Not sure where home is after living abroad

An innocent question in a Bristol pub left Alicia Davies, 23 (pictured below) struggling with her sense of belonging. She left the UK as a child and returned to study – and later work – after 10 years living in a village near Béziers

26 June 2019
By

My first night back in England and I sat down to have a pint in a gritty pub in Bristol.

A man sat on my table due to the lack of space and struck up a conversation. He asked where I was from. I stared at him and said something about France.

He asked if I’d lived out in the sticks. I paused, then nodded, shook my head and smiled. The truth was, I had no idea what he was talking about.

The man looked at me, a little confused. The problem was, I’d just spent the past 10 years abroad – and living “in the sticks” was not part of the English vocabulary I knew.

Society loves the idea of young expats. It sees in them future multicultural, multi-lingual human beings with shining job interview qualities.

What society neglects to consider is that people don’t always leave their home country forever. And with Brexit uncertainty flooding into expat communities across the EU, the possibility of giving up and coming home is a real one.

What, then, for the young expats? Having grown into life and themselves abroad, their sense of home will be muddled.

To find out more, I spoke to Dr Sandra Wheatley, of the British Psychological Society, specialising in social psychology. She told me that she, a Brit, is bringing up her family in Andorra.

“When you move to a foreign country, there’s that feeling of never being quite at home. Home isn’t just a house or a location, it’s a whole cultural setting,” she said.

“Then there’s the tough question of integration. It’s hard to express who you are at, say, 13 at the best of times, but to do it in another language will make you more vulnerable. In the long run, your self-esteem may be rendered more fragile. You can feel like an outsider.”

I’d struggled with integration at secondary school and stopped speaking for a while.

When I started again, it was with a foreign accent. I carried that in my speech for 10 years.

Would shedding the accent be the end of it, this “foreignness” that trailed behind me?

I have felt lost many a time when English cultural references are brought up. Whenever I hear French spoken, I’m filled with relief. I know I can speak to French people in a way that’s familiar to me. And yet, the feeling of not being French persists. I’m not fully English either. I am from both countries, and from neither.

Dr Wheatley reckons home becomes more about people than places. “Home is not so much about that river you went to, growing up, but more about the family and the people you went with,” she said.

There are benefits to being slightly “dissociated” from the place where you were brought up. It can make you more interested in your culture and history. I want to know England like I know France.

Having had that distance, I’m lucky. I’m able to rediscover my birthplace as a traveller.

Even better, with that excitement there is also a sense of familiarity. Long-forgotten memories come back in overheard nursery rhymes, in the smell of wet grass, in welly boots and puddles and double-decker buses.

The England I left is probably quite different to the England I’m in today. A big part is due to the fact that I left London and came back to Cornwall.

“It’s easy to put weight on your own experience and attribute changes to having been elsewhere, but it’s not always just that,” said Dr Wheatley.

“All of society changes.”

You never go back to the same place you left behind. That place changed the minute you drove away.

Back in Bristol, I took a gulp of my ale and faced the man.

His question was still hanging in the air.

“Yes, I lived out in the sticks,” I said, hoping it was the right answer. He seemed satisfied.

After he left, I spent moments in silence, sitting in the garden drizzle and realised that I felt a vague sense of belonging.

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