One of my friends, who had been in France for three years, left this year. Why is this significant given the peripatetic nature of this life? It isn’t really, because you realise after a few years of doing this over and over that it is best to remain on an even keel each time you bid another farewell. What it does highlight is how unaffected I have become to the partings of friends I hold dear. Not to sound callous, but this is not done intentionally. I remain as equally in touch with the recent friends I have had to say goodbye to, as much as I am with my childhood friends. But there is a need for emotional self-preservation, to protect myself from the emotional lows that can follow.
How does it go? You arrive in a new country, still on the edge of a fading season. In the northern hemisphere you get lulled into a sense of comfort – it is Summer after all, what’s there not to love about your new city? Before you have completely unpacked, it is Fall and the start of a new school year. You settle the kids in; you meet the moms at your children’s school – some of whom will prove to be your people for as long as your stay; you sign up for this club, and that activity, and test the waters with volunteer work where you can. You finally reach a point where there are fewer glitches in your rhythm, where you feel settled and at home sufficiently to the point where you may even begin to think: I don’t want to move from this place for a very long time.
By the time the skiing season starts, like an adolescent crush, your new host country no longer seems as interesting, you have gone beyond pining for home. Depression? You start to wonder: Could I be ? Really? For those from countries where the bitter cold short days are simply ‘colder days’, this is par for the course. They unflinchingly go about their lives, a bit more wrapped up than before, but seemingly unfazed. You, meanwhile wonder if packing up and leaving is an option. Suddenly there is no judgement of those who “didn’t transition well” read: packed up and left with the children.
Then the weather gets warmer and Spring rolls around. With its longer days, with a sudden reawakening of everything around you, with friendlier smiles, and with a lightness in everything from the weather to the food we eat. It spells change. And right along with that possibility of rejuvenation, it brings with it the rumors, the speculation, the fear, the elation – all relating to impending moves or extended contracts. The farewell drinks, and dinners, and coffees happen around June, by which time you and your parting friends have moved from a quiet distress speaking volumes of the longing that will be felt, to an awkward dance of waiting for the end of the school year, during which time a certain disengagement has already happened.
When the Summer holidays start, it then hits you that come September, and the start of yet another new school year, you will be the ‘last man standing’. You will be the one that introduces herself as “…we’ve just done four years”; the one who has known the teachers remaining the longest; the one who despite having been here the longest is also the loneliest because friends have long left. There are meetings at the coffee mornings with new moms, or with husbands’ new colleagues’ wives, or with that Professional Women’s Group that meets once a month for brunch – in which the common denominator is that you are all expats. And in as much as you call it a Professional Women’s Group, it really is just a group of women who enjoy one another’s company enough to meet up once a month, over brunch, catching up on books read, movies and exhibitions seen, and brought together by your common love for good food. Never a professional conversation of any sort to be had. In between the monthly brunches are the text messages and WhatsApp chats, which keep that tenuous connection until the next meet.
The feeling of being left behind is never far from your mind though, because the odd feeling of isolation and of being alone is not lost on you. At times there is more satisfaction in withdrawing and indulging your own passions without the forced camaraderie. You manage to find a middle ground, to remain engaged still, but all the while letting the friendships develop as ‘naturally’ as possible without that hint of desperation that can often tinge normal relationships in this life. So as the school year begins, you are once again forced out of your comfort zone, and forced to acknowledge that you have to work hard , very hard, to meet with, and to connect with new people, hopeful that you will find one or two, even three people that get you sufficiently to become your new people, until the following year, when you do the leaving.