During the last week one of my friends left Gibraltar for good and I’ve just discovered that another one is planning to leave this summer. We are entering into the time of year which is a rather painful part of being an expat (here at least), the time when families relocate back to the UK or elsewhere because of work or family reasons in time for the new school year starting.
For many of us, when we first arrive we know nobody. For those of us who are parents who don’t ‘work’ we forge a network of friends at the school gates and through contact with other families connected to our partner’s place of work. Because we are all in the same boat, friendships become strong quickly. If you land in a place where you know no one and your family are thousands of miles away, you soon learn that your friends are your support network.
I remember during our first winter in Gibraltar, my husband was overseas with work and I’d had the most uncomfortable night of my life (apart from childbirth) with a dreadful tummy upset. I waited until 7am to call the person I knew the most to ask for help. She dropped everything and came to get my eldest ready for school and took my youngest away with her (we only had two children then) and left me to alone to try to sleep and get better.
Back in England my parents lived about an hour away and I imagine I would have called them had I still been living there, as I had no one else I could call who was nearby. We lived in an area which was chosen simply because it was between our places of work, we pretty much put a pin in a map and decided on that location. We had our first home there but we both worked in different cities so knew very few people locally. We spoke to our neighbours and exchanged Christmas cards, but as we were out working most of the time in different cities we didn’t have any friends there.
Of course I have friends I have known since the first days at primary school, from secondary school and University but we are now all spread out pretty much across the world. As our jobs took us away from friends and family, I found it got increasingly difficult to make proper friends until we arrived here in Gibraltar.
Back in England, I remember my Mum telling me, as soon as the baby goes to school you’ll meet people, and I did, they were friendly, we chatted about our plans for the weekend, birthday parties etc as we waited for the kids to come out at the end of school, but that’s where it ended. I’d moved into an area where everyone else seemed to be established. They didn’t feel the need to take it a step further.
The other mums had their families down the road and knew many of the other parents at the school already. I guess I could have made the first move but I wasn’t brave enough to invite anyone to do anything because they all seemed so sorted and busy. I remember the excitement at being invited on my first girls’ night out a whole year after my son started at the school. Finally, I thought, I’m in. That was the week we found out we were moving to Gibraltar, needless to say I didn’t want to come.
After much angst and packing we landed in Gibraltar a couple of weeks before the start of term. On the first day at the new school, as I waited for my son to come out of class, a local mum approached me and apologised, saying it was her son’s birthday soon and she hadn’t sent an invitation for my son because she didn’t know he’d be in the same class. The following day he came home with an invitation to the boy’s party and that was our welcome into the community.
The Gibraltarian people are lovely and welcoming of us newbies. They didn’t mind helping me with my endless questions about where to go to register for this thing or that class. Or how to find birthday party venues which don’t feature on any maps and have just a string of initials for a name. But the people I forged the deepest friendships with were other incomers.
Over time, I soon realised that many of the other expats here were in exactly the same boat as I was with no family nearby and we looked after each other. If someone was ill, had a sick child or was without a car, we’d chip in and do a bit of shopping or help with the school run. Gibraltar was the first place since being away at University that I had true friends. Like University, the nature of our lives here meant that those friendships were on fast forward and developed very quickly.
Also, because we have all been in the same situation, arriving here and knowing no one, if we spot someone new outside school or are introduced to a new arrival, we invite them to join us for coffee or to meet up at a later date. We introduce them to our other friends and soon (hopefully) they settle in and feel more at home.
As with any friendships, we are there for each other at the births of children, the deaths of loved ones and relationship breakdowns. We help were we can and if we can’t help, we may know someone who can – the community here is so small there’s usually a friend of a friend who we can call on. You may think that sounds perfect, and it is, kind of but then come the goodbyes.
Gibraltar seems to be a pretty transient place for many non-locals. Some people are here for the long haul, setting down roots and with no intentions of moving back, but lots of folk arrive here with the aim of doing a few years in post to improve their careers and then move on. Perhaps they want to live a few years in the sunshine before returning ‘home’ to the UK or heading off to their next exotic destination.
That of course means that we lose friends at a much faster rate here than we would at home in the UK, and that’s really not nice. Two years ago, my best friend and her family moved back to England after about 4 years here. We were very close. We were on a similar wavelength, with similar arty interests and with children of similar ages. When she left it was really hard, I feel emotional right now thinking about it.
Last summer, another good friend left and returned to her home town. That left another empty seat at our coffee mornings. Then, over the Bank Holiday weekend another friend, (who is one of those responsible for me taking up this blogging lark), got on a plane to the country of her birth to set up a new life for herself and her family. She is a mum who has great confidence in what she can achieve, she also has a magical gift of making you think you can achieve great things as well (she’d make a great boss).
She is the first person who suggested I should take up blogging (there were a few believe it or not), so I did – but I didn’t tell her. Afraid of looking stupid if the whole endeavour flopped I decided to blog anonymously (and to spare the blushes of my kids). Despite her not knowing it was me, I was thrilled to see she was liking my posts on Facebook and even shared one. Once I came clean and admitted it was me, she was so encouraging of my blog – and I value her views as she’s very smart.
So I guess this post is dedicated to this lovely lady, thank you for your friendship and encouragement, it’s meant a lot. I wish you every success and happiness in the next exciting chapter of your life. Please don’t forget us coffee morning girls, we’ll raise a cappuccino to you at our next gathering!