This week it’ll be 2 years since I got on a plane in 2020 (at the tail end of the first Covid-19 lockdown on top of that) and decided to give Estonia a chance. With that in mind, it’s time for a 2-year repatriation update.
To briefly reiterate, I was absolutely terrified to move back, I’ve always been open about that.
I wasn’t returning to be with my family (I just have my grandfather and some distant relatives scattered around Estonia).
I didn’t have a job lined up.
I had but an apartment that I had planned on renting for the first 3 months and a dear childhood friend (who also ended up being a major support in helping me land softly).
The rest was up to me to figure out.
Looking back, what a crazy thing to have decided to do. Though not all that different from moving abroad, come to think of it.
Despite my fears around how it’s all going to work out (if at all), I remember feeling that Estonia was the only option that made me even remotely excited when it came to wanting to retire as a serial expat and settle down somewhere.
Now that 2 years have passed, I can say with *such* relief that moving back was a risk well worth taking.
With every month that has passed, I’ve found further proof (both big and small) that I made the right decision.
Don’t get me wrong.
There have absolutely been challenging times during the past 2 years, but these have been life-specific not country-specific.
Still, repatriation hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be or I had been made to believe.
The kind of relief and confidence I feel now in the decision I made 2 years ago is something that many of you would probably pay top dollar for to have in your life.
Raise your hand if you want a guarantee that things are going to work out for you and you won’t regret your decision *before* you actually commit to a decision?
I know you know this but it bears repeating regardless – no such guarantee can be found nor bought.
But there are things you can do to make sure that your decision is based on what you *genuinely* need, which increases your chances of feeling satisfied with whatever you do decide to do.
There are also things you can do to make sure that your move (back) to the place where you want to settle down goes smoothly (to the extent things are ever within our control).
So what’s the secret to a successful repatriation, and how do you avoid needless suffering as a fresh repat?
In this post, I’ll share what’s required for a successful repatriation, based not only on my own experience but also on the commonalities I’ve seen in the stories of other happy repats.
But first, an important disclaimer: By using the word “successful” I don’t mean to imply that those who have had a hard time repatriating should be seen as a failure, nor do I see myself as somehow more special. Change is stressful no matter how you cut it. There’s no “winning” this game. In this light, what I mean by “successful repatriation” is the degree to which one is able to move through the inevitable stress of adjusting to a new life with intention, mindfulness and patience.
1. You really have to be ready to retire from expat life
I haven’t shared this before in this space but there was a brief time after my first independent expat experience (in Switzerland) where I had to cut my time in Switzerland short and return to Estonia.
Having to do that, even if temporarily, felt like a prison sentence at the time.
I hated everything about Estonia.
I went through my days with one foot always out the door and my thoughts floating around in faraway lands.
The minute I could, I was gone and I didn’t look back (until 15 years later).
When I compare that experience to my return to Estonia this time around, there’s a night and day kind of a difference.
This time I have my both feet firmly planted in this country.
I dread the idea of having to move to a different country.
I take everything annoying about Estonia with a grain of salt and a sense of humor.
What this contrast in my experience has taught me is that you really need to be ready to settle down or to return to your home country to avoid unnecessary suffering.
If there’s even a shred of wanderlust left in you, you’d be forcing yourself into a life you’re not yet ready for.
When you’re not ready, you’d be wondering if the grass is greener somewhere else.
That said, I’ve coached several expats who have decided to return to their passport country only for a limited amount of time, with a firm plan to then take off again.
This is a completely valid decision and one that I wholeheartedly encourage people to make when they feel homesick but don’t feel ready to settle down just yet.
It’s your life, so do as you please.
What you decide only needs to make sense to you.
But when it comes to *actually* settling down in your home country?
Do get your need to live abroad out of your system before you book a one-way return flight.
2. Repatriation is not about returning to your old life
The idea that repatriating means returning to your old life is an interesting one. For some expats, it’s a legitimate fear (one that I also suffered from) but for other expats it’s their main driver for wanting to repatriate
Either way there’s a need to slow down and approach things mindfully.
If, for instance, your motivation for moving back is to return to familiarity, you’re in for a rude awakening.
Your life abroad will have changed you (in ways you’ll only discover once you’ve landed) so you’ll need to be ready to make changes to your new life accordingly, both emotionally and practically speaking.
Otherwise you will experience a deep disconnect between what you feel inside and your surroundings.
On the flip side, if you want to move back but you fear returning to your old life or old relational dynamics, you need to spend some time getting to know who you’ve become during your time abroad so that you can show up as your new self in your old surroundings.
This means learning to set boundaries.
This means finding new (additional) friends that are a better vibrational match to you.
This means consciously making different choices compared to before.
This means learning to tolerate guilt and discomfort rather than allowing it to paralyze you.
Much of the suffering that fresh repats experience stems from not having “updated” either their expectations or their way of being in their old surroundings.
But this “update” can be a bit like a software update on an old laptop – it can launch at the worst possible moment, it’s clunky and it takes longer than you’d probably prefer.
But when you know that what you’re embarking on is a marathon and not a sprint, you’ll be able to ride the waves of change and transition with much greater ease.
Which brings me to my next point on how to then “update” how you show up in your life as a fresh repat.
3. Treat your home country like a foreign country
Probably the #1 key to my successful repatriation has been my mindset of treating Estonia like a foreign country that I decided to move to.
With 6 different moves under my belt, all under very different circumstances, the skillset of adjusting to life abroad has been extremely useful in adjusting to life as a repat as well.
There’s the struggle of getting a job, finding a home, getting to know local ways of thinking and behaving, establishing a social life, maintaining existing relationships, creating a daily routine that supports my mental health, finding ways to challenge myself and be adventurous, shifting to a new identity.
All of these are processes you’d be going through as a repat as well.
With repatriation, however, you risk becoming comfortable from the get go and settling into your old life which may not be a good match to you anymore.
- For me, it has meant making big changes in my work and the kind of people I want to dedicate my time and attention to.
- It has meant training my boundary-setting muscle in old relationships.
- It has also meant grieving the life I’ve left behind and the version of me I can (and have chosen to) no longer be.
None of this has been comfortable work, but it has been rewarding.
Moving through this transition phase mindfully allows you to slowly discover who is this new you in your old surroundings and “update” your life all around so you can feel genuinely satisfied and at peace.
These were the 3 main things that have helped me have a successful and happy repatriation experience.
If you feel called to share what came up for you while reading this post, let me know in the comments below.
If you’re ready to settle down after having lived abroad for a while and you don’t want to figure out all by yourself or you just need a fresh perspective on your situation, then check out my coaching services here.
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.