In elementary school, having a best friend meant buying matching necklaces or charm bracelets, eating lunch together every day, and gathering for the first of many sleepovers. As we grow older, a best friend is the one who listens to you lament your love life, discusses college or career plans with you, and makes sure your level of intoxication on the night of your 21st birthday is higher than it has ever before been.
But what does it mean when your best friend is someone you only see once in a blue moon, someone who lives in another country, grew up in another culture, and learned a different native language than you?
For the last six years, I’ve lived approximately 3,700 miles from the person I consider my best friend. Since my departure from France after my year abroad in high school, I’ve returned twice, both times for three weeks. The visits have fortunately been spaced at two-year intervals, so we’ve always been able to see each other enough in order to remain close and stay in the loop about our lives. Unfortunately this January marks another two year period since we’ve been able to see one another, and this time neither of us can afford to travel that far anytime in the near future.
To understand our friendship and how we could’ve become so close after such a short period of time, I should use the tried-and-true method in love stories of explaining how we met. I came to France bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as a junior in high school, incapable of speaking more than the simplest of sentences in French. The first few months were rocky, but exciting, and I learned French faster than I expected. By the fifth month I’d had my “click” moment that others who have learned a foreign language will recognize: I no longer thought about conjugating verbs, making agreement between subject and object or using the proper gender for nouns. It just happened. I wasn’t as fluent as a native born speaker, but I finally knew enough to really be myself again.
Around this time I realized that my host family provided me with very few opportunities to use this speaking ability and share my personality. I wasn’t close to my host sister – at that point I’d never even been in her room – my host mom got home late every night, and we ate freezer meals on a regular basis, much to my surprise (having always believed the French were all proponents of home cooked, farm-fresh meals). The situation was difficult, and I didn’t know what to do about it, except confide in my best friend from Lycée Pavie, my French high school. This friend was Claire. She invited me over to her house for a several-day stay during the mid-winter break and I fell in love with everything about her family. The noise, the food, the countryside, the rooms. And suddenly I had a very clear picture of all the things I was missing.
It was a painful process, but eventually I moved in with Claire and her family, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. Claire was the sister I’d always wanted, but we didn’t fight, we rarely argued, and we always had fun together, whether we were hiking outside or simply staring at the ceiling and talking. All the things I love about France – the singer Thomas Fersen, les fest noz, Breton culture – I love because of Claire. She immediately saw beyond my nationality, which was the first thing everyone else saw in me, and instead treated me like someone who was French. With this friendship and this family, however, came the realization that my life would always be split into two. I would forever have a part of me that only she and my French friends could understand, and there would always be a part of my life in the United States that she couldn’t experience. It’s truly gut-wrenching to realize you can’t share everything with your best friend. You can only share the big stories and photos and important events, because there’s never enough time to delve into the details that contain the essence of who we are.
The day I left my host family to head back to Paris for my departure preparation was one of the most depressing of my life. I cried for almost the entire three-hour train ride. However excited I was about going home and being with my family again, I knew that there would never, ever be a way to replicate the life I’d led in France with Claire. This is one of the most difficult truths of studying abroad, especially in high school, and there’s simply no good way of dealing with it.
I write this article an evening after having chatted with Claire over Skype. We still speak French even though she’s pretty much fluent in English, because French is the language we know each other in. We exchange presents at Christmas and write letters and emails. We talk over the Internet. We stay updated with each others’ lives on Facebook. But is it enough? Can the friendship of best friends survive the distance? People always talk about long distance relationships in terms of romance, not friendship. Being friends from afar is just as hard if not more so, because you don’t usually decide to simply end it. Sometimes it just happens. The calls become less frequent, the emails shorter, the letters stop getting sent. It’s a silent, excruciating process.
I’m glad to say that hasn’t been the case with Claire and I, but we do certainly struggle to stay as close as we were when living together. Just like anything else in life, things have changed for both of us. But I’m confidant that we’ll always be friends, and we’ll always find a way to see each other again. In French, the word for “soul mate” is “âme soeur” – sister soul. And that is certainly what we have – two people with the same spirit, despite the thousands of miles between us.