Everyone has their Magnolia moments. The incredible coincidences that shock, surprise and steer life in another direction.
For us expats are these freak encounters not such much bizarre occurrences, but a normal part of life, however?
Recently I posted on a question about Chile on an expat Facebook group. I’m looking to move there with my family in January and I wanted some general advice.
One reply stood out. ‘You aren’t Nina Hobson who studied foreign languages at Bristol, are you?’ it asked. Turns out that a girl I studied with at university had moved to Chile eight years ago. What are the chances?
It gets weirder. Coincidentally Sebastian’s best friend is half Chilean. His mother, Laura has become a close friend. There’s more…
Recently I was staying with a best friend called Anna in London and I mentioned how helpful this ‘friend with a Chilean husband’ had been in our hunt for schools, houses and so forth. ‘You mean Laura?’ she asked. ‘We worked together in Estonia’. And to complete the circle of coincidence, Anna also knows the girl I studied with who’s living in Chile.
Are my friendship circles really so small? Or am I so fabulously sociable that I know someone in every city across the world? Or is expat life rather incestuous?
At a party in Antwerp I got chatting with a guy who mentioned a past expat life in Angola. When I mentioned where I used to work his eyes grew large. ‘I used to own that company!’ he chuckled. The scary Lebanese guy who coworkers hid from when he visited from his native Lebanon was in actual fact the chatty, smiley man in front of me.
In Angola it was far easier to make friendships quickly. Few expats, few friends, but almost every expat was a friend. Expat friendship webs grew wonderfully tangled.
I was once invited to a dinner with the Indian ambassador for the sole reason that I was sporting an outfit by a familiar Indian designer. ‘Where did you get that? Really? Do you like Indian food? Then you must come for dinner!’ It turns out he came from a part of Delhi where one of my best friends lived and from where I had just returned a month previous.
Another time my husband and I got lost on an island off Angola. After wandering around hopelessly for an hour, we walked into a bar for a drink and directions. After half an hour of helping ourselves to rum (we thought the staff were just lazy and hiding from work) we realised it was actually private beach house. The owners were too kind and too fun to send us on our way and it wasn’t long before we were comparing friendship circles.
Chance encounters aren’t always so positive. The first piece of advice I was given as I arrived in Brussels (as a singleton) was to be careful whom I dated. Everyone knew everyone, and it was a very small city I was told. That one night fling of a guy could turn out to be your future intern. Or worse still, your future boss. To strangers be nice, but not too nice was the Brussels mantra.
While I generally embrace the tightly linked expat chain of friendships, I know others who don’t. It’s true that expat life can feel awfully cliquey at times. Indeed along with smog, I’ve been told that classism is Santiago’s biggest pitfall. Your child’s school name will impact as much on his education, as your dinner party invitations. Or so I’ve heard.
After discovering a British friend in Chile and a former resident of the same country, I’m really excited to move there. Mind you, if things don’t work out we’ll just move somewhere else. As an perennial expat I guess I’d know someone there too.