A surge of homesickness can suddenly overshadow a joyful arrival in a place of your dreams. It suddenly dims the sunlight and dulls the excitement. It can even temporarily overwhelm and paralyze you with doubts and a strong pull to return to where you came from.
Nostalgia – what is it? A token of excessive sentimentality, a sign of highly sensitive personality, mood disorder or, or outright inability to adapt to living abroad? Do we have to fight it or welcome it?
When an expat expresses feelings of homesickness, they might get uneasy. In fact, we get so uneasy about it that we rush to reassure or judge. An expat is provided with unsolicited advice how to overcome it and start adapting. One might be even quickly ‘street diagnosed’ with a depressive episode and suggested to seek antidepressants as a quick fix.
Regardless, social unease about uncomfortable feelings, this phenomenon of homesickness is universal. It manifests frequently across different segments of the population and different cultures. These feelings used to be labelled as a “melancholic disorder” and even an “emigration psychosis”. Fortunately, these labels are in the past. Yet, our confusion and unease persist.
What do they mean and what to do about it?
I moved countries three times in my life. The first time, I left my homeland at the age of 19, when Amsterdam intoxicated me with the air of freedom. When I was 26, I fell in love and moved to Paris for romance and adventure. And when I was 39, I made another move this time seemingly well considered and calculated. Deep inside though it was an attempt to reinvent myself in view of an impending midlife crisis. During these moves I was subject to massive culture shocks and emotional turbulence. My resilience helped me to survive these jolts, to adapt and to achieve some success. Nevertheless, outbursts of melancholy accompanied me persistently throughout these journeys.
Holland initially enchanted me with freedom, cleanliness, and limitless efficiency. Everything worked like clockwork. However, I was also horrified to discover that everything and everybody lived under the dictatorship of that very clock. Time management and planning were the local deities. At the university each classmate had a diary, where he or she planned their days by the hour. The diary could be neat or disheveled, but it covered every hour of every day strictly allocated. To meet someone for coffee or just hang out, one had to plan. There was virtually no room for spontaneity. This was alien to me. At these moments, I longingly recalled my friends that I left behind in Moscow. I longed for our spontaneous gatherings until the early hours of the morning in cramped smoky kitchens and shabby Moscow porches with long conversations, uncontrolled laughs, and endless dreaming. I belonged to the post-Soviet youth of the 80s and 90s – chaotic, unregulated, unleashed. Now, caught in the strictly planned and organized Dutch society generated feelings of not belonging and inadequacy. Intense feelings of loneliness overtook my heart.
My second move was to Paris. The arrogant Parisian capital with status-based neighborhoods, cacophony of accents, posh shopping, and inaccessibility of the locals to newcomers overwhelmed me during first weeks. It was virtually impossible to meet new people, let alone to make friends. Everybody was too busy, too far, too important, or simply impatient as my French was incomprehensible to them. I felt isolated. Alienation seemed to be the background theme of Parisian existence. It contrasted so much with what I was used to at home in Russia, melancholy gripped me by the throat and did not let me breathe. The contrast was so strong, that the feelings of isolation and loneliness disheartened me in the end. I left and went back to Holland.
I arrived in Spain at a more mature age and with more life experiences. This made this move very different. I plunged into the Mediterranean Sea and Spanish culture while savoring its language, food, and the belligerent free spirit of Catalan independence. It excited and fascinated me. But not everything was as bright. Despite surface friendliness, it was not easy to connect to and get integrated into local circles. Because of high transiency of tourist and expat communities, the locals seem reserved and distanced. People come and go, there is little permanence. This experience of temporality of connections and partial belonging are compounded at time by feelings of powerlessness and disbelief facing slow, inefficient, and antiquated local bureaucracy. All of it might make you want to swear and scream facing these walls.
It is precisely at these moments that feelings of homesick longing and emptiness resurface in me. I suddenly start craving Russian food and missing my family and friends. Now that I had lived more than 20 years in Holland, nostalgic longing also brings me images of the picturesque Dutch mills and Amsterdam canals, its winds, its rainy skies, and endless meadows. I miss my super organized Dutch friends who helped through thick and thin during my adaptation, who grew up and matured with me. All these memorable images entice me to go back to the so comfortingly familiar.
All in all these feelings remind me where I grew to feel at home. They bring back to me the precious memories, where I felt to belong. In retrospect all these memories point also to people I felt connected and loved. These precious memories seem to nurture different parts of my identity. They are soul food.
As the American sociologist Fred Davis said in 1979, nostalgia is “the longing for a bright yesterday from which the pain has been removed.” It is sweet sadness that points to something in the past that is gone. It cannot be returned, and because of that, seems impeccable. This longing points us to the blessed “once and somewhere” where we felt good. It tells us about what was so good and with whom. It is our body’s response to change and loss. It is a part of our internal cognitive and affective compass. And it is useful to us.
It has the informative function. It informs us of meaningful connections and significant attachments. No matter what it is about the memories and recollections, sensations and thoughts are closely associated with people, concrete people we left behind, but who we hold dear.
It has another important function: it helps us maintain a sense of identity. All these memories stored in mind and body help us identify ourselves with the familiar and as our own. These affective reminders help us remember who we are in order not to feel utterly lost in a big diverse world.
And this in its turn, can comfort us in times of stress and anxiety. The feelings homesickness can resurface shortly on arrival or at a later stage. Even if one appears externally adapted and integrated to a life in a new place, inside we can still feel the loss from time to time. We can also feel overwhelmed by difficulties to connect. In this shaky period of uncertainty, these precious memories, or feelings of missing seep into our minds and bodies. Perhaps internally we adapt more slowly. These feelings and memories reflect our attempt to try to regain elusive control over time and space. It can be soothing to cling to the familiar and even help us turn to the relationships and connections that we hold dear.
So instead of denying or fighting these feelings, I learned to welcome these and allow them to support and sustain me. They help me understand myself better, what it is I miss in the new country. The remind me of necessity to build new meaningful connections – here and now – to create nurturing memories for later.