I have been an expat for most of my life. I was born in Brazil and lived there until the age of 15 when I left for England, never to return to live in my own country. I’ve since lived in France and now also Italy, so after a childhood with the same house, friends, family all around me, my life was turned upside-down forever, at the age of 15. The 3 times I moved countries, I had to start my life from zero, to build friendships from scratch, to build a life for me and my children twice from nothing, and I learned many lessons along the way.
First of all, it’s not easy to start again. Moving countries and leaving everything behind takes a lot of bravery and commitment, especially if it’s a move for an indeterminate length of time. If you’re going for a year, it’s easier, but in my mind what makes this easier can easily be replicated to make a permanent move better. Let me explain. The difference I see in my clients who are here short-term as opposed to those who are here long-term, is openness. People who know they’re only here for six months or a year, feel at home almost straight away. One of my clients, who is here to spend a year, was telling me that she had to go back to the US for a few days after living in Florence for only two weeks. She said when she arrived back here from this short trip, it really felt like home. How is this possible? Well, this client, along with her family, have really dived into life in Florence. They not only work (from home) but they are all doing their favourite hobbies, the husband swims and the kids do all their activities, and they started doing all this immediately upon arriving, the same week, still jet-lagged! They are also extremely open to meeting people, they have met with several families from their children’s school, where the school year hasn’t even started yet, to the point that the kids have play dates already, they haven’t been here a month! When another client of mine moved upstairs from them, they were keen to meet her. This family is basically living knowing that their time in Florence is limited and they want to make the most of it, and this attitude pays, they are extremely happy.
Another family of clients, who have moved here permanently are having a harder time adapting. They feel isolated and when asked if they want to be introduced to other families, say they’d rather wait “it’s only a week till school starts anyway”, in the meantime they’re unhappy. The problem is, once you get unhappy, it’s then harder to get back up to happy, the starting point is lower and you begin to dislike your situation, to see things negatively and this skews your whole perception of the experience.
Making friends as an adult is a lot of fun, you can choose your friends more carefully and you don’t have to put up with behaviours and patterns that you don’t like, you get to start afresh. Of course it’s not necessarily easy to find these friends, and I wrote a blog post all about how you can do it, but finding and keeping new friends really matters in expat life, because in a way you need to replace not only your past friends, but also the reassuring presence of an extended family. Friends we make in this expat life double up as aunties for our kids, brothers for us and cousins we love.
There is one trap when looking for new friends in a new life in Florence or indeed anywhere, the common language trap. Never assume you have something in common with someone just because you speak the same language. Make sure you share the same values. It is so comforting as an American to make American friends, but who knows, maybe the Spanish family is a better fit. As long as you can all communicate in a language, there is no reason why a friendship can’t flourish.
How to cope when they leave
One of the saddest and hardest parts of these friendships is when an expat friend finishes the posting in the country and leaves, either to go home or onto another country, which might be really far away. You get into a routine, you get used to them, you know their parents, their life history, how the couple met, the birth stories of the kids, you cook them their favourite food, and they make you chocolate cake, you develop a real and loving relationship over a few years and all of a sudden, they come to you and let you know they’re leaving. Let me tell you, it hurts. You grieve, it takes time to get used to living without them, but you do, it’s like any loss. One of my first clients in Move to Florence was a very good friend of mine who started to threaten to leave. She was unhappy in her home and she and her husband had had enough, she told me they were ready to go if they didn’t find a new home. I asked her very gently if she would let me look, no fees, no expectations, just a look. She said ok, we visited a few houses and we found her dream home, we were lucky. They’ve been there for a couple of years now, and I cannot imagine what life would be like if I hadn’t found this house. All the great times we have there, would not have been, I wouldn’t be watching her children grow up, have barbecues in their terrace or go in their pool in the summers, I’m so glad they stayed.
When I lived in France my absolute best friend there left, she was my go-to person. We talked everyday and had a very close friendship, we told each other everything. I was devastated and her leaving felt like a death. Thankfully this was also about the time that my second child was born, so I had a lot of opportunities to make new friends. I did, and in the end realised that my relationship with this friend who left, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, yes we shared a language and culture, she was from Brazil, but she was quite bitchy and I don’t think I got out as much of the friendship as I put in. We are no longer friends. So the fact that she left, gave me the opportunity to meet new people and have much better relationships, friends I’ve kept to this day.
Friends from the past
Having been born in Brazil, then left at 15, after living in the UK for 16 years and France for 7.5, I still have friendships from all 3 countries. I feel that I am very unique in the sense that I have a number of “best friends”. Of course there is one best friend to trump them all, we’ve known each other since the age of 2, but I’ve made some more best friends along the way. I have regular contact with all of them, my friends from Brazil, from England and France. They have never met each other, which is so bizarre to me, but know about each other and hear me tell stories of my time in all these different places. I also have my best friends here in Italy, and I love them just as much.
I am lucky to still be making new friends here, I make friends through work and the school always has new parents coming in, which is wonderful. I am acutely aware of the fact that to make friends I must put myself out there (just like my mum used to say), you need to be open, to say yes to invitations even if you’re not 100% sure you want to go, but just try it once, see what it will be like. These friendships, these relationships, are worth starting and need to be nourished. I don’t know how life in Florence would be without my friends, probably very sad and lonely, I would never have started this business without the help and advice from friends, I would never have had one of my first clients without them, or been recommended to so many other clients without them too. Friends make your life liveable and are worth every effort to keep and meet, especially in a new country.
Why it matters
As an expat, even more so than someone living in their home country, making and keeping friends is extremely important, it will be the difference between you adapting to your new life, or hating it. You can move to the most beautiful city in the world (hmmm, I mean move to Florence!) and still have a sad and difficult experience because you had nobody there to share it with, and I don’t mean a romantic partner, I mean a kindred spirit, someone to commiserate together about things only you can understand are absurd about Italy, someone who will get your humour and will make you feel special just because you’re you.
Another great thing about your expat friends? The food and culture you can try together, your German friend will make you strudel, your British friend will make you laugh, your Brazilian friend will teach you to dance, ok I’ve gone hard on stereotypes here, but you get the picture. Every friend you make will enrich your life in their own unique way, regardless of their nationality, you are sharing a unique experience in a country together and this bonds you like nothing ever can.
I, for one, am very grateful to my friends, from all over the globe and acutely aware of the fact that my life would not only be poorer without them, it would be colourless and boring. If you start a life in Italy or any other country, make sure you’re ready to embark on whatever adventures you can to make and keep new friends and enjoy seeing how happy you will be alongside your chosen partners in crime.