Today I met an old friend for coffee, which turned out to be lunch, because it was 3pm and I just got up. So I guess it could have been considered breakfast. Maybe brunch. Point is, it became a meal instead of a drink.
She was one of my better friends in my time living here in Paris. She was from Poland originally, and was here for much longer than I was, approaching seven years in Paris by the time we met in late 2011. We didn’t always get along – we were probably too much alike for that to happen – and our personalities ensured that any time we disagreed, it would be colorful, noticeable, and entertaining for anyone nearby. But even in those moments we always knew we cared about each other; in some ways we were just like a cranky married couple that had spent entirely too much time together.
By the time I left to come home late in 2012, she wasn’t very pleased with her life at the time – her issues were basically the same as mine : work sucked, Paris is a finicky bitch, and what the hell was I doing with my life in my thirties anyway? When we had a chance to meet up in the middle of last year, things had actually gotten worse for both of us. So there we were, now living four thousand miles apart, but instantly back where we always were, unsure and unhappy and hunched over a small table at a café near Gare de Lyon.
She had since moved back to Poland, with a new job in a new company. I had, well, we all know my story at this point. After we sat down and made our selections off the menu, though, I took a long look at her, and she at myself, and we both smiled. It’s entirely possible that she was smiling so much only because I am devastatingly attractive with this beard and she knew she had the good fortune of being about to spend two hours looking at it, but it’s more likely that we had a mutual recognition in that moment, before we had really even started the conversation in earnest, that shit had worked out for both of us.
I was happy, and she could tell. She was happy, and I could tell. One way or another, in the year that had passed, we both found our way and were headed towards something better. Without having to say anything, we were mutually aware of the difference between then and now, we were sincerely happy for each other, and proud of each other. It was as if we already knew all the answers to the conversation we hadn’t yet started, it was just a matter of filling in the details.
So we did just that, highlighting her new job, my new un-job, her new boyfriend, my new… actually some things never change. We laughed a lot, we sighed a lot, we mocked Parisians, just like the good ol’ days. Ironically, if there’s one amazing power Parisians have, it’s the ability to bring together people of all races and ethnicities to raise a beer and toast each other to say “yeah, fuck those guys!” I’m pretty sure that’s the answer to lasting peace in the Middle East actually – have leaders from every country and religion live in Paris for three months, then send them all to dinner : within an hour they’ll find common ground on everything – you’ll have Jews and Palestinians doing shots together and agreeing “I mean, the service is just, I mean, I can’t deal…”
The bond between single expatriates, I would realize later in the day, is a lot like the one you have with the people with which you went through college. Back then, you were at a crossroads, you were excited and scared, and you were not entirely sure what would come next. What you did know is that no matter what, you wouldn’t be there forever, but you needed to find somewhere to go next.
Unlike college though, this time around, when you’re older, you have the wisdom to know how bittersweet it all is : you know these people are special and will permanently shape your life, but you also know they’ll likely go away sometime soon, just as quickly as they swept in to your world. On top of all the uncertainty, together you realize you’re ‘behind’ all your friends back home in putting together a ‘normal’ life.
I specify ‘single’ expatriates because it’s a much different game for those that go in to something like this with a family in tow : you have your support system built-in in the form of kids and/or a spouse, and there is usually a relatively clear idea where you will go next, likely back home. For those of us that make that leap overseas without a family, we have to go find our support system – and when you find it, it’s a hell of a strong bond that forms.
The people that shaped your life in college, if you’re lucky, will continue to live close enough to be an everyday part of your life. Maybe they’re across the state or a short flight away, and you’ve got to give up a weekend to touch base in person.
These expat friends, though, they’ll usually end up oceans away. So when the stars line up and you can end up in the same city on the same day and have a coffee, and you can be lucky enough to report that things worked out for you, and hear that things are working out for them, well, it’s a pretty damn nice moment.