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Friends left behind

With artistic license, I can say that I've lived in four countries, none of which is my home country.  I am German, but the Germany I was born in doesn't exist anymore.  The German Democratic Republic went down the drain twenty years ago – and a jolly good thing that was – when courageous citizens decided they wouldn't take the tyranny of poorly concealed evil anymore and took to the streets.  It didn't take long to topple a government that was enfeebled by economic decay, ideological rigor mortis and the relentless progression of time.  Less than a year after the revolution that took everyone by complete surprise, my country of birth ceased to exist when it was engulfed by the Federal Republic of Germany, in the only case of national reunification that ever worked.

But being charitably accepted into the western world in a fit of irrational exuberance that quickly turned into mild but pervasive frustration didn't equal arriving.  Too frequently, the hopes and dreams of East Germans were dismissed as follies of feeble, needy and self-insufficient brothers.  Thus, for eight years after reunification I lived in a place in transition, not here yet but certainly not there anymore.  My old country had ceased to exist, but it didn't feel like I was living in the new one yet.

Before that could happen, before I could instinctively feel at home, I stepped through the wide-open doors of opportunity and exchanged one unknown for another.  Over the course of the next twelve years, I've lived in the US, France and England.  Each of these places was a step on the way, chosen for an education or a job, but never for life.  My biography is thus a string of temporary existences that don't relate any more to each other than stories in a current-affairs magazine.  There's only one unifying feature.

In all the places I lived I've made friends.  Everywhere, I've built rather abstract social network and developed concrete and strong friendships with individuals that meant a lot to me.  But no matter how much they meant to me, there came always the time when I had to say good-bye, either because I was leaving or because I was being left behind.  A love nurtured over the years, from the fragile magic of its beginning to its full beautiful bloom, is always taken into account when the future is planned and a move considered.  But friends not accorded such generous treatment.  No, they are always left behind without second thoughts.

The thoughts – and the anguish – come later, overwhelming the mind and scarring emotions permanently.  No collection of ephemera, however random and vast in scope, can give sufficient solace when social ties have been severed.  I have large cardboard boxes stuffed tightly with photos telling stories of riotous fun, and the neatly organized folders in my email client lay bare what wasn't shown in the open.  They are meant to retell the joys of the past but only serve to highlight the losses, those that I've suffered and those that I've caused, which are frequently one and the same.  It's better to leave the boxes shut and the folders unopened.

The present is full of joy, as it should be.  I make new friends wherever I go and find happiness around me, while the past recedes with every passing day.  But there is no mistaking; even slowly fading memories are pockmarks on my emotional world map, jarring, stinging and irritating.

From time to time I reminisce about the old times and try to count all the people that formed part of my social sphere, at one point or another.  The number is in the dozens, and the faces and hearts behind the numbers are now scattered all over the globe.  I know people in Mexico, Argentina, various parts of the US, in Singapore, Korea, Australia, and all over Europe.  This already impressive geographic diversity hides the true extent of the problem.  I know people from many more places who happen to have left the country of their birth just as I have, following to distant shores the irresistible call of opportunity and fulfillment.

Thanks to modern means of communication, I can call any of them at an instant, or sent them an email, or chat.  I can even visit them relatively easily, thanks to cheap flights and no travel restrictions for holders of the right passport.  The friends I've left behind are closer than they would have been in the past, but, crucially, there's also many more of them, and the stings of separation add up to a constant torment.  I can't just call someone to meet him for coffee later in the afternoon, and I can't just send a text message to invite her to the movies tonight.

Many friendships are suspended in a sort of social coma to make the pain bearable.  Most friends, especially those living far away, are just an entry in my address book most of the time.  I discovered early on, by accident and laziness, that I don't lose good friends by not staying in contact.  As long as I know where they are and how to reach them, I can reach out any time the occasion comes up, any time we happen to be geographically close.  The connection that is reestablished instantly and naturally when we see each other for the first time in years is one of the most amazing and gratifying experiences that has graced me.

Dammed feelings, held back over time, are released and flood the conversation.  Hours pass effortlessly.  So much has happened to us, and everything needs to be told.  And curiously, everything fits.  It feels as if we had met only yesterday.  Everything seems as it was.  Good friends change, their characters refine, they progress professionally, move, start families, but in the vast majority of cases they stay the persons I know, value and love.

These magical moments, islands of calm in the relentless progression of time, are rare, and that is good.  One should not look forward to looking back.  The past has done its duty; it must rest.  The fading of memories that are not refreshed from time to time is an illusion.  They don't dim; they're simply outshone by the prospect of a bright future and the memories yet to come.

This story is not about the future.  Who knows how that's going to turn out?  I don't, and frankly, I don't care.  I'm with Janis Joplin who observed that the future never happens.  It's all the same day, today.  Life takes place here and now, independent of where I am or what I do – and always in the company of good friends.

18 January 2010