Thirty-four flights departed from Budapest Airport yesterday. One of them took my friend back home to Edinburgh. I was watching the sky to see if I could see his plane but my sense of direction being what it is, I’m not even sure it would have flown over the village. I did see a vapour trail though, and I waved, just in case. Goodbyes are part of the fabric of living abroad. Friends come and go. Those on fixed-term contracts serve their time and move on. Others see out their postings and then it’s off to the next city and country. You get used to the turnover, that 2-5-year timeframe that is the ebb and flow of the ex-pat tide. Some names fade over time. They might pop up in conversation now and then when a particular event is recalled or commented on. Some people don’t keep in touch. Their departure marks a new chapter, a page turned. There’s no looking back. Others return again and again, unwilling perhaps, or not ready, to let go. Each to their own.
I think of all the places I have lived and realise that my going back was more because they were on the way to somewhere else rather than destinations in and of themselves. I didn’t and don’t feel the pull. Ireland, of course, is the exception. But that’s still home, home.
My friend wasn’t the contracted type. His wasn’t a posting. It was more of a vocation. Some people, just by their presence, knit together the fabric of a community. They’re the ones people go to with questions. They’re the ones people go to for help. They’re the ones people confide in. And for all their faults and foibles, they’re true friends.
He has older friends, better friends, closer friends than me. But we share an innate belief that each of us can, nay should do something to make the world a better place. We connected because of a charity. He was a staunch supporter of the Gift of the Gab and indeed won it outright in the Final of the Finalists. He thanked me once for conning him into speaking, saying it was the making of him. Those were the days.
Last weekend, he had his official leaving do. Old friends and new turned out to send him on his way. For many, he’d become more than just another name on the ex-pat roster. He was their touchstone, their lynchpin, their anchor. As we swapped stories among ourselves, commenting on how we’d first met him and saying how much he’d be missed, it struck me that we may as well have been at a wake. Except that he was there, making speeches, doing his Proclaimers thing, spinning his yarns, having quiet words in various ears as he readied himself to leave.
A wake. Maybe that’s not too far from the truth. Amid the laughs and the memories being made, there was already a niggling sense of loss. His leaving will create a gap in our lives, for some a bigger gap than others, but a gap nonetheless. We’ll no doubt go through a period where we’ll think – ah yeah, I’ll give him a ring and meet for a rosé – only to remember that miles have inserted themselves between the rounds. It’ll take time to get used to his not being around. I’ll miss being called Mary Doll.
He’s a great man for the speeches. Never met a man happier to hold a mic. When it came time, he acknowledged that while we’d all like to buy him a drink, it wouldn’t be physically possible for him to drink them all that evening. Instead, he asked us to take the 1000 ft we’d have spent and give it to some poor soul in the street without judging whether they’d use it for food or booze. Not our problem, he said. Not our choice. He asked us, too, to call someone we were on the outs with, even if we didn’t think we were in the wrong, and to rebuild that bridge. His parting request was for us to be kind to each other. Not all the sniffles were audible, not all the tears visible. But I’d say there’s been a fair few blue notes doing the rounds in Budapest in the past week.
I tend to be a tad judgmental when it comes to giving in the street. I hate being conned. More often than not though, when I walk by an outstretched hand and don’t stop because I think the designer t-shirt or jumper or jacket it’s springing from costs more than what I’m wearing myself, I usually end up doubling back, chastising myself for my captiousness. I don’t have to do that anymore. There’s no judgment now. I’m simply buying my mate a drink.
People come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. I’m grateful to have had my season and hopeful that ours is a lifetime thing.