Two months ago today I chose to move home after living abroad for 15 years.
Let me just pre-empt you here and share that my choice was not motivated by homesickness or even some sort of quarantine realization. It was just a bold opportunity that came my way that I couldn’t say no to. But there is of course a story behind everything.
So to understand my choice to move back to Estonia, you would have to know a little bit more about my background.
So, this post will be more personal than usual.
But a small preamble first.
Even though the title of this post says “moving back home”, from the beginning I’ve treated this move as simply moving to my passport country – Estonia.
Since I was born in Russia to Estonian parents and I spent my formative years in Estonia, Finland and Switzerland, the concept of home has been and continues to be quite elusive for me. My immediate family is also scattered around Europe. Adult third culture kid is therefore a concept that deeply speaks to me because of my early life experiences.
With that in mind, I don’t know if Estonia is my home country. I don’t know what a home country should feel like. But Estonia is definitely a country that I know the best out of all the countries I’ve lived in.
It’s also important to keep in mind that Estonia has gone through some dazzling changes since I lived here last. All three of the Baltic States have gone through some wild changes ever since breaking free from Soviet Union in the early 90s.
So when you take into consideration my personal history and the recent history of Estonia, I haven’t really moved “back” – I’ve moved to a new country. A country that is more familiar than it isn’t, and one where I have many advantages over expats who move to Estonia, but a new country for me nonetheless.
In fact, if Estonia hadn’t gone through the changes that it has, I wouldn’t be here.
So this is where the reasoning behind my decision begins to unfold.
I never wanted to return to the country that I left behind. For the vast majority of the years that I lived in other countries, it never even crossed my mind to one day return.
Until two years ago when something started to shift in me.
I suddenly needed to visit Estonia more than my usual one-week-a-year-trip where I told my relatives that I’m doing fine (without anyone actually being interested in my life abroad) and disappointed them once again that no, I don’t plan on moving back anytime soon. As expats, you know the drill.
Two years ago I started to see Estonia as more than just a country that I visit once a year. There were exciting things happening everywhere and I started to feel differently about life (t)here. Things felt more meaningful, more emotional, more raw somehow.
Getting on the plane to go back to my life in Copenhagen became harder and harder each time. The weeks after my visits to Estonia turned me into an emotional mess that I wasn’t willing to share with most anyone. And even if I did, not the full extent of it.
Because it scared me to think that I might want to actually move to Estonia. It scared me what it would mean to give up my international life.
I genuinely love(d) my international life. I love(d) the diversity of people I get to meet and the challenges expat life puts in my way to move even further out of my comfort zone. It’s a life well suited for someone as curious as me. I’m a Sagittarius after all!
The thought of wanting to be in a place that could be… the place where I potentially spend the rest of my life seemed daunting. It’s the kind of stability that I have at once always yearned for and been terribly afraid of.
Will I become boring then? Will I only care about local gossip from then on? Will I ever explore the world again? These are actual questions I’ve secretly asked myself…
Fear is indeed a powerful and paralyzing feeling. So is staying in your comfort zone.
The funny thing is that after a while of going aimlessly in circles in your little head, life can sometimes step in, clear out all the reasons for you to hold yourself back and then ask you straight up: “Are you going to do this now or are you going to stay stuck in fear forever?”
So I chose to take the leap of faith that I was well familiar with – starting over in a new(ish) country – with lots of support from people close to me.
In other words, I didn’t plan this move but I guess there was a bigger plan in the works for me all along. Why do I think that?
Because everything that can normally turn into a major headache with an international move – bureaucracy, getting a new apartment, scoring a first client, packing things, even finding flights during corona travel restrictions – everything was sorted out within a week.
As an expat, I’m sure you know how this is simply not the normal course of events.
So even if you don’t believe in signs, there’s no bigger sign that says: ‘You’re on the right path’ than not meeting a single obstacle on your way.
SO WHAT’S IT LIKE MOVING BACK AFTER LIVING ABROAD FOR 15 YEARS?
First of all, please don’t call me brave.
I’m still a human being and as much as my childhood full of moving around prepared me to adapt to new situations quickly, going through radical life change is also overwhelming for someone with my background.
I’ve truly felt it all in the last two months.
For one, I’ve felt sheer panic about stepping into the unknown.
But what has helped tremendously is to remind myself that I can always leave if it doesn’t work out. For me, the world will still remain an open place – even coronavirus hasn’t stopped people from moving to new countries.
The sense of panic has been balanced out with feelings of connection and belonging like never before. Largely thanks to (re)connecting with my very large group of distant relatives and being able to go for long walks in forests whenever I’ve felt like it. Fun fact: Forests cover about 50% of Estonia’s territory so it’s not even that hard to find a patch of lush forest.
I’ve also felt deeply supported by a bureaucratic system that is there to help you get on with your life and not get in your way (ughhh, Denmark…) and friends who’ve helped me get settled.
Nevertheless, that very familiar sense of fear about the implications of giving up my international life has also cropped up several times. But years of living abroad has taught me how to meet interesting new people.
What I’ve learned is that the international community in Estonia is surprisingly lively for a country this small. On top of that, I’ve met a number of Estonians who’ve also returned after 10+ years abroad. They’ve opened a whole new world for me on my own doorstep.
So, even though my international life will have to look quite different from now on, I never actually lost it by moving to Estonia.
Here I’d also like to give a heartfelt thanks to Wiebke from Chameleon Coaching who was able to talk me through the struggles of an adult third culture kid returning to a country they are closely tied to. Your encouragement and advice was precisely what I needed that day!
WHAT ABOUT REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK?
By now you’ve probably realized that my story is not a typical expat/repat story.
I’ve been a serial expat through my own choice for 15 years and not through work assignments. That, and my own personal history, has made a huge difference on how I’ve experienced life abroad. It also has an impact on how I view moving home after living abroad.
I expect this move to feel difficult at some point. I’m fully aware that I’m deep in the honeymoon phase of living in a new(ish) country at this point.
But I will say that there’s a difference between moving back home after living abroad with the idea that you’re returning to a life you’ve been blindly nostalgic about for a long time, and moving back home with eyes wide open about the pros and cons of life in that country.
Estonia is far from an easy place to live and I fully expect it to upset me to some degree soon enough. But things have upset me everywhere else, too.
So if there’s anything I’ve confirmed for myself with this move, it’s that wherever you go, you will get a set of pros and cons to live with. You just need to know what’s most important to you so that the cons can slide off your back more easily.
But for now, that little bit of familiarity and a whole lot of support is precisely what my wandering soul needs after 15 years.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.