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Bonjour et au revoir: expat friendship in tropical France

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We have been expats in the French territoire of New Caledonia for seven months now. In that time we have come to know many people. Many of them are also expats. A few have become good friends. But this week we have to say goodbye to some of them thanks to that, which brought us together in the first place – the overseas work contract.

Expat friendship can be a tricky business. It’s continual, sporadic ‘friend cycling’ – people thrown together due to a common circumstance in a foreign land, only to depart when contracts expire. There is currently a revolving expat door through the Province Nord of New Caledonia. Some stay a few months, others, a few years.

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Initially, we found ourselves clinging to the familiarity of language and a shared culture. We leant on other newcomers and those who had arrived earlier for survival tips – the idiosyncrasies of the new culture, the language, where to buy what, and the weather vagaries.

Those first friendships, borne solely through a common circumstance, are precious and crucial. These are the people who make us feel like this mission can be achieved. They are my go-to people from day one and remain so. It is unusual to not enjoy at least one meal each weekend with them, the people for whom no effort is required to be understood, who enjoy the same food, have the same humour. Relaxation comes easily. They become not just friends, but family; our entire support network but with no guarantee of permanence.

Within a short time we also come to know our local community. Everyone is friendly, especially neighbours. We wave when we take out our bins, hang out washing, do the gardening, pass in our cars in our street. Soon we are sharing coffee or beers, often with awkward conversations as we struggle with French and them with English. In our neighbourhood we are nearly all brought together by ‘The Project’, the nickname given to the large nickel processing plant being constructed further north.

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Our kids bring new friendships through playgroups. Women and their pre-schoolers from countries as diverse as Canada, Sweden, France and Australia meet regularly to let their children run amok in a cacophony of toys and mixed languages. It’s a chance to share coffee, experiences and support. Other women meet weekly to run, paint, play tennis – many of the things women do all over the world – except that these women found each other because their partner’s work brought them here, and friendships were forged.

The sting in the tail of these bonds is that work contracts eventually come to an end. The cruel outcome is that just as we come to form bonds and familiarity, to share laughs and low points, someone must move on. Bags are packed, farewell parties had, final goodbyes and best wishes exchanged, and the one way journey is made to Tontouta Airport, back to country of origin, or onto the next project in another country.

We are left to mourn the end of a companionship that had just begun. But within weeks, another family will arrive, wide-eyed and expectant, eager for reassurance and full of questions. We will be there to welcome them – bienvenue en Nouvelle Calédonie! – to the life of an expat and the wonderful friendships it brings.

All images by Rachelle Burgoyne

 



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