When massive lockdowns were declared, expats split into two groups: the ones who stayed in their host country, and those who got onto repatriation flights to rejoin their homeland.
As a representative of the first group – I decided to enjoy my lockdown in a Belgian studio 3000 km away from my birthplace – I would like to share what that choice taught me about expat life.
Lesson 1: Home is where your shelter is
Practical reasons aside, I believe this choice has much to do with the concept of “home”. Home is our safest place, the sole location where we can arguably fear the external world the least. And where would you feel the most protected if – let’s say – a pandemic were to hit? Here you go.
That’s why I opted for “remain”. Brussels has been my place for the last 7 years. There’s no other “where” I would have felt safer. Imagine that I didn’t leave the city even after 2016 bombings. Moreover, fleeing the country would have meant becoming a “country rover” until further notice, since borders were – and still are – closed.
Lesson 2: The pull of homeland soars in time of crisis
I have never felt as Italian as during the outbreak. The fact that Italy was the most hit country at the beginning of the crisis played a role. However, I think I would have experienced the same homesickness anyway, regardless of my nationality.
When you start a new life abroad, your soul is somewhat split between two places. That’s a double-edged sword: it gives you a charming exotic outlook – both abroad and back home, depending on where you play the “foreign card” – but it can turn painful in times of stress and uncertainty. When that happens, the pull of the good old days is greater and leads you to wonder whether you did make the right decision after all.
Lesson 2.5: Don’t fall into the nostalgia trap
Just don’t. Try to remember why you relocated in the first place, and what your new life has gifted you with. If the crisis has truly led you to reconsider your choice, think carefully about it, and remember Buddha’s wisdom:
Never reply when you are angry.
Never make a promise when you are happy.
Never make a decision when you are sad.
Lesson 3: The world isn’t getting any smaller
We have been enjoying a borderless world for years. That gave us the (wrong) perception that the world was getting smaller: almost any destination on our wishlist was within reach. Truth is, international travel had become easy. Faster and cheaper travel connections made us feel the world was as accessible as our backyard, and that would have always been the case.
The pandemic unveiled a bitter truth: the world remains a vast land. With flights grounded and borders closed, distance is no longer a caveat. Moreover, when will we resume travelling? How will that look like? What about rising costs and new protective measures? Against this background, whatever it is you are missing, it feels extremely far away.
Lesson 4: Solitude hurts when it isn’t your choice
I have always enjoyed solitude. I am an introvert; I gain energy from being alone. However, a 3-month self-isolation in a foreign country proved to be challenging. Luckily enough, we live in a hyper-connected reality, and communication means are almost unlimited. I was able to speak to and see my loved ones on a daily basis throughout the whole period. I could also follow world events in real time, and find some playfulness on social media.
But still. I felt like exiled. Some days were incredibly hard to get through. If anything, forced solitude made me reflect upon and appreciate companionship like never before.
Lesson 5: “Any opportunity missed is an opportunity lost”
Guilt. That is the most recurring feeling for an expat in normal times, let alone during a global pandemic. It hits anytime you miss a family milestone (a birth, a wedding, a move), or you are not there when something bad happens.
Guilt follows you whenever you take – or even consider to take – a holiday that doesn’t involve “going back”. And it becomes almost unbearable when you need to cancel or postpone a visit for your life doesn’t allow for any break at the moment.
All that became even more haunting during the lockdown. What if someone gets eventually infected? What if something goes wrong, and I have no chances of getting home?
Striking the right balance between your dreams and what you leave behind to pursue them may prove difficult.
As with everything in life, being an expat has its tradeoffs. You just need to be aware of them and make your decisions accordingly. You also need to come to terms with the fact that you will necessarily be absent for important events in your loved ones’ lives. Just remember to stay in the moment and enjoy family reunions whenever they occur.
On a final note, I believe we – as a society – should also be careful when weighing harsher stances towards open borders and freedom of movement. You never know what might happen.