A brief pre-note: I’ve finally finished getting pictures selected, edited, and posted from the conferences and travels in Italy the past few weeks. I won’t publish too many here, but the albums are available on my Flickr site.
I wanted to take a bit of time today to reflect some thoughts about the importance of communities of friends and colleagues. I had a chance to get together with a group of 40 researchers in Bertinoro, Italy, for a conference on ECG analysis in ischemic patients.
Don’t all yawn at once.
These conferences are a mix of people who I’ve known before and new people making their entry into the group. It was fun and relaxing to catch up with old acquaintances, to meet new ones, and to spend time swapping stories and ideas. Like the historic trading fair or potlach, they are an occasion for isolated people to come together.
And it reminded me of the importance of community in my expatriate life.
Community is different than having a network. Business texts often stress importance of forming individual and corporate networks, but these are often just associations of people who share business cards and who take one another’s calls. Accumulating a large Rolodex or LinkedIn contact list never seemed to me to amount to much value: I liken it to the uselessness of books that purport to teach you basics of a new technology by force feeding you the vocabulary rather than the meatier scientific concepts.
I’ve never been good at neighborhoods either: associations of people who share a common location. I never had a lot of close friends nearby at home: I worked too long and travelled too much to get to know my neighbors well. While I was sociable across the fence and willing to help out if asked, I’m afraid that I usually tried to be a good neighbor simply by being quiet and keeping my yard tidy.
But I am good at creating and participating in communities: associations of people linked by common interests.
Over the years, I have worked with lots of colleagues on research projects and technology development, or on outreach projects that make science accessible to younger students or new investigators. Through these activities, I’ve formed groups of friends who I correspond with periodically and who I meet once or twice a year at conferences and site visits. We’ve known one another a long time and have continuity of interest and a personal understanding that lets up pick up from wherever we left off whenever we meet.
Driving through Italy, I found myself reflecting on how the expatriate life, if anything, has strengthened my reliance on these communities.
As an expatriate, I move too often to form neighborhood links and I don’t have young children or church membership to foster meeting people. I could join a local interest group or expat association, but I feel like it has no depth or permanence if I’m off again in a couple of years. Even now, I find that people I’ve known for decades through workplaces and kids school groups are drifting quieter and quieter as my physical presence fades from memory after 3 years away.
Similarly, I don’t think that simple networks supported by the Internet and Web 2.0 tools are very satisfying. They are convenient and make it easy to overcome simple distance. But the linkage doesn’t promote depth, and superficial exchange of personal information and contact details fails to foster any sense of emotional connection or social empathy.
The constant in my social interactions is my community of peers and colleagues, people who I’ve known for years, who I can talk openly with, and who have always offered insightful perspectives and good advice based on shared experiences together.
In a way, it is probably similar with the long-distance cruising fraternity. Blue water sailors talk of their plans to meet friends at favored anchorages, and to form temporary flotillas, a few times each year. Otherwise, they are off as individuals , keeping in touch, but on their own journeys.
So, as I pull up from living two years in Arnhem and think about settling in a new community in Maastricht, I’m also thinking about the relationships that are important to keep.
I suspect that colleagues from work and contact with neighbors will swiftly diminish. My community of peers, such as the ones I spent time with in Bertinoro, will stay. It’s important that I find ways to keep engaged with those friends as I think about whether to change fields or companies.