Seven years ago, I traded sunny, metropolitan Texas for a rural village in southwestern Germany. I am torn between family, stability and a sense of belonging in one place … travel, excitement, and constant learning in the other. Every visit there and back has been emotional, punctuated by conflicting feelings and experiences I never expected.
Reverse culture shock exists, and I go through it every time I am stateside. Not just differences in service, tipping and freeway driving. I once said “Danke schön” to the Spanish-speaking housekeeper at a Colorado Holiday Inn and turned bright red. I have felt out of place at family gatherings, confused by the inside jokes shared between my brother and mom. I now need a GPS to navigate the neighborhood where I grew up — streets I once spent summer afternoons cycling round and round — which has a grand total of five stop signs.
Loss doesn’t seem real while I am away. I was numb and in denial until my bare feet touched the hardwood floor of my childhood bedroom, a home improvement project Mom and Dad completed together 35 years ago. I fell apart as I spread my father’s ashes in the front yard of the house where I grew up, Mom’s rose garden replaced by the new owners’ azaleas. I refused to sit in the maroon recliner at my grandparents’ house because it was Pawpaw’s Chair.
Without those places, sounds, smells around me in Germany, the deaths still seem like a dream. It is only in moments when I am alone and unoccupied that the grief once again sets in. I must find a way to process the losses, or I will remain in denial until I return to Texas.
I have regrets. While traveling the world, I have missed life-changing moments. Someone else comforted my best friend as she went through a painful divorce. Two of my closest cousins tied the knot, and I wasn’t there. I didn’t get to speak at my grandfather’s funeral.
And I’ve been so busy that I didn’t make that call, write that letter or send that email. Now, my friends are too busy to meet for coffee while I am in town. I should have booked a flight sooner to hug my dad again before he died. Two years without a hug from him was too long.
Yet I am grateful because I am a different person today. I’m more self-confident after living 5,000 miles from home. I no longer look at the world as black and white, but shades of a rainbow because I have witnessed other laws, religions and cultures.
I don’t take for granted how fortunate I am to have been born in a first-world country — I have seen men wash with a hose in the streets of old Delhi. I have watched women walk in sweltering heat in black burqas covering everything but their eyes. And I want a career that will make the world a better place instead of a high-paying corporate job.
Part of me is ready to be back for good. When I left seven years ago, it was for a six-month contract. My initial visits back ended with watery eyes, but I eagerly boarded the plane, knowing my time abroad was short term.
The honeymoon of living overseas has long since ended, and my husband has to drag me from my mother’s arms at airport security. The tears continue after takeoff, as I question the decision to leave.
But I am terrified of having a “normal” life. I have a diverse group of friends that I can count on here. I love my job and have the ability to travel almost every weekend. The more I research and explore, the more I discover I still need to see. And I may never have an opportunity to live like this again.
I wonder when it will be the right time to move back. But I know there will not be a sign from the universe to tell me — to stay or go is a choice I must make.
So, instead of buying a one-way ticket across the Atlantic, I have made a promise to stay in touch with people back home more often. I will put off the decision to move to focus on planning vacations in Spain and Sweden.
Soon, I will start the next chapter of my life, just not today.