Making frequent moves, particularly between countries, is tough. And while many folk think we live charmed lives in which the women play bridge, drink pink gin and bemoan their staff while the children make friends with monkeys and end up fluent in the local dialect, honestly, it’s not like that. It is tough. Not least because of the constant packing, unpacking and unpicking of our lives but because of a string of losses. Grief is cumulative. Transactional analysts talk about ‘trading stamps’ and how it is as if every time someone annoys us or something bad happens we exchange the negative feeling for a trading stamp, much like we collect points when we spend money on our credit cards, which can be cashed in one day for a much larger, useful item. Like an electric wok or a carry-on bag. Transactional analysts suggest that we collect these emotional trading stamps in a drawer and one day we cash them in for a huge argument, perhaps. We try not to ‘sweat the small stuff’ and swap it for a meltdown or a burnout.
The loss experienced by an expat is incalculable, as I discovered last week. Kiran Prasad interviewed me for a book she is writing about expat life. She wanted to know how I’d coped with our seven or eight relocations and the first thing she asked me was to list my losses. My list went something like this:
Understanding where things were and how things worked
Doctor, dentist, favourite grocer, people who spoke to me in shops
A favourite restaurant
A favourite walk
A walking buddy
A writing circle
My local contacts
Actually, I didn’t tell Kiran all those, some of them came to me now as I was writing, but it’s shocking isn’t it? Even now my stomach twists at the sight of emotions and items I had not dared to name before. Even my lovely bicycle, now living with a good friend, is sorely missed. My daily companion. Each item in that list has been exchanged for a trading stamp. And though I exchanged them during the first few months of my move to Kuala Lumpur for a nice shiny bout of misery, the thing about trading stamps is that they are a little bit magic. Once we have used them we put them back in the drawer again, so we can cash them in a second or even third time. It is probably because of this that at FIGT last month I shed more than a few tears when Julia Simens talked about the loss we experience when we say goodbye to the wonderful folk who help us in our homes and who become part of the family for a few years. Oh yes, I will probably have a good old cry again soon.
Even within the close family unit, usually the only constant in the life of the mobile family, there have been losses. The kids, now in their early twenties, have lost many friends, whether they have been the mover or the movee. They lost schools, sports clubs, bands and of course, friends. Then, six months ago, when Ian and I, recognizing that our nest had been empty for two years and it was probably OK to move 7000 miles away to Malaysia, they lost their parents and their most recent family home in one fell swoop. I did not consider that. Not really.
At FIGT I met many other recent empty nesters and movers like me, with twenty-something Third Culture Kids like ours. The majority had all witnessed the meltdown of a child who’d cashed in all those trading stamps for a brand new shiny life – by quitting university early. Both our boys did that. Both of them. Fortunately their meltdowns only lasted about a year. One is now about to graduate from his second go at uni. The other is preparing to return in October. I ask myself – is it any surprise, really?
Which brings me back to the title of this piece. Friends. When things get tough and you open a dusty drawer crammed with trading stamps, squished in there like a hundred crumpled till receipts this is when the loss of our mobile life can be compounded. When things get tough we need the help and friendship of the support networks that took so long to build up in the ‘old’ locations more than ever. But where are they now? Where are they when we hit rock bottom and need them most? Thankfully, these days they are on Skype and Facebook. Sadly, they are not there to give us the hug we badly need. And so we begin again in a new location, rebuilding the things we need.
Before Christmas, when I had my Month of Misery, there was a day when yet again I’d blocked the waste disposal and water began to seep from the laundry room into the kitchen, the store cupboard and out of the back door into the lobby of our apartment block. I knew there was a mop in the cupboard but when I went to fetch it the handle came right off the door! So there I was, ankle deep in dirty water with no mop! Quickly, I grabbed some towels for the floor, but it was not enough. I needed a mop. And I needed help. I’d been in the apartment a handful of weeks and I knew the number of one other person. Jo. I’d met her twice. I called and in minutes she was round with not only TWO mops but her husband, Brent and a buoyant sense of humour. Together they sorted me out while I looked on helplessly. Twenty minutes later they had become firm friends and I’d found my walking buddy and a member of my new KL writing circle. I had now begun building a new support team.
Asking for help is one of the hardest things to do, particularly in a crisis. As I write this I have been in England for a month, dealing with a bit of a family emergency. During this time, I have been reliant on the help of friends and family not only to provide me with bed and board but also with shoulders to cry on. In addition, having not had a car and been living out of suitcases, I have had to ask for favours on a daily basis. For lifts in the car, help with storage, sets of house-keys, wifi passwords, use of printers and much much more. I’ve been met for coffee, taken to the pub, entertained, invited to art galleries and out to lunch. I have even been joined on the sofa to watch a chick flick in the middle of the afternoon. I am indebted to them all. You see, just as those trading stamps go back in the drawer to be used again, friendships do not go away. Not good friendships anyway. And as I write this in the spare bedroom of the house belonging to my old university roommate of 35 years ago, I realize how lucky I am to have not only a portable career but constant friendships too.
Last night, when I took Christine, David and their family out for a thank you dinner on my last night with them, David admonished me for not putting them in my blog. They certainly deserve it, so thank you Christine and David. Thank you everyone. You know how good your friends are when you really need them, don’t you? And if I had not experienced these difficult times I’d never have been able to benefit from the joy of realizing how much people care.