The price of expat friendships

Expat friendships are kind of crazy.  Maybe it’s because so many of us are so far from home, and completely removed from our usual social circles that we have an overwhelming need for good friendships.  Maybe it’s because we’re outside of our own cultures and when we meet someone from our home country (or who at least shares a common mother tongue) we already have more in common than we do with 90% of the people we interact with every day.  Maybe it’s because our lives here tend to be a whirlwind, and contain challenges that other people don’t understand, that talking with someone who nods knowingly when you vent about the glare of the lady in the grocery store checkout line makes you feel like you’ve found a soul mate.  Maybe it’s all of those things.

I don’t entirely understand the WHY of it, but the evidence of it is without question.  I’ve formed the fastest, and some of the closest, friendships of my life in the 4 years that I’ve been here.  (The only experience that came even close in terms of the speed and depth of friendship formation was my early days at college, which, I guess, is actually a bit of a similar experience to being an expat.)

Even though I’ve experienced it, seen it happen, and heard others’ stories of going through the same thing, it’s still a bit strange to experience it.  If you click with someone you meet as an expat, you’re likely to skip right past all of the niceties, keeping each other at a distance, getting to know each other slowly, observing standard social practices.  You’re much more likely to share embarrassing anecdotes, offer to do something incredibly generous or invasive, and to go out of your way to see each other a ton of times in the early days of knowing each other.  I have made several very good friends since I’ve been in Vienna, and it’s always felt like an accelerated process.  These are people I feel like I could call on no matter what I needed, people I would go vastly out of my way for, people that I miss if it’s been too long since I’ve seen them, people I would share holidays, or hospital visits, or heartbreaks with.  They are people I’ve shared my fears, insecurities and least attractive qualities with.  In short, some of them are among my very best friends, and I think we’re essential to each other’s survival here.

This past January, I made a new good friend, and, as it had been in the past, I knew in the first day that we were going to be close.  (Except, because I’ve done this before, and I’m starting to get over the weirdness of it, I just considered her to be one of my good friends after the very first time we’d hung out.)  We’d corresponded via email for a few months before her arrival, but I didn’t know we were going to be friends until we met in person.  We’ve had great fun getting to know each other, and now it seems strange to me that I’ve known her and her family for less than a year . . . actually, for just over half a year.

The timing of her arrival was also incredibly beneficial to me.  I’d just gotten back from my trip to the States, and I had a “home hangover” worse than I’d ever had before.  Basically, I was unenthused about being back in Vienna.  I was tired of the grouchy people.  I was fed up with speaking German.  I wanted to be home with my family.  I was done with it being dark by mid-afternoon.  I was in a funk.

One of the many great things about friends is that they bring you out of yourself and can help to change your perspective.  And so it was with my new friend.  In getting to know her, sharing my Vienna stories and showing her around the city, I was able to see Vienna through fresh eyes, and it really helped me to remember so many of the things I genuinely love about living here.  Also, in hearing her stories about the initial challenges and frustrations of relocating, I was able to see how very far I really have come, and it snapped me back into having a little appreciation for how good I really do have it.  In short, while she may have felt I was helping her get acclimated to Vienna, really she was helping me find my joy about being here again.

There’s a downside to these intense, close, expat friendships, though, and it’s a big one.  The very things that cause us to cling together with these people, also rip us apart.  The expat life is volatile and turbulent.  People don’t stay in one place for very long, and I recently found out that another of my closest friends here in Vienna will be leaving soon.  Though I am supportive, and happy for her (because it’s a move she really wants) I am also heartbroken for myself.  My close friends are so woven into the fabric of my experience here that removing one of them is a massive blow.  I am really, truly happy for her, as I would be for any friend who was making a change that she was wonderfully excited about, but I feel more devastated and selfish about the whole thing than I think I ever would have if I had never left home.

But, if the pain of the loss is the cost of the friendships I have gained here, it is one I will gladly pay.  Though we may eventually be separated and spread around the world (that’s not hyperbole, but quite likely) I also know that the friendships I have made here are not flimsy enough to be damaged by time or distance.  My friends here have entered my inner circle, and like my close friends back home, we will continue to love and support each other, regardless of circumstance.

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