Bittersweet homecoming: what it’s like to come back to NZ after living abroad

Travel changes you in ways you don’t expect. It opens your mind and your heart and your soul to new ways of living and being. It finds beauty in unexpected places and sees pain surface in others. You are the same you, but forever altered by what you have seen and felt. Coming home is often by choice, but sometimes it is the biggest challenge. My time in Europe feels like a dream now that I am back in New Zealand. It’s easy to forget everything as you fall back into familiar routines. Most of the people that I met were slightly older than me, and doing an exchange in their final semester of university, so many of them stayed overseas and kept travelling, or came back to new jobs and new adventures.

But I went overseas in the middle of my degree, so I have come back to finish it. I have more or less come back to exactly the same life I left behind – which is by no means a bad thing – but it is strangely disorienting.

When I left for France, I couldn’t imagine my future. I had no idea what the next day would bring. I was like an open book and the sense of freedom and adventure was intoxicating. Even though I knew I was coming back, I felt like I never would. Homecoming was always far away on the horizon. This sense of freedom was empowering and dizzying. I did things before I left that were out of character, daring, a little crazy – because I felt as if I would never return.

But six months isn’t actually very long. It felt like eternity at times, while at others it was whizzing past and I felt suffocated by the fixed time frame – the return date hung over me like a shadow. Then in January, I was overwhelmed by inescapable homesickness. I couldn’t wait to hug my mum, my little brother, my family. I wanted to laugh and talk with the girls, hear all of their stories. I was craving NZ food, coffee, my bed, my hometown.

I was completely consumed by the idea of getting home, but I never once let my mind wander to what it would be like. I wanted to get home so bad that every time my mum raised the question, I would brush her off, saying that I would be so happy to see everyone I wouldn’t worry about how it felt.

And coming home was amazing. Touching down in Auckland is a memory that will be with me forever. Seeing the familiar landmarks from my plane window, I felt safe and secure once again, kissing goodbye the feelings of vulnerability and adventure that are both thrilling and exhausting. It was time to recharge and revive.

But as everyone who has travelled has said: it is hard coming home. You don’t believe them through bouts of homesickness because homesickness is so consuming. Its nostalgia and longing at its height. But when you get home, the mind being the tricky thing it is, simply reverses that nostalgia and longing and pins it on what you left behind – Europe. How unfair is that?

Because I’d completely unprepared myself for settling in back home, within a few days I had fallen back into exactly the same routine as before I left. I touched down on the tarmac, confused and jetlagged, but woke up the next morning and went about my business as usual. I didn’t reflect; I didn’t have time to. It was only a week later (and in a very hungover state, which always heightens emotions) that I began to try to process just how big coming back home really is. It’s such a challenge. You fall back into old habits that you thought six months in France would break, with such ease that it makes you feel like a little bit of a failure. You think to yourself, “Hey, I’ve been halfway around the world, I’ve seen sights that give me goosebumps to remember, so why I am still acting like this?

I think it takes effort to keep the momentum, energy and appreciation you have while travelling present in your everyday life. I would actually even go as far as to say that it is intellectually more challenging coming back home to the same, than it is branching out and visiting the different. Because at least with the different, you are constantly learning, soaking everything up. It’s amazing.

But with the same, the familiar, you can get stuck in a rut if you’re not constantly working to keep your life fresh and fun. The familiar is easy, but it is much less rewarding –and once you’ve had the high of constantly being rewarded as you travel, by the people you meet and the places you see, it feels like a real drop coming home to nothing new. It is a huge challenge trying to fit yourself into your ‘old’ world. On one hand, the old routines come like second-nature, on the other you feel like you are wandering around aimlessly, not sure what to do next, now that the big adventure is over.

I guess that’s the place where I am at, at the moment. A huge part of my life has finished. I lived a completely different life for six months, in another city that became my home, and now I am at a loss for what comes next. I need a new challenge, something to aim for, but at the same time I don’t want to move on from the last challenge. France still lingers within me, but as each day goes by the experience seems more and more distant. It’s like I’m holding tightly to the tail of a fish as it tries ferociously to swim away. I know that the memories I have aren’t going anywhere, but memory is often evasive and I am yearning for something more concrete. Sometimes nostalgia and melancholy aren’t welcome guests when you are trying to figure out what your next move is. I have no idea what the universe has in store for me now; when I find out I’ll let you know.

My brief encounter with Athens

"I felt vulnerable, scared and sensational. I had a huge grin on my face and my skin was tingling. It was one of those “am I really doing this?” moments, where everything feels surreal." One of the best things about travel is the people you meet along the way. I ended up in Athens by accident – I hadn’t planned on visiting the Greek capital on this particular trip. But when my new Greek Australian friend Alexia invited me to visit, I couldn’t resist the opportunity, and before you know it I was touching down in one of the world’s most celebrated cities.

I flew to Athens from Lyon via Zurich. To say it was an adventure is an understatement. It was the longest flight across Europe I had done by myself, involving a rather tight changeover at Zurich Airport. I barely slept the night before, and was up at 4am to get to the airport. Little did I know the day would unfold to be one of the most memorable of my entire six months abroad.

I landed in Athens to find the whole city was on strike. All public transport was stopped (as far as I could gather, not speaking a word of Greek). Alexia’s clear instructions were rendered useless: go out of airport, turn right, catch X96 bus to the port of Pireaus. With no bus and limited time, I found myself in the back of a taxi, placing all of my trust in a short, balding Greek man with a bright smile.

My first encounter with Athens was short-lived but it is seared in my memory. My mission upon arrival was to make my way to the port and catch a ferry to the island of Aegina, where I would spend a few blissful nights with the Demetriou family. I expected the journey to be colourful, but couldn’t have possibly prepared myself for the combination of adrenalin and fear that was to come.

Fast cars and Greek men

The taxi ride between Athens Airport and Pireaus was possibly the scariest and most expensive hour of my life. But it was also the most exhilarating. For those of you who don’t know me well, I’m a bit of a wuss. I try to avoid putting myself in scary situations. I hate anything even slightly adventurous, from gymnastics to ski-biscuiting. And I definitely do not like fast cars. So as this taxi driver was speeding along the motorway at 120km/hr, while simultaneously talking on a cellphone, smoking, and TURNING AROUND to look at me as he spoke enthusiastically in Greek, I thought to myself: “I could die in a taxi in Athens”.

Did I mention he didn’t indicate? None of the cars seemed to. They just kind of weaved around each other, all driving at crazy speeds, none of them even looking in the right direction. I honestly do not know how driving in Athens works, but somehow it does. Any person driving safely would probably be squashed in a matter of seconds.

I felt vulnerable, scared and sensational. I had a huge grin on my face and my skin was tingling. It was one of those “am I really doing this?” moments, where everything feels surreal. Arriving in Athens forced me outside of my comfort zone, and reminded me that you can’t always play it safe. And that sometimes just rolling with the punches is the best way to travel.

Obviously I arrived at the port of Pireaus alive and well, albeit sweating profusely. The crazy taxi driver got out of his car and showed me to the ticket stand, then gave me a weird hug goodbye and lingered awkwardly. Was I meant to tip him more than the giant tip I’d already given him? Hug him back? I shouted thank you in a slightly manic voice a few times and he finally walked away.

As I sat down on the ferry and looked out over the sparkling sea, I felt an immense wave of relief. I had survived my first encounter with Athens. The city seemed like a big, scary, hungry hole waiting to swallow me up (or splat me on the side of the road in a taxi), but I was already in love.

Round 2 – late nights and Greek coffee

After a few blissful nights in Aegina, where life is good and the sun is always shining, Alexia, Minna and I made our way back to Athens. I was a little wary of this big bad city and sad to leave the calm paradise of Aegina, but in the end I warmed to the capital.

We stayed with Alexia’s friend Zoe. Staying with a local always makes a huge difference. Zoe showed us all the places that you just wouldn’t know to look for as a tourist. We drank Greek coffee at 9pm in a cute street of what looked like lively bars only everyone was still drinking coffee, before grabbing dinner at this dodgy little kebab shop with hideous décor. Wherever we were, it felt edgy and slightly dirty, but at the same time incredibly vibrant.

We did make time for some traditional tourist spots, like watching the change of the guards at parliament and visiting the Acropolis. But it is the balmy winter evenings sipping coffee in the dark that I remember with the most fondness. I enjoyed getting to know some Greeks. They have an infectious, welcoming, easy-going nature, but at the same time are often deeply traditionalist. Their roots run deep.

The political landscape is turbulent, and I sensed apprehension and weariness in many people, but at the same time an irrepressible joy and love for the land around them. The Greeks I met were fiercely proud of their homeland and eager to share their stories and experiences with newcomers. I hope I will visit again one day.

All-in-all? Athens is not to be missed

I’m not going to sugar coat it: Athens is a challenging city. It’s often dirty and dusty and slightly intimidating. You have to know where you’re going or be prepared to stumble across some confronting sights. And you will be surrounded by other tourists, all trying to see the same things, all battling the heat and the crowds and the dodgy food stalls.

But I would recommend it to anyone. Sometimes the best trips are the least comfortable, because they make your senses come alive and open your eyes to new ideas. Athens is ancient, but you’ll leave the city feeling new.