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Transitory Friends

I grew up in a tiny transitory town. When I say ‘transitory’ I mean, people left there. A lot. It’s a mining town which meant loads of transfers. I remember being in a class of twenty seven kids one day, hearing that a mine shaft was closing, and the following day four kids had left the school. It was as quick and as common as that.

The town only has one main road, still does. But when I was a youngster, we used to have awesome stores down the main street, owned by various calibre and class of people. My province, The Free State, somehow ended up as a melting pot for Mediterranean ex-pats who moved to South Africa. I had plenty of Greek/Cypriot and Portuguese friends. A few Italians too. Their parents owned butchers and bakers and dry-cleaners and café’s. One Italian family owned a fine seafood restaurant that at a stage was voted the best in the country. And we all greeted these people by name. They knew us. We were friends with their kids, regardless of age gaps. They sent us traditional delicacies when it was time for their traditional festivals.

Apart from European counterparts, our community seemed to be so closely knit that even though we were English, in a town dominated by Afrikaans speakers. I never felt unwelcome or less a part of the town. My parents, incidentally, both lived in the same town from birth, in my mom’s case, and before one year old, in my dad’s. They never felt unwelcome either. We had a mixed bag of wonderful friends. 

One of my fondest memories growing up was when we hosted day/night cricket games in our town. Once I got to meet my particular cricketing hero in person and he shook my hand. He was so charming. I literally bathed with a plastic bag over my hand for at least a week. I was only nine, or so, but it was awesome. 

Our main street was often the site for a night street market. These were so exciting. The entire street shut down and hosted stall after stall selling all kinds of crap. I remember fluorescent springs being the hit one year. Another year, that slime you could throw around and it would bounce off surfaces. Such a social occasion and always a reason to doll myself up and go and meet my friends. Potential boyfriends, sometimes, too. My point is that there were reasons to be together (the street market) and the people to be together with (friends.) I would wear my neon socks and Tomy takkies (almost the same as Converse sneakers, I guess?) and go off to be among people I knew and trusted. Even though, being the town it was, the people changed frequently.

Somehow, through this transitory town, I managed to make a group of friends that stuck. We formed this friendship before we started school as offspring to our parent’s friendship. Naturally, being a small town, we all went to the same primary school. There were only two to choose from. We joined the same Girl Guides Troup or sang in the same choir. We spent weekends together and afternoons together playing games at school or on the sports field.

If I am making this sound idyllic, it is because it was. I doubt I could find many children living in big cities, or even in this decade, who had childhood’s nearly as idyllic as mine.  We rode out bikes around town and visited friends without invitation. The rule was always ‘be home before dark,’ and generally we were. If you were out and found you were running late, no problem. Mom was just a quick, inexpensive phone call away.

But so were your friends. Which was also awesome. Our telephone numbers only had four digits in those days and were easy to remember. You could chat on the phone for hours, (because the calls were so cheap,) and we would, even when your best friend lived next door, as mine did. I still remember my old phone number, and at least six or seven of my friends’. At one stage of my life, I had a suitor who would call every morning before school to make sure that I was going to be there. His number was seven-one-seven-two. We weren’t yet six years old yet. It was cute. I never missed a day of school in twelve years, incidentally. Maybe he started a good habit?

But then today I watched a short clip about how social media networks are actually making us lonely. And I realised, Yip, that’s about right. I am lonely. And I don’t mean lonely in the traditional sense. The research presented in this clip suggested that we don’t converse with people like we used to, over the phone or face to face, opting for instant messages or emails instead. Naturally, when you get to think before you type/speak, you say things differently and conversations are a lot less ‘real.’

This clip [Watch the video here]  claimed that we spend a whole lot of time watching other people’s lives without actively participating in them. And what we see of their lives is only what they choose to reveal through photographs and status updates. This is also true. I’ve recently tried to find out some personal information about one or two friends on a social networking site only to realise that they post very little about themselves of a personal nature. It doesn’t say, like I was hoping to find, whether they are indeed married, or like the photographs and status updates suggest, single parenting. It also doesn’t say whether their father had, in fact, passed away, which is what the rumour mill had churned out. How do you send a message to someone you haven’t actually communicated with in over a year saying, Hey! Is your dad dead? You can't. And if they haven’t told you, do they actually want to share it with you in the first place?

I often joke that my closest friends are the characters I watch on TV. That’s not true. I have some incredibly close friends, ironically, most of them still from that tiny transitory town. But by close I mean, I would call them if I were in trouble and I know that they would do all they could to be there for me. Close as in, I let them know when something big happens in my life but not necessarily when something trivial does. Not close as in we meet once a week for a cup of tea and a chat.

I guess you could argue Who has TIME for that these days? But there always used to be time. We live in a world where it should be easier to meet up and catch up, not more difficult. A simple text message: Time for Tea? should suffice. Half an hour here, an hour there. The lonely girl in me wonders why these meetings can't happen every day. The busy mom in me knows that it takes energy that most of the time, I simply don’t have.

I recently went through all my ‘friends’ on my social networking page. Security settings have changed so that I can actually reclassify people as acquaintances. I guess this is what has got me thinking along these lines in the first place. You can classify people as ‘close friends’ or ‘acquaintances’ or simply ‘friends.’ I needed to redefine every single one of the people connected to me through this site and decide where they fall. I found it was easier to define an acquaintance than a close friend. An acquaintance was someone I wouldn’t necessarily cross the road to say hello to. An acquaintance was someone who’s phone number I don’t have, or who doesn’t have mine. An acquaintance is someone who I wouldn’t tell if I had good news, or bad, or if I needed help. An acquaintance is someone who hasn’t communicated with me in all the time we’ve been linked through the social network, or who I've never communicated with since adding them. An acquaintance is someone who’s never bought my book or read my blog. An acquaintance is very different to a close friend.

This technological reclassification exercise was an educational experience. I have a lot of acquaintances.

I considered those I classified as ‘close friends.’ Like the videoclip that started off this examination, I am one of those who occasionally sends a friend a message and considers that a ‘catch up.’ Those I consider my closest friends may be going through hardships right now that I have little idea about – we haven’t had that chance to properly share the events of our lives over a text message. We arrange time to chat but then seem to get caught up and miss the opportunity. They don’t know what my children love to eat, and I don’t know how they take their tea anymore. I miss my close friends; even though most of them live really far away from where I am now. That’s what happens in a transitory town, people move on.

It seems the world becoming a smaller place has actually made it a bigger place. The ease of communication has made communication more abrupt and impersonal. The fact that we can ‘think before we speak’ has made our day-to-day interactions a lot more robotic and orchestrated. It’s much like that main road in my transitory town which is now a dangerous place to wander alone and filled with chain stores: where it was once a genuine place of happiness, filled with personally owned stores and character-filled customers, where people knew you by name, safe enough to stroll around at night and meet friends over a hamburger made with real beef and by hand. Friendship in today’s world seems franchised out to whichever social networking tool has won the most likeable interface this month, we ‘chat’ over whichever telecommunication tool our smartest-ever smart phone can handle, and we share only what we feel the rest of the world should see via photographs and character-counted-comments. It certainly isn’t the stuff real friendships are made of.

My ‘close friends,’ old and new, are awesome. This week alone, I've had lunch with a new close friend and tomorrow, my children have a play date with the children of friends who have been my friends for all my life. I'm going to make more effort to be a better close friend, from now on. There are even tools technology has given us that can make it so much easier – videochats and voice-over IP - for instance. Maybe not the same, but we need to keep up with the times. As nice as a cup of tea is, it may not always be possible and even friendships need to evolve, I guess.  

But. Those phone calls were legendary.



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