Imagine stepping into your house, but all of the furniture has shifted ever so slightly to the left. Everything looks the same, but somehow your ability to navigate fluidly and naturally through your space has been hindered. Everything seems the same, but everything is different. This is what it’s like to return home after living abroad for an extended period of time.
I wanted to travel the world, but my feet got stuck at my second destination. I had gone to Italy “for a few months,” but I ended up falling in love with it. I lived with a host family and worked as a live-in English tutor. I started learning the language and understanding the culture, and I met many wonderful people. At some point, I decided to stay.
Three years later, I found myself with a steady job, an apartment, friends I loved, and a very stable rhythm. I was fairly fluent in Italian and comfortable in my adopted city. I visited Ontario once or twice a year but found my two worlds to be utterly and completely separate. I had fallen out of touch with most of my friends, and “home” had become a very abstract concept. Canada felt more like a nostalgic memory than anything else.
Recently, I received a late-night call from my family, telling me that my sister was in the hospital. I hastily booked a flight and packed my things. Though, at first, I told myself I would be back in a few weeks, I knew in my heart that this was the end of a chapter. I had never intended to stay in Europe forever, and although I hate saying goodbye, this event made me realize that I had been in Italy for too long, that I was starting to grow roots when I had intended to be free. It was time to move on.
Coming home was a form of reverse culture shock. Everything was familiar, but I felt lonely and out of place. I stayed with my sister as she recovered but found it difficult to reconnect with friends from my old life, whom I hadn’t seen in ages. When we did get together to “catch up,” we ended up recycling the same stories we had been telling since high school. We picked up where we had left off, but there seemed to be a wrinkle in time, where my being away had happened in a parallel universe. There was no way to put the last three years into words, to catch my friends up or get caught up with them. Instead, we fell back into old patterns, which were now uncomfortable to me. I didn’t fit anymore. I couldn’t mourn the abrupt loss of my Italian life with them, because they were separate from it. They didn’t know those people or those places. So I kept those stories and memories to myself, but it made me sad.
I realized with heaviness that I no longer had much in common with my childhood home. My view of the world and my place in it had shifted. It was hard for me to keep up conversations about jobs, partners, buying houses. I didn’t know these people anymore, and these dialogues were foreign to me. I had nothing to add. During the first few weeks, I found myself absolutely lost in boredom, wanting to turn and run back, but knowing that that wasn’t the answer.
It’s been strange being home; it’s been hard. To a certain degree, I’m a different person here than I was there. If I can offer some small pieces of advice on surviving the return after living away for an extended period, they are the following.
My first few weeks back, I found myself with ample amounts of time on my hands, since I wasn’t yet working again. This was in stark contrast to my busy schedule in Italy, and I was spending all my free time sitting around and missing my other life. Then one morning, instead of staying home alone, I forced myself out to my favorite café to sit by the window and read. The familiar feel of small-town Canadian café culture was soothing, very different from the bustle of Italian espresso bars. I settled in for a few hours, and by the time I left, I felt a little lighter. Go to the places you used to love and do the activities you used to enjoy, the things that occasionally made you miss home while you were away. Try to focus on the best that home has to offer to avoid feeling low.
Before I left Florence, a close friend who knew I was struggling with leaving told me, “when you get back, get yourself a journal — and make sure you write in it!” It seemed trivial at the time, but my first week back, I walked down to the shop and carefully selected a notebook that I liked the look of. When I sat down, pen in hand, everything started pouring out onto the page: feelings, thoughts, plans. Journaling really does help you take stock of your situation and track your emotions as they come and go. Remind yourself of all that you have accomplished and the reasons why you love home. Make plans for future adventures. Set goals.
Even months later, I still get a pang in my stomach when I see pictures of my old city and hear what my friends there are up to. And every once in a while I indulge in a glass of wine and a good cry. Allow yourself to look back and mourn your “other” home, your time away. You’ve been on a journey that has come to a close, and it’s okay to let yourself feel that loss. But try to find a balance between reminiscing and moving forward.
Start something new
Coming back doesn’t mean you have to slip back into old routines and habits. This is the perfect time to start a new chapter in an old setting. This is the lesson I still struggle with. Being back in a town that hasn’t changed much at times makes me forget that I have changed, very much. I try to remind myself that I am a new person, and my habits can reflect that. I don’t need to cross the world to change my rhythm.
I spoke to a dear friend of mine the other day, who had spent several years in India many years ago. He told me this: “I was raised in a culture that was red. Then I went to India, and it was green. When I came back, I was not red or green. I was a beautiful plaid.”
I needed to hear these words. As a girl who had so neatly compartmentalized two different lives, who was now experiencing a crisis when pushed back into a compartment that had been gathering dust, this was important for me to realize. As he had so beautifully elaborated, everything was different. But that was okay. Because I was different too. I was plaid.