Once you’ve chosen to come back home you become a stranger in a familiar world.
I recently finished my 2 year Masters programme abroad and returned from a rather introspective solo trip to Australia before that. Both times I made a choice: to return home. It may seem like a simple, natural choice, to come back home, but for me it wasn’t. In fact, it never has been.
Often when I travel I fall in love with the place I’m visiting and I feel like I left a piece of myself behind when I leave. We have a name for that, post-holiday blues, and there’s even fernweh, the feeling of missing a place you’ve never been to. We know all about how hard it is to leave your homeland and move abroad for whatever reason, particularly when you are forced to due to unfortunate circumstances, but we never talk about how unnaturally hard it is to choose to come back home when you have other options.
In my country, much like in many others, we like to compare ourselves to others. All of our issues with politics, employment, healthcare, schooling and the general quality of life are surely better fixed in the mythical land of abroad, where everything is always great and the sun always shines out of everyone’s butts. Well, when I was younger, I actually believed that to an extent. I never thought my country was particularly horrible and I’m well aware that we Slovenians are much better off than many parts of the world, but it always felt like there were too few opportunities and that many things could be handled much better (which is most certainly true!). So, I worked hard to get the chance to go beyond the borders of our little European chicken and I made it.
Suddenly I was living in the UK and then in Sweden and I had all these options of good engineering positions allover the world, because I had earned them. I was living in two countries with objectively better living standards than the one I’d come from, but unfortunately, all their issues were not magically fixed just because they were higher up on the world’s critically acclaimed ladder. They were dealing with rather the same issues as us – there’s a lovely Balkan expression, which translates to “same shit, different packaging” isto sranje, drugo pakovanje, and well, it’s very true. Now, we could go into the whole “human beings are fundamentally made to be unhappy with their circumstances” thing, but my point is somewhere else.
All at once returning back home no longer seemed like a total personal and career suicide as, unlike a lot of immigrants, I had the advantage of coming from a reasonably good country. There honestly wasn’t that much difference in returning or going forward to another country, other than the number on my paycheck, which doesn’t always indicate the quality of life (once it’s past that pesky little threshold of not struggling daily, of course). But despite that, everyone always talks about ambition, achieving more and being better, which, in engineering, is partly measured by where and who you get the chance to work for. Imagine the kick in the head from reality I got, when I realised I didn’t actually want to permanently move abroad, that I wanted to return home, continue my career there and carve out my own opportunities if I had to.
The pros outweighed the cons and back home I went to start my PhD at my home university. As stated in the beginning, for some it would’ve been the easiest and the best choice in the world, the chance to return home and get most, if not all, of what you want and need in life, as most people are quite attached to their home countries. I wasn’t really, but I do acknowledge that sometimes it takes looking in from the outside to see the good in something you’d otherwise take for granted…
Once you’ve chosen to come back home you become a stranger in a familiar world. No one seems to understand exactly why you came back and why you’d throw away the wonderful opportunity of moving to the magical land of abroad (to be honest, every time I take a bus in Ljubljana even I don’t). It becomes a bit impossible to relate to others and their daily struggles when you suddenly see the beauty in completely ordinary things that just weren’t there while you were abroad. Everyone around you is so used to it that they fail to see the good and focus only on the bad; it gets increasingly hard to keep your mouth shut and not call them petty and short-sighted, because you know you were exactly like them and probably will be again soon, once the novelty wears off. It’s even harder to enjoy the art of complaining and to get into the community spirit as much as you used to: the great land of abroad is now tarnished by a faint patina of bullshit, since you’ve seen that everything everywhere is pretty much the same or, in many cases, worse.
It is however, very nice to be back in your own cultural background, where you stand on firm feet every time you tell a joke and people understand your stupid references and sarcasm. Unfortunately, you soon notice that your mother tongue has become rather uncomfortable: the language that once freely flowed through your thoughts now feels a bit clunky and awkward after you’ve spent 2 years thinking in a different one. Also, you now have an accent as people constantly ask you where you’re from in your own hometown…
Coming back is walking down the streets of your hometown fascinated by all the little shops and cafes that popped up while you were gone, by every brick that’s new and undiscovered… to the soundtrack of everyone else grumbling on about how no renovations were really necessary and how every improvement costs money that someone probably lined their pockets with, because corruption is a national sport in Slovenia.
It’s the urge to put up Christmas decorations on the 1st of December, even though you’ve always hated Christmas and all its glitter and kitsch, because you don’t want to miss a single moment more with your loved ones and because you want to make up for all the moments you’ve lost while you were away… all the while half of your heart is secretly breaking for the micro-cosmos you’d made for yourself during your life abroad and the people that made it awesome.
It’s knowing that you can never go back to that, that the world you had abroad no longer exists in the same way and never will again. People move, places change and most importantly, you change as a person, so the circumstances will never be exactly the same, even if you decided to return. On the same note, it’s also hugging your significant other at home extra hard in the morning, because they’re there within your reach when you wake up and you’ll never take that for granted again.
It’s taking the time to cook complicated stuff, because you finally have the right ingredients to make them smell like home, because even the basic things like bread and oil don’t taste the same in a different land. It’s also trying to recreate the dishes you loved eating while abroad and finding that same bittersweet taste of difference there.
It’s knowing that you made the easy choice by returning to tackle life’s battles on familiar grounds, but also the hard choice by returning to deal with the problems you left behind head on – it is easy to avoid one’s issues while living abroad and to forget exactly how miserable certain aspects of your life back home made you. It’s also knowing that you’ve made the choice your wide-eyed childhood self would’ve hated you for and realising, that you’ve really, irrevocably grown up, when the joy of simple things outweighs the impossible, exciting dreams of undefined adventures. Sure, I’ll always travel as much as I can and even try to go abroad for projects or temporary placements, but I know now that I’ll probably never permanently move abroad from Slovenia, unless it’s to retire.
It’s also finally truly understanding, why people who’ve had to leave their homelands in desperate search of a better future always yearn to return, even though it was bad there, and why people who chose to move somewhere else because they fell in love with a person or a place never look back and wholly appreciate their new homes.
It’s realising that home is not really a place, but a feeling inside you. It’s acknowledging that you did leave pieces of yourself scattered allover the world when you travelled, attached to the people you met and the places you saw, and that each of them represented a possible future you could have had if you had chosen differently. And it’s actively deciding that just because those pieces of you are now scattered allover the planet, that doesn’t make you full of holes, but rather a solid whole, shaped by all the experiences that chipped away at it.
Coming back home is accepting that you’ve come full circle and not perceiving that as a failure, but acknowledging your personal progress instead. It is wondering what things would’ve been like if you’d remained abroad and not stressing out about it. Most importantly, it’s taking full responsibility for the choices you’ve made that have led you back, for choosing this particular future and all the futures that will follow it. Because there is always a choice.
“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.”J. P. Sartre – Existentialism and Human Emotions
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