Returning to a Place that No Longer Feels Like Home
This past weekend was spent waiting on movers to arrive and then filled with hours of unpacking over 100 boxes. Our shipment from Scotland had finally arrived. It was the end of a journey that began back in November. We were returning home. But where is home?
For almost three years, I had been living and working in Aberdeen, Scotland. Known for its gray granite buildings and energy industry, this northeast coastal town is a gateway to castles, whisky, and the gorgeous Highlands.
A difficult decision had to be made – do I stay in Europe, living the expat life I had worked hard to reach, or do I head back to the US for better career options?
The Scottish word dreich (translated by Wikipedia as relentless, dismal, dreary, bleak) is often used to describe the atmosphere of the area surrounding Aberdeen. There were definitely times, in the dark of winter, when the sun rose after 9 AM and set before 3 PM, when the unrelenting rain lasted for weeks, that dreich was an apt description. With all the granite buildings, on overcast days (which are the majority in Northeast Scotland) gray was all one could see – the sky, the streets, and the buildings were all shrouded in gray.
Yet these same buildings literally sparkled when the sun was out (it has to do with the mineralogy of the rock). On these rare radiant days, my view of the North Sea during my walk home from the office reminded me how blessed I was to live there. It was a great place to call home.
It was the energy industry that brought me to this corner of Europe on a multi-year expat assignment working in the UK business unit of a Fortune 500 company. What I didn’t realize when I took the assignment, was that the strategy of my employer was shifting towards North America.
A few years into the assignment, it became clear that the career opportunities I searched for were actually back in the US. A difficult decision had to be made – do I stay in Europe, living the expat life I had worked hard to reach, or do I head back to the US for better career options? It was when the business unit started layoffs that it became prudent to head home.
It was when the business unit started layoffs that it became prudent to head home.
Now, I am back in Texas, the state I left several years ago, but it’s not really my home. I don’t consider myself a Texan since I wasn’t born here. I moved here for work after university and quickly tried to leave for an international assignment. Now, after many years living in Europe I don’t know that my world view fits with the stereotypical view here – heck, I don’t know that I fit here. Yet, there were times while I was living in Scotland that I longed for this place; the wide open space, the heat, the lower prices and the can-do spirit.
It’s strange to have to adjust to living in your native country again. There are some great things about being back. Not having to mentally calculate the currency exchange for every purchase (only to be surprised at how close you get) is a definite plus. Not having to mentally chant “keep left, keep left” whenever I went for a drive. BBQ and Tex-Mex and biscuits and gravy, I missed you so much. Drive-through ATMs – why this hasn’t caught on elsewhere eludes me.
Returning to a Place that No Longer Feels Like Home
Still my mind has been opened to new opportunities. Grocery delivery – this is available in some places in the US but not from any stores near me. It’s totally foreign to me to have to write checks now. In the UK people just give you their bank details and you transfer the funds electronically.
I ended up having to open a new bank account to get temporary checks to pay for the deposit on a house because it didn’t occur that the company would want payment in checks. And I do miss train travel. Arriving a few minutes early, finding a seat, and going off to explore a new city.
The hardest part has been reconnecting with friends; even close friends can be difficult. Thanks to social media and WiFi, it was easy to keep in touch while separated by thousands of miles. Today there are so many ways to know what’s happening. With family, I kept in touch via phone calls, video chat, or emails.
Most friends kept up with our adventures through email, Facebook, or our travel blog (little do they realize how many trips have not been posted). With friends who are also coworkers it was even easier since our office has a global instant messenger system. A few people came to visit – not as many as initially said they would, but to be fair, the assignment wasn’t as long as I expected or hoped it would be.
The joy of returning home has been all the lunches and in person chats which allow for so much more depth than the electronic alternatives. Inevitably, the conversation turns to how great my life was according to the internet. How do I answer when asked about the countries I visited? There were over 20; even reciting a list takes a minute as I struggle to remember them all. How can I pick my favorite place? Each was so different and unique.
Do I try to explain to those who think I was “living a dream life” that most of my time was spent in an open plan office working for a business unit that was no longer the focus of my employer?
I can talk of the tranquility found in hiking in the pristine Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia and the bogs of the Lahemaa National Park of Estonia. I might struggle to describe the solitude of the deafening quiet of a camel ride through Wadi Rum, Jordan. I faced my fears walking the forest canopy of the Kakum National Park in Ghana. I was immersed in history – both modern through the sights of Warsaw and Sarajevo and ancient in the stone circles of Scotland and numerous Roman ruins. They are all special to me, sometimes for reasons that I can articulate and others just because of a feeling or small experience.
Do I try to explain to those who think I was “living a dream life” that most of my time was spent in an open plan office working for a business unit that was no longer the focus of my employer? Imagine five people in an office slightly larger than a small conference room. Each of us had different jobs to do and deadlines to meet. Most days it was nice having someone to talk to, but five people don’t always get along so the office could be tense.
There was no space for thoughtful reflection or the quiet focus required to complete major projects. Yes, it was easier to get away to a European capital for a weekend but I was being paid to be in the office during the week.
Returning to a Place that No Longer Feels Like Home
Living in a different country has changed me too. My political views are different, my social views are wider. In the UK, even the most conservative politician would be considered liberal by US standards. A few months after I arrived, the national news carried a story about a policewoman being shot in England.
This story lasted for days and caused such outrage among all my coworkers. For me it was a typical news story, one that might feature on any nightly news program in the US, for them it was such a rare occurrence; it was a struggle to comprehend how something so brutal could happen. Thus began the unending questions about if America would ever give up guns.
The National Healthcare system, although not perfect, meant that I didn’t have to worry about how I would pay for medications when I was ill. Appointments lasting no more than 10 minutes were common, but I didn’t have to worry that I might go into debt to stay healthy.
Women are given up to a year off work for maternity leave, and many come back part time. In my home office, many women would rush back to the office as soon as possible after giving birth so as to not disrupt the corporation.
Life outside of work was important too. Women are given up to a year off work for maternity leave, and many come back part time. In my home office, many women would rush back to the office as soon as possible after giving birth so as to not disrupt the corporation. Vacations of more than one week were common; some colleagues took three weeks at a single time. Unlike in the US, I never felt any guilt for taking time off; it was expected that I take my holidays. This value for more than just one’s work product, the acknowledgement of a person as more than a resource is so natural in Europe. It has influenced my view of life and made me more receptive to fostering those ideals.
I appreciate being an American more and also enjoy the diversity of national characters, each one with special attributes. I remember, not long after I arrived, one of the security guards at the office asking me why I left the US, even to move to the UK. He couldn’t comprehend how a longing for adventure would make me voluntarily leave a place so many from his country were trying to get to.
My Syrian friend who questioned me as to why the US didn’t intervene in his country’s civil war, the Serbia tour guide who described his longing for a US visa to give his family a better life, the Ghanaian salesman who knew the capital city of my state, each made me see that although we didn’t always get it right, we did a lot of good in the world.
Unlike in the US, I never felt any guilt for taking time off; it was expected that I take my holidays.
In return, I realized that my problems were often very much first world problems. I learned how easy it is to forget about the stress of work when you instead have to worry if the insect flying around you will make you violently ill. I experienced friendship with people who opened their homes to share a meal so I could experience their country more fully, knowing the feast prepared would have taken a significant portion of their budget to purchase.
In more visible ways I have changed as well. My vocabulary includes words like flat (apartment) and post box (mail box) and keen (interested in). Even my appearance has changed – I wear dresses and skirts more often, taking after my British colleagues who rarely wore trousers to the office. My style now follows a European aesthetic, with principally dark colors and includes scarfs and tights. My hair is darker, too.
It was something I had always thought about but didn’t attempt in conservative corporate America. Granted I didn’t venture too far, like some UK colleagues with pink hair; mine is still a semi-traditional auburn. Living abroad gave me a chance to reinvent myself, more importantly it gave me courage be truer to myself.
I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything – the great and the not as great. It’s the combination of the two that make it special. As for settling in, that will take a while but being back does open up different travel opportunities. There are two international airports within an easy drive and I have a lot of the US to explore too. For now, I will just consider the world as my home.
Returning to a Place that No Longer Feels Like Home photo credit by Unsplash.