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The Return


Something magical sets apart those of us who dream of an overseas life, from those who remain content to stay in their home country. Not to imply that one group is superior to the other, but the curiosity of far off places has been a strong influence on my life and I became determined to follow that curiosity to fruition. The dream of living and working overseas is held by many but experienced by only a few; the excitement of following one’s profession in some exotic foreign land is certainly a strong lure for many people.

There is the issue of adjustment is to life in a foreign country, but what about when they come home? This is often the most difficult adjustment to make yet is greatly misunderstood and ignored by many “overseas enthusiasts” as well as the companies that send them to these exotic lands.

My curiosity and lack of contentment to “stay home” burned strongly in my soul. I was one of the lucky ones. I made for myself the opportunities to live overseas for thirty years. I felt comfortably “at home” in my adopted country, but I began to feel a stranger during short return trips to the USA, comfortable only in the knowledge that soon I would return to my safe haven overseas. I even had a feeling of superiority, knowing that I did not have to stay here and soon would be winging my way across the South Atlantic Ocean to my seaside refuge at the tip of South Africa where the two oceans meet.

Many expats returning from extensive overseas assignments encounter this difficult adjustment process; “home” has changed, the expat has changed and often the perspective of the “home country” has changed. I don’t think that I, or anyone else, has a cure for this condition. I have written these pages to demonstrate that it is indeed real, how deeply it has affected me upon my return after 30 years’ living in South Africa, and that other expats should recognize it and be prepared, in the best way they can.

I went to South Africa on a three-year contract and stayed for thirty. The passion for my “overseas life” became so ingrained in me; it had become the “drug” that sustained my existence. While the security situation in South Africa has declined dramatically and home invasions were commonplace and car hijackings were a real threat, I loved my adopted homeland and had no plans to emigrate on account of the security situation. But, family obligations prompted my departure from South Africa and to become an American resident once again. My “dream house” on the shores of the Indian Ocean was soon sold, bank accounts closed and I flew away.

Even now, four years later, I feel pangs of regret that I left the magical land of the Cape Peninsula and my adopted “homeland” of South Africa. In spite of its problems of growing internal security threats, economic upheavals, the plummeting value of the currency and wholesale corruption from the top levels of government to the local police. I loved the life there, but I had to leave.

I have been haunted by the dichotomy: if life in the US is so much easier and comfortable than overseas, what is the attraction that continues to pull me to spend time in these other countries, and to feel pangs of regret about moving back?

Some expats having adjustment issues upon returning home, claim that if a return visit is made, this will “quell the demons” and put an end to the anxiety. I would soon find out. What if I made a return trip to some familiar places, renewed contact with former friends and colleagues? Would I still feel a strong attraction for the country or would the deterioration in the security situation and economic pressures that now are faced by the current government degrade my enthusiasm?

I made this return visit, flying first to Johannesburg, spending a couple of days’ before boarding a train for Cape Town. But I was soon saddened by the condition of downtown Johannesburg and Pretoria that had deteriorated into such squalor and dens of crime. Nigerian gangs have hijacked buildings in Hillbrow, where during the time of Apartheid, Hillbrow was a bustling, cosmopolitan neighborhood of artists and intellectuals where cafes and bookshops stayed open late and where, even under the tight rule of apartheid, interracial mixing was common and without incident.

Corruption is rife from the top levels of government to the local police force, and threatens to pull the country down to a banana republic level. Life for ordinary South Africans has also become more arduous by the fall in the value of the Rand. Four years ago one Rand was worth $6.70; during my recent trip it had fallen to $15. Cheap living for overseas visitors but tough living for residents.

During my brief return visit to the country, from my harbor – front balcony of the Quayside Hotel in Simon’s Town, some 35 km south of Cape Town, looking out over the placid waters of False Bay with views all the way to Muizenberg, a calm wave of serenity flowed through me, remembering my pleasant life when I lived here. Few scenes are as peaceful as watching the ebb and flow of the tide in a working harbor, fishing boats setting out for their evening catch, novice kayakers paddling with uncertainty into the shark – infested waters of False Bay.

Up to coastline, I could now see for the first time during this return trip, the narrow Glencairn Valley which opened up to where my house still stands; further up the coast there is Fish Hoek, Kalk Bay, Muizenberg and, when the weather clears, land of the Cape Flats and the Du Toitskloof mountain range separating Cape Town from the dry rocky lands of the Great Karoo desert. True to the typical early winter weather, strong winds regularly whip up white caps on the surface of the sea, fishing boats bob crazily as the rough water moves through the harbor. Typically, rain comes and goes during the day, periodically blocking out the view of surrounding mountains. But during winter, the rain comes in wild sheets of water pummeling everything in its path and can be incessant and damaging. But this was not yet real Cape winter weather so the rain does not stay for days, but makes only cameo appearances as a promise of things to come. It was with good reason that the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias who long ago called this region Cabo das Tormentas or, “Cape of Storms”.

There were also security concerns among residents of Cape Town but far less severe than in Johannesburg and Pretoria. Very few home owners had erected high fences and walls for protection.

But I am always optimistic that Cape Town will remain as calm and pristine as it was when I lived there – some incidences of housebreaking do occur but above the level where residents have to live behind “security bubbles” fearing every time when venturing out…..but somehow I feel that these downward slides become irreversible at some point. That point may have already been reached by the South Africa that I witnessed during the past couple of weeks.

Now Back “Home” But Still Not Content…

The house in South Africa is sold and I have now created a new “home base” in the US. But the years of living abroad and travelling for my profession have been solidly ingrained. While the comforts of living in the US are many, and with time I will probably grow accustomed to this new “home” life, I find that that the keen sense of anticipation and real spark in my brain are ignited only by the prospect of an upcoming overseas assignment, the longer the distance the better. Travel and working overseas still holds for me a strong fascination and interest; it is not merely a “job” but an opportunity to successfully accomplish a task; and to thoroughly enjoy doing it. And also to ride some interesting trains when I have the time.

Overhearing some returning American diplomats arriving at Dulles Airport in Washington they commented on the comfortable life overseas with protocol officers meeting them at airports, cars and private drivers delivering them to their magnificent homes in foreign lands: “….here is where the good life ends and reality begins…” as they have to endure passport control, collect their baggage and find their own transport home.

An interesting assessment of these very real personal issues of expats returning home is in a Wall Street Journal article by Debra Bruno entitled: “Repatriation Blues: Expats Struggle with the Dark Side of Coming Home”[1]:

“… Many repatriated expats find it hard to connect to friends again at home. Ms. Hattaway says that expat life draws people together: ‘You’re in a circle or tribe with other expats; but back home, you’re only one in a sea of people. Some of them have never left, some don’t have passports. And you look like everyone else,’ ”

The last comment above particularly hit home with me.

While I rarely associated with Americans while overseas, when I began living in the US I felt somehow “different” from most of my neighbors and friends in the United States. I had seen many countries, had many experiences so different from most others around me – I certainly was no smarter then they but I had a strong feeling of estrangement from them, and somehow, superiority. Many had not been out of the country, didn’t have a passport and knew only the small geography of the state, or of the United States. I was no better than they, but somehow different.

My feelings of living abroad and of the difficulties on the return, are not dissimilar to those described in the same Wall Street Journal article.

“Ms. Hattaway recommends that before they leave, expats undergo a ritual where they visit and say goodbye to each aspect of their life abroad. Ms. Foley says that some people may also want to revisit the place later on to see how things are changed. When she returned to Singapore for a visit, she realized she had become a tourist in the place that had been her home. ‘I had been aching for years, but being there as a tourist put that into place for me..’ ”

That technique seemed to work well to “quell the demons” for Ms. Hattaway, but not for me. I returned to South Africa as a tourist, visited Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, but I can’t say that my love for the country had abated. I sat at Simon’s Town Harbor looking out over the boats bobbing in the waters of False Bay, up the coastline and quickly recognized the narrow Glencairn Valley where, on Grey Road, my house still stands with fantastic views over the bay, surrounding mountains and dramatic coastline.

Part of the attraction was South Africa’s outdoor lifestyle, and even the nasty Cape winter storms were somehow appealing and soothing. On a cool winter’s day watching the grey ominous clouds creep over the mountain tops of Simon's Town until everything is obliterated in a driving rain...then a couple of hours' later the sun appears and it is a different world.

But in my mind I was not a visitor; I felt the same sensations as when I called this valley home. Of course, we cannot live “in the past” remembering only the good times, somehow shoving the memories of pain and unpleasantness into a dark “memory corner”. But, given the opportunity, I would have readily walked back through my old front door on Grey Road without hesitation.


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