“What can I do to make repatriation easier?”
The woman behind the question was an American expatriate — a friend of a friend of a friend — who was about to return home after three years in Canada. We’d been chatting about Thanksgiving traditions when the conversation took this unexpected turn, catching me completely off guard.
“I keep hearing it’s going to be tough,” she went on, looking worried. “How did you handle it?”
She gazed at me expectantly, waiting for the magic bullet that would help her avoid re-entry shock and slip seamlessly back into her former existence. “Well, this is awkward,” I thought. It’s not that I didn’t have any ideas; I actually had loads of suggestions for easing into life as a repat. The problem was that the prospect of giving advice on the subject made me feel like a fraud.
See, I don’t exactly consider myself a poster child for graceful repatriation. I landed back in Canada with a jolt and proceeded to ignore all the excellent advice I’d been given about managing the transition, with predictable results. I was angry or depressed for most of the first two years, and it pains me to admit that I spent more time than was healthy wallowing in a black hole of self-pity. Definitely not my finest moment!
A few days after that conversation, I spoke with Jo Parfitt about her new novel, Sunshine Soup. Many of you know Jo as an indefatigable expert on all things expat, but this time I was more interested in hearing about her experiences as a repatriate. As usual, she didn’t disappoint. The first thing she mentioned was her certainty, when she moved back to England after a decade overseas, that her expat adventures had come to an end.
“My seven-year itch started after about year three,” she admitted with her customary humour. “By the time it got to seven years, there was nothing left to scratch it with apart from going away again.”
Did she curl up into a ball and brood over the loss of her expatriate lifestyle? Are you nuts? She jumped in with both feet and immediately set about recreating what she calls “the expat bubble” right there in her native land.
“I actively recognized the fact that I needed an international flavour — particularly, international people — in my life. I travelled a lot, went to a ton of expatriate conferences, and was involved in various expat groups. I also tried to find people living near me who either were foreign or had lived abroad. My best friends ended up being those people.”
Jo went even further, deciding to combine her two great loves: expat life and writing. It was during this period that she wrote A Career in Your Suitcase and the first edition of Forced to Fly. [Edited to add: I have a story in the second edition, Forced to Fly 2.] “I was determined to work in this expat niche, since that was what fed my soul,” she told me.
I love hearing repatriate success stories like Jo’s, because I’ve noticed that while reinvention and discovering one’s passion are common themes among expatriate women, all too often that adventurous spirit wanes when the once-intrepid explorer returns to her home shores. Why is it that so many of us neglect to pack our new and improved selves when we prepare to make this final expat journey? Why do we fall back into our old patterns, reverting to who we were instead of embracing who we’ve become?
Why does the end of expat life sometimes feel like the end of life itself?
“I think the key to repatriating successfully is to be proactive,” Jo said. “Know what you love to do and where your passions lie — and don’t be frightened to admit it.” Jo practices what she preaches, making a point of finding a writers’ circle wherever she lives — including, for those seven years, back “home” in England. “I am passionate about writing, and writers’ circles have always helped me find people who are soulmates on that level. That’s been hugely helpful.”
In the end, I told that American repat-to-be that repatriation, like all major life transitions, can be messy and confusing. I told her that grief and doubt are perfectly normal reactions, and that a little guilt over those perfectly normal reactions is likewise perfectly normal. And I told her my own story, as a cautionary tale, because knowing what not to do can come in awfully handy on occasion.
A body in motion will stay in motion; I believe the same can be said of souls. Keep moving forward, I advised her. Continue to explore, and grow, and pursue what brings you joy. I can only hope she’s better at following advice than I was.
What advice would you give someone on the eve of their repatriation?