Much has been written about the trials and tribulations of moving abroad. Recently, there has also been increased awareness about the challenges of repatriating – that is, returning home after an international experience has ended. Today, I’m thinking about a third situation: going back to a place where you were once an expat.
Perhaps this sounds like a non-issue because you’re returning to a known entity, but in a way, this complicates rather than simplifies things. After all, homecomings are always fraught – and going “home” to a place that was your home, and now still is (in your heart), but isn’t (in real life) is like drinking a seemingly safe and familiar cocktail spiked with moonshine. Right now, this feels extra personal and urgent to me, because this fall, I will return to Poland for the first time since 2007.
Krakow expat, American repat
As hard as it is to believe, it has been almost ten years since I bought one last paczek (donut) and crossed the cobblestone streets toward the train station, my overstuffed backpack bouncing on my tailbone. On that morning, my husband and I assumed that we were simply returning to the U.S. for Christmas. Alas, emergent family health issues and an imploding economy altered our plans, and overnight I became an unwilling repatriate. It took a good while to accept that my life no longer included a hilltop castle or medieval square. Slowly but surely, however, I submitted to the gravitational pull of life in Arizona.
The good and the bad and the scars between
I can easily blame the eddy of life for the fact that we never made it back in almost a decade. But we didn’t make it a priority, either. Perhaps this was a sign that we had moved on; to embrace our present, we had to let go of the past. But if I’m honest, I think I also hesitated to put myself in a situation that might rub salt in old wounds.
This is likely, because my thoughts and feelings about our time in Poland were unresolved and complicated. I had left at a low point in my expat sojourn, a time when anything and everything grated my nerves. I was tired of being pushed in front of trams by babci (grandmas) who shoved their way to the edge of the sidewalk without regard for those standing there. I was weary of the long lines at grocery stores, and even more so of picky clerks who demanded exact change in specific coins of their choosing. I was aggravated by the constant remont (construction) and my blood boiled when I tripped into shin-deep potholes or was hit by snow that rooftop workers shoveled onto pedestrians below. I was fed up with having to avoid some of the best local places because they were filled with cigarette smoke (a necessity since I’d had bronchitis twice since arriving). Indeed, along with cultural fatigue, my body was succumbing. Although I had always been athletic, I had somehow lost ten pounds – and not in a good way.
Yet it wasn’t all bad. In fact, there was a lot that I quite liked. The cerebral atmosphere of the historic university town, for one, and the humane pace of life that prioritized people over tasks. The haunting and enchanting beauty of the Planty, a park which encircled the old town. I fell in love with thick drinking chocolate, stuffed cabbage, and herbata (Polish tea), which came in flavors like green apple. I also got converted to the joys of carrot juice, kefir, pretzel sticks, tiny bagels, cookies made with jam, and of course, lody (ice cream) – my favorites of which were nut and “fruits of the forest.”
Moreover, I reveled in the exploratory meanderings that my husband and I took every Friday afternoon, where we came upon big squares and small courtyards, flower shops, stationery stores, skleps (sidewalk stands), and distinctive architecture. I devoured Central European literature from Massolit, and felt like I understood it on a new level. I was giddy to meet professors who recounted stories of trafficking samizdat copies of Animal Farm and dodging Communist police to hang protest posters during the Cold War. I gave myself a little pat on the back when I started having “fluent” exchanges with the clerks at Coffee Heaven – a Starbucks-esque spot with fast free WiFi (and most importantly, no smoking).
I basked in the glow of holiday celebrations on the rynek, (town square), where we bought gingerbread, watched folk dancing, and admired nativity scenes made of tinfoil. I felt my heart soar when I gazed out from the Tatras Mountains onto a valley of wooden homes with steep alpine roofs, and I was charmed by the scenery as we rafted down the Dunajec, on the border of Poland and Slovakia. And speaking of music, I learned to sing Sto lat, perhaps the most important of all Polish songs.
Even as I walked to the train station on that final morning in 2007, I knew that Poland had lodged itself deep into my heart. I figured that I just needed a break – a chance to reset before returning with a fresh perspective. And when that cycle of recovery and return was interrupted, my unresolved feelings, frustrations, and longings just hung there, frozen in time and lost in space. Unable to give it a proper goodbye, and lacking a way to create further meaning out of it, I tucked it in a drawer, a scrapbook of another life.
A Fresh perspective
Today, however, it’s time to open up that drawer again. As I count down the weeks to a conference in my former host country, I need to remember, reflect, and reconnect.
And what I see and hear stirs my soul. Photos of trams and building facades make me curious about what I’ll see on this new visit. (After all, a lot has changed in Poland in the past nine years). Audio lessons awaken my ears with sounds that are both familiar and faraway: przepraszam, dzien dobry, prosze bardzo. Feeling the words in my mouth is like tasting the bread that one’s grandma used to make in childhood: warm and chewy, I can’t quite glide over it, but the muscle memory awakens and I savor the hearty flavors.
As I consider my relationship with Poland, I see that a place that once overwhelmed and beguiled me, and then slipped painfully out of reach, was there all along – if not exactly waiting for me, then not forsaking me, either. No longer do I feel, as the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz said, that “Everywhere was nowhere and nowhere, everywhere.” Although Poland is no longer home, I’m going home. Open and receptive to whatever that means, I’m determined to make the most of it – even if I have to stand in line or pay in exact change.
Going home again is never easy, and when you return to a site of a previous expat experience, it can stir up all kinds of unresolved feelings – especially if, as in my case, you left on strange terms or never gave it a proper goodbye. However, if my experience is any guide, I think there are four steps than returning expats can follow to ease the transition.
First, rather than wish away awkwardness, uncertainty, and discomfort, I think it’s important to acknowledge and embrace the emotional landscape of the journey. After all, it is one of the ultimate upending experiences to return to one’s past – and all the more so when it has been out of sight, out of mind, and out of reach.
Second, I think it’s important to prepare. I know that I’m not going to wow anyone with my rusty linguistic abilities and fading knowledge, but if I want to really connect, it’s still worth making an effort. For me, this has meant studying Polish, reaching out to colleagues, and refreshing my memory about key moments in Polish history.
Third, as always, it’s important to have reasonable expectations. It’s probably not realistic to have a perfect homecoming, regardless of circumstances. And in my case, because I’ll be visiting a different city than the one I previously inhabited, and will only be there for a short conference, there’s a limit to how reattached and re-immersed I can become.
Even so, I think the fourth piece of advice is the most essential: I am going to try to enjoy myself, savor the experience, and see my former country with clear eyes, an open heart, and a present mind. In other words, I’ll try to let it be what it is, and take it how it is.
If I can do these four things, I think I will have done the best that I could, and perhaps, at long last, I will be able to say a proper dowidzenia (goodbye), both to Poland and to the person I was when we lived there. I may even meet my new self – and a new version of the enigmatic and endearing country on this visit. After all, the beauty of international travel and living is that we are on a voyage of perpetual discovery, not only of the world, but of ourselves.
Are you preparing to go abroad, return home, or go back abroad? I provide expat training & coaching – let me know how I can help!