I can remember moving in 6th grade. The feelings of anxiousness and fear ran down my spine every time I thought about the first day. What would I wear? Who would I sit next to at lunch? Would I fit in? Though a fragile time, I survived. It took longer than I like to admit to assimilate, but I did it. But what about the adults that move away and have to come back and fit in? What happens when you leave everything you know and are accustomed to only to be thrown back to the wolves two years later?
Stephen and I accepted the job in Liege, Belgium as a newly married couple. The thoughts of traveling Europe were very attractive, and to do this with the one you love was the icing on the cake. Naïve to think the move would be easy, we learned rather quickly it wouldn't be a cakewalk. Liege resided in the French-speaking region of Belgium; Stephen and I spoke about two words upon arrival. We learned survival phrases and got by. As a married couple we were stronger than ever; nothing fixes communication issues better than moving to a country where your spouse is the only other English speaker! We tackled the adventure together, he and I. We eventually found friends, became part of a social network, traveled extensively and became part of the "group." We also missed two births, an engagement, a death and countless other events in the lives of our close friends and families we'd left behind. We couldn't wait to get back, but couldn't bear the thought of leaving. We invested so much of ourselves in finding new friends, and to leave them without knowing if you would see them again was heart-breaking. We missed so much in the lives of our family and friends here that we felt like outsiders. This dichotomy made the move seem impossible, when in reality the repatriation aspect would be our biggest hurdle.
The Saturday before we moved, we sat in a revitalized salle, toasting with our friends and colleagues. The smell of homecooked Indian food and Belgian beer permeated the air as we recalled funny stories and hysterical mishaps during our two year stint. We laughed and cried as they played the video montage of our adventure. We said our goodbyes and left, not knowing when, if ever, we would see these people again.
For months I had missed the creamy taste of Jif - the perfect pairing of Ranch with any and every edible item. We requested packages left and right, praying the comforts of home would seep through the cardboard. Now in a matter of minutes, I yearned for more time here. For more waffles and amazing chocolate... for more sweaty and smelly bus rides, clinging to the rails in hopes I wouldn't swing into an unsuspecting hairy pit. I longed for another boulet a Liegeois and a lukewarm Jupiler. In a matter of minutes my heart ripped out of my chest. Leaving for good.
The movers arrived as scheduled, packing up our things with precision and delicacy. They utilized the typical European elevator to transport our belongings and comforts out of our 3rd story window to the ground below. For weeks we prepared for this moment. We sorted and sifted, packed and stacked. Now, we watched patiently and emotionally as this chapter of our lives came to a close -- too quickly.
Repatriation: (v) to restore or return to the country of birth, citizenship, or origin; to return to one's country
Since the beginning of time people have moved from country to country, repatriating upon return to their native lands. The Indians evacuated their homelands due to force, then returned on their own accord some years later. Every veteran had to repatriate after their assignments, sometimes bringing their visions and dreams of the war with them, adding to the stress of life back on home soil. Immigrants are frequently repatriated as a matter of visa issues or illegal status. Repatriation as a concept dates back to the beginning of time. Why would I have an issue with this?
Ruth van Reken, co-author of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, states that "every transition involves loss… even when there is gain." Coming home was difficult. Stephen had to stay another week in Belgium, so I tackled the first hurdle alone. Flying with Gracie, our dog, proved to be a godsend. I think the emotions would have gotten the best of me if I had been completely alone. My family greeted me at the airport. I felt innately happy to see them standing there, elated in my return. Everyone around me spoke English -- I could hear every conversation. They understood me. The lack of challenge instantly hit me -- jolted me back to missing Europe and my husband.
"More people find coming home to be a more difficult transition than going abroad," writes Alan Paul, author of Expat Life in the Wall Street Journal. The subsequent days filled with tasks: looking at houses, researching cars, meeting with banks, setting up my phone, catching up with friends and sleep. It was a whirlwind, and doing it alone was taxing. Craig Storti, in his book Art of Coming Home, explains that "one of the difficulties of returning is that no one who hasn't done it expects it to be difficult…Everyone thinks it must be easy to come home so the support network is not there." I had no idea what I would need until after the need expressed itself in a dramatic fit of emotions. No one could help me, they didn't get it!
New issues arose. We believed we'd find a house instantaneously, and the mortgage companies would love to lend to deserving and responsible people like ourselves. Stephen instead returned home to a frustrated bride and 30 houses that didn't fit the bill. The banks found it difficult to lend to us, since we hadn't paid taxes in the US for two years. We couldn't buy cars until we'd bought a house. We couldn't buy a house until we could find a lender. Stressful though it may sound, we fed off the challenge and adventure of it all. It definitely didn't scare like some of those meetings in the Liege commune did.
After taking a few deep breaths and reining in our emotions, we found a house, two cars and a feeling of security. We tackled our fears, hand in hand. Learning to face the music was key -- as feelings of loss and sadness crept in we accepted them and moved on, facing our new future together. With modern technology, one click of the mouse yields friendly and familiar faces of our friends in Belgium, video chatting about our lives and recent adventures… apart.
One of our biggest issues with returning home proved to be "the realization that day-to-day life just [wasn't] quite as exciting" (Paul) as life in Europe. Once all of our eggs are in a row, what will we do with all of our free time? We spent two years jet-setting and discovering all Europe had to offer. Dallas just wasn't as thrilling.
To aid in our first year back, we've compiled a set of goals to help us, and others going through the same predicament:
1) Discover our home state: Texas (and the South, and eventually the United States). Finding the same fervor to reach this goal will be a definite contrast to the excitement in Europe, but learning about our country and all it has to offer is something we are both excited about.
2) Find different couples in our region that have been through the same adventure as we have. Finding those that understand our plight and can discuss the adventures of living in Europe with us will allow us to feel like we are holding on to the memory instead of moving on.
3) Keep in touch with those we've left behind in Belgium: keeping up with Skype, adding our friends to our blog, placing an importance on weekly email updates, and sending a "Change of Address" announcement to everyone overseas, giving them a chance to write/visit us as well!
4) Find time for us. With the whirlwind of moving back and getting reacquainted with everyone, our relationship can sit on the backburner. Going on date nights and travelling alone helps in keeping our relationship a priority.
5) Volunteer. Whether at a retirement center, veteran's hospital, children's hospital or in the community, volunteering will help give back to the community and lower our stress levels!
I'll always miss Europe. I will always be thankful for the opportunity to live there. I'll always appreciate the knowledge and wisdom I gained from the experience. I ended the adventure with "a lack of regret and an understanding that you only grieve for something you loved" (Paul). We'll be back, for vacation or another assignment, and I anxiously await the opportunity. Until then, I feel content and comfortable in my own skin, no matter where I am.
Paul, Alan. The Expat Life: Coping with Repatriation. WSJ.com March 20, 2009.
Storti, Craig. Art of Coming Home. Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc., 2001.
van Reken, Ruth, et al. Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds. Massachusetts: Nicholas Brealey North America, 2001.