the people we meet along the way

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graffiti on a walk through the streets of Cluj

I have been lucky in the people who populate my life, both those who pass through and those who stay.  My family is a given; whatever our differences, we know that we’re lucky to have each other – plus they’re sort of stuck with me, even when I’m hundreds (or thousands) of miles away.

Some people, though, are temporary, although not in a negative way.  Circumstances brought us together, we stuck for a certain amount of time, and then we went back to our regular lives. Temporary doesn’t mean unimportant; temporary means momentary.  Our interactions may have been a few hours, a few weeks, a few years but they were important – formative, if you will – in ways that often emerge later in life. I can close my eyes and watch all sorts of interesting people float through my memory: a childhood friend’s big brother, a professor of Canadian history, choir colleagues, a supervisor from Australia, an Irish gentleman in a London laundry, a Serbian waiter, so many former students.

My four fellow undergrads during my semester in London.  I have no idea what happened to them after we returned to our respective universities but I remember how we created a home for ourselves in that big city: gathering in our dorm rooms in the evenings with our disparate dinners, sharing stories when we returned from our travels, celebrating my birthday with a night out on the town.  We simply disappeared at the end of the semester, no vague promises to stay in touch or murmured plans to meet again.  This was life before social media; perhaps it would have been different if we could have exchanged email addresses or connected via FB.  I haven’t thought of them in years but their friendship is still firmly lodged in memories of one of the best times of my life.

My four fellow teachers from my time as a high school English teacher (and I just realized three were science teachers). We were all starting out; we were all overwhelmed; we were all young and broke and sleep-deprived.  Common circumstances made for formidable support, though.  We dropped by each others’ classrooms to check in; we commiserated about our latest failures over our packed lunches; we chose our happy hours by the places that offered free food – we had each others’ backs and we knew it.  And then I left for other positions and the friendships quietly faded away, lost in the churn of life.

Philosophically, I suppose all relationships are temporary (especially if they feature in my lack-of-love life). Some people are tethered, though, entwined in ways that keep them close, figuratively if not physically.

I have friends from childhood, from high school, from college that aren’t going anywhere. We may not see each other for years at a time but it doesn’t matter in the least when we’re together.  We may have a few distinguished grey hairs or a smattering of mature wrinkles but, when we’re with each other, we’re 9 and playing with our Barbies, we’re 16 and listening to new music (REM is not classic rock, people), we’re 20 and camping out for the UNC game.  Those friendships were solidified long ago and they don’t diminish simply because we’re older and busier and dislocated.

I have friends from my life as a professor who have stitched themselves tightly into my life.  Some I conference with; some I travel with; some I write with; some I work with – and some I practically live with.  We’re brought together because we chose the same career but that isn’t what keeps us together, academics not being known for extraneous sociability. We’ve found connections that have gotten stronger over time, creating a familial collegiality that offers support, kindness and lots of laughter, friendships that play out in late night texting sessions, emergency meetings at the local cafe, tears on the sofa with a box of tissues, helpless giggling with libations in hand.

And then there are my newfound Fulbright friends. The circumstances that brought us together also result in spreading us all over the country; distance doesn’t keep us from connecting to share stories and offer advice, however, and our meetings in Bucharest only solidify that we are connected. Whatever our relationships, now and in years to come, the commonality of our Fulbright experience grounds us in the bedrock of friendship.

And such experiences I’ve had: bonding on a bus trip, driving through the Romanian countryside, falling into pedagogical discussions on a sunny afternoon, sharing Thanksgiving dinner in Budapest, climbing a mountain in Montenegro, sharing ridiculous jokes, enjoying an unexpected dinner in Ljubljana, exploring castle ruins as sun sparks off the Mediterranean, laughing over SNL video clips, sipping tea on a rainy afternoon, strolling through Christmas markets with mulled wine in hand, scrambling over and around rocks in the Greek countryside, getting unexpected yet fabulous haircuts, lingering over a delicious meal to talk late into the evening.

Once again: lucky.

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