I recently met up with old expat friends at our biennial reunion weekend, and it prompted me to ask, “What makes our friendships so unique?”
The Japanese have a term, kenzoku, “which means “family” – a bond that is shared by people with the same or nearly the same ideals, have the same commitment or even destiny. We know and feel the presence of the deepest connection of friendship.
These ladies became part of my life, to varying degrees, whilst living in the USA. We met at an expat book club, organized by the company Savoir Faire, which helped relocate us in Boston, Mass.
We bonded over books, coffee and the need for empathy. The only requirement was that you spoke English, and we made up an interesting group of mostly Europeans.
An expat is generally far away from those they love and look to for support, and yet the circumstances decree that this is a time when you need that support more than ever. I remember how reassuring it felt to be surrounded by women who completely understood what I was feeling.
Some people had just arrived, as I had, so had the same questions and some had been there for sometime, and a few were heading off to pastures new.
But they all had something to share that made you feel less alone and uneasy, even if it was just the fact that they had survived!
Friendships formed by intense experiences
When I asked my friends what makes an expat friendship so different from regular friendships, the general feeling was that anything formed in such an intense situation is going to forge stronger connections. Our histories were all different but our situation the same, regardless of our nationalities, as Alison Woodman said:
“Everyone is away from home and comfort zones and wants to feel settled and connected. Meeting others going through a similar experience is an anchor in a sea of change.”
“You need friends and support straight away,” says Rossie Carlton, “and you don’t know how long you are going to know the people that you meet.” As Di Walker put it, “It’s a shared experience of something new and rather out of our comfort zone.”
So friendships are fashioned from an intense experience and this group of women – whom I met almost 20 years ago – continues to be an important facet in my life.
For some of us we are what I term “Christmas card friends,” some keep in touch only through social media and a few stay in contact regularly. What continues to bring us together for these biennial reunions?
Di says, “ If it was not for the reunions I would only have kept in touch with half of the group. Many of our group I hardly knew at all whilst in the US and one of the nice things has been how we have all got to know each other better through the reunions.”
Some people, such as Mette Hoveroust, felt sure “that some friendships were forever,” and some, like Alison, “did not have particular expectations of longevity and connectivity after leaving Boston, but am grateful that we are still in contact.”
I am always amazed when we meet up after a gap of two years how instantly we mesh, as Rossie says, “When you do meet up there is that instant bond.”
In the moment
Of course not everyone has stayed in touch, but that is also the nature of expat friendships; it’s a time when you both need something from each other in that moment and then you move on, thankful that you supported each other and, for a short time, were in each other’s lives.
Calculated? Certainly, but we don’t become blood brothers with everyone we meet in life.
So what advice can we “expat veterans” share with anyone about to embark on this adventure?
Rossie, Mette, Alison and Di all had similar opinions:
• “Be open to all new experiences, make the most of opportunities presented to you and view this experience as positively as possible.”
• “Be open to whatever comes.”
• “Get involved, embrace and enjoy the experience, travel and get to know your host country.”
• “Get out and meet people, volunteer, go to coffee mornings and social events. Also do not imagine for one second that the people you left behind at home will be the teeniest bit interested in all the new and exciting experiences you have had!”
My advice is to be prepared to reinvent yourself, embrace any indication of friendship and definitely plan to meet up for a reunion weekend every few years once you have all moved on.
Our last three reunions have been in Cambridge, UK, Amsterdam and more recently Salzburg, Austria.
All weekends full of sharing laughter, reminiscences, and memories of the fun and occasional dismay of expat life. Most of all though is the realization that these friends understand you and your life…and what a joy that is!
My gratitude for our continuing friendship goes to Yvonne Sieber, Rebecca Senior, Di Walker, Linda Hughes, Rossie Carlton, Uschi Mahr, Petra Sotzko, Claire Davis and Alsion Woodman.
I am optimistic that I will continue to add to this list of treasured expat friends.
About the author: Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a longtime expat, she’s lived in Boston, Mass for 12 years, and in the Netherlands for the past six years.
Jackie is becoming an expert at reinventing herself!
Trained as a nurse in UK, in the United States, she worked for nine years as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and runs the Hub newsletter and writes for the Eindhoven News.
She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.