Redefining Home After Traveling Abroad

7171671407_1671ccd763_oby Beth Burrell

“I’ve lost a grip on where I started from
I wish I’d thought ahead and left a few crumbs
I’m on the hunt for who I’ve not yet become
But I’d settle for a little equilibrium.”

~ Sara Bareilles, from her song, Hercules

I recently read a blog post “And just like that, it’s over” by one of my friend’s daughters. In her final entry following a semester abroad as a college junior, she poignantly captured her joy at returning home mixed with her dread of returning home. How would she sum up weeks of ‘immersion’ and say anything meaningful?

I remembered that feeling. Unlike her, I hadn’t studied in Vietnam, South Africa or Argentina, or anywhere else while in college. I left the country immediately after graduating – to live and work for several months in London to earn money to travel that fall. As I contemplated returning home seven months later, I worried about the shock of being plunked back into my life here. What would it look like?

Her program got it right – the kids talked for several days before arriving home about how they were feeling, and role-played conversations with family and friends who inevitably would ask about their trip. They went over what they would miss about being away, and what they wouldn’t, all so they’d be prepared for the mishmash of feelings ‘re-assimilating.’

“What I now and probably will always feel is that I will never be able to answer the ‘How was abroad??’ type questions in a way that accurately captures my semester and what it meant to me,” she wrote in her blog.

I’d left the country not with an organized group, but with three friends eager to ‘see the world’ and flee a sorry job market at home, and also our lives. Becoming an adult could wait. Leaving the U.S. could not. I was an improbable candidate. I’d barely ever left my home state of North Carolina, not even for college. But there I went, work permit in hand, not at all ready when asked in British customs: Why are you coming here to work? We don’t have enough jobs for our own people. Whoa, good question, and not so welcoming.

It didn’t help when soon after during a visit to a local library, an elderly British woman made her way over to my friend and me (did she have a question?) and angrily screamed in our faces, “ENGLAND!” We were shocked. We dashed for the checkout, but she followed us, yelling “ENGLAND!” again in a guttural, scary voice. Had she heard our American accents? Would she chase us home? We practically ran down King’s Road, glancing back for any sight of her.

Of course, we had no blogs or Internet then, so my American friends and I talked a lot and kept journals (lager and lime helped too). As a parent now, it’s impossible to imagine no email or texting, and only talking with family weekly, if that. My friends and I lived for music cassettes and letters from home, especially at first, even though the photos spilling out only highlighted how much fun everyone seemed to be having at home while we languished at full-time, unsatisfying jobs in a country of strangers. But we soldiered on and gradually made friends, took day trips, and assimilated.

Early on, Princess Diana had her first baby William (now prince with two babies of his own). The city went crazy, fireworks booming and glittering up the sky all night. We’d long since blotted out the noise of the trains barreling past our bedroom windows, but the fireworks were challenging.

By the time our travels to the Soviet Union and Europe were over, and I had worked awhile longer in London, I was ready to leave. “I am going to die if I don’t get home soon,” I wrote in late fall. “I am so tired of being separated from the people and places I love.” Funny that less than four months later at home, I complained about my dad hijacking my purchase of a new car like I didn’t know anything. “Perhaps as a parent one day, I may see for myself how hard it is to let go and let my children make poor decisions,” I wrote then. Amen to that.

In any case, I returned home feeling adrift and unknown, mostly to myself. I was often taciturn and moody, feeling I could never fully explain anything about my experience – like the moment in Leningrad after my wallet containing my only photos from home was stolen. As I wept riding up a subway escalator, a large Russian man standing at the top wrapped me in bear-like hug. I gladly let him. He couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Russian, but it didn’t matter.

I laugh now at many of my experiences, but wish that I’d had a re-entry program before returning. I’d learned a lot about the world, more about myself. I wasn’t always sure I was on the right path then, but looking back I realize it didn’t have to be.

Beth head shotBeth Burrell is a journalist who worked in daily newspaper reporting before winding her way to parent newsletter and freelance writing. Currently, she helps produce the weekly parent e-newsletter for Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, Pa, She lives in Merion, Pa. with her husband and three (sometimes fewer) children.

Read more of Beth’s posts at

Image: Nature by Moyan Brenn via Flickr


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5 thoughts on “Redefining Home After Traveling Abroad

    • Hi Carol – Not sure how brave I felt at the time, but in retrospect you’re right. I did do many things then that now I can hardly believe! Thank you for reading.

  1. Oh, it’s so nice to see this. I spent my junior year in England, and I remember after I came home suffering a weird kind of agoraphobia for days, maybe even weeks. People didn’t talk about PTSD then and I certainly wouldn’t say it rose to that level, but I was freaked out at being home again. I had to force myself to go out and about to get over it. There was no discussion or program of any kind about coming back (I left the day before Diana and Charles wed, so obviously no internet or Skyping — my social isolation from home while overseas felt a lot like yours). I’m glad to see that 1) that was a normal reaction, and 2) things are being done now to help students get through it now. Spending a year overseas was one of the most educational experiences of my life, but often not in ways I had anticipated.

    • Hi Sandra – I didn’t expect the experiences I had either, but then again what was I going on?! I had no idea what I was doing really. Somehow it worked out. I am sorry you also had a tough time coping when home. I flew back to the US and spent the first two days with a college friend’s family before flying on home to my family. I’m sure that family wondered what was wrong with me. I hardly spoke! It took weeks before I felt truly home again – and it helped to talk with the three friends I’d been living with abroad. Thanks for reading, Sandra, and for sharing your experience.

      • I wonder what is going on with that. I know I felt some “imposter” kinds of feelings at various points while overseas and when back. And I know I felt like a ghost while in England at one point if only because I wrote about it and came across the writing later. It was quite strange, especially since I actually had a very nice, very social year. But it felt extremely temporary, unmoored from the rest of my existence, and indeed it was — none of those student relationships lasted more than a few years past my return.

        The most dangerous part of returning was the day I took off down the wrong side of the street while driving. I think that was pretty weird since I hadn’t actually ever driven over there. Apparently just as a passenger I internalized it.

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