Or so I imagine.
It is a common belief amongst those who have lived abroad that everybody would benefit from spending a few years in a foreign country. Not just traveling or volunteering, but attempting to build a life as complete as the one they left behind. Even without the challenges of a language barrier or dramatically different cultural practices, it can be an eye-opening experience. And in a time where empathy is at such low ebb, it might help the debate on immigration if a few more people had a better understanding of the other side. But I never intended to move abroad, so I don’t really expect you to either.
When I left, people told me the first six months would be the hardest – and after I’d gotten through that, the first year. But it was the second year that I’ve found most challenging by far. Not just because it was a year besieged by personal upheaval, but because I think it takes at least twelve months for all the novelty and gloss to rub off, and for new relationships to either develop or die. It is only then that you are truly able to reflect on the scale of what you have lost and what you have gained. And for those of us who have emigrated indefinitely, what we have lost forever.
An understandable arrogance on the part of the arrival country is that you are there because your new country is better. And yes, if you are escaping war or political unrest, food uncertainty or any level of persecution, it is a rational assumption to make. But I suspect the truth for many immigrants is that we would rather be at home. We would rather have been able to find whatever we were seeking at home.
So it doesn’t follow that our new country is better in every way. And it doesn’t follow that we should be so overwhelmingly grateful to be where we are, all the time, as to never notice or comment on the things we miss.
And there will always be things. They could be big things- like the ability to love who you love without prejudice, or the wide availability of Mr Kipling’s cakes- or as tiny and intangible as the scent of your favourite park on a late summer’s afternoon. Or the indescribable comfort of being in a place where you know all the unwritten rules.
But rules change, places change and people most of all. And it is with that, that year two confronts us. That even if you went back now you could never go back. That even if you’d stayed you would not be sitting in that same park, two years later, inhaling that same soothing scent. You would have moved on. The life you lived is gone forever and any attempts to recapture it, inauthentic.
And never more so than with a city like London. Within the space of a year, favourite restaurants had closed. Colleagues had moved companies, couples had broken up, friends had left town, and I count myself extremely lucky that no-one else I loved actually had died.
But there have been births. There have been engagements and weddings and milestone birthdays that I have missed and where, in all brutal truthfulness, I will not have been missed. I am no longer one of the first people that anyone would call. And what can I really expect? None of us are irreplaceable. Skype can never compare to a Sunday morning sitting in your pajamas, drinking tea together on the couch for as long as it takes to set the world to rights. Facebook will never compensate for all the shared time you’ve missed. The memories unmade.
Because this is the reality of the permanent exile. You have left that world. You are as good as dead. You cannot expect anyone to hold a space at the table for you. And after two years, only the people who loved you most will continue to grieve.