“You have high expectations from friends,” a friend told me. And I admit it. I do have high expectations from friends. My friends are the people I share my time with, and time is precious. I would not waste two hours watching a bad movie. Why would I waste them in bad company?
Making friends was easy as a child and teenager. There were the kids from the block and the schoolmates – in Bucharest, and the friends I would make during my summer holidays – in the countryside or elsewhere in Romania. As long as we liked the same games and, later on, the same bands, the friendship was ours to enjoy. With no internet and no mobile phones either, it all happened face to face. We would meet and we would spend time together.
Anca and I were both in elementary school when we met in the Danube Delta one summer in the early 90s. She lived there with her family, my family and I were tourists accommodated at her aunt’s house. Anca showed up in her aunt’s kitchen one day to ask if I wanted to play with dolls. We played, we became friends. We would then meet every summer because my father loved fishing and the Danube Delta was the right place for that. The rest of the time we would write letters to each other to keep in touch. We had done so for more than ten years and chances are we would have continued to do so if it weren’t for the internet. Thirty years later, when I think of my friendship with Anca, I am sent back to that village and the torrid summer days when we would walk along dusty roads, the sun pinching our tanned shoulders. I see the river where we would sit for hours on end to wave at the ships en route to the Black Sea and I can feel the smell of tar from the fishermen boats. Ripe apricots are hanging heavy in trees and there is the intoxicating perfume of lilies in Anca’s garden. Now we are friends on Facebook and we meet whenever I visit Constanta, where she is currently living with her son, or when we both happen to be in Bucharest. Each time we meet it feels as if nothing has ever changed between us.
Livia was one of the girls from the block, two years older than me. Our fathers were colleagues and our mothers became friends. So we became friends, too. Our friendship covered the time of my gymnasium and most of high-school, until my family and I moved out. For six whole years though, Livia and I were good friends. We would meet after school, at my place or hers, to eat or watch something together. She was sociable, pleasant, confident, and the boys at the block seemed to like her a lot. Each Saturday we would practice rollerblading and then treat ourselves to a chocolate croissant – a new arrival in post-communist Romania. In the summertime, we would go to the seaside with her mother (who was a teacher) and her pupils. The resorts and the accommodation for such school holidays were far from amazing, but did we care? We had the sea, the sun, and each other’s company. Another summer I joined Livia and her girlfriends in trendier (at that time) Neptun, also at the Black Sea, five girls sharing a room for two. They would all go to the disco at night, I would stay in. Disco dancing was not my cup of tea. We were different, me and Livia, but we were friends nonetheless. We found in each other something we ourselves were lacking. We met again on Facebook and then in reality last spring, more than fifteen years since our last encounter. Livia, who is now a mother of two, listened to me with genuine interest and blessed me with her kindness. I never wanted to leave. She brought me two notebooks with souvenir notes from my schoolmates, which I had forgotten in the common storage place in the building where we once lived.
During gymnasium I also became friends with my desk-mate, Axi. I thought she was the most beautiful girl from the class. We both liked to draw and we would do so during the breaks or after school. When we were not drawing, we would sing Mariah Carey songs or speak in English, pretending we were characters from Saved By The Bell, an American series we were all big fans of. I did not like it when the boy I liked preferred Axi instead. They danced together at the end of the year party. I was never dancing, so I had to watch. Was I jealous? Of course. At the same time, I knew I could never be like her. I might not get the boys to like me, I thought, but at least I was drawing better. And that seemed fair enough. Axi and I lost contact when we went to different high schools. We found each other on Facebook later on and we met – for the first time in twenty years – when she visited Amsterdam with her husband last summer. I promised to visit her in Malaga, where she is currently living.
After a few short-lived, yet nevertheless nice friendships during high-school and university, there came Laura. I met her through a common friend – a colleague from work – shortly after she moved to Bucharest from Cluj. It was 2005. Our common friend planned a trip together to Greece that summer, and in the bus on our long way to destination Laura and I talked about everything. Our conversation continued on the beach, in the hotel room, and back to Bucharest. Never before had I met a person with whom I could talk so freely. There were no limits, no lines to fear crossing. She must have felt the same because we soon became inseparable. Laura and I would meet almost every day after work, in the weekend, would spend holidays together, would do city-breaks, would meet each other’s families, would lie for each other if necessary. We were like family and just like family we could afford arguments. Even in times of peace, our conversations were never sugar coated. Together with our common friend, Laura organized my surprise farewell party when I left Romania in 2010. She came to Amsterdam to be with me when times were hard. The list of generosities is long, and to this day she still is my best friend. I don’t feel I have been as good a friend to her as she has been to me. Of course, we are also friends on Facebook and that is where we interact most nowadays. We meet once or twice per year when I go to Bucharest. Other than that, nothing much happens. Just memories.
Nothing much happens in any friendship when you live far away. Time apart makes you feel awkward reaching out to a friend sometimes. As if you are no longer entitled to disturb. As if you no longer deserve to know how they really are or how they really feel. The rest you can see on Facebook or Instagram.
I was neither contemplating, nor craving friendship before I moved to the Netherlands. You do not think about and you do not miss what you already have. And in Bucharest, I had Laura, her friends, my boyfriends, their friends. I had access to all these people and it was more than enough.
But then I moved to Amsterdam. In my first few weeks here I realized there was no one – absolutely no one – I could go out to have a coffee with. I still had my boyfriend and his friends, yet this time something did not feel right. Something was missing. Laura, my best friend, was missing. So I was willing to find a substitute. And this is how my quest for friends started. I was almost in my 30s and for the first time in my life I realized never before was it necessary for me to make any efforts to befriend people. It was people finding their way to me, rather than the other way around. I had absolutely no skills for that. So I turned to Facebook. I joined all the expat groups I could find, in Amsterdam and the Netherlands. I sent private messages to some girls I liked. I did not hear back from any. Perhaps they thought I was a freak. Wouldn’t I think the same today? But that was seven years ago. Seven years ago, I still believed it was OK to express interest and thought people would actually appreciate it. In reality, quite the opposite happened. The more I was willing to meet people, the more people were not willing to meet me. I was devastated. I was mad. I did not know what to do.
Just when I was about to lose hope, one of the girls answered. It was a Romanian lady named – coincidence – Laura. Laura did not think I was a freak. She wanted to meet. She even introduced me to her friends, other Romanian ladies. Soon, we became quite a jolly group. So many connections out of a sudden! Was it for real? Luckily, it was. And beneficial too, especially when my boyfriend and I broke up and I did not have any other connections in the Netherlands. It felt strange to share my friendship with more girlfriends at the same time, though. Normally, I would have just one – a good one. It felt even stranger when none of the girls would get annoyed if I declined an invitation to go out. “See you next time!” they would say. That was not exactly what I was used to with Laura from Bucharest. She would not take it easy if she felt like doing something together and I could not see her. But Laura from Amsterdam did not mind at all, and her friends did not mind either. How nice to go out, have company, have fun, yet not owing anything to anyone, not even an excuse. With time, I realized the reason why I was not owing anything to my new friends was that my new friends were not owing anything to me either. That’s where the easiness came from. It was liberating and at the same time confusing. Nevertheless, the fun continued and it continues to this day when we still manage to meet a few times per year, in more or less the same formula. This is a friendship I have a sense of loyalty for because once it was everything I had in this country.
But my first friends in Amsterdam, even before Laura and the group, were two Eastern European ladies I met at the Dutch language course: Adriana and Gabi. Adriana was teasing me about how I never left the exercise books during the break and go out for a chat with people instead. Gabi, already friends with Adriana, kept her distance. She was not convinced about me just yet, and neither was I. It took for the three of us to meet at one of Adriana’s art shows one evening, and then Gabi and I became friends. She turned out to be loyal, supportive, intense, and fun to be with. Neither Gabi nor I had jobs back then and together we would visit various recruiting agencies around the city to leave our CVs. Strangely enough, when things changed for the better in our lives, both professionally (we got a job) and personally (we got a boyfriend, we bought an apartment), our friendship started to fall apart. We did not try to fix it. As for Adriana, we two lost contact even before that.
When I started my job at a multinational company in Amsterdam, I thought that would also enrich my social life. Nothing further from the truth. I must have broken all the rules of what was considered normal corporate behaviour, because I did not make one friend there, not in the first two or three years at least. How exactly was I behaving? Normal, I would say. Being nice, polite, helpful, not trying to impress anyone, at the same time not letting people get their way with me when they tried to do so. I have never felt more lonely than among all those people and this remains one of my most painful memories to date. Would I have felt the same in a similar context elsewhere? I don’t know. But I felt it here, and I cannot separate it from my life experience as an expat in the Netherlands. With the risk of talking in clichés, it was probably a lesson I had to learn. I stopped looking for friends at the workplace. I asked myself the following question: would I go out for a drink, in my personal time, with any of these people whose favours I am trying to get? The answer came simple and clear: no. Then why bother? So I did not bother anymore. I stayed the same, yet no longer had any expectations. Funnily enough, and this is recent history, nice people came my way even at the workplace. Who would have thought?
Back to 2013 and 2014, my social life in Amsterdam was a complete failure. Some of the ladies in the group left to live elsewhere (including Laura, our connector), others had children, from others I simply grew apart. Disappointed and disarmed, I decided not make any more attempts to meet people. Instead, I focused my energy on my two passions: photography and writing. Apart from work and spending time with my boyfriend, it was all I was doing. Those were prolific years for my creative pursuits and formative for the kind of person I am today. My boyfriend has helped a lot. Unable to fake or force unnatural friendships himself, he made me finally understand and accept that it was OK if people did not like me. It was OK also if I did not like people. I set my standards high, willing to meet only people who could contribute to my happiness and my growth as a person. People who knew how to enjoy life and I had something to learn from. And that was a tall order. The rest I could do it by myself.
Focusing on photography and writing made me happy and gave me a sense of purpose. I could not stop. And that is when the strangest of things happened. People were suddenly reaching out to me: former friends, other people’s friends, people I have never heard of before, even colleagues – all brought by my photography and writing, in other words, by this blog. It was 2015 already. Quite a few friendships happened then and some have lasted to this day. It took five years. Five years since my move to the Netherlands and my social life here was no longer a failure. And all I ever had to do was minding my own business. Literally.
Looking back, I cannot help but think how bittersweet life can be. Why are we alone when company is what we need most? And why do we get company only after we learned how to live without? Perhaps the reason is to gain enough experience, so as to filter future relationships and select wisely.
Today, indeed, I can make better choices. I am happy with what I already have, I know I was able to live without, so there really is no reason why I would make any compromise when it comes to friends, especially new ones. If this means I have high expectations, then I will say it again: Yes, I do have high expectations from friends. And in all honesty, I am proud of it.