I’ve lived abroad for 20 years but coming home was the hardest move
Part of my brain is stuck in a time warp. I feel older here than anywhere else I’ve lived
‘Is it easy to move back? It’s different for everyone and it really is a mixture of luck and circumstance, effort and need, and we’ve had our own challenges and our own rewards in this year and a half.’
At 8.20am we leave the house to walk to school. I’m still processing the question my daughter asked me the night before: “Mummy do you feel settled here?” A few minutes into my long-winded answer, I think she regretted asking. How can I sum up what I’ve been analysing in my head this whole year and a half: how is life since we moved back, after living abroad for more than 20 years?
The short answer is: we’re getting settled, it always takes time, but this has been the hardest move we’ve ever done.
As we leave the house, the traffic is right there on top of us, and hovering above that is a pall of stress I feel in Dublin, which feels more like a big city than I remember from when I was growing up. A bus crawls past and it’s sporting an ad for a world-class theatre show, reminding me of one thing we love about choosing to live in a creative, top-class capital city; in a country that has seen such changes while I lived away.
One year here and the feeling of strangeness has mostly gone. My accent merges in with all those around me, making me almost nostalgic for when I was the foreigner, the Irish person in the room.
We walk towards school and I feel thankful we’ve lasted this long in Dublin without a car by relying on bikes, buses, car sharing or borrowing. But we’ll soon give in on that, what with all the kids’ “extra curriculars”, as well as the gentle-wallet-lightening Aldi trips and our ongoing exploration of new places.
My husband and I always made a point of exploring each new city we lived in, getting into more nooks and crannies than many locals. Now we’re back in Dublin, I’m finally seeing places I never got to know before I left at the age of 21: Bull Island, the deeper pockets of Phoenix Park, and even the likes of Harold’s Cross.
We pass the long-empty apartment block on our road with its weary For Sale sign outside. “Why couldn’t we just move in there?”the kids have asked, understandably as we’ve all been feeling squashed in the little cottage we were lucky to rent when we first arrived.
We’re still finding our way through the bizarre Irish property landscape, but we have some options now ahead of us and hope to move to something larger very soon. But the unfairness of it all gets to me, and I find it hard not to show that in my reply to them, that we’re luckier than many, many others in this city.
We’re living in the same Dublin suburb I left more than 20 years ago, the place I always called “home” when we’d come “back” for holidays, illnesses, weddings and funerals. But, as I’d say to friends visiting us in our homes abroad, living in a place is so different to visiting it. Living an everyday life in a one-mile radius of where I grew up has complicated my plan to make this move feel like any other big country move we’ve done.
A part of my brain is stuck in a 20-year time warp, and I have a vague, broad sense of having missed out on things. That might explain why I feel older here than I have done living anywhere else; for God’s sake, even the Taoiseach is younger than me!
I drop my daughter at her school, happy to know all’s well there. That’s one big part of life we’ve got settled. The kids love their schools but it took us a lot of time and stress to secure a secondary school place for the older one during our first year here.
The roads and traffic light signals are so familiar to me, but the faces that pass by are mostly strangers. Or are they? The tall man with the dog: for a second I think he might be someone I worked with in Norway or maybe we were in college together here or he’s a school dad. There are many older women bustling around the shops - some look familiar and I wonder if any of them see my mum’s face in me, if they looked.
My mum’s been gone now almost five years, but as I occupy what was her daily public space of shops and the spots where you stop to chat, I miss her more than I did when I lived away. There are so many things I would ask her, words of advice I could hear.
Picking up the “messages” at the supermarket I still get a tiny thrill (invisible to other shoppers who haven’t craved these basics from abroad) when I reach for a box of Barry’s tea and the stand-by sausages. A woman asks me to reach up for a small Brennan’s pan for her and we chat about the bread shortage in last winter’s storm, will it happen again this year. When she leans in she says “God Bless” where others would simply say “Goodbye”. That makes me smile.
At the newsagent I pick up a mass card, as requested by my dad, or granddad as he’s called these days. I’ll drop up to him later to hear how he got on at the dentist, and fill him in on the latest on the school play and Sunday’s football. It’s a relief and a pleasure to live near him now and to be able to help with health and other issues that can happen suddenly, and it’s only a good thing for our girls.
Now we live so close to the larger family, the dynamic is different; having flipped from the intense visits and catch-ups of short trips home, it’s become a normal, almost-mundane, mode of living in the same area, a mode that is actually normal for most people.
I stop at the café for a latte (single-shot please, I’m still used to my Italian coffee) and my ears prick up when I hear the chat of two women. “Jamie’s still in Vancouver” and “Sinead’s having a great time in New York”. Two cities I once called home. I long to jump into their conversation and tell them about our wedding on Kitsilano beach, or how we watched breathlessly from our Brooklyn rooftop as the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11. But that was then, this is where I’m at now. I leave them to their own dreams for their children.
As I start heading home I pass the pub: it’s a proper neighbourhood meeting place where you’ll get a great roast but you’ll want to say no to the extra cream with the apple tart. We should go in more often of an evening, to meet more of the locals. During the year I’ve joined a sports club, played a few tunes at sessions, taken classes, met parents on the side of the pitch - the places where people slow down and chat, and connections are made.
We’ve made friends with others who’ve lived abroad and who can understand how you can seem at home here but still feel different. Who don’t mind you talking about your experiences, the daily struggles and joys and boredoms and worries and dreams and friends and tastes of daily life of those other places, that we want to keep fresh for ourselves and especially the kids. When we talk to most people these huge and long experiences can get distilled down to a few little anecdotes. Or a dead-end question like “You were in Oslo for seven years? That’s in Norway isn’t it?”
Closer to our house, a woman walks toward me with a short dog on a long leash. It barks at me, a bit snarkily, as if to remind me (like I need reminding) that we still don’t have a dog, long-promised to the kids when we started telling them we’d be moving here, hopefully settling here. I feel better when the dog’s owner turns back around to smile at me, with a “sorry”.
Aside from the desire to be close to family, it’s these little things that we Irish miss when we’re abroad, the way that people are and how that makes you feel: saying thanks to the bus driver when you get off the bus, the gas man who says “fair play you’re grand” when you offer him a cuppa (and you still wonder was that a yes or a no), or the late-night taxi driver from the airport who’ll stop without asking at the petrol station to make sure you have milk and bread for the morning.
Is it easy to move back? It’s different for everyone and it really is a mixture of luck and circumstance, effort and need, and we’ve had our own challenges and our own rewards in this year and a half. New friendships and interests have taken root and it looks like there are changes around the corner in our housing and job situations.
Outside the front door, the landlady’s daffodils are up now, for the second year in a row. I used to look out for them from the bus to Dublin airport as we’d head off after our Christmas break, back to colder climates. Hopefully in our next home we can plant some of our own, and then watch to see how they turn out next winter.