Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with three men whose international group of friends has been having an annual New Year’s Eve reunion party for the past 10 years (except for 2020, when the pandemic prevented it). They discuss the “special sort of alchemy” that took their group from spending just one semester at university together to a lifelong commitment to ringing in the New Year together. (They all requested to be identified by their first name only so they could talk openly about their personal lives.)
Jasper, 33, a software developer who lives in Stockholm, Sweden
Lorenzo, 34, a university research fellow who lives in Florence, Italy
Thomas, 32, a lawyer for the Woodland Cree First Nation who lives in Northern Alberta, Canada
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: Tell me how you met and became friends.
Lorenzo: We met in Victoria, Canada, in January 2011. We were all exchange students except Thomas.
Thomas: I had just transferred to Victoria from another school in Canada. Because I transferred mid-semester, I was put into a residence with mostly international students. It felt like I was on exchange.
Lorenzo: Thomas was adopted into our community. We were only there for one semester, but the group kept in touch over the years. I cherish the fact that I am close friends with people who live in really far-away parts of the world.
Thomas: We sometimes forget, but we are from totally different cultures. I’m Cree; I grew up on a reserve in a First Nations culture. So to come together with these guys from Europe, I don’t think they realized how cool it was for me. Cultures can be crossed and you can have family from a totally different culture.
Beck: That was a pretty short time that you were all physically together.
Jasper: Short but intense. You all come there together, starting this new experience, not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s very exciting and a little bit scary. And everyone’s in the same boat. It’s easy to make friends.
Thomas: It was quality of time versus quantity of time. Years after, that group was still very firmly in my heart. Those friends became lifelong friends.
I still send Lorenzo stupid memes and jokes every now and then. That’s a sign that he’s still in my mind, he’s still close. If you can send a dumb-ass meme to a friend, it means they’re a true friend for life.
Lorenzo: I think there was just some special sort of alchemy within our group, because I also had other similar experiences. I was an exchange student in Ireland, and I lived for one year in Belgium. But I never found the same type of friendship as we did in Victoria. And I cannot exactly say why.
To be honest, the possibility of traveling [to see one another] made it easier for us. We are all able to afford it. We have to be grateful for that for sure.
Thomas: I find this friendship unique in that it’s never been living in the past. We weren’t getting together and having beers and talking about the old times. We would have new adventures. This alchemy enabled the group to live in the moment.
Beck: How did your New Year’s tradition get started?
Jasper: I organized the first New Year’s party in 2011 at my student housing in Utrecht. [After my semester in Victoria,] I went back to studying in the Netherlands. I wanted to throw the party so we could meet each other again.
Thomas: Because all the New Year’s parties have been in Europe so far, I’ve been a cutout at quite a few.
Beck: Did they make an actual cutout?
Thomas: They did the first year, I think.
Lorenzo: We have fun and we organize parties. But we do also talk about pretty deep issues. When I’m struggling or when I have big doubts about family, relationships, my work, my purpose in life, the people in this group are who I speak to. We do communicate with completely silly things like memes, but also it can be long letters, or long conversations when we meet for New Year’s Eve.
I remember this scene of people dancing in a room with windows. I was sitting outside in a garden with a little fire. It was pretty cold. Then I was no longer able to see inside this room, because there was moisture on the glass from people dancing and sweating. And I was out there talking with someone in the group and going really deep. It was beautiful. I always thought New Year’s Eve, when you have to throw a big party, was more of a hassle than actual fun. Then I realized it’s such a great thing to reconnect with people with whom you can speak about many different things.
Beck: Roughly how big is the group that is still in touch and getting together for New Year’s?
Thomas: It’s a fluctuating number. My first experience in The Hague, we had these big bonfires on the beach. I brought one of my besties from France who didn’t know anyone. He and Jasper instantly clicked. It seemed like they were friends for 10 years, and they’d only just met that night.
Jasper: I tried to meet up with him later even, in France when I went skiing.
Thomas: This group is so open and warmhearted to new people.
Lorenzo: There are also a few people who have not been able to join us for the celebrations for three or four years now, because they had babies, or all sorts of reasons. We still have online communication, and we hope that as the babies grow a bit older, they’ll be able to join the celebrations in person again.
Thomas: That would be a dream if in 10 years it’s us and also little kids running around celebrating New Year’s.
Beck: The last New Year’s party was in 2019? Did you do anything online at all last year? Are you planning to have one this year?
Jasper: 2019–20 was the last one, indeed. In Bordeaux. Maybe you guys had a quick call last year?
Lorenzo: No. We were all fed up with communicating in front of a screen. So we decided not to do anything. We set an appointment to go to Canada for the summer of this year, which of course also had to be postponed because the pandemic lasted much longer than we expected. We are meeting again this New Year’s Eve, and it’s convenient for me because it’s at a house in Tuscany. Jasper will be there most likely, and other people of this extended community. Thomas probably is not going to come.
Thomas: Yeah. This Omicron’s throwing a wrench in the works here.
Lorenzo: We do have a commitment to go back to Canada as soon as it’s reasonable.
Jasper: These whole two years have been horrible. I’m really looking forward to seeing these guys again and hanging out like the old times. It’s become a tradition. Last year, I kind of missed it, you know? You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.
Thomas: There are many traditions within the tradition that I hope continue. At the last one, we did “the freeze”—you take a video, you go around and everyone’s frozen. That was cool, because you have that memory on your phone. The Italian influence makes it feel like a Renaissance painting.
When the joie de vivre gets flowing, all these different games come out.
Lorenzo: Each person comes with her or his own proposal. So for example, for the last couple of years, one friend has forced everyone to write a poem and share it with the others. She is probably not going to come this year, but even if she’s not there, we’ll try to do it again.
Jasper: Even though it’s such a short time that we meet up, we still have really quality time. You can just have a dance party. It doesn’t have to be dim, like you’re going to go to the club. You can just put on some music and all dance together. I don’t see myself doing this with many other friends. But with these friends, it just feels comfortable. It’s a perfect combination of all the things that friendship should be, put into a tiny piece of space-time every year.
Beck: Is the New Year’s party usually the only time that you see these friends?
Jasper: For me it’s one of the only times, indeed. I’d like to meet up more often. We had a summer holiday on a Danish island once. We went to Oktoberfest. So we’ve met up a couple of times, but the New Year’s tradition is the thing that’s certain.
Thomas: In Cree, we have this idea that you have four parts: the mental, the spiritual, the physical, and the emotional, and there’s a memory associated with each. I don’t see some of these guys for two or three years at a time, but when I do, it really is like it was yesterday. There is a certain sense of familiarity. I think there are different memories for different things, and your heart memory of people you really love makes it feel like yesterday every time you see them.
Beck: Do you feel like there’s significance to the fact that you’re starting a new year every year with the same group of friends?
Thomas: For me it’s just a good time.
Jasper: It’s more about the people, seeing them again, than the specific time of year. New beginnings and all that, no. Not for me.
Lorenzo: For me, it’s different. I think it’s important to have the regularity and know that we actively nurture that relationship. Even if some people are not able to come, we know that we’ll keep organizing this, and in the future, they will join us physically. We have very different life trajectories, but I can always talk to Thomas, to Jasper, to the other people in this group. It is a source of strength that I keep close to my heart. It makes me feel stronger in a way, and cared for. Also, I like the idea of caring for the others in one small way.
Thomas: I take back everything I said and agree with what the preacher man just said. Because you do look forward to it. It’s the best crescendo to the end of the year and the best start to the next.
Beck: What have you learned from your friendship?
Lorenzo: I learned how beautiful it is to communicate slowly, not always being in a rush. I get carried away sometimes with WhatsApp, all the quick messages. It’s not always about the frequency of communication, but it’s about thinking about your friends. Sometimes cracking up laughing in the street because you just have a memory of something that happened together. That is beautiful for me.
Thomas: A lot of communication happens when I’m not even talking to them. It’s like you bring your best friends with you in a way. They’re almost in my head as characters when I’m moving through my life. If I see a skating rink or something, I think of a certain friend. If I see a mountain, I think of a certain friend. I think of them a lot. They’re always with me. Because of that, you’re also bringing their strength with you, their humor with you, their good times with you.
Jasper: It has brought me the stability that feels like something you can fall back to. It’ll always be there, and it’ll always be good.
If you or someone you know should be featured on “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique