The Full Circle of Expat Life


The Full Circle of Expat Life

Moving abroad, returning home and everything in between

By Claire Henderson

Originally published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 23 | March/April 2016

At the end of 2008, I used the inheritance from my recently deceased Granny to buy a one-way ticket from Scotland to Australia. I was 24, and the grief of watching cancer take the woman I loved with all my heart, idolized and spent most of my time with sent me slightly off the rails. So after making a barrage of idiotic choices, I impulsively bought a flight, gave up my first professional job as a sub-editor at a Sunday newspaper, squeezed my life into a backpack and flew to Sydney in March 2009, with no plan apart from meeting my sister, who was already there backpacking.

Now I’m 32 and I’m on the cusp of returning back to the U.K. on a one-way ticket. I’ve called this beautiful country “home” for about eight years and it’s been a wild ride.

I reunited with my sister in Sydney, and was immediately overawed by the thick wall of heat that hit me as soon as I stepped off the plane, as well as the Neighbors-style houses, and everyone’s laid-back, friendly vibe. We then flew across to Perth and stayed in a hostel, making a gang of travel friends (including my future ex-husband), before heading to work in a pub in a rural mining town, which was undoubtedly the most authentic and unique Aussie experience I had, with searing temperatures, ocher Aussies, skimpy bars and kangaroos bouncing freely around.

We saved enough cash to rent a car and drive the red, dusty road from Perth to Broome, and then flew to Darwin to meet our traveling friends and work again, before exploring the east coast. In the next few months, the group gradually dispersed as visas ran out and new travel plans formed. By this stage I was in a relationship with an Irish teacher called Michael* and we decided to take a road trip to Melbourne to find work in our professional fields.

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And so came the transition from a fun-filled nomadic lifestyle to “real life”. I didn’t miss my home in Scotland when on the road, and I loved living in a campervan so much I cried when it came time to find a house. Stopping in one place was when I started to realize how much of the lives of close family and friends I was missing. Since I left, I’ve missed the weddings of two of my best friends, and numerous births, as well as big birthdays and funerals, the last one being my Granny’s. It kills me every time. But there is no way to just “pop home” when flights cost at least $1000 and take at least 24 hours.

However, I fell deeply in love with Melbourne as soon as we drove in. Such a stunning, relaxed, clean city; it is brimming with culture, has an outrageously high-quality, diverse food scene and the best coffee in the world. It took only a few weeks for us both to get well-paid jobs in our career field and Michael’s work sponsored us so we could have permanent visas. Soon the adventure became a life. We found a nice house, built a great bond with our neighbors, formed a circle of friends and thoroughly enjoyed the lifestyle and the long summers, that were mostly spent camping and exploring.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. We lost two friends quite traumatically. And while we became engaged to be married, behind closed doors, Michael was also battling with an alcohol problem, which brought with it a whole raft of soul-destroying issues. At the time, I always felt like I should have been more grateful for the life I had but something massively wasn’t right. However, without close friends and family around to see what was going on and provide support, it became the norm to cling to each other and live in a cycle of hurt.

In 2013, we got married in Spain. The wedding itself was a brilliant party but, again, something just wasn’t right. Some of our family members picked up on it, but for many it was only the first or second time they had met each of us, thanks to us living so far away, and it was impossible to discuss at a time that is meant to be the happiest day of your life. So still we plugged on. We came back to Australia for a few months and then headed off to South America for an eight-month honeymoon, where Michael’s alcoholism blew out of control and I walked out of the relationship. He hit rock-bottom but has been dry now for more than a year, and I am the happiest I’ve been in a long time. But that road hasn’t been easy.

Returning to Melbourne seemed like a crazy idea to many. It was so difficult for my family and close friends in Scotland, who just wanted to protect me. But being surrounded by a fabulous bunch of friends and having a job I knew well, I managed to slowly wobble back onto my own two feet. And with my ex in the same city, I had time to verify my decision, rather than run away.

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My first step to independence started with a screwdriver and some flat-pack furniture – and then six months of counseling (everyone here is entitled to 10 free sessions a year). As I started to pick myself up off the floor, I gave myself three “independent woman” goals: divorce, citizenship and a house deposit.

Eighteen months later, I have proudly achieved all three, and it’s now time for a new chapter. In the past six months, my mom and dad have come out to visit, as have my sister and my best friend, and it’s just made me want to be closer to them. Seeing them once every year or two isn’t enough.

So for now, my heart is telling me to go back to Scotland, although it breaks to leave what I will always consider to be the best city in the world. I’m immensely grateful to have citizenship, so returning is always a possibility. This is definitely not “Goodbye, Australia”; it’s “See ya later”.

*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.

[Photography © Claire Henderson]

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