What does it feel like to walk away from a life lived abroad? Simply put? A lot. Today marks 18 months since we boarded a plane back to the US. After seven years of living as a Scandinavian – Oregon is seeping back in, getting under my skin. I’m embracing the spaces, places, and people we missed. I won’t sugarcoat it, there have been overwhelming moments, days, and maybe whole months of deep grief. Someone remind me next winter that this time of year is just as difficult here as it was in Denmark. I don’t believe in ignoring those hard feelings and I let them wash in. Safe in my experience that those tides (eventually) roll back out.
I’ll admit, I thought I’d be further along by now. Still, I’m squarely in the middle of processing my move “home.” But Copenhagen was home too. For seven years. So from the beginning, the emotions are complicated and twisty. Let’s get into it. But first, let’s start with the definition of repatriation.
[ verb ree-pey-tree-eyt; noun ree-pey-tree-it ]
verb: (used with object), re·pa·tri·at·ed, re·pa·tri·at·ing. to bring or send back (a person, especially a prisoner of war, a refugee, etc.) to his or her country or land of citizenship. (of profits or other assets) to send back to one’s own country.
verb: (used without object), re·pa·tri·at·ed, re·pa·tri·at·ing. to return to one’s own country: to repatriate after 20 years abroad.
noun: a person who has repatriated.
WORD ORIGIN FOR REPATRIATE: from Late Latin repatriāre from Latin re- + patria fatherland
REPATRIATION BY CHOICE OR EMPLOYMENT
For some, the experience of repatriation involves no personal choice. I realize my family’s privilege to choose so – both moving abroad and back again. This piece reflects my personal account. While working through my own emotions, it turns out I’m not alone. In fact, the topic has been studied and written about extensively. For me, consuming others’ experiences has resonated and helped.
I loved this article from Kisha Solomon writing after years of living in Spain and returning to the United States. Her post “How To Deal When You Head Back Home: 6 Stages of Adjusting After Living Abroad” was quite insightful and helpful.
… unlike many other major life transitions, repatriation doesn’t always come with its fair share of support and understanding. The opportunity to live in a foreign country is often seen as just that – an opportunity. Something that you’re lucky or blessed to be able to do.– Kisha Solomon
REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK
Solomon takes the reader through the 6 stages she feels happen upon repatriation – beginning with reverse culture shock. Emily Primeaux, another fellow American repat writes after returning from eight years around Europe that she often felt “overwhelmed by choices, noises and [the] immediacy” of life back here in the US. Solomon again sums it up nicely,
From the moment you step off the plane, everything about your home country seems familiar, but in an eerily unfamiliar way. It’s like you’re in The Truman Show or The Matrix. You recognize it all, yet it all seems just a little bit off.”– Kisha Solomon, “Expat Problems: 6 Stages of Repatriation”
When people ask me what it’s like, I often refer to this quote. It feels especially pertinent to our family situation as we moved back to the exact place we left. Into the exact same house. In the exact same neighborhood. But exactly the same, it was not. Part of that is the place – it’s the same, but it’s different. New buildings and restaurants and houses we don’t recognize, built-up next door and around the block. Part of it is simply the people we’re not anymore.
According to Dr. Cate Brubaker of The Re-entry Roadmap Podcast, re-entry is not about readjusting back to the status quo you left behind… even if you wanted to, you couldn’t go back to the home you left behind as it doesn’t exist in the way that it did before.”
Intellectually I knew this. But sifting through the realities of a place you might have romanticized on the bad days abroad – while recreating and redefining your life in that space is not for the faint of heart. Call it re-entry, repatriating, or even just moving back – all of them conjure the sense of going backward, but it’s not.
I share this reflection from an American friend made in Copenhagen, who moved back to Michigan soon after our own repatriation.
“I think in some ways it is even harder to go back to a place you once lived than starting anew. You simultaneously mourn the loss of one home and how the return to home is not the same as when you left and you no longer fit in the same because of how much you’ve changed. It’s hard to go back after living a bold life abroad.”– Maia Hausler of @wandergather , fellow American expat in Copenhagen
IMPACT ON IDENTITY
Looking for more little digital gems of validation, I stumbled upon the US State Department website regarding reverse culture shock. It’s a surprisingly spot-on list of insights about the re-acclimation rollercoaster for many moving back from abroad. “Your overseas experience has significantly impacted your identity. As you immersed yourself in a new culture, you broadened your perspective and opened your mind to new ideas. Once you return home, you realize that tensions exist between your new identity and mainstream society. You no longer feel like you fit in.”
For me right now – as I process in this new space – I am experiencing a healthy fear of missing out. I know it seems crazy. You chose to move back. And yes. We did. But when touchpoints with a culture you adopted as your own for close to seven years are complex and far away, it tugs at your heartstrings in a weird reverse way. Seeing friends connect when you physically can’t. Watching the seasons turn with the tastes you can’t taste.
What I wouldn’t do for a mug of Christmas gløgg while wandering cobblestoned cuteness festooned with twinkly lights. Or seeing my feed splashed with all this year’s fancy fastelavnsboller and semla buns inducing massive bouts of nostalgia indeed. Yes, I know the dark days of a Danish winter weren’t easy. But when you survived it seven times, you strangely miss it. This is apparently all part of the natural process towards re-acclimation.
MISSING THE “ME” I’D BECOME
I will forever miss things about Copenhagen and our little corner in it. What do I miss the most you ask? Truthfully? The me I’d become. It sounds odd to say it like that, but it takes a minute to reinvent yourself with each move. Maybe you jumped right into a job that hastened your process. Or maybe your role as a caregiver helped define that course as soon as you landed.
I’ve had to rebuild networks from scratch, and my part in them. I’m not keeping score, but I have moved a bunch. Domestically (six times – who’s counting) and then most recently to Denmark. And now back. Creating an empowering and satisfactory life took time and effort in each place. For myself and my family. Double that time when in a foreign country.
I found this quote by Azar Nafisi, the Iranian-American author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” on a fellow expat’s (@migratingmiss) website.
You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place like you’ll not miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.– Azar Nafisi, Iranian-American author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran”
Of course, I miss the friendships and people we met in Denmark, still, that second bit resonated with me deeply. I liked the “me” I’d created in Copenhagen and have found it a challenge to remake her fully over here. At “home.” That identity doesn’t fit or make as much sense in this place. At least, not yet.
Other expats I’ve talked to have also noted the strong sense of a special parenthesis marking their time abroad,
“What was the hardest about leaving was knowing it was a snapshot in time…If I were ever to go back it would never be exactly the same, some would have moved and new people arrived. It was leaving and hugging [friends] I knew I may never see or hug again…that was what was the hardest part.”– Lori Moll Buchanan American expat in Switzerland, back in Connecticut.
DON’T IGNORE THE MOURNING OR GRIEF
Another person who paid it forward for me was Emma of TheSojournies.com – a Brit who lived in Denmark, Germany, and now back in England. She reminded me that “the only people who truly get how you might feel are those that have done it themselves.” In writing about her own repatriation, Emma brought up the idea of creating an “acceptable state of alignment” in your new normal. She has a great guide for those processing repatriations, “12 Tips for a Successful Repatriation.”
Even reading it before I left didn’t prepare me for the depth of these feelings. For you who know it, it can seem like disenfranchised grief. Lyndsay McLean of the blog Swisslark.com writes “I can understand that from the outside looking in, it may seem genuinely frivolous or irrelevant like it’s not even a thing to those not experiencing it.” Having moved from the US to Switzerland to the US and back, she knows what she’s talking about. Listening to podcasts and consuming writings about others’ experiences of “moving back” helps, even if it doesn’t lessen what’s felt.
FIRST SEASON OF A PERSONAL REPATRIATION
I’m still in the first season of my personal repatriation. The starting cast was already lined up. The (emotional) budget without space for special effects and the lighting honestly – pretty low cost. Some of the scriptwriting was done right on the spot. But good news, this show has been renewed for additional seasons, so here’s hoping we build on the best bits from this past year and a half. And just in case you think my quotes are unfairly slanted towards the American expat experience – here is evidence in reverse – from a Dane who lived in Oregon.
I feel the same towards Oregon which was my home for a year and many summers and winters after that. All the moments, places, people and [that] version of myself, will stay in Oregon forever in my heart.
The good thing is- you can always visit.– Mie, born and raised Copenhagen girl
FINAL STAGE OF REPATRIATION?
I’m working through the process and just sharing the emotions. Thanks for reading. I will forever have a red and white Denmark-shaped stamp on my heart. But slowly, it’s turning mossy and green, full of mountains and an evergreened Oregon coast once again. All things I missed while living over there. As Kisha Solomon writes,
In the final stage, you recognize that you don’t have to completely abandon everything about your old life in order to adjust to your new life. You begin to adapt the things you gained from your expat experiences or things that you miss about your life in your former host country to new contexts and your new locale.– Kisha Solomon
So please share – have you done it? Chosen a life lived abroad and then back again? What was the roughest bit? And what got you through it. I’d love to know. And if you’re still in the muck of it, please know – you are not alone. It helps me to read, talk and write about it with people who’ve felt it. Happy to discuss if you need it.
SIDE NOTE: The photos were all taken during the beginning of pandemic lockdowns in Copenhagen and are part of a greater project I’m working on about the isolation of being behind closed borders during a life lived abroad.