Some expats go, some stay, some die

Jun 3, 2018

“It is an undeniable fact. Your heart will be broken, too.”

This was how Jake introduced himself as he slumped against my table. It was a beautiful day; the cafe was full, he crumbled into one of the last available chairs.

He went on: “I have never been married, other than a time or two when I was younger. I know none of that matters now, but, my heart was broken yesterday.”

I asked him to explain.

He said, “I remember the first moment I set eyes on Riley. He was the quiet puppy in the corner. The one who captured me in that magical moment when eyes focused on each other, and neither wanted to let go. It was then that he promised me, ‘I will break your heart,’ and dogs keep their promises.”

It is because they leave before we do.

The internet abounds with tales of retired expats in Cuenca spending their time like it is an eternal summer camp — although autumn camp is technically more accurate.  Cocktails on the deck, dinner in a cozy restaurant, group excursions to the beach or jungle.

It certainly sounds ideal.

Evidence suggests otherwise.

Three and a half years is the number bandied about by some expatriate organizations as the average length of time expats remain expats before they return to their homeland. The supporting research is scarce but anecdotal evidence offers little in the way of counter-argument.

So why do expats become ex-expats?

The reasons are as varied as the seasons in Montana.

One person, a vibrant and brilliant poet, lasted four years before returning to Europe. She lived in New York City for over a decade and thought Cuenca was growing a little too small for her. My suggestion of Guayaquil went unheeded.

A vehemently progressive couple from Portland, Oregon,  (an heiress to an aluminum fortune, I hope), lasted but three months before moving south to Vilcabamba. I hope they love it.

Others die.

I know a guy who trundled off to Romania. Someone else went back to Kansas. Yeah, Kansas. I imagine it was for the educational opportunities.

I know not everyone made the migration south because of the warm embrace of the sun around bands of rain, or the thriving creative energy radiating from the landscape of Cuenca.

I am aware that some may not appreciate the genteel combination of social graces, art, and commerce that defines Cuencano cultural identity, and fewer yet are here because they hated their homeland, ancestry, and the food of their youth.

I know they aren’t here for the predictable weather. But none of this dulls the pain of separation.

I asked a couple of friends of mine the other day if they were staying, and I was relieved when I saw the look in their eyes. The look resembled a combination of, “Are you keeping up with your meds?” and, “You are not keeping up with your meds.”

I imagine we will be friends for the rest of our lives.

This is a wonderful time. And we are in a most wonderful place, blessed with fertile soil for deep friendships, sure to bloom. But, as in any garden, even one as rich as the land of Azuay, care needs to be taken to nurture relationships, and prune with perspective the heart-ache of losing friends. Some are captured by the siren song just over the horizon, a few by family obligations, others are fleeing the dismantling of a relationship, shocked by the jarring turbulence of divergent expectations and preferences.

As I rose from the cafe table, I wished Jake well. But it was later, as I strolled through El Centro listening to the songs of this place, my wishes for Jake took on more significant meanings. I hope his prediction for me does not come true — and I wish for him a more precise understanding that the nature of change is change.

Having your heart broken is like contracting a disease so excruciating​ you are blind to the possibility of remission and healing, the possibility of hope.

Too often, folks inoculate themselves jamming into a vein a vaccine made from the shavings of guilt, shredded expectations, and shards of dreams.  They ​may recover from the hysteria of anguish, but may never be susceptible to heartache again.

This is a disease of its own making that can last forever. Even in dog years.

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