One of the major problems with living in an expat community is its transience. No sooner have you broken the ice and slipped into a comfortable friendship, then they (or you) will be moving on again. It's that time of year again (ie end of the school year) and three of my good friends are off to pastures new.
I have heard it said that it takes at least a year to settle into a place. If you’re on a two year contract that adds up to only one year of actually enjoying yourself?!? Add to that that the last six months are generally spent frantically travelling around the countryside on holidays and weekends away, in order not to have missed an opportunity to see the country you are living in. Those on short postings often never stop referring to their next move; ‘I have to watch what furniture I buy here because I only have ‘x’ cubic meters of freight allowance when we leave’; ‘Little Johnnie will be in another school next year so I don’t really mind what happens at this kindergarten’ and often they don’t bother with things like hanging pictures or making a pretty home as they are not around for long. This can all be a bit depressing for the ‘long termers’.
In a bigger expat community, where you have a little more choice socially, people tend to gravitate to others who have arrived at roughly the same time. Then you are on pretty much the same wavelength insofar as exploring the area is concerned, first holidays/safaris, shopping, school choices, comparing notes on husband’s frustrations at work etc. It’s a valuable information exchange and quite a bonding time.
On arrival it’s fun to explore and there’s the holiday feeling pervading your daily life as all experiences are new and exciting (Tourist phase). Later you might find yourself sitting about moaning to friends about all the things you don’t like about your new country, and how things work much better at home (emptiness phase). Hopefully you will later find good friends and feel confident about how you fit in to your new life and community (assimilation phase).
All these phases are well and good but then a spanner is thrown into the works when ‘wham bam’ a best friend/sole mate unexpectedly announces over coffee that they are moving on in a few months, leaving you behind. Often friends are excited about their move (ie. back to the developed world), but sometimes they will be unhappy about their next posting (i.e. if they are off to Nigeria or somewhere difficult). Which ever way you look at it there is not much advice you can give and the move will be inevitable. Next will be a round of leaving parties, farewell lunches and goodbye coffee mornings. The ‘leavers’ will be selling off household items that they don’t want to have to ship and conversation will always turn to what the future might hold for them.
After all this you are left a bit blank. Where you might have picked up the phone at a lonely moment, it’s no longer possible. For ‘long termers’ in a community, they inevitably get ‘friendship fatigue’ and make a point of finding out how long someone will be around before deciding to make an effort to form friendships. This can be frustrating when you are a new comer and don’t understand why others seem standoffish. The problem is that it’s wearing to hear about first exciting safari experiences when you have done it all a thousand times before. You have learned that whinging about unreliable water and electricity supplies won’t help matters in the long run.
When you are the one leaving, you almost find yourself wishing time away until you leave. It’s difficult to get through the hiatus until the actual departure date. Some friends will noticeably withdraw from you before you go in anticipation of getting on without you. Children are left heart broken when a best friend moves on leaving an empty space in class and when you are the ones moving you assume it will be easy for your kids to settle down quickly, however this is not always the case.
It’s heartbreaking the way strong friendships are formed and lost when living overseas. There’s no family ties or old school friends to fall back on. However, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ and the experience of having a good buddy for a year or two is always preferable to foregoing new friendships altogether.