By Caitlin Kelly
I recently came across this fascinating series of interviews on the website of The Atlantic, The Friendship Files.
Each is a meditation on an aspect of friendship, a subject often overlooked for focus on family, marriage, dating and children.
This one, on the tight bonds between expats, struck me, as some of my closest friends have been expats or have moved to a country (or several) far from their country of origin. I was born in Canada, but have lived in England (ages 2-5), Mexico (14), France (25) and the U.S. (30 to the present), which really makes me an immigrant to the U.S., not an expat (short for ex-patriate, not patriot!)
So while I have met a few fellow Canadians over the years, and am soon having coffee with a film-maker from Calgary, and presenting May 1 at a journalism conference with another ex-Calgary resident who lives here, I don’t have a lot of Canadian friends here. Many of the Canadians in or near NY are wealthy bankers or lawyers or corporate types, so our paths just wouldn’t cross socially or professionally. I’ve attended a few alumni events (very rare for my alma mater, University of Toronto, sorry to say) but have never met anyone I wanted to follow up with.
But some of my friends are people who do live far away from their homelands, like the author of the blog Small Dog Syndrome, an American long happiest in London, my neighbor across the street who spent a year in high schol in New Zealand, my Canadian best friend from university who went to British boarding school and lived for a while in Tanzania and our neighbor across the hall here in New York who has moved permanently to Holland, to marry her British partner. My sister-in-law and her husband, now back in the U.S., lived for many years working in international schools in China, Malaysia, the Netherlands.
So there’s a lot we don’t have to explain to one another, even from the start. That helps a friendship.
For me friendship is a delicate stew of shared interests and experiences, and being an expat or immigrant living far from your home country, culture and language (no matter where) — tends to create very relatable moments, whether a nervous visit to the doctor (fumbling for medical terms) or post office or choosing a word with a dirty meaning by mistake — damn you, baiser!
The French have a great phrase, “coup de foudre“, basically love at first sight, and I tend to be like this with a potential new friend. I tend to feel an attraction — style, intellect, history, cultural interests, sense of humor, the sort of work they do and value — right away.
But there are so many tricky elements to finding and nurturing a new adult friend, and year after year of COVID fear and social avoidance have made this more difficult. You can’t hug someone on Zoom!
I’m happiest with someone who has also traveled widely — and even many of the richest Americans don’t. They work all the time or choose luxury spots not my style or budget. Nor do I have children, a typical glue for many adult friendships. So this is difficult in a country and culture where even taking two weeks off in a row is seen as lazy and weird — I prefer three to six weeks when possible, more European than workaholic American.
But finding a new friend — and continuing and deepening the relationship — takes more than shared interests. It takes time, energy, honesty and vulnerability.
It also means having the strength to work through conflict because it can happen; I lost three women friends who had been very close when I dared to ask them to look at a behavior that was hurting me. They refused and ended the friendship; I mourned one of them for many years. But I don’t regret it, either.
I’ve started to get to know two or three people from my spin class…because I go two or three times a week and show up consistently. It takes time! One was a speechwriter for a former NY governor and journalist, and one is a lawyer with a major local firm who does a lot of coaching and mentoring. Both are super-smart but also friendly.
My two closest friends in New York came through journalism and a church we attended for a long time. I’ve recently seen two women at the gym who seem cool, so I may ask them for coffee.
The pandemic has really changed — and ended — many friendships, as we’ve faced different challenges (we have been very very lucky to not have COVID or lose a loved one to it, for example) and the basic proximity of meeting for a coffee has become a risk for so many.
We’re super excited to welcome a younger pal visiting next week from Oregon and, the following week, a friend I knew at boarding school when I was 12…and haven’t seen since!
How are your friendships these days?
Have you been able to find and make new friends as an adult — how?