Repatriation: Why It’s So Hard
Moving back home after living overseas was more difficult than settling in a foreign land
Moving abroad with my boyfriend (now husband) eight years ago was one of the most exciting, gratifying, and challenging experiences of my life. When you take that big leap, you must adapt to new cultures, be open to meeting new people, and work daily to learn and understand new languages. I see much written about how to best tackle this life-changing adventure.
But for many, time in a foreign land is only temporary, and moving home can be far more overwhelming and lonely. This tricky move called “repatriation” is filled with its own uncertainty, anxiety, and challenges.
I remember moving back to the U.S. after living for years in Europe — in Ireland, Gibraltar, and Spain to be exact. I was ready to be close to family again. I eagerly anticipated the ease with which I could accomplish simple tasks, something I had taken for granted before adapting to a slower pace of life overseas. I was ready to ask for things in my native language and to buy items in bulk at the grocery store.
Imagine my shock when it was not only hard, but downright devastating at times. I loathed my new commute—I’d become so accustomed to public transportation and walking. I missed my friends, who’d become more like family. I felt more alone than ever, often overwhelmed by choices, noises, immediacy, etc.
Of the many transitions I made, these were the most difficult:
You’ve got a friend in me. Every time we moved to a new country, I’d quickly make new friends. I’m an extrovert, so I’ve always loved meeting new people, but settling overseas was deceivingly easy. Many times invitations came because a new acquaintance believed it was their duty to include me. Often it was because they, too, were strangers in a foreign land. I was invited into so many homes for coffee, wine, book clubs, schnitzel parties, astrology readings … you name it, we found a reason to spend time together. These acquaintances quickly became friends.
The reverse culture shock was like a slap in the face when I moved home. That bond of “we’re all in this together” doesn’t quite exist when you repatriate. People already have their routines, their friends, their families. I felt more like an outsider in my own country than I ever had in Europe.
I’ve had to learn to become the initiator again. When I’m feeling excluded or left out, instead of throwing myself a pity party, I ask people to do things. And when I meet someone new to my city, I do my best to make them feel welcome.
I like to be alone, but I hate being lonely. When you move abroad, you leave friends and family behind. It’s hard and it’s lonely. But guess what? When you move back, you leave friends and “family” behind, too. My friends became my family because many of them also had left home. We leaned on each other in times of stress, comforted each other in times of sadness, spent holidays together when we couldn’t afford to fly home. Now, I see pictures of their new babies, of quick trips to Rome or Prague, or of parties that I’d normally attend, and I feel this visceral pain—a deep void, an emptiness.
When you repatriate you might find yourself surrounded by familiar faces, but they haven’t shared the last many years with you and it’s easy to develop a new kind of loneliness. Your identity is tied to this other life and these other people. I remind myself that I had similar feelings of missing out when I was in Europe. That I’d see childhood and college friends gather for social engagements and I’d feel the same pang. It was more dull, because I was living this wonderful adventure, but I try now to do a better job of living in the present.
I’m not bragging, I promise. According to recent statistics by the State Department, only 46% of Americans have passports. Nearly half of the U.S. population hasn’t stepped a foot outside this country (and this isn’t even counting people with passports who still haven’t left). They might see life abroad as grandiose and full of adventure. And why shouldn’t they, especially in the age of social media? But when it becomes your life, your existence abroad turns into the same monotonous schedule you had back home. I’d wake up, go to work, come home, make dinner, go to bed, and do it all again the next day.
But it never sounded like this to my new friends back home. When I first returned, I sensed my stories sounded almost boastful. My “normal” days sounded more like this: I’d wake up … by the Mediterranean Sea with a view of Gibraltar. I’d go to work … in an exotic place with people of many different cultures. I’d come home … often stopping at a local chiringuito for a €2 cerveza. I’d make dinner … with food fresher than anything I’ve had since I moved home. I’d go to bed … in a tiny, sleepy, Spanish town. It translated as gloating, so I clammed up.
When a story starts with, “When I was living in Spain…” it immediately takes on a different tone. I’d feel shame for coming across like a braggart. But these stories and experiences are so ingrained in me that they are part of who I am. With time, and a little maturity, I’ve learned how to relay my adventures more modestly.
Hello belly fat my old friend. When I lived in Ireland, I took the Luas (above-ground metro) into the city and then walked for about 15 minutes to my job. In Spain, we parked our car at the Spain-Gibraltar border and would walk 10 minutes to/through the border. Sometimes we’d walk from there to the office, other times we’d hail a cheap cab. We ate fresher foods—MSG, preservatives, and extra sugar are scarce in Europe. Our favorite local restaurant, La Finca, would text us if mussels were on the menu—I love mussels and they would only have them through that dinner service because they had caught them that day.
When we moved back the U.S. I quickly gained five pounds, which has now become 10. I spend more time in my car and I’m a lot less mobile. I try hard to eat fresh foods, but it’s not as easy and it’s much more expensive. I’ve always exercised, but I sure miss walking those extra miles.
It’s been a few years since our return, so the sting has lessened and I’m happily settled. I have great new friends, a wonderful job that I love (I can’t say the same for all my gigs abroad), and my family is just a short flight or drive away.
I don’t share this in an effort to complain and I certainly don’t take for granted the opportunities I’ve been afforded—both domestically and abroad. I do hope this helps others who find themselves struggling with repatriation. It can be hard and it can get lonely. For some, like me, it takes time. For others, adjusting might happen more quickly.
I do leave you with this: don’t let go of the you that you were in a foreign land. It sounds cliché, but my time abroad fundamentally changed me and I’ve learned to no longer apologize for the incredible experiences that helped make me who I am years later.