Safety in numbers

There’s safety in numbers. Any springbok or impala running from its predator will tell you that. Humans feel the same way. But it’s not just when we feel threatened that we like the company of others. In general, we are social creatures who enjoy interaction; with family and friends in particular. If they’re not around, we’ll go in search of others to fill the void.

Photo: Unni Holtedahl

Yet, here in Luxembourg, we don’t always have the luxury of family and friends. They’re most likely miles away, which oddly might be better. If the familiar was close at hand, we’d be more likely to run to it at the drop of a hat, thereby never really settling here. While adapting, we find ourselves redefining our definition of what and who we consider our support network. In fact, we probably have to construct a whole new one. That’s not an easy thing.

The past drifts away

The longer the amount of time away from our hometown, the more tenuous are the proximal relationships we grew up with, the ones that took little nurturing because we were in continual contact with those people – family, work, school, church, neighbors, those connections were the foundation of our basic needs. There’s a lot of history there. Once we pull up stakes though, those links are cut; not completely, but the longer we are away, the deeper the chasm. Further, the more moves made, the more vague and confusing become the zigzags of our lives. It’s like trying to connect the dots in the dark.

Thus, our proximal relationships have shrunk to the size of our spouse and kids. It’s the ultimate in downsizing.

We trick ourselves into thinking that the phone, Skype, e-mails, and Facebook fill the gap that continues to widen. But there’s nothing like human contact. Even frequent trips home fail to bridge the ever increasing gulf. Aside from our parents (maybe not even them), friends and other family members are not waiting with bated breath for one of our random returns. They have their own lives to live. They still have all those things that bring comfort and security. In short, life goes on for them.

We carve a new niche

Meanwhile, here in Luxembourg the show goes on too, as we work to carve a new niche for ourselves. As those relationships from our past become more distant, we strive to find ways to foster new relationships. In the process, we’re like a small chunk of sea ice that has broken away from the continental glacier of our homeland. It can be a cold journey.

Once in a new locale, our lives become a series of run-ins with random people.  We meet them at our children’s school, at the park, at social gatherings, at work, or wherever.  In a normal situation where we have established ties, this limited amount of interaction would be fine. But living abroad is not a normal situation no matter how long we do it or in how many places. Hence, we mentally sift through these encounters, ascertaining whether there is something more there. Damn, it’s hard work. We might even have to consult our spouse.

If there does seem to be something more, we arrange a get-together, a lunch or dinner to get to know them better. We might even use our kids to make it seem less probing.  In a perfect world, the stars align, and this random encounter moves to more of a distal relationship where there is a mutual interest and curiosity to go beyond the superficial. If we really hit it off with someone, this relationship might grow into a proximal relationship.

Bonds that bind us

Obviously, that takes us back to where we started long ago in our hometown. For some, it becomes a sort of flip-flop where the familiar becomes foreign, and the foreign becomes familiar. Past relationships become more distal and new relationships become more proximal. New bonds like this are not only good, they’re essential. Such connections create a sense of belonging, of comfort and stability. The more of these relationships we have, the safer we feel.

The last antelope I spoke to said something quite similar.

By Dan Franch, March 2013.Dan is also a Wort columnist.

The Desperate Expat Wife talks about friendship divorce.

Comments

  1. Beautifully written!! And very relevant to me right now! I’m at that “series of run-ins with random people” right now and it can be very frustrating. Somehow I often feel “didn’t I just do this?” And yes – I did – but we left that country, just like we left the other countries every second year. As an expat, you seldom have good friends. And when you do – you lose them too quickly… Thanks Dan for putting it in words! 🙂

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  2. Thanks, Lisa,

    I’ve done it quite a few times myself. This will probably be our last move for many years. WIll this be your last time, too, for quite awhile –

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  3. One can always hope so :-), but yes – we are hoping to stay at least a bit longer here. We have kids who are 10 and 12 years old so they need a bit of consistency of school and friends….

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