Yesterday was my 1-year anniversary of returning to the States from Australia. Has it really been an entire year already? The calendar apparently confirms this. What in the world? This makes now the longest I have spent in my hometown in 10 years.
In marking this momentous occasion of no longer being an expat, I wanted to re-share this post I wrote, originally published as a guest post for Melyssa at The Nectar Collective. What originally got me re-thinking about the concept of moving home after an extended period abroad was this post by Casey Cote over at We Took the Road Less Traveled. She’ll be returning to the States soon, and that reality is a difficult one to deal with. So I thought I’d add my experience(s) to the conversation. I have done this 3 times you know… so far.
On Being an Ex-Expat
11 boxes. Plus two suitcases and a rather heavy carry-on. After 3 years. That’s what it took for me to transplant my cozy Parisian life back to south Florida. It’s shocking how much stuff can accumulate in a 25 square meter studio apartment. Pretty much every item connected to a memory of some sort.
I moved to France in February of 2009 as a student of interior design. I wish I could say I arrived all doe-eyed and in awe at the prospect of living in Europe for 4 months, but that wasn’t the case. I had spent the previous year living in London, and so was accustomed to the European culture and lifestyle. I had found a design program in Paris, decided it would complement my degree from London quite splendidly, so applied and booked my ticket. I’m often spontaneous like that – the majority of my major life decisions were probably made in a total of about 20 minutes, combined. The original plan was to complete one semester in Paris, and then return home to find a “real job.” I stayed 3 years.
Many travelers have similar stories: they visit, they fall in love the place, they never want to leave and find a way to make that happen. I can check off the first three of that list, but have yet to succeed in the never leaving part. I have been an “ex” expat 3 times now, from 3 separate places: London, Paris and most recently Melbourne, Australia. I can honestly say that in each instance, I was not a willing participant in life’s alternative plans for me. I would have stayed in each place forever if it had been possible.
Yet after each life-altering experience abroad, it was back to the small coastal hometown for me. Each time wondering, “what on earth am I going to do here?” I think we can all safely agree that travel changes us, and in many ways you won’t even realize until later. You’ve heard of reverse culture shock? It’s real. Trust me. One, two, three times a lady… only this lady felt more like a petulant child who had been put in time out while the world spins on without her. Let’s just call them adjustment periods, shall we?
I won’t sugar coat it – moving back to your home country after an extended period abroad is one massive adjustment period. You worry about the friends you’ll leave behind. Will I ever see them again? Will we lose touch? Will they forget about me? You worry that you will no longer relate to the friends you originally left back home. Any you will view your own country and culture more objectively, and might not like parts of what you see. Depending on how long you were away, your concept of home may have changed, and might not know where you feel like you truly belong. It’s a strange phenomenon, with all the various ranges of emotion attached.
Now you might be wondering, “I thought being an expat was supposed to be an adventure? A chance to make memories that last a lifetime?” You would be correct! There were so many stories and so many opportunities that I was afforded due to my time overseas. I had bucket list items checked off before I even knew what a bucket list was. And I grew up. I was 23 when I moved to London, 24 when I moved to Paris, and 28 when I moved all the way to Australia. Each experience built on the previous, and my self-sufficiency and confidence in my abilities grew exponentially. Now, you can drop me almost anywhere and I can figure it out. Because you know, a metro works like a metro, whether you’re in New York, Paris, or Shanghai. Miming through hand gestures in order to communicate gets less embarrassing, and the close-your-eyes-and-point tactic for choosing items on a menu has over a 50% success rate on ordering something edible.
The experiences I have gained, the memories I have made along the way, and the lasting friendships I have formed are absolutely invaluable. I may not live in London, or Paris, or Melbourne anymore, but parts of me are still there. And while it breaks my heart a little each time as I leave pieces of myself all over the globe, I have no intention of stopping. That next great adventure beckons too loudly to be ignored. I hear New Zealand is rather nice… anyone been?
So there you go. Apparently even as far back as November I was thinking about New Zealand. Although who am I kidding, I was talking to friends about that before I even left Australia! That’s the ultimate trick I think – keep giving yourself something to look forward to. Whether that’s a short trip, a grand adventure, or maybe even just the simple pleasure of being able to finally unpack somewhere for a bit. Because it all can change, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.