Coming home

It’s a cruel irony of this Foreign Service life that coming back to the U.S. – our “home” – often seems like the hardest transition we make.

I’m not gonna lie, I thought I was READY to leave Australia. Frankly, I thought I was ready to leave almost before we got there. I stood in our kitchen in Kinshasa and cried when we got the assignment to Canberra, and somehow I managed to convince myself that my initial disappointment in the posting should translate into two years of, basically, waiting to get “home.”

And now, here we are, back in the U.S. of A. and I have come to the realization that our time in Canberra came to an end without me ever noticing how good it was – and how much it came to feel like “home” – until it was over and we were winging our (long, long) way back across the Pacific.

I didn’t shed a single tear when we took off from Sydney. I never even looked back. By contrast, I bawled from the moment we left our house in Kinshasa until we were well over Gabon. I somehow knew what we were uprooting when we left Africa. But now, almost 6 months after getting my American legs back under me, I find myself pining for Canberra far more often than I ever expected while I was counting down the days until we left.

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I suspect part of what I’m feeling is that, in retrospect, I’ve realized our Australian tour was wonderful in a million different ways that I was too stubborn to acknowledge while we were in the middle of it. We made a home in Canberra. We made wonderful, lifelong friends and we started to put down little, fragile roots.

When we left, we tore those roots up and, despite my near constant desire to get “home” while we were 10,000 miles away, now that we are back in the U.S., it feels less like “home” and more like a way station.

When I was growing up we moved a lot. First from the UK to Canada, and then from a small town to a bigger town, then to the big city – and within each of those places to multiple houses. And smack dab in the middle of all that – when I was 11 – I also went to boarding school for two years. But it never felt like any of those places were “way stations” – even when we only lived somewhere for a year or two. I was able to settle in and be a part of each place we lived in a way that made them always feel like “home.” So I’m left wondering what “home” means to me? Why doesn’t it feel like I’m “home” now that we are back in a familiar place? 

Maybe it’s because we are not officially “posted” to Washington. We are on “TDY” (Temporary DutY) here – which almost by definition prevents us from forming any kind of foothold here. It means that most of what we own is either in storage or waiting patiently for us in (or near) our next post, we are living in a furnished corporate apartment – our second since we returned in August – and we constantly have one eye on the calendar and the things we need to do before we leave in the summer of 2020.

Oh yeah, and in case I haven’t mentioned it, our next post – starting at some point in August or September 2020 – is Istanbul, Turkey. Don’t worry, I didn’t cry this time so hopefully I’ll be focused on living in – and writing about – this amazing historical city before we leave in 2023.

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So right now, for 10-12 months our focus is on our new post. Our jobs, quite literally, are to learn Turkish. Every day B and I walk to a building in Arlington and spend 6 hours speaking, reading and listening to Turkish. It is çok iyi (very good). Well, sometimes it is very good. Sometimes it makes my head want to explode, but that’s another post… In April we’ll take tests to check to make sure we’ve been studying and learning, and, assuming we pass with the 2/2 (speaking/reading) score we need, we’ll finish up some more functional training and be on our way again. Maybe it’s this constant reminder of the temporariness of our time here that makes it not feel like “home.”

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Maybe it is also that C has struggled mightily coming back to the place she knows and understands is her home country – but doesn’t always feel very welcoming. International schools are used to kids who move every couple of years and transition in and out, but local public schools are not. Most of the kids in her new class have been together since kindergarten. They are tight friends, with deep roots, and with little room for a new kid who will be gone by next September. She’s managing, but she asks with persistent regularity why we can’t go back to Australia, and she thinks that our lack of jobs, a house, or visas in that country should not be particularly difficult to overcome. Why? Because to C Australia is the most permanent “home” she can remember. Ultimately I’m sure she’ll be fine, but watching her struggle – and being able to see that she doesn’t feel like this is “home” either – has been hard.

The thing about the transition back to the US is that the first few weeks are like a honeymoon. Everyone is excited to see you, they make time to see you, they go out of their way to see you…and then things go back to normal for them. Everyone you know and love has a job, a home, friends – and you are normally thousands of miles away from that life. You’re like a special occasion, and once they’ve “celebrated” you, they have to go back to living their normal lives –  and you are not a part of that life on a day-to-day basis. And we’ve got jobs too – and learning a new language is, to some extent, all consuming – so we don’t have free time to travel all over and visit people either. It’s frustrating after being so far away that you can’t visit friends, to suddenly be only a few hours (or 5 minutes) away, and still be unable to find the time to catch up.

When we do visit our “settled” friends in their lovely, decorated houses, where they’ve put down strong roots and where it truly feels like a “home” to me, it is also hard not to remember that a few years ago this was us.

We recently visited our house in Charlotte – that we still own, but now rent out – and it made me palpably miss the feeling of belonging to a place. And in those moments I wonder if we made the right choice. It feels like we no longer have a place in the world that is ours – a true “home” – and that is never more obvious than when we are on TDY in the U.S., living in a small apartment with corporate art on the walls, spending all our time focused on our next transition.

In November we also lost our dear sweet Miller, who has been with us since B & I met. He lived a long and full life – and was with us in the U.S., Canada, Africa, and Australia – but that doesn’t seem to have made his loss any easier. And maybe that’s ultimately why we don’t feel like we’re home. Because for us, in this life, home has become the place where we – B, C, D – and Miller – are together. Without Miller the place we live feels less like home and more like an impersonal space where we sleep.

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I know that in a few months, when we move into our new place in Istanbul, and all our boxes arrive and we unpack and put our own art and photos on the walls, our dishes in the cupboards and our books on the shelves, and we can focus on putting roots into our new community, it will feel like a ‘home’ again for at least 3 years. And I know then I will not regret our choices as I revel in our newest adventure. But, for these next few months, I’ve just got to accept that I’m not entirely sure what home is to me in this nomadic life we live, and that means “coming home” may always be just a little bit out of reach, and just a little bit harder than it feels like it should be.