This is me and my friend Chris. We’ve known each other for close to 20 years, and have been taken for sisters time and time again. Back when we both had teenagers, my own daughter, seeing Chris bent over something, came up behind her and said, “Mom?” Chris has only sons, and was delighted to have a girl call her Mom. I was delighted to think I might look as cute as she does from behind. Win-win.
They moved away from our neighborhood in Colorado and we settled into a Christmas-card friendship until the idea of moving to Saudi Arabia came up. Chris and her husband had been living in Saudi for a couple of years and we got in touch to learn about what kinds of things to expect or ask about. Now here I am on a week’s holiday from Riyadh, sitting on Chris’s sofa, strolling a beach along the Arabian Gulf, visiting together in Saudi Arabia the same way we used to when we lived a couple of blocks apart. This weekend, we’ll hop over to Bahrain with the Misters and see a real movie. In a theater.
In ordinary life, people tend to have an adaptive circle of friends. A close circle is always there, which reshapes occasionally as an old friend moves away or drifts into a different orbit. Somebody new eases, little by little, into the center. Work friends, family, neighbors, gym buddies, your kids’ friends’ parents.
As anyone who’s done it can tell you, moving blasts all that apart. Suddenly everyone around you–except for (possibly) the family member you moved with–is new. And you’re new, so even though you may be able to tell immediately that somebody is going to be a great friend, in that person’s circles you’re on the gradual trajectory, and you just can’t hurry that along. After a year or two, though, you’ll look around and say you have recognizable circles again.
And then there’s expat life, where people blow in and out like leaves. Everyone, at some point, is new. You all know you’re there only temporarily, and that at some abrupt point you’ll all break off and move away. You have to throw yourself into new friendships in a way that might be borderline creepy in the normal world because the clock is ticking. “Hi! What’s your name? Where are you from? Are you planning on going to the souk tomorrow? Great! Let’s do it together! And lunch after?” Yes, some end up staying for years and years, but their friends have come and gone, so there are always openings.
But it’s easy (for me, at least) to get tired of exerting all the energy to make a new friend over, and over, and over. Or to elevate a friendship that’s stuck at the nice-to-see-you phase. I remember being on the shopping bus a number of months ago, drained and annoyed from a morning’s battle with the Riyadh IKEA, surrounded by women I knew and was friendly with, but not friends with. You know, hi-at-the-market friendly, not do-you-want-to-meet-for-lunch friendly. One conversation going on in front of me, another to the side, another behind me. And I Just. Couldn’t. Stir. Myself to join any of them. Spending all my social time in new-friend performance mode had left me to too socially exhausted to push myself into it again. (And BTW, new-friend performance mode is more intense on the international setting, where you’re reaching across not only basic human differences but cultural and language differences as well.) So I stared out the window and must have looked as if I was sulky and mad at everybody. (Sorry, bus buddies.)
These are our already-gone friends, Evan and Cheryl. There aren’t many Americans at our compound (at the moment, I think only four households in a compound of 400-something units), and we connected immediately. Six months later, they were on their way to Kuwait. I felt like I was losing a sister and a brother-in-law. Wait–what? After six months? And then I realized that for me there was a comrade-in-arms aspect to our friendship. No matter how much I write or try to explain, no one will ever really be able to understand what our Saudi life is like but someone who’s been there. Especially someone of our same nationality who gets where I’m coming from to start with. And extraspecially someone who lives on my same compound and also knows the same people and the same streets and the same quirky stuff about gardeners and cats and Mexican night at the restaurant. These are my war buddies. We need a VFW for former expats.
And now there’s this. Me and Chris, with whom I can sit and have a conversation that drifts from our kids’ high school in Colorado to the security hoops kids jump through to go to the international schools here. From our favorite fish tacos in Denver to our local dal and flatbread guy. From what things we buy in the States and bring back with us, to what we look for in the souks, to what makes us nervous or delighted, to how to gather with our scattered families. Somebody who knows my kids and my house in Riyadh. Now that’s balm for the soul.
As an expat, your new friends are exciting and interesting, and you will treasure them forever, but they don’t know your life at home. Your old friends are grounding and strengthening, and you will treasure them forever, but they can’t understand your life abroad. I’m an extra lucky girl. I have one that can do both, and that’s pure gold.