As mentioned recently in Under Construction, I hope you’ll join me as I navigate the re-entry stage in our repatriation journey. Every three months I’ll share a series of ‘snapshot’ blog posts about the particulars of building a new life from scratch, filed under the post category Re-entry Reality. I’ll look at everything from making a home, engaging socially, staying healthy, and stretching creatively, to becoming part of a community, launching new career endeavors and addressing spiritual needs and emotional well being.
* * *
Now that it’s been three months since leaving the Netherlands, I’m fully entrenched in re-entry into this new culture of ours. While returning to one’s country – in this case, the land of my birth, passport and where I grew up – generally hasn’t been considered ‘crossing cultures’, the majority of seasoned repatriates will tell you otherwise.
The best way I’d describe it is akin to the concept of being a ‘hidden immigrant’ espoused by Ruth Van Reken and the late David C. Pollock in the expat bible, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. We may know the language, history, and political/socio-economic landscape; our cultural moorings are attached to the bedrock of our country. Yet we’re changed by our time and experiences abroad.
We’re not familiar with up-to-the-minute developments and are missing large chunks of popular culture references. We look, sound, dress (usually) and carry ourselves as though we fit in, yet we don’t always feel that way. Perhaps most importantly, few really seem to notice how we may have changed and aren’t particularly interested in discussing why that may be. And no, the latter is not limited to the US, it’s a phenomenon repats have noticed around the globe. It’s as if our fellow countrymen simply expect us to slot back into our former lives and move on from there. It feels as though an important part of our identity is invisible to others, or worse, ignored.
I bring all of this up not only to illuminate some of the challenges of repatriation, but also to help explain why we ended up choosing to live where we are now.
Nine years ago, we had left our previous life after two decades in the fast-paced world of America’s capitol city, Washington DC. We were in search of something different, something a little calmer, simpler, more relaxing, with more time spent both with family and outdoors – and preferably at the same time. Yet as news and culture junkies used to a steady fire hose of informative discussion of nuanced issues of global relevance, and easy access to artistic and creative endeavors, we wanted to stay connected, informed and inspired.
Let’s face it: we wanted to keep the highlights of life in a major metropolis while leaving behind all that makes it demanding and draining. We wanted to find the good life we knew existed outside the Beltway without giving up the perks of cosmopolitan living. Best of both worlds, anyone?
And for five years we had it while living in the Triangle, an easy mix of semi-urban, suburban and rural within the rough boundaries of Raleigh (North Carolina’s capitol city), Durham and Chapel Hill. A high-tech, health care and international business corridor carved out of bucolic countryside, the Triangle boasts renowned institutions of higher learning, research facilities, development projects, and established companies and start-ups alike working on the cutting edge as well as a vibrant writing/publishing community.
We spent five years happily ensconced Chapel Hill, the smallest corner of the Triangle and home to the highly regarded and oldest public university in the United States. It was only the lure of living overseas that eventually managed to pry us away. Not sure whether, when or where we’d return, we packed up, sold our house and headed to new adventures in the Netherlands.
Four years and a treasure trove of experiences and memories later, we had a clean slate when deciding where we would live. Proximity to a sizeable airport for easy access to family, international work and travel, and decent school options for Daughter were the only indisputable requirements. Everything else was entirely up to us.
Like kids in a candy store, we spent our share of time kicking around ideas. A house on the water? An urbane penthouse? The privacy of a large tract of land and few neighbors? Ultra-modern, rustic, country charm or classic architecture? In the mountains? At the beach? Why not! The sky was the limit and we thoroughly enjoyed the search.
But in the end, it boiled down to this: a cozy older home with plenty of character and space and some amazing upgrades, nestled in the four-story trees of a lovely wooded neighborhood, bordered by never-to-be-developed forest dating back to the early 1700s and safely entrusted to the state’s botanical gardens.
It is our own little rural compound and humble oasis, yet within easy walking distance to the concerts, plays, outdoor stone amphitheater, libraries, conferences, speakers, museums, galleries and athletic events of a first-rate university.
This charming small town holds history (albeit of the 300 year variety rather than the six+ centuries version we left behind) with a quaint main street where town folk and students coexist amiably. The university is not sealed off aseptically, away from the locals – you walk, jog and drive through campus as you live your life.
I especially like the almost palpable feel of excitement and limitless possibilities of young minds being stretched, molded, educated and prepared to go out into the world and make it a better place. Small city urban centers are a short drive away, and rural countryside and small lakes abound. The mountains and beaches are both less than two hours away.
Every bit as importantly, we have settled in an area in which expats, repats, cross-culturals and internationals do exist, in town and further afield. It may take a little effort to seek them out, but rest assured: I will find them. In fact, I’ve already begun and with positive results.
Score one in the win column for finding others who understand and appreciate the intercultural wayfarer in all of us.
We are home.