Tag: homesickness

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My two expat lives

The first time I moved as an adult was almost 20
years ago – from my home in Athens to Boston, to pursue a graduate degree. The choice to immerse myself in a new, completely foreign universe was entirely mine. It was a journey I always knew was ahead of me. I chose the journey – and the life – of a foreigner fully conscious that I would have to learn to cope with leaving behind family and friends. Still, the big, heavy wave of homesickness hit me hard during my first days and weeks in the US, as the extent to which I was cut off from “my people” began to sink in.

The only way I could be in touch during those first days was either through very expensive phone calls or letters that I would fax from the copy shop near my school – assuming that the recipient had a fax machine. There was no Skype, no VOIP calling, no Viber, no FaceTime. I remember buying prepaid AT&T cards to call home or using my credit card to call a special number that offered cheap international rates. My short-lived long-distance relationship with my boyfriend back home was barely sustained by weekly phone calls – in the best case, if our timing worked. He, as well as my parents would leave me messages on my answering machine at home – but I was never there, at least not at times that they would be awake. Without a mobile phone, there was no other way to reach me. I had no access to Internet, no email, no social media accounts, no smartphone. I got my first (student) email account at the university and was lucky enough to be able to communicate with my friends who were studying abroad and also had received emails. But that was about it. No one in my family had email.

How could I not feel homesick?

I would have had a hard time imagining how much my life would change in the
course of the following 20 years. Comparing what it’s like to be a foreigner today with what it was like 20 or even ten years ago is like comparing two different worlds.

There are many aspects of our lives as expats that we take for granted: our ability to reach and be reached; to connect with “our people,” wherever they are, and keep up with their lives; to stay updated on developments in our different “homes,” whether it’s politics, culture or everyday life – all that, almost instantly, at minimal or no cost. Developments in technology, especially those related to the Internet, have had a profound impact on what it means to be a foreigner and how we experience that life. Communication is just one dimension of how technology has transformed the expat experience, but a powerful one. So much has happened so fast and yet, these fairly recent additions have shaped our lives into what they are today.

I still feel homesick today, but it’s a different kind of homesickness. As a result of the technology in my foreigner life, I can never feel isolated or out of touch – at least not because of lack of possibilities. I don’t feel helpless. I can stay connected with my family
and make sure that my children develop and maintain relationships with their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, their cousins. I can keep up with major events in the lives my loved ones. I can stay in touch with my friends, most of them scattered around the world.

There are drawbacks, of course. One could argue that the technology that brings me closer to those that I have left behind, also allows me to avoid living in the here and now, if I wish to do so. But the technology can only reinforce an existing tendency, not create it; it doesn’t make me choose to live, virtually, somewhere else, it just empowers me to do that. Also, I may sometimes feel homesick because of too much connection, not too little.

Feeling so close but knowing that I’m not, makes the homesickness more concrete. I know exactly what I’m missing by not being there – because nothing can ever replace
physical, face-to-face connection. Still, I am grateful for this life. Even if, for some, the instant gratification of email or FaceTime does not match the excitement of receiving a letter or unpacking a package sent by someone you love, I’ll take that instant gratification any day over the loneliness of being in-between.

Rootedness and openness

We took the kids to a “family” concert last weekend, part of a series offered by Zurich’s main concert hall. The theme was Christmas
singing. There were several children’s choirs taking part and a program that extended from folk songs to Christmas carols to classical choral pieces. When I booked the tickets, I thought that this would be a very “Swiss” event, perfect to get into the Christmas spirit of our adopted hometown. I was not expecting to find, featured prominently among the several local community choirs, that of the International School of Zug and Lucerne; and later, wedged in-between the many lovely German and Swiss-German tunes, a section of the concert dedicated to English ones. Not to mention the interspersed orchestral pieces by a Polish composer and a traditional Estonian Christmas song. “Jingle Bells,” Benjamin Britten and “Grüezi wohl, Herr Samichlaus” somehow all fit perfectly together. A slightly different, and perhaps more powerful experience than I had expected.
Before we moved here, I had read about how attached the Swiss are to their homeland; how intensely homesick they get when they are away and how they don’t last long before they succumb to the urge to return. In fact, homesickness as a term was coined
in the 17th century to describe the condition also known as “Swiss illness” (mal du Suisse) – the pain frequently felt by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home, who would pine for their native landscapes. My favourite passage about the particular relationship the Swiss have to their home is from a book called The Geography
of Bliss
by Eric Weiner:

The Swiss are deeply rooted in place. Their passports list the name of their ancestral town. Not their hometown but the town of their roots. Maybe they weren’t born there. Maybe they’ve never even been there. But it is their home. It’s said
that the Swiss only become Swiss upon leaving the country. Until then, they are Genevans or Zurichers, or otherwise defined by wherever they happen to come from.

One would have expected that focus on one’s home and roots would be accompanied by a certain neglect towards the outside; a lack of interest leading to a lack of attention. Nothing like the pure openness that I felt at that Christmas concert. As a foreigner, I was not simply an observer of a beautiful holiday tradition; I was invited to become part of it. I felt included, welcomed, embraced.
Maybe I did not expect that, but it makes absolute sense. Being rooted in place, even if that is a tiny little spot on the map, makes the Swiss feel grounded. It is exactly that rootedness, the confidence and security that it brings – about one’s core identity, among others – that makes one open to the outside. It’s the grounding that makes one willing to acknowledge, include, integrate the foreign (and the foreigner), without worrying that they will somehow dilute or otherwise corrupt that
identity. That’s a big part of why I – and many other foreigners – feel at home here. At that concert, I did not feel any less of a foreigner than I usually do. I did feel, however, that my foreignness is something enriching; something to be appreciated and celebrated.
Holidays can be a confusing time for those of us who have chosen to lead a mobile life. Sometimes we are torn between so many different traditions and customs, that we don’t know which one(s) to choose and when we do, often our choices seem like an incoherent mishmash. Last weekend, the Swiss taught me that might not be such a bad thing after all.
Happy holidays everyone.

What if

 

My seasonal foreignness was not so bad this year.
Maybe because I was too busy vacationing to deal with existential issues. Maybe because when you are expecting something, it is almost never as bad as you expect it to be. It wasn’t. The irony is that when things go well on the foreignness front, another set of existential issues comes to the surface – the “what ifs.”
I felt cosy and comfortable being around family, seeing familiar faces that I had not seen in a while and meeting some new ones. It was – momentarily and in the un-real-life context of a vacation – as if I had never left. One thing led to another and at some point, I could not help thinking, wondering how it would feel if I actually lived there. What would happen if I returned? What would real life there look like? Would my children be happy? Would I still feel like a foreigner at home and if I did, would that be such a
big deal?
I indulged myself, building scenarios in my head,
imagining scenes from our daily life in Athens. I visualised the late summer days, still warm and sunny, with the evenings a little bit cooler and the sun setting earlier, announcing the onset of autumn. The city filling up again. The first autumn rain after several months of dryness (there is actually a word for that in Greek). What would it be like to spend winter there again and not just a couple of sun-drenched weeks on the beach? Would I create my own daily routines? Would the constant presence of my extended family be bliss or torture? Would I get used – again – to calling 15 degrees Celsius (the temperature this August morning in my current home town) “winter temperatures?” Would I be able to reconnect with all those – inevitably – long lost friends? Would I make new ones?
For a moment there, I did not think of all the reasons why this is an impossible scenario. I did not rationalise and it felt good. I felt free. But eventually, I did feel sad. Because the “what if…?” is always followed by the “why not.” Without a question mark at the end.

Seasonal foreignness

 

Every year , around the start of summer vacation, I hear the same familiar complaint from my children: “Why do we always have to go to Greece for vacation? Why can’t we go somewhere else for a change?” Every year, my answer is the same (including the part where I tell them how spoiled they are and that other kids – not to mention adults – would be thrilled to go to Greece for
vacation, while they are being so difficult about it): “Because your mother is from Greece, which makes you half-Greek, and this is our home.” But is it really?
Lately, I have been reading a lot about what happens to people when they move back to their home country after having lived abroad; how the experience is predictably rewarding but can also be unpredictably challenging. The fact that the challenges catch most people completely by surprise is the main reason why repatriation is so hard to cope with. Not having been through it myself, I have been trying to find ways to relate to that experience, so that I can write about it.
In fact, a lot of what I have been reading about re-entry reminds me of what happens when I return home for longer periods of time, which is the case every summer. Many expatriates who go back to their passport countries find that home does not feel like home any more; that they have become foreigners where they least expected that to happen; that their loyalty is divided between two (or more) “homes.” That’s something to which I can relate. It does not make such a big impression on me now – maybe because I have been used to it over the years – but being home always reveals that split in my life and in my identity. On the one hand, I have a strong bond with Greece. It overwhelms me with euphoria the moment the airplane touches down on Greek soil and crushes me with nostalgia when that other airplane takes me away. I love everything about “my” country – its natural beauty and its (disorganised) chaos; the warmth of the weather and that of the people; the fact that I can understand both the text and the subtext when I interact with them; the feeling of belonging.
On the other hand, when I am in Greece, I am always the visitor; the tourist; the foreigner. Nothing much is expected of me. I am not supposed to completely fit in, but that feels strange rather than liberating. There are moments when I miss the comfort of being a foreigner somewhere where I am actually justified in being one, rather than somewhere where I really shouldn’t. And, of course, after a while
I start missing my “other” home; my house; my routines. To quote Kundera, (my) life is elsewhere.
Many of us perpetual foreigners experience this duality – the “split personality,” the unexpected emotional connections to different places at the same time. The contrast is always there, but it is only when we come “home” that it becomes blindingly obvious.
Do you feel foreign, at home?

The phone call

 

The last time I saw my father was a couple of weeks before he passed away, only four days before my scheduled monthly trip to go visit him. Four days. The day before, I could not get him on the phone for our daily chat. He was too weak. It didn’t occur to me then. I refused to even consider the possibility until the phone rang at 7am the next morning, as we were getting the kids ready for school. Before I even picked up, before I even saw that it was coming from my parents’ home, before I heard my brother’s voice on the other side – who would not, normally, have been there so early in the day –, I knew.
I had been dreading that call. I had been dreading being away when my father’s time came. Shouldn’t I have sensed something? Why didn’t I change my ticket and fly back to see him earlier? Why couldn’t I have been there by his side? Why did I choose to live in another country?
I’m not the only one haunted by the “dreaded phone call.” Most of us who have chosen the nomadic lifestyle and live far away from ageing parents or other close relatives, are bound to feel that at some point. It is part of all the things we miss while we are away. But, more than birthdays, graduations or weddings, missing death – or rather, missing life – may be what haunts us the most. I have many friends and family who, at some point or another, have had to drop everything and get on a plane to go help out when a parent got sick; who have had to change their lives to accommodate taking care of an ageing relative; or who worry if they can’t get them on the phone at a time when they should be reachable. It’s not easy, yet we accept it as an integral part of our fragmented mobile life. We are fully aware of the consequences but we still choose that life.
Sometimes we even change our life plans, willingly. I dream of living in California and would move there in an instant; but at this point, I know that not even the East Coast would be a realistic option. I don’t think my mother would ever forgive me for taking us – especially her grandchildren – so far away from her, where even the transatlantic journey to visit us would increasingly become a challenge for her. Others would still choose to go – and have. Indeed, life is too short. But I use the same argument for my choice not to go. I want to be around, as much as possible. I want to be able to be a couple of hours away, not a whole day’s journey. I also want my children to be around
their family. I want them to hear the stories and create the memories that will become part of their identity. A while ago, my husband, having just come back, enchanted, from a trip to Australia, asked me when we are moving to Sydney. My reply was: “When all our relatives are dead.”
Do you live far away from (ageing) family? How do you cope with that?