Repat: Will My Expat Friends Forget About Me?

I think the scariest thoughts at 3 am. I never used to wake up at 3 am. Well, that’s not true. I did, but I was up to breastfeed and so it was lovely and sweet and cozy and I went right back to sleep with a snuggling babe in my arms. In those days, 3 am was an entirely different animal. But once Theo was old enough to not be partaking in the 3 am feed, I found myself waking up, unable to go back to sleep, and despite the sweet sleeping baby next to me breathing deeply and sleeping soundly, 3 am became a very terrifying space. For a few years there, I woke up at 3 am, more or less on the dot, and my mind, my soul, my very body were flooded with existential angst and regret and fear. Not fun stuff.

During one such middle of the night terror session, it occurred to me that my expat friends - the gorgeous women in the photo above - might forget about me before I have a chance to move back and get myself back into their orbit again. It made my heart ache in the spooky darkness while I stared, wide-eyed, at the patches of blue light that splashed into the room randomly through the curtains and blinds, illuminating swatches of the ceiling and walls of my bedroom. I felt an emptiness that overwhelmed me.

I grabbed my phone, which is normally a terrible idea at 3 am, but I knew I wasn’t going back to sleep anyway, so I started googling. Did you know that “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends” is one of the top five regrets of the dying? As I read those words, I went from feeling totally defeated and fearful to resolute. I started texting my friends more. It’s so easy when you’re far, far away, to drift apart. It’s only normal that text exchanges become rote and shallow. “How are you doing?” gets back a “Busy! Kids are in soccer and ballet and life is good” and it ends there. Instead of doing that, I started texting my friends and sharing things I had been pondering - grey hair and wrinkles, loss of identity as a mother, the fleeting quality of time. It turns out a lot of them were thinking about the same things. I found myself having discussions, albeit over text for the most part, that were meaningful and allowed us to connect with each other and what we were experiencing beyond what’s obvious and on the surface.

It felt good to maintain those relationships, but also really confusing as I tried to make new friends here. And then, on top of that, came the confusion of knowing that deep down, I plan to leave again, but I never talk about it. That added another layer of complexity where my relationships feel false somehow because I’m concealing this huge piece of myself. And it really does feel like a piece of myself. The things we strive for are central to our identities. Isn’t the act of sharing our hopes and dreams the very stuff that builds connection and allows us to experience closeness with others? What if that is kept to oneself?

I don’t have all the answers yet, but what I’m learning as a repat, and also from reflecting back on my time as an expat, is that we have to be comfortable with ambivalence. We have to be able to simultaneously pursue two opposing ideals. I’m burrowing deep into my life here, making friends, joining a gym, building a community. And yet, I’m also focused on my goal of moving back to Zürich, building my new career, developing myself as an individual different from the person I am right now. In other words, as I burrow in, I’m also reaching out, striving for growth.

As we get older, finding truly close, intimate friendships becomes more and more difficult, less and less likely. It’s not enough to say, “that was my life then, this is my life now” and let them go. I think it’s important to stay in touch with our friends, as is evidenced by how if affects the dying. Are you staying in touch with people you care about? Why or why not? Does knowing that it’s a top regret of the dying make you want to change what you’re doing?


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