Jennifer O'Connell: Moving from Silicon Valley to our own wild Atlantic way

‘We came home to reapply for our visas. A longish holiday. And we couldn’t quite leave’

Some people – smart people, sensible people – spends months, even years, planning their return home. They pack carefully labelled boxes. They have grown-up conversations about commuting times and school enrolment policies. They email estate agents and recruiters. They sell their cars. They list their American fridge on Craigslist. They say goodbye to their friends.

Our return home didn't happen quite like that. Or at all like that.

Until June this year, "home" was a pretty town in California, known for its trees, its schools, its wineries – and, less appealingly, for its recent elevation to the status as the most expensive suburb in the United States. It was a very lovely, very costly place to live, the kind of place that sensible people who don't have the number of at least one venture capitalist on direct dial avoid.

Sensible, it seems, is not our strong suit.

But, for two years, it was home. We forged real, life-long friendships with people from Honduras, Australia and Uruguay, from the US east coast and from Clonmel, friendships consolidated over wine and barbecues.


Sure, you couldn't walk to any shops, but thanks to Amazon Prime, you could have the shops delivered to you. And yes, the kids had code red drills, cowering under desks in preparation for the day a gunman might come barging in. But they also had extracurricular classes in coding and Lego. We had jobs in tech companies, places with foosball tables and elaborate lunch menus and employee share purchase schemes.

Live to work

Still, for all the happy hours, lava lamps and snooze pods, Silicon Valley is a place that fetishes work, where laptops glow from dawn to dawn, and where few people even manage to take their nine days’ holidays.

It’s a place that always seems to be rushing headlong towards the next thing. The next job. The next round of promotions. The next earnings call. The next stock refresh. The next vesting event. The next bonus payout. The next IPO. The next job. The next one.

At first, I found it fascinating. Over time, it became slightly depressing. Eventually, worryingly, it started to seem normal.

In June, we came home to Ireland to reapply for our visas. We came back, we told ourselves and everyone else, for six weeks, two months at most. A longish holiday.

And we found we couldn’t quite leave.

The realisation that I wasn’t going back dawned on me on a summer’s day, sitting outside a hotel by the flint-grey sea, as the wind whipped my hair into my face. Little flecks of milky foam flew off my coffee. I was bemoaning something – the impossibly high cost of housing or education in Silicon Valley.

“Or you could just stay,” someone said. I focused on a fishing boat creeping across the horizon. Inside, I felt something shift.

I said the words aloud a few days later, when the realisation had hardened into certainty. We were in a parked car on an industrial estate, on one of those dull Saturday morning errands that nostalgic emigrants tend to wipe from their memories. I was waiting for the right moment. This was not the right moment.

Maybe we should just stay.

It came out in an impatient rush. His eyebrow arched, but he said nothing.

“Maybe,” he said finally.

As it turned out, that was the easy part.

It was followed by long negotiations with employers, sad conversations with friends. Late-night emails to shipping companies. Frantic searches for things like baptismal certs that we thought we’d ever need in an educational context.

A place you love

Some challenges, such as living out of a suitcase for nearly five months, are trickier than others. When you’re two, it can be hard to understand where your day-care friends have gone. When you’re in your 40s, it can be difficult to reconcile a place you love – a humane, kind place – with a country that refuses to grant you autonomy over your own body.

However, in the tally of things lost and things gained, we’re definitely ahead. We have found a home in the seaside village where some of my happiest childhood memories were made. We’ve swapped a pool in the garden for the Atlantic Ocean visible from our kitchen window. We’ve gained precious time with cousins and aunts and uncles and beloved grandparents. We’ve made new friendships, rediscovered old ones. The two-year-old has taken to saying “good luck now” instead of “goodbye”.

And I can hardly believe my luck to be writing a weekly column in this magazine, which has been part of my Saturdays since longer than I care to remember.

So, yes, it’s good to be back. It’s good to be in a place where people have not lost the ability to live in the moment. Somewhere less sure of itself, more open to other ways of thinking. Somewhere that, two continents and three years later, has given us a sense that we belong. A sense of home.