Over the last few weeks we’ve continued on what I consider to be the most crucial undertaking to-date for our transition, making friends. We left a city where we were rich with community. From the faculty of the school where I worked to the running teams and our friends from graduate school, we were well connected socially to Nashville. I still email and text with the old world daily, but I’m starting to feel the isolation of this new place set in. It’s not loneliness yet, I do have my wife and boys here after all, and they provide tremendous joy and daily inspiration. But I’ve also spent almost every minute of the last five weeks talking only with them (and 66% of them are under the age of 7), so you can imagine my delight in the fortuitous meeting of some fellow ex-pats. As a teacher I found that it was always important to ensure each student had formed a connection to someone on the first day. New students, exchange students, English learners, artists, athletes, thespians, all needed to be connected to their communities by people who act as social cicerones. These beautiful people who recognize the isolated, often from their own experience, and extend a welcoming gesture are my personal heroes. In school I’ve found that cross country runners and theater kids are often the best at inviting the outsiders in. They are usually more motley and therefore the most welcoming to new faces regardless of circumstance. The need for these social ushers is no different for adults in new communities.
Ex-pats are by definition strangers in a strange land, and I thought some work would be required to find community. But I never imagined just how difficult it would be to meet people when you lack language and some social literacy. We are staying in a very densely populated Afrikaans and German speaking area of East Pretoria. Both cultures have been cordial, but in our experiences they are also mostly closed to outsiders. After initial curiosity, conversations never really develop or extend beyond the introductions despite our best efforts. During our first few weeks, we’ve met a few parents from the American School, but as we arrived in the middle of the term and school year we’ve also found that many families are in their established routines and accustomed to the rhythm of their days. We’ve also missed out on all the orientation and meet-and-greets hosted by the school for this year. Enter the isolation and loneliness that is all too familiar for ex-pat families.
Then last week when we were walking in the park (the same one where we had tried and also given up on making friends with local German parents) my eldest ran up to me and declared “Hey Pop, that boy speaks English like me!” He pointed toward a family sitting nearby, but I was only slightly encouraged. We have tried to explain the difference between the versions of English to our sons, but it’s often lost in translation. To my surprise my son meant the boy actually spoke American English, not the heavily accented-English that is the second tongue we are becoming accustomed to. As we walked closer the mother of the two boys that our son was playing with stood and introduced herself. I felt optimistic almost immediately. She and her husband have spent most of the last twenty years living abroad, mostly in Africa, and she had recognized us both as American and also as a bit crestfallen. We immediately hit it off and within hours she had texted us with recommendations for local restaurants, safe outdoor play areas, and had invited us to dinner the following night. Our new friends also connected us with another ex-pat English teacher and fellow runner. That very night he had also texted to invite me out for a long run that weekend. While the run itself was a brutal reminder of how far my fitness has fallen since 2016, I thoroughly enjoyed the company and conversation. Sometimes all it takes is someone to say “You can sit with us.”
I’ve been in love with international travel since a trip to Italy as a senior in high school almost 20 years ago. In my adult life the world has been both terrifyingly immense and simultaneously surprisingly close-knit. When I was younger I spent too many days and nights thinking that the world I desired to be a part of was distant and unreachable, when in fact the social connection I wanted was just outside my door. Distance, I have learned, is often more an obstacle of imagination rather than one of space and time. The world is full of serendipity and connections are never far away. As evidence of this I offer up the time Erin and I travelled half away around the world with a group of high school students only to run into a college ex-girlfriend on the island of Rhodes in Greece. Or the time I flew across the country to a track meet at Stanford only to sit down next to a guy who lived on the same Oxford campus at the same time as I did? How many times have you bumped into faces and names from your past in the most random times and places? I’ve gotten used to running into former students, but I’m never prepared for making the connections half-a-world away. And even here, a place I thought would be the farthest away from the circles I’ve run in, I find that an American school family has roots in Brunswick, Maine and attended Mt. Ararat High School. For twenty minutes we named common friends and summer jobs and experiences. And the woman who introduced herself in the park? She was a roommate with one of my high school friends at William and Mary. This world is expansive, and yet friends and friends of friends are everywhere if I can just get out of my own way to meet them.
An update on last week’s blog. We own cars! And even better, they might be insured! It was a process filled with tribulation, but I think we are the better for it. Yes, it might be possible that we ultimately paid a bribe (or two) during the sketchy registration process (we’ll never know for sure…), but we are now driving around in two street-legal vehicles, complete with run-flat tires and smash-and-grab window protection. So that’s good news, I think. And since we now own some stuff outright in South Africa, we are starting to feel more and more like residents rather than extended tourists. This sense of ownership is empowering. In addition, we only have a little more than a week of hotel living before we get to make a house our home. If you’re keeping score, we are now in week ten of hotel residence. I know I speak for all the Bennetts here when I say that we are ready to be home again.
Be good and keep in touch.