Irish at Heart: The Art of International Friendship
By Natalie Keller
I started my Christmas shopping early this year. Not necessarily because of the supply chain issues we’ve all heard about, but because my Christmas gifts must go a bit far to reach their recipients. So, when I arrived at the post office the last week of October with two wrapped Christmas gifts in my arms, the employee raised her eyebrow at me. “I know it seems early,” I told her. “But these are going to Ireland!” She laughed in understanding and sent them on their merry way.
I no longer live in England or Ireland, but these countries are still present and important in my life because they hold some of my favorite people within their borders. Two of my most treasured friends are from other countries: Luke from England and Marie from Ireland.
All it takes is a video call with one of these two — and hearing their respective accents — to transport me back to the United Kingdom. And until we invent actual teleportation, that’s the best way to travel the world without leaving your house.
Over my life, I have been part of several overseas friendships and even an international long-distance romance, and I’ve learned much about fostering these types of relationships. Compared to typical friendship, international friendship has a few extra nuances and challenges, but more importantly, countless additional layers of meaningfulness and fulfillment.
So, what is so valuable — even vital — about international friendship? And how do you nurture one once you have it, despite the thousands of miles that possibly lie between you?
During the years I lived abroad in the UK, I learned the joy of sharing culture. When I first met my friends, we discovered our cultural differences were embedded in the very language we spoke. I soon learned that the trunk of a car is a “boot,” a vacation is a “holiday,” and cotton candy — despite its adverse effects on dental hygiene — is “candy floss.”
Whether it’s preferable to drive on the left or right side of the road is an ongoing debate, as is the use of automatic or manual transmission cars. At times it feels like we’re speaking different languages or are aliens hollering at each other from opposite ends of the solar system.
My friends introduced me to beans on toast while I made them their first ever peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. These silly differences and exchanges formed the foundation of lasting friendships.
For my foreign friends and I, swapping silly cultural quirks soon gave way to more serious discussions of the ideological differences between our countries concerning subjects such as healthcare, politics, educational systems, and diversity. In many ways, these conversations are some of the most valuable I’ve had during my life, because they expand my worldview and challenge many of my fundamental assumptions concerning how a society should function.
International friends offer a perspective that is radically different from those who grew up in the same hometown as us, provoking us to see the world in a new light. I believe good friendship is the kind that pushes us to evolve and become more well-rounded and open-minded versions of ourselves, and international friendship achieves that beautifully.
The Secret of Long-Distance Friendship
The most difficult part of making international friends in my experience was, of course, going home. Those goodbyes are some of my most heartbreaking, tear-filled memories. Though “goodbye” is perhaps the wrong word because we’ve always promised each other, “It’s not a goodbye. It’s a ‘see you later’.” And that hope — that promise — of reunion, whether it be virtual or in person, is more than enough to sustain us.
The secret of long-distance friendship is this: geographical distance need not mean emotional distance. In fact, with the right amount of time and effort, these friendships can offer us the most intimate kind of comfort, guidance, and presence.
Technology is a saving grace, because phone calls or video calls go such a long way. Granted, time differences make scheduling a little tricky, but I’m now the master of knowing what time it is in Exeter or Galway: five hours ahead. The math comes almost immediately these days — ten AM here means three o’clock there, so I make sure to plan these calls during my mornings and their afternoons. Not only can we be world travellers with our long-distance friends, but time travellers, too!
Hearing each other’s voices and stories over the phone is incredibly reaffirming, because it allows us to feel involved in each other’s lives and up to date with the important events and emotions of the moment. Anytime I chat with Luke or Marie, I find myself reflecting on the “big picture” of my life rather than the small, mundane details, and I appreciate the overarching perspective this gives me.
In October, for example, after the loss of two of my great-grandparents, the important subjects of discussion were death, loss, and grief. Because our time together is less frequent, our conversations tend to hold more meaning and depth, and I so greatly appreciate their wisdom and listening ears.
The postal service is also a lifesaver. Perhaps it’s a childish delight, but I simply love getting mail from friends and the excitement of seeing a handwritten envelope addressed to me, rather than the usual bills or catalogues.
It is magical to hold a piece of paper in my hand that has travelled across the Atlantic Ocean to reach me, and to touch my friend’s handwriting. Though friendship itself is intangible, it is nonetheless lovely to have physical tokens of it to keep nearby and read anytime you miss the other person.
Bridging the Friendship Gap
The most important thing I’ve learned about long-distance friendship is that the “distance” part doesn’t matter. As it turns out, friendship — the deepest, truest kind — knows no distance. It knows no time. It doesn’t depend on physical proximity or convenience.
It lives in postcards, phone calls, long-distance D&D, gifts of tea, shared recipes, artwork, and Christmas cards. All these — combined with simple love and care — come together to form a bridge that fills the gap and spans the world.
I have envelopes addressed to me from Massachusetts, New York, Montana, Minnesota, England, Ireland, and Japan. There’s a certain sadness and longing that comes along with faraway friends, but also incomparable joy.
It’s easy to love someone who lives next door. It’s much harder — and so deeply rewarding — to love someone who lives a thousand miles away.