Bittersweet homecoming: what it’s like to come back to NZ after living abroad

Travel changes you in ways you don’t expect. It opens your mind and your heart and your soul to new ways of living and being. It finds beauty in unexpected places and sees pain surface in others. You are the same you, but forever altered by what you have seen and felt. Coming home is often by choice, but sometimes it is the biggest challenge.

My time in Europe feels like a dream now that I am back in New Zealand. It’s easy to forget everything as you fall back into familiar routines. Most of the people that I met were slightly older than me, and doing an exchange in their final semester of university, so many of them stayed overseas and kept travelling, or came back to new jobs and new adventures.

But I went overseas in the middle of my degree, so I have come back to finish it. I have more or less come back to exactly the same life I left behind – which is by no means a bad thing – but it is strangely disorienting.

When I left for France, I couldn’t imagine my future. I had no idea what the next day would bring. I was like an open book and the sense of freedom and adventure was intoxicating. Even though I knew I was coming back, I felt like I never would. Homecoming was always far away on the horizon. This sense of freedom was empowering and dizzying. I did things before I left that were out of character, daring, a little crazy – because I felt as if I would never return.

But six months isn’t actually very long. It felt like eternity at times, while at others it was whizzing past and I felt suffocated by the fixed time frame – the return date hung over me like a shadow. Then in January, I was overwhelmed by inescapable homesickness. I couldn’t wait to hug my mum, my little brother, my family. I wanted to laugh and talk with the girls, hear all of their stories. I was craving NZ food, coffee, my bed, my hometown.

I was completely consumed by the idea of getting home, but I never once let my mind wander to what it would be like. I wanted to get home so bad that every time my mum raised the question, I would brush her off, saying that I would be so happy to see everyone I wouldn’t worry about how it felt.

And coming home was amazing. Touching down in Auckland is a memory that will be with me forever. Seeing the familiar landmarks from my plane window, I felt safe and secure once again, kissing goodbye the feelings of vulnerability and adventure that are both thrilling and exhausting. It was time to recharge and revive.

But as everyone who has travelled has said: it is hard coming home. You don’t believe them through bouts of homesickness because homesickness is so consuming. Its nostalgia and longing at its height. But when you get home, the mind being the tricky thing it is, simply reverses that nostalgia and longing and pins it on what you left behind – Europe. How unfair is that?

Because I’d completely unprepared myself for settling in back home, within a few days I had fallen back into exactly the same routine as before I left. I touched down on the tarmac, confused and jetlagged, but woke up the next morning and went about my business as usual. I didn’t reflect; I didn’t have time to. It was only a week later (and in a very hungover state, which always heightens emotions) that I began to try to process just how big coming back home really is. It’s such a challenge. You fall back into old habits that you thought six months in France would break, with such ease that it makes you feel like a little bit of a failure. You think to yourself, “Hey, I’ve been halfway around the world, I’ve seen sights that give me goosebumps to remember, so why I am still acting like this?

I think it takes effort to keep the momentum, energy and appreciation you have while travelling present in your everyday life. I would actually even go as far as to say that it is intellectually more challenging coming back home to the same, than it is branching out and visiting the different. Because at least with the different, you are constantly learning, soaking everything up. It’s amazing.

But with the same, the familiar, you can get stuck in a rut if you’re not constantly working to keep your life fresh and fun. The familiar is easy, but it is much less rewarding –and once you’ve had the high of constantly being rewarded as you travel, by the people you meet and the places you see, it feels like a real drop coming home to nothing new. It is a huge challenge trying to fit yourself into your ‘old’ world. On one hand, the old routines come like second-nature, on the other you feel like you are wandering around aimlessly, not sure what to do next, now that the big adventure is over.

I guess that’s the place where I am at, at the moment. A huge part of my life has finished. I lived a completely different life for six months, in another city that became my home, and now I am at a loss for what comes next. I need a new challenge, something to aim for, but at the same time I don’t want to move on from the last challenge. France still lingers within me, but as each day goes by the experience seems more and more distant. It’s like I’m holding tightly to the tail of a fish as it tries ferociously to swim away. I know that the memories I have aren’t going anywhere, but memory is often evasive and I am yearning for something more concrete. Sometimes nostalgia and melancholy aren’t welcome guests when you are trying to figure out what your next move is. I have no idea what the universe has in store for me now; when I find out I’ll let you know.

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