Friendship and loneliness in Leuven

Given that making new friends seems to be one of my favourite pastimes, it’s little wonder that I’ve been enjoying myself here in Leuven. I said in a previous post that I wanted to write about all these new international friends, and lately I’ve been reflecting on it in the context of making friends in general.

I wrote in my last blog post that “one of the best things about being away is that it really forces you to sharpen your social skills, and make new friends and connections”. It’s really true. Having such a diverse international circle is easily one of the best things about this whole experience. I’m learning how to get on with different kinds of people and my world is literally expanding just by being here. I’m meeting people from countries that up until now only existed for me on a map.

Just about everyone I’ve met has touched me, though naturally some have touched me more than others. I already feel a lot of love and affection for new friends and it’s interesting how quickly strong emotional bonds develop away from home. Of course, there are also others who frustrate or confuse me — but I want to qualify those feelings. I can see that some people have really pushed themselves to come here, away from all that’s familiar; I mean, I’m a little brave but for others, being here must be like leaping over a canyon. They don’t seem to know the rules and for that I feel compassion, even when they’re being annoying. After all, I grew up in a family which was often at odds with mainstream Australian society and I know full well how hard it is to fit in. In any case, I have a huge amount of default admiration for EVERYONE here from a non-English speaking country undertaking an entire masters in English. That’s pretty astonishing, if you think about it.

One of the really nice things about expat life is that almost everyone is in the same mindset of wanting to connect, and that desire is a necessary pre-condition to making friends wherever you are because friendship is a two-way street. I love that ease of connection, and avoiding the awkwardness of declaring to someone that you want to be friends.

Most of my time I’m hanging out with people in my course, and our cameraderie is super. Almost everyday I’m with people from all over Europe, as well as far flung places like Iran, Lebanon and the Philippines. Getting on with English native speakers is arguably straightforward enough, but to get on well with non-native speakers is kind of incredible. How amazing is it that we can connect despite some language barriers? And greater wonder still is sharing a laugh, and having in-jokes.

My classmates
My classmates

Generally, it’s harder to become friends with locals who don’t necessarily want to expend energy on a temporary friendship when they already have an existing network. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised that there are locals who’ll make a little room in their life for someone like me passing through. Could be that I’ve come along at the right time and there’s a small window. Maybe they simply need some new friends. Perhaps it’s even a bit of karma since back home I always, always make a big effort when someone new is in town, even when I know they’re not around for long.

Although I greatly value all the different kinds of friends I have in my life, and the different ways those friendships have evolved, I’ve also been lately reminded how wonderful it is to find friends where there’s instant chemistry — it’s a kind of magic impossible to explain and happens rarely. How is it that there are those you have literally nothing to say to, while others you can instantly trust and thus share your most interesting thoughts? That’s not to say that these type of friendships last because I’ve had kindred spirits come and go in my life but for the time they’re there, my life is a lot richer. I’ve been experiencing these kinds of connections here in Leuven, which caught me off guard, and it’s been immeasurably great.

I went to Germany for a few days on the weekend, staying with someone I knew a little back when I lived in Chiang Mai – in fact, he had been my immediate predecessor at work – and we’d kept up a casual friendship through Facebook. And as these things go, now we’re on the other side of the world not far from each other, so I went for a visit to Cologne and Bonn. I had a really lovely time with him and his family and will write about that interesting trip to Germany soon, but what I specifically wanted to recall here is that over wine one night, we talked about how expat life makes you think about friendships differently. Talking about it made me realise just how true this is and my shifting attitude to friendships is the consistent legacy of every stint abroad. I’ve always been a bit insecure about having enough friends, but I seem to let go of that a bit more each time I go away and I’m a lot more philosophical about it.

On a more sober note, I’ve been realising that I’m probably not great at being on my own, and it’s part of the reason I’m so motivated to find friends. Even when I’m by myself, I’m often writing and communicating with a real (or imagined) audience — or otherwise friends. I don’t need to go into detail here but this need probably relates to bad childhood experiences. This issue also came up with me earlier this year at the TEDActive conference in California where I felt quite overwhelmed and a little lonely at times. One night during the conference I had a long and interesting chat with a new connection and at some point he said that even though he hardly knew me, he could see that I was one of the those people who didn’t really know how to be on my own. My first response was that it wasn’t true and that I liked my own company but actually, upon reflection, he was pretty right. Certainly explains why I’ve also been in and out of romantic relationships for the past decade or so, to say nothing of the countless friendships. It’s always been a bit of a blind spot for me: I can’t quite tell where my love of intimacy and human connection ends and my fear of loneliness begins.

Three months into my year abroad, I suddenly find myself missing all my friends back home. I wondered how long it would take and now I know. Makes sense because three months is about the amount of time when the ‘honeymoon’ stops and real life begins again. I may be filling in my life with all these new people I’m meeting here, but right now I miss you all SO MUCH. As I write this, I’m actually feeling a little choked up thinking about home and just wanted to say that I haven’t forgotten you — far from it. I hope you are going well if I haven’t spoken to you recently. Sometimes I’ll be walking around somewhere and see something that reminds me of you or you might pop into my head spontaneously. I may not get to tell you this but assume that it happens. One day I’ll email you (back), send you a postcard or otherwise I’ll see you again soon xox

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One thought on “Friendship and loneliness in Leuven

  1. Hi from Oz! :-)

    As always, I love the candour you bring to your writing. Its such a privilege to peer inside another’s mind.

    So strange, I always thought I preferred others’ company to mine, but now that I’ve lived on my own I’m really not so sure. How is it we can be so wrong about ourselves? You’d think we’d know!

    Guess what, its reciprocal, I also have times when you wander through my thoughts, so you can assume it happens too!!!

    Glad to hear this next chapter is going so well and you’ve settled in.

    Take care,

    D.

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