Lifelong friends at first sight

"Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend" — Albert Camus

Lifelong friends at first sightDespite my father’s warnings against placing too much faith in friendship, I am convinced that good friends can be better than family. My father’s distrust of non-family can be attributed to the betrayals and deceit spawned by a war that shadowed his childhood.

My father’s allegiance to family was especially evident in his unwavering support for a man who, by my father’s words, treated his hunting hounds better than his son. But as my father often told me, "most fathers where like that back then". Nothing, not even the absence of friendship, could shake my dad’s faith in his father’s love.

My father reciprocated this strange love by expecting my mum to care for his aging father after he joined us in Melbourne from Greece in the early 1960s. My mother’s situation was such that it became virtually impossibly for her to form friendships beyond the patriarchal realm on account of her full time factory work and domestic duties. Even if she were free to form friendships, most women in our neighborhood were too burdened by domestic responsibilities to manage the luxury of friendship.

I don’t think my father and grandfather were ever friends. There was respect and there was love, but there was no friendship — not in the way I understood it anyway. Their relationship brought them pain, frustration, guilt and even joy. I know this because I was caught in the middle of my father’s struggle to reconcile friendship with paternal loyalty.

It was around the time when I began to form my own relationships that I came to understand that no child brought up in a relatively free, secure and safe place like Australia could possibly comprehend the war-mangled logic of family allegiances.

Ironically, it was out of my father’s suspicion and distrust of friends that attracted me to the idea friendship. The thought of having friends beyond family became especially appealing after I began to attend my local primary school back in 1969. Despite my reluctance to let go of my mother’s hand on my first day at school, I was put at ease by the warm smile and reassuring words of a woman who would spend more time with me in that year than my father and mother.

Lifelong friends at first sightMy primary school teacher represented all that was good about the country I was born in. She was young, vibrant and accepting of different views and opinions. She invited boys and girls from all cultural backgrounds to engage in games and activities that promoted trust, mutual respect, openness, acceptance and friendship.

Despite the mandatory singing of 'God Save the Queen' at the beginning of each Monday morning flag raising assembly, I can’t recall my teacher praising God, Christianity, or the British Monarchy in the classroom. To do so would disturb the cultural equilibrium that she had worked so hard to maintain. Above all, she wasn’t going to let any group, whether migrant or non-migrant, religious or non-religious, Anglo or non-Anglo, compromise her pantheon of ethnic plurality.

By my last year at primary school (which also happened to be the end of the Gough Whitlam era) many of the kids I met in my first year of school had become good friends. Apart from a handful of kids who were unsettled by the idea of having anything in common with kids from homes that bore little resemblance to theirs, most of us stood in solidarity against any person or group — regardless of race, colour or creed — who threatened violence towards or oppression of others.

This is not to say that there weren’t fights and arguments between us, but such childish differences ultimately dissolved in a community of companionship that most of us enjoyed and worked hard to protect.

This school ethos was typical of my old neighborhood. Apart from one or two households that elected to keep to themselves, interaction between old and, as they were called back then, ‘new Australians’ was commonplace. Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Egyptians, Germans, Irish, Scots spoke about politics, religion and sport without the sort of fear or paranoia that many had been accustomed to back home. As for the few xenophobes calling for every newcomer to speak, dress, eat and act in a ‘proper’ manner, they were dismissed as arrogant outsiders.

We were free because we were able to form bonds with who ever we chose without fear or recrimination. As long as we were able to laugh in the face of self-appointed protectors of decency, we were certain that that they could never destroy our sense of solidarity. If this country gave us freedom, then it also gave us friendship.

Whenever I discuss values with my students, friendship and family are invariably mentioned in the same breath. And although most parents expect their children to place family ahead of friends when it comes to matters of trust, children tend to place greater faith in friendships out of the understanding that friends, as a student once put it to me, "allow them to breath".

Listening and talking to the kids I teach, I am convinced that friendship is just as important to them as it was to me when I first attended school. Many young adults, especially those who belong to strict households, escape the pressures of parental and social authority by turning to their friends — just as refugees escape oppressive and abusive regimes by turning to countries where freedom and friendship are allowed to flourish.

Whenever I think of my friends, I am reminded of a phrase scrawled on desk by a bored student. "All I want is a different view". Friends have a way of offering a new and wonderful perspective on life. For me, these views are from the school and streets of my childhood.

I don’t believe in love at first sight, but I do believe that we can recognize our life long friends the moment we set eyes on them. For me, they are the ones who walk beside me on equal terms.

So when I become a little despondent about the future, I think of the times when love meant a lot, but when friendship meant everything. I reflect on the relationships that allowed me to be myself without judgment. I realize that they are not just memories of love — they are memories of friendship. If I can’t have relationships such as these, then I have nothing. Thankfully I live in a place where friendship still means a lot to most — and especially to the people I love.

 

Recent articles by Chris Fotinopoulos.

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