“You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”
– Maya Angelou
Our first highly anticipated visit back to our home country was equal parts joy, laughter, and exhaustion. We spent a total of five weeks in the U.S., four of those weeks in our home city of Seattle and one in Chicago visiting more family. The kids were able to spend quality time with both sets of grandparents and we were able to visit many of our dear friends. Our first return to Seattle would be exactly 11 months after we departed. During those 11 months, we had started a new life in a new country. The kids had started new schools and made new friends, Brian was traveling extensively for work, and I was trying to learn the logistics and culture of a new country.
As we counted down the days to our return home, the kids were very excited. I was feeling a bit resfeber. I had lined up coffees and lunches with friends and we had booked a solid calendar of visits. It was hard to come up with the right mix of people given the amount of time we had in Seattle. I tried to consider how many people we could see in each day putting a heavy emphasis on quality time versus quantity of people. It was important that we shared our lives and not just checked people off our list.
Resfeber (n.): the restless race of the traveler’s heart before the journey begins, when anxiety and anticipation are tangled together
I found that there were a lot of different emotions that led up to our first visit back. For my children, the two stages were excitement and sadness. For me, it was a much more complex set of emotions.
During our first year in England, I was never homesick. This made me a little uneasy. I’d heard many stories about people who were incredibly homesick during their first year abroad. So, what was wrong with me? Could I so easily detach myself from my home country? Did that make me an insensitive human being? Was I compartmentalizing my actual feelings and once I arrived back in my hometown, it would burst like a big emotional dam that would take me months to mop up? All of these questions kept gnawing at me.
I also wanted to be sensitive to my children’s emotions as well. My oldest, who was 6 when we left, remembers a lot about his hometown. Where he lived, his old school, his family and his friends. During our first year in England, he talked about all of these things obsessively. I knew he would love returning back to Seattle but I was worried about his emotional state when we would have to return to England. My youngest remembers parts of Seattle but mostly the people. For her, I knew that missing my mom would be the hardest part. My mom raised her while I worked so they have a very close relationship.
Initially we had planned our trip for three weeks, the first week in Chicago followed by two weeks in Seattle. As I started outlining our trip, I realized it wasn’t enough time for the kids to spend quality time with the grandparents, allow us to see our friends, and not feel stressed. We needed more time so we could slow down. That prompted us to add two more weeks onto the beginning of our trip and I’m glad we did. Brian would meet us in Chicago as originally planned. It was the right amount of time, especially for our first trip home.
When the day finally arrived, we were very excited to begin our journey. Since we had added two weeks to the trip, I was flying alone with the children for the first half. Thankfully it was a direct flight in premium economy. Upon landing in Seattle, it felt surprisingly normal. The one feeling that did arise was that we were now visitors in the place we used to call home. It was a mix of complete familiarity yet feeling uprooted at the same time. Still everything looked the same. The kids and I spent the next few days at my parent’s house all trying to rid ourselves of the ferocious jet lag.
My first few days were a whirlwind of meeting with friends. That felt wonderful. It also felt like I hadn’t left. It was as if my life in England was a lovely dream that was now tucked further back in my memory. What I discovered in those moments was that good friendships stand the test of time. The friendships are so deep that you can pick up right where you left off and it feels like no time has passed. Sure, there were external changes to everybody’s life like new jobs, new remodels, and vacations but everything else felt familiar.
Our five weeks in the U.S. flew by. Each day was filled with visits. Every one of them were wonderful and filled our hearts with love and laughter. On the last day of our trip, the kids started getting sad. My son was particularly emotional about leaving his grandpa. My daughter was inconsolable. This was the tough part that we had anticipated. I don’t think there is anything we could have said that would have made them feel better so we just hugged them and let them cry. We acknowledged their sadness. When they were ready, we talked about all the ways we could stay in touch such as face-time, phone calls, and future visits. It’s difficult when a 10-hour flight separates you from some of your favorite people in the world. Thankfully, technology has allowed us to more easily keep in touch.
Upon returning to England, I did feel surprisingly emotional. I think it was part sadness at not having good friends close on a regular basis but also realizing we were entering another phase of our expat life. The first year, we existed on adrenaline. It almost felt like an extended holiday. Trying to figure things out. Exploring new places. Now heading into our second year, we were starting to settle in. This meant that we had to let go even more of our old “home” so that we could be fully committed to our new “home”. Still, as expats, we are fortunate to feel loved and cherished in not one but two places in the world.
Trip Details: Planning, Logistics, and Learnings
This is a recap of the more boring, but necessary side of travel. I’m a big believer that if you do your due diligence in thinking through the details and minimizing any friction you anticipate, it makes the entire trip go more smoothly. As with every trip, there are things that went well and things that could have been done better.
Things that went well:
- We waited a year before returning to our home country. I believe it was necessary to establish ourselves in our new country so that we could look forward (instead of feel conflicted) to the return and our new life. By the end of our visit, the kids were ready to head back to their home in England.
- We brought British food products for all our friends. Since we saw so many people, this was a nice, economical gift from our new home country.
- We planned our visiting schedule ahead of our arrival. This was vital in ensuring that we saw as many people as we could yet making it a pleasant experience for our family.
- Choosing quality of time over quantity of people. This is important to us because we want our children to have a deep connection to their family and friends even if we live halfway around the world.
- Eating all the food that we missed. There were plenty more places that we didn’t get to but I think we did a great job trying to eat all the food that we had missed including real Mexican and Asian cuisine.
Learnings from our trip:
- Plan more free days. We only planned one day during our entire five weeks home for just the four of us. It was the right decision for our first trip home but for future trips, we would like to incorporate more days so we can actually take the kids to some of the sights.
- Plan only one event/activity per day. This is our normal rule of thumb but because we were trying to squeeze in so many people, we were seeing two families a day. It was exhausting and sometimes it was challenging to be fully present.
- Plan more non-food visits. Constant socializing means constant eating (good, but not necessarily good for you food). Next time, we will try to incorporate more parks for the kids and less restaurants.
- Have some type of schedule/rhythm for the kids. Although we were on holiday, it was a 5 week break which isn’t a normal vacation. We realized we needed a rhythm when our kids became unruly the day after a big outing.
- Try to make overnight trips at least two nights. We did several overnight trips and this became incredibly tiring trying to pack up and unpack an entire family within a 24 hour period.
The logistics of scheduling visits with friends and family
This was the first time we’d ever run into this issue but one I know it is something that many people who come back to their hometowns face. How do you see everybody that you want and spend quality time and not feel exhausted? It can be incredibly daunting and stressful.
I started thinking through our five week trip 3 months out outlining a very rudimentary calendar. I quickly realized my attempt was futile. I would need a more robust system considering all the moving parts and changes that I knew would happen. Excel is always my go to for complicated tasks with many moving parts. I created a calendar so that I could visually see how our visit would look. I included separate lines for kids and adults. That way when the kids were with the grandparents, we could plan other kid-free activities for ourselves. Our sleeping arrangements also varied for parts of the trip so I wanted to make sure I remembered where we would be each night!
The goal was to commit to a maximum of two activities/visits per day, ideally one in the morning and one in the afternoon. After the structure of our trip was outlined, I begin to fill it in with friends and family. I first blocked out time for the grandparents to watch (ummmm, I mean spend quality time) with the kids. Then I started slotting in dates for our out of town visits that would require overnight stays. After that, I was able to slot in coffees/lunches and local commitments.