Expat life: why you can’t go home againJuly 31, 2016
I have been an expat for nearly ten years, and this is the first summer I’ve been able to go ‘home’ to the UK for more than ten days. With a toddler in tow, we’ve spent the last six weeks bouncing between friends and family, planes, trains and automobiles – literally. Long car journeys, more roadside cheese sandwiches than I dare to count, and welcoming spare rooms, a different one almost every week. And it has been wonderful.
For the last two weeks we have been based at my parents’ house in beautiful Northumberland. I’m lucky – SO lucky – that they’re besotted with their 18-month-old granddaughter, with my dad showing her around the garden, calling her his ‘little sprout’, tinkering on the car together and reading her stories, while my mum has been a force to be reckoned with; boundless energy, endless laundry, meals, love and patience. With me as well as the toddler.
The problem is that being at home doesn’t exactly bring out the best in me. Since walking through my parents’ door I have both aged and regressed; I turn into my 16-year-old self, asking for lifts, being thoughtless without meaning to be, and sighing a bit more than is really necessary.
It’s a difficult dynamic. It’s not my home anymore. I don’t know where anything is, or what the routine is normally like, before we crashed in with plastic toys and tiny cutlery, or if mum really means it when she tells me to have a rest. I want them to spend as much time with their granddaughter as possible – after all, it’s not their fault that we live 4,700 miles away – but I desperately don’t want my ‘okay, great, thanks, over to you’ approach to by misinterpreted as laziness.
I’ve been feeling displaced – in some ways nothing has changed (same shops, same faces, same headlines in the weekly newspaper), but in others, it’s all different. I’m different. It all seems smaller. I’m now in my childhood haunts with an adult head on my shoulders, now a wife and mother, and while I tear up thinking about happy times gone by – days on the riverbank, or nights in the local, the best of friends and rites of passage – I can’t help but deeply miss my ‘new’ life. Of independence, and what feels like my real identity, our dogs, my bed. God I miss that bed. I don’t feel like me. And then I feel guilty.
A few days ago I had a big, ugly cry to mum, apologising for being a ‘horrible, ungrateful daughter’ and she assured me that it’s their privilege to look after Phoebe, which was the best thing she could have said. And I’m trying more.
For our daughter, this has been the most brilliant summer – time with both sets of grandparents, hours playing outside (impossible in Dubai at this time of year), parks, and gardens, and zoos, and little friends. She’s been smiling the whole time, and that’s why we’re home. For family. Even if it doesn’t feel like home any more.
But I’ll hire a car next time.