How to feel at home in another country

I’ve had more than my fair share of homesickness during the past five months. I had a fair dose when I went through a breakup in the Himalayas and when I travelled to Vietnam alone, and it’s been coming in waves since moving to Scotland. When people are in an uncomfortable or foreign situation, we tend to believe that the familiar surroundings of home will ease the pain. And I don’t disagree – but since relocating to a different country is permanent, while travelling isn’t, I’ve had to think about how to deal with missing Australia while living on the other side of the world.

Moving to another country may seem simple enough to do, but getting there is easy. Setting up a life there is a little more challenging. There are the practical things; finding a house in a decent neighbourhood and getting a job. Once these are secured you realise that you have to have some real, fleshy, non-digital friends, because Facebook messaging does not count as conversation, and your Saturday nights are starting to look very sad. So you go out alone to the bar down the road and buy a drink and sit there, sizing up every person around you, until you decide to succumb and use the lighter trick. You stand outside, place a cigarette in your mouth then “search” your bag for the phantom lighter. Oh no, it’s not there. Now you have an excuse to talk to the person next to you. It always works. You make some acquaintances and plan to meet again. When you do, you realise that hanging out with new friends is almost identical to going on a date. You’re a tad nervous – this person is cool, you want to impress them with your unbounded knowledge and wisdom and practical prowess. Once you both get over the awkward hump of trying to act like it’s not a date, your words and laughs flow freely and soon you’re telling this near stranger that time involving too much cheap wine and a tent flap that wouldn’t open. You search around to find your favourite café, bookstore, bar, live music venue, charity shop, and pretty soon you’ve ticked all the boxes for getting established.

But it still isn’t the same somehow. You find yourself missing things you never thought you would; the walk to the corner store to buy milk, the casual informality of your hometown, the calls of magpies in the morning sunshine, coffee at the Blue Frog, quick drives to the fruit stall on the outskirts of town, the way your coconut oil is always melted, the calls of teenagers playing six-a-side soccer. Even though you know that two places will ever be the same, you can’t help clinging to the old habits you had there. Any reference to home makes you nostalgic. Looking through old photos sends a pang through your chest.

But I’ve found that it’s not just my hometown I feel homesick for, it’s any period of my life that’s now part of the past. Even if the time wasn’t always enjoyable, I find myself focusing on the good parts of the memory then letting myself miss those. We humans are masters of desiring what we can’t have, especially if it’s an abstract concept like the past. And I know that in the future I’ll pine for the moments I’m experiencing right now, but somehow I can’t be wholly content with what I have now.

Maybe there is no way to feel at home somewhere until you have left it, because memories imbue the past with a golden glow that doesn’t exist in the present.

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