Yesterday, it was my turn to be the safety net.
At 6.30am, it was my son, calling to say that there had been a fire at his college housing, everyone had been evacuated and after a fire department review, they were all being evicted until the landlord had addressed the fire code violations. By 10.30am, I was at a friend’s house, wrangling kids, dogs and half made Christmas cake while she whisked off to hospital for stitches to a mangled finger.
It was one of those days when all was well that end’s well and it was my turn to pay it forward, because goodness knows, I’ve been the one making those calls enough times.
There are the people you end up in the police station with, the people you call from the police station, the ones you call when you’ve got the wrong passport at the airport, when you are stuck on the side of the road with no fuel in the car, the ones who sell your car when you’ve moved, fill your freezer when you are away, who are with you when you are in labour… The list is a very, very long one and rarely – in my case at least – includes the husband.
Friends and family are the single biggest expat safety net we have, and they are frequently tested from a very, very long way away. Which is why staying in contact at this time of year is a priority for me. It’s the one time I get to nurture those long distance relationships, let people know how much they still mean to us even though they may be thousands of miles away, and remember what a integral part they have played – and still do – in the fabric of our lives.
We overcomplicate things so often – defining ‘close’ relationships as people we see in person X times per year, without fully recognising so many cherished individuals and families that we think of, talk about and and wish we could introduce, but only rarely speak to. I often wish I could introduce Maryam and Ayesha (consider it done, ladies), who make me laugh in exactly the same way and so when I talk to one, I inevitably am reminded of the other. Some I have been lucky enough to connect, whether camping in field in Moreton on the Marsh (suzanne, Jane, Jess and Sarah) or bars in New York (Ify, Sarah and Emma) or here in San Francisco (Sarah, Sarah, Staci, Laura). They’ve fed each other’s children, sponsored events, seen pictures, heard stories- the list goes on.
Which is why I love my own particular Thanksgiving ritual – writing the Christmas cards. Yes, it means they get to everyone incredibly early (and sometimes, if you’ve moved or I’ve lost addresses, not at all) but it’s the time when I get to remember, recapture and sustain my relationships with people who are my life. I can’t look back without seeing faces, places and moments and knowing that the reason my life is good right now is because I have so many people who have picked me up, dusted my off and plopped me back on my feet when I fell. And I want them to still be with me to laugh about it.
I’m always talking about putting personal safety nets in place, but I never want you to lose sight of one of the strongest ones you have – friends and family. Which is why today is all about staying in contact, no matter how many times you move.
Everyone loves to receive a card in the mail, and never more so than when you are 4000 miles away from home. So here’s a step by step guide to successfully mastering the original social media; going back to basics, putting it in writing, and getting it there on time.
1. Perfect and Protect Your Contact List.
There are a ton of ways to do it – and as many YouTube videos showing you how. I use the Contacts application on my Mac with Google Contacts as a backup, and create Groups that allow me to easily separate the greeting card lists.
2. Send Early.
One of the main reasons that I devote Thanksgiving to writing cards is that it gives enough time for people to receive cards and send one in return. We use Facebook, email, Whatsapp, Skype and texting so much that we rarely need physical addresses to stay in contact, so greetings cards are the perfect way to make sure that we do still know where someone actually lives.
3. Make it Easy
I hate addressing envelopes, so I rarely have been happier than when I discovered the Print feature on my Contacts app. If you ever needed a suitable reward for your diligence in keeping your address book up to date (and backed up electronically) this is it. Put in the envelope size, select your group and hit print… Productivity nirvana, and a ton of time left over to actually write something meaningful in the card.. .
4. Have a Back Up Plan.
Yep, it’s a theme. Expat life is not conducive to stable contact information, so for those people who have moved and who you no longer have a physical address for, consider sending a newsletter. It sounds corny, but I get some truly hilarious ones every year that keep me snickering until June and remind me why I want to stay connected with the sender. You have to follow the three cardinal rules –
1. Keep it humble
2. Keep it short
3. Keep it funny
Family gaffes, awkward photos and chocolate / alcohol based recipes are always welcome; three page lists of your child’s achievements… Not so much. We love you, but really, no kid is that perfect. And if they are, you’re just making the rest of us look bad.