Friday, December 29, 2006

No place like home

As much as I enjoyed Paris, a part of me couldn't wait for the trip to be over.

My desire to leave Paris had nothing to do with the cold weather (though it was a tad chilly for my taste), the language barrier (though our phrase book turned out to be woefully inadequate) or the fact that if I ate one more "kid friendly" cafe's version of a ham and cheese omelet, I was pretty sure I was going to choke on it. I wanted to leave Paris because I wanted to go home. More specifically, I wanted to see if returning to London would feel like coming home.

Throughout the few months that we've been living here in London, we've received quite a bit of (mostly solicited) advice and words of wisdom from other expats, including my brother and sister-in-law, who are fresh off their own 6-month expat stint in Berlin. And once thing that we kept hearing again and again was that once you've been away and experienced an even newer, even more overwhelming culture, you come to realize that the new, overwhelming place that you've moved to really doesn't feel so new and overwhelming anymore. "When you get back from traveling," people kept telling me, "you realize how much you actually know about your new area and how comfortable you are there. Go away, and then you can come home."

I think perhaps I took these words a little too much to heart. In the abstract, I can see that they probably are at least somewhat true. Remembering to use British terms and expressions feels effortless after struggling to interpret French, and I certainly know my way around London far better than Paris. But I stepped off the Tube last week waiting for a thunderbolt, a wave of comfort and familiarity that would envelop me in a mutually adoring embrace. And it didn't happen. I walked home on familiar streets, but I was frankly pretty indifferent about seeing them. I entered a flat that looked familiar, but the things inside it still didn't especially feel like mine. It was a relief, certainly, to be back here and done with our traveling for the time being. But I didn't particularly feel as if I'd come home.

As I was waiting for a thunderbolt that never came, it was busy knocking my kids clear off their feet. Evan crowed with delight when he spotted our post code on the street signs. Julia's voice rose an octave as she noted our house in the distance. Both kids entered the flat, reunited joyfully with their belongings, and then fell instantly asleep in their own beds, clearly home in every sense of the word. I have to admit, I was jealous.

This has been a tough week for me. The holiday and ensuing time "at home" with my family have been lovely, but I've been struggling mightily with conflicting feelings about being here. I've lived happily in London for the past 3 months, but I'm now realizing how much of my lifestyle is set up based on the knowledge that this is all temporary. I'm not buying local health and beauty products, but instead am still using a stash of American favorites stored in a huge Tupperware bin under my bed. I'm not learning new places to shop for clothing or toys here but instead am doing all of my buying online or asking friends and family to send things from home. I've got no plans to find a dentist here since we can time our checkups to US visits and while I've found a doctor we can go to for prescription refills and sick calls, I wouldn't really feel comfortable consulting her about anything out of the ordinary or remotely serious. I've made a life for us here, yes, but I've made little effort to really live here.

This kind of precarious balance, with a foot in each country, has worked fine for our first 3 months here. But I don't see how I can continue this way for another 18 months. Evan's about to outgrow his shoes and I'm simply going to have to find a shoe store to fit him with new ones, no matter how much the price tag on them makes me woozy. Julia's going to run out of kids' conditioner and I'm simply going to have to find a UK brand to replace it (surely such a thing exists here... they do have children and they do have hair). Most importantly, I am going to have to make a mental shift, to stop turning to the US for everything from new clothing to a friendly voice to children's fever reducers. My fantasy of returning from Paris and instantly feeling at home was just that; a fantasy. In reality, if I want this place to be home, I need to take steps to make that happen.

The prospect of learning to live in London, as opposed to just residing here, is in some ways even scarier than coming here was. I'm quite frankly not certain that I'm ready to do it, and despite lots of time this week spent thinking about what's involved in such a transition, I'm not sure if or when or how I'll actually be able to act on making it happen. But we've got lots of travel in our future; Scotland next week and Portugal next month and the States soon after that. And one of these days, after one of those trips, I really want to feel like I've come home.


Anonymous Dan said...

I'm sorry coming home did not hit you the same way it did for us. Not sure that this helps, but I got pretty blue and home sick at the three month mark as well. I guess the difference is that I only had three more to go at that point. I think it is good that you will keep traveling. Each time I came back it felt more like home. :) It didn't hurt that each time I came back the German Language was more and more familiar while French, Italian and Hungarian never quite clicked in my brain. I also found that spring had a great effect on my mood and feelings about living in Europe. I’m sending warm thoughts. Hope you guys have a Happy New Year and safe travels.

7:22 PM  
Blogger Gina said...

You know, I can't imagine moving half-way across the country from my family and everything I call familiar - much less moving half-way across the world. I hope that London does become "home" for you soon. My Christmas card will probably arrive at your house next week. (because I'm horrible and didn't mail *any* of them as early as I'd wanted). Happy New Year.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Based on my experiences with moving from place to place, I don't think "home" is something you can make happen. It's not something you can do or buy or learn. I don't think there's a magic amount of time or a magic "do this and then you'll be home" trick. Home And maybe London will never really be home for you... But, on the other hand, there is always "home away from home". Maybe that will do the trick for a while?


3:53 AM  
Blogger Dana said...

I moved around *alot* as a child and teen so what Jennifer said is bang on.

My BIL and his wife lived for 5 years in Bermuda and the whole time, they did keep a foot in both Canada and Bermuda by doing the things you mentioned in your posts (i.e. bringing sundries back from a visit to Canada, etc). Doctors and dentists remained in Canada as well. Nevertheless, they did find that Bermuda really began to feel like home, but it took time (about a year.)

3:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found your very interesting and entertaining blog! I feel I should warn you that when you do return to the U.S., it will take a while for that to feel like home to you again. Hard to believe, but it's true. You will all be changed and you can't really 'go back'!

3:32 PM  

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