13 October 2016

Revisiting Past (Expat) Lives: A Wrenching Echo or a Beautiful Swansong

Some postings are ones that you get to return to again and again, even after you leave.  Others you expect, for one reason or another never to see again.  Warri (Nigeria) and Maracaibo (Venezuela) are hardly tourist destinations to bring the family to for example.

Nigeria was beautiful but not the easiest posting to return to.
My many postings fall into a variety of those two categories.  I go back to the town we lived in when we were last in the UK an awful lot because, by a complete co-incidence, we ended up living 5 minutes from where my parents had bought a house many years before and where they chose to retire.  These days, going back to visit my father and step-mother is strange, I was a local councillor there for 6 years so relatively well known to a number of people through my party and through campaigning.  I often run into old colleagues of my husbands or old pupils of his.  It is home (the children and I stayed there for a significant part of the 4 months we were waiting for Saudi visas), and yet it is not.  My mother loved the town, she was not English but it was where she chose to settle and live out her days.  This town was the place she returned to every year from around 1992 when my parents bought the house and we spent most of our short half term holidays there from around that time to leaving school.  It is more home to me than any other place on earth ... and yet....  I see her ghost everywhere I walk and it is incredibly painful; harder now to go back than it was to live there after her death.  I love seeing my father and my step-mother and the children adore their visits there but I find it very, very sad.  I wonder if people who have lived in the same place all their life have a similar response post bereavement, do they suddenly want to move away or is it just my complete and utter lack of true ties to any place? 

Our beautiful old home town in England
I had a similar feeling when, following a visit to my Uncle and Aunt in their home town in the Netherlands, I drove to show Mr EE and the older children the place where Oma & Opa had lived.  I spent a lot of time with them as a child, living with them for long periods and often visiting them for short holidays when I was first in boarding school.  I was ok in the town, it was rather fun to walk in my old steps, but when we went to the building their flat had been in I broke down, racked with sobs.  I still don’t really know why (I don’t have the same reaction when I see my other grandparents’ house in Dublin or when I wander around Den Haag, the town where I was born and where I lived 4 times in my life), perhaps it was a realisation that a place that had been so pivotal, so important to me, now has no connection to me at all other than an ageing uncle and aunt. The ripples my life had made on the surface of the Assen pond have almost disappeared for ever.

Revisiting past pleasures in Ipoh
Other than that, by and large when I leave a posting I leave, I put it to bed in my mind and look forward to the next one.  I rarely hanker after the life that has been. I have been back to some of the other countries I have lived but never to my old homes (except on Google Maps) or even cities until last month.  When I had to rush back to Malaysia to see our very sick dog I ended up in our old town.  It was a strange visit because it has not been long since we were there, Ipoh was our home until December last year.  In between seeing to the dogs I revisited old hunting grounds, traces of our life there were everywhere.  My hair needed colouring so I went to my old hairdresser, I was still on record.  On the two evenings I was there I ate at two of our favourite restaurants.  I was welcomed back to both by name and asked if I wanted ‘my usual’, when I parked at the mall (I treated myself to a cinema trip, something we can’t do in Saudi) the mark made when our power steering fluid suffered a catastrophic leak in August last year could still be seen in our favoured spot.

Our old home had the most amazing view.

On a whim I went back to our old home.  We lived in a gated development with some beautiful park land and the guard, remembering me, waved me through with a big smile.  Our old house was occupied by a new family but I parked nearby and walked around the running track where we had walked the dogs every day (the plan had been to scatter Bessie’s ashes there if she had had to be put down).  The fish, the monkeys, the monitor lizards were all still there.  Sadly there is a lot of development going on at the theme park across the lake and I can see that we were lucky in our time there.  Unlike the feelings of sadness I have when visiting my old home in the Netherlands or the UK I felt a feeling of closure that I have never sought and had not expected to want or need. Our ripples are still there, though fading fast, they will be gone before long but, unlike Assen, I feel no sense of sadness about that.

We were happy to leave Ipoh, it had only ever been a temporary posting and had we remained in Malaysia we would have been in KL by now but we left with a short turn round, with Mr EE being asked to start his new job very quickly (6 months notice is more normal in education).  Whenever we relocate we try to spend as much time as possible fixing memories of our posting, memories that will last us a life time.  We do our favourite things and make the most of our remaining time there.  In Ipoh the time we had to do this was very short.  The little swansong visit was, in many ways, the perfect way to put that posting to bed.  

Have you ever returned to a previous posting?  How did it make you feel?

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  1. Great post. It's funny even when you are ready to leave a location, to look back at all those memories it's a wonderful thing. Like most experiences you sometimes don't always see those wonders when you are in the depth of that expat life. To have lived in so many places shapes who you are #myexpatfamily

    1. Thanks Jersey Girl, it was lovely to relive memories.

  2. It's funny how the mind works, isn't it... We left Italy just over a year ago and though friends keep asking when we will visit, I keep putting it off. I tend not to look back either, and often don't re-visit old places until I have well and truly settled in the new one. That way, when I go back there is a sense of "this chapter is closed" rather than a longing for things to be the way they were. I'm not quite there yet with Italy - I think I'd cry at the first taste of decent pizza!

    1. Yes it can be hard, particularly when you leave a posting that you loved. I am not sure I would like to go back somewhere I was really fond of because I would be upset at the changes.

  3. This was a really lovely read. I find it amazing the things, the places and memories we hold closest in our hearts....it's often those you wouldn't necessarily be able to rationally explain!
    I have never returned to San Diego where I lived in my late teens and I'm not sure I ever will now. I know I've rose tinted it hugely in my memory, but I'm kind of ok with that and I'm not sure I want to change that feeling by going back and seeing it differently as an adult!
    Thank you for sharing this beautifully written post with #myexpatfamily x

    1. Yes sometimes those rose tinted spectacles belong firmly in place.