The train departed Dordrecht Station promptly at 8:37am. Taking her seat beside the rain-spattered window, a silent yawn escaped. She had barely slept a wink the night before, in anticipation of the week ahead. By the time the sun set on today, they would be reunited, in Paris. How did it come to this?
The Netherlands landscape raced by – farmhouses with red-pitched roofing, long lines of green pastures punctuated by water dikes, dark brown soil arranged by the plough in perfect parallel lines, windmills with their giant slow-spinning fans dotted abstractly over the distant plains, cattle grazing, sheep resting and a tall chestnut horse being put through his paces in a dressage arena. All the while her mind is elsewhere, in a land and time far away.
The land – Australia. The time – 2009 and the phone call that changed everything. A job opportunity in Singapore meant she, her husband and their little family would be leaving the home they had just built in paradise, for the unknowns of Asia. She recalled the tears that flowed when she walked into her boss’ office to break the news. She would be leaving her dream job and would not be able to work in her new host country. Sitting in the crowded train carriage, she now realizes that her boss is the reason this reunion is occurring.
The ‘She’ is me. In a few short hours I will have travelled through three different countries (still difficult for my Australian mind to comprehend) to spend a week in Paris with two girlfriends, who, less than ten years ago, I had no idea existed. I am reflecting on a very treasured friendship and how incredible it is that three women, born in three different continents can meet, instantly connect, do life together for less than one year, and somehow remain lifelong friends. No. Not merely friends, soul mates.
It’s a funny thing – international friendships in the expatriate or ‘Third Culture’. A connection is made very quickly. There’s an intensity that is perhaps absent in the early stages of friendship in a monoculture. Driven by the knowledge that we don’t know how long it will be before one of us leaves the location and a need for companionship, support and a sense of belonging when the usual support mechanisms are not available, we dive in. If successful, it is rich, it is real and it is raw. This is how it was for us in Singapore.
It all began thanks to ‘The Network’. My boss sent an email to an associate of his who had recently moved to Singapore. The subject read, ‘Jane meet Jane’ (I know, how funny that we both have the same name…and as we would soon discover there were a lot more similarities besides). A brief introduction followed and the friendship was forged via email, before I had even set foot in the land that would soon capture my heart and mind. On the other side, Jane’s husband had worked with Vanessa’s husband. They introduced their wives to each other over dinner during the ‘Singapore Discovery Visit’ of Vanessa’s family. There was an instant connection. People know people and when you move to a new location, those networks are lifelines. And if you don’t know people, groups such as I am a Triangle have people who do. Living abroad somehow creates a desire to come alongside others, even if you’ve never met, providing practical information, moral support and allowing one person’s stumbling blocks to be another person’s stepping stones. Little did I know that one email would help me to find soul mates.
Our first face-to-face meeting was in the upstairs café of a busy Singapore Mall. With views of the Botanic Gardens beyond, the three of us found common ground very quickly. Interests, values and faith were, and are, the anchors. Personalities, a sense of adventure and a lot of laughter became the sails. We laughed, we cried, we cheered and we sighed. Six months on, we would be celebrating milestone birthdays as if we’d known each other since birth and nine months later one of us would depart Singapore’s shores – a familiar scenario for international friendships.
It takes nine months for a precious baby to be fully formed inside its mother’s womb. It took nine months to develop a treasured friendship that now sees us meeting in Paris to celebrate another milestone birthday. We’ve come from across the globe, as often happens with friendships nourished whilst living abroad – Vanessa from the UK, Jane from Singapore (yes, she’s still there and sure she’s going to be the last one left to turn out the lights) and me from Australia. Authentic friendships can span the globe.
The Train Conductor announces that we will soon be arriving at Paris’ Gare du Nord Station. My mind jumps forward to the present. In the case of Vanessa, we go years now without seeing each other but when we do, we pick up where we left off. No small talk, no delicate dipping of toes at the water’s edge. We just jump right in…and make quite a splash! In the case of Jane, we see each other more often – once or twice a year so the conversations can be more surface, initially. They don’t stay there for long though as we dive down to the bottom of the ocean and explore the many treasures to be found there. From parenting to politics, religion to retirement, soul-searching to sex – nothing is off limits! We’re not always in agreement but we do appreciate each other’s perspectives. I’m looking forward to more of these conversations in the week ahead, far beyond what our social media platforms of choice can ever hope to deliver.
As the train pulls into Platform 5, I can barely contain my excitement about seeing these cherished friends and sharing the next week with them. There has been plenty written about how to make friends whilst living abroad and in recent times, about finding your tribe on the move. In fact, the whole reason why I am in Europe already is because I have been attending the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) Conference in The Hague and facilitating a Writers’ Forum on that exact topic – Connecting with your Online Tribe Through Blogging Whilst You’re Repatriating. The theme of this year’s FIGT Conference was “Building on the Basics: Creating Your Tribe on the Move”. This is my second year at the FIGT Conference and it was another reminder of the powerful connections and friendships made with people on the move. I have enjoyed and benefitted from connecting with friends made last year, friends and associates whom I’ve only known online until now and new friends and associates from across the globe. Making friends and finding your tribe on the move is being written about and spoken about because it is so important. Friends made abroad become family. They can help you feel at home, bring balance and create a sense of belonging that is innate in each of us.
A wise person once wrote, “It’s the friends we meet along life’s road who help us
to appreciate the journey.” This is true of all my friendships – old and new. What a blessing and what a privilege.
So what about you? What is your experience of making friends on the move? How have those friendships developed? How has it impacted your life? I’ve obviously written from my perspective as a woman but I’d love to hear from the men reading this post. What is your experience of making friends whilst living abroad?