“A friend at hand is better than a far distant relative.”
This African proverb of unknown provenance is printed on a patchwork quilt that I won, a quilt made by a brilliant group of expat ladies (which is a story for another time). It’s not just a proverb, it is a truth, a fact, a mantra that the seasoned expat understands well and one that new expats will learn very quickly if they are going to survive in a strange new place.
I’m not suggesting that a friend is better than or can replace those loved ones back home, but when you’ve just moved to Nigeria and your husband is writhing on the floor with toothache agony in the middle of the night, your mum, your sibling or best friend are not going to be able to a) identify a reputable after hours doctor or dentist or b) locate said after hours medical establishment in a dark and unknown megacity.
Further bear in mind that even if you would prefer to contact one of your nearest and dearest back home, it’s not always possible. Landlines (at the time) were a bit (i.e. mostly) hit or miss, the internet was like the Lagos traffic in an almost perpetual go-slow, nobody had heard of Skype and the brick like mobile phones worked sporadically and mostly involved hanging precariously off the balcony at just the right angle.
That’s the moment you phone the lady you met yesterday, for 1.3 minutes at a coffee morning and who insisted you take her number on a scrap of paper “just in case”. Thank flipping goodness. Yes, you call the “friend at hand”.
Mrs Fisherprice, (that’s not quite your actual name, but should you happen to read this, I’m pretty sure you’ll know it’s you I’m talking about), wherever in the world you are, thank you for so helpfully and encouragingly taking that late night distress call.
On the back of your advice Mrs Fisherprice, I roused the driver and we three set off into the dark hunting for the night clinic you recommended. I still remember the doctor’s surprise that we were willing to pay the higher price for the smaller needle. 3inch needle or 1cm? Yes, we paid the extra. The Doctor’s surprise turned to all out admiration when Mr Incredible (Alpha male and long term diabetic) insisted on self administering the painkiller injection.
Thankful for the pain relief we made through the night and went to see the dentist you had also recommended as soon as they opened the following morning.
Whether the friend at hand turns out to be a friend, a “friend”, a loose acquaintance or somebody that you will never particularly gel with, the proverb holds true. Not only is the friend at hand the one you would call in the first fumbling weeks should your car break down and your child needs picking up from school, she (or he) is also the one who will extend a much needed invitation for an awkward first coffee morning. Love them, loathe them or barely know them, you won’t ever forget the helping hand they offered when you needed it most and vice-versa.
It’s more or less that time of year on the expat circuit where the friend at hand is most crucial. So if you know the ropes, lend a hand, be that friend.
To those of you who are brand spanking new to this lifestyle, we can normally spot you, (oh yes we can), you and your initial suspicions of the friend at hand as you try to puzzle out what they want from you. Usually there is no agenda, they don’t want anything, they just recognise your situation and want to help. So drop your defences and grab that hand, grab that friend.
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