The Power of Expat Friendships

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The following comment on Julie’s popular piece on adult friendships was the most up-voted among readers:

Now in my 60s, I have four friendships, four men: one in Paris, one in Costa Rica, one in New Orleans, and one here in Quito.

I see my Quito friend almost daily. As my Spanish improves, I’m able to communicate with him more and more. (His English is almost nil.) We share interests in politics, baseball, chess and God, to name a few, despite the dearth of words. It’s reassuring how only a little language is needed.

My Paris buddy goes back to the '60s at GWU in Washington, DC. We lived together for awhile, I moved on, and he visited for a few months when I lived in San Francisco. Then we lost contact for two decades.

Enter Google.

One day I found his byline; he’s a Paris-based stringer. Here in 2015 we exchange heated emails a couple times a day about the extent to which Bud Selig is the Anti-Christ.

The Costa Rica friend was a neighbor when I lived there a few years ago. He’s a photographer, environmentalist, and romantic. I watch how he treats the ladies and I’ve learned a few things from him in that regard, especially about the stepfather thing. How a man acts around women is a determining variable; you have to be a gentleman, or you are not my friend.

New Orleans is another contact from my Costa Rica days. We were tight when we lived there but have been writing less and less. I fear our friendship is on life support. He’s on Facebook and Twitter; I’m not. Social media may turn out to be our relationship’s determining variable.

Four male friends seem about right. My brother-in-law may grow into No. 5. We used to have not much to say to each other, but my sister’s recent illness has brought us together. He recently gave me some t-shirts he’d grown out of, which I now cherish. He also gave my wife an old sewing machine, which we lugged back to Ecuador and which she uses almost daily. I see the smile on her face as she explains to her own friends (of whom there are of course a zillion) how it works.

The wife of my Quito friend is perhaps my wife’s closest buddy. The former drops by a couple times a week with her son and hubby in tow. The gals gossip while hubby and I team up to lose yet another game to some chess software.

So as it is with so many things: the women in our lives provide the contexts, the patterns, the net that catches their men before we’re washed away in the daily deluge.

That prompted a response from a reader who goes by Che Boludo! (boludo is an Argentine word meaning idiot, jerk, and/or friend, depending on the context): “I’m almost 40, but it’s amazing to me how much easier it is to make friends as an expat than at home.” The first reader agrees:

Interesting observation; certainly true in my case. My Costa Rica friends were fellow gringos for the most part; we clung together in our common culture and commoners’ English. Here in Ecuador I live among only Ecuadorians, though. I haven’t seen another expat in months. But the Ecuadorians are friendly and curious. They love hearing about U.S. culture and politics, and they’ll take every opportunity they get to practice their English, especially from a native speaker. So whereas in Costa Rica we expats were drawn to each other, here my friends have sought me out. In both cases I’ve benefited greatly.

Also in both cases the culture is still based less on cars and electronic devices and more on walking around, talking with one’s neighbors etc. Meet one family in an adjoining apartment and pretty soon they’ve introduced you to three or four more families. My wife and I can’t walk to the end of the block without getting a half-dozen ¡Buenos días! from our neighbors.

From Che Boludo again:

One time an Argentine friend came to have a beer in my neighborhood and was surprised when we walked down the street that I knew everybody on the block. We don’t do that in the USA, and there was something to the fact that everybody seemed to be friendly with each other in Buenos Aires. At first, nobody will acknowledge you, but after they see your face a few times, things get pretty friendly.

Have your own perspective on the unique quality of expat friendships? Drop me an email and I’ll air the most interesting ones.