I have been friends with Fiona since I was 17 years old. We had just moved back to the UK from Canada and I was in French class wondering how I was going to fit back into a French class in the UK after 4 years in Quebec. The French teacher at Hills Road Sixth Form College wasn’t sure either; he seemed concerned I might have trouble keeping up. However, as I sat in class listening to other students struggling to put basic sentences together, I realized that my four years in Quebec had stood me in good stead back in Europe. I was now worried about getting bored. But then, a voice from across the classroom uttered words I will never forget: “J’étais piquée par une méduse.” I sat up in my seat to get a better look at the girl who had been stung by a jellyfish. She was slim with a brown bob, and in her jeans and sandals had a slightly hippy vibe. I immediately wanted to meet her.
Soon after that class, we struck up a conversation and I soon discovered that she had spent the summer in France, she lived with her mum (her parents were divorced) in a house that was equidistant between our flats and the school. She really loved languages, music and sports and was good at all of them. I was impressed. But what sealed the deal for our friendship may have been the fact that she and I shared a birthday – November 11. She was a year younger than me, but that hardly mattered, as she was at least as mature as I was in many areas of life. For the two years we spent studying A levels, we grew into close friends, sharing a love of French (and the Modern Languages Prize at the end of the year, though she was also studying German), a part-time job at one of the local Cambridge colleges, and a certain amount of professional ambition. At the end of our time studying together, she had secured a place to study Russian and German at Oxford and I got into Cambridge to study Japanese. We were both set to embark on new linguistic journeys, which meant putting thousands of miles between us for most of the rest of our lives.
Fiona lived in Moscow during college. I spent time in Tokyo and then after college I chose to live in rural Japan for two years, while she began building her career at the BBC in London. After Japan, I moved to London for a few years, giving us a chance to warm up our friendship again at a time when she had just lost her beloved father and I was losing my mother. In those few years in London, she worked her way up in the BBC, met Simon, who she later married, while I went back to college to train as an Asian art historian and met a man I didn’t marry. Those years had many tough moments for both of us but they helped shape us as adults and kept us close. Then I got the job in the US and moved thousands of miles away. That was almost 18 years ago now, and so much more life has happened to us since then in our personal and professional lives: tv programs for her, books for me, one child for me, two for her. She has visited me here a few times over the years for my wedding to David and also for work. I have been back to the UK several times, and usually stay with her in London, giving us precious hours to talk face-to-face about what is weighing us down and lifting us up in life. Though we don’t use our languages as much as we’d perhaps thought we would, we have both found enriching careers that open up many aspects of the world’s cultures to us – Fi as a director and producer of tv documentaries and me as an art historian and writer. Though we have lived many more years apart than together, when we talk, we still seem to pick up conversations where we left off – the sign of an enduring friendship.
Today, in honor of our shared birthday, I sent Fiona a pendant of a ginkgo leaf. In the West, the leaf has long symbolized the exotic East, as the tree has grown in East Asia for centuries and has featured prominently in the art and horticulture of the region. The gift seemed fitting because It was this part of the world and its cultures, languages and art which lured me away from the UK – first to Japan and then to the US, where I was able to find work in Asian art. More significantly though, the ginkgo is a symbol of longevity and endurance in East Asia, as the tree has lived on this planet for 200 million years and a single tree can live up to 1,000 years. In Japan, the trees even survived the atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though I have made wonderful friendships here in the US, my friendship with Fiona has already lasted more than 30 years of school, careers, loves, losses, languages, foreign lands, and jellyfish. It has been stronger at some times than others, but like the ginkgo, it will surely last many years to come. Bonne anniversaire, ma chère amie! Here’s to many more…