Who Will You Be Friends with Overseas?

Sitting at the long table at a lakeside restaurant a few years ago, I took stock of my dinner companions. Two attorneys: one conservative from Florida, and one liberal from California. The female attorney had been a local magistrate and is married to a former county commissioner. The male attorney’s wife was a legal assistant.

The couple to my left, in their mid-70s, was a “good-ol’-boy” Texan and his pretty, soft-spoken wife. Both were raised as the children of sharecroppers. Across from them, the octogenarian of the group was a nuclear submarine engineer in his native Canada. And at the end of the table sat a former automotive repair-shop manager from California and his accountant wife.

I wondered if, in their wildest dreams, they’d ever guessed they would be at this table, sharing dinner with this group and with my husband Dan and me—two former marketing and advertising writers from Omaha, Nebraska. Doubtful. After all, who actually aspires to have friends from Nebraska—except for, perhaps, other Nebraskans?

But we were a long way from Nebraska. And the people at this table, through luck of the draw, were our new best friends. When we first moved to the small village in Ecuador where we now live, they were among the first few expats to call this place home. They were our neighbors, our support group, our friends, the people we knew we could count on…and they still are.

It’s obvious that, if each of us had stayed in California, Canada, Florida, Texas, or Nebraska, we would have never met. But the funny thing is, we certainly would never have become friends at all if the universe had not somehow conspired to put each of us here, in this little spot on the equator in the northern Andes, at this exact moment in time.

After all, there are some very divergent personality traits in this group. There’s more than a 25-year age difference between the youngest and the oldest of us. Some are outgoing and outspoken, others are very reserved. Some have children and grandchildren, others don’t. At least two served in the military. Some went to college. Some didn’t. Most of all, while we’re in roughly the same economic bracket, we have vastly different social, political, and religious affiliations.

What we have in common, though, and the tie that binds us, is that we are all expats.

Do we have local Ecuadorian friends? Yes, of course. And we cherish those relationships. But there’s something about being thrown together into the expat mixing pot that creates strange bedfellows, indeed.

It’s a trend we’ve seen in every overseas community we’ve lived in. You’ve heard the saying that “you can choose your friends but not your family.” The same thing applies to expat life.

If we’d stayed in the U.S., we’d have surrounded ourselves with other people like us…people who appreciate the same music, books, or football team, or who share similar political beliefs or other interests.

But in a foreign country, your similarities are defined, as much as anything else, simply by your being expats. You don’t really choose the people you’ll become friends with. By being in the same place at the same time, it just happens. And, as it also happens, these people become like family to you.

When you need to find a plumber, a doctor, a taxi driver…when you need to know the Spanish word for “screwdriver” or “binoculars” or “coriander”…and when you need to know where to find these things, the first person you call is an expat friend who has been on the ground longer than you have and/or speaks better Spanish than you do.

And when there’s a holiday that’s celebrated back home—but not necessarily in your new country—like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July…you can be fairly sure the expat community will rally. It will throw an all-inclusive party. It will circle the wagons, too, when one of its number has a health crisis…or when the local orphanage or school needs help of some kind.

Parties and charity benefits are part of the fabric of expat life. Most expats we’ve met say they now have more social engagements on their calendars than ever before. Whether that’s because they’re newly retired, and simply have more time on their hands, or because they’re looking at the world with a new sense of engagement, I can’t say. Probably it’s a bit of both.

“I never even knew my next-door neighbor’s name back in Dallas,” a newbie expat confided not long ago. “But here, I’ve met 30 people in just the past three days… and I already have two dinner invitations and an open invitation to play tennis any time I want. Not to mention that I can walk into the local watering hole any night of the week and feel like I’m one of the cast members of Cheers. Everybody knows my name and I feel welcomed.”

The point of all this is that, no matter if you’re single or part of a couple…or if you’re not sure you can leave the familiar behind…you can be certain that in any expat destination you may choose, you’ll find a community of like-minded people. They may not be exactly like you. In fact, they may be nothing like you at all. Perhaps the only thing you’ll truly have in common…at first…is that you’ll share the same postal code. But they will be your friends. You can count on it.

Editor’s Note: If you’re weighing up your options about retirement, why not give it a test-drive in Coronado, Panama? We’re sending one lucky winner (plus spouse or friend) on an all expenses paid adventure in Panama. If you’d like to learn more about our Win Your Dream Retirement Overseas competition, and how you can enter, see here.

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