The Expat's Home

“The World. That place you call home.”

So said the BBC advert that coolly asked the viewer to learn more about their world. But it was right. The world was the place that I called home. Of course my real home is my town. The small unimpressive town of Maidenhead that slinks off the River Thames. The house, my house, almost unchanged, for 28 years. Berkshire, my green county, stuffed with small villages, grand houses and fields and fields and fields. That is the home of my history. But maybe, Madrid is my home, or Moscow, or, as purred by the BBC, the World…


I was home for a week, my first sojourn back to my country for eight months, and it got me thinking about the idea of home. Since I was 18 years old I have rarely spent long in any one place or residence. The first year university I was in halls, the second year was spent in a shared house down in town, the third year I had my year split into six months in Alicante and five months in Voronezh in the south of Russia, and then finally the fourth year back in Bath in another shared house. But university is often like that. The first year after university I lived in Madrid in the hope of improving my Spanish and the year after that I moved to Moscow with a view to doing the same for my Russian. The addiction to Spain had taken hold however, and I soon found myself moving back to Madrid again where I remained for a further two years - my longest stint in one flat. Then came an odd period. I had moved back to the UK to write a book and quickly fell back in love with my country. The summer was astounding: full of boat trips, Pimms in the sun, barbecues, friends, family and regattas. I decided I would have a stab at getting a job in London. I lived at home and started up a relationship with a girl living in Highbury. She was a wonderful human being, all goodness and wit, and someone who I will always feel ashamed of drifting away from. My head was for London but as the clouds of winter descended and the job opportunities didn’t arise my heart starting speaking Spanish to me again. 


I returned to Spain, forced my way into a life of multi-job self-employment and moved into my own new flat. Another home. Eight months went by and, despite having the odd visitor here and there, I was once again relegated to my own personal Iberian world of disconnectedness. And there I remain. Happy, more or less.


Among the holidays where I half treat myself - adding fuel to the intense desire to travel that I have deep in my genes - and also half ‘force’ myself to ‘work’ by eating and seeing as much I can to better comprehend the country in which I’m dipping my toes, there came the need and desire to go home to that house in Maidenhead. To see my family and my friends. As Shakespeare said ‘there’s the rub’. Therein it lies. Home, my home, at home, feels like home, Home Sweet Home, going home. All these expressions, but so many places. So to Maidenhead I went, greeting my parents with warm hugs at Heathrow and readying myself to dive back into my old life. It’s harder than you think, and harder than they think.


To many my lifestyle appears some glorious sun-soaked holiday. Living in a pretty European capital where I spend my days eating tapas and sipping the best wines looks like I have it easy. And maybe I do, but I designed it that way; it wasn’t luck. Coming ‘home’ is as blissful as it is bittersweet and melancholy. You come back for a week or maybe less and have to get your fill before you leave it all behind for God knows how long again.


A wet morning jog through autumnal country paths under a cracked sky. Little reflective pools of heaven gather on the ground in impressions made by years of tractors and the Thames, that most handsome of rivers, reminds you how lucky you are to belong to this part of the country. In the middle of the morning my mother and father call me for coffee and possibly cake. Elevenses in the warm and dim living room looking onto my childhood street. Then lunch made from whatever lies waiting in the family fridge. Maybe afternoon tea rears its head as well as the promise of a neighbourly visit. Dinner round the table and a pint in the local Grenfell Arms with my brother. Then the weekends with friends. Reconnecting with my oldest and best as if I had been with them all these months; jokes, insults, jibes and nothing too deep. If superficial a trip is pure paradise, but probing can lead to pain.


My life in Spain is not linked to that of my friends. People I’ve known for more than twenty years trundle along in their lives without my involvement. I miss weddings, birthdays, stag-dos, spontaneous meet ups and that general warm feeling of having them at hand. They do these things but I don’t see them. I may get the news in passing or sporadically see a photo on the Internet that belies a larger event. I am out of the loop and it is very much my doing. Having a group of friends who are, to their credit, not addicted to their mobiles or social media, doesn’t help me either. Relationships start and progress and culminate without my knowledge. Wedding vows, engagement parties, new partners, break ups. The whole tapestry of love is woven in another country and I am on the sidelines. Though I have my life and friends in Spain, I still miss those of my ‘home’.


My life in Spain is not linked to that of my family. People I’ve known all my life trundle along in their lives without my involvement. The Spanish would look on aghast if I told them how often I see my family. Parents and brother a few times a year. Grandma and uncle? The same or less. Cousins and others? Maybe once or less. In the sense that we would do anything for our family members we are as united and knit as any Spanish family, but in the sense of ‘closeness’ who can tell. We don’t see each other. We are bound by love and blood. To return and see your elder relatives every time older and frailer is not nice. To see the mind of a loved one fade is terrible, but to see the progression in bursts of 8-month periods or more is shocking. You can only smile and bear it. In truth a lot of us younger expats live in fear that one day we’ll get that bad news phone call or our hearts miss beats if we find a message from a parent saying ‘call me when you can, it’s urgent.’ 


Of course all is not doom and gloom. In general when I go back it is a period of unmatched relaxation, appalling overeating and blissful reunions. But also, unbeknownst to those at home who are hopefully glad to see you, it is also not all happiness and joy. There is a current of worry and sadness that flows under the feet of many young expats. Yes, the world is our home. Yes, our desire to travel and explore needs to be sated. Yes, we…I love Madrid and can’t see myself existing anywhere else right now. But never forget that for many of us home is still that little house in that small town sidling the Thames and around which old school friends live with their now wives and pets. So don't forget us.