Wednesday, 16 April 2014

On Travel, Life Abroad and the Countries We Call Home

I recently came back from a week-long trip to Italy, one of my favourite countries in the world and a place where I was lucky enough to work on and off over a period of six years. When I left Milan and came to France, it was for professional reasons, not personal, and I wasn't really ready to go. Crossing the border with a heavy heart on a beautiful summer's day in 2010, my head was already full of plans about how I would go back there as often as I could, and that is what I did. Since then I think I've made at least two trips every year, to the Lakes, to the mountains, to the beach, to Milan, Bologna, Florence and Siena, and each trip has been beautiful, if sometimes bittersweet. It's a feeling similar to the one that I have when I visit my real home town, a kind of nostalgia for a life that could have been, if only it were possible to live in three different places all at the same time.

This spring's trip was just as lovely as the rest, with a glorious hike over the mountains at Lake Como, discovering a new city in Siena and catching up with dear friends. And yet this time, as the train pulled out of Milano Centrale, I experienced no pangs of regret, and as we drew into the Gare de Lyon eleven hours later (it was a night train - a story worth telling in itself), I felt nothing but happiness to be home.

It's a strange sensation, being perfectly contented and asking yourself why you aren't more unhappy, but one of the best things about long train journeys is that you have time to puzzle out those kinds of conundrums, and after a while I came up with what I think is the answer.

The most powerful feeling I had when I first lived abroad (in France, in my early twenties), and which intensified when I "adopted" my third country (Italy, a few years down the line), was the sense that, in integrating, I could become whoever I wanted to be. Freed from the shackles of home and its assumptions and expectations, with the opportunity to shed some cultural baggage at the same time, I had the chance to grow as a person and a sense of power and freedom to build my life the way I wanted in a place of my own choosing (and there were so many beautiful places to choose from!). I can think of no better way that I could have spent my twenties than making the most of all of those opportunities. But each time I left "for good" after living in France or Italy, I felt as if I was leaving a little piece of me behind.

This is the eternal curse of the expat, immigrant or ex-ex-pat. If you have a happy experience in a foreign country, you can only prolong it by giving up on a life at "home", and if you choose to go home, you will probably feel some degree of regret for the expat life you left behind. Add more countries into the mix and the whole situation becomes even more complicated.

So why is it that I feel I have found my solution, at least for now? Well firstly, living in Paris is a very good compromise for me: abroad, but not too far from home, and a place where I can integrate but still have British friends, where I can work in an international environment, etc. But perhaps more importantly, I've realised that the life I have now and the person I have become are the product of all the experiences I've had, at home, in France, in Italy and during all the other globetrotting adventures I've had that were largely a consequence of that first decision to move abroad. The places I've lived and worked have influenced so many things about me, from the way I dress, to the way I treat peopleto the neurological consequences of having four different foreign languages whizzing around , in my brain. And I like the way my life has turned out so far.

All of this is not to say that I don't plan to take lots more trips to bella Italia in the near future, or that I wouldn't jump at an opportunity to take on another country if it came up. It's just I've realised that the way to feel less regret is to understand that when you leave a country you have loved behind, you don't lose a part of yourself, you take a little piece of that place with you.


  1. I didn't know you were so multi-lingual, I'm impressed!

    Sigh, yes I'll try to bear your concluding though in mind. Also goes for moving cities (and, especially, being parted from friends). Glad you've found your happy place for the time being!

  2. Oh, I can relate! Ottawa is not my dream place but rather a great compromise between several cultures that I love.

  3. I always think about the countries that I've left behind, especially the Netherlands. It's been 10 years now, but I still think back with sadness. However, I know that if I went back now things would not be the same and the fact that I left when I did led me to this life that I am living now. So no regrets!

    I also feel so guilty about being here in France learning French. In my mind I feel like a traitor to my other languages, having 'abandoned' them. I have to constantly tell myself that it is normal that I continue working on my French seeing that I live here and work in French and that I am married to a Frenchman. I still feel guilty, though, especially about Italian. It is not that hard to find opportunities to speak Italian here, but it's just not the same as living in the country. I guess I will always feel this way because we can only be in one place at once.