On being an Expat

Apropos yesterdays post. Another in-car conversation on life, the Universe and everything found Mrs S and I discussing our lives. Why we keep so few real friends, which is more an act of personal preference than anything else. Neither of us have ever been manic socialisers. Although we are decent enough folk, well, we like to think so, we find that there’s little point getting involved as everyone else has stuff to do and so have we. So dinner parties are rare events as neither of us is that keen on small talk and always find ourselves at odds with some of the regurgitated media talking points certain people call their opinions.

There are sayings that “You can never go home again.” or “You can’t cross the same river twice.” and now ten years after Mrs S and I began our Canadian adventure I find there is much truth in them. Having gone back to blighty on five separate occasions, visiting places where I grew up only to find a chilly welcome and a “Oh, what’re you doing back here?” No one wants to know you. Old work mates make repeated excuses to not have a beer and a chin wag like you used to, even when you’ve spent thousands to go and see them. When you meet people you thought were good friends it’s a little spooky to watch their faces close down when you say “Hi.” Like while you’ve been living and working overseas you’ve been doing something they’re ashamed of, but it’s not simply that. There’s often a mix of jealousy and disconnection which gives you the sense of being a stranger in your old home town. A feeling of isolation within familiar spaces. Like you’re just a tourist. Which feels like truth. Because it’s not your home any more. You moved on, they stayed. You’re now an outsider, an exile, who shouldn’t ever have come back. This is not your tribe.

There’s a century old story about a man who went to Australia and made his fortune. I think it was told as an anecdote in one Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Novels, not sure which. (Correction: From Laurie Lee’s classic “Cider with Rosie” – A staple of my Senior School English Literature classes – Thank you to the commenters for this correction)  Now the story goes that this newly enriched Australian came back to visit the English village he’d grown up in but left twenty years before. While he’s there he shares his good fortune with old friends and neighbours. Even spending one evening in the village pub buying drinks for everyone. Yet on his way back to his lodgings he was beaten up and robbed by some of the very people he’d once called friend. The very people he’d tried to share his good fortune with.

Life is a river, and like water, time flows in only one direction, unless you’re a very advanced physicist. Sometimes it pools, other times it bounds along, effortlessly carving its own way through solid rock. But always onwards, down to an estuarine end, or abruptly off a cliff or down a hole. So it is with old friendships and family. Those who stay still get left behind. This can breed resentment within them because perhaps they did not really want to stay, but somehow lacked the impetus, like me, to begin new lives for themselves in a different land, or even wonder, and feel a little betrayed by, my need to do so. In their minds, I left them. Which may have bred ill-feeling.

Which leaves me in a dilemma. I have to visit the UK next year anyway, but knowing what I do now, do I go visit and try to reconnect, or just accept what I’ve been told at face value and forever suffer a small nagging doubt? Considering my family history, or rather lack thereof, it has been characterised by a certain; “You don’t need to know that.” feeling. Indeed, trying to track my own Mother’s side of the family has proven interesting* because I was always shut out of the conversation because my very existence (Well I am a bastard from a time when this was frowned upon) is a source of embarrassment. Very few will even acknowledge that I am a blood relative. That and my Mother’s tendency to ‘re-invent’ herself every twenty years or so has not helped.

Oh bugger it, I’ll go and knock on some doors while I’m back in the UK. What can my relatives really do apart from tell me to sod off?

Update: There is also the thought that if we were such great friends and family, all my emails and letters would have been answered. But instead responses dried up fairly quickly, so maybe my erstwhile family and friends don’t really want to know at all. Heart says go and see, head says that they haven’t been in touch because they don’t want to be. Rather like an old mate who broke surface only to disappear into the mists of the Interweb. I offered to come over next time I was in the UK and have a chat over old times and where our lives had taken us. Result; complete radio silence. I’ll take my Aunt and her son out for dinner next time I’m in Blighty, but as for the rest, yes, well. Their lack of interest has been duly noted. Moving on…

* “Interesting” in like pulling a Bull’s teeth without anaesthesia.

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8 thoughts on “On being an Expat”

  1. The story about the expat who gets beaten up actually comes from Laurie Lee, I think it’s in “Cider with Rosie”.

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    1. Ah yes. Thank you Peter. I wasn’t actually sure, but now you remind me, I feel a little dunce-like for being so remiss. Not paying enough attention in my Eng Lit O level course.

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  2. I’ve spent half my life living and working abroad. During earlier visits to UK and meeting people that, when I did live there, I considered friends, we had nothing in common to talk about. Where I’d been and what I’d seen/done was of no interest to them. Likewise, I wasn’t really interested in their new extension, tennis/golf club, promotion, etc. (other than making the obligatory polite noises). However, there are five people who have remained good friends for decades, even though they all now live in different countries. The difference being, I think, that we shared similar, itinerant, lifestyles.

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  3. “Having gone back to blighty on five separate occasions, visiting places where I grew up only to find a chilly welcome and a “Oh, what’re you doing back here?” No one wants to know you. Old work mates make repeated excuses to not have a beer and a chin wag like you used to, even when you’ve spent thousands to go and see them.”

    Great post, very, very true adage. Everyone’s in the here and now, with the minutes of everyday counted. You’re just an added thing to negotiate.

    However, we’re all in that boat, so that’s something in common. Methinks it’s not that we’re not liked any more, it’s just that finding time for it all is the thing. Modern living.

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    1. Comes as a bit of a shock to the system first time round. It’s as if you were never friends to begin with. Which is more of an insight into my fellow humans than I ever cared to experience.

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