During a recent visit to the US, a friend asked what it felt like to come back after having lived abroad for so long. It’s a difficult question: my closest answer is that it feels most like the feeling that I used to have when I went back to visit my parents.
I always have a sense of deep familiarity for people and settings when I go back: this is where I worked on projects, raised a family, sailed boats. At the same time, my memories are now frozen in the past, so I notice all of the little things that have changed; a tree that fell over the winter, a new store in town, the way that the kids next door have grown. It’s odd to wave to neighbors once a quarter, catching up with their gradual changes in single, occasional jumps.
Similarly, people ask how I cope with the travel, do I get disoriented by the time changes, do I miss having a big house, how do I stay on the correct side of the road in England.
I think that I adapt by doing a lot of partitioning.
When I am in the Netherlands, my life here is the most real to me. I have work, an apartment, Dutch shopping habits that are unique to this location. Dropping into the US, I have a different house, car, and friends. In the UK, things change again: I drive on the left and drink Guinness in the college bar and make familiar plans to attend Evensong.
For me, at these times, each of these settings is a simple, immediate reality. Just as I change my wallet to have local currency and credit cards, or pack clothes appropriate for local weather and customs, I also connect directly to the local place and people, disconnecting from distant alternatives.
It’s hard to describe; I tried to sort it through last night. I was sitting by the river last night watching the familiar flow of traffic and boats against the accustomed shops and restaurants of Maastricht. Six months ago it was sp foreign; now it’s just ‘everyday’. I’ve made a holistic mental transition that makes this city familiar and comfortable to me, assimilating places and peoples, rituals and routines. Maybe frequent travel speeds up that process; I don’t hold onto familiar places as tightly, or assimilate new environments more quickly.
On the down side, there’s certainly a disconnection from calling any single place “home”. I don’t ‘nest’ after selecting housing, and I’ve grown used scattering my 14 boxes of possessions across furniture that isn’t mine. There are pictures on my walls of people that I don’t know, smiling together in places I’ve never been.
I just compartmentalize them out.