In the Life of an Expat…

In the life of an expat, there are inevitably moments when you’ll miss the place you came from.

Certain holidays and big events top the list, but there are also plenty of small, daily life type things that that make you remember your old life, the people who used to be in it every day, or just “home” itself.

From my experience, those memories are often sparked by smell, which is reportedly your strongest, most reliable sense when it comes to memory. Smell something from when you were five years old and bam! You’re there.

The other day I got a package from my mom full of clothes that hadn’t fit back in my suitcase when I visited a few months ago…and they smelled of her laundry detergent, of course.

*Nostalgia alert!*

The ironic part, though, is that I distinctly remember having a similar experience in America a few weeks into my trip as I sniffed my clothes from here, with *my* laundry detergent smell — enter the pang of missing my life in Italy.

Ah, all in the life of an expat.

A constant push and pull and battle of emotions, contentedness peppered with longing, and happiness churned with sadness, the realization that no matter how consistent and pleasant and wonderful you make your new life (even, for example, if I used the same laundry detergent no matter where I go), there will always be something to remind of you of the other place, the other people, the other life.

It’s quite fitting that while this is one of the hardest parts about being an expat, it’s also one of its greatest blessings.

I know I am ridiculously lucky to have (at least) two places to be nostalgic about.

Buon weekend at tutti!

29 Beans of Wisdom to “In the Life of an Expat…”
  1. Very poignant post Michelle.

    Buon weekend.

    Thanks cara :)

    .-= nyc/caribbean ragazza´s last blog ..Flashback Friday – A little food porn from "Under The Tuscan Sun" =-.

  2. 03.26.2010

    A very nice post about appreciation of life. Thanks.

    Thank you for reading :)

  3. 03.26.2010

    Goat hugz!!!!!!!! Is that Pinta in the photo?

    I so relate to the nostalgia thing. Now, even after having moved back to the States over 20 years ago, I still get those pangs. All it takes is a smell or a whiff of a taste, a feeling – a million infinitesimal sensations that can bring it all back so very strongly, so suddenly, sometimes almost moving me to tears.

    But with trips back and forth I now realize, it isn’t really about the place as much as it is about that particular moment in time…..

    I’m completely with you Anna; it’s moments that we treasure…being in that place can give you a kick in the remembrance, so to speak, but as you’re there in the present, you’re experiencing new things anyway…not that old one. I don’t know if that makes sense ;)

    Anyway, it’s Nina in the photo :D

    .-= anna l’americana´s last blog ..World Nutella Day 2010…. =-.

  4. 03.26.2010

    Yep that pretty much sums it up. Well said. Love the photo of you and one of your kids and your stories about your adventures. Happy milking…next the cheese making?

    Yes, cheesemaking around the corner! Yikes!

  5. 03.26.2010

    I can totally relate to this from my time in Japan…and also, now, missing the smell of the clothes my Mom washed…

    Thanks for sharing, Janet :)

  6. 03.26.2010

    life is full of so many beautiful choices and if you pursue one, you are inevitably setting aside something else equally as dear. I may not have the expat nostalgia/longing experience dwell on (and I’m sure I’d be a basket case about that), but I do have my many other bittersweet moments to get maudlin about, like how much time I spend nose to the computer as opposed to spending time with the family. Or the big irony: when we travel in Italy we always leave the kids at home… so of course I can’t wait to get to Italy, but then immediately get the I-can’t-believe-I-left-the kids-at-home pangs and vice versa…when I am home I get the I-can’t-believe-I’m-not-footloose-and free-wandering-around-Italy pangs. Aren’t we such complicated creatures…sometimes I wish I could just clone myself and be two places at once enjoying everything all at once…instead I have to play a balance game.

    Ah yes, the everyday bittersweet moments…can also be as mundane as “Why didn’t I pick up a book this past hour instead of surfing the Internet?!” Only internal guilt/regret there, though…excellent point about the clone…and choosing, or at least striving for balance :)

    .-= Melissa Muldoon´s last blog ..• parole, parole, parole! =-.

  7. Cathy
    03.26.2010

    Great post, puts it all into perspective. I am feeling a certain amount of push and pull on the emotional front, maybe I can attribute it to change of season. I hope you have a great weekend Michelle.

    Thanks Cathy; you too!

    .-= Cathy´s last blog ..Friday Foto – Susie =-.

  8. 03.26.2010

    It’s true that as expats we are often torn between two (or more) ‘homes’. It can be hard, but I think it’s also a bit of a blessing to have more than one place we feel so familiar with.

    I have to admit it was pretty nice to go back to places I lived and just *know* where to go even though it’s been years…Philadelphia was especially great as I took my mom around without any nervousness, etc., about where we were headed. And yes, I got nostalgic there as well even though I was more than ready to leave when I did ;)

    .-= Alison´s last blog ..Saving the Planet One Bottle at a Time =-.

  9. 03.26.2010

    Very beautiful and true. Ti capisco. xoxo

    Grazie Jennifer/Jenny ;)

    .-= Jennifer´s last blog ..the changeling =-.

  10. 03.26.2010

    The highs and lows of living far away, Cathy’s words above mirror my own feelings.

    Great to “see” you LindyLouMac (I also just love typing that and saying it in my head) ;)

    .-= LindyLouMac´s last blog ..Home In Italy =-.

  11. 03.26.2010

    I guess we must not be the first one to notice how powerful smell is when it comes to memory .. but I always find it amazing. Laundry smell is one of the main ones, you are absolute right, but also sometimes a particular combination of smell and humidity in the air just throws me into nostalgia mood. And you are right, it is good to have places (and people!) to miss. I already have three, not counting the places I did not live in, but just visit extensively! I do hope I’m going to miss the place I’m in now, sooner or later.

    Oh I remember the early stages of moves as well…wondering when it will be when you just do things, go places without thinking…and will you actually EVER miss it? xoxo
    .-= Caffettiera´s last blog ..That’s cheating =-.

  12. Joanna
    03.26.2010

    This is going to sound a bit strange and different. I’ve been an expat for five years now and I’m here on my own. There are wonderful friends and beautiful places all around me. I only feel nostalgia for certain places back “home” but, truth be told, most of them aren’t there anymore. The neighborhood I lived in growing up, near San Francisco, where my parents died and from which my sister and I headed out in opposite directions, she to Australia, me to Italy, really isn’t there anymore. The orchard next to the house is full of new houses, the people who used to live there are all gone. I have two fragile daphne plants in my garden here that are just like the ones under our bedroom window all those years ago. Their perfume is magical.
    I went to the Far East for a few years and then ended up in New York City. The beautiful tree-lined streets of my Brooklyn neighborhood don’t see many of the people I used to hang out with anymore and the clinic I worked in is closed.
    Many of the relationships I’ve made in my life are as strong or stronger than they were in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Imagine how difficult it would be to say that but for airplanes and internet. All of my points of reference are always spinning. Maybe that should make me sad, but it’s just the way it is. Like the stars, each point in my life, too numerous to count – and on to the next ones.
    Anyway, that’s my two beans.

    I don’t find it strange at all! A lot of nostalgic feelings have to do with THAT moment in time, and while a physical place can help bring it up, that’s certainly not always the case–as you said, sometimes it literally isn’t there anymore. And even when it is there, well, that’s no guarantee. I can long for Christmas like it used to be at my grandmother’s house, but it’ll never be that way again…no grandparents, different cast of characters, etc. even though we’re still there in that house celebrating.

    I think for many of us the points of reference are indeed spinning (I love that image!), but for some there’s still a home base, so to speak, or maybe two, three, four, or more…and I do consider myself lucky to still have a place with my personal history in it to miss or long for or whatever it is I feel when I think of mom’s Thanksgiving dinner ;)

  13. Gil
    03.27.2010

    Great post. I can really relate to the smell of clothes. Looks like the baby is trying to imitate your smile!

    Haha, cute! Could be the other way around though ;)

  14. 03.27.2010

    Doubly blessed and doubly cursed, in a way. My nostalgia tends to be for other times, and thatìs really the home you can never go to again. Once in a while I have a dream that seems almost like some treasured time in my life, but dreams don’t ever seem to make enough sense to be good at taking you back.

    We do have a great tool in the internet, though. Just this morning I got an email from a friend I tried and tried to find before I left the US and Googled many times after I arrived here.

    PS: I don’t remember my mother’s laundry detergent and never had a favorite myself. I feel like I’m missing something, like diet Mojitos or something.

    Actually I don’t have a favorite detergent, and what my mom uses isn’t particularly identifiable as “hers.” It’s just that we use different ones (of course), and after getting used to one, you just know it’s NOT the other, if that makes sense. So after a load or two at my mom’s, I could tell my clothes from here, not yet washed there, apart.

    But yes, the moment in time is also a part of this. I think there are sometimes when I long for moments gone, never to be had again (oh, senior year in college, for instance) and then there are other times I think about what life would be like on a day to day basis, seeing my niece and nephew, etc…so there are different kinds of nostalgia for me, I suppose, one backward-looking and one looking forward, which I suppose isn’t so much nostalgia as daydreaming?

    Anyhoo, that’s wonderful about finding your friend! The Internet definitely makes all this much different than it would have been even 25 years ago.

    .-= Judith in Umbria´s last blog ..Controlla la pagina “Made in America” =-.

  15. @kristeneileen
    03.27.2010

    Though I’ve never lived abroad, I have had a number of far-flung homes, and I know intimately that push/pull of the “other” life, the “other” place. It doesn’t help, as I’m sure you have noticed, to be the writing type and to have a very strong sense of place; it doesn’t help in the sense that it doesn’t necessarily make you feel better. All the same, I am in agreement with you about being lucky, and I feel that way myself; maybe it is the wandering soul we have in common? Well, among other things. What’s particularly wonderful for you, my friend, and remember that not everyone who longs for this has it, is that those on the other end are always waiting, no matter which end you’re on, with open, loving arms. Though you may never fit seamlessly in either place – or any place – ever again, your universe has exponentially expanded as a result of your adventures – what better treasure is there, really (other than the obvious love), for we mere mortals?

    xo,
    Kristen in Las Vegas (at one end of our life…for the moment!)

    Ah the concept of the wandering soul…a whole other post (or book, or series of books!) :)

  16. JoannaG
    03.27.2010

    having grown up in the military i’ve had a number of “hometowns”, usually a different one every two years or less and sometimes, something will trigger a memory and i’m right back there in the moment. and this place, where i’ve hung my hat for many years has not only changed so much but so many people have come and gone over the years, and the same thing can happen and twenty years will fall away instantly. sometimes, for a moment, the memories are almost overwhelming but then they are wonderful.

    I always love the sheer surprise of it, when something so ridiculously ordinary can nearly knock you over with emotion. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Joanna!

  17. 03.27.2010

    Beautiful post. It made me a little emotional (big surprise). I have gotten more nostalgic as the years have past – 16 of them now. It’s really for small things, small moments. A bridge that crosses the Delaware that still has a person at one end come out of a small building to take your 50 cents. A garlic and onion bagel with cream cheese wrapped in white deli paper. Seeing cilantro in a grocery store (HAHAHA).

    Knowing that I am missing graduations, small celebrations with friends, moments when my family gathers without me.

    It’s all there, it’s all yin and yang, it’s all bitter and sweet at the same time. It stops me in my tracks some days. Others, I am overwhelmed at how grateful I am to lead the life I lead.

    Getting older, I guess.

    Older and more appreciative, I think…we live and learn :) Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Diana!

  18. 03.27.2010

    I’ve always lived within a one hour radius from where I grew up. Sometimes I wish I lived all over the world to see and confirm that there is a whole world of people beyond my little area here. I do love how smells trigger so many nice memories ;)

    Well we never know what life will bring, Jane…. :)

    .-= Jane´s last blog ..Six Word Saturday =-.

  19. 03.27.2010

    Can your goat be any cuter.

    Personally, I don’t think so ;)

    .-= Esme´s last blog ..Silk Tie Dyed Eggs and Kitties =-.

  20. 03.28.2010

    I know how you feel. I live a good distance from all of my family, not as far as you, but too far to drop in for coffee, or go shopping with my mom. It is a good 15 hour drive by car.

    I miss home most when my siblings call me when they are all together having a great time. It is so very bitter sweet…sweet that they thought of calling me and bitter because I can’t be there having a great time with them.

    Have a great weekend with all the kids.

    TL

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences :) You don’t have to be all that far at all for the longing to kick in, indeed. I remember just being about eight hours away in college and feeling sad that my family was gathering for events without me….

  21. Great post Michelle.

    I agree with how a certain smell brings back a distinct memory. For me, I get a feeling when I go to certain markets much like deja vu, as if it is all meant to be.

    From afar, I think we can see things clearer. It is like a friend. When you see them every day, you love them with all of your heart. When you move away from that person, you notice that you were actually on a mountain.

    Good things travel. Like freedom coast to coast. Like dryer sheets. Like zip loc baggies. Like spirit. When in US, I miss the simplicity of natural ingredients in food. When in Italy, I miss everything American. When in America, I miss everything Italian.

    Having a foot here and a foot here, it’s a win-win situation, unless you are trying to do the splitz! I think your one friend put it best when she said things change, people change. I like to think of my life going forward and learning from the past.

    Thanks for making us think. Loved it.

    Julie

    Thanks for coming over and sharing your thoughts, Julie!

    .-= julie @ jbulie’s blog´s last blog ..243 days to overnight success. =-.

  22. Lisa
    03.29.2010

    Beautifully expressed, Michelle. In Portuguese one word expresses everything you said. It is “saudades.”

    I’ve been told that different times on various posts :)

  23. It’s amazing how something as seemingly inconsequential as a fleeting scent can have such a powerful effect.

    Isn’t life amazing? You truly never know what to expect :)

    .-= coffeejitters (Judy Haley)´s last blog ..So, about this breast cancer diagnosis… =-.

  24. Michelle Bottalico
    03.29.2010

    Hey Michelle, thanks for your beautiful post. I feel that way about my two new nieces who were just born. And what you said about smell is on the nose (haha.) At some point in the past I had switched to a more generic type of lip balm, and then years later when I opened a cherry Chapstick brand chapstick, instantly I was on the ski slopes with my family as a young child, because we used that stuff to protect our lips on the slopes :) Buona giornata :)

    Haha, who would think Chapstick could be nostalgic? You just never know when those feelings will hit :)

  25. Ciao Michelle! You have beautifully captured an important part of being an expat. I think many people long to be in another place, but don’t realize that you can never completely leave where you came from. It’s there inside you, in the smells, sights and sounds that spark sudden memories. And I completely understand about the laundry detergent. I get a similar pang when I open a box from my Mom and smell her laundry detergent. Sigh. At first I was frustrated with the fact that my life always seemed to involve suitcases and flying. I thought that when I finally got here that they would go away. But I’ve come to look at it positively just as you have, to feel lucky to have two place (more actually!) that mean a lot to me. Thanks for sharing about your experiences & thanks to all the readers comments. This was a great post to read to start my day! :-)

    Thanks Laura!
    .-= Laura from Ciao Amalfi´s last blog ..Travel Inspirations: The Power of Healing in Hiroshima =-.

  26. 03.31.2010

    It’s so interesting, Michelle – my Swedish daughter had such a similar experience when she first came to live with us – we took a trip for a long weekend up to a beautiful spot in Northern Michigan and she had clothes in her bag folded and laundered by me and some that were fresh out of her suitcase and had been laundered and folded by her mom, and she was feeling poignant about the differences in smells, folds, etc.

    And yes, I think you put eloquently how that can be joy and pain.

    Ah yes, the folding technique…I think *I* even fold differently in the US and here!

    .-= jen of a2eatwrite´s last blog ..What’s Cooking Wednesday: Accademia Salad =-.

  27. I think that is definitely the hardest part of being an expat. There is always someone you miss!

    Indeed…even if I had all the people in one place, I think I’d still miss the other “home” though.

    .-= Cherrye at My Bella Vita´s last blog ..Experiencing Italy: My Favorite Roman Neighbors, by Danielle Russo =-.

  28. 03.31.2010

    Wonderful. Well penned and poignant post. I love getting to know you Michelle through these deeply personal and emotional openings.

    My position as a dual expat is curious. I’m an expat in both places–Italy and America–being part of both, equally. I live in Italy, was raised here as an Italian, feel fully as one… but then again not. There are sides of me that are uniquely American–here in Italy.
    On the other hand I was born in the States, I have part of my family there and when I’m visiting them, I feel perfectly at home, but with sudden and strange Italian surges bubbling up and claiming ground somehow.

    This means I am in a constant state of nostalgia for the place I am not. But as you say, we are lucky to be that way.

    Thank you for this very touching and communal moment, Michelle. This is blogging at its purest and noblest form. There are no expats in blogland.

    Thanks so much for your comment sharing your experiences, Eleonora! It’s always interesting to hear how others deal with the push-pull :)

    .-= Eleonora´s last blog ..Zuppa Pavese =-.

  29. I feel exactly the same way, Michelle. When I am here, I miss Japan and the Philippines and when I am there, I miss Dubai. I love where I am now but when nostalgia strikes, an expat can’t help but feel a bit of emotional.

    Like you, the smell is the number 1 trigger for me. While a student in Japan, I didn’t like smelling the aroma of coffee because it reminded me of being inside the plane that took me away from my family (I was 19 at that time).

    Then I have this strange triggers with shampoo smell…the shampoo that I’ve used before, the smell of my Japanese/Philippine shampoos… bam! They take me back to that certain place and time.

    Great post!

    Thanks Grace; it’s a constant push/pull for some of us…thanks for sharing your experiences :)
    .-= Grace @ Sandier Pastures´s last blog ..Reasons why you should come to Dubai in summer =-.

Michelle FabioMichelle Fabio is an American attorney-turned-freelance writer living in her family's ancestral village in Calabria, Italy and savoring simplicity one sip at a time.

 
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