November 2, 2012 6:49 pm

Bye, mate, nice knowing you

Expat friends are refreshing and different. Then suddenly they are off and a chunk of your social life just falls away
Expat illustration©Lucas Varela

An unexploded bomb that has been ticking away under the family went off this weekend when the girl’s oldest friend emigrated to Australia. This is the curse of expat friendships. We’d known for years that it was coming, as did she, but that doesn’t actually help. Adults know how to disengage. Children simply don’t do this. We can understand that we are looking at a five-year friendship. But for a young child there is no meaningful difference between five years and for ever.

You can’t tell a nine-year-old to hold something back. At that age, those with a gift for love don’t do friendship in that way. And yes, I know there is Facebook, Skype and Moshi Monsters. But it isn’t the same for children; for them, proximity is everything. So there is nothing we can do to make this better for the girl. No words of wisdom or platitudes about making new friends can change the fundamentals.

This is not the first time we have been whacked by the expat curse. The same thing has happened to the boy. And, of course, we feel it too, which is sad because the early school years are one of those few times when you make friends as a family. It’s dim of us, really. The children knew no better, but we understood this was not a long-term arrangement. Yet we keep repeating the mistake.

Partly this is down to geography. We live in one of those greener pockets of London with decent schools that seem to attract a certain type of expat family. These are interesting, well-travelled people who arrive with good jobs. Unlike the natives, they are actively looking to build a social life and the parents of their children’s friends are a key seed group. So you start popping in for tea when you drop off the kids and soon you’ve moved on to barbecues, lunch and picnics. It’s all so easy. They are refreshing and different, always planning excursions to places in England you long ago forgot that you’d never visited.

Then suddenly they are off and a large chunk of what has become your social life just falls away. They arrive, brighten up your life and leave. And all you have to show for it are some nice photos and a growing list of Facebook friends.

So we’ve counted them all in and we’ve counted them all out again. At least a third of the boy’s class returned to their homelands during his primary years. Remember Millie (or was it Molly?) who went back to New Zealand (or Australia) and Ibrahim who went to Morocco or Southampton – or possibly both. There was Miles who’s, well, miles away now, and that little blonde girl whatsherface, who went to Denmark, or Norway and, of course, Olek who went back to Poland. We still travel to Warsaw to see him and his delightful family, but it isn’t the same as impromptu picnics or pizza nights.

But Australians are the worst. First, there’s the physical distance, which means that once they leave, it’s pretty much over. If the children were older, backpacking opportunities might give them a vested interest in staying in touch, but at nine you really aren’t planning trips to Uluru. The other problem with Aussies abroad is that they are so damn engaging. They sucker you in with an egalitarian, easy-going charm. We do have British friends through the school too, but these are slower burn than expats. With Brits, if you are lucky, sometime in the next four years the women will form a book club and the dads might start a pub night.

Maybe we need to view our expat mates like extended holiday friendships where you meet every day for a week or two and then lose touch. It’s just an extended cruise: be it picnics and parents evenings or quoits on the quarterdeck. But this isn’t a cruise and these are not casual acquaintances you can shake off at the quayside.

So you are left with three choices: stick to the Brits and hope your wife joins a book club; hold yourself back to avoid missing them when they’ve gone; or enjoy the engaging, interesting expats and worry about later when you get there. After all, on a longer arc, the same will be true for many of your friends. When you think of it like that, perhaps the girl is right.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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