The Grand United Duchy of States

Editorial: Hey, we’re from the same country! Let’s fight

Making friends with compatriots abroad is somehow both easier and harder. Photo: Shutterstock

Making friends with compatriots abroad is somehow both easier and harder. Photo: Shutterstock

When two compatriots meet in a foreign land, they have to wage a little war with one another to establish the dynamic of their relationship. In this article, I try to unpack this phenomenon.

Being a foreigner comes with a set of mental states and silent battles that only other foreigners can fully appreciate. For instance, when two Americans meet in Luxembourg—which seems to occur whenever I meet an American here—an intense but nonverbal process of interrogation transpires. All kinds of signals, consciously shot and not, are part of each person’s analysis of the other: Why did you (really) move to Luxembourg? How happy are you here? How altered is your accent? What languages do you speak? How “Europeanised” are you?

In short, it becomes important to situate the relationship on the grounds of what kind of foreigners you each are. It isn’t enough that you’re comrades; the substance of your “Americanness” needs to be outed so that the conversation can be pitched accordingly. If you abandoned the USA because you were sick of it, and recently, then you may be instinctively rather than performatively American and thus not ready to meet your countryfolk (i.e. they whom you’ve elected to alienate yourself from). If, on another hand, you’ve been living abroad for twenty years already, then you are largely an idea of an American by now rather than the irrevocable thing itself; undoubtedly, a warped idea. If, on a third hand, your partner dragged you here because of a job, then you’re at a heightened risk of misery and culture shock and you shouldn’t be subjected to irony without due consideration made as to whether you can handle it. And if you came to Luxembourg for no other reason, truly, than to work or to study, then we might regard you (at least initially) as an “authentic” American, safe to cavort with right—to use an idiom from the motherland—off the bat.

Aren’t you overanalysing?

Every foreigner is lonely by definition. They do not “belong” where they are, and unless surrounded by an artificial community of compatriots at all times (which is impossible) they must personally exist as an interface between the here and the familiar.

(Of course, thinking in other spheres, all of these distinctions are meaningless: there is no “familiar” as such, nor does the exo-environment lack relevance, in its own right, to the life of the foreigner inside it. But in such matters as “culture” and “society” we can see distinctions because we choose to see them, and the matter can be settled on this forever-temporary basis.)

Being an interface is a most pleasurable thing, in my opinion. You may not be safely within the culture to your right or to your left, but it’s easy to demarcate where they are within you. Isn’t that more interesting? Or at least easier to grasp? In being neither, or being both, all the rules go out the window and you can knowingly enjoy your Kniddelen and just get on with things.

But being an interface is, as I said, lonely. Not (necessarily) in an emotional sense, but rather in the sense that nobody can interpret your forever-to-be-interpreted surroundings for you. And so meeting an American comrade on the Belval campus or the Avenue de la Liberté instantly creates a one-to-one channel of the familiar, and suddenly culture, heretofore safely housed in its entirety within your individual reckoning of it, has an audience. Because here you both are, far away from home. Hi, stranger! Don’t you miss bagels?

The doldrums of parallel experience

Except it isn’t the same USA that you’re discussing, because the USA exists separately within you both: it is vaguer or clearer in your memory, crystallised in different shapes, closer or further from your heart at this moment in your life. 

Sometimes it goes the way of competition. People want to prove their knowledge of Luxembourgish ways, or more generally European ways. You’re forced to say Schueberfouer in front of each other in a crass pronunciation contest. If anyone has an Italian uncle he inevitably makes a “chance” appearance in the discourse in order to lend muscle to a claim, itself pointless except if it isn’t, of “Europeanness”.

Other times, however, it goes better. Sometimes you forge a relationship on something other than yourselves, like work or an extracurricular interest, which deflects these questions; or maybe the two fantasies of remembered USAs are similar enough to pass as shared experience, hopefully buttressed by similar types of observations about Luxembourgish society and culture. (I do miss bagels!) Still other times, the natural chemistry is strong enough to synthesize a platform on which one fantasy can be merged with another and opinions about Luxembourg can be transmitted.

These latter results aren’t, admittedly, too different from making friends in any cultural context: sometimes it works, sometimes it works less. But the tacit assertions of allegiance and patriotism are what’s novel on these distant shores. Comrades abroad are to be sussed out not only for their personalities but also for how they carry their national colours, how they complicate your fantasy of home. It can give you a whole new reason to dislike someone, which is a wonderful pastime. I suppose it could strengthen a friendship like hell, too.

So: where are you from?