I had never considered myself an emigrant. I spent two and a half years away from Ireland, but not once did the word emigrant or emigration come into my head.
Emigrants are people who left on ships to escape death in the 19th century. Emigrants are my uncles who left in the 1980s and came back at Christmas with a suitcase full of exotic presents and a slight twang in their accents. Emigrants are people who finished a few years ahead of me in college and were forced to leave their lives and families as a result of poor decisions made by the generation ahead of them.
I never felt like an emigrant before I left. But I felt like an alien coming back.
I left on a happy note after graduating in 2012. I got a fantastic job on the Jameson graduate programme, and suddenly a few months later I was living the California dream. The job later brought me to Mexico City for a while, before I travelled to France for my second ski season, where cleaning toilets and making beds got rid of some of the notions I had picked up living in a country where inequality and racism rewards you for your background.
After a month backpacking through Vietnam and Cambodia, I returned to Ireland to live as a grown-up. I left straight out of college, so I had never spent any of my adult life in this country. I don't know what I was expecting. During visits home for Christmas and other occasions during my time away I always had a busy schedule visiting friends and family, drinking copious amounts of tea by day and wine by night. There was never enough time to fit it all in. I always left with a tear in my eye counting down the days until I would return again.
Coming back for good is hard. People tell you this. It is not a secret. But it is still a shock.
I was one of the lucky ones. I had a job interview lined up before I went travelling in Vietnam, which I did the day after I returned. A week later I was in London doing my induction. I moved in with friends in Dublin, and as quickly as I left I was settled . Within a matter of weeks I had a house and a car, even a gym membership.
In my time abroad I learnt that home is not a place. Home is the people you love. Home is a feeling. I love and loved people all over the world so will I ever really belong in just one place ever again? Jorge Luis Borges put it best when he said: "I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people I have met, all the women I have loved; all the cities I have visited."
Ireland is familiar. Daily life is easy. I get in the car and I know where I’m going. I meet strangers and I know the foundations of small talk: weather; politics; the price of cat food. I understand the road signs, the colloquialisms and the unwritten rules. I go to the supermarket and I know what to buy, and how to cook it. I don’t panic when my phone rings because I know I will understand the person on the other end of it. Life is easy, maybe even a little boring. I don’t have to go out every night because I don’t have to squeeze every last bit out of my experience. I don’t have to make an effort to make friends because I still have them from playschool. I’m not in a rush to see every inch of the city I live in, because there’s always another day. Life has become a busy cacophony of complacency, monotony, familiarity and routine.
In Mexico every day was a challenge. I used to pray that no one would speak to me in the office, in fear that I would not understand them and look like an eejit. I once got lost and had grown men chase after my car shouting “Barbie”. I took my life in my hands every time I got behind the wheel, not only because I am a terrible driver, but because everyone else is too. I ate food that I’d never even heard of, off the side of the road.
These were only the superficial challenges. I took risks. I lived life on the edge. I trusted people I barely knew. I made some amazing friends, but I was also taken advantage of on more than one occasion. Every emotion was escalated. For the majority of my time there I was either homesick or completely on top of the world. There was no in between.
I have been home now for over a year. At first I loved the familiarity, walking down the same streets, driving on the right side of the road, understanding the humour on the radio.
And then it all got a little too much. Was this supposed to be my life for the next 50 years? The same old thing every day? The same contrived conversations 100 times over? Where was the challenge? Where was the fun? I was dying from the monotony.
But eventually things fell into place. Evidently life doesn’t need to be a rollercoaster. Where the highs are high and the lows are low. There is an in between, and it can be blissful.
I still do not feel like an emigrant. To call myself one I feel would undermine the experience of those who were forced leave Ireland and the ones fleeing their countries every day with the only alternative to death being to live in heinous conditions in Calais and the southern tips of Europe.
I often wonder about what life would be like had I not moved away. I am not the same person who left. Was I destined to go on this journey of self-discovery regardless of location, or was Mexico the catalyst for this change? I will probably never know.
I went to a party last weekend which was full of returned emigrants like me. I knew only the host of the party and her Mexican fiancé. But I felt an instant bond with everyone I spoke to. We shared the feeling of not really sure where we belonged (both at a party full of strangers and in our lives). We spoke of our friends and the difference in life choices we had made; how our weekends look very different than before we left Ireland; and the comfort now of having family close by but missing the friends we had made abroad.
That’s the thing about us “emigrants”. We’re used to being a stranger in a room and having to make friends quickly.