Upside Down Expat

Holding on to home

Sunset Woman

Holding onto the past takes on a whole new meaning as an expat.

Our home, families and friends become etched into our minds as if frozen in time.

This gives an illogical yet inevitable illusion, of being able to, at some point, return. Yet, while we can once again geographically relocate, the place as we knew it no longer remains. Because what we pine is a period of time; a former feeling, phase and, unfortunately now, a fantasy.

It was on my last visit to England at my grandparents’ house where I considered how we can cling onto the past more tightly as an expat. My sister and I took my daughter upstairs to play with the same toys in the same room we had done so frequently in our infancy. It was the first time as adults we’d done this. After all there had been no need in the absence of a hyperactive child who now, after already having played extensively outside needed a distraction to stop her from going wild.

As we pulled out the familiar teddies, dolls and plastic figurines while reminiscing, I looked around and inhaled the view while trying to imagine how the place and memories would feel had I have stayed.

My eyes stopped on the signed picture still up on the wall of Simply Red singer, Mick Hucknall. A childhood friend of my Uncle Paul, he was a frequent visitor to our grandparents house and our own house was also back to back with his dads. And so his songs somewhat played the soundtrack to our childhood.

Immediately I hummed his song; ‘Holding Back the Years’ in my head. It seemed so aptly aligned with the weight of confusing emotions that accompany me on the journey I now tread; a part of my past; paused, packed away and carried everyday.

But when we hold on to the past we hold ourselves back;

The place

We can idealise our image of home in our head. Alternatively, we view things worse than they were. Or we might jump between the two, sometimes simultaneously, which is of course the place resided by those of us undecided. This manifests as excessive comparisons of circumstances, culture and country. Yet holding on tight to either belief can cause unnecessary grief as our now shifted perspective prevents us from being accurately reflective. As we’re unlikely to ever again experience the place as we once did. So rather than branding one place as  bad or better,  acknowledging, accepting and appreciating the benefits of both abodes brings a level of peace and gratitude we have two perfect places we’re fortunate enough to call home.

The people

Memories of the way we interacted with our families and friends at home can create a deep sense of loss that those times are now lost. Subsequent steps forward, such as settling, can feel like a betrayal; as if we’re somehow stepping further away. Yet its driven by a skewed view that everything is just as we knew. Its important to remember even had we stayed, their lives and ours would have changed anyway. And while they’ll always be a pull from our families and friends at home, instead of longing for the way things were, we can embrace the way things are more easily by making our families an everyday part of our experience in alternative ways.

Our prior selves

Quite often what we miss about our past life is our prior self. Largely because without uneasy expat emotions it was easier. Feelings like loneliness, longing, insecurity and guilt can sometimes feel intolerable, leaving us negative and vulnerable. In these instances it is tempting to trick our minds that before was perhaps a better time. But vulnerability is a pathway to resilience and personal progression. And it’s only when we become comfortable with being uncomfortable, rather than clinging to our prior in-the-comfort-zone personality, we allow ourselves to grow much more dramatically.

Moving countries can create a divide that runs far deeper than the ocean that lies between them. It disconnects us more definitively and distinctly from our past, creating a gulf of emotion that can leave us feeling heart wrenchingly detached.

We cling to yesteryear, a part of us longing for the way things were. It’s a notion rooted in fear; of feeling further away from our prior selves and our families. But the past is gone regardless of where we live, so holding onto this fear only holds back our years.

We must instead find a way to fully integrate our yesterday into our today.

Because just as the beautiful colours created by the sun are only seen when night and day convene, and the rainbow only appears when both rain and sun are here; we can only find inner happiness and peace when we allow our past and future to meet; in our present.

Its only here, no longer holding on, that we find release.

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  1. Judith Clarke

    How well you have expressed the feeling of Expats. After 18 years away from Australia, 5 different countries and 26 different homes over 27 years, it was extremely difficult to settle, it took years. However, I do not regret the experience with all its difficulties. Keeping in postcard contact with my School friends and Nursing friends over those years, helped considerable. .Yes I suppose being away did freeze time of memories of home, even visits home on leave really dose not keep one up to date, as we are visitors at home and not too involved in the day to day goings on. Expat life may seem glamorous to some but it is often lonely with husbands who work in difficult places and their families living in safer places. Language , food, customs, making some wonderful friends, often met in the supermarket while trying to work out the shopping, This is how our husbands or partners make their living and we benefit from the wonder experience of see wonder things and places. Still we miss our families from home and we miss developing our lives at home. Nobody gets everything in life…………………Now at 82 years, I can look back and say “what a ride’. There is nothing like the university of travel.

    1. Post author

      Hi Judith thank you, it’s the downside of an exciting adventure that’s for sure. It’s great to hear that after 18 years of travel you have no regrets! I hope you feel settled where you are now xxxx

  2. Keri

    I think the positive way to look at is there are so many places now that I am comfortable to call home. I get that awkward feeling now when someone asks “where am I from” as I don’t think I can do the answer justice in one sentence.
    Rather than feelings of nostalgia when I go “home” to my parents new house, I get the nags of when am I finally going to clear out those boxes of childhood memorabilia I have stashed in the shed…. never, Mum. Wherever they are, that’s home.

    1. Post author

      Thanks Kerry – i too just try to think I have more than one home, wherever the people I love are they’re my homes despite that not being one place anymore!

  3. Callie @ A Little More Southern

    I touched on this briefly in one of my posts, but you elaborated on it so well. I had to take a long hard look and at my life shortly after I moved, and Id realize that was no “going back home”. Time doesn’t stand still because we move. I think having that reality check earlier rather than later really makes adjusting to life as an expat much easier. xx

    1. Post author

      Thank you, exactly right but it’s so hard to imagine home other than how we left it xxx

  4. Seychellesmama

    Another beautiful post Nicola. Whenever I read your blog I am constantly finding myself nodding along to everything you say. I find as well that I struggle with the ‘what if’s’ especially in terms of our children. But as you say even if we lived at ‘home’ still it wouldn’t be the home that we have in our heads!
    Thank you for sharing with #myexpatfamily i always really enjoy reading your posts.

    1. Post author

      Thank you and for providing the link up! I struggle with that too with my daughter it gets harder when they start asking questions!

  5. Jodi

    Saw this post in the #myexpatfamily link-up. Thank you for sharing. I shared a similar post this month as well…it must be on every expats mind. Of course, these weird emotional experiences never really leave us, do they. Anyway – LOVE this post! Thank you for sharing these very true words!

    1. Post author

      Thank you jodi – no they don’t ever go! Just read sweet sadness and I love it – really lovely. Great site x


    Very wise words indeed. I think the same about our children – when I yearn for a prior place i am actually missing a past that included the children at a certain age, a moment in time that can never be repeated. So we have to learn to love the moment now and not always think about what was. I also totally agree with you about the danger of nostalgia for a time and place that won’t have frozen while you have been away. This is one of the problems with repatriation – realising that the world didn’t stop and wait for you to get back. And something that children can find particularly hard – I still remember realising that my best friend had a new best friend…#MyExpatFamily

    1. Post author

      I think that’s probably one of the hardest things about repatriation too I honestly think if I went home I’d have to move somewhere else so it would be new, it would be too weird now! It’s impossible not to think about the place just as it was since it’s the only real reference point we have but its just not accurate way of thinking of it. Such an odd place to be! Aw you poor thing on the best friend x

  7. Anne M Gieg (Edwards)

    How so truly spoken from the heart. It is how I have felt for many a year – in fact. 17 long years. I long for those bygone days – the separation – the longing to be with the family I knew then – the people – the places – the country – I grew up in. I felt torn leaving – thinking that a different world would be a different start – a different beginning – a different acceptance – but – it is not the place I left behind – the people – the culture – the way of life – so different – so vast – still trying to find my place in a new country – how to accept people I had no prior connection to – a place I had never grown up in – never been acclimatized into. Yet, somehow I am still here – 17 years on. something keeps keeping me here – yet, I long to go back to my roots – my hometown – my own family that loved me and I in turn loved them. Gave up a lot – well so did the country at that time – I longed for something different – a change – a new start – a new existence – but still – I still feel as if I don’t fit in – maybe in time I will – but I still long to bring the past back – to find true happiness – yet. Maybe someday I will. I love your columns – it is such a source of hope and inspiration for me. regards, Anne m Gieg (Edwards).

    1. Post author

      Thank you Anne, im really glad you enjoy reading them! 17 years is a long time and like you say something must be keeping you there! I think most expats, not all but many, at some point struggle with the same emotions – but some of us are more attached to our roots than others! I hope you can feel settled one day soon xxx

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