I am excited. This time next week we will – fingers crossed – be welcoming Australian friends from our Pretoria days into our home here in the west of England. We won’t have seen each other for around two years, although have kept in touch frequently through social media as they moved on to a new posting and we returned home. But seeing them in the flesh (and enjoying a few beers) will be much more fun than Facebook messenger chats.
Reunions with your expat pals are very special. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why but I think it has something to do with the intensity of the experiences you shared. Expat life isn’t like normal life – you are often thrown together with a whole heap of strangers who overnight have to become your friends, confidantes, family, comforters, and gurus. You go through the good times together, as well as the bad (huddling together in dark rooms through hurricanes; exchanging information on the latest street violence; sympathising over the latest outbreak of vomiting disease), and you get to know each other fast and furiously. Saying goodbye is hard because you really have no idea when, or if, you will see them again.
But when you do – and I do believe the ones that are really important to you will pop up again sooner or later – you instantly connect again over the experiences that only you shared. One of the hardest things about coming home is not being able to explain what life was like for you living overseas. Or even if you try to, most people aren’t really that interested as they just can’t relate to it (fair enough). So it’s always very special to be able to spend time with those people who “get” you when you talk about your former life – and don’t mind if you wax lyrical for hours on end about some of the great experiences you had as an expat.
Poignant reunions don’t have to be with close friends. One of the most special encounters I remember was with someone I didn’t even know that well. It just so happened he (and his partner) had shared one of the most intense experiences of my life – the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad and our subsequent evacuation. This man – who for the sake of this blog I will call Jack – worked at the British High Commission at the same time as us. He was there on the night of the bomb so understood the immediate panic and fear; he was there in the dreadful days and weeks afterwards when no-one knew what was happening and whether we would be sent home; and he was there when the time finally came for us to pack up and leave. I barely remember Jack from that time but the important thing is that he was there.
So when I bumped into him at an event in Pretoria (where he was also now living) it was like a reunion with a long-lost relative. As I said to him at the time, he was the first person I had met since the day we left Islamabad – bar one meeting with a friend – who had been there. Who knew. Who got it. It felt like such a relief to be able to talk to him about the events of those days, and to know that he understood completely what I was wittering on about. I think it was the first time I had been able to offload about an extraordinary experience that I had been carrying around with me for years. It made me realise how important counselling must be for people caught up in conflict like Syria and Yemen, especially those who have also had to leave their home and family behind to try and escape.
But of course most of my reunions are not like this. Most are based purely on good memories and happy shared experiences. As well as looking forward to seeing my Australian friends, we are also off to see a wonderful family in Sweden in July and will also be hopefully seeing one of my daughter’s good friends and her dad in August – so there will be reunions a-plenty all through the summer.
As we move on with our lives, the memories of our expat days fade. But friendships will often out-last those memories and when we get together the years fall away and we are back living together in those distant lands. I still have expat friends from as far back as my childhood in Manila who I see every year or two, and from almost every subsequent country I have lived in. Mostly we keep in touch through social media, emails, or the occasional Christmas card. But when possible, we meet up, and immediately we are our young, expat selves again.
It’s not as good as going back in time, but it’s not bad.