Last week, I needed to ship some NATO equipment from Turkey to Italy. The system was going from one NATO site to another; you'd think this is the sort of thing that happens all the time and NATO people would have a process. Everyone acted like this had never been done before, no one knew what to do, and it was no one's job. (It wasn't my job, either, but I had an interest in making sure it happened.) Fortunately, a Turkish Master Sergeant, Mehmet, whose job is to handle the customs paperwork, helped me out with the entire process - he called shipping brokers and airlines, forklift drivers and warehouse guys.
We had a lot of time to chat about the English language, life in Turkey, his American friends from when Izmir was NATO HQ Air Command. Mehmet described an American Captain as one of his best friends; the guy attended Mehmet's sister's wedding. They stay in touch even now. I like Mehmet, and had lunch with; stopped by his office - in another building - just to say hello. I am friendly with Mehmet...but I'm not sure I'd call him my friend. Typing that sentence makes me feels a little squishy, it feels like I'm being wrong. But that word, to me, incurs a burden of responsibility. And I don't think I'm alone with that feeling...
Mehmet and I were waiting for the delivery truck to pick up the system, and Ramazan, the forklift driver, waited with us. Ramazan has worked at this Garrison for about 25 years. He's seen Americans come and go. Some worked with him in the motor pool, and a handful he regarded as his special friends. They shared meals with him (in his own words). They called upon him for extra help with their own vehicles, and they were his friends, so he helped them. They exchanged addresses and phone numbers and promises to bring their families to meet him when they visited Turkey; they said if he were ever in their neck of the woods, look 'em up! They'd be glad to see him again.
They moved on, and he's never heard from them again. They don't write, they don't call. They don't even email, or answer his Facebook friend request. How could they call him their friends?
I tried to explain to Ramazan the transient nature of U.S. service people. That we can sincerely mean our words of friendship in the moment, but time passes and we move on. There are people I hold close in my mind - I think of them often. I wonder how they're doing, and I'd love to see them again. I know I would enjoy every minute I could spend with them, and I'd welcome them into my home in a heartbeat. There are people I think of fondly - when I think of them. Perhaps I'm reminded of them at a specific time of year or day, or in a certain place or circumstance. I'd be happy to see them again, I would chat with them easily. I wish them well. But I wouldn't want them too close, or too often. Do I still get to call them "friend"? I want to. It seems to diminish them not to, and I don't want to do that to them.
When I arrived in Turkey, my new Turkish co-workers gushed at me: We have awaited your arrival as we await a goddess! (I am not kidding, this is not hyperbole.) They called me "friend" and didn't even know me. They declared themselves my friends, I would be their special guest. It was too much for me, and I felt squeamish and suspicious. I thought them over-the-top and false; I still shudder to think of that first day, first encounter. Maybe it's my fault we never got along, were never able to work together. I did not embrace them as friends.
I work with a NATO civilian, and have socialized with him and his wife on a couple of occasions. I like them; they're very nice people, and I get along well with them. I could choose from a number of tables at the NATO Ball, and I was pleased to be able to sit with them. They've lived in Turkey a long time, and they travel a lot, but not on the typical tours Americans take - they forge out on their own. They tell stories of hiking across fields and having shepherds invite them into their modest one-room homes to share the family's midday meal. They stop to photograph a mountain and find themselves the special guests at a wedding. Their car breaks down in a tiny village, and a local takes them in overnight while a mechanic travels to get parts. A forest ranger has them breakfast with his family. These people are all their friends. The couple recall them all fondly and enthusiastically. They visited the forest ranger and the shepherd years later, and the tell of the ranger's and the shepherd's wives crying with joy to see them. These people are all their friends.
I feel a bit ashamed of myself. I am a terrible friend. I don't write, I don't call, I hardly email... I love my parents very much, but I interact with them about as much as I do anyone I call a friend (so Mom and Dad, I really am sorry, and friends, don't think I dislike you). I write a Christmas card to my English grandmother every year, but I send it perhaps one year in five...and I think of her nearly every other day...
People here tell me they will miss me when I'm gone...their faces suggest they want to hear me say I'll miss them too, but I don't say it unless I mean it. There are people I'll recall fondly, people I will remember, people I've enjoyed working with and would be happy to work with again. But I won't miss them. I don't feel our relationship carries that weight, incurs that responsibility. Are we friends?