“Don’t tell them that you’ll keep in touch,” she said to us. “Because you won’t.”
One of the school administration was talking to the group of 5 of us from the US who were brand new to the school and were there for the semester as study abroad students. We were at a small (read: 25 students) university on the border of Switzerland and Germany. The rest of the students were from Europe. This admin gal was giving us a new student orientation, and she herself was American. But I was taken back by this strong command.
“What?” I asked. Maybe I had misunderstood.
“Don’t tell them that you’re going to be friends forever or that you’ll stay in touch or that you’ll come back and visit. It happens every year, and the thing is that while you might think you mean it, you don’t. Not to their standards. Keeping in touch once a year is not keeping in touch. So don’t promise anything like that.”
This started me out on a sour note at the school. But soon, I forgot her words as I was swept away by how much I enjoyed my new friends at the school. The whole place was a dream — we did school together and played together, we cooked together and ate together, we lived together and did chores together. It was this tight-nit incredible community and I loved being there. I even decided to stay for another semester as one didn’t feel like it would be enough. I didn’t want this community, this season of my life with these people, to end yet. So I delayed the inevitable.
But too soon, the second semester at the Switzerland school flew by, and before I knew it, it was December. We had Christmas parties and talent shows and went to Christmas Markets (Wienachts markts) and then we had a week left. Then a few days. Then it was the night before I was to leave, and the swine flu was sweeping through our little community like wildfire. Most everyone caught it in that last week.
And the last night before I had to leave, I remember sitting on my friend Bekky’s bed as she laid there miserably. She’d caught it a couple days prior and was already in the deep throws of it. Luckily I had just caught it just that day so I was in the beginning stages and could still be up and around and go around to everyone’s rooms to say goodbye.
I was sitting on the edge of her bed, and she was telling me about how our friend, Gideon, had taken her for a walk and professed his love for her and she was freaking out about it. She’s married to the man now, but at the time this was brand new information and she didn’t know what she wanted.
I remember those moments of sharing one last piece of important life turns amid the regular-life things like being sick. I got up to leave, and hugged her and my friend Sara who was hanging out with us, and they asked the question: Will you come back to visit? I remembered the Admin’s words, and made a decision that I would mean what I said: “Yes. I’m not sure when. But I promise I’ll come back.” And then I left them in tears, returned to my room to finished packing and sleep. I cried my sick self to sleep that night.
In the following weeks, “normal life” didn’t feel normal anymore. It was the first time I’d ever permanently moved away from a place, and it was a feeling of loss I can only describe as grief.
But what happened was that grief pushed me to stay in touch with my close people there — something I’d never been great at prioritizing before. The upswing of facebook helped severely, but it was the first time when I learned how to truly maintain relationships across such great distances. Coming from such a steady small-town upbringing, I had been used to just leaving for a month or two at a time for college, and then coming back and catching up with everyone, then repeat. But I had begun to realize that that only really worked with those long-standing life-long friendships from home. And it only worked with semi-regular visits in place. I’d need to do something different this time.
I have a friend I grew up with who’s blog url is TheDistanceIsWhatYouMakeIt.com (“The distance is what you make it” for those of you that struggle reading things like hashtags and urls without spaces). I believe she started the blog when she, too, was leaving for a semester abroad.
This notion, the distance is what you make it, is dead on. I didn’t learn that fully until I came back from my year in Switzerland. And I shake my head at the admin’s advice at the beginning of my first semester: “Don’t tell them you’ll keep in touch. You won’t.”
I’m not saying I’m great at keeping in touch with everyone. Statistically you can only truly have a limited number of people you’re regularly connected with in life. But coming out of that amazing year of community life, I was driven to try to figure out how to do it with at least some people.
And it’s taught me how to continue to do that as I move around in life. As I move around to different places now, it’s a comfort that my relationships are not cemented by time and place.
Just this summer I got to fulfill my promise to visit those friends Bekky and Sara (and 8 others) again for the first time in 5 years, and it was amazing to be there with them and to feel how incredibly normal it felt to be friends in person still.
My friend Kate told me once, “I think everyone collects something: You collect stories and people.”
And as I’ve continued on in life, and continue to get to know people and want to continue friendships with them even when there’s distance, I think she’s right. As I’ve moved around, I have less friends in every day life as I’m breaking into these new places, but I continually have many close friends all over. And I’m content with that, because my friend’s blog url is right:
The distance is what you make it.
Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
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