I have a friend who lives in China. She's Scottish. Her husband is English and when her children want to really drive her mad, they tell they might be 51% English. If you thought the Americans were patriotic it's possible you're yet to hear a group of Scots break in to a rendition of Flower of Scotland.
We met in the lounge room of a British nurse who had set up a clinic for those in Jakarta with new babies. We'd arrive each week and weigh in our tiny little bundles. We'd always stop for a coffee and cake, discuss cracked nipples, sleep deprivation and where to buy nappies/diapers that didn't dissolve in your hand. My friend will tell you it was my shoes that she noticed first, they were hot pink. For me it was her wicked sense of humor. I listened in on her conversation with a friend and giggled from a distance. I decided right then and there that I was going to get to know her.
As time moved on we began seeing more and more of each other. We'd get together for a coffee and put the children on a mat on the floor surrounded by toys and then somehow the entire day would just disappear. Coffee would turn in to lunch and then I'd realize that G was going to beat me home from the office if I didn't leave.
It sounds so vacuous and Stepford wives when I write it down like that doesn't it? Women sitting around having coffee and cake, imagine all the gossip, so many other productive things we could have been doing right? Well, not really. Those pesky children kept getting in the road of climbing Mount Krakatau and then there was the fact that we still needed to work out the logistics. Logistics like finding a doctor or finding out where to passport photos. We discussed doing MBA's through online Universities, where to find children's books in English and how to protect you and your family from getting dengue fever. Situations that happened with ease at home e.g. a simple trip to the hardware store could end up taking an entire day only to come home empty handed.
When I lived in Jakarta there was a group of about 10 of us that had babies within roughly 8 weeks of each other. I was neurotic, stark raving neurotic. I'd never looked after a baby and I was sure I was going to break the one I had. My disastrous thoughts ranged from her getting bitten by the wrong mosquito, needing an ambulance that would never find our house or getting swallowed by a passing python. All of these theories were highly improbable but I think I may have been on the verge of being a little post natal in that first year. I have a few people to thank for keeping me sane, people who made me laugh, shared their worries, their hospitality and their friendship. I like to think that it doesn't matter how often I see these people, they will always be my friends because we shared a time. A time that was incomparable to anything we'd done beforehand.
When it came time for us to leave Jakarta I remember driving away from my Scottish friend's house with tears streaming down my cheeks. I knew I'd see her again in KL, she would come and visit, but I wasn't sure if we would ever live in the same country again. This was nothing like my goodbyes with girlfriends in Australia. It's a bloody awful feeling, having a friend that you really adore but knowing your time is limited, that you'll never be able to just drop in casually for a cup of tea. It will always be timed, organized, people will be jet lagged and sleeping in a spare room. Children and partners will be around and then when it's all over it will end with a goodbye that stings.
I sat at a table with a group of women on Sunday night while connections were made and re-made. I looked in to the biggest blue eyes you've ever seen, eyes of a friend I made in Kuala Lumpur ten years ago. We waddled our way in to the same doctors surgery and quietly prayed that it was all going to work out. Her second little traveler is 3 weeks older than mine. We met again in Houston and now she's relocated to Jakarta. We talk about a mutual friend who has just moved to Paris and we both sigh, nod and smile. Another women at the end of the table mentions her friend who had just moved to Copenhagen, the story sounds familiar "Is she Australian?" I ask "I met her in Houston! I have her caramel cheesecake recipe - she's really good friends with my Scottish friend in China."
These are conversations I once listened to and thought were precocious - I now put them in the same basket as the conversations I hear in my home town "oh you remember Sally, she was Julie Smith's bridesmaid, she married Bob, they live out on the back road to Chowilla".
I went back to a restaurant today. I knew exactly what I wanted, it had to be Nasi Goreng. I've dreamt about going back to this restaurant for 10 years and today was the day. I sat in the sunshine and looked over to a table in the corner, it was empty but in my mind it was full. There were women with strollers, babies everywhere. My Scottish friend is giggling because her son won't conveniently go to sleep when the meal is served, she wraps his head in a muslin cloth and promises that she's not suffocating him, that this is the only way he will sleep. He falls asleep within minutes but we make sure we give her grief about her unconventional ways. The table is busy with chatter. We're asking each other questions "where did you find Avent bottles?" "Who was the specialist you saw in Singapore?" "Did you hear about the demonstration yesterday?"
Every woman at that table is now in a different country, some went home, some moved on to the next location. Each had to pack up and restart again, find new friends and ask new questions.
It's not Stepford wives, it's not vacuous. It's healthy, it's survival and been going on for years. Don't discount it. Claim it. Celebrate it. It's a skill. Here's to you and all of the women at tables around the world.