An expat among expats

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“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” – Alfred Lord Tennyson

One of the things I liked when I first came to Geneva was that the city is full of expats from every region of the world. I had the sense that no-one really belonged here but in this communality of not-belonging we all did.

And whilst invariably you would get pockets of certain people from the same country coming together more often than not the groups I would meet would be a real melting pot of different nationalities.

For example the first four friends I made here were Lebanese, Chinese, Dutch and Maltese-Australian. There are about 25 people in my office that represent around 17 different nationalities and you’ll hear a number of different languages floating around the corridors. Coming from my previous job in the UK, primarily made up of white British staff, the cultural mix here was quite new to me but something I warmly embraced.

Events like the World Cup are so much more fun when not everyone around you is rooting for the same team. And I have really enjoyed discovering what experiences and cultural practices are commonly shared amongst this mish-mash of people and what things are unique to each nationality (People in Geneva do have Christmas tree but I was stumped when trying to explain sherbert to a group of co-workers the other day). The office universally shares a love of chocolate but has fun debating which country produces the best or worst chocolate.

I’ve been an expat before when I interned in Cambodia but there we were small in a number and had a tendency to stick together. But being an expat among expats is an entirely different experience with a lot of positives. However, there is a downside as well.

A few months ago I met a chap from abroad who told me that until he and his wife had children they didn’t make any Swiss friends. When I asked him why he explained that with so many people coming and going those that were more permanently based here didn’t want to invest their time in getting to know people who would ultimately leave.

At the time I thought that it was a bit heartless not to make an effort to welcome newcomers into your lives just because they might leave again. But as expat friends of mine have now started to leave or announce upcoming plans for departure I’ve started to understand their thinking. It’s not that they are heartless but rather that its heartbreaking when someone you’ve come to know and care for is going to be gone from your life and possibly never re-enter it.

I’ve always been a selfish creature, for example uprooting the fella and abandoning all UK based friends and family to chase my dreams in Geneva, but it never occurred to me until it started happening to me on a frequent basis how hard it is to be left behind.

A number of people that I’ve met in Geneva that I’ve taken the time to get to know and have gradually forged fledgling friendships with that I thought had the potential to develop into full-on chumminess have announced that they will be leaving in the next few months and I’m honestly gutted.

From a selfish point of view I want everyone to stay and be my friends forever and if I decide to move again for them all to decide to move with me. Is that too much to ask?

I grudgingly accept that not everyone’s lives revolve around me, much as I might like them to, and I understand why certain people are leaving and obviously wish them well in their future adventures. It’s just I feel like someone has grabbed the trunk of a flimsy tree I’d built a nest in and shaken it violently, with the unsettling effect the departure of these people will have just as I was stating to feel comfortable here.

I think it’s good to put yourself out of your comfort zone but it’s harder when other people do this for you. Whilst I know not all my friends are leaving, there will always be constants in my life and that I’ll undoubtedly meet new and interesting people to form new friendships with there’s a part of me that wants to protect myself from future hurt by simply shutting myself off to the opportunity of loving and losing more people.

But then I think, well if I’d done that I’d never have met these wonderful people in the first place. If I hid my heart from other potential friends I’d be letting fear rule my life and that’s against the whole philosophy of what this blog was initially supposed to be about (see ‘The Why’).

So rather than feeling bummed out about the fact that some of my friends will leave I ought to make the most of them whilst they are still here. And it’s quite exciting to think that ten months ago I didn’t know any of them and in another ten months there could be more great people in my life I haven’t even met yet. Plus the further my friends disperse themselves around the world the more excuses I have to go and visit new places. It might be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster but it’s a wonderful world.

 

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Judge, Jury and Executioner

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“I think fish is nice, but then I think that rain is wet, so who am I to judge?” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

I am a huge fan of the Humans of New York (HONY) website (you can also follow the page on facebook for feel-good hits throughout the day). Brandon, the man behind HONY, takes a photo of a random individual and then he asks a few probing questions to get a snapshot of that person’s story. The images instantly evoke one idea, but the brief snippet of dialogue calls us to question our preconceptions and think a little bit more about the human behind the image.

From the snappily dressed businessman, to the homeless man to a middle-aged couple everyone has their story to tell and it isn’t necessarily reflected by their outward appearances. HONY is a brilliant blog that reaches an audience of millions and is teaching all of us to think before we judge.

I believe it comes naturally to judge people, we can’t help it. But we can try to overcome this tendency by questioning why we do this.

We are human and we respond with a variety of emotions, that we don’t consciously control, towards those around us. These feelings have been shaped by our experiences and the societal norms we unconsciously absorb every day.

So if we feel uncomfortable if someone asks for our number that’s probably because we have had a bad experience in the past. We then project that recognition of a negative encounter onto a new situation. If we feel awkward when a homeless man asks us for money it’s because we feel having a home is important and their approaching us makes us question why some people don’t have this.

If someone is constantly late or fails to show up to a meeting we may decide they are unreliable. We are interpreting their actions by what is important to us. In this case keeping to an agreed appointment is important to us and therefore we negatively judge anyone who does not attribute the same importance to this. Late again - BP image

But that same person, that regularly flakes out on you, may also be someone who would drop everything, including bailing on existing commitments, to be there for you if you really needed them. And this may be a trait we also rate highly even though it contradicts the first.

We may think a person is wonderful because we respect X, Y and Z characteristics and therefore admire those in others or we may think someone is terrible because of traits A, B and C that we don’t value. Someone else might think aspects A, B and C are much more admirable than X, Y and Z.

There is no right answer as to what’s better, it’s simply personal preference. Judgement is, therefore, entirely subjective.

It’s easy to judge others. It’s easy to think so-and-so at work is stuck up and looks down on us, or that someone is unnecessarily rude to us, or that another person who makes us tea on a daily person is the best person to ever walk the planet.

But judging others says more about us than them. If we think someone is looking down on us then that reveals our own insecurities by suggesting we think they have something to look down on. If someone is rude to us we should think about why it bothers us or what has happened to them to cause them to be so rude rather than marking them down as a ‘bad’ person. If we think it’s great that someone makes us tea it’s because we really like tea (yes, I am living up to the English stereotype) and value their thoughtfulness in thinking of our needs.

A friend, also comparatively new to Geneva, told me about an incident when she was walking home alone one evening, along an almost deserted street. She was approached by a slightly drunken man who asked for her phone number. She told him she had a boyfriend but he persisted anyway saying he just wanted to talk. When she questioned him on this he admitted with a smile that he didn’t just want to talk. When she still refused to give him her number he asked her if he could just have a hug instead.

She told me that her first thoughts were ‘absolutely not, who was this person, what if he tried to assault her, or steal from her’ but then she opened herself up to the idea that maybe he was just another human being, like her, who was just looking to make a connection. And so she agreed.

She said the hug was so warm and full of kindness that he hugged her as though she were an old friend he had known forever. And then he left. Without having taken any of her belongings, without attacking her and without asking again for her phone number. Months later and she still remembers how wonderful that hug felt.

If we are aware of our tendency to judge then maybe we can try to check that natural feeling and open ourselves up to the idea that every single one of us is a unique and fascinating person, subject to their own experiences and with their own stories to tell that has shaped who they are. This planet is a vibrant tapestry of interesting people from every walk of life and if we could be less judgemental then maybe we could give these people an opportunity to enrich our lives.

(Please note I take no responsibility for anyone who opens up their lives to a complete bunch of nutters unless that person is also a nutter and now has lots of nutty friends in which case I will take full credit.)

Strangers are friends you haven’t yet met

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When I was about seven we moved from Surrey to Oxfordshire and a friend of my mother’s presented her with a plate with the words ‘There are no strangers here only friends you haven’t yet met’ curling around the edge and a picture of two presumably stranger friends in the centre.

plate

To my seven year old brain this just didn’t make sense. For one thing I’d had it drummed into me from an early age that you don’t accept sweets from strangers* but if strangers were just friends in the making could you still not accept sweets from them or did that mean you couldn’t accept sweets from friend’s either?

But mostly the plate’s advice just seemed impractical. There are an awful lot of people in the world and most of them are strangers, if they were to become your friends how would you possibly remember everyone’s name and if they don’t become your friends then is that just a massively wasted opportunity? Granted new friend’s made since the tender age of seven have started off as strangers but surely that’s no reason to try and befriend everyone you’ve never met?

I learnt another saying at school that all medicines are drugs but not all drugs are medicines. Now steering clear of debates around benefits of homeopathic remedies this one actually made sense to me and could perhaps be adapted for the plate’s purpose? Something like ‘all friends start off as strangers but not all strangers are your friends’?

Or perhaps the plate just needs a couple of additional lines of text to complete the phrase ‘There are no stranger’s here only friends you haven’t yet met, except for the weirdo’s you should definitely avoid rummaging through the bins looking for razor blades and laughing hysterically at anything David Brent says’ (there go any potential Office fan friends I could have made).

However, last week I was forced to concede that the plate may have a point. The fiancé and I were invited to a wedding in the Algarve, the groom-to-be being a good friend of my fella’s. Aside from the man I’d packed in the suitcase and bought with me, I was going to be spending the week with eight to twelve strangers in our villa and an additional ten in another villa a few minutes down the road.

We arrived a few hours after everyone else to be met with a barrage of people whose names I thought I’d never remember. Afraid of potentially awkward small talk after a long journey and general bewilderment and, being a lover of all things watery, I decided to go for a dip in the pool.

As I bombed into the water and started swimming a few lengths in the cool waters on that first evening, marvelling at the sun setting behind the awesome pine trees fringing the golf course view, I was unsuccessfully trying to pretend the others didn’t exist whilst being overtly conscious of not knowing anyone.

Fast forward to the end of the week and my final swim. That last swim in the fading light, at the same time of day as the first, with the same light shining through the same trees, I couldn’t help but reflect on how different I now felt. I compared that initial awkward swim amongst strangers with the much more enjoyable relaxed swim in the familiar surroundings of the villa where I had shared so many happy memories with new friends.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd I had shared a wonderful week, including the most intimate wedding I have ever attended, with all those people I didn’t know who became my friends.

I believe that there are different friends for different times of your life (see ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’) but that doesn’t take away the significance of these friendships. Some of those friendships made will last and some won’t but it doesn’t matter as all of them were important. This particular bunch of strangers actually were all friends in waiting I’d simply not met before.

I like to see the best in people and like to believe that hidden within everyone, admittedly deeper in some than in others, is a decent person. And that is pretty much the same as the plate would have me believe.

So maybe all strangers are potential friends we haven’t yet met or had the chance to get to know properly? Perhaps there is simply more truth in chinaware than we realised? But then again those razor blade hunting bin people do seem pretty weird. Maybe I should get that printed on a plate?


* Interestingly that rule completely goes out the window once you hit adulthood when you can accept all sorts of random things from complete strangers without any qualms. Even where those strangers are obviously trying to influence or entice you in some way: free pens at conference/cereal bars outside stations/ free gifts when you spend a certain amount ring any bells for anyone?