I’m referring to the friends I made in grade school. Friends I’m now old enough to have known two-thirds of my life. Friends who are practically family. Often, their own families have come to matter a lot to me, too, as we’ll see.
Each year, our suitcases from our Christmas holidays barely unpacked, I start fretting about home leave. I dread the logistical nightmare almost as much as I look forward to our summer pilgrimage. The mere task of deciding where to be, at what time, requires superior planning skills, or in the case of average people like me, enormous amounts of time and energy. Most expat families learn to juggle and cram as much as they possibly can into these weeks : visits to parents, siblings, cousins, and friends, visits to doctors (it takes us an entire week to do the medical round, each year) and frantic shopping for shoes, clothes, sport and school supplies (where but in France can you find notebooks with the five lines, for proper cursive writing?), medicines, skin care products for Mom and hair care products for my girls curly locks, a few food staples we could live without, of course, but the joy of being able to sample them at home, once in a while, is worth the head-splitting task of working out the best way to pack them and remain within the stringent airlines’ weight limits – things like real moutarde de Dijon, Acacia honey that our girls love above all other flavors, a little foie gras, the ubiquitous saucisson no French person worth their salt will be found traveling without, etc.
As if this weren’t complicated enough, imagine what it’s like for families like ours, with members scattered all over Europe and the Americas. And this is just family. Some years, we end up continent hopping and visiting up to 5 countries, and that’s not counting the layovers. Each year, we try to see as many of our family members and friends as we possibly can. And each year, we inevitably miss a few. Try to explain to them why we did not drive the extra hundred miles to see them, too. How come we did not make that extra effort? We get tired, is how and why. When we finally drop our bags in our house in France, often up to two weeks after we left our duty station, we just don’t want to go anywhere for as long as we can. We want to stay put. Because we just travelled thousands of miles. Because our port of embarkation is not a city in France, or even in Europe, it’s in Bangladesh (or India, or wherever), and it took 14, 16, 18 long hours just to reach Paris. And then we had to hop on a train for two hours. And in between, we camped out for a few days, here and there, before we drove almost three hours to finally reach the gate of our house. Most of our friends understand that. They visit us. But once in a while, we get the odd grumpy comment about having to drive so many kilometers to come and see us. And some friends, well, we don’t see for years.
One of these very close friends, who over the years drove hundreds of kilometers to see us many times, lost her mother, three weeks ago. I was in France, but she didn’t call me. She was angry at me for not having made the effort to go and visit her, yet again. We had spoken over the phone, but our conversation was cut short, and I didn’t call back (I’m not very good with phone, I must say. I’d much rather see people, or write.) And so, I feel the loss of her mother, whom I always liked a lot. And I feel the sadness of having lost an opportunity to be there for my friend at a painful time. And I also feel torn, and guilty, for not trying harder. Of course, I apologized. I also promised I will drive the extra miles to go and see her, next year. And I will. Luckily, she’s not the type of person to hold a grudge (unlike me). I know we’re fine. But it all made me think about the importance of not taking anyone for granted. It’s true for all relationships, but the concept seems to stretch and take on a larger meaning in the expatriate context. When you live close enough (in my world, that’s a couple of hours plane ride), it’s easy to make up for such failing. When you’re on the other side of the world, well, it becomes more complicated. I must always remember that.