Six Disturbing Experiences When Going Back Home For A Holiday

It’s been a while since you’ve set foot in your home country but this year, you’re going back. For a holiday.

Expats going back home for a holiday

Three weeks of jam packed program trying to optimize everything and please everyone:

  • spending an equal number of days in each family,
  • organizing a big party with your friends and
  • sprinkling visits to some tourist attractions here and there to show your kids ‘their’ country.

Here are 6 surprising and disturbing experiences that may jump in your face.

1. The power of conditioning

During the last year or more, you’ve been systematically trained to a range of set conditions. For example:

  • a slow Internet
  • no proper bread
  • shops open 24/7
  • speaking another language as soon as you go outside
  • celebrating Christmas in summer

After a few hours of travel, you’ve arrived to your home country.

You know that you can find crusty bread.
You know that you don’t need to rack your brain to utter your words in another language.
You know that you do have to pay attention to the shops opening hours.

But whatever your level of preparation, in the first moments – and this can vary from a few hours to a few days – you can’t help but start to activate your brain when preparing to talk, anticipate a bad connection to check your mails, or look at the tree leaves wondering why they are so green in autumn. Oops! It’s spring of course.

You tricked your rational mind (!) and uncovered your autopilot function.

You caught yourself experiencing first hand conditioning!

2. The distorted sense of connection

Through Skype, emails and other Snapchat, messenger, whatsapp, you can share pictures, videos and anecdotes in real time and with a great image/sound quality.

Now spending several days physically with your family, you’re struck to see your mum hobbling, your dad becoming forgetful, your brother having a slow computer and your sister-in-law struggling with insomnia.
You’d have never suspected it! How would you? And you thought you were connected…
Nobody told you. ‘We didn’t think it was that important’, some family members reply to your surprise.
But for others, it was deliberate: they didn’t want to share.

Granted: on your side, you did the same. Distance enables us to filter. For better or for worse.

3. The paradox of distance in relationships

There’s no doubt that distance puts relationships to the test.

Distance can ruin a friendship.
As the proverb goes

Out of sight, out of mind.

But distance can also deepen our ties.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Deepen really?

Distance makes it impossible to share the same physical reality: the temperature in the room, the time of the day, the smells and noise of your surroundings. Stripped from the trivialities of daily events that you’re too tired to mention or that are just irrelevant because your friend can’t relate, you enter the realm of a more fundamental exchange: your longings, your feelings, your state of mind. This is what connects us whatever the place and the time: our common humanity.

Long distance relationships are one-on-one relationships.

When you call, write or skype, it’s generally one person at a time on each side. Sure, there may occasionally be some mingling of your loved ones but primarily it remains an individual pursuit. This allows you then to share on an intimate level if you want to. It’s also more difficult to hide!

When you go back to your family and you want to see as many people as possible in a limited amount of time, you lose the depth and the intimacy. You can’t connect at the same level with 20 people in the room, music in the background and playing kids in the surroundings.

You end up sharing for once the same place, time zone, meal but feeling somewhat disconnected and so far away…

4. An acute awareness of dynamics between people

When you left to live abroad, you extracted yourself from your familiar environment to throw yourself into an unknown world. This process is strikingly akin to what happens during birth: leaving the comfort of a well-regulated 37C bath to confront the changing breeze of air flowing through your nose and along your skin.

Taking some distance is painful. It means cutting ties but it now gives you the benefit of a bird’s eye view. When your nose is too close to the drawing, you have no way to see the big picture.

Coming back into your original family circle shines new light on patterns of interaction you hadn’t noticed so accurately before.
‘Don’t forget to put a jumper on. It’s cold outside.’ ‘Have you had enough breakfast? Did you eat some fruit today?’ ‘Drink some more water. You need to stay hydrated’. You’re baffled to see how anxious your mum is and how she constantly interferes with your actions.

You’re struck to see the relationship between your parents and your sister who lives close by. They treat her like a child at 45!

‘I’m sure it’s going to rain today and we’ll have a lot of traffic on the road’, asserts your dad.
You wonder: How does he know? Why be so negative and always assume the worst?

Those patterns of interaction jump out at you now with so much clarity!

5. Going back – a double edge sword?

Going back to the place where you grew up can have 2 opposite effects: helping to get closure and reopening older wounds.

The former – getting closure – is an important part in the grieving process of expatriation. When you uproot yourself, you experience different types of losses: definitive losses and ambiguous losses. None of them is linked to the death of a loved one but all losses need to be dealt with. Going back to meaningful places is a way to express a proper good-bye and finally be able to let go.

But revisiting childhood places, family and friends revives memories ‘from the good old times’ and creates new ones. It shines a light on aspects you loved but had forgotten. It builds new ties and fond moments, making it all the more difficult to leave again!

6. A disturbing sense of reality

After a few days in surroundings where you spent years or even decades, you feel as if you never left. All your sensations and your habits come back naturally as if they were embedded in your body and your mind.

It’s like stepping in old slippers. You’ve had them for years. You know them in and out. They’re so comfy, so familiar that you can’t think of the moment you wore high heels. That now seems such an illusion.

Because your current world is so familiar, you start to question the other reality: all this expatriation experience now seems totally unreal.

Do we actually have another house, a home, a life so far away?

Tell me, I’m curious to know: what is/was YOUR most disturbing experience when going back home for a holiday?


Credit picture Depositphotos Credit Music Free Music Archive



  1. It’s amazing how you captured the exact same sentiments I experienced every time I went back “home”.
    After a few days “back home” it’s indeed as if you never left, and your entire life on the other side of the world was just a dream.
    Then when you return, it’s the other way around, and it feels like the whole vacation, as well as your youth and life “back home”, is the dream.
    To the paradox of distance in relationships, I’d like to add that long distance relationships in a marriage, usually do not work very well if your spouse can not come along with you. Most of my married colleagues, including myself, ended up divorced.
    I presently live since 1990 permanently in one of the countries I used to work as an expat, and this is also the country where I met my present wife. Of course learning from experience and how my previous marriage ended, I quit my international job and started my own little company here, which is an entire story by itself.

    Reading your article was like looking in a mirror. Very well written.

  2. I am really intrigued by the idea that “Long distance relationships are one-on-one relationships.” I’ve never thought about it that way but it makes so much sense! Also explains why I am so thankful for my family’s group chat on whatsapp – it’s not just being in their lives, it’s the interactions between us.

  3. Elena Zaggia says:

    It ‘ s been 8 years now leaving far from my country but the only place I feel ” real” is the one I don’t live any longer. To me the expat life does not make any sense, and I lost hope at this point that It will ever . And the truth is I look at people who made that closure with their country of origin as interesting and yet misterious human beings who I would like to share the secret: how could they make it happen to finally accept to live somewhere else far from their roots?

    • Thank you Elena for your contribution to the discussion. Your comment sparked further questions: Have those people – who were ‘able to make closure with their country of origin’ – ever had roots in their country of origin? Can you have roots in several countries? Are there different types of roots: the ones you get from your ancestors, the ones you grow yourself in places where you feel you belong? Are roots linked to a particular place or a particular group of people?

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