The 4th February is a date that will always stay with me. It’s the date we got on our one-way flight to Copenhagen in 2017 and started this incredible Danish adventure. I always write a blog post on this date as a marker of what we have learnt. But this year, rather than marking four years living in Denmark, it marks six months since returning home to the U.K. And that process has been a whole different ball game – one much harder than I ever expected. Even though we knew a move home would come one day – even when I was writing last year’s three-year anniversary post – it has been a total shock to the system.
So I decided to write an article on the process of moving home after living abroad because it struck me as something that isn’t often discussed. I was totally unprepared for any feelings of sadness and grief, because why would I when everything at home was easy and familiar? But it turns out to be a much more complex process. It has had an extra layer of difficulty because we moved during my first trimester of pregnancy soon after a miscarriage, which brought a whole range of extra emotions. And then there was moving during a pandemic. The restrictions on seeing old friends and making new ones; having to choose a nursery for Sofia without going inside it; meeting school parents through masks and quick exits of the playground and having to explain to Lydia why we can’t invite her school friends to our house for playdates or her birthday party.
It’s not an ideal scenario but one none of us can control, so we have just taken each week as it comes, knowing it’s difficult for everyone, everywhere. That’s not to say my Danish resilience and optimistic genes haven’t been tested to the max!
Six months down the line, the cloud of regret and sadness from leaving Denmark has lifted, there is light at the end of the corona tunnel and we have an incredible new chapter awaiting with a third baby on the way. I am a firm believer in the Danish positive reframing (turning negative situations into more positive ones which helps build resilience) and I’m so pleased to have got through this first process of resettling, with the help of our brilliant friends, family and most importantly, Rich. I hope the article helps anyone going through something similar. xx
It’s a grey day in the middle of British winter and I’m standing in a playground overlooking rows of Victorian terraced houses. I hear middle-class English accents all around me, as parents eagerly tend to their children who are dressed in anything from a school t-shirt and leggings to waterproof suits. I imagine the scene, on this day, at this time across the North Sea in Copenhagen. What would it look like, what would it sound like, why do I feel so different standing here?
It’s been six months since my young family and I moved back to Sheffield, England after three and a half years in Copenhagen. It has been a strange and difficult process, not helped by the restrictions of a pandemic and various lockdowns but also because I never expected moving “home” to be hard.
When we relocated to Denmark in 2017, there were many hurdles to overcome as we learnt about a new country, culture and language through mistakes and perseverance. But behind it all was the thrill of uncovering each layer of our new home and the reward of a constant learning process in even the most mundane of tasks.
Discovering how to use the communal washing machines when you didn’t know what setting to use; trying to make yourself understood at the supermarket when looking for the unpronounceable ‘grød’, (porridge) later realising it’s sold as havregryn (oats); waiting to be served at the chemist without realising you need a ticket.
And then you are home. None of these hurdles exist because you know it all. Plain sailing, you would think. But jarring against that sense of familiarity is the realisation that you’ve changed. Everything feels the same, except you.
“This is not talked about enough,” says Dr. Melissa Parks, a coach for expats and global nomads. “Moving home can be more challenging than the move abroad because you think it’s a comfy process and like home.
“You need to think of it as a new place. Be prepared to feel discomfort, to feel out of place.”
Almost two years ago Melissa returned to her hometown of Seattle after ten years living in Spain and the Netherlands.
“When we left Amsterdam I remember crying out of nowhere. Even if you have all the tools in the world you can’t make it pain free. For me it was helpful knowing the emotional rollercoaster was normal and being my own cheerleader through it all, but it was still really hard.”
Melissa refers to it as a grieving process and says it can take around 18 months before feeling at home again. I gulp as she says this.
Melissa adds, “a natural reaction can be, ’what can I do to fix this? What can I do to get rid of this feeling?’ But you have to give yourself time to go through the grieving process.”
It turns out that making direct comparisons and questioning the decision, as I have done on many occasions, is really quite unhelpful.
“It’s easy to fall into a trap of comparing,” says Katherine, who writes the blog ‘Bad Days Abroad’ and helps internationals contemplating a move.
“Some of the struggles I hear come from people’s false expectations. But not expecting it to be as you remember it – even feeling the same way – will help. And don’t get upset when your home friends and family can’t relate to your struggles. It’s important to connect with other internationals who can understand what you’re going through.”
For Danielle, who has lived in Copenhagen for the last ten years, the dilemma about whether to move home to England was an agonising one. Eighteen months ago, she and her now ex husband set up the logistics to move back to be close to family. They got places at the local school for their children and paid £8000 to secure a rental property, with the aim of later buying.
“We’d invested everything into the move and we were ready to go, but it suddenly just felt so wrong in our stomachs.”
While visiting the area to sort out furniture, they decided to pull the plug, one month before moving day. It meant losing the £8000.
“It just didn’t feel like we could belong there again. Even though there was that huge pull of being close to family, we ended up making a big U-turn and chose Denmark for its quality of life, well being, opportunities for the kids, and mindset of the people.”
Luckily, Danielle hadn’t formally left her job or sold the Copenhagen apartment, so the reverse decision was possible and it helped the family commit to Denmark longer-term. But it hasn’t left her completely free of the dilemma, especially while visiting home is off the agenda with current travel restrictions.
“I’ve been struggling with the fact that my choice to stay maybe creates more distance and erodes the closeness I have with my family over time, although we have maintained good contact so far. But this year has been incredibly cruel with the tragic death of my cousin and then my Nan and not being able to attend their funerals or be there with my family. The distance is made ten times worse with the pandemic. I would otherwise be travelling back every six weeks because I’m a teacher and can do that.”
The idea of being able to live between two countries is helpful for many internationals, whether they decide to stay or go home and it’s something that is temporarily on pause due to the pandemic.
When author Jayne Tuttle returned home to Australia in 2014, after ten years living in France, she was back in Paris six months later. With the exception of last year, she has kept up the pattern of returning for long stints ever since.
“Somehow along the way I made peace with the fact that our life as a family would exist between two countries. That stopped the agony of feeling ripped away from the place I love most. After all, it’s just a place.
“I read in French, listen to French, dream in French. Just as in Paris in the later years I accepted my Australianness and stopped trying to act French, in Australia I keep my little French person close to me.
“I don’t care any more that I don’t quite fit into either culture, which used to plague me. Just as I love the abstract world between the two languages, I love the strange world between the two cultures.”
That acceptance, of being between different cultures, seems to be the crux to finding peace with where you’re at, either abroad or having returned home. Danielle refers to it as an “agony” she has learnt to live with. Melissa calls it “being a triangle”.
“You’re not a square like the people in the country you’ve come from, you’re not a circle like those in your home country; you’re a triangle. So find your other triangles.”
There is an online community called ‘I am a Triangle’ for this very reason.
The ‘Danes in Sheffield’ group are my triangles it seems. Meeting with them, albeit at a distance, has helped connect the language and culture I’ve just left, to the new yet familiar one I now face.
Leaving a country is a difficult and sad process but this is completely normal and also, completely fine, because with it, comes so much more. You now inhabit a new culture, a new network, perhaps a new language that will enrich your life for years to come – especially once we can all travel again.