The friend who stays behind

Today I said goodbye to someone who, in the short span of 8 months, has become not only an important part of our family, but also a friend. As it happens almost every time, when I hugged her I felt a mix of happiness, because I know that she is going back to the place where she wants to live, and sadness, because we are going to miss her a lot.

There wouldn’t be anything extraordinary about it if it weren’t because it is the 21st time I say “see you later” to a friend. I am not talking acquaintances, as I would need an long Excel spreadsheet to count those, but good friends. And, yes, I have counted.

By third grade my oldest son had said goodbye to three best friends. His heart has been broken so many times that he doesn’t even try to have BFFs anymore. I am tempted to follow his lead.

One of the things that tends to happen when you live abroad is that you surround yourself with foreigners. It makes sense, as they share the same experiences you are living, and are also trying to adapt to a new culture. Like you, they have no clue of what to do on Thanksgiving weekend, are startled by the fireworks on the 4th of July, and are trying to figure out why a rabbit brings eggs for Easter.

People from Spain are particularly prone to gravitate towards each other, and we get immensely happy when we run into a fellow Spaniard at Trader Joe’s. We are gregarious in nature, and we tend to easily form friendships based in our culture and our shared love of wine and jamón ibérico.

But many foreigners who move here are temporary transplants, and they eventually leave, for one reason or another. That was the plan for me too. I was lured to Chicago under the promise that we would spend a couple of years here, enough to finish my MA, and then we would move to shiny London. OK, OK, I am aware that it is actually gloomy, but London will always be a shiny end of the road trophy in my eyes. As you can read, that never happened. Green Cards, condos and one kid after another got in the way, and 14 years later, I am still in this city that I also grew to love.

But those 14 years have turned me into the friend who stays behind. The one who says goodbye, and promises that, wherever they go, her friends will always have a home to come back to in Chicago.
My list is long, 21 names, and it includes friends from Spain, Peru, Germany, Mexico, Panama, Chile, Italy and the US, who now live in places that go from Cuba to Ireland. I am still in touch with all of them, and I see some of them every now and then. Some have been friends for many years, since I arrived here or even earlier, and I have known some for only a few months. My two “comadres“, the two other moms with whom I shared the first few clumsy months of the crazy journey that is motherhood, left to go back home before our kids hit kindergarten, one for Germany and the other for Peru. Many years later, I still miss them, and I will never forget that first terrified glass of wine that we had when our nurslings were 1 month old, the walks by the lake or all the lunches that we shared so our days wouldn’t feel as never ending as days can feel when you are the first time stay at home mom of a newborn.

On top of beautiful memories, most of them left recipes, furniture, blankets… I have something to remember each one of them, from a beloved recipe for stewed chicken to a shocking blanket with big pink dots that is everyone’s favorite, including things like a reading chair that belonged to the most erudite couple I have met, or our kids’ craft table. My house will never belong in a decoration magazine, as it is made up of what in Spanish are called “recuerdos“. But I would never change that, as crazy as it is driving the poor interior designer who is dealing with me right now. They are part of my personal history.

In a land far from home, your friends become your family, and I have been lucky to end up having a very extensive one, a family that has held me and helped me through the many hard times I have faced (I will never forget my friends visiting the NICU, and making signs with Not so little L’s name, or bringing me all kinds of treats after I spent the Littlest’s whole pregnancy on a super strict GD diet), and have shared many happy ones too, even some hilarious ones, like sitting by my side at UIC’s cafeteria so I could take a nap while 8 months pregnant.

Every now and then, I am able to meet with some of them, and it feels like we were together yesterday. I do my best to maintain the friendships, but some times it is easier than others. In these times of social media, at least my kids are being able to see how the friends with whom they shared a tiny bit of their childhood are growing up. And I have to say that they never forget anyone, either.

fullsizerender-6 I wasn’t joking when i talked about pink polka dots. That “cazuela” is the last addition to our collection of “recuerdos”.

As I prepare for at least another goodbye in the next few months, I wonder if I will ever be the one holding the one way tickets. And I guess that the longer I stay, the less likely it is. By now, I am OK with this. In any case, and despite how hard the goodbyes are, I will keep expanding the family, meeting new people, trying to help other Spaniards who just landed here and are as lost as I was the first few months, and waiting for the day when the old friends come back for a visit. Or maybe even for good.

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