The delicate art of coming home
A hot July morning in Toronto promises a perfect summer day ahead. The sun is out, the sky is clear and the neighbour’s kids are splashing in their pool. I’m standing on my younger brother’s patio in the city I’ve returned to after a year and a half in South America. In that time, my brother upgraded his apartment from a downtown college-kid apartment with multiple roommates and moved in with his girlfriend to an airy space on a well-treed street. He now has a fancy BBQ, an espresso machine and a knack for making green smoothies in the morning. I sip my coffee, thinking about how my brother’s life has changed in my 16-month absence. The same goes for my friends. In these early days home—a mere week and change since I landed back in Canada—I can see how much has shifted while I was living my Andean dream.
For those of us who have a tendency to roam, coming home is a delicate art. While we’re gone, home will have somehow both stayed the same and changed dramatically. Reverse culture shock is real. So is post-travel depression. Some friendships will remain closer than ever while others take a hit with the distance. Back on home soil, I saw how much my friends’ lifestyles changed while I was away, and I was forced to look at the path I chose not to take. It wasn’t comfortable. A lot about my return wasn’t. Here’s the thing: with all the stories about travel, the blogs, the Instagram accounts and lists of what to see, the return home is left out of the conversation. It's easy to see why: going home is the less attractive, if not painful, part of the whole experience.
Between March 2018 and July 2019, my life changed drastically. I lived in Colombia for six months and then went to Ecuador. I did things I never imagined I would have: I spoke Spanish, I rode motorcycles, I dated people from another culture, I made friends from five continents, I learned to trek at high altitudes, ran races with locals and ate more new foods than I can count. I had high points (hiking on one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, watching blood orange coastal sunsets) and low points (nearly getting in a boat crash in the Caribbean, getting hopelessly lost in a small mountain village). It was a period of immense change and personal growth. Heading off on this action-packed adventure was without a doubt the best decision I’ve ever made.
In many ways, it was a comfort to be back home. I forgot about how summer evenings tend to last forever and how the flowers smell after the rain. I happily re-acquainted myself with coffee to-go, Ontario corn and salmon on the grill. At the same time, Toronto wasn’t how I remembered it. It was bigger and busier. I felt dwarfed by its skyscrapers and jumpy with its sounds. I felt drained taking transit across the city and back just to meet a friend for coffee. With my return came mixed feelings that brought a jitteriness that stayed in my chest until I took the train away from the city to where the sky opened up.
Still, I tried to jump back into my old life as if I had merely hit the pause button for a year-and-a-half—back when my friends and I all lived in tiny apartments with roommates. When we would meet on a Thursday night at a West End pub if we pleased, drink beers and saunter home along snowy sidewalks. When my best friend and I would blast music in my kitchen as we cooked up a storm, talking about work drama, our goals, recent family news and our off-again-on-again romantic(ish) sagas. We were all always on the same page: twenty-somethings navigating (oftentimes barely) city life, launching our careers and living in matchbox spaces with other women in the same boat that sometimes felt like it might be sinking. I had my own little hub in the city’s West End where I had my favourite restaurant, my takeout food spot, my bakery, my butcher and my corner store. I thought returning would mean all of those things would be within my grasp again.
That didn’t work. Where my friends had built upon their lives, I had dismantled mine. We weren’t cooking on the desk that I had placed in my kitchen as a makeshift island (when you have no money, you get thrifty), we were eating gourmet pizza on a slick, shiny white countertop in the condo that my best friend now lives in with her boyfriend. That condo, by the way, comes with a view of the CN Tower, Lake Ontario and scores of skyscrapers. One evening I left that condo and walked north on a leafy street in the kind of neighbourhood where young couples migrate to raise a family. That’s the kind of neighbourhood with trendy coffee shops that overlook the park and pet shops that sell tiny dog outfits (more expensive than my own) for spoiled, fashion-savvy pups. On this particular summer evening, I saw groups of runners in their thirties sprinting up and down the hills that dip down into the park. Like yo-yos they were each of them in their flashy Nike gear. The gall of them, I thought.
As I watched the last of these perfect people make her way up the hill, I thought to myself: “This isn’t the type of neighbourhood where 25-year-olds get drunk in mouldy bars… it’s the type of neighbourhood where they graduate to when they get their shit together.” Those people are now my friends.
It was clear during these weeks that I stood in an awkward middle ground. I felt envious of them but I knew full well I’d never have sacrificed my freedom to have what they have. Still, I just wasn’t prepared for the internal conflict.
Where my friends had built upon their lives, I had dismantled mine.
As the cliché goes, travel changes you. Returning home is unnerving because after being immersed in the unfamiliar, returning to the familiar almost makes it feel like this life-changing experience didn’t even happen. I had been back in the country for two days when my sister (who lives in China but had arranged a trip home to coincide with mine) warned me that some friends might not take as much interest in my time abroad as I might hope. She had been living abroad for five years. While it was my first visit back home, she had done several at this point. She told me this during a walk on the kind of evening where the setting sun lit the clouds on fire.
As we walked along the cattail-lined path, she told me to prepare three versions of my time in Ecuador: long, medium and short. Learn to read my audience, she said, and prepare for comments that would often miss the mark. She was right. Still, I struggled to stick to my short version. I felt frustrated by misconceptions about Ecuador, like people likening it to other countries south of the U.S. whose Caribbean vibes had nothing to do with the Ecuadorian sierras where goats and cows run amuck. I felt irritated when, after I shared stories of running in the mountains in Cuenca and, in turn, my discovery that I’m not a big-city person after all, a friend later assumed I’d been based in Quito, a city of 1.6 million over 400 kilometres away. “Did you hear anything I said?” I wanted to say. Going home did turn out to be a delicate art.
I didn’t expect things in Canada to be as unfamiliar as they were. The smallest things confused me. Like, paying via touchscreen or Interac. Like being able to understand every single word of chatter around me. Like the price of lunch (has mac and cheese and a beer always cost $30?!). Like trains leaving on time. Like that fact that the homes in my neighbourhood seemed to double in size in my absence. Like the way people at home are so busy in summer. All. The. Time. Like the Canadian accent. (It’s a thing!) I’m telling you, reverse culture shock is alive and well.
The summer was… wobbly. I don’t know how else to say that. At times, I had absolutely no idea what my friends were talking about. (What is JUULing and why are Torontonians drinking mead?!) Sometimes I noticed little gaps in conversation where I didn’t have much to contribute. When two friends spoke of feeling uneasy when they were alone in their apartments, I couldn’t relate. For nine months, I had been living alone in a place where robberies are on the rise and people live behind towering walls and iron gates equipped with security cameras, multiple locks and guard dogs. I didn’t say anything about this because it wasn’t relevant to them, and because my experiences abroad don’t invalidate theirs at home. Still, I couldn’t help but notice the difference.
Returning after travel is certainly uncomfortable, but it’s a great way to declutter your life. You kind of have to. Picking up from where you left off just isn’t possible because after travelling, you return as a different person. You can’t go home again. It won’t be the same. You’re not the same, it’s not the same, they’re not the same. Instead you start a new chapter—one where you get to be more selective about which elements from your former life you’ll bring forward with you. The return home provides a clearer vision of what those are.
You can’t go home again. It won’t be the same. You’re not the same, it’s not the same, they’re not the same.
For me, there were little things, like why did I ever feel the need to have a shoe collection so expansive and how could I possibly have put up with such a cluttered space? There are also bigger revelations. By the time I realized this, an ex (who was never even my boyfriend, and all of us millennials have at least one of those) found out I was home and suggested coffee. Recognizing that this person had never treated me well in the first place, I chose not to respond. There were friends who were flaky or hardly raised an eyebrow when I told them I was home. As painful as that was, I learned that there is little value in fairweather friends. I stopped putting in effort. The relationships that were meant to stay intact will. And they did.
If, like me, home soil brings a threatening sense of anxiety, that’s probably an indicator of another change that needs to happen. My heart beat fast in the city jam not because I was enamoured by the city I had returned to, but because it brought with it an overwhelming get-me-out-here stress. I probably should have seen it coming that my quiet, introverted personality self doesn’t do well in that kind of environment. Especially after all that I experienced and learned about myself while I was away.
I spent the best part of my first two months home trying to bridge the gap between my former and current life. I floundered. On an August night, though, I headed to a friend’s home out in the country for a late-summer bonfire. My friends and I split a bottle of wine, chatted about the summer and about what was coming up for everyone that fall. The sky darkened much earlier in the evening than it had two months ago and before it did, the trees etched their leaves black against a golden sky. Then, I realized that on my next return home, I’ll spend more nights like this in wide open spaces with friends who are like family no matter which phase we’re at. There, the fire crackled, my anxiety subsided, and I realized that this is how home was supposed to feel.