Ah, the F-Bomb. One of my favourite words. Something I couldn’t live without. Something that makes life just…better.
I’m talking about friends. Such lovely word when you’ve got lots of them. But when you’re in a new place, and you don’t know anyone…well it’s a word more likely to be uttered with tears. As in ‘I haven’t got any!’ as you scroll through happy Facebook pics of all your ‘old’ friends. The friends who have been your support system for years, the ones who know what makes you laugh, the ones who listened when things made you cry. These are the friends who share your history…and when they’re suddenly thousands of miles away, it hurts.
And the thing that’s almost as hard as missing all those friends is realising that you’re going to have to make new friends. But when you’re a grown up, and you’ve moved to a new place and you don’t know ANYONE, how exactly do you go about making friends??
When we made our first move, there was a little nagging fear in the back of my mind (squished in with assorted other little and not-so-little nagging fears) – what if I don’t make any friends? It’s a fear I dismissed in my daughters – Of course you’ll make friends! Why wouldn’t people want to be friends with you! – but that hit the nail on the head. I didn’t want to admit it but….what if no-one wanted to be my friend??!
When we got to Bangkok I was in a daze. We had moved mid-way through the school year, and I remember going to a school coffee morning and having no-one to speak to. Everyone was in their little groups chatting, and I hovered on the outskirts of the group, trying to find a way in and failing miserably. It felt like everyone was already in a clique and there was no room for me. This turned out to be untrue, but I didn’t know that at the time. So I stood on my own, forcing myself to smile (with hindsight I probably looked like a simpleton – gripping my plastic coffee cup and grinning away to myself) biting the inside of my cheeks so I wouldn’t cry. ‘I’m a grown woman!’ I kept telling myself (anyone else have to constantly remind themselves that they are an adult??) but nevertheless I wanted the ground to literally swallow me up and deposit me back in England with my besties. They’d have laughed at my stupid grin and made me feel like a normal human being again. I had sent my four-year-old off to school that week with a kiss and advice on making friends – smile at everyone and be kind. I just hoped this was working out better for her than for me…
It took a while to come out of that daze – because, honestly, in those first couple of weeks, I just didn’t have the energy to make friends. And then, when the jetlag had passed and I felt a bit more normal, I decided that if I wanted to be anything other than miserable, I just had to start saying ‘yes’ to things. Even things I wouldn’t normally do, or things that I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with. Like more coffee mornings…
I started thinking about it like dating. You’ve got to put yourself out there, and be open to people. You have to take some risks.
Making friends as a grown up is not easy, but one way of doing it is to copy your kids. Let your inhibitions go. In Bangkok I met a fellow Brit. She wasn’t in the group of girls that I was already connected to, but she was funny and kind and we had a shared passion for writing. So we met for coffee and in the end I said to her – ‘Shall we decide we’re going to be friends?’ And then I had a moment of panic – it would have been slightly awkward if she’d replied ‘No thanks, you’re just not my type…’ Luckily she didn’t (phew!) and not only was she someone who made me laugh as we navigated life in Bangkok, but she became a true friend, a see-you-through-the-shit-times friend. You know, one of those people you’re always going to be thankful for having had in your life, even if it was only a short time.
So, back to the dating analogy, which I am going to stretch out a little bit further… when you’re dating, you meet some people with whom the only thing you have in common is the fact that you are both dating. When you move country, you’ll meet people and your only commonality will be the fact that you are both expats. And that’s fine, because sometimes you just need a familiar face, someone who understands what it’s like to not be able to buy Marmite or to laugh with you about how you’ve just embarrassed yourself again with your worse-than-kindergarten German.
But you also need more than that. You need someone who, to quote the decluterring guru Marie Kondo ‘sparks joy’ (she’s the woman who said any clothes you own that don’t ‘spark joy’ should be thrown out – to which a friend responded ‘I’d have to throw out my entire wardrobe…and the only sparks would come from setting it all on fire’. See, that’s the kind of friend I like…). And when you find her, that person who makes you laugh, who is emotionally available, who is on your wavelength then, to quote my wise friend Becky, ‘Handcuff yourself to her! Don’t let her out of you sight!’
When I think of my closest friendships, they were all forged at periods of change – starting university, starting work, having babies. As with most of the friendships we have as adults, they were made over a long period of time. Moving to a new country is the same kind of situation, only we don’t have acres of time to get to know each other. So this means expat friendships can be intense. You’re all in the same boat together – away from home, away from family, away from the familiar – so grab onto these friends because they will be your life vest and keep you afloat when things get rough. And you will do the same for them. And then you realise that they are the real deal, these are your new ‘old’ friends…and you thank your lucky stars that your paths crossed.
We arrived in Germany last summer and I was enjoying the ‘honeymoon’ period, you know, when you’re still acting like a tourist, the sun’s shining and everything’s new. And then, when I realised the kids were about to go back to school, the shine started to fade. I had no mates. This had to be rectified.
So I went to all the school events and made an effort to speak to the other new parents. And on the first day I met another Mum, and we connected. And I knew we’d be friends, because she dropped the F-bomb in our first conversation (and I don’t mean ‘friends’). Funnily enough, I had just read an article not long after moving to Germany (which I now can’t find so not sure if I made it up to reassure myself…) which said that people who swear make the best friends. Apparently, swearers are more honest, loyal and upfront. A year later and we are ‘real’ friends (so surely that means the article was based on fact?!) and I know that, when it’s time for us to move on, I’ll miss her loads. But the friendship will last.
So when you’re in that new place and you find yourself alone, remember all those friends you’ve got are still there for you, even if they aren’t physically present. And these acquaintances you’re making may well become some of your best friends. The next time we’re in that position I’ll take my own advice and put myself out there to find those future ‘old’ friends, making sure I’ve got the F-bomb and some handcuffs at the ready…