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:
- What is it about the present moment that I don’t like or that I’m trying to avoid?
- Is there something I can do in the present moment to shift the way I’m feeling?
- 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