Besides necessities, what of my previous life should I bring with me across the Atlantic? Like many in my position before embarking on the expat life, we quickly realize that the real thing we long to pack and take with us is that which cannot be packed: the many friendships and relationships we will leave behind.
From the moment I arrived in İstanbul I sought to make connections with both the local Turkish community as well as the diverse expat community. Young and an English teacher at that time, the foreigners I came into contact with were mainly backpackers and adventurers from all over the world. They had stopped over in İstanbul for a year or a few months, and took various jobs teaching English to pay their way. In between classes, they took every opportunity to travel. Shy and a bit regimented per my American Midwest upbringing, I lived vicariously through their journeys and took baby steps myself towards creating my own adventures. We would meet about once a week or so, and the faces would change slightly from week to week. Decisions to move on from İstanbul were sometimes done without giving much notice to anyone else. Friday drinks would usually start by announcing who had left to motorcycle through Cambodia or hike in east Africa. These people were important in my life, but goodbyes were not hard. We all knew beforehand the transit lifestyle most of that group led, so we merely enjoyed the time we spent together and then moved on.
The next set of expats I met were primarily involved in the various foreign women’s organizations throughout İstanbul. Many of these women were here in Turkey because either they or their spouse were working in Turkey. Some were stationed for just a year or two, others for 10 years or more. I had little in common with them because I was not married at the time, and had chosen to live in Turkey without first being assigned a job there. I also tended to be more active in the Turkish community than they were, and didn’t try and shield myself from local culture as I viewed many of them did. As a single girl, I also saw a different side to Turkey and Turkish culture, both good and bad. This led to an at times contentious relationship, and I pretty much blocked expats from this group from my circle until a few years ago.
The next group of expats I met were foreigners married to Turks, most of who moved to Turkey after marriage. This group of women tended to be wary of Turkey and Turkish customs, due to the various family issues they had experienced upon moving to Turkey. They tended to only see Turkey through what their spouse chose to show them, which many times had negative consequences. Given my unique circumstances, I moved freely between these three groups without particularly belonging to any one. I had picked up and moved to Turkey after careful planning and had no plans to move anywhere else, so I wasn’t quite a carefree backpacker. I wasn’t assigned to live in Turkey for a job, so I didn’t mesh with that category as well. I hadn’t married into the culture at that time, so didn’t fit in there, either. The beauty of living abroad is meeting people from all different walks of life and enjoying them for who they are. Although I didn’t fit in totally with any one group, I still made many meaningful friendships.
It wasn’t until I became a mother that some of my deepest friendships were made. At no other point in my life have I felt so vulnerable. Not just the hormone change but mothering in a different culture far from the support of my family, I strived to create a support network for myself. A friend from my birthing class encouraged me to join a baby group with her, and I readily agreed. Almost all of the mothers were wives of foreign men stationed in Turkey for a time. Usually, my old self would have held back a bit, knowing that most of these women would leave for a new posting in the near future. But, we all became mothers together in a foreign country, far from anything familiar. A very mixed group with radically different parenting notions, we nonetheless became inseparable. We all saw each other at our most vulnerable, and a strong bond grew between us. Some of the women have been living the expat life for ten years or more; others are new to the life. Some were Turkish women born and raised abroad, but returned to Turkey after marriage. We all were unflinchingly open about our difficulties, triumphs, and experiences. I hadn’t connected with a group of expat women so deeply in my nine years of living here.
When the inevitable happened and the transfers started to come in, it was incredibly sad. Gone were the days when I used to send off a friend with a goodbye dinner. Sadly, so many of the transfers have come in this past year, and most of our group has been scattered to the wind. Still, we have tried to keep the connection live through Skype, Facebook and email. These women became my family, my support system. They were my mentors, my psychiatrists, my doctors and my cheerleaders. They got me through the worst of my baby blues, and still loved me for it on the other end. In the past two years we have mourned death together and celebrated life. As they leave for new countries and new jobs, we stay in contact. Before, I had chalked up this kind of expat to be a bit distant and cold, and I have learned the complete opposite from this baby group. Despite moving often, they too seek to create meaningful relationships wherever they land.
While I pride myself on “not judging a book by its cover,” in reality I did. I also tried to put people into various categories to at times justify my lack of comfort or knowledge of a particular person or situation. It is a battle many of us face every day. I am thankful that I do live abroad because it has taught me to go outside of my perceived comfort zone and put myself out there, and also to meet and accept others from situations or backgrounds I might have previously avoided. While there have been some problems, the deep relationships I have forged have been well worth the occasional stumbles. This whole expat experience has taught and continues to teach me to be more open-minded regarding the different people who cross my path. Not just living abroad but different life milestones like marriage and birth also effect who we choose to be friends with or let inside our circle. I am incredibly fortunate to have rich, meaningful friendships back home in the US, here in Turkey and all over the world.
Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer and mother living in Istanbul. Reach her at email@example.com for comments or questions.