Sometimes the earth’s gravitational field is noticeably stronger. The air is heavy. The clouds are heavy. The world is lethargic and dim and muffled. There is not enough coffee.
The downside of moving to a new country is that you can’t physically be with friends and family when they need you. You can’t hug over Zoom. You can’t sit side by side in comfortable silence or clink glasses to toast a life well lived. You can’t squeeze a hand to let them know that you are inside their heart.
People ask me if I get lonely. I seldom do. I don’t have the lonely gene. I have many friends and acquaintances, plenty of family members who I love and like, but being alone is restful for me. I have always been able to entertain myself.
This week is a hard week. A longtime friend has just lost her mother. Another friend is having some memory issues; I suspect it’s exacerbated by the isolation of lockdown. A third has a looming housing crisis. Several have major health issues.
I can’t fix any of these things, whether I am there or here. If I lived closer, I could offer support in some physical form perhaps. Holding hands, bringing a meal. Fetching groceries.
But I’m 4,000 miles away.
The hardest part of being an expat is not being with family and friends, in hard times and good times. Yes, you make new friends, some of whom will become good friends. But there’s no history. The bonds haven’t yet been formed, much less strengthened. It’s not the same. Yet.
Time does not equal quality of relationship. Is a 20 year relationship worth saving if 17 of those years have been bad? (No.) Do I have a friend of four years who I am as close to as friends of 40 years? (Yes.)
Time and quality of relationships make our lives. People make our lives. And being there, for the people you love, is one of the most important things you will ever do.
Distance makes it hard. But not impossible.
Technology has made it easier to “be there.” I schedule Zoom calls to chat. I can send surprise cupcakes or have a pizza delivered. I can order groceries (or booze!) and have them delivered. I am awake when all their nearby friends are asleep. They can call and I will answer.
I am more mindful of keeping tabs on my people. In the States, I was lazy about relationships because it was easy to get to my friends. Many were within a 100 mile radius or a two hour plane ride. If someone needed me, I could get to them quickly.
Right now, I can’t leave Portugal. My visa has been extended, but I don’t have my residency permit yet. I could probably get back into the country, but after eight months of waiting, I don’t want to chance having to start over. I have friends who can’t fly over here due to health reasons or personal responsibilities. It’s frustrating. I can’t physically be there. They can’t physically be here.
But it’s part of the deal. When I lived in Hawaii, it was seven time zones and a minimum of ten hours of flight time to get back to my family. I am actually closer now. And in a month’s time, I’ll be able to come and go, subject to COVID testing. I am in the last weeks of residency limbo, waiting for the last piece of documentation to be completed and filed. In normal times, this would have happened months ago. It’s enough that it is happening now.
The expat life is not always smooth. It is not always secret beaches and charming cafes and exciting adventures. My life in the States wasn’t that, either. Everything in life is a double-edged sword; it’s a trade-off. Know that going in. There will be times that are just a little harder to handle than others. You’ll figure it out. There is no adventure without some sort of risk. Very few things are without a downside. When I look at the risk/reward ratio of being an expat, I know that I have made the right decision. But some days I wish I had cracked that whole time/space continuum thing.