Wallpaper. If there was one word to describe me at school, it would be this. To clarify, we’re talking low-key unobtrusive wallpaper, not your bold, William Morris textured stuff. Just regular, everyday wallpaper.
It’s not that I was boring, inside my head raged an interior world of crushes, dramas, insecurities and all the other teenage roadblocks that must be safely navigated on the adolescent road to adulthood.
But if there was one thing that I was good at, it was making friends. I had a group, let’s not go so far as calling them a gang I’m a middle-aged white woman in the South of England for God’s sake, but a group of close, reliable, equally wallpaper-y mates. We weren’t the smartest, nor the stupidest, the richest, nor the poorest. We were our own good selves and we were just fine with that.
Flash forward twenty years and I find myself close to tears on a tram in Geneva, Switzerland. The toddler is lying spread-eagle on the floor of said tram throwing the kind of tantrum a “senior royal” would be proud of. The baby in my arms is hungry and the doors are about to close. We need to get off.
Screaming beast-child is tucked under my arm like a rugby ball, baby is back in the pushchair and kind strangers, quietly judging me in Swiss French, are helping me onto the pavement. It’s only when I’m sitting down with other expat mums later in the week, drinking wine, that this even remotely begins to feel funny.
“My kid licked a tram the the other day” someone casually remarks. “I got told off for not having enough clothes on my child”, says another. Kids squabble in the background, more wine is poured. These are the kinds of friendships forged in the fire of raising young children outside of your home country.
We, all of us, are wallpaper. We’re the unseen, often ignored expat group who quietly, or not, try to navigate life in a language we don’t speak too well, in a country whose customs often escape us.
We’re the ones who quietly sidle up to each other in playgrounds on hearing a shared language and offer an invite, some shared information or sometimes the awkward, but much needed, hug of a stranger.
These friendships come naturally but the rules are different, just a little. Kindness is central, kindness and patience really. There are days when we feel homesick and lost but we must be careful not to overload each other.
We are more reserved with our new friends than our old. We don’t have the luxury of shared histories, shared home towns and in-jokes. Instead, we build cautiously from the ground up. Taking our time to sound each other out and celebrating joyfully the sheer pleasure and relief of finding a kindred spirit, a friend in the realest, most genuine sense of the word.
And whether you fit in, blend in, or don’t care, having those relationships, old and new, can be the bedrock to the happiest of lives. I, for one, am so thankful for them every day.