Our family of four humans and three animals returned to the United States in August after four years in Zurich, Switzerland.
Repatriating to my home country has been more complex than I imagined.
In truth, I didn’t imagine any complexity. I’m American, I mean, how hard can it be? So, when we learned my husband’s job was relocating to the USA, I leaned in with my “up for anything” approach to life. Though, the definition of “up for anything” has changed considerably with age…bungee jumping and canyoning have been taken off the bucket list.
Being adventurous is obviously fun and exciting. And, uncomfortable. That’s the paradox of change—it’s both difficult and exhilarating. Being in situations that are new deepens empathy—it’s a fact. My foreigner status allows me to connect to how hard it must be for others. I also feel gratitude because my situation as an expat on my husband’s work visa was much easier than the Ukrainian refugees I met in Switzerland.
Many of my expat friends with more countries and years under their belt forewarned me that the transition home is tough.
It feels like the rug has been pulled out from under my feet. With a 12-hour flight, my old life is gone, and it feels abrupt and surreal. All the routines, cultural norms, and ways of life—that were so different four years ago, that I adapted to and thrived in—disappeared almost instantly.
I didn’t drive a lot in Switzerland. I often walked to the grocery store. My kids took public transportation to school and sports. Of course, I am aware that parents are their children’s chauffeurs in much of the USA. I was one myself just four years ago. But, I grew to love taking public transportation over driving.
The variety of food and the size of grocery stores in the U.S. is overwhelming. I have now taken to ordering groceries online because it’s easier for me to sift through the items that way rather than walk up and down the aisles. There’s an entire aisle dedicated to hard seltzer with alcohol. I haven’t even heard of hard seltzer alcohol. I’ll save going to Costco for 2024 because if I do go, I think I’ll faint.
Ordering anything online in Switzerland was rare; there’s no Amazon.ch. And, I liked it. I quickly realized we didn’t need all that stuff, most were just impulse buys that could be easily solved by a workaround or going without. Our household belongings are currently in a container somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean, and with school starting for our boys, I’ve ordered from Amazon almost every other day. While it’s easy and time-saving, it doesn’t feel like me.
There are a lot of pros and cons to living in both countries. My discomfort isn’t a tally about which country is better. It’s more the sense of loss for the life I adapted to and grew to love. A cardinal rule of expat life is not to expect your host country to be the same as the country you left. In our four years in Switzerland, we met people who would flame out. They just couldn’t adapt to the change and would leave. I don’t expect the USA to be like Switzerland—but I do miss my old life.
In the field of change management, where the rubber meets the road is when people have to actually “do” the work differently. That’s where change efforts live or die. If I go to work on Monday and how I start my day is different, the tools I used before are gone and I’m supposed to use new tools today, tools that I’m not that familiar with, or my team is new. Wow, that’s hard. Ever switched from a PC to a Mac? My “personal workflow” has changed, and I’m feeling the loss.
A little voice in my head asks periodically, Why can’t you just be grateful you lived in Europe for four years? Well, little voice, pipe down, I am.
Gratitude isn’t a bypass for the hard bits in life. In fact, being able to feel gratitude when things are rough—no matter how relative—is the true gift of gratitude. Every challenge forces us to discover a new path. And, every new path, hopefully, makes us more in touch with ourselves and ultimately, humanity.
So, while it’s tough right now, I’m grateful because I know that change makes me more compassionate to myself and others.