Friendship through the back door

I met a girlfriend for lunch, I was once again running late with the snowballing chaos which accompanies it. Cursing at the google map I realised my time of arrival was not just late but bordering on rude. I raced up the stairs of the hotel and made my way through the lobby like a contestant of the amazing race. I was flustered and couldn’t find the restaurant, it was one of four. Muttering under my breath I made my way out past the pool and somehow ended up at the back of the building. Where are you? I asked myself as I walked past the staff toilets only to then find myself in a rock garden – finally after reaching the outdoor kitchen and sheepishly walking past the wait staff I sighted the back of her head.

“Where did you come from? Why didn’t you come through the front entrance?” she asked in her consolidated European accent (a recipe of Flemish, Czech and English).

I looked over her shoulder to spot a perfectly laid path that I had completely missed in my panicked arrival.

And then we laughed – that conspiratorial way that good friends laugh, the, you idiot, yes I am, I’d do that too, laugh.

I love her, I absolutely love her. I love the hugs we have on arrival. I love the super cheap yet stunning signature gold leaf earrings she buys in bulk from the accessories store at the mall. I love her chocolate brown eyes and the way she does her make-up. I love her exasperated eye roll when speaking about the insanity of rising electricity bills in Belgium and the way she has to pause when talking of the Ukrainian neighbours who became soldiers overnight. I love her vivid descriptions from the latest book that she’s read in whichever language that may be.

I believe she will be my friend for life yet I have no idea how many more times I’ll see her. She no longer lives in Doha full time, she floats, and one day maybe this year or maybe next she’ll stop coming back. I can’t see myself moving to Belgium and she definitely won’t be moving to Australia so our lunches are precious, numbered. This is the constant conundrum of expat life.

We met at my front door. I’d formed a book group with the intention of making new friends. As a long term expat this would be my third wave of friendships in Doha. I’d got brave and put a post on Facebook in the 4 kids 20 suitcases and a beagle page, within a couple of hours we had a group of 12 and a waiting list of ten. I invited everyone to my house for the first meeting and when she arrived at the door I liked her instantly. Whether it’s bias or gut instinct we’ve all had it – that feeling when you “just know” someone is right for you. During my first wave of friendship in Doha my girlfriend Jen eyed me across a busy Starbucks one morning, she told me years later “I saw you walk into the room and took one look at you and thought yep I’ll have her, she’s mine”. She was bang on – she was exactly what I needed in my life yet I haven’t seen Jen in seven years – our last dinner was in Melbourne, she now lives in Sydney I couldn’t even tell you which suburb.

So how can you be friends, stay friends, help friends or be a decent friend if you’re not in constant contact?

I’ve recently learned the answer.

I’m going to call her Emma.

I, too, spotted Emma across a room. In a life of constant chaos of (at that stage) three children under four I spent my days feeding, dressing, feeding, washing, feeding, dropping to and from, feeding, bathing and falling into a heap at the end of the day. With an assortment of small backpacks, sippy cups and lunch boxes I made my way to gym, craft classes, ballet etc. In a room full of excitable four year old ballerinas in pink leotards along with their frazzled parents pulling out ballet shoes and frantically putting hair in ponytails Emma somehow had the effect of a cool glass of chardonnay of a summer’s day. She was the deep breath, the soothing cup of tea, the blanket on your lap in a bay window with a book. “I’ll have her, she’s mine”.

Emma exudes class, she had the unmistakable accent from “the island” which was on the opposite side of Canada to where we were in Calgary. We shared the same sentiments of missed family and summers by the water. She was in love with her husband they’d met at work. He was as stunning as she was, they were beautifully matched. Perfect? Noone’s perfect but I think it’s fair to say they would have made a decent magazine cover. She saved me so many times. After my fourth child was born and I returned to the office she was there to pick up the pieces that I inevitably dropped. Whether it was the costume that didn’t get packed in the bag or the bus that was missed she was there at the end of the phone without judgment. I can’t ever remember seeing her lose her temper or gossip. There was a small group of us, we’d bonded at the kindergarten door. We did the same birthday party circuit on the weekends and signed up for field trips and class decorating. Emma was a part of a posse of women all of us different but somehow the same. When it was time for me to leave Canada I ugly cried, big fat tears, heaving shoulders – leaving that group meant that I would now be a spectator in a life that could have been.

I began again. This time Houston. There was no Emma. There was a Nikki, a Claire, a Judith, a Paula, an Elissa, the ever faithful and forever Leah…but this group would never be like the last group, we were embarking on a different experience. Canada Kirsty was different to Houston Kirsty. Houston Kirsty drove a different car, went to a different school, operated in a different existence without snow. Houston Kirsty embarked on the couch to 5k (I never finished while everyone else went on to run a marathon). Houston Kirsty walked the beagle on the bayou, had swim parties, ate Tex Mex and drank margaritas the size of her head and was often found drinking coffee after school drop off with her new friends at Harvest.

I protected myself by not looking too closely at my Canadian life, every expat understands the danger of looking back. I winced at birthday party pics, watched in wonder as those tiny little people made their way through elementary school. I watched Emma return for summers on the island, I saw girls trips to Vegas, school concerts. Eventually everyone made it to high school. I spoke in instagram sentences and Facebook comments. Did they know that I meant it when I said “that’s amazing!” Or “I’m in tears watching this”.

The phone call came in the middle of night. I could hear it ringing in my dream. A message was left. One of the kindergarten crew. She was sobbing. Kirsty, I’m so sorry to tell you like this – I just don’t want you to read it somewhere. Emma’s husband was gone. It was sudden, tragic and horrendous. It was confusing. The word shocking is over-used, this was a truly shocking event. It was possibly the most unexpected piece of news I have or will ever receive – and it was beyond the most heartbreaking for a friend.

For the first hour or two I stared at the wall. In my mind a reel from over fifteen years ago played in my head. Christmas concerts, parent/teacher nights, our farewell dressed as cowboys. I saw the same four faces, Emma he and the kids. In a time of crises we all have the same self indulgent though – what can I do? What should I do? I looked at flights, tried to work out how I could be in two places at once. The kindergarten crew had already jumped into action – dogs were being walked, meals delivered. I knew Emma would be surrounded by great people, she has an amazing family and a rock solid group of girls from the island – they were there in 24 hours.

The kindergarten crew were back in my life. One included me in her basket of goodies “is there something Australian I can put in there? Tim Tams?” another soothed my questions with reason and gentleness, another gave a full report of how the week would play out and then after the service came back to let know how it all went. And then there was Emma. I knew she had a constant watch so I messaged, voice messages. “I’m going to just check in and bore you with the banal” I said. I went back to the ballerina days, asked what jeans she was wearing now (it’s an inside joke that won’t make sense to anyone else). I talked, she replied. I find myself sitting in the car just listening to her voice now, I love hearing her say my name in her special way. This morning I sent her a message to let her know that I was writing, thinking about her, that she’d provided an epiphany for me about friendships.

I used to tell myself that this expat life provided a constant period of grieving. Grieving the loss of a life lived in a different country. The grief is often as small and fickle as a beloved car that had to be sold or a kitchen window view of an oak tree with a swing that you’d never see again while washing the dishes. I used to think the cruelest thing about expat life was the grieving of expat friendships. The colleagues, school communities, next door neighbours and the women at the kindergarten door – but that’s not true. Grieving comes when something is gone forever that’s why it’s so painful and hard to acknowledge and accept. Expat friendships don’t die, they don’t disappear suddenly in the middle of the night. Expat friendships can lay dormant for a year or more but they can be revived with the press of a button, a voice message, a video.

Emma and I have plans to get together, I’ve started writing a book and I’ve told her she is my motivation. When the book is written I expect to see her at the launch. My friend who will return to Belgium next month will hopefully join me for another lunch before she goes – I have no intention of losing her and she provides the perfect excuse for me to visit her country one day. What a gift we have when we have friends all over the world.

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