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MOVING ABROAD

‘It’s a grieving process’: The difficulties of moving home from Europe

The pandemic and travel restrictions have caused many people to question their residency abroad. But the decision whether to stay or go, as well as the process of returning home is not an easy one, as Emma Firth explains.

'It's a grieving process': The difficulties of moving home from Europe
Departures sign at Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle airport. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

It’s a grey day in the middle of British winter and I’m standing in a playground overlooking rows of Victorian terraced houses. I hear middle-class English accents all around me, as parents eagerly tend to their children who are dressed in anything from a school t-shirt and leggings to waterproof suits.

I imagine the scene, on this day, at this time across the North Sea in Copenhagen. What would it look like, what would it sound like, why do I feel so different standing here?

Nyhavn, Copenhagen. Photo: AFP

It’s been six months since my young family and I moved back to Sheffield, England after three and a half years in Copenhagen. It has been a strange and difficult process, not helped by the restrictions of a pandemic and various lockdowns but also because I never expected moving “home” to be hard.

When we relocated to Denmark in 2017, there were many hurdles to overcome as we learnt about a new country, culture and language through mistakes and perseverance. But behind it all was the thrill of uncovering each layer of our new home and the reward of a constant learning process in even the most mundane of tasks. 

Discovering how to use the communal washing machines when you didn’t know what setting to use; trying to make yourself understood at the supermarket when looking for the unpronounceable ‘grød’, (porridge) later realising it’s sold as 'havregryn' (oats); waiting to be served at the chemist without realising you need a ticket.

And then you are home. None of these hurdles exist because you know it all. Plain sailing, you would think. But jarring against that sense of familiarity is the realisation that you’ve changed. Everything feels the same, except you.

“This is not talked about enough,” says Dr. Melissa Parks, a coach for expats and global nomads. “Moving home can be more challenging than the move abroad because you think it’s a comfy process and like home.

“You need to think of it as a new place. Be prepared to feel discomfort, to feel out of place.”

Almost two years ago Melissa returned to her hometown of Seattle after ten years living in Spain and the Netherlands.

“When we left Amsterdam I remember crying out of nowhere. Even if you have all the tools in the world you can’t make it pain free. For me it was helpful knowing the emotional rollercoaster was normal and being my own cheerleader through it all, but it was still really hard.”

Dr. Parks refers to it as a grieving process and says it can take around 18 months before feeling at home again. I gulp as she says this.

She adds, “a natural reaction can be, ’what can I do to fix this? What can I do to get rid of this feeling?’ But you have to give yourself time to go through the grieving process.”

It turns out that making direct comparisons and questioning the decision, as I have done on many occasions, is really quite unhelpful.

“It’s easy to fall into a trap of comparing,” says Katherine, who writes the blog ‘Bad Days Abroad’ and helps internationals contemplating a move.

“Some of the struggles I hear come from people’s false expectations. But not expecting it to be as you remember it – even feeling the same way – will help.

“And don’t get upset when your home friends and family can’t relate to your struggles. It’s important to connect with other internationals who can understand what you’re going through.”

Making the decision

For Danielle, who has lived in Copenhagen for the last ten years, the dilemma about whether to move home to England was an agonising one.

Eighteen months ago, she and her now ex husband set up the logistics to move back to be close to family. They got places at the local school for their children and paid £8000 to secure a rental property, with the aim of later buying.

“We’d invested everything into the move and we were ready to go, but it suddenly just felt so wrong in our stomachs.”

While visiting the area to sort out furniture, they decided to pull the plug, one month before moving day. It meant losing the £8000.

“It just didn’t feel like we could belong there again. Even though there was that huge pull of being close to family, we ended up making a big U-turn and chose Denmark for its quality of life, well being, opportunities for the kids, and mindset of the people.”

Gråbrødretorv, Copenhagen, April 2020. Thibault Savary / AFP

Luckily, Danielle hadn’t formally left her job or sold the Copenhagen apartment, so the reverse decision was possible and it helped the family commit to Denmark longer-term.

But it hasn't left her completely free of the dilemma, especially while visiting home is off the agenda with current travel restrictions.

“I’ve been struggling with the fact that my choice to stay maybe creates more distance and erodes the closeness I have with my family over time, although we have maintained good contact so far. But this year has been incredibly cruel with the tragic death of my cousin and then my Nan and not being able to attend their funerals or be there with my family. 

“The distance is made ten times worse with the pandemic. I would otherwise be travelling back every six weeks because I’m a teacher and can do that.”

Living between two cultures

The idea of being able to live between two countries is helpful for many internationals, whether they decide to stay or go home and it’s something that is temporarily on pause due to the pandemic.

When author Jayne Tuttle returned home to Australia in 2014, after ten years living in France, she was back in Paris six months later. With the exception of last year, she has kept up the pattern of returning for long stints ever since.

“Somehow along the way I made peace with the fact that our life as a family would exist between two countries. That stopped the agony of feeling ripped away from the place I love most. After all, it’s just a place.

“I read in French, listen to French, dream in French. Just as in Paris in the later years I accepted my Australianness and stopped trying to act French, in Australia I keep my little French person close to me.

“I don’t care any more that I don’t quite fit into either culture, which used to plague me. Just as I love the abstract world between the two languages, I love the strange world between the two cultures.”

People wonder through the narrow streets of the Montmartre district of Paris on October 6, 2017. Photo: AFP

That acceptance, of being between different cultures, seems to be the crux to finding peace with where you’re at, either abroad or having returned home. Danielle refers to it as an “agony” she has learnt to live with. Dr. Parks calls it “being a triangle”.

“You’re not a square like the people in the country you’ve come from, you’re not a circle like those in your home country; you’re a triangle. So find your other triangles.”

There is an online community called ‘I am a Triangle’ for this very reason.

The ‘Danes in Sheffield’ group are my triangles it seems. Meeting with them, albeit at a distance, has helped connect the language and culture I’ve just left, to the new yet familiar one I now face.

Leaving a country is a difficult and sad process but this is completely normal and also, completely fine, because with it, comes so much more.

You now inhabit a new culture, a new network, perhaps a new language that will enrich your life for years to come – especially once we can all travel again.

 

 

 

Member comments

  1. “Nan” is a fond way of saying grandma in English. One can also sometimes hear gran or granny. Depends on how informal a family is with the grandparents.

  2. Sweden is now the 5th country I have lived in, and sadly the least enjoyable. Admittedly that is partly due to COVID. We are off to try country number 2 on the list again- UK- later this year

  3. Live in the country you like the best, on balance. I worked and sometimes livez in 52 countries (yes really) and the 3 best for me were Switzerland, Canada and Sweden. I live in Stockholm now and it suits me and my family perfectly. I grew up in London but it can’t compare in any way at all to the joys of Sweden. Each to their own 🙂

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READER INSIGHTS

‘Painful’ – is Paris Charles de Gaulle airport really that bad?

Following a survey that said Paris Charles de Gaulle airport was the best in Europe, we asked Local readers what they thought...

'Painful' - is Paris Charles de Gaulle airport really that bad?

Recently, Paris Charles de Gaulle was voted the best airport in Europe by passengers.

The 2022 World Airport Awards, based on customer satisfaction surveys between September 2021 and May 2022, listed the best airport on the planet as Doha, while Paris’s main airport came in at number 6 – the highest entry for a European airport – one place above Munich. 

READ ALSO Paris Charles de Gaulle voted best airport in Europe by passengers

Given CDG’s long-standing reputation doesn’t quite match what the World Airport Awards survey said – in 2009 it was rated the second-worst airport in the world, while in 2011 US site CNN judged it “the most hated airport in the world” – we wondered how accurate the survey could be.

So we asked readers of The Local for their opinion on their experience of Europe’s ‘best’ airport. 

Contrary to the World Airport Awards study, users erred towards the negative about the airport. A total 30.8 percent of Local readers – who had travelled through the airport in recent months – thought it was ‘terrible’, while another 33.3 percent agreed that it was ‘not great’ and had ‘some problems’.

But in total 12.8 percent of those who responded to our survey thought the airport was ‘brilliant’, and another 23.1 percent thought it ‘fine’, with ‘no major problems’.

So what are the problems with it?

Signage 

One respondent asked a simple – and obvious – question: “Why are there so many terminal twos?”

Barney Lehrer added: “They should change the terminal number system.”

In fact, signage and directions – not to mention the sheer size of the place – were common complaints, as were onward travel options. 

Christine Charaudeau told us: “The signage is terrible. I’ve often followed signs that led to nowhere. Thankfully, I speak French and am familiar with the airport but for first time travellers … yikes!”

Edwin Walley added that it was, “impossible to get from point A to point B,”  as he described the logistics at the airport as the “worst in the world”.

And James Patterson had a piece of advice taken from another airport. “The signage could be better – they could take a cue from Heathrow in that regard.”

Anthony Schofield said: “Arriving by car/taxi is painful due to congestion and the walk from the skytrain to baggage claim seems interminable.”

Border control

Border control, too, was a cause for complaint. “The wait at the frontière is shameful,” Linda, who preferred to use just her first name, told us. “I waited one and a half hours standing, with a lot of old people.”

Sharon Dubble agreed. She wrote: “The wait time to navigate passport control and customs is abysmal!”

Deborah Mur, too, bemoaned the issue of, “the long, long wait to pass border control in Terminal E, especially at 6am after an overnight flight.”

Beth Van Hulst, meanwhile, pulled no punches with her estimation of border staff and the airport in general. “[It] takes forever to go through immigration, and staff deserve their grumpy reputation. Also, queuing is very unclear and people get blocked because the airport layout is not well designed.”

Jeff VanderWolk highlighted the, “inadequate staffing of immigration counters and security checkpoints”, while Karel Prinsloo had no time for the brusque attitudes among security and border personnel. “Officers at customs are so rude. I once confronted the commander about their terrible behaviour.  His response said it all: ‘We are not here to be nice’. Also the security personnel.”

Connections

One of the most-complained-about aspects is one that is not actually within the airport’s control – public transport connections.  

Mahesh Chaturvedula was just one of those to wonder about integrated travel systems in France, noting problems with the reliability of onward RER rail services, and access to the RER network from the terminal.

The airport is connected to the city via RER B, one of the capital’s notoriously slow and crowded suburban trains. Although there are plans to create a new high-speed service to the airport, this now won’t begin until after the 2024 Olympics.

Sekhar also called for, “more frequent trains from SNCF to different cities across France with respect to the international flight schedules.”

The good news

But it wasn’t all bad news for the airport, 35 percent of survey respondents said the airport had more positives than negatives, while a Twitter poll of local readers came out in favour of Charles de Gaulle.

Conceding that the airport is “too spread out”, Jim Lockard said it, “generally operates well; [and has] decent amenities for food and shopping”.

Declan Murphy was one of a number of respondents to praise the, “good services and hotels in terminals”, while Dean Millar – who last passed through Charles de Gaulle in October – said the, “signage is very good. [It is] easy to find my way around”.

He added: “Considering the size (very large) [of the airport] it is very well done.  So no complaints at all.”

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