At the school my children attend here in England many families have confirmed the inevitable- whether they’re staying in London or moving on to the next adventure. It’s about this time of year when parents greet each other in the school yard that the same question is posed over and over again: “So, are you going or staying?” Each family receives a packet in the mail inquiring as to whether you plan to re-register your child(ren) for the next academic year. I imagine a school bureaucrat, processing the response letters received into two different piles: “remaining” or “departing” with automated indifference. I then contrast that indifference to the depth of emotions that reverberate throughout the entire expat community– regardless of which of those two piles their family’s dossier is placed…
Exciting as it may appear, or ready as a family is to move on, or even as accustomed as a family is to the constant change of residence, expat exoduses are, at best, bittersweet but more often than not, simply painful. I often say that being an expat is a double-edged sword. One may use that sword to trailblaze in far-away lands that are perceived as exciting — where you meet and befriend people you may not have otherwise come across had you stayed in the town of your provenance. Alas, in the expat world, departures and good-byes are never a question of IF, only WHEN and unless you have an infallible heart of titanium, that same sword cuts an emotional wound every single time.
I’ve just returned from Tenerife, the Canary Islands where two close girlfriends, Tara and Karina and our families spent the week together. We met here in London almost four years ago but Karina has since moved back to the States. The friendship was intense, to put it mildly. That’s the thing about friendships formed in expat circles. In my experience, they can never be anything less than intense.
I recall a conversation I had when my children first attended the French American School of NY in Westchester County. By virtue of the fact that it is an international school, the community is also intensely expat. I believe the school population represents something like 97 nationalities. I was with my kids one day in the playground when a very friendly German woman and I got to chatting. Her family had lived all over – their last residence being Nairobi, Kenya. Later that evening she called me and did a very “expatty” thing– she proposed an immediate relationship.
“Hello Catherine? This is Ursula. We met today in the playground at school. Since neither of us really know how long we’ll be here in New York, I’d like to skip all the niceties of dating (I’m paraphrasing here). I like you. I think you like me. Let’s be friends!” And so began our friendship.
It’s not necessarily… no, scratch that…it’s not AT ALL like that when you enter an established community in North America where people have lived all their lives and have made their friends and long-ago sealed their inner circles. I learned this the hard way when my family repatriated back to the States from England in 2005. I thought I could absolutely “hold my own” moving home. Obviously I didn’t get the repatriation memo. We moved to Fairfield County in Connecticut—home to some of “THE best schools in the country”.
But I was a fish out of water – especially vis-à-vis my parenting. The other parents were friendly enough to be sure. One of the first things I discovered was that people with school-aged kids in American public schools are very proprietary about where they’ve sent them. Everyone wants you, as the newbie, to list all the reasons (i.e. hear you repeat all the same reasons they themselves made) why you chose their beloved school district. Conversely, people with kids in private school are made to feel defensive or even cagey about their reasons for choosing a private education over their community’s “excellent” public school offerings. Or they want to know if your child is athletically capable of helping their community soccer/baseball, etc. team win the league trophy. After that, they’re “just not that into you”.
I was popular enough, or so I’d believed, when I’d lived in London the first time around with my three small children (my youngest was born here). I had a great set of girlfriends whom I socialized with on a regular basis – girls nights out at least every other week (Mondays or Tuesdays), dinner parties once a month with husbands (Wednesdays or Thursdays). Fridays and weekends were an unspoken “off limits” in London- that’s when my friends went off to their country houses. Sundays however, were post-rugby Sunday roasts where the noise of all the children was overcome by the banter of their parents on the 3rd round of afternoon gin & tonics.
I went into shell shock when I moved back to the States as a 30-something year old mother to discover that no, in my experience, my American-based counterparts (at least where I lived) don’t generally go out mid-week when they have diaper-clad or boosterseat-aged children at home. When I proposed to a friendly-enough CT mom that we get together for Monday night cocktails, she looked at me as if I were from another planet. I discovered that life as a parent in America is extremely child-centric and that other people really do expect you to take sincere interest in the fact that their Little Logan made honor roll AND got a trophy for it… in Kindergarten no less.
I wrote languishing emails to my London girlfriends lamenting my existence in Stepford Suburbia and my inability to make like-minded friends. I missed sidewalks and meeting up in the school playground for afterschool chats (the school my son attended had a drop-off driving lane where parents are expected to stay in the car, collect one’s child and proceed home without further ado, thank you very much). I missed “tea-dates” where when you collected your child, you were expected to stay for a glass of wine.
Most of all, I’ll admit, I missed swearing. American women don’t cuss like English women—it’s considered uncouth and untoward. Swearing in Great Britain, however, transcends all classes. My mother was visiting me in London and came down the stairs to find my very posh girlfriend announce, “I’m hosting a sit-down dinner tonight for fourteen barristers. F—k me!”
Needless to say, I lasted all of 3.5 seconds with the Perfectly Pleasant set in Connecticut (okay so it was more like a pitiable five months). I sat in traffic one day as I was driving home from my son’s soccer championship(!!) game where no one would talk to me (except for one woman but she had bad shoes) and I asked for a sign from God as to whether I should stay in CT or move closer to NY where I was sure to find a sidewalk and women who wouldn’t bristle at the word “shit.”
And just then I heard the loud snorting of something right outside my minivan (if I was going to do American suburbia, I was going to do it right!). A HUGE hog (as in pig…yes, pig) had apparently escaped from goodness knows where and was negotiating his way through the traffic. I watched that immense swine in awe as he lumbered through the long line of cars and when the shock of his cameo had worn off, I rolled down my window and shouted to the heavens “Thank you!!”. Then and there I called my husband to let him know we were moving back to an international community.
In retrospect that initial phone call from Ursula asking me to be fast friends seems as natural as ever to me. Friendships in expats communities are formed quickly because when you’re away from home, your friends become family. You’re forced to list people you’ve only just met as your emergency contacts and you rely on them to help you settle in, show you the ropes and introduce you to like-minded people. You’re obliged to compress your assessment of others as to whether they’ll fit your own friendship criteria (the ability to swear without judgement and good shoes are obviously important to me). You have no choice but to strip down all the layers (politics, religion, parenting, socializing, family values, etc.) in an accelerated timeframe (you may only have a few years together, afterall) to decide if you can indeed make this person “family”.
One may question whether these friendships are superficial because they’re not based on a long history. I say generally no. I admit I don’t always get it right. I’m no longer close with Ursula. But by and large, in expat circles, the friendships formed are genuine and life-long.
While I won’t dare avow that life in the expat bubble is difficult and not without its priveleges, I will say it has its “bumps”. You’ve lived through the battle of navigating unfamiliar territory together in a foreign country– opening a bank account, acquiring a cell phone, wading through the bureaucracy of obtaining a driver’s license (and once you get that license, you wave it around like a badge of honor to anyone who is not legally blind- which says something about the process because the accompanying photos make everyone look like a terrorist). You’ve shared carpools to soccer and ballet practices where your children are the only “foreigners” or spent weekends together at ice hockey tournaments in backwater towns you’d otherwise never visit, let alone knew even existed.
You’ve celebrated your children’s birthdays, your own benchmark birthdays and wedding anniversaries together where normally your real family might have attended. You’ve broken bread together at Thanksgiving and toasted to each other’s health and happiness several New Years in a row. More than a shoulder to cry, you’ve become legal guardians to your friends’ children for an undetermined time period when a family member who lives oceans away falls gravely ill or passes. You’ve turned the page of another chapter when close friends whom you’ve deemed “family-away-from-home” leave time and time again.
We women especially, as mothers of our children and the wives of our “masters-of-the-universe” husbands, must take it on the chin more than anyone else in the family—if only because we have to put on the face of strength as we close our “pop-up picture book” lives only to open it again and again somewhere else. We take a deep breath and then exhale in an even deeper sigh as we comfort ourselves and our children who also have to see off their best friend(s) (again!) and explain that “it is what it is and just think of all the places around the planet where you will have a friend!”
The pain must be dealt with like the rip of a band-aid. Whether or not you tear if off in one quick motion or peel it away slowly and deliberately, the sting is there. I’ve often questioned whether I should have put my kids in a local British school where at least their classmates are more likely to stay put and the chances of my children’s hearts (and mine) are less apt to be broken.
By that same token though, I’ve come across British women who are hard-pressed to befriend expats simply because eventually, all expats move on. My (British) Fulham-based girlfriends say the only reason they’ve forgiven me for leaving the first time is because I’ve come back. A Parisian girlfriend shut our friendship down several months before my departure from France. She said it was her way of coping with the pain of separation.
I get it. Now, in my forties, I’ve become just as hardened. I’ve closed ranks – not to be elitist, simply to self protect. I find I now align myself primarily with “lifers”- expats who are here for the long, long haul. Hypocrisy, irony… the lines are too blurred for me to distinguish between them.
Geographical distance and its steadfast partner, time, collaborate and this inevitably and always translates into healing because no matter how close you were, no matter how much you love those friends who have left or who are left behind, life gets in the way.
That’s not to say that you can’t pick up from where you left off when you reunite—that’s a clichéd given with life-long friends—expat or not. The great thing is, there are always holiday reunions in places like London or Paris or La Jolla or New York or Tenerife to look forward to and it really does feel like you’re back with “real” family. And you are.