missing (10)Do you ever feel as though living abroad is the best and worst thing that has happened to you? You’re so freakin happy that you decided to do it, but some days it absolutely kills you and you can’t help but think of the people and places you’ve left behind.

I was reminded of this on a recent trip I took to Finland for a friend’s wedding. It was such an amazing experience – the wedding was beautiful and the people I met were even more incredible. This really was an international experience.  The bride was born in Romania, grew up in Canada, went to Germany on exchange, where she met her future husband-to-be who is Finnish.  And the wedding was a reflection of this – so many people from all over the world. Stories, languages and cultures mingling and mixing in what was a true celebration of life and love.

Over the course of the wedding weekend I got chatting to a new friend about his experience living abroad.  As a Canadian living in Finland there are times when he feels torn between his two homes. As though living abroad is a blessing and a curse in equal measure.  And I know he’s not alone.  As Sarah Turnbull puts it in her incredible book, Almost French:

“It’s a bitter-sweet thing, knowing two cultures. Once you leave your birthplace nothing is ever the same”

When I lived in Paris I felt like this.  There was a part of me that was super happy living in France and grateful for all the opportunities it gave me – frequent weekend trips to other parts of Europe, a constant supply of delicious food, a huge amount of annual leave and public holidays, stunning architecture and art everywhere you turn, fantastic friends I could go out with any night of the week – the list goes on and on.  But there was another very real part of me that felt sad. Sad that I was missing out on important moments with friends and family back home.  Sad that I couldn’t head to the beach to clear my mind and jump in the ocean whenever I wanted to.  Sad that life was going on as normal for everyone I knew back in Sydney and that I wasn’t there to be a part of it.

And it didn’t suddenly change once I moved back to Sydney.  In fact it was exactly the same, only the cities were reversed.  I was happy to be home with family and friends, taking part in the birthdays, Christmases and other events I’d missed, and being close to the ocean again. But I also longed to be with my friends in Paris.  I was sad that I was missing out on their lives and that I couldn’t jump on a plane to Spain and be there in a couple of hours if the urge for a weekend trip arose.

So how do you make the most of your experience abroad (or when you’ve returned home) and focus on the blessing part of the scenario, rather than the curse?

For me the most valuable and meaningful change in my life has been to practice the art of being present.  Of living completely in the now as Eckhart Tolle puts it.  Of being 100% committed to the place I’m in and the people I’m with when I’m there and not giving any thought to the cities that I’m not in and the people that I’m not with.

Do I always succeed?  Of course not!

From time to time I find myself thinking of the people and places I’ve left behind and I start to become nostalgic.  But these days, rather than taking an indulgent trip down memory lane and dwelling on what I’m missing out on, I’ve learnt to use my mental time travel as a reminder and a clue that something’s not right.  Because the truth is, if my mind is tripping into the past or future or to people and places that I’ve left behind, it’s usually a pretty clear sign that there’s something in my present day reality, in this moment, that I’m trying to avoid.  And being aware of this means I can look at the present moment and figure out what’s really going on for me.

Because here’s the truth.  Mental time travel and country hopping is an addiction.

And just like any addictive or numbing behaviour, we turn to it in times when we don’t want to feel or deal with whatever is happening in the present moment.  We all have things we turn to when we want to numb uncomfortable feelings or avoid unpleasant conversations or tasks.  Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, eating, sex, binge-watching tv, spending mindless hours on Facebook, over-working or taking a trip down memory lane, it’s all serving the same purpose. It helps us escape the present moment.

So next time you find your mind wandering to that other place – your home country (for the expats out there), or your city abroad (for those of you who’ve returned home), rather than going down the ‘grass is always greener’ trap of thinking you’d be better off if only you were in sunny Sydney (insert whatever city makes sense for you), let it simply be a reminder to you that you’ve stepped out of the present.  And use it as the excellent clue that it is that something isn’t feeling good in your current reality.

Maybe you’re bored, restless, frustrated, tired, lonely, pissed off, hurt – whatever it is, get curious about it and ask yourself these 3 questions:

  1. What is it about the present moment that I don’t like or that I’m trying to avoid?
  2. Is there something I can do in the present moment to shift the way I’m feeling?
  3. Is there something that needs to change?

And there may not be.  It might just be that you need to sit with the discomfort and feel it so that the energy moves through you and you actually process the emotion.  Welcome to the uncomfortable experience of being human.

PS – If you or someone you know is either living abroad, or has returned home and is finding things difficult, then please check out my expat coaching and life after abroad coaching packages here 

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  1. Reply Kim

    Hey Samantha, I really relate to this post. Thanks so much for sharing. I’m torn between Ireland and Spain and recognise that I am in a privileged position but sometimes I just want to go home (Ireland) or back to Spain.. Depending on where I am based. I’ll definitely have to think about those three questions the next time the feeling arises.

    • Reply Sam

      Hi Kim, glad you can relate. Totally understand with being torn between Ireland and Spain. I always find questions can help. The thing is, when I’m having an amazing time with friends, doing something that I love, or trying something new then I’m completely absorbed in it and the thought doesn’t even cross my mind about what I’m missing out on. It’s much easier to stay in the present moment when things are feeling good 🙂 So definitely have a think next time it arises because something might be off.

  2. Reply Leonie

    Great post Sam, it resonated with me too. Definitely something to think about and be aware of.

    • Reply Sam

      Thanks Leonie. This is definitely something to think about in terms of moving interstate as well. Whilst it might not be abroad, I’m sure you can relate with your homes in Sydney and Melbourne.

  3. Reply Lorrel

    Great piece. I am an expat still living in the States. Even after 20 years I long for home but then my heart and mind ponder what I would miss if I become a repat. When I sit and have time to reflect on my position I actually realize how lucky and privileged I am to be able to live the life I do and experience the cultures and see the world through so many eyes other than my own.

    • Reply Sam

      Thanks Lorrel. Yes that’s the thing – you’re always going to miss something, whether you’re an expat or a repat. But you’ve absolutely nailed it – the key to all of this is choosing what to focus on and your choice to focus on gratitude for the privileged position that you’re in is a beautiful thing to do. Seeing the world through so many eyes other that your own is such a blessing. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Reply Sophie

    Love this Sammy and can definitely relate 🙂 I felt like this when I left Phuket and arrived in Uganda (partly because I hadn’t wanted to go!) and now I feel it back in the UK. However, all my travels have given me an invaluable skills – adaptability to new situations and environments, ability to cope with change, and a comfort of spending time alone.

    • Reply Sam

      Thanks Sophie 🙂 Yes it can be even more challenging when you don’t want to leave somewhere but the choice to stay isn’t really an option. Absolutely those are awesome skills and I think the key as always is to focus on the gift of travelling and living in all of these places, rather than the heartache it can sometimes bring us when it’s time to say goodbye.

  5. Reply Phillip

    OMG, I am now experiencing my second “living away” experience, the first was in Hong Kong and now the second in the United States. I should mention that I am an Australian so we tend be a “wondering” tribe but there is so much I miss about Australia at times so much that I almost burst into tears. But, I love living in the United States and I loved living in Hong Kong. For me the love is founded in my work and the opportunities that both these places provide, opportunities that are not found in Australia. The down side is the quality of life that I have given up, time with my close and old friends, the humor, the sunshine and the “work to live” (not live to work) attitude. It’s a very difficult thing being a stranger and no matter how wonderful the people are or how beautiful the country is there is no familiarity ….. I think that’s what I miss the most, familiarity ……. but I still thank my lucky stars that I have the opportunity to partake 🙂

    • Reply Sam

      Thanks so much for sharing your story Phillip. Yes us Australians are certainly a wandering tribe 😉 That’s the thing with living abroad, there will always be things you give up in order to have this new life. I guess part of it is to work out what’s most important to you at any given time (this will change over time) and follow that. It sounds as though your work is the priority for the moment. I totally know what you mean by missing familiarity – often when we miss familiarity, it’s because we miss how that made us feel – when things are familiar you feel comfortable, confident, safe, as though you belong – the list goes on. So a good thing to do would be to question what exactly ‘familiarity’ feels like to you and then work out what things make you feel that way in the States. Are there things you can do each day to feel more ‘comfortable’ or ‘confident’ or whatever words you associate with familiarity? Just something to ponder. Thanks again for commenting here.

  6. Reply Irina

    Great post Sam! I’ve been thinking a lot about this since the cottage because it was such a big insight, I couldn’t help but come back to it again and again. I notice that I’m quite at home in Finland and a few years ago I mostly stopped doing this with Canada (I honestly didn’t even realize this until now!) But I definitely do it in other aspects of my life, like career “if only I had…. x, y, z then everything would be better.”
    Now I know that those things wouldn’t actually help me and the very thought is keeping me from acknowledging and accepting the current reality. So off I go with the newfound wisdom and try to train my brain to see things differently. Thank you!! (I’m so happy you enjoyed the wedding and cottage trip =D)

    • Reply Sam

      Thanks Irina! That’s so cool that you’re no longer going back to Canada in your mind – a wonderful sign that Finland is becoming home for you. So true that this doesn’t only apply to living abroad, and that as soon as we go down any ‘if only I had…’ path, it’s usually because we’re avoiding our present reality. Your wedding and the cottage trip was seriously amazing! I can’t remember a time I have laughed that hard (at the cottage, not the wedding lol) in a long time. Felt so good!

  7. Reply Gaby Diaz

    Hi Sam
    Your words are in my mind. I come from Venezuela, a tropical country with sunny days and the beach near by. I miss friends and family fiestas. Here in Spain is nice, but not the same. Somehow I have not found my niche of friend yet. I live in Villarreal, a small town near the sea. I missed a lot the venezuelan humor and way of life. Well, instead, I have other things that I enjoy here. As you said, living the present moment and being grateful for the things we have now, is crucial when moving home.

    • Reply Sam

      Hi Gaby,
      Lovely to hear from you. Yes it can be tricky when you’re abroad and trying to find your new community of friends and you’re missing those things back in Venezuela. Have you tried keeping a gratitude journal? A great thing to do would be to try and list 3 things you’re grateful for each day. I do it every night before I go to bed 🙂

  8. Reply Patrick

    Nice post. Recently I have read it a book called “Being stripped naked “, its really amazing, it is an Asian romance novel portraying a British expats life in Hongkong during 1997. I liked this book very much.

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