Return.Pain.Empathy.

Unimaginable pain.

Returning home from an extended time abroad brings unimaginable pain. Mainly because the “home” you’re returning to is no longer your only home. As with any place you spend an extended period of time at….a particular beach house, a summer camp, a family friend’s house….you become familiar with it. All of your senses adjust to this place. You know what it looks like and you notice if something has changed. You know what it smells like and it probably brings you some sort reminiscent comfort. You know the noises that accompany the place — which bird species sings in the morning or what time the train goes past the back window or the gait of the dog coming down the stairs. This place is familiar to you, and you love it for many different reasons.

Take that comfort and familiarity and multiply it by infinity, and then you’ll have 4 months spent in another country. At least that’s what it feels like. I’ve found that there really is no accurate way to explain what my “home” feels like to someone who has never been to Morocco….much less to people who have never traveled outside of the US. The only way I know how to describe it is this: think of your day-to-day. You have some acquaintances, peers, or work partners that you see regularly. You have a group of close friends that you either see every day or speak to on a very regular basis. With these people you have inside jokes, stories from different trips you’ve taken together, knowledge about each others’ families, gifts from birthdays and other celebrations, and of course….drama. You have your favorite store that you frequent because you know the layout and the employees, and you probably exchange pleasantries with them each time you come in. You have spots around town that are your go-to places for some casual time in-between your concrete plans for the day. You have a favorite restaurant or ice cream shop or street vendor. You have a set route that you take each day from home to school or work, and you could walk (or drive) it backwards and blindfolded. You know approximately what time your neighbors will return home each night, you recognize that one woman with her dog that walks past your place of residence each afternoon, and you’re aware of local news or drama not because you read about it but simply because….you’re a local.

This is life in another country, too.

Breakfast at Cafe Salamanca

Now I have all of these things in multiple places: hometown, college town, and Meknes, Morocco.

When I left Georgia for this study abroad adventure, I knew that I would miss my friends and the familiarity of my home. But I severely overestimated how much. Because I’ve always felt slightly uncomfortable in the United States, I was ready to leave long before I finally got the chance. Once I arrived in Morocco, I immediately felt at home and had very little cultural adjustment to do….it just naturally felt right. Unfortunately, this means that when I returned to America I severely underestimated how much I would miss my friends and the familiarity of Meknes. Now, two weeks from my departure, I’m still feeling the cultural shock of arriving in America. Nobody tells you how much you will adjust to life in another country. No one warns you how easy it is to fall in love with people and places during study abroad. I wish I had this warning, but I also know that it wouldn’t ease any of the hurt that I am feeling now, because it’s something that you have to experience to understand.

Saddest sunrise I’ve ever seen —from the Casablanca airport on my last morning in Morocco.

That’s the silver lining to this whole thing, though. I’ve experienced the joys of living abroad, and I’m undergoing the strain of returning to this seemingly mundane life that I put on hold for 4 months. If anything, this experience has given me a greater gift of empathy, and an increased sense of respect for others who have spent extended periods of time abroad. How on Earth did my former roommate survive her move from Thailand to America at age 17? How is my friend/mentor/role model so positive when she is now living in America after building a home in Lebanon for 7 years? The woman who sold me a graduation cap and gown who left her family in Hawaii to come live in Milledgeville, GA….how is she coping today?

There really should be easily accessible support groups for people returning home. A place where we can all share about our new homes. Yeah….ok so that probably already exists somewhere. The problem with this is that no one will really ever understand what you had there, and what you have returned to America with. Even other people who have made a home abroad elsewhere will never fully understand your unique experience. And so you’re left to your own memories, friendships, and souvenirs….and the unwavering resolve to one day return.

Sunset from my bedroom balcony
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