Thursday, November 28, 2013

Homesickness

I'll admit, I've been struggling with depression for over a year. Some of it has been financial: I haven't had steady work in a long time, and we've been lurching from crisis to crisis, hoping each month we'd be able to pay the bills and keep our home. That damaged my self-esteem more than I realized, starting to wonder if I was unemployable before I even reached fifty. Some of it has been due to the ongoing legal battle over my stepdaughter's custody and medical treatment, which has taken a horrific toll on the whole family. Thankfully those issues are beginning to resolve, and I start a new job in about a week, teaching at Full Sail University.

However, it's taken me a while to realize that there's been an unseen third factor - homesickness. It seems that it's something almost all expatriates suffer from after a couple of years abroad. It can often last a year or two, after which they either recover or go home. Fortunately, I seem to be recovering.

If you're not British, you have no idea what this is all about.

One of the things you don't realize the significance of when you move away from home is holidays and other traditions. Take Christmas, for example. First time you experience Christmas in your adopted country, it's new and exciting and different. The next year, it's sort of familiar, but it's not yet part of your personal tradition. The third year, you start missing the mince pies, the sparklers, the turkey dinner, the crackers, even the tin of Quality Street and the dumb Christmas special re-runs on TV. They've been part of your life for always, and now you're conscious that they're gone.

And you miss those birthday drinks with the people you've got together with since always. The annual Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race where you pretend for a day that you care about sports. The New Year's Eve family dinner you always hated except for talking to one of the cousins, but now you see the pictures on Facebook of everyone else playing those stupid after dinner games. The coy, polite ads for Safeways instead of the brash, screeching commercials for Wal-Mart or Target. The unfulfillable cravings for your favorite comfort food when you're sick. Primroses and snowdrops on the roadside in the spring. It's the little things that slowly get you.

But perhaps most of all, for a Celt like me, living in Florida, what I miss is a sense of history. Before moving here, I owned a house that was four centuries old, in a town two millennia old, and from my window I could see burial mounds four thousand years old. I went to school and lived in buildings constructed in 1382. I studied archaeology and thought of the mediaeval period as modern. My world was steeped in mythology and folklore, in history and tradition. Solstices and Equinoxes at Stonehenge or Glastonbury were normal, and I drove past those places every week. And that was nothing unusual - the whole country was like that. Hell, the whole damn continent is full of ancient stuff.

This place is part of my soul. It's not just an image on a New Age T-shirt.
But here, anything older than me is considered "historic". American versions of European traditions seem like commercialized parodies of what I'm used to. They're fun, and they're important local traditions in their own right, but they're not the same.

I've felt, in the very truest sense of the word, rootless. America has been my home for four years, and I love it here and have no desire to return to England, but I haven't felt like I'm part of the place in the way I do in England. For a long time I couldn't work out why I felt as I did, until a chance remark from a friend, an English girl living in North Carolina, made me realize that my depression was about more than just money and stress. Talking to friends and family back home, and staying in touch, isn't the same as being immersed in the place. I guess that's why so many expats end up forming isolated communities where they can maintain the traditions of home and pretend they're still back where they came from.

Recognizing homesickness as part of the problem was a big step in addressing it. It's about understanding who I am, and where I fit in this culture, and how I can maintain my sense of identity when I'm so far from everything that's familiar to me. I don't feel British, but I'm not an American either. Instead, I'm having to learn to be just a person who has been lucky enough to have experienced most of my life in a culture that most of the other people around me have only read about or seen in books; and I have to learn to let go of my past in the same way I let go of my possessions.

As Richard Bach said in Illusions, I am here now, and that's all of us can ever be.


1 comment:

primaveranz said...

"But perhaps most of all, for a Celt like me, living in Florida, what I miss is a sense of history."

That nailed it for me Matt. The NZ hills can be stunning but they ain't "my" hills. They all feel "new" to me. And I have to admit that since returning to NZ from Vanuatu, I have been suffering homesickness for Scotland and I have been away for nearly 20 years! I too, have only just found work after a long period, albeit part-time but it is at least with an organisation that I can relate to. Who knows what the future holds anyway? I'll just go with the flow a bit longer. All the best with your own journey though ;)