I moved to Amsterdam on a whim in November 2000. I was young, with itchy feet, and feeling stifled by my job – which involved shift work with a different work pattern each week. Living in Dublin at the time was pleasant – I had money in my pocket to spend; good friends and a social life which seemed to involve a lot of nightclubbing. A chance arose to live abroad and I grabbed it and held on for dear life. For fifteen years.
Then almost a year ago I came home.
Many articles and books are written to prepare and assist people leaving their countries for pastures new. The famous Dutch book ‘Undutchables’ is specifically about the quirks and customs and characteristics of Dutch society and people. Articles are written about how to deal with homesickness, how your relationship with family, friends and society in the motherland changes, when you have lived abroad for a long time. It’s probably best to specify that these relate to emigration which lasts longer than a couple of years. If you are on a one year working holiday visa in Australia, there is a hint in the title of that visa, as to what the true intent of the year involves. Nevertheless these articles and books serve a useful and helpful purpose in helping the fledgling foreigner adapt to their new environment.
Far scarcer are guides for telling returning emigrants what life back in the homeland may be like, when you return after decades away. In response to yet another Buzzfeed article posted on Facebook yesterday called ‘Seven things you learn when you’ve lived abroad for ten years’, I’ve decided to flip that coin and write about the six things you learn when you come back.
- Home becomes a very tenuous thing. When I lived in Amsterdam I was lucky in the sense that within seventy five minutes I could be ‘home’ in Ireland; where I didn’t have to deal with cloggishness (‘Cloggie’ being a colloquial expression used by native English speaker for our beloved cheese-eating, lowlander natives – I’m not being sarcastic – Dutch folk can be lovely). The thought of Ireland was a comfort – some place I could go to relax and feel secure. Having come back I realise that the security I thought that Ireland represented was only a fantasy. The country has changed beyond recognition – in some positive and some negative ways. But the image I had in my head and the picture I clung to was a dream. The diversity of people living here is great, but the hardening of attitudes to outsiders and the vulnerable is very ugly.
- You miss what you left behind, but it no longer feels like it belongs to you – Amsterdam now feels like a round gap in my life into which a square Dublin peg won’t fit. But Amsterdam is not my home now either. And I left it for a reason – even if that reason is not clear any longer, because I can miss it so much.
- Friendships wither. Friendships in an ideal world last forever. We don’t live in an ideal world unfortunately. People you thought would be there forever disappear. When you are coming home for a visit once or twice a year, your presence is a novelty and it is exciting to meet up and go out and catch up. When you are back for good like Fat Gary Barlow, the lustre soon fades. Suggestions for meetups are rejected. This is not a malicious or mean-spirited action on the part of the person who stayed. While you were off gallivanting and carousing around Europe, their lives had carried on and developed without you. There was no pause button ever set. So when you get back the expectation that friendships will resume soon gets a harsh reality check. And friendships end – not with a falling out or a fight – just with the realisation that it had been on life support for years, and that sometimes it’s better to wish everyone well and to pull the plug.
- Friendships mature. Other friendships that existed prior to your departure are revived and become more meaningful than they had been prior to your departure through a bit of effort. Sometimes this is unexpected and it’s lovely. Sometimes it’s with people you had been friends with before but proximity strengthens and deepens what had been there already.
- You make new friends. You’ve got to make an effort. Even though you are a foreign native in your own land, you treat your home country as a new one and you go to every shindig and barn-dance and evening class and hooley that you can find. You may be forty, but in a sense you’re not, as you’ve got a fifteen year hole to fill with new experiences. It’s hard. But you stick at. And after a while you feel like you are making progress.
- You always watch what is happening in the place you left – you may go back. It’s unlikely but possible As Dorothy (Gale that is, not Sbornak) used to say ‘There’s no place like home.’
She was right.What did she mean by home though?