Expat sprees to see friends and family are surreal.
As after a while away our home and histories feel familiar and foreign simultaneously.
For me, stepping into my native Manchester feels like walking onto a set of Coronation Street. The strong accents, terraced streets and grey skies are a stark contrast to the life I’ve adapted to in Australia. It’s weird because the place is constantly on my mind. Yet suddenly it’s like seeing it for the first time.
This destination disparity is new emotional territory. As it’s not just the country contrast between our motherland and adopted place that makes it at first feel unreal.Visiting the place now in our past to see people that are still so much a part of our present is a strange situation that can evoke unsettling sensations.
Because expats lead a double life. Our feet are walking a new path yet we keep a constant hand in our old lives. Rarely does a day go by without thinking of home or some contact over Skype, Facebook or the phone.
So while amazingly exciting, going back can bring forward overwhelming emotions of nostalgia, homesickness and uncertainty of where we belong.
Here’s what I’ve found on my three trips over five years to the UK:
Stage fright: No matter who and where we’re meeting there’s a build-up to the first greeting. At the airport gate there’s an air of anticipation that can make it feel a fraction like a first date! It’s a paradoxical place to feel a little apprehensive to face the friends and family we’re most comfortable with. But it’s always short lived regardless of the length we’ve been away. And it’s a remarkable revelation to find with most we’re just as close. And in many cases even more so.
A new set: Viewing a different town for a time means we see our old city through a new lens. Visiting England from Australia is like stepping out of a library into Primark on a Saturday afternoon! As while once entirely normal, England’s dense population, narrow roads, stacked buildings and grey skies against Australia’s stretched out residents, open spaces, wide roads and blue skies can feel chaotic, claustrophobic and closed in. Not to mention cold!
A changing cast: Much like the place, we see our old crowd and community with fresh eyes. Suddenly our dad looks 60, the dog got fat and our brother is an irritating prat. But we view the virtues and quirky qualities in people as if they were new too; our sister’s chirpy chattering and our unique union, the panacea of our parent’s and grandparent’s presence and the fabness of our friends. When we live half way round the world we gain a whole new appreciation of the traits of our most treasured.
Under pressure: Under the spotlight, on a short timeframe and battling jetlag, there’s a little stress when we want to be and make it the best. We maintain a mental tally of missed milestones and who we’ve not yet met. All the while we want to maximise our time resulting in running round like a tourist in our traditional towns. Particularly as, while it doesn’t feel like a holiday, we’re likely using all our holidays!
High expectations: We realise that, while less visible since we’re no longer near, problems don’t just disappear. The first time it may be difficult to deal with dynamics when we’re set on savouring the specialness. But it’s important to note we’re having a temporary experience in other peoples’ permanent place rather than a holiday escape!
Feeling like an extra: We can feel like outsiders. Because we’re a guest in everyday lives we’re no longer a daily part of. And our expat life can suddenly feels non-existent! However when our presence is infrequent we also receive fantastic special treatment! And it’s a relief to replace intermittent expat isolation for the constant and calming company of our clan.
Fantasies of returning: Whether decided our new place is permanent or frustratingly fixed on the fence it’s hard to fantasize of how we would fit in once again. Buts it’s impossible to accurately judge the place while living out of a case!
Nostalgia: While away, past times replay like an old sitcom in our mind. The melancholy can be painful as we ponder if we’ll repeat old patterns again. Absorbing it back on old ground can bring days gone by to the surface. Yet the ache dissipates. And instead we may start to feel a trace of longing for our new place.
Homeless at home: On the first or second visit, there’s realisation and regret there’s a part of us we’ll never regain. That feeling of comfortableness, contentedness and community, a presumed disposition we don’t predict will be misplaced, is now as obscure as Gail Platt’s chin. Even if we were to return there would always be a yearn. Because, although a pleasure and privilege, when we have two homes we become inevitably incomplete in both.
There’s no doubt expat expeditions to see friends and family are exhilarating. Yet they can also be daunting, exhausting and emotional.
As in our adopted countries we’ve adapted to new roles. And while attributes comprise homesickness, nostalgia and displacement, we’ve played the part so many times we’ve learnt the lines by heart.
But at home we play a cameo role. On a set we’re now less comfortable with, leaving us stumbling over the script.
Yet that’s the price we pay once we’ve opened our hearts and minds to a new life and way. As we experience more than one wonderful world.
So with a lump in our throat we say goodbye while trying not to cry.
But we take with us a magical memory reel of taking tourist trips, swapping sentimental gifts, snatching special squeezes and sharing treasured chats and precious laughs. Not forgetting getting downright Deirdre Barlowed!
We hold on to these moments hoping they’ll compensate for lost time.
And we play them on repeat…
Until the next memorable time we meet.
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