This morning I awoke to the comforting warbling of birds nestling in a nearby tree and the smell of porridge bubbling in the kitchen.
In my teens I’d find the sounds and smells of life in the countryside comforting, but also irritating. An education in an all girls school in the middle of nowhere made me want to escape to the city, where the buzz of traffic, parties and shopping would fill me with excitement, where there was no time for porridge.
Expat to repat in a pandemic
Now aged 38, I made a temporary move back to the UK from abroad. And a lot of friends are following suit. Sometimes there’s been the excuse that they wanted their child to feel settled, that it was for a career move, or that it just felt like the right time in life.
Truth is, life in a foreign country is tiring. Yes it’s exciting, yes it’s fun and yes it can be glamourous, but often we just need a break. A break from Google translating labels at the supermarket, from driving on the wrong side of the road, from the perma smile we put on every morning to get out of the unintentional cultural faux pas.
The six expat needs
Life coach guru Tony Robbins reckons that every human can be characterised by six needs – certainty, variety, connection, significance, growth and contribution. Certainty is a routine, the assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure, while variety is the need for the unknown, change and new stimuli.
Expat life is a constant pull between certainty and variety. The variety of expat life throws us off course at first, but soon we adapt to it. We learn to thrive on variety, greedily suckling at adventure like a hungry newborn.
Expat cure all in a pandemic
However sometimes it all gets too much and we need to pause, to press reset and go ‘home’ to reboot. Sometimes enough is enough and we need a bit of stability, a spoonful of easy, predictable life medicine. So we move home, and soon enough we’re craving the spicy punctuation of life abroad again. And so the cycle continues.
Sometimes we just need a short, sharp injection of steadiness. A holiday in our birth country is enough. But sometimes the only cure is a full course of repatriation.
This is how I feel right now during the pandemic. Lockdown in Chile was tough, especially coming after a military imposed curfew following widespread social unrest. No, I’m not complaining. Yes, I am grateful for the privilege of being able to press the ejector seat button and flee back to the UK whenever I want to.
The cycle of serial expat life
This explains my serial expat mentality. I move to Angola where every day is unique. It’s winding down your window to be sold a live lobster in the street, then remembering you shouldn’t have your window open even if the air conditioning is bust and you’re stuck in 5-hour traffic queue in 32 degree heat. Then it’s an intense caipirinha fuelled political debate with the ambassador, a human rights activist or a diamond smuggler before your 5am wake up call to avoid traffic.
Then it’s press pause in rural UK where nothing really happens, where electrical lights switch on, internet works and there are foods I recognise at the supermarket. But it is rather dull.
Making life plans right now is like eating soup on a rollercoaster. However I am excited to start on my next adventure abroad. I have no fixed plans yet. I don’t know if I’ll be waking up to an alarm of birdsong or traffic on the next cog of my wheel of life. But for now at least I’m grateful for the spell of certainty, for the predictable rhythm of life in the English countryside. More porridge please!