Last month marked my first year of retirement and re-entry into American life after returning from a 16-year expat experience with my wife in Europe. When people ask if we miss it there, our answer is an unequivocal and resounding yes. We miss it deeply. In fact, it’s put a bit of a damper on our long-awaited reunion with our beloved New York. Lately, I’ve found myself trying to retrace our steps to see how this happened.
Rewind to sometime around winter 2000, when I worked for my company’s U.S. operations and often entertained executives from its global headquarters abroad. The suave, dark-haired man sitting across from my wife and me at the Tribeca Grill in Manhattan would soon be my new boss, in a new job that would transport us to a new country and a new life. I just didn’t know it yet.
My wife seemed a step ahead, as usual. So when the man who would soon be my new boss asked me what I wanted to do next in my career, and I sat there stammering about preferring a corporate role over a divisional one, my wife jumped in. “If an opportunity at the company’s headquarters in Switzerland ever opened up,” she enthused, “we’d be there in a heartbeat!”
Not that we’d ever seriously discussed such a move. But when my wife saw what she believed could be an escape hatch opening, even if it was just a tiny crack, she went full carpe diem. I, meanwhile, started choking on my dinner roll. Why my wife was desperate for a way out at that particular time is the subject of another story.
For now, suffice it to say her hail Mary pass worked. In less than 72 hours, I got the call from corporate headquarters in Basel. “We want you,” said the man who would soon be my new boss. Before we knew it, my wife and I were on a plane that was like a magic carpet carrying us to the land of our dreams.
We grew to love our new home and remained in Switzerland for far longer than we’d ever imagined we would. It became as much a part of us as anyplace either of us had ever lived. When we reached the point when our years of marriage in Europe surpassed our time as a couple in New York, we knew the experience had changed us permanently. We still feel it, with a concrete certitude that almost defies our explanatory capabilities. It just is.
Seeking Advice From an Expert
Consequently, as far as life transitions go, this double-whammy of retirement and repatriation is proving to be a bear for me. So I recently turned for advice to an expert in the subject I met last summer at a panel discussion on expat experiences. Bob Corbett runs coaching programs for expatriating and repatriating employees at EY (formerly Ernst & Young) in Chicago. He quickly diagnosed my symptoms as “reverse culture shock” and referred me to a book on the subject called “The Art of Coming Home,” by Craig Storti.
The book says more than 50% of executives returning to the U.S. from expat assignments experience social re-entry problems upon repatriation, for a variety of different reasons. That’s a lot of re-entry blues, given that an estimated several million Americans work abroad in at least 100 different countries, with Switzerland, ranked among the top 10 best places for expats. The duration of the typical expat assignment is from three to four years – a fraction of my 16-year stint abroad. And according to “The Art of Coming Home, expat experiences usually are so memorable that “every returnee could write his or her own book” on the topic.
For the moment, I’ll set my sights on this article, and on my main takeaway from Craig Storti’s book: namely, that my particular strain of the repatriation blues stems from an experience that was so rich and stimulating for my wife and me that coming home, despite all our eager anticipation, could not help but include a twinge of disappointment about what we were leaving behind.
Ch Ch Changes
This gets into what EY’s Bob Corbett calls the “invisible changes” that alter expats in ways that create tensions when they try to re-enter their former lives. “They’ve had different experiences, they do different things on weekends, they have different friends and a different life,” Corbett noted. When they return to their home countries, people can’t see anything different, but a lot has changed.
I know, it sounds kind of vague, so let me try to explain.
Fondue and Feng Shui
I’ll start with the apartment where we lived, in a section of town overlooking the city, which, itself, was more like a medieval village with modern amenities. When our quintessential, upper-crust Swiss landlady – I’ll call her Frau W. – showed us around for the first time, it was her magnificent English garden that grabbed us. That botanical masterpiece was the first thing we saw when we entered the apartment.
My wife, who’s Chinese, saw instantly that our Basel apartment had fantastic fung shui – lots of light, an open, flowing layout and a huge balcony off our dining room that overlooked Frau W.’s charming estate and garden. It looked like a scene from a Merchant Ivory film. Seasonal flowers bloomed for much of the year, and behind them were a row of evergreens, the tallest one in the middle strung with white Christmas lights throughout the winter, and behind that a small pond with a classical sculpture fountain, where a family of ducks would usually spend part of each year. Frau W’’s black labs, Norma and Anna, would chase each other through the thick garden foliage, looking nowhere near as foreboding as the “Achtung vor den Hunden” (Beware of Dogs) signs out in front.
Frau W. would occasionally come over for a leisurely cheese fondue dinner – a meal I would have scoffed at in our pre-European days. She’d tell us in her serviceable, but heavily accented English about studying design in Paris when she was young, and about how she met and fell in love with her late husband. She became like a surrogate mother to us.
A generous patron of the arts and lover of classical music, Frau W. sometimes had renowned musicians stay with her when they performed in Basel or Zurich. Once she invited my wife and me to a Sunday afternoon private concert in her home, featuring a harpsichordist and flutist who played for a small audience of around 20 people. An interpreter was assigned to sit between my wife and me to translate the historical backstories of the music the musicians discussed in German.
It seemed light years away from our normal lives. But as expats, it was the fairytale we walked into, and once there, we didn’t want to leave. I could ride my bike along the Rhine to visit friends in Germany and snack on Iberian ham washed down with Feldschloesschen beer while watching football (not the NFL kind) on TV. We could take the night train to Paris or hop a short flight to London for the weekend, spend our summer vacations on the Amalfi Coast, in the south of France or the Costa del Sol. We treasured our annual hikes in Zermatt, where the scenic trails beneath the awe-inspiring Matterhorn invariably led to some remarkably great restaurants – a couple that even rated Michelin Stars! – but whose pedigrees were disguised in weathered Alpine huts.
Now, back home for a year last month, I come across the names and phone numbers of those restaurants mixed in with my old and new favorite eateries in New York in the address section of my little grey leather Filofax – a curious amalgam, just like me, of past and present, with a few empty pages left for future entries.
For now, my wife and I pretty much fit the description of the “cultural hybrids” that Craig Storti writes about in “The Art of Coming Home.” As one returning expat quoted in the book put it, “I’ve been split in two, culturally.” When you return, Storti explains, “you can expect many people to see things quite differently from how you see them, to fail to see certain things all together, and in general not to feel about or react to things the way you do.”
A Different Worldview, a Different Life-View
That’s part of the tension you feel when you come home. Europeans definitely view things differently. In general, they seem to embrace a work-to-live rather than live-to-work ethos. And you get the sense their cultures have had more time to figure out what really matters and how to appreciate life to the fullest. For example, when I reluctantly confessed to my American-trained Swiss doctor during my annual physical exam that I had taken to smoking a cigar while sipping my scotch once in a while, he told me it was nothing to feel guilty about, that I’d just reached another stage of life and a higher level of refinement; I had earned the right to enjoy the finer things, so long as I didn’t exceed one a week. Contrast that with my first physical exam back in New York, where my doctor showed no mercy for my cigar habit, moderation be damned. It was just bad for my health and I had to stop, never mind the peace and relaxation it gave me.
Bumpy Landing, Unforgettable Trip
And then there’s politics. My wife and I conscientiously followed the U.S. news while we were abroad, but nothing prepared us for the inescapable intensity of the nasty partisan divide we came back to. It was as if our plane had made a forced landing in a war zone. We thought things couldn’t get worse than they were when we left when the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush had to be decided by the Supreme Court. But that almost seems like child’s play, compared to the Clinton-Trump election we returned to and its nightmarish aftermath. Maybe it’s because we were shielded for more than a decade from the continuous exposure to political and cultural cockfights fueled by Fox and cable TV news, and maybe it’s because we’re just different, to begin with – we’ll never know. But we seem to have returned to a strange land where we’re less liberal than most of our friends and bereft of a political party or ideology that suits us.
And so our homecoming has been a little bit bumpy. Nevertheless, my wife and I wouldn’t trade our expat experience for anything. A little re-entry blues is a small price to pay for the life we had abroad. We were away for 16 years, but the experience has enriched us for the rest of our lives.