“You’re so brave” was the most common response when we announced that we would be moving overseas to the Netherlands. Within 12 months the plan had grown from an idea over the kitchen table to my husband organising a European passport and starting to job-hunt.
On our first overseas trip together, a decade earlier, we had spent a few days in Amsterdam and shared memories of getting lost amongst the canals and friendly locals helping us find our youth hostel. This seemed like enough for him to say yes to a legal job opportunity in The Hague and for us to pack up our three-year-old’s toys and her little sister’s pram and prepare for a very different Dutch experience.
“Returning home brings with it an expectation that everything will be the same, but the people I left behind have moved on and I’ve changed as well,” writes Mihal Greener.
With all the excitement involved in the move, it didn’t feel like we were being especially brave. Restless for a change, we reasoned that if it didn’t work out we could always just pack up and return home. The decision that took reserves of bravery only came seven years later when we decided to leave our home in the Netherlands and return to Australia.
To outsiders, this didn’t look like the difficult move. We were going back to Melbourne, the city we had grown up in, to an extended support network of family and friends. We spoke the language, knew where to get the best coffee and how to get around. But from lurking on expat discussion forums, I knew that repatriation was frequently labelled the hardest move of all. It’s where day-to-day life is easier, but the trade-off is a loss of adrenalin and sense of adventure that comes with the challenges of making a foreign city into a home.
Of all the parts of our lives in the Netherlands, it’s the adrenalin that has been the hardest to leave behind.
My world felt so much larger living in Europe. Not only could I jump into a car and delight at crossing borders, but my eyes were also opened to a different way of approaching life, from home birthing to a lack of materialism and cycling everywhere. My community was filled with fellow expats who were raising their children as global citizens, moving countries every three or four years. My UK neighbours would share stories about being evacuated from Africa with only hours to pack and leave, or having armed guards accompany them in the Middle East, while I admired how worldly their kids were. I started feeling like anything was possible, making lists of places to visit and idly speculating about which country we should move to next.
Returning home felt like the adventure had abruptly ended and the world became much smaller again. It’s not just the physical distance but also the ease of daily life, where fresh perspectives and new experiences need to be more actively sought out.
Returning home brings with it an expectation that everything will be the same, but the people I left behind have moved on and I’ve changed as well. We’ve missed chunks of each other’s lives, the real stuff that happens beyond social media and is shared over a glass of wine. There’s a space that needs to be filled.
Robin Pascoe, author of Homeward Bound: A Spouse’s Guide to Repatriation, compares repatriation to wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. “Everything looks almost right,” she says. Not quite fitting feels more unsettling than integrating into an entirely new culture.
I Am A Triangle, an online expat group, evolved from a blog where Naomi Hattaway describes how when a person leaves circle country and moves to square country, they leave as a triangle – no longer quite fitting in in either place. As a triangle, the adage is to give the reparation process at least a year to settle in. It’s also, I suspect, the time it takes to lose that connection with a past life and allow the longing and comparisons to subside.
The duality of being a triangle is that so much feels familiar and at the same time so different, causing its own kind of disorientation. Within our family this division was amplified. As parents we had to readjust to life in Australia, but it had always been our home. For our children – aged 10, 8 and 5 – who had spent most of their lives in the Netherlands and where the youngest was born, home was where they had their bedrooms and school friends and they were all devastated at having to say goodbye. Australia was the country on their passports and where they would fly out to every few years to visit family and friends.
Now they are struggling to keep a sense of their Dutch identity, despite not having a passport or any tangible identifier of their time in a country where they felt, for the most part, like they belonged. The Olympics brought home these conflicted loyalties when my daughter proclaimed her support for the Netherlands at every possible opportunity. In case there was any ambiguity about her thoughts on repatriation, she also made sure, whatever the event, to vocally support any country competing against Australia.
Each of our children has a different accent and different relationship with the Netherlands and Australia, a product of their respective ages and identity. They’ve grown up loving Vegemite, but at an Australia Day BBQ a week after our return they were the only children refusing tomato sauce on their hot dogs, instead squirting it next to their cheese toasties to dunk the sandwich into, Dutch-style.
While people are welcoming us back home, we are all grappling with the realisation that repatriating means having a bit of your heart on different sides of the word. Of all the experiences we shared, this is the part that requires the most bravery.