The loneliness of other

As I spend a long weekend writing, feverishly beavering to complete my first book draft while the boys adventure in the snow in Andorra, I am reminded that loneliness is a major challenge we face when uprooting ourselves from our regular lives, wider family, friends, colleagues and connections to move to the other side of the world.

As an extrovert and a fairly social person, who likes to spend time with people, it is unexpected and unsettling for me to discover it is possible to be lonely, while surrounded by people; living in a sizable town, even while having good ‘friends’ and neighbours and knowing others in the wider community.

In the early days of our arrival, we do our best to prepare for the approaching isolation of winter by building as many relationships as possible – people we can call on for company and good cheer behind closed doors and shutters when the time comes. In those first autumn days of October and November that now feel a lifetime ago, Tom and I are squirrels, hoarding nuts for the dark days to come. Now, those dark days have come, and I am alone and, at times, lonely. I needed to hoard more nuts, sooner, and faster.

We have now been here twice, and feel as much a part of the community as we can, while still being only temporary visitors. We are known and welcomed at the local cafés, there are plenty of people for us to talk to and have coffee with while out and about, and people are generous with their time in passing conversation, but greater connection inevitably takes time, and that is not something we have at our disposal. Four months is simply not enough to build and sustain meaningful relationships – why would people bother when we are leaving soon, and unsure when we will be back.

In this community of communities, we are neither local nor expatriate; we are not permanent or part-time residents. We just keep popping up from time time time – more than tourists, but less than regulars. We are ‘other’.

The sort of connection I am craving is the ability to drop in on others freely, without offence or burden. I am hoping, in the time we are here, to earn the sense of closer companionship that comes with that, particularly with the encroaching winter in mind. I am looking for friends, as well as acquaintances to keep us company in the cold and dark when everything closes. It would be nice to know we have people we can call on, even if we are only here temporarily. Realistically, I think this is not possible as ‘other’.

By virtue of morning coffees at the Fleuve, chatting to those who drop by, meeting parents outside school, talking to anyone I meet, and actively joining as many groups and activities as I can, I quickly acquire plenty of acquaintances. My network of people I recognise is extensive, which is a good feeling. It’s nice to pop out and know that you have a good chance of bumping into someone you know, even when far from ‘home’. I know that if I look out the window and spy people I know at the Fleuve or the Palace, I can join them at a moment’s notice.

Converting acquaintances to friends is harder though, and I haven’t yet cracked that, despite trying different approaches.

Despite wanting to meet and make French friends in the longer term, I figure the expatriate community, particularly the Australians will be a good bet as a starting point. Like me, they are ‘foreigners’ here, needing to fit in, and I think, like me, they will welcome more contacts.

There’s some truth in that – the expats we know and meet are quick to make us welcome and connect us to others. But I find they are no more likely than others to go further. Although we meet often for a coffee or a drink, it’s always spontaneous, and never more than fleeting. It feels somehow superficial.

We issue invitations to people we know and like to come over to ours for a drink, or to meet out. These invitations are always accepted, but, with a few exceptions, generally not reciprocated. In the four months we are here, we do not receive a single invitation to a meal or a drink at anyone else’s place. This is not a complaint, but more of an observation – something that I have come to realise over time and reflect on.

I don’t think this is because people don’t like us. I think it’s more likely people have their own busy lives, their own agendas, their well-established circles of friends and it simply doesn’t occur to them to go out of their way to add more by including us. To be fair, I have experienced this same situation myself in Wellington, and it troubled me as much there. It doesn’t feel like a particularly French issue, or just something about the people in Quillan.

That said, I do wonder if there’s something cultural about it. We kiwis (cue wild generalisation) are prone to gregariousness. We seek connections. We are unafraid to ask for favours without fear of causing offence. We think nothing of asking if we can spend a night on someone’s floor for free, in the knowledge that we will happily return the favour. We allow strangers into our houses for open homes and garage sales, and most of the people I know are happy to just drop in for a coffee with friends unannounced, in the knowledge they’ll be welcome. I like that.

In contrast, a friend who lives in Barcelona observes that, despite living there several years, and having plenty of friends, she rarely if ever is invited to their houses. They meet up regularly, but always at a bar or restaurant. It’s like there’s a different view here of your house and home as your private domain. I expect I could get used to that.

And it’s not like we are the model of behaviour either. I like to think if a French person arrived in our suburb in New Zealand, we would invite them over and make them welcome, get to know them better, help make them feel at home. But then I examine my own conscience. Have I done that recently in my own community? Probably not.

Inevitably, in a short time period, real friendships and more closeness is not possible, no matter how hard we try and how much we would like it. I am looking forward to our return, whenever that is, for the chance to pick up, and further the many connections we have made. I fancy some of them might just become lifelong friendships, given time.

12 thoughts on “The loneliness of other

  1. Syruptitious

    Isn’t that true moving anywhere? I’m Canadian, lived in London for 17 yrs and made very few real connections and the ones I had lived over an hour away. When you have kids that’s a big deal. 3 years ago we moved to a cool town in Sussex and it is similar. Lots of friends and friendly people but not life long besties as such…and no language barrier. My 2 closest friends (from high school) are back in Canada! Winter is isolating anywhere I think. Spring is coming. Ps my understanding is that in France a lot of the connections are traditionally made during the fetes in summer. Street parties! <:)

    1. Jennifer Andrewes Post author

      Yes, I think you are absolutely right. I have experienced this everywhere, and I suspect I have to temper my own expectations and be content with what we have, rather than wait for more. Or just issue more invitations!

  2. Lolo

    Thank you for this very interesting insight of how you live your “otherness”. I felt exactly the same in several places I lived only for a few months : not enough toime to cultivate friendships, when people in their usual lifes, need more time to consider if they really want to connec with you, to “lose” time with you if it doesn’t end up in a “real fiendship”.
    Expats are the worst ones in that chapter, expecially the ones who move every 2 or 3 years : they are quick to welcome you, but once they’re gone, it’s all over, and they move to another part of their life, without keeping in touch (and they knew it from the start).
    This said, I could use your own words to describe most french people I know : We froggies “cue wild generalisation) seek connections. We are unafraid to ask for favours without fear of causing offence. We think nothing of asking if we can spend a night on someone’s floor for free, in the knowledge that we will happily return the favour. We allow strangers into our houses for open homes and garage sales, and most of the people I know are happy to just drop in for a coffee with friends unannounced, in the knowledge they’ll be welcome. I like that.”
    I’m french. I lived in several regions in France. Some are more welcoming than others… and some people are more ready to bet on a new friendship than others. I was very surprised when living in London that it was really hard to get an invitation for a meal at a friend’s house – it was so much easier to meet in a restaurant !
    Friendship links in France develop around good home meals – if you invite people, they will invite you back ; but they might not have the same schedule you have, and plan to invite you in a few weeks or even months – and time passes by. I’d advise you to ask people you already had for dinner at home and who didn’t invite you back, if they would like to come again to your place for dinner. I bet they’ll say : “Oh, but it’s my turn !” and you might end up with an easy invitation. If they just say Ok, well – you’ll end up with offering another meal, but hopefully, it’ll be the last time it’s your turn twice !
    And please pardon me my french-english.

    1. Jennifer Andrewes Post author

      Thanks Lolo, it’s great to have a French perspective, and your English is excellent. You are absolutely right to raise the flaw in my case – basically you are pointing out that we can’t generalise! Some people are simply more welcoming or more inclined to socialise than others. I can confirm that, elsewhere in France, I have, and continue to be warmly welcomed by people who have become firm friends in a way that is more than I would expect of my own family. I think the difficulty is, as you say, the short time period more than the language, culture or location. And because I have been spoilt by other friendships, I am always hankering for something more. Good tip to just keep inviting people here – which to be fair, I haven’t done enough of.

  3. margaret21

    I share a lot of your experiences. As you know, we were in France full time for six years, and I’d say it was three before we started to get any invitations, despite our being on friendly terms with lots of people by then. And when I think about it, most of these invitations came from ‘in-comers’ like us – French incomers maybe, but not natives of Laroque. Not that the Laroquais were unfriendly, but most of them had family and very long-standing friends whom they’d been to school with – that sort of thing. And now we’re back in the Uk, in a community new to us, it’s taking a long time to make friends in any meaningful sense. I think it always is as we get older. Continue to be at the school gate, and buy a dog so you’re always walking round town. That’s my best advice. No, we don’t frequent the school gate, and we haven’t got a dog either.

    1. Jennifer Andrewes Post author

      Great tip about the school gate Margaret. I empathise with your experience in the UK. The most unexpected example I had of this was also when I moved ‘home’ to Wellington after six years in the UK. I had not expected to be adrift in my own town albeit in a new suburb, after having been so welcomed and befriended in Wales. But through the children I got to know people, and I also got over myself, realising that I was just another New Zealander in New Zealand. There was no particular reason for new neighbours to befriend me any more than anyone else.

      1. Lolo

        I absolutely agree with Margaret and the school gate ! Take your time when collecting the children, get into small talk… Maybe, if you can give more of your time, get involved into the school parents association (it depends on where you are, but in small towns, they usually are very welcoming and even greedy of new hands – maybe you even have an association that runs the “restaurant scolaire” or the “activités périscolaires” ?). Getting involved into associations is always a good way to meeting people, and walking with others like you already do certainly opens doors.

  4. bizzyella

    Good post and good comments. I’ll add that I lived in San Francisco for five years before I developed real friendships and it felt like home. It just takes a while to settle in. Also, you don’t live there yet. Why make the effort to become close to someone who might never come back?

    My American friends are big on divulging personal information, which almost never happens with French friends. My French friends have extended kindnesses that I wouldn’t even ask of my American friends — and didn’t ask of the French ones. They saw a need and offered. But they still don’t really talk about their inner lives or anything like that. I think to some extent it’s a question of boundaries being in different places.

    I say, if you are committed to moving, move. Then get involved with some social groups and give things some time. Good luck and bon courage.

  5. Susan Andrewes

    Such an interesting post, Jen. It reminds me of so many moments in my own life and journeys, including right now in our move from Europe to NZ. From the perspective of what I do now, it really blows my mind how powerful thought is, and how it shows up in the form of assumptions, ideas and expectations that we take to be a reflection of reality. For me, there’s something about seeing underneath Thought that brings out a whole new experience. You’ve made me realise how much thinking I’ve had around being back in NZ that has got in the way of simple curiosity and a whole different experience of being here.


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