Recalibration After a Trip “Home”

Wild garlic plant about to bloom

Wild garlic plant about to bloom

“You can’t go home again.” – Thomas Wolfe

It’s a phrase that turns around in many a long-term expat’s mind, particularly when a trip “home” is on the horizon. For most of us, going “home” is a deeply emotional experience, and no two visits back are ever the same.

This time, I was on a mission to clean out a storage shed that has held my things since I moved to Italy in 2003. Most of it was household-type stuff that I didn’t want to have to buy again had I decided to move back, but there was also a lot of personal items — photos, ticket stubs, memories of a time long, long ago from when I was a different person entirely, or at least that’s how it felt.

In a word? Exhausting. And not just physically.

Sure, you can go home again, but you’re not going to be the same.

And because you’re not the same, nothing is the same. And yet nothing has changed, and you can find yourself slipping right back into old patterns and habits and roles faster than a trip through Passport Control and Customs, and you’re left wondering whether you’re the new you or the old you or someone in between.

Sometimes I think the hardest part about being an expat are these visits “home,” when your emotions are pulled in a million different directions — to the past remembering your long-gone loved ones that somehow still exist back “home” in your mind, to the present where you’re left out of personal jokes that have arisen since you’ve left, to the future where you know it’s unlikely that you’ll be a part of your loved ones’ important moments because the distance just makes it impossible.

For all the romantic notions people have about being an expat, that emotional push-and-pull is the most severely underestimated.

And forgive the cliché, but the only way out is through.

Wild garlic in bloom

Wild garlic in bloom

You either push forward in your expat life or you move “home,” and surely neither decision is going to feel 100% correct 100% of the time, but since when are we 100% sure of anything 100% of the time?

I know I’m not. You just move on through.

One thing I am sure of, though, is that purging parts of my past life felt so, so good. To my inner packrat’s surprise, physically letting go of so many *things* that simply aren’t part of the life I’ve chosen in southern Italy was much easier than I thought it would be — I can’t even tell you how many bags of garbage there were, although most of my *things* were either sold at yard sales or donated.

So yes, while my trip to the U.S. left me physically and emotionally drained, it has also guided me back to center — now that I’ve allowed myself some time to recover.

My recalibration after the trip “home” has been the most rewarding part of all.

Yesterday, P and I went for a long, winding ride on the scooter into the mountains for some relief from the heat. During those few hours with the sun kissing my (sunscreened!) shoulders, the cool air whipping past us, and the crisp water from a mountain spring dribbling down my chin, I started to reconnect with my life here.

At that spring, I sat quietly for a few moments, simply appreciating where I’ve come from and all the places I’ve been while simultaneously acknowledging that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. Here. Right now.

I emerged from that ride with a refreshed mind, body, and spirit; I don’t ever want to forget how powerful the act of letting go can be, whether it’s letting go of things or emotions or simply of myself, allowing my mind to just be empty for a while.

So is Wolfe right?

Maybe, but all I know is that I’m so very happy I got to go “home” again — and to be home again. And that’s enough for me. Here. Right now.

47 Beans of Wisdom to “Recalibration After a Trip “Home””
  1. Gil

    Got tired reading about cleaning out your belongings. It is something that i should do too! Too bad we don’t have things like wild garlic and wild fennel growing here.

    michelle Reply:

    Gil, it was *so* not a vacation, but man it feels good now…and I still have things here to go through as well! We wavered over whether that was wild garlic for a few years; P’s still not convinced, but I am — the bulb sure *smells* like it 😉

  2. 06.10.2012

    Michelle, very well written post and I totally understand. As a Canadian who still owns property in Canada that we rent out but don’t use, we spend 6 months a year in Umbria, and 6 months in FL. I do sometimes feel I do not give 100% of myself because I know I will be moving on in a matter of months. We do both have Italian citizenship though and if I had to choose (which we may as we get older) Italy would be my home.

    michelle Reply:

    I always thought 6 months here and 6 months there would be the perfect solution…but I can see myself not really putting down full roots in either place during those periods. It’s sure never boring though haha 😉

  3. Nicole

    The push and pull of emotions are the hardest thing about going home. I went home this year and it was emotional. I enjoyed my time and seeing my family and friends, but I felt suspended in time. Things were familiar and foreign at the same time. Kind of like one of those redecorate your house shows. You come home and it’s your house but things are different , you like it, but you didn’t have anything to do with it. Your right. You just have to let go.

    michelle Reply:

    “Suspended in time” is an excellent way of describing this feeling, Nicole, and yes, it’s something that anyone who has moved away from “home” whether it’s to another town or country feels on some level, I think. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  4. 06.10.2012

    I can’t even begin to tell you how much I enjoyed reading this post. I can relate to so much of what you have stated here, yet could never have put it into words so perfectly.

    michelle Reply:

    Thank you so much, Loulou xx

  5. 06.10.2012

    This was interesting, thank you 🙂 I’m going home, for the first time in 8 years, at Christmas. I’m also going to be going through those things left behind … because who knew I was really leaving, it was just a teaching job in Istanbul, it wasn’t forever.

    Anyway, I think it’s going to be quite the experience. It was good to read your words.

    michelle Reply:

    A similar thing happened to me, Di — I was planning on a year or two “away,” and then the time just kind of slipped by with all that stuff sitting there (not having enough money to go home and deal with it for several years contributed to!). I hope you enjoy your homecoming 🙂

  6. 06.10.2012

    I know it isn’t the same to go home again and I believe you’re right, that it’s more about how you’ve changed than the place you came from. But I do envy you for being able to visit your family “back home.” Mine is so spread out that I can’t go to just one place to see them and none of them live in my hometown or even my home state anymore. Those old connections are important to us, even if we don’t, as a culture, take that as much to heart as Italians do.

    michelle Reply:

    I do feel lucky that I have a physical place to go to and that it’s a place I would call “home” even if none of my family were still living there — several generations are already buried there, so it truly is a place I feel rooted to.

  7. 06.10.2012

    Hooo Ha,

    Welcome back Michelle… sure know how to stir the emotional pot eh?

    Your sharing on your trip and return opens old thought vaults for me and I know millions of veterans such as me.

    Each and every time I had to deploy whether for 90 days or 3 years without my family or heck even with my family, it involved leaving my home (US) and returning home (US).
    the US Government was reeking havoc with my and my families thoughts and emotions of “coming and going” from or to “home. Somehow we all endure or so it would seem.

    I believe you are absolutely and totally correct about the cathartic process of letting go. Many of us try to accomplish this periodically and know the value as you do also. This process is one of the lynch pins of a solid recovery program of any value. Review and release, works for so many thoughts, practices and ideas.

    Once again, if you are old enough to remember our beloved “Jimmy Hatlo” I will give you a “tip of the hat!” for just a stellar piece…

    Love and light,

    michelle Reply:

    Review and release is an excellent mantra, in fact, Richard. Thank you.

  8. 06.10.2012

    Apt sentiment and how timely – I’ve just returned to Paris after 2 weeks in the States. I now find myself back “home” and asking myself all kinds of questions about here vs. there. As you say, neither will feel 100% right but getting to the point where you accept that instability and find happiness in uncertainty. Challenge of a lifetime!

    michelle Reply:

    Best of luck to you as you recalibrate as well, Lindsey 🙂

  9. AmyEmilia

    Well written, Michelle. As someone who grew up in many different places, home was always a hazy concept. Home is where my parents are, where I am, where my dad grew up. And yet, none of these are truly home – one of the long-term effects of a parapatetic childhood. They are all places I have lived, and remember. But home is still elusive.

    michelle Reply:

    Home has always been such an important concept to me, I’m not sure how I would have handled having to chase one…you should write more about this, AmyEmilia 🙂

    Anna Reply:

    Thank you for the comment, AmyEmilia. This sounds so familiar. I lived in several countries as a child and as a result I can hardly claim any of them as my own. One of the most difficult questions for me to answer (without lengthy explanations and taking too much time, which is what is usually expected) is “Where are you from?”. For me as well home is a “hazy concept”, as you pointed out so well. But you lose something and you gain something too, of course. All the different experiences and insights about places and people, would not be possible with a different, more grounded life-style, or not to the same extent, at least. Thanks again for the comment.

  10. SW

    Very powerful post, Michelle – really makes you think about they cycles of life, and I think it’s one *many* people who live away from home can connect with, somewhat, even those that don’t live outside their country of birth (I know I do – although, living in Texas is somewhat like a different country from my native PA).

    The feeling of being home again when you’ve been gone so long can be bittersweet, and confusing – especially when it shows you (as you said) how much you’ve changed.

    Hope you enjoyed your visit, regardless!

    michelle Reply:

    I had a great visit, SW, thanks! Always awesome to spend time with family and old friends 🙂 Yes, the concept of never being able to go home again certainly resonates whether you’ve moved a town or a country away. Thanks for commenting!

  11. Kari

    Very well written, Michelle as usual!. I returned “home” after 13 years of being away…although I am still 60 miles away from the home I grew up in and I can honestly say that it has taken me a solid 5 years to adjust. It has been 5 years of resisting falling back into the person I was way back when and realizing that your relationships with certain people cannot tolerate that you have changed. People simply just see you a certain way and don’t have the capacity to see you otherwise. All expectations must go out the window! But it also now feels good to be home and to have worked through all of that. It feels good to incorporate all those lifestyle changes and friends that have influenced you from Asia and Europe and incorporate them into your life wherever you are!

    michelle Reply:

    So, so true Kari; I think it would actually be more difficult to maintain the new “you” if you did move back closer to home…the temptation of falling back into old everything would be just too great! Kudos to you that you’ve found some balance 🙂

  12. Alex

    Well Michele I have been following your posts for sometime now. We come from the same areas….Langhorne (by Philly), Elysburg, Lewisburg PA. Such a timely post, as I am presently going through the packing for my move to Italy, and surprising not to far from you….Puglia. I have been wrestling with all this and have decided to take what I want and leave the rest for donation or the trash bin. I came tyo realize that living in Italy even for 1 or 2 years can change a person entirely into another someone or something. I did the going back home from Florida to PA and it truly is an eye opening experience. You definitely become the square peg in the round hole. I have read your entire site front to back because I am experiencing everything you did so many years ago. Your posts are a good view into my future. Thanks for sharing….

    michelle Reply:

    Aw thank you so much, Alex, and best of luck to you on your journey…so exciting! I spent some time in Elysburg this last trip home in fact 🙂

  13. Wonderful post Michelle! I can totally relate to what you’re saying; my husband and I visit Italy twice a year, and every time we both feel we’ve been plunged back into old patterns, old energy that doesn’t really belong to us anymore.

    We last visited the last week of May, and it’s taken me a whole week to get back into my life here…it’s an emotional roller-coaster, but it can’t be helped, I suppose…the worst bit is being aware that I can’t share my loved ones’ daily life, nor can they share mine…

    Letting go is a healing process, well done to you! A big hug, Cristina x

    michelle Reply:

    Old energy has such pull, doesn’t it? I’m in my first week back now, a few days in, and I’m not quite there yet…hahaha……..

  14. 06.11.2012

    Thanx you for this post. I get emotional when reading, because I’m in this stage of live that I need to let go my biggest dream, namely starting a family. There are times in lives that you feels lost although you are at home. Your post encourage me to reflect on this process but also to see the truth. My partner and I will spent this summer in Toscane and I know I will remember your post. Under the Toscane Sun I will let my mind just be empty.

    Keep writing please!

    michelle Reply:

    Hugs to you, Marjolijn. Many. xx

  15. 06.11.2012

    I was feeling quite emotional by the time I finished reading this post Michelle, you always manage to put your feelings into words so well. I empathise with you, take care and welcome home.

    michelle Reply:

    Thanks LindyLou; it’s good to have been home and to be home once again 🙂

  16. 06.11.2012

    I know the feeling. I did the same clean-out this Christmas. Since I am an artist as well as a blogger, I was combing through loads of artwork. There were even drawings from when I was 8 years old. Then the letters from old boyfriends (I am married now). I found treasures too: a small print from an artist who has made a name for himself now. It was really amazing to go through that cleaning. I am glad you are so positive, too. I think most are afraid of it until they do it.

    michelle Reply:

    I used to do a lot more art, actually, and found a bunch of paintings and drawings as well…definitely torn on what to do with those, so they’re still in limbo 😉

  17. Calabrian Kathleen

    Thanks so much, Michelle, for sharing. As one pondering my next steps and feeling the pull of Italy (my family also originated from Calabria in the early 1900’s) – your experiences are very helpful. Please keep on writing!!


    michelle Reply:

    Hope everything works out well for you, Kathleen; thanks so much for reading!

  18. Amy

    We have talked about this a couple of times but I liked how you wrote this a lot! Nice..

    michelle Reply:

    Thank you Amy 🙂

  19. Maria

    Oh my … you have taken the words out of my mouth here. You’ll see a couple chapters that are nearly the same words. The push-n-pull was, for me, exhausting also and played havoc with my brain and emotions. I felt like a stranger when I went “home”, but it did serve one purpose — it showed me that I no longer have two homes.

    Thank you for this post, as emotional as it is — it’s nice to know someone else went through the same thing, and to see it put in someone else’s words.

    Welcome home 🙂

    michelle Reply:

    Grazie Maria! Looking forward to reading more of your MS 🙂

  20. 06.21.2012

    Living a live away from your family also creates feelings of guilt with aging parents .

    michelle Reply:

    I imagine for many, yes, Celia.

  21. 06.25.2012

    Great post, as ever, and one I can very much empathise with – and I also relate very much to Celia’s reply. I have elderly (82) mother and step-father (92) in the UK, and try to go back every six to eight weeks to see them. The feelings of guilt are substantial, particularly since my step-father has recently been diagnosed with dementia, and trying to weigh that against the fact that the UK no longer feels like ‘home’ to me can be exhausting.

    ‘Letting go’ in those circumstances isn’t completely possible, because I feel I still have responsibilities there. Letting go of the feelings of guilt, and recognising that I have a right to my own needs, wants and life to lead – as well as responsibilities to fulfill – is something I’m still trying to work on.

    michelle Reply:

    All we can do is work towards our goals, Cath…best of luck to you, and also hugs xx

  22. Christine Orlando King

    Enjoying your blog so very much. I wish my kids’ dad had wanted to move back to Catania, Sicily. He moved to the Boston area when 23 but because of employment problems was too afraid to move us there.

    Sigh. Now, at 61, I find myself longing to live in Italy. It keeps resurfacing over and over.

    He was caught in the middle of the two countries. Many of my foreign-born friends feel as you.

    I chuckled looking at your garlic photos. My husband and I live in Sequim, WA on the Olympic Peninsula and we have this garlic growing in various parts of our yard. I love the little papery caps and save some of them.

    So glad you are at home in your new land. I agree that less is more. I lived a very deadline-oriented life in Boston and then San Diego and felt that the life was being sucked out of me. When I visited Italy and especially Sicily, I felt at home. There is truly more appreciation for food and family time. For now I will just continue to enjoy your blog. Thank you for creating this.

    michelle Reply:

    What a wonderful comment, Christine; thank you so much for taking the time to share it. I hope you can at least find a way to spend more time in Sicily even if it’s not a full move 🙂

  23. I so related to this. Going home is so emotional, and not just the relationships but the things. I have so many things at my mom’s house that I just can’t part with yet. 200 depeche mode records, clothes from my goth days, clothes from circus school, and the photos..oh and so many books. I still like having MY room in the house I grew up in even though 3-4 days into it I want to kill my entire family cause they don’t “get” me anymore. I feel in cultural purgatory.

    michelle Reply:

    Cultural purgatory indeed…I love that.



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