A newspaper journalist reported in her column having visited six countries and boarded ten airplanes in the past few weeks. She made time in her schedule to visit briefly some dear friends, exercising the style of friendship that she has accepted as the only one possible: intermittent friendship. The phrase catches my attention. It seems to describe many of my friendships as an expat/immigrant. Are these friendships as superficial as the term sounds?
My first two decades in Chile, I only managed to travel to the States every two years to visit my parents and, like the journalist, I got together briefly with a couple of friends. We had no Internet at that time so contact consisted of Christmas cards with a letter enclosed. Many of my teacher friends at the International school where I taught eventually moved on. I still keep in touch with Kristina although we haven’t seen each other in thirty or more years. What keeps us friends? Perhaps because we both are readers and writers and have lived the expat life. I cannot say that we continue to be as close we once were, but we did have that spontaneous connect at one time, and now keep in touch commenting on each other’s blogs. If we were to see each other again, I’m certain we’d have plenty to talk about.
Internet has allowed me to reconnect with former classmates from high school and the university. Though I no longer have family in my hometown, I return every year to get together with my dear friends and experience that beloved landscape of my growing years. Those days when we’re catching up at the Coffee Roasters or doing lunch and visiting the De Young Museum in San Francisco feel so complete. How much I enjoy these friends. How is it that we still call each other “friend”, although we’d been out of touch for long periods of time? I believe it’s because we shared significant periods in our lives: childhood, high school, university. I’ve known my closest, dearest friend and soul sister all my life. Our parents were friends. She knows me better than anyone. Our long phone conversations every week nourish our friendship.
Yearly visits are wonderful and frustrating. I want to spend more time with these friends. On my return flights to Chile I think of them – Judy, Barb, Melodie, Vreni – on that shrinking landscape below and regret that those friendships are intermittent and interrupted and only partially satisfying, leaving me with a sense of loss.
In Chile many of my friends are also expatriates which immediately gives these relationships a unique character. We are from different countries or different States; we didn’t go to school together; we didn’t know each other as children; we are often traveling back “home.” We lead double lives, no matter how long we’ve been here. Our contacts are often intermittent in spite of having known each other for years. How solid are these friendships?
Being expats is precisely the strong connection that enables us to relate. We’ve had to adjust to a different culture and language. We know what it feels like to leave family and close friends behind. It is even possible to overcome the lack of a common background. I’d never visited Iowa and Wisconsin, but made the trip to spend a week there because my dear friend Ann, who I’ve known for twenty years here in Chile, spends her summers there near family and childhood friends. Our two lives – U.S. childhood and Chile adulthood – came together. I remind her that it’s now her turn to visit my hometown.