Repat retrospection

Repat retrospection

By Toni Hargis

Most of the expats I know spend a few years in one country and then move on. In many cases, when you ask them where they’re “from” they can’t really name a specific place, such is their nomadic experience. For many, the issue of settling down isn’t one of “repatriation” so much as “Where do we fancy retiring?” In my case, however, I was an expat/immigrant in the USA for twenty seven years, then came “home” to England last summer.

Like many who return after a long stint abroad, I find myself with a foot in each camp – no longer an expat but not yet feeling fully British. It’s a tricky one, but I think I’ve learned/learnt a few things already:

It’s not what it was – Obviously after a long stint away, your home country changes. Since I took off before the Internet was literally available at our fingertips, almost everything about daily life has changed. But it’s not just the country that changes, it’s your place in it.

Other than annual visits and weekly phone calls, It’s decades since I was an integral part of the lives of my friends and family members here. I’m not the one people automatically think of calling when something great or devastating happens. I’m not on anyone’s “Oh we must invite….” list, nor am I part of “the gang” to anyone. And that’s understandable. It’s compounded by the geographical distances that now exist between my old circles of friends. We no longer live around the corner from each other, meet in the local or work in the same office. None of it’s the same, and indeed it would have been quite sad if I’d come back after so long to find everyone exactly as I’d left them.

Toni’s dog enjoying the English countryside.

Make new friends – Since you won’t immediately slot back into old friendships, you need to make new ones. This is even more important if you’re not living near those old friends; much as you might want to, it’s not really practical to spend every other day making a three hour round trip just to have a coffee. As an expat, you might have been adept at “diving in” and making all sorts of connections, and you have to do the same as a repat.

Clara Wiggins, writer and lifelong global nomad, recently returned to the UK (again), this time after two years in South Africa. “For me, what has been important has been finding ways to meet new people since returning. Not only do I recognize that other people will have moved on, even more so I recognize that I have changed and a part of that change is needing to feel like I have actually been away rather than just slotting back into where I left off. I have met a new group of friends (via Twitter, believe it or not) and have also become close to a friend who probably wasn’t my best friend before I went away.”

Rekindling old friendships – I’ve had a blast catching up with old friends; I’ve even seen some of them several times instead of the usual once every year or so. Most people will be delighted to hear from you but you must do the leg work, and without complaint. If you want to see people, it’s on you to make it happen. They’re not used to including you in Sunday frolics, trips to the theatre or after work drinks and it’s not because they don’t want you there, they just forget you’re back.

Let some friendships go – As I mentioned, it has taken time to organize some meetings with old friends, and in a few cases, it’s still an ongoing project. (You know who you are!) However, over the years I’ve realized that some people just aren’t that great at keeping up friendships. Ditto when coming “home” – there will be some people from “way back” that simply don’t respond to repeated suggestions to get together. It’s possible that while they were happy to meet for coffee or dinner once every few years, they don’t have room in their lives for you on a more regular basis. While I can’t say it’s not a teeny bit hurtful, it is what it is. (Yes, I used that phrase!) Time to let go and move on without taking anything too personally.

Ease back into family life – In my case, I’m still not living round the corner from my immediate family so to them, it’s probably not much different from when I was five thousand miles away. For anyone relocating next to family though, it’s important to set boundaries if you want them, recognize any boundaries they might have and not smother your siblings if they’re not ready.

Blogger Clare Taylor (alias Potty Mummy) spent four years in Moscow before returning to the UK. You make your life abroad, she explains, with friends substituting for family, and when you move back home, you might expect your real family will provide the same unquestioning support. “Well, maybe not”, she continues, “Because while you’ve been creating your own universe on your global travels, so have the folks back home. Whilst they may be delighted to have you back in town, after that first flush of excitement, you may find that their lives have moved on, just as yours has…you may not be automatically included in those family gatherings you were once a lynchpin of.” Clare recommends reaching out when you need support and having an honest and open discussion about your new situation.

Manage your expectations – Given that almost everything about your “old life” is now just a memory, part of your life story, treat it that way and don’t try to recreate it. Similarly, everyone else has been busy writing their own history, much of which didn’t include you. Take things slowly and remember that you’re the one coming back; they’ve been here all along.

[Images courtesy of Toni Hargis]

Toni Hargis is a British/American author, columnist and blogger who recently returned to the UK after 27 years in the USA. She is the author of Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, St. Martin’s Press 2006, and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students, Summertime Publishing, 2013, 2016. Toni began blogging as Expat Mum in 2008, has written for BBC America’s “Mind the Gap” , the Wall Street Journal’s Expat Section,  and the Expat Focus web site  She is currently a Huffington Post blogger and a columnist at the popular Anglotopia web site. Over the years, she has been invited to speak on various UK/US issues on radio and television, on both sides of the Pond. Visit her website at: http://tonisummershargis.com

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