A bittersweet homecoming

We came home last weekend – home to our familiar, comfortable house on our familiar, comfortable street. Surrounded by people and things we have known for years: the school up the road, the park around the corner, the shops only a ten minute walk away. It always feels good to come back to this place – the house that we have owned now for nearly ten years, where we brought our first daughter when she was less than a year old and our second when she was just two days. It’s where we have become a family and holds so many dear memories. It’s the place I feel most like myself.

a corner of the house

But coming home from a holiday in Florida on Saturday morning was tinged with sadness because I knew that this time we would only be here for two months and then, with as little fanfare as possible (I am not a big fan of prolonged goodbyes), we’ll be gone. And I have no idea how long it will take until our new house will feel like home – if we manage it at all.

This led me to think – what is home? How do we, as expats, with our peripatetic life, ever feel truly at home somewhere? Can we? And why do some houses – like the one we live in at the moment – feel like home, while others never do. Is it really about owning somewhere? Knowing it’s yours forever, even if you don’t live in it all the time you own it?

I think you only really know what home is when you’ve been away. It’s the coming back that makes somewhere special. Even when you’re having the time of your life somewhere, if you think about somewhere else with longing – whether that be a country, city, house or even a person – then you know that is where you belong. Or at least, you know it “belongs” to you. Sometimes you grow out of or apart from somewhere (or someone) – I once longed for London; now, I love to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there anymore. It’s “home” in as much as it is the capital of my home country, but I don’t belong there.

For me, I can only guess that it’s having children that has made our current home feel so special. It’s also the longest place I have ever lived somewhere (four and a half years!), plus, apart from a short spell of ownership of a Victorian flat in south London, the first time I have ever owned a property. In addition, the home is in the west of England, the part of the country where both my parents were born and raised (and now live), even if I wasn’t. Perhaps this area is in my genes.

shells on shelf

All of these things combined have made our current home a very special one – but it’s more than that. It’s just something that feels “right” about where we live, as if all the elements have clicked into place. Which is why it is going to be so hard to leave it, despite the fact that I have moved so many times before. Including from this very house – this will be the third overseas move we will have made in the ten years since we bought it. We’ve just always come back again.

Looking forward, I already know where we will be living in South Africa, and can thus start to try and imagine our lives there. I know we will have a very attractive house in a pleasant neighbourhood (despite the high electric fences, guards on gates and panic buttons installed). I know that we will have comfortable furniture and a pretty garden, a real, open fireplace for the cold winter evenings and three spacious bedrooms. I have no complaints about the house at all – but will it ever feel like home?

I guess the only way to find out is to go there, live there for a while and then go somewhere else. It’s only when it’s time to return to that particular house in that particular street in that particular city will I know whether it’s my home or not. And in the meantime, I’ll make the most of the home we’ve got in the little time we’ve got left in it. Until we come home again.

Where is “home” to you? Is it where you currently live, or somewhere else completely? Can more than one place be “home”? And what makes somewhere “home”, how does a place change from simply accommodation to somewhere special?

Just adding a little edit here – there is definitely something in the air at the moment because I have suddenly realised that there are several posts around at the moment about the same thing so I thought it would be fun to link to them.

From Pasta and Patchwork – What Make’s Home Home

From Expat Chronicles – This is Not Home

And from Kaffee und Kuchen – Where’s Home?

This post is part of the My Expat Family link-up. Check out other posts about living overseas by clicking on the the link below.

My Expat Family

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39 thoughts on “A bittersweet homecoming

  1. I think you are right Clara that it’s when you go away and come back that you know wether it’s “home” it was like that for me a few years ago, when travelling back here from a visit overseas that I realised just that 🙂

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  2. This is the second post I’ve read on this topic this morning – so many people moving and pondering the nature of “home”. I’m sure your SA house will become a home, you’re such the expert at moving and then before you know it you’ll back in your current home in Cheltenham. For me, home is where I lay my hat and where my kids and husband are. It has nothing to do with where my parents are and I don’t have a “home home”! I love where I live now, with a passion, but I’d love probably almost as much, to move to another country again. I just can’t do “forever”!

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    • I just read the other post and realised I’d read it when it first came out and even commented on it – I actually think it started a train of thought that led to this post! But I also think it is a lot to do with moving, leads you to ponder these things….the houses we have lived in in St Lucia and my house in Jamaica never really felt like home; I think one of the problems for us is that we don’t get to chose the furniture and in those cases they were fully furnished lets so it never really felt like we were doing more than staying there temporarily. The FCO furnsished homes aren’t quite as bad as, if you recall, they are all at least fairly bland so you can stamp your personality on them a bit (cushion covers, rugs, wall decos etc). I am a victim of forever moving on though, I don’t even find I fully unpack sometimes before we’re up and off again. Perhaps that is why this house is properly home, because we always know we’re coming back to it.

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  3. We’ve made the tough decision to finally sell our home in the US after almost 6 years away. The financial burden no longer made sense and we don’t have a definitive time now as to how long we are going to be away. As you know, I just wrote about this topic too… I don’t know that home has to be a specific house, but more so of a place of comfort – for me that’s the Boston area. It’s where I grew up, where I feel most at home and where the majority of my family and friends are. But I also agree with Phoebe that home is where you lay your hat and where your family is. Your time in SA will fly by and before you know it, you’ll be back “home” again 🙂 Enjoy your last few months!!

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    • Thank you, I knew I’d read another post about home, that was where it was 🙂 I agree, it can be a place, area, city – I think that’s one of the reasons I feel comfortable where we are, I like the town and the region as well as the house and the street. Of course, in a few years time, when we return, the girls will be older and going to different schools so life will be very different – maybe then this won’t be the place we want as our home anymore – who knows!

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  4. Totally agree, it’s having children that has helped me feel that Britain is my home and that our house is my home and where I’m meant to be. If I take my kids out of the mix (very hard to imagine) then I’m not left with all that much that would make me feel at home here. Best of luck with your move. Sounds amazing and look forward to your blog posts about it all. #myexpatfamily

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    • Thank you Meghan. I do wonder what we’ll do and where we will go once the kids leave home. I suspect we will definitely move (the best thing about this house is it’s convenience to the schools, although it is also brilliantly located for walking to the shops and into town) – but how far only time will tell. We have discussed buying a property overseas but I don’t think I would want to fully retire to another country.

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  5. A lovely post! I completely agree that you only really form the attachment to home when you leave it. Best of luck for the move to south africa, and I hope it becomes your Home soon enough. #myexpatfamily

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  6. This is lovely Clara! Eline over at pasta&patchwork also wrote about home for this months link up! I think it’s a really important thing that expats try to define for themselves, and perhaps explain to others!
    I agree that you know if a place is “home” or not when you are away and if you miss it or excited to go back! I do think that it’s people that make a home though! Like you mentioned your kids, I feel the same way!
    The house we are in now feels the most home like of all the houses I’ve lived in as an adult (by that I mean not living with my parents) and I think it’s not only down to it being a nice house it’s how comfortable and secure I feel in my own family life now!

    Thanks so much for sharing this with #myexpatfamily Clara a really lovely post!

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    • Thank you Chantelle. A lot of people have been saying it’s definitely about their children, I also think it’s about where you feel secure. There’s nothing nicer to coming back to your own house, closing the door behind you and feeling safe. I guess it’s a very primordial feeling that goes back to our basic needs. Cavemen probably felt like this when they rolled the stone over the entrance to their cave…

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  7. Like you, I’ve been an expat since birth, so I don’t know about ‘home’ per se. But there are places that hold precious memories for me, and objects which have travelled across the world, back and forth, several times. My trunk from boarding school is my current coffee table – even though I could afford something nicer and more grown up – I won’t, because there are just so many memories tied up with this trunk. We still own the flat we had when we were first married and had our daughter, but it’s not home, it was always an investment. For now, home is London, and I’m OK with that.

    I hope SA is a magical adventure for you and the girls. Enjoy it in all its craziness.

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    • I love that idea of using your trunk as a coffee table, and I also totally get it. Because you don’t have a permanent home, it’s objects which become your comfort. It reminds me of when I was travelling for a year through Australia and New Zealand, I bought a beautiful piece of cloth that I used initially as a sheet, and a wrap or sarong, then it became a comfort blanket – I couldn’t sleep without it! I no longer needed it once I was home and re-settled.

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  8. We moved out to Saudi 5 years ago and kept our home in Cheltenham. It too help so many special memories for us, Baby no 2 was born in that house. Sadly it got destroyed from a burst water pipe the first winter we were away, and underwent a total remodel and was let and decorated. After that, it wasn’t my home anymore. Since being an expat in both Saudi and Dubai I have never felt settled. It was always temporary. We have moved house 3 times in the past 2 years! In 2 weeks we move to our new home in Austin TX. We chose the plot of land, we chose the design and everything in between. I can’t wait for that moment when we arrive and knowing this is forever! That sense of belonging and contentment. Good Luck with your move Clara. xx

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  9. I’ve been in the UK for nearly 4 years now and received British citizenship in January–I’m now US/UK dual. My husband is British, but was naturalized a US citizen during the 13 years we lived there as a married couple. Our kids were born in the States but are also dual citizens. My husband never felt at home in the States, while I never feel at home here. We sold our house this past February after 3.5 years of crossing our fingers it would happen, and honestly, I feel (at least right now) that place is home. It’s where we brought our last baby home, where our kids started school, where we had a close community. It’s not like that here and while I was prepared for life to be “different” I didn’t think it would be so hard. We’re planning on buying a house next year and perhaps that will make me feel more at home–but I’m skeptical. I hope my feelings of homesickness will fade more with time.

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    • It’s so hard for couples from two different countries/cultures, when one will never feel totally at home. Like you, my house really does feel like home because I brought our babies back here. I hope you find somewhere eventually you both feel is home (somewhere mid-Atlantic?!).

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      • How often we have wished for an island in the middle of the ocean! 🙂 But yes, for me that feeling of home is about where I started raising my kids and formed those early ties with other similar families. Though sometimes I have wished I’d married a nice local boy… sigh.

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  10. This post really hit home for me. I’ve been feeling similarly and have been drafting a post on the same topic. Sometimes I feel like I have two homes, and after a recent trip back to visit my parents, sometimes it feels like I don’t have one at all.

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  11. Interesting post – my parents always inculcated the belief in us that home was family not place and I am trying to do the same with my kids. I am most at home when I have my husband, children, father and sister all together. That does not happen much any more but it is when I am at my happiest. For the rest of the time we make do with whatever combination of people we have.

    Some postings catch you more than others, for me my two favourites were Kazakhstan and Turkey, they were hard to leave and I cried both times. For the other postings I started mentally to say goodbye as soon as we heard we were leaving. With the UK I wanted to leave the town we were living in, either for somewhere else in the UK or abroad for some time before we made the move. About 10 years ago by a complete fluke after years of living in separate countries and even continents my whole family ended up 5 minutes drive from each other, it was a blissful few years, the first time since I was 11 that I could be with them whenever I wanted to and vice versa. After my mother died I wanted to leave the town behind, I can’t drive past my parent’s house without wanting to have a cup of tea with her and 8 yeas later my heart still aches every time she does not open the door. I guess that is the downside with people not place! That said had she not died we would have still moved as I have perpetually itchy feet

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    • Interesting that those two particular posts were so hard to leave. Was it a particular moment in time or the places themselves? Eg a lot of people have said they always long for the place they brought their babies back to or raised a family. I guess sometimes it’s unpredictable, it just… is.

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  12. I have three places I call home from different stages of my life; my formative years as a child in Perth, my uni and early working days in Melbourne and the beginnings of my new family in London.

    All these places feel like home when the plane touches down but there is no one house or physical place that defines them.

    Like everyone else home for me now is where my family is, I’m not sure we’ll ever have roots in one place. I used to be jealous of the kids who lived in one place all their life, now I wouldn’t have it any other way!

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    • I am still torn between the idea of having a childhood home and friends all in one place (I especially loved the idea as a young adult that everyone went home to their parents at Christmas and met up with their school friends in the local pub on Christmas eve). But I’m pretty sure given a choice I would still choose the childhood I had.

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  13. Pingback: Why I have always felt British, all my Expat life |

  14. Yes, there is definitely something in the air! I find it interesting that you link the feeling of home to a place you own. I’ve never owned a property but I always imagined knowing something belongs to you would really help to make it feel like you belong there, too. I hope that’s true! That said, I don’t think it’s a prerequisite – the flat we live in, the one I wrote my post about, is rented and it very much feels like home.
    In any case, I wish you all the best with your move to SA. As you know we’re about to move again too and I can identify so much with what you write about. You’ve pinpointed exactly what I think many expats experience: sometimes you have to leave and come back, maybe even a few times over, before you really understand what a place means to you.

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    • There really is something in the air, I have just found another post about home. I think it must be because of the time of year and everyone either going home for the holidays or moving on somehwhere. I think owning somewhere can help make it feel like home – especially when you can decorate it, pick all the furniture, know that it’s all your choice. But there’s still no guarantees – I am sure some people buy a property that isn’t ever going to be “home”.

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  15. I remember talking with career military families. They viewed each one of their moves as an adventure and as shopping for where they want to retire. So they had an attitude of, “This is not home, but maybe when we retire, it could be. Fortunately, I love living in Colorado and my employer, so I do feel at home.

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  16. Lovely put!
    As an expat I always like to compare myself to a snail: I carry my home with me. I am quite attached to all my furniture and other items , rather than the walls that surround them. We drag tons of stuff across continents! and as soon as I have unpacked if feels like home. I always unpack in a few days!
    I do usually struggle to leave my garden though…

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    • Someone advised taking just a few familiar items on the plane with you, to help make it feel at least a little like home before your stuff arrives. I think this is particularly important for the children… And plan to pack my youngest daughter’s fairy lights in her suitcase…

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  17. Lovely post. I totally agree with you. When we left Hong Kong last year, I walked out of our empty apartment and balled my eyes out. I couldn’t work out why – even though it was a great apartment in a fab area, it was small and getting worn…everything was squashed in, I was ready for somewhere new. But it was so symbolic of our family life starting there. A newly married couple and having our daughter there meant it really became our home. It was heart wrenching to leave. We are now in our new home in China which is much bigger, brighter and shinier… it is slowly becoming home but I don’t think will ever have the same attachment as HK. 🙂 x

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    • There’s something very special about that time as a new parent, it’s not surprising we get a bit misty eyed about it. But it’s easy to forget how hard it is too. Our house holds so many good memories….but I’ve wiped the sleepless nights and massive morning tantrums trying to get out the door from my mind! Ps that was me having the tantrums 😃

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  18. I’m an American living permanently in Britain, so I’m in a different position, but where home is depends on what I’m talking about. It changes from sentence to sentence. It’s Cornwall, where I live now. It’s Minnesota, where I lived for most of my adult life. It’s New York, where I grew up. Definitely an all-of-the-above type answer.

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  19. Pingback: Making a new home abroad – my journey back to trailing spouse-land. |

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