I live in two places. I have lived in many more. My children live in different countries. My husband is a serial globetrotter. For us, the question of where home is, is indeed a very difficult one to answer.
But how did we get ourselves into this mess? When my husband and I decided to move abroad, we told our families that it was a temporary situation, five years, 10 at the very most.
Oh well, nothing is as permanent as a temporary situation, it would seem.
Our families have long since given up on asking whether we will ever settle somewhere.
But they haven’t stopped wondering. Meanwhile, we keep wandering. We still have a list of places we want to live in; we call it our bucket list.
“Aren’t you homesick?” is a question we get asked by friends and family regularly.
It’s their way of saying, “Come back already, for goodness sake!”
Since we are Swiss nationals, we should be homesick. Not because our home country is such a beautiful one, which it is, of course.
But because homesickness is first mentioned specifically with Swiss people being abroad in Europe (“Heimweh”) for a longer period. The document dates back to 1691.
Swiss mercenaries serving different rulers in different countries for years at a time were believed to suffer from this ailment with such intensity that many died from it. Never mind the fact that being a mercenary brought about some pretty dangerous occupational hazards.
Never mind the fact too, that homesickness is an ancient phenomenon. It is even mentioned in the Old Testament (“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion”) as well as in the opening scene of Homer’s Odyssey featuring Athena arguing with Zeus about bringing Odysseus home because he is (“... longing for his wife and his homecoming ...”).
In this day and age, however, everybody is allowed to be homesick. All the greater the frustration with our sedentary families when we are not.
That is not to say that we don’t miss certain aspects of home.
Everyone living far from where they grew up will tell you that they miss something. A specific kind of breakfast cereal or bread, seasons or seasoning, the ease of shopping for their customary shoe or bra size, or the opportunity to attend gatherings such as a nephew’s graduation or a godchild’s wedding.
So why do we not simply give in and go home? Because there is another “illness” that has befallen us. Itchy feet syndrome!
It might not be a medical term; it feels like a serious condition nonetheless. I won’t speak for my family members, but the prospect of packing up and starting a new adventure excites me.
After two years in one place, I get restless. So it happens for my travelling spouse to come home to a rearranged living room, a redecorated home.
He knows the symptoms well; shuffled furniture is a tell-tale sign of me being ready for a move. If I can’t move to a new country, at the very least let me have a new home.
Some might conclude that I have commitment issues. I most certainly don’t. I am very committed, to my family, my friends, my writing, even my tennis lessons. And to new beginnings.
Packing up a household can be stressful. The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, published by psychologists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, puts relocation at the staggering second place in possibly illness-inducing life events. Only the death of a spouse scores higher.
Why do we keep moving then, my family as well as so many others, hopelessly committed to the expat life? Because unpacking in a new home feels like starting to read a new book.
We will cherish the memories of the book we just closed, we learned a few lessons, we keep a connection with the protagonists of that story, we want to know what will happen to them next. Yet we put that tome on the bookshelf of our lives, like the prized possession that it is.
And with the tingling feeling of anticipation, we dive headfirst into a new adventure.
The writer is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition and unapologetically insubordinate