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”


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Tongue Twisters and Other Misadventures in a Foreign Language

Tongue TwistersVisiting or living in a foreign country brings adventure, new tastes and smells, great discoveries and loads of fun. It also brings – often with a nasty surprise – the challenge of having to deal with a foreign language. Coming from a country that has 11 official languages (along with loads more unofficial ones thanks to South Africa’s colourful history), I am no stranger to different sounds and words, but I am no multilingual aficionado, able to seamlessly chop and change languages as I please.

After the Big Move to Germany, I would start a question, request or brief chat in German, then apologise profusely for my poor German language skills, explaining that I had just arrived in the country. The person I would be talking to would look at me wide-eyed and puff out their lips with adoptive pride and reassure me that my German was very good indeed for someone from the southern tip of Africa as I bowed my head in false modesty. You see, I wasn’t being entirely honest with them if you count the year of German I had at school when I was 13 and the five or so cramming sessions I had before we made the big jump across the ‘pond’. Plus, I had managed to master first-year University-level isiZulu during my degree years ago and I felt rather cocky and self-assured of my linguistic abilities.

Oh my, how I’ve learnt. After almost three years of going to class once a week (when the kids aren’t sick or on school holiday), I haven’t progressed as much as I expected and now my modest protestations of language proficiency (or lack thereof) are met with motivating attempts from those who know me far too well by now – my neighbours, pharmacists, doctors, sales assistants, cashiers and my German teacher (bless her for not banging her head on the desk or flinging herself down the stairs when she has to repeat the same concept or word for the umpteenth time). It’s embarrassing, but speaks volumes of the depth of their kindness in being so encouraging, even though I suspect I am a disappointment to them.

So, it was with great admiration and delight when we recently boarded a train to embark on our big weekend adventure from our city to Paris and I heard the announcements in French, German and English. “Wow!” I thought to myself, “These people are an inspiration”. At first, the announcements were impressive as the gentleman reeled off instructions and updates in all three languages and then I started to notice little discrepancies between the German and English versions. We were close to France when he gave an update in French without any hesitation; then came the German, which seemed alright; and then the English, “We will already apologise that there is a 30-minute delay”. Then, in German, he said something along the lines of, “If you would like more information (pause as he realises that he’s messed up)… I will give you more information when I can.”. Now, I know that pause meant he knew he messed up, because it’s what I do while I scramble through the Rolodex of words in my head and try to match them with the mastermind code of grammar.

The next announcement in English had me in stitches, “Laydees and jennelmen, we are no longer on the fast track, so we will go on the tracks and we will be 40 minutes later”. The kids were understandably a little confused, so Husband helpfully (?) decided to translate, ” We’re completely lost, but the driver says he’ll take the ‘agterpaadjies’ (back tracks in Afrikaans) and we’ll get to Paris only 40 minutes later than planned”.

By this time I was beyond mirth. I was gleefully loving every mistake I could discern. It was just so good knowing that everyone makes mistakes. We do our best and thank goodness nobody has ever been as wicked as I was laughing at this very brave fellow’s slip-ups.

As I said, every now and again, I am brought back to earth with a bump. Wrapping my mouth around words and sounds that my tongue just isn’t as agile for as it should be. The worst is when you confuse your second or third language sounds with what should be those of your mother-tongue language. My best example is the German ‘S’ (a ‘shhh’ sound) and the regular English ‘S’. It’s gotten so bad now that I cannot say Stellenbosch without my first attempt sounding something like ‘Shhtellenbosch’, which makes me appear to have enjoyed far too many jolly trips sampling the offerings of its world-renowned vineyards. Oh so much still to learn…

If I can give you just one word of advice – actually I need to give two – rather sacrifice your pride and memorise at least a few key phrases like “Excuse me, do you perhaps speak English?” in the language of the country you are visiting. I cringe when I hear tourists stomp into a shop, braying for some help in English, giving the absolute impression that the language of their host country is inferior to their own. Sometimes a pathetic attempt at another language conveys a more sincere message that you appreciate their culture, respect them and are at least trying. It is more often than not met with kindness, even if not reciprocated with the requested language.

The other piece of advice I do have to share with you is to NEVER, ever ask, “How much does that cost?” in the foreign language if you cannot at least count or do mathematics in it. The blank look the sales assistant gets from you just gives you away as being another dumb tourist who can’t afford to pay…

Three Stones and an Incredible Week of Kindness

A secret gift Copyright 2013 Wordycara

A secret gift
Copyright 2013 Wordycara

I love this time of year – the smell of a Christmas tree (real or plastic, I don’t mind!), fairy lights, food and festivities with friends and family, carols and religious celebration, and shopping for presents. With children in the house, Santa’s pending visit also adds a healthy dose of excitement. I look forward to Christmas as much as I did as a child. However, it was perfectly summed up by an acquaintance at a mutual friend’s party when she said that somehow by the evening of the 25th one feels deflated, like things just don’t match up to expectation. Although I’ve never allowed myself to verbalise that thought – this lady hit the nail on the head and it got me thinking. What was it that triggered those feelings of disappointment? Certainly not the presents I receive – I love anything under the category of ‘gift’, the celebrations and the people. Then the ‘Aha!’ moment arrived.

The presents, celebrations and people are all external to who I am. Since these things bring me joy in any case, surely it must be something within me that is lacking. Giving it some more thought, the word popped up like a Jack-in-a-Box right in front of my mind’s eye, “Kindness” closely followed by a visual of Ebenezer Scrooge in the film version of A Christmas Carol that has haunted me ever since I had the wits scared out of me at the age of five. Clearly the passage of time has softened the scary bits somewhat and I’ve slowly forgotten the true meaning of the season of goodwill.

Thus, with a renewed pre-New Year’s resolution, I’ve decided to be more mindful about the needs of others using ‘Kindness’ as my measure. Now the thing with Karma, I’ve learnt, is that she doesn’t always boomerang around immediately and ensure you get the just desserts you deserve because of what you’ve just dished out. From a different angle, thanks to a long and protracted debate in my first-year Ethics class about altruism (doing going something good for the sake of it, not even for the feel-good factor) versus utilitarianism (doing something good and expecting something good in return, even just the feel-good factor) I’ve often felt slightly guilty about feeling great after doing a good deed. So, I embark on this mission without any expectation of gratitude, cosmic reward or the euphoria of being nice.

Well, before I can start acting and feeling like a fairy godmother, Kindness arrives in the form of a beautifully crafted Christmas tree ornament, handmade for me by a dear friend, that incorporates decorative elements of both our countries. This thoughtful gift will be treasured for many years to come.

The next time I see Kindness, it is just as we are crossing the road, on our way to a Christmas market. My friend cups her hand gently under her elderly – but spirited – mother’s elbow, carefully guiding her out of the way of the black ice and onto the pavement. It is done naturally without leaving her mother feeling dependant and also without any sense of duty or burden. Just a loving moment between mother and daughter. I am not sure that it occurs to them how extraordinary the moment is, but it leaves me with a lump in my throat.

Even though most things seem to “happen in threes” I am still left speechless when I am presented with an unexpected gift in a flat, silver box by two friends. It contains memories for me and memories that will one day belong to my children and their children. The perfect gift for a thoroughly sentimental girl.

Ah, but it doesn’t stop at Number Three. It’s midnight, I’ve just fallen asleep and am suddenly pulled back to reality by the grating sound of a rubbish bin being dragged along the cobbles of our communal driveway. Why on earth would our neighbour be taking out his bin? The rubbish truck doesn’t operate on a Saturday morning! Soon I fall back into a magnificent dream world until the morning when I’m woken up by the rubbish truck tipping and rattling the contents of the bins. Uttering a non-child-friendly word, it dawns on me that they’ve adjusted the schedule (which I did not check) to accommodate the Christmas holidays and our bin has missed its turn for the second week running. I don’t give it further thought until Husband asks me if I took the bin out. I frown, “No, why?”. He chuckles uncertainly and responds, “Well, I didn’t… and our bin is outside and is empty”. I am known to be fond of playing tricks, lying convincingly – only under these playful circumstances – and dragging it out, but I can’t take any credit for this. It must’ve been one of our neighbours, but the most likely one was most certainly fast asleep in bed, recovering from the flu. We live in a neighbourhood where people are friendly enough, but they get on with things – never interfering, meddling or being overly interested. The probability that it was an unlikely candidate seems to make the act even more thoughtful and kind. How remarkable!

We get back home in the evening after visiting friends. Husband unlocks the door, ushering the kids inside. As I get to the door, something on the welcome mat catches my eye. I bend down and pick up three polished semi-precious stones that have been left for us – no note, anonymous. It feels like magic – a coin from the tooth mouse, a stocking filled by Santa or a keepsake left by a guardian angel. Could it be from a neighbour grateful for us shovelling the snow from his part of the driveway? From a friend playing Secret Santa? Will we ever find out?

I don’t know if we will ever find the answer, but what is certain is that these acts of kindness have left an indelible mark in the very heart of me. I hope to be inspired by them and create as much happiness for others over time as I have been lucky enough to experience in one week. The three stones will be certain to remind me.