Home is…where?

This Spanish summer has been full of changes – after D-Man finished his osteopathy studies and I began working on my thesis, we had a wonderful stroke of luck and got new jobs in the city, moved into an apartment by the mountains, and sneaked a trip in to Portugal for our one-year anniversary – all within the span of a month.

And though I’m relieved and ecstatic that everything we’ve been working toward is coming together, I’ll meekly admit that I have the heart-wrenching twinge to hop on a plane and spend the rest of the summer back home. A handful of sleepless nights have found me sighing heavily and staring at the flat white ceiling, aching for friends and family. A night or two may or may not have found me sobbing on the cool bathroom tile, convinced that I should just leave the adventure and charm of living abroad for the comfort and familiarity of home.

But when the sun comes up, I realize that what’s holding me back isn’t just the financial dip of buying a plane ticket halfway across the world on a whim, but the knowledge that, in my case, the grass only looks greener on the other side.

It’s a knowledge I’ve carried with me since over three years ago, when, during a summer home after a year abroad, I found that I felt restless, emotionally drained, and doubtful of everything I had ever known. I felt that I didn’t quite fit in, that my priorities had shifted dramatically. I wanted a simple, less-rushed lifestyle. I wanted quality free time. I wanted to continue traveling and learning from the world.

So while in Spain I ache deeply for family and friends, my native tongue, decent customer service, and the warm California cheer, I know that should I ever return to the highly-wired and fast-paced U.S., I would terribly miss the endearing lifestyle I’ve become accustomed to in Spain – the extra time I rarely ever had back home, the laid back lifestyle, the food, great public transport, and being able to walk most everywhere.

Those of us who live abroad might initially travel with the curiosity to see what’s out there, to break out of our bubbles, look for adventure, to observe and participate in new ways of life. We may even become so caught up in our new lifestyles, our new friends, and our new experiences that when we discover that “home” isn’t the same anymore, and never will be, we’re faced with the fact that it is we who have changed. That the world has continued and will continue on without us, and, as in my own case, we might even find ourselves at a standstill, questioning our niche in the vast world.

Now, from greener fields, I would like to introduce you to Monique from Bringing Travel Home. While I live in Spain and dream of home in California, Monique lives in California and dreams of her previous life in Italy. Having lived in Italy for years and even starting her family there before moving back to California, she still dreams of the charmed life she once led abroad.

Ladies and gentlemen, from the other side of the fence, I bring you Monique:

How Reverse Culture Shock Hit Me Back Home in the U.S. (Or maybe it was a blast of air-conditioning.)

When I moved abroad to Europe from the U.S., I expected some level of culture shock.

But when I moved home, I must have missed the books written on reverse culture shock. Did three years living abroad in Italy require a transition back? Had the experience changed me so much that the culture and practices of my home country – once accepted without a second thought – and now viewed with a new set of eyes?  Strangely enough, upon return to the U.S., I experienced “home as foreign.”

Everyone who has lived abroad will experience reverse culture shock in different ways. For me, several observations struck me as hard as an American blast of AC.

Excess Consumption.

Large American kitchens, backyards with rolling green grass and play sets the size found in small Italian parks and monstrous gas-guzzling cars drew raised eyebrows from my husband and me when we returned. Even in wealthy cities in Italy, there are more apartments with people living in smaller spaces. Backyards are a rare sight. Buying “things” became less important. A bike with a basket replaced my car. As travel and cultural, outdoor experiences replaced shopping, I lost my appetite for anything resembling a mall. Following the Italian lesson of “less is more” but in better quality, I consumed less, but better things.

Make Yourself Comfortable.

Make yourself comfortable.

Part of the reason we looked forward to returning home was that we wanted things to be easy again. But it gets boring quickly and feels absurd. Precise AC temperature controls in your car to avoid getting too hot.  Pedestrian right-of-way – to the extreme. Order a sandwich – or coffee – any way you want. Drive-through banking. And, in California, months and months of predictable weather. Now I actually miss unannounced storms, or surviving in a house without AC during a heat wave.

The (Lost) Art of Conversation.

In a country where you gather constantly around a table with friends to eat or drink, there seemed to be a lot of hosting going on. Being invited and inviting others for a coffee happened regularly, and often without (gasp!) planning. Back home, I found myself out of sync with social interaction, which seemed to take a lot of scheduling and pre-planning  and came accompanied by “doing something – ” Let’s go on a run together. Let’s go shopping together.” The idea of having someone over to your house for a coffee and chat suddenly seemed awkward and old-fashioned.

Re-Entry Humdrum. I’m just a little bored and not so impressed with all that.

When you’ve been surrounded with amazing architecture, Roman ruins, and beautiful vistas for years, the California coast is, well, nice, I guess.  And the excitement accompanied with living in a different culture and speaking a different language just makes life back in your home country a little less interesting and adventurous.

SUPER- Market.

The toothpaste aisle is enough to overwhelm you.

Anyone who has lived abroad knows that The Grocery Store symbolizes a lot for an expat. It’s an introduction to your new country, where you practice a new language, currency and rules, like wearing plastic gloves to handle vegetables and self-pricing them in Italy. When you return, you feel overwhelmed in American Supermarkets (particularly the cereal and toothpaste aisles) when all you want to find is some real parmigiano reggiano or a deli that knows how to cut prosciutto properly. Eyes glazed, overwhelmed by choices, you wander aimlessly like a foreigner, peering at the XLL quantities, shivering under  blasts of air conditioning that would send AC-suspicious Italians running for their lives.

Where are the old people?

Italy is full of “gli anziani” or older people, especially in the lake region we lived. Observing them, I couldn’t help think they live better than in the States, where they don’t seem to participate as fully in daily life. There, they often are the center of a family and you see them gathering in piazzas, cafes, in front of churches, chatting, gossiping…. together.

I’m a girl. You’re a boy.

In Italy, there is an undercurrent feeling of gender awareness and acknowledgement of beauty through verbal and non-verbal compliments (this goes both ways). Italy is a center of Fashion and Beauty for a reason. When interacting socially in the States, it feels almost …genderless. While women have fought for equality and comments by Italian men can quickly turn to harassment, there is something weird about a puritanical-like avoidance of acknowledging beauty here in the States.


Building on the above, you learn pretty quickly in Italy – thanks to the undisguised, unapologetic looks from Italians- that you don’t just pop into the grocery store wearing gym clothes after a workout. So you dress up more, and you iron more. Then you come home. And like a visiting European, your jaw drops watching people in – oh my God! – what looks like pajamas walking downtown. Or ignoring the unspoken dress code in Italy by wearing shorts and flip flops in winter. You seem to have adopted the European opinion that sloppy people make you feel, well… “unwell.”  Your parents are proud that you have improved your table manners that are so important on the other side of the pond.

 “Oh, We looooove Italy!”

You get used to all your friends thinking you lived like a character in “Under the Tuscan Sun”. They tell you  they “did” Florence, Rome, and Venice in three days and how all Italians are “sooo nice.” And then you give up on trying to explain anything negative about living there or the people, because they really don’t want to hear it.

You’re just not that special anymore.

Just like your friends abroad seemed disinterested and smiled passively when you spoke of life prior to moving to their country, don’t expect your friends back home to want you to reminisce about life abroad.  Remember while you’ve been gone, they have continued on with their lives without you in them. And you no longer enjoy the special privileges, rules and attention you enjoy abroad because back home, you’re just like everyone else.

Moving On

When we left, we couldn’t wait to get back home. We were tired of struggling through everyday life Italy. The stress of navigating our way in a country with lots of people and less space, the combative nature and complexity that comes with doing almost anything there, especially in a second language and where your rules no longer apply. We came home with two elements of reverse culture shock – an idealized view and the expectation of familiarity – that nothing had changed while we were away.

Then, after a bumpy reentry, Italy became nirvana. Sure, being back was easy peasy with drive-through banking and neat lines.  But I only remembered my experiences there in the most favorable light. I idealized time abroad and this, too, is a symptom of reverse culture shock.

It’s been seven years since we returned to the U.S. What I’ve learned is this. Things aren’t all good or all bad in Italy – nor are they here. We’ve moved on and try to combine the positive aspects of living abroad with the best of life now. Today things feel normal but different. We weren’t here for 9/11. We missed the explosion of reality TV (thank God). During my time away, I had re-examined my priorities – accelerated by trading in a fast-paced lifestyle for a simpler life in Italy – and developed different interests, values and beliefs than I had before. I don’t like doing some things I used to before I left (mall shopping for one). Life is simpler. I consume less. And we try to enjoy life, without that American guilt. We make an effort to cultivate friendships with people who have lived abroad and have had similar experiences as we have, or speak the language we picked up. We keep in touch with our friends abroad and are planning our first trip back next year.  I finally pronounce I-kee-a (instead of EE-kay-a), write the date in “month, day, year” order again. I can drink a Starbucks and not spit it out (although it’s still not great). And I don’t wear white socks anymore.

By meeting all sorts of people abroad, we’ve learned that there are many ways to live life and we make sure our kids learn this too. For some it might be a 9-5 corporate job with a pre-planned family of two kids and mortgage. For others, it might not be. And for this once frantic, overly ambitious executive, a walk with the kids and making tomato sauce from scratch is sometimes enough for the day and that’s okay.  Finally, I learned “home” can mean a lot of things. While we bought a home and are building roots now in Northern California, Italy still feels like home for us (my daughter was born there) even if we don’t live there anymore. Reverse culture shock has faded, even if the shock of American air conditioning hasn’t.


104 thoughts on “Home is…where?

  1. Quite an exceptional post – your photos place us in the new home you are so enjoying, and Monique presented yet another view of ex-expat life. Well done!

  2. I think one way of viewing “reverse culture shock” is to enjoy “looking at things with fresh eyes”. I love that about going home to my hometown (Klang, Malaysia). My parents and siblings treat me as “the tourists” – I enjoy going out with them to do ordinary things like collecting their kids from school or buying veggies. And when I get back to my current home (Warsaw, Poland), once again, I get that “fresh eye” perspective. But “fresh-eye-view” don’t last – enjoy it!

  3. I’ve wrestled with the “grass is greener on the other side” mindset all of my life. Whether it’s traveling, looking toward the next step in life, the next job, thinking, “things will be better when…”

    I think the biggest challenge is just learning to live in the present and appreciate where you are, who you’re with and what today provides. It’s easy to say, and hard to do, but that’s what makes life enriching.

    Thanks for sharing! :) Best blog I’ve read in awhile.

    • Thanks Elli Writes, yes, living in the present and being grateful and content where you are today (as you wrote) is so important, and something to work towards. I think having kids helps live in the moment – because that is what they do so well.

  4. That’s a lovely post. Our large family lived in Israel for 5 years and have had family members go back and forth many times for school and to live.
    After a while we felt we became global residents and living one country habits to the next not so different. Consuming less loving more, using skype to talk more with whomever is currently abroad. The world is smaller than ever before. And getting smaller by the minute. I’ve watched the sunset in Haifa on the beach from my city backyard in Baltimore. It was beautiful.

  5. What a great post. It really spoke to me – we are living in England and missing NZ dreadfully, but I wonder if we went back it would be just as difficult. :)

  6. Great post! I always go back to what Hunter S Thompson said about Home being the “psychic anchor” you return to after travelling.
    I moved from an area at the age when people began to make an identity and “Home” for themselves, so I am often saying that i don’t feel at home anywhere, but means I can adapt.
    Will certainly subscribe. Thank you.

  7. Very well written. It’s not only that we can feel your heart in it, but that you also feel ours… those away from “home”. Thank you for this article!

  8. I can totally relate to both sides of your stories! I’ve learnt to just go with the flow, adapting each time I make a trip to South Africa from Scotland and vice versa. It was horribly weird for the first couple of years, quite emotional really – not ever knowing where I belonged or fit in.. but I’ve got the hang of it now (over the last 14 years) and can comfortably call both places “home”. Understanding cultures, languages (especially the nuances of a foreign language) goes a long way to helping you to fit in…just don’t forget your home slang for when you catch up with your school buddies :) – It gets easier!

  9. Ohhh, I can relate so much. I’m not really at home anywhere… And usually when I’m longing for a certain place, after spending 1-2 days there, I remember all the stressful things connected with it that I had forgotten, and I really want to leave again… It’s always “the grass is greener on the other side”.
    I want to hug you after reading this :)

    • Len, take me to California with you come Wintertime!! Let’s meet up somewhere in the middle so we can hug – the Pyrenees perhaps? :)

  10. I can so relate! I lived two years in China and coming back was just so strange … The reverse culture shock lasted for about a year and I still miss China so much it hurts. It’s so true that nobody wants to listen to your experiences or what it’s like to live there.
    Spain is beyond cool, I also want to live there sometime :)
    Congratulations on being freshly pressed!

  11. Monique, I am with you on the Ee-KAY-ah… I lived in Sweden for a while and it took years of ridicule and strange looks from my peers give in to the culturally accepted pronunciation of the store’s name here. It’s an interesting enigma that I have never thought about before today that where I live now long term (Costa Rica) has the general trend of EMBRACING all those things about the States that make us feel icky whereas in Western Europe (bless them all!) those same tendencies are resisted and, in fact, mostly ignored… but if they DO present themselves in one’s face, looked upon with a general apathetic contempt. I suppose it is a trait of a “third world country” scrambling dangerously close to making the jump to first world in practice… this makes me sad *she says as she remembers with embarrassment hearing that Walmart had come to Costa Rica and jumping excitedly to go see it…* It is a strange balancing act we third culture families perform. However, I would not trade it for the world! Thank you for your perspective.

  12. i feel like home is where your family is…assuming you’re close to your family. no matter my surroundings, my family make me feel most comfortable, most at ease, and most happy. having said that, i think i could feel right at home basking in the caribbean sun, with or without my family. :)

  13. I agree with a few things on this post and strongly disagree on others. For example, people in the Usa only care about work,work,mortgage and keeping up with technology & tv shows. People in Madrid, Barcelona and other big and mothern cities all over Europe and the world work & work, are the owners of their chalet or apartment an have mortgages. They also keep up with the latest technology and keep up with tv shows especially reality shows like Operacion Triunfo and Gran hermano among many other gossip shows and teleseries. I feel like you and your friends are not really living the real life in Spain or Europe. When you have a career and a real full time job in Spain and have co-workers you willl see things differently. If you don’t keep up with tv shows and the latest how are you going to bond with co-workers and locales? Especially keeping up with el barcelona and real madrid. Habeis visto a Los indignados por las grandes ciudades? Protestando y exigiendole al govierno empleos,buenas pensiones y vivienda? Todos queremos buenos empleos y una vida mejor. And life in the Usa is easy for me I don’t keep up with the Jones, but I keep up with tv shows and technology (I needed for work) and I need to bond with my co-workers and be able to understand the culture and American ways. I feel like you are just vacationing in Spain and are not really invested in a real life with a career. I see this pattern in many blogs; claiming to be English teachers two months in one city four months in another city and our children are not receiving a good education because these individuals are a bunch of charlatans that are pretty much vacationing for free.

    • I agree that in the bigger and more cosmopolitan cities in Europe there is more of the Americanized “work, work, work” ideal going on, and OF COURSE they keep up with television shows such as Gran Hermano, etc. But coming from the U.S. myself, I feel that since there are more American T.V. shows and therefore a greater variety that cannot be compared to those of other countries, it is too easy to get sucked into the “tube” culture in the U.S.

      I also most definitely agree that one must keep up with technology for practical reasons such as work and keeping in touch with loved ones. I have nothing against it, but personally feel overwhelmed as our culture (since the newest technology always hits the U.S. first) is consistently bombarded with the newest model, and the newest upgrade, and the grand list of, again, variety.

      And yes, I did see Los Indignados in Sevilla, Valencia, and Barcelona, and am familiar with the economic and political devastation that is occurring in Spain. Believe it or not, I am not some charlatan – I have lived in Spain for 4 years now, and am experiencing the economic downside just like anyone else. In fact, even more so since the dollars in my bank account amount to nothing in comparison to the euro.

      I am so glad to hear that life in the U.S.A. is easy for you.

  14. I can so relate to this post – from both sides. I have been in Spain with my wonderful Big Man now for 5 years, I can still rememeber the anguish and tears and missing my family, but hating being away from Big Man and Spain when I was in the UK. Now I feel that this is really home. I look back on my stories of how we met and my struggles at the start and I can laugh. Your blog is great too, am going to subscribe and I hope that you continue to thrive and enjoy your new life with your lovely man.

    • Thank you for stopping by! I’m incredibly excited about all of the wonderful recipes I found on your blog today, and it’s so nice to know there are people that can relate to my homesickness. Cheers!

  15. A wonderful post. You put in to words the yearning of home beautifully, I related in so many levels! I’m a Japanese living in Israel, and I’ve been very homesick. But both your views and Monique’s entry was a good reminder that the grass CAN look greener on the other side. Thank you!

    • You’re welcome! I’m so glad to find out that so many people can relate on various levels. It’s good to know we’re not completely alone out there. Thanks for stopping by. :)

  16. Very well said! I recently moved to the northern part of India and now when I get back to the South, I sometimes feel the customs there to be awkward. I can imagine, substituting Italy and America for Delhi and Bangalore!

  17. What a great list! I’d love to stay abroad for an extended time just to regroup from the life we live in the US. I once read an article about how this girl worked for Green Peace and went without a cell phone for a year and how life changing it was. It’s no wonder that Europeans have less stress and medical problems, it sounds like they enjoy life more.

  18. As a recent ex-expat (Taiwan), there’s much I can relate to here. Particularly not being special, not becoming a bore by reminiscing too much or complaining about what you could do there that you can’t do back “home”. My blog “The Journal of a Recovering Taiwanoholic” is at http://toby-the-ex-ex-pat.blogspot.com/ . I hope this shameless self publicity doesn’t count as spam or bad netiquette, but writing is one of the ways I’m using to develop skills and cope with returning to the UK after 10 years.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting! It sounds like you’re in the midst of making a very huge life change, especially after so many years of living abroad. Reverse culture shock can definitely be quite the load, especially when very few people understand it (usually only those of us who have lived abroad or immigrated are able to). I look forward to following your life experiences during this chapter of your life, and I enjoy your unique writing-style. The very best of luck to you and your wife! Have faith in that everything will work out for the best!

  19. Hi everyone! I found this blog post, and all your comments, to be very interesting! I’m wondering if any of you (or people you know) might be interested in contributing to a project I’m working on.

    I spent much of the last five years in India, and am having a real whammy of a time with reverse culture shock now that I’m back in the US. I’m a writer, with an MA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Johns Hopkins University. I’m interested in putting together a book of personal essays on the topic of reverse culture shock, and the different ways in which people can experience it.

    I’m not in a place to be able to pay for submissions, but I think it could be a helpful book for others going through the same struggles, and it could be a great way to gain writing exposure.

    No word limitation – as long or short as you like, and any way you’d like to interpret it is fine. The general way I’m defining it in my head is as the experience one has when returning home after spending a period of time in a place culturally/economically/emotionally different.

    Let me know what you think, and feel free to forward this to anyone else you may think could be interested in contributing!

    Feel free to email me at brandawn@gmail.com with any questions.


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