One of the most unique and wonderful things about the expat life is this idea that was first planted in my head by a movie – you know, that one we don’t talk about. The narrator, for some reason, traveled a lot for work. Right at the beginning, when the narrator meets the antagonist, he makes a bad joke about how everywhere he goes, things are provided to him in single portions – one meal at a restaurant, only having enough shampoo in the bottle to wash your hair one time, being given a tube of toothpaste so small you can only get one brush out of it. And, he calls the people he meets on his travels “single-serving friends”. His life is built on temporary things, including friendships.
While I’m in Sri Lanka for a long enough time that I can buy regular-size amounts of toothpaste and shampoo, the single-serving friends analogy has stuck out to me lately. Everywhere I go, I meet new people. When I sit on the patio at my favourite bar on a busy night, I usually end up sharing my table with other solo travellers. When I get onto a crowded bus, the obvious tourists look to me as someone familiar. Even my home is a place to meet people, as new AirBnB guests arrive every couple of days and when I go onto the roof for a cup of tea I inevitably end up in a conversation.
People are kinder when they travel. There’s this sort of mutual understanding that we’re all outside of our comfort zone, and we band together in the face of the unfamiliar, vulnerable. I’ve had deep personal conversations over a beer with near strangers and I’ve been invited to so many homes in Europe I’ve lost count. These are real connections I’m making. Each person I meet has a unique perspective on life, and I’m learning a lot from our brief interactions.
I rang in the new year on the roof of my house with Karen and Margaret, and six other guests. We spent a couple of hours on the roof, sharing stories and lighting sparklers, watching the fireworks that were lit across the whole city from our amazing vantage point. The next day, two of them were gone, and the day after that, two more. I still met them on the roof in the evenings, with my cup of tea and my wool socks, and we learned more about each other, but by January 3, all of the friends I had celebrated the new year with had moved on to a different part of the island. It’s unlikely I’ll ever see those six people again – maybe, but who knows if and when our paths will cross. They were my single-serving friends.
It’s hard being the one who stays when other people come and go. It’s not easy hearing about their lives at home that haven’t been put on hold and their plans and their long-term, because those are things I don’t have right now. It sometimes makes me feel even farther away from home than usual, reminds me that this life I’m leading is surreal and my time in Sri Lanka is so temporary. It gets lonely. But, the unique and wonderful thing about being the one who stays is that in another couple of days there will be someone else. And the vulnerability that comes with travel means I will get to build a connection with them and I’ll get to make an appearance in their story too, and they in mine. The thing about being the one who stays is that I get to build so many more of these single-serving relationships, which are short but good and important.
So. Henry from England, who I met at The Pub and dissected the American election, Emily from England who visited the temple with me and talked Indigenous urban planning, Bethany and Kelley from the United States with whom I spent Christmas Eve on the beach and who understand my vision for my work, Mario and Kathi from Germany who love Asia and were on the roof when 2017 started – thank you for sharing little pieces of this island life with me. I hope we have the chance to see each other again, but even if we don’t just know that you were an important part of my story. Thank you for being open with me and allowing me to be open too, for helping me process things and for keeping me company and helping me love being an expat.
I don’t know how the narrator of Fight Club felt about his single-serving friends, but I’m really grateful for mine and for the circumstances that have brought us together. I’m also really grateful for my more long-term friends (who don’t want to be called family-sized but in my opinion that is the opposite of “single-serving”) – the ones who set out on this adventure with me and the ones that I’ve met here, and the ones I left at home. Having a group of people that has your back makes all the difference.