Is there a distance threshold for friendships?

When I moved abroad the first time around (Amsterdam 2004), it felt like a European adventure. I had only been to Europe once before and for a measly three weeks, not nine months. My U.S. friends were keen to hear about my adventures and when I moved back Stateside less than a year later, I picked up where I left off. My world view had shifted slightly through my European experience (not to mention the Dutch husband I acquired in the process), but I had the same circle of friends and I even managed to get a better position at the company where I used to work.

This time around I am in Europe indefinitely. My husband is half way through a Master’s program in Theology, my son is speaking fluent Dutch, and despite a clear goal of eventually moving back to the U.S., I’m getting used to European life. We all are. And not just us three, but my U.S. friends have also realized that we’re here for an unknown period of time.

And as time goes by, you lose touch. People back home know they won’t run into me at a concert, in the aisles of the supermarket or out on the beach during a sunset walk. Unless I Prine someone, or someone Prine’s me, the spontaneity has been removed from our relationships.

I have taken on a digital sheen in their lives. And although we live in a digital world and have a digital footprint–whether it is posting photos and thoughts on Facebook, sending e-mails, writing blog posts or even skyping–it’s just not the same as being there in the flesh. My U.S. friends can’t ring me up for a walk, or ask me to help them drown their sorrows from their latest break up over cosmopolitan or celebrate a recent life event over a creamy Chardonnay at that cafe downtown. I’m not there for them like I used to be. And vice versa.

And although I defend Facebook and social media on a regular basis as a worthwhile expenditure of my time, I’m beginning to wonder. Sometimes I just feel, well, detached. And yes, when I see a beautiful sunset from Santa Barbara, or someone sipping a gorgeous wine at a resort overlooking the Pacific, I experience feelings of envy, just like this WorldCrunch  article suggests. I sometimes feel lonely when perusing Facebook, just as SLATE Magazine suggested I would.

Is there a threshold for which we no longer wish to invest in  long distance friendships? I know this is the case for dating. Years ago I dated a guy in Los Angeles, but after a few months time, I felt that it just wasn’t doable; he was geographically unavailable. In general, I’m not one for G.U. relationships. Yet I feel a desire to hold onto my friendships in the U.S. Why? Because these people are my people; part of my life experience; they helped form who I am in a way. We informed each other. But social media interactions can only go so far in maintaining that bond.

And to top that off, I have friends here. In the flesh. Ones who call me up and invite me out; ones I run into in the super market or the park, women in my book club who relate to me through literature, friends from church who bond with me in another way. If I need something here, in this physical life, they are my go to people.

There is a Dutch expression that goes something like this: een goede buur is beter dan een verre vriend. In other words, a good neighbor is better than a far away friend. I understand this from the practical Dutch perspective because despite their penchant for world travel, their orientation is very locally based. But I’m fairly certain this expression was developed before the digital age wound it’s roots into our daily lives.

I’m not the only one facing this quandary. What are your thoughts on friendships that span continents? Is there a distance threshold? And does digital social media isolate you, or bring you closer to your friends and family?


Havana, Deventer, Apes and Cousins

When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked for a short stint as a museum travel program assistant. Although most of my hours were spent in a tiny office doing paperwork and taking reservations, on a few occasions I actually got to travel. The most exciting of my journeys was to Cuba with two dozen wealthy clients, most between the ages of 65 and 80 years old. What soon became abundantly clear was that the attendees who had all spent thousands on the museum trip were not there to relax and gently take in the casual pace and lifestyle of Cuba; they were there to suck the marrow from the bones of Havana culture with the tenacity of western businessmen. havanaThey were there to conquer and the museum program was fully prepared to deliver. Each moment was slated with culturally inspiring activities, visits  or luxurious meals, the more unique, the better. Thus, from early in the morning until late at night, we were on the move: seeing, interacting, traveling, listening, and dining. No matter that half of the group was worn down and dragging themselves along after a few days; they continued on with an unspoken and shared vigilance, not willing to rest in fear of missing something.

The trip could be likened to a hunter on safari seeking new heads for the taxidermy collection lining the walls of the study in his or her country estate. In this case, the art, music, natural beauty and architecture of Cuba would become the prized pelts and heads to be displayed not on the wall, but in conversations at the next fundraiser or cocktail party. Why yes, I have been to the Plaza de Revolucion; isn’t the 18 century art in the Decorative Arts Museum in Havana just fabulous darling? Although I am not in these fundraising circles, I did talk about this trip for years afterward, and my experiences did impress many Americans who had always wanted to travel to Cuba.

As an American living in The Netherlands, I have that nagging conqueror voice in the back of my head urging me to approach Europe in the same manner as this group who visited Cuba so many years ago–take in as much as humanly possible, even if it wears me ragged. I have spent several vacations doing just that. After all, who knows how long we will live here, and I really don’t want to miss out.  But as time passes and I realize I am actually living here for the longer term, a local vacation also has its merits. Not only are they more affordable and less stressful,  they help you better understand the country in which you live.

deventerThus our trip to Deventer. Located along the Ijssel river in the middle of the Netherlands, Deventer is like many old Dutch cities; it boasts a picturesque center region with charming squares and old architecture, shops and restaurants surrounded by less attractive and newer buildings and neighborhoods the farther away from the center you travel. Armed with advice of Arie Jan’s cousin, we drove across the bridge away from the city to a parking lot on the far side of the Ijssel and took the ferry over the river. Approaching by water offered us a stunning and timeless view of the city, and put us in the right mind frame to relish the old town. The side streets of the old quarter were dotted with unique, locally-owned gift stores and cafes. Of course, the big retailers such as Etos, Hema and V&D common to most Dutch cities also had a presence, but there were enough small shops to keep the charm alive.

Our son entered Koning Willem, a unique toy store filled with puzzles and games, and soon became obsessed with the brain teaser puzzle section. For the rest of our stay in Deventer, we endured his plaintive cries for puzzle man, a cube that you can turn into a robot looking man, and then back into a cube, if you can figure it out. We ate in a cafe called Brood van Joop only to discover it was their opening day. The zucchini soup was so delicious that it renewed my desire to make fresh soups a more frequent part of our family meals.

imageBy the end of the afternoon, we headed to Arie Jan’s cousin’s house in a neighboring village. Perched in the middle of a small forest, their home is straight out of a fairy tale: White walls, thatched roof, large French paned windows with expansive views to lush green gardens on the outside. This beauty was  equally matched within by a French country interior with white walls and hard wood floors, the rooms graced with the design sense of an antique collector.  An antique dealer specializing in 18th century French fabrics, his cousin has a  second story room dedicated to sewing and cutting and another room dedicated as an office. Within no time at all, I was fantasizing about writing my second novel sequestered away in one of these rooms with garden views.

As the adults settled in on the high stools next to the kitchen island to chat over tasty wines from the wine cellar, our son assembled a Duplo train set and lost himself for the next few hours in play. After our son went to bed, we ate a French meal by candlelight around the dining room table and talked to the wee hours of the morning. No. I wasn’t visiting The Louvre or sipping a latte on the banks of the Seine, but I was with family, relaxed and happy, miles away from any thoughts of work, stress or to-do lists. And that is exactly the type of vacation one needs to rejuvinate the soul and recharge your battery for daily life.

imageBut a vacation with a child needs to be about more than long, meandering conversations with friends and family accompanied by fine wine and food. And thus, we came up with an equally satisfying elixir for our son: a visit to Apenheul Primate Park. Located in the town of Apeldoorn, Apenheul is an expansive nature area filled with many species of monkeys. Unlike a zoo, there were very few cages and many of the smaller monkeys could come right onto the walking trails.

We watched monkeys swing from the trees, play with each other, cling to their mother’s backs and climb onto the arms of  innocent passersby. After three hours, we were not even half way through the park and the temperature was slowly dropping. Unlike the monkeys, we were not wearing thick fur coats. At the end of the day, we asked our son which was his favorite exhibit and his answer was far from suprising: the guerilla exhibit. We, and the hundred plus other visitors sitting in the stadium seating during snack time, were grateful for the small waterfront separating us from these strong apes not a carrot’s throw away.