneumonia/scarlet fever/chicken pox/etc. Packets of groceries arrive and are often supplemented with heartening visits by the immune and/or very brave! A friendship grows out of this kindness that you hope to reciprocate. And then the time comes when they tell you they are leaving.

Other friendships take time, or you mistakenly feel as though you have as much time as you would in the ordinary world, but this is a world of its own. Work contracts come to an end or are suddenly superseded by better opportunities or unexpected corporate shifts. People who renewed their contracts last week are those leaving in two weeks’ time. It’s a harsh reality. They leave.

Mostly, the shift happens just as you feel you can throw caution to the wind and allow your thick accent to replace the optimistically neutral one that you hope any elocution teacher would be proud of, and you start revealing more of yourself. You are at the point where you can make bawdy comments and throw your head back and laugh out loud (or you feel free to have an intellectual conversation on the pros and cons of multilingual education – whatever rocks your boat) – and you know it’s safe. And then the time comes when they tell you they are leaving.

Some friendships just happen. From the moment the person next to you makes a comment at the school’s orientation-for-new-families day, you share a conspiratorial grin and just know that you’re already friends… And then the time comes when they tell you they are leaving.

It’s hard to move away from where you are. To see the contents of your home, your life packed into the back of a removals or cargo truck. To have to renegotiate learning a new language and cultural peculiarities in another foreign country or returning back ‘home’ to your roots where people have moved on without you or those who thankfully haven’t changed at all…

To see friends pack their belongings and drive away to the airport leaves a sadness hard to describe. A form of grieving for friends who became family, balanced by the joy of having gotten to know such incredible people with their amazing stories to tell and the hope of keeping those friendships across the seas and over time just as I did as a child…

Bon voyage, my special friends and, as the Irish blessing goes:

“May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand”


When the Hemispheres Switched – Part 1

Adventure, beginnings, fear, ignoring the chatterings of a severe risk aversion and a leap of faith are all related to how this blog started. They’re also words I associate with the switching of my hemispheres…

Ah, I see you there rolling your eyes and circling your forefingers around either side of your head and muttering to yourself, “What is she going on about? Loopy, loopy chick!”. Well, perhaps, but actually it really does make sense. I’m talking about when I left my family, friends and home in South Africa for an adventure in Europe. It’s not really as ‘devil-may-care’ as I’d like it to sound. In fact, I have a very vivid memory of me prodding my forefinger in the vicinity of my husband’s face (he’s a tall guy, ok? Think well-fed Chihuahua versus St Bernard) and making him promise that it would be for the shortest time possible and that we’d be back in the blink of an eye. Expat contracts don’t work that way. In fact, they’re rather unpredictable in nature and you learn to go with the flow and make the most of the here-and-now… but he didn’t tell me that because he knew better. You don’t yell a warning at an ostrich while it’s got its head buried in the sand – you’re going to get a nasty kick and a very scrambled egg.

Now how did I get on this tangent? Well, all these lovely memories got hauled up by the arrival of a South African family to my current city this past week. I’m finding I’m putting myself in the new lass’s shoes, trying to give her very worthy advice based on the lessons learnt in my first few weeks here. Call it therapy for me, if you will. Plus, I’ve never really had a chance to relate all my “When the Hemispheres Switched” stories on my visits home because: a) we’re too busy catching up on what has being going on behind our backs; and b) I don’t want to ruin the great vibes when our nearest and dearest are quaffing the best red/white that South Africa has to offer, while I savour every sip of my it-costs-more-to-get-there-than-the-wine cream soda.

The problem, I’m finding, is that there’s a very fine line between giving valuable advice and underestimating the lady’s resilience. Add to that the most bizarre thought that occurred to me: Allow her to experience some of the things herself. Now, could this be supreme genius on my part, allowing the lady to immerse herself in experiences, creating memories that she can share back home, “You won’t believe what happened to me today…” and learning things in her own way and on her terms? The alternative is slightly sinister with overtones of ‘schadenfreude’ and I’d like to think that I reserve that only for my most mean-spirited foes. So, what the heck, let’s go with supreme genius.

Now, giving advice about business and shopping hours (none on Sunday), parking rules (important in a city in which there is slim to no chance of finding any in the vicinity of where you’d like to be and in a space that was demarcated for horses without the cart, testing your proficiency as a professional parallel-parker), etc. all makes sense. It’s the smaller, finer lessons learnt that are the trickiest when deciding to share, overshare or not to share at all.

The one that really bothered me was whether to warn her about the baked goods. Oh, there’s nothing at all wrong with the baked goods here – they’re heavenly, delicious, wickedly crammed with all kinds of fillings – some fruity and some that should have a percentage of alcohol stamped on the side. You see, the problem comes in when you sample a fresh Breze (pretzel) – the crispy, salty golden outer layer with a soft bready dough inside. You like it so much, you go back for more so you can enjoy it the next morning.

Yum, before you know it breakfast arrives and you grab that Brezel out of the packet and, defying common sense and convention, you sink your pearly whites into a weapon of dentists’ dreams. Overnight, it turns into a deadly boomerang – light as a feather and as hard as a brick.

Now then, do I assume that any person new to the city would make the mistake I did, based on delightful ignorance? Hmm, perhaps that’s just one of the things best left to discover…