Living in foreign countries has plenty of benefits. We get to experience different cultures, which is interesting, usually fun, and sometimes stressful. We get to explore beautiful places that inspire us and leave lasting impressions. We get to learn about the world from a different point of view. We have learned as much about ourselves and American culture as we have about others’.
The downside to living abroad is we lack the cemented lifelong friendships that we see, and often envy, that people in our families have. My sister has friends that she has had since the 1st grade, she is 31. Her social life is like a sturdy pine tree. She is rooted in place, with branches of friends connecting her core group to her. Sometimes needles fall and drift away, but pinecones help the tree reproduce. The connections are deep. They are her support group, her entertainment and sometimes even considered family.
Ryan’s and my friendships are more like a garden with a variety of blooms. Each flower is unique in structure and color, some more fleeting, others perennial. Our longest friendship is only 3 years old. We don’t have the foundation that entrenched roots of a tree provide, but we have a bigger variety of personalities and backgrounds that we can learn about. Instead of a conifer forest, we have a wide meadow. Our travels have brought us in contact with some amazing and interesting people. But sometimes I feel lonely and wish there were someone to share inside jokes with, someone who remembers my childhood, who shared my good times and my bad. Sometimes I wish I were a tree.
In high school or college, we tend to hang out with a group whom we usually have a lot in common with. I was part of the drama club, Ryan the band. We hung out with “our own kind.” Well, when you move away, you become friends with the people who are “just there.” There is no history or memories with the people that you meet in each new location. This can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. I lost a friend I had made soon after moving to Germany. She couldn’t reach back into her experience and say, “Caitlin is a kind person, she would never deliberately hurt my feelings.” She wrote me off without even telling me. I only found out what went wrong a year and a half later. We didn’t have the rapport or the history to get us through our first challenge.
On the other hand, meeting the constant stream of incoming expats put us in contact with people that we would not have tried to be friends with in our previous lives. One lady we met was fashionable and trendy and loved to be the life of the party, the exact kind of person I would have been intimidated by in high school. Yet, she turned out to be as lovely inside as on the outside. And I influenced her too: she told me that she appreciated how much I like to read and that she now found herself reading more. We missed her when she moved away. Our assumptions were challenged. Again and again our minds are broadened by opening ourselves up to all kinds of people that come across our path. Learning how to appreciate truly different points of views has deepened my ability to empathize. Learning that we don’t have to have things “in common,” or come from similar backgrounds to be friends is one of the most valuable lessons I have come across. We experience so much more when we recognize friendship in strangers and differences.
We have also formed deep bonds with people. Our first lasting friendship in Germany was an instant friend. From the moment we shook hands with him, we just fit. He is a true kindred spirit, I feel like we’re on the same plane of existence, although he is German, and I, American. We have traveled together, been there for each other, and drunk copious amounts of coffee. He is German, so he has helped us navigate a culture new to us. There will be heartbreak when we eventually have to move away.
I am experiencing a little of that now. Another special kindred spirit has recently moved back to the United States. She and I clicked on a level that I haven’t with another woman in years. We could talk for hours, again with copious amounts of coffee. We also traveled together, it was our greatest shared passion There is something precious about female friendships, a bond that goes deeper than other types. I even found myself calling her my best friend. But we knew it was transitory. Sometimes when we would say, “friends for life!” I would feel my heart crinkle, knowing that “life” is just a few years. She moved away at the beginning of this year. I feel real grief. We keep in touch through Facebook and Whatsapp phone calls, but it is different from the tangible experience of sitting together in the same room. I hold it in my heart that we will travel together again, but silently I fear it will not be so.
We have entered an emotionally dangerous mindset where we feel settled here in Germany. We have the most stable friendships that we have had in years. We are part of a church community that has provided enrichment and depth to our lives. We have found the patterns and rhythms of activities, dictated by the seasons. In winter, we do a lot of pub trivia. In spring and summer, we troll the seemingly infinite festivals. At Christmas, we explore the markets and warm our numb fingers and bodies with hot glüwein. We can’t imagine living anywhere else. But this is also not in our control. We are part of the contracting world. Just as our friends have moved away from us, one day it will be our turn to move away from our friends.
Knowing how transitory our relationships are here, we are quick to let people know how we feel. We can bond quickly, some prove to be real, others fade away. We have learned to appreciate that not all friendships need to be deep, sometimes surface level companions provide the fun and entertainment we need. Others have been deeply fulfilling. We have learned that attachments cause a necessary pain; to fully live abroad, we must risk the sadness and loneliness of losing friends, and we have learned to impress upon our hearts and minds the experiences that we have.
Sometimes I wish I were a tree. But if I were, I would never have blossomed in the gardens of tulips, roses, lilacs, daisies, and weeds. The plethora of scents, colors and shapes that have formed our lives in recent years are treasures. We accept that gardens take effort, but the payoff is gorgeous.