Lifestyle & Culture

Sarah Nagaty in Portugal: What it’s really like to visit home again as an expat

visit home as an expat

None of my expat friends in Lisbon consider their trips home as “holidays.”

In the past year, most expats did not manage to visit their home country, due to the pandemic and travel restrictions. In fact, my American and Mexican friends in Lisbon didn’t even go home for major holidays such as Christmas. Now with countries opening up this summer, many expats have their flights already booked to visit their home country. 

But what is really like to visit your home as an expat?

We often speak of how challenging it is to embark on an expat life. But we seldom speak of how challenging it can be to visit our home country as an expat. With or without a pandemic, returning home (even for a short visit) can be as difficult as being away from it.

What the pandemic did was only elongate the period between our visits back home, which potentially contributed to those challenges becoming more prominent. 

However, I believe that it all boils down to our expectations (which are often unrealistic) about the trip back home. It is, of course, understandable to have high expectations as it is only proportional to how much we missed family and friends.

I caught myself unnecessarily frustrated on one of my trips back home and I discovered that I had these expectations: 

I expected things to be exactly the same with my friends

I am close to my friends from back home in Egypt, and I feel blessed to have such amazing friends. However, I found myself exploding in tears after spending the first couple of hours with them. I felt “out of tune.” I had expected to feel the same around them immediately, as I used to back in 2017; to be able to arrive in the middle of a conversation and just pick it up from there.

I did think I would need a whole day (or more) to warm up to the very fact that I am interacting in my mother tongue for the first time in eight months. After a couple of hours of crying and finishing a whole pack of tissues, I realized that they are still my friends and they were very happy to see me. I also realized that feeling “out of tune” was perhaps a good thing, because it changed my perspective, and visiting home as an expat changed me. And I am happy in the ways I have changed. 

I expected it to be a holiday 

It was certainly not a holiday. I actually discovered that none of my expat friends in Lisbon considered their trips back home as “holidays.” There are family obligations, errands to run or bureaucratic issues to take care of. Don’t get me wrong; it’s great to visit home when you live abroad, but treating it as a holiday can ruin the experience. It will make things unnecessarily exhausting and frustrating. 

I expected to feel the same about my hometown 

The dynamic of any place is in constant change. And how we see the same place at different stages of our lives also changes. Our rhythm, taste, or pace may not be always in sync with our hometowns. This can be a conflicting feeling, as most of us want to feel “at home” when visiting our country. Even if your town has not changed at all, you may still find yourself looking at it differently. But again, this change in perspective means we are evolving, and not all elements of evolving are pleasant, familiar, or predictable. 

I expected to get used to saying goodbye 

I don’t know if it is just me or if others also experience this. I don’t handle goodbyes very well, even though goodbye moments have been a recurring activity in my life. The frequency of it does not make it any easier. As expats, we say goodbye a lot. Every time I say goodbye to family and friends in Alexandria, I feel that a piece of my heart has been snatched out of my chest. I usually spend about a month in my home country. It annoys me how the moment I start gaining balance and the Alexandrian rhythm finally finds its way to me again, I have to say goodbye again. 

I am leaving myself a note here: It will hurt, but at least you have something to miss, something to feel snatched from, and something to look forward to. It is, in fact, a blessing. 

I expected to eat everything I missed

I couldn’t. There is only so much I could eat, apparently. Well, there’s always next time I visit home.

Final thoughts

One thing I found useful is to plan something to look forward to when you return to your adopted country. I often plan a getaway from Lisbon, like a beach trip to Algarve with my partner upon returning to Portugal. This year, I am starting a long awaited dance class. 

It is okay for it to be difficult when we visit home as expats. Because it is also worthwhile. 

About the author:

Sarah Nagaty is a PhD researcher of cultural studies in Lisbon. She’s lived in Portugal for three years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kind of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

See all of Sarah’s Dispatches posts here.

See Dispatches’ Lisbon story archive here.

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