Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Going back "home": on revisiting the expat experience

Back in New York State for the fall
As the part of the US trip mentioned in previous posts, we spent some time staying with friends in our former Long Island hometown.

We wanted to go back and reconnect with people before they forgot us, we forgot them and the boys forgot that they were ever little kids with American accents, at an American school and with American friends.

The experience was lovely, but it was also strange.

As we drove into town, everything seemed both familiar and unfamiliar - the streets I had driven down endless times, the shops, the road names. The first morning, The Doctor and I lay awake with jet lag, neither of us able to remember the name of a road we used to drive down daily -- eventually I had to go and look it up. Within about 24 hours though, it all came flooding back, and I was able to remember everything and everyone.

With a packed schedule of seeing friends, there wasn't really time to slow down and process how I felt about the whole experience. It did make me feel quite impressed with myself that I'd managed to make that many close friends in such a short time -- maybe it was the time of life (small children starting school) or maybe it was the fact that I knew I had only limited time there so had to make the most of it?

(One funny thing; I was waiting for a friend in a coffee shop when I saw a woman I had been quite friendly with at the start of our four years there. I went up to her excitedly telling her how I had come back to visit -- but she didn't even realise I had left!)

The boys' behaviour was pretty interesting. 

Littleboy 1 had verbal diarrhoea from the moment our friend picked us up at JFK - telling her about his school, new friends, his brother's new friends, life, the universe and everything. I'm not sure whether this was over-excitement at having FINALLY arrived in New York (we'd had a 24 hour delay due to a faulty plane- thanks Virgin Atlantic) or a need to fill her in on our new lives. Anyway, having exhausted his supply of new information, he never mentioned any of it again the whole time we were staying with them; instead he just slotted back into his old games with his friends, and even started sounding vaguely American again.

He was also incredibly excited to revisit his old haunts, including his favourite burger restaurant, Smashburger, which we had to visit twice. (I'm afraid all the upmarket burger joints we've been to in London -- Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Byron et al -- don't cut the mustard with him, compared to this mid-range chain, a sort of hybrid between fast-food and a sit down restaurant that does rather fabulous sweet potato fries.) As we went around town, he was constantly exclaiming how he remembered this, and that, and how much he loved it.

Littleboy 2, the quieter of the two and my little philosopher, said virtually nothing to his friends at first. He kept his thoughts very much to himself until I asked him outright, having taken them to play in the park where we always went when they were small, how he felt about being back there. He replied "a bit sad and a bit lonely." I knew exactly what he meant -- it was as if we were revisiting the past, but we couldn't really recreate it -- the friends we used to play with at the park were no longer there, and all the local children were in school, so there was no-one else around. I'm not sure he knows the word "nostalgic" but I think that was probably the feeling he was also trying to articulate.

Going back to their old school was weird; we went to watch their Halloween parade, with all the kids and teachers there in costume. It felt odd, I'm sure, for them to be on the outside looking at something they once took part in.  We called out to a couple of teachers, and one immediately recognised the boys (and me), which was nice. But it definitely felt like we weren't part of it any more.

A lot of people asked us whether we wished we'd stayed. But the trip confirmed to me that, no, I didn't. I absolutely loved living there, and we were lucky to have had a beautiful town to live in and some lovely  friends. I loved seeing the fall colors, and the decorations, and spending Halloween there with everyone getting into the party spirit and the whole town trick or treating. But I didn't feel an urgent need to move back -- I feel much more settled in London than I ever did there, perhaps because I know that this is our home and it's not just temporary. I'm also glad that the boys are being educated in the British school system, which I think on balance I prefer.

So I'll be happy to re-visit every few years. And we might have to do that, just so Littleboy 1 can eat "the best burger in the world."