Talking to other British people who live in France, I cannot help noticing the language they use when they are travelling back to see relatives or have a holiday.
Some people tell me they are ‘nipping over to Blighty’; others are ‘popping to England’ – but many say they are ‘going home for a bit’.
Going home. After years of living abroad, many of us still think of the UK as home. But when you visit, does it really feel that way?
First comes the rush
Whenever I arrive in England, my first 24 hours are like a sugar rush.
I love the familiar road signs in lower-case writing, the cat’s-eye lights, the accents, the sarcasm – even the blackboards advertising old favourites like ‘pie and mash’.
We recently visited England for a family wedding, taking our boys (aged 10 and 12) who have grown up in Brittany and had not been ‘home’ since 2013.
On the way, we stopped at a UK café, the waitress was so friendly that my younger son asked: “Do you know that lady, Mum?”
The wedding itself was relaxed and our boys were soon cracking jokes with everyone, fitting right in.
Watching them share such affection with relatives they rarely see, I felt loss, sadness and guilt, compounded the next day when everyone met up again, drinking tea and reminiscing with that easy humour that somehow never quite translates.
Why did we leave?
Overwhelmingly, my visits to England are punctuated with exclamations of ‘everything’s open!’.
Supermarkets never seem to close, shopping malls open even on Sundays, and you can get everything from aspirin to stamps or a full meal in any local petrol station. You eat when you are hungry and you are spoilt for choice (as a vegetarian, most British menus make me sigh with pleasure.)
Hansel and Gretel found the gingerbread house and gorged themselves and after about four days in England, I get a similar sensation. I also get the feeling there will be a price to pay.
Small details begin to grate; like parking charges, traffic jams, and rude assistants shouting across the store.
Everything begins to feel distastefully commercial: buy it all, buy it now.
Experiencing another culture is like peeking behind the scenes, but it is also like getting to know your in-laws
Further chats with friends and family when we see them confirm that they only gather for our visits.
It is clear that they are usually busy working and in truth see each other almost as infrequently as they see us: we are not ‘missing out’.
We briefly consider the realities of moving back: the stressful jobs we would probably have, long commutes, short weekends, rushing to get the kids to school... Even my most stressful workdays in France are preferable to that, to say nothing of the great education, family values, the sea nearby or the time spent with our boys.
A new definition of ‘home’
I was told that when you move abroad, you never quite feel at home again, and it is true that it can leave you feeling disjointed, out of place.
Experiencing another culture is like peeking behind the scenes, but it is also like getting to know your in-laws.
It makes you view your own upbringing differently, and as you and your partner raise your own children together, you take what you have learned from both families.
So the best approach here is to draw the best from both cultures.
From France: our academic system, the attitude that you work to live, polite greetings – and the pastries.
From Britain: punctuality, humour, the hugs and full-strength teabags.
That way, you use your discoveries to create a new interpretation of ‘home’, one you can keep with you wherever you go.