Toto, we’re not in London anymore.
Lots of people have been asking us about our transition back home after three years abroad. I get a kick out of their unstated reasons for inquiring: part empathy, part testing the waters to see what such an adventure could look like for their own family. The weight given to each reason varies as widely as the questioners. And while both are perfectly good reasons for asking, I find myself especially enjoying the conversations that tend toward secret coaching sessions for possible future expats.
Mostly I give everyone the same answer, and mostly it’s the truth. We’ve been lucky. It’s going great. The kids are schooling dancing arting basketballing friending like champs. We love being back in our sweet little house and finishing up the bits and bobs of renovation work we’d left behind four years ago. It’s so much easier to get things done on this side of the ocean. It’s nice to be closer to family again. (Wisdom imparted in secret coaching session: you can do this.)
All of that is true. But of course it’s also more complicated. As things are.
You hear all the time that wonderful, well-adjusted people have a hell of a time returning from abroad and trying to fit back in. Even if it’s just from London, which by worldwide standards is hardly different from New York or Boston or Toronto. When you slip away for a bit, something changes. Your perspective broadens by a sliver, and you see things a little differently. The same old things, but with longer shadows, with odd new refractions.
We’ve experienced some of that shifting viewpoint too.
A couple of factors have shielded us from the challenges such a shift can pose. First, in this tiny town where we live, things don’t change all that quickly. We didn’t return to a substantially different place than we left. Our friends are still here, and they’re still our friends — and that’s a lot.
Second, because we are who we are, fitting in seamlessly has never been at the top of the priorities list. Fitting in is tricky business. I learned long ago that the daily routines of it — the constant tiny self-sacrifices — can wear me down if I let them. So mostly I don’t let them anymore.
Still — and here’s the kicker — being cool with not quite fitting in was easier in London. Kind of a lot easier.
When people ask what I miss about London, I often talk about the travel and the architecture and the walking everywhere because we didn’t learn to drive. But the thing I miss most is the cultural undercurrent that celebrates eccentricity. There are lots of reasons for it, I think, but a major one is how few Londoners are really from there. So many are travelers of one sort or another, whether short-term or lifelong. In the company of people who are in it for the journey, it’s not unusual to catch a glimpse of a shared understanding. The journey is colorful and messy, and the mess is to be tolerated, inquired into, even cherished. No one belongs, so everyone belongs. There’s something to be said for a mess like that.
* * *
Zucchini and chickpea curry is one of the last meals I cooked in London. It was summer, so zucchini was banging down the door. The rest came down to cleaning out the pantry. It’s already a little strange to think of that moment in time on the other side of the ocean, two-thirds eagerness, one-third quiet trepidation about our homecoming. But that’s the great thing about a bowl of curry. It comforts you wherever you are.