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I Want to Go Home... but Don't Know Where that Is

By Cindy Pavlos

Home, according to the proverb, “is where the heart is.” It is an emotionally profound word–a mixture of security, warmth, comfort and belonging. But a new place feels more like a hotel room than “home”–at least in the early days. You wake up in the night and, half asleep, do not recognize the room. After a long day at work, the comfort and relaxation you yearn for is elusive. The heart may feel like it has not quite caught up with the new time zone. It is hard to be patient.
There are several things that speed up the process. Whatever “stuff” you brought with you, unpack it all. Hang those pictures on the wall and arrange those books on the bookcase. Organize the bits you brought with you, and go out and find the rest. Find whatever you need to turn your new space from soulless, empty rooms to… a comfy nest. And do it fast! The sooner you create some comfort around you, the sooner you will feel at home.
Link up with other newbies at your school. You are all experiencing the same feelings and fears, that weird blend of excitement and pit-of-the-stomach terror. Hang out, go exploring and shopping together, share tribulations and compare funny experiences. These people are the framework of your new support network; you will turn to each other over and over in the coming years.
Make a real effort to study the language of your country. The ability to communicate connects us, and great as body language is, it is about as nuanced as emoticons. Begin breaking down that language barrier as soon as you can. Language acquisition comes in spurts; you start with lots of nouns (usually foods), very few verbs, and a few terms of politeness. You learn the names of things as you need them and, at the beginning, verbs in infinitive form only.
Although you feel like a four-year-old, trying to wrap your mouth around unfamiliar words while pointing across the counter at the object of your desire, people will, surprisingly, begin to understand you. They may be smiling because they are polite, or because you are mangling their language beyond belief; but they are also smiling because you stand there–a clueless foreigner–asking for 250 grams of that yellow cheese-looking thing in their language.
Even if you live in a place where English is widely understood, resist the temptation to get by without learning as much as possible of the local language. I learned this lesson the hard way, in a maternity ward. My husband, daughter, and I arrived in Poland several months before our baby was due. When our son arrived in a rush, three weeks early, my Polish was still limited to about a dozen words. Most of them involved food. Four days in the maternity ward was an intense language-learning experience; the midwives spoke Polish, Russian, and a few words of French. I spoke English and a little French.
I knew the word for “baby,” but not “boy baby,” so until they held him close enough for me to see, I wasn’t sure of my child’s gender. My two roommates, both new mothers of baby girls, knew as much English as I Polish. We laughed a lot, three women with a lot in common but no shared language, and pantomimed what we could not say. It was a crash course in Polish, and a memorable introduction to a country we came to love.
My last suggestion may seem counter-intuitive, but if you have the opportunity and money to go away when your first long vacation break arrives, do. Whether you travel in-country or spend the holidays with family, when you get back, you will probably notice a subtle shift in attitude. You might just recognize you have come home.

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09/13/2013 - Stephanie
Wonderful! I definitely felt that I could relate and it pulled at my heartstrings a little bit :)
09/12/2013 - Cynthia
Great article!

Thanks for sharing wonderful advice from your experiences of living and working overseas!

Must read for anyone getting ready to ship-out to a new country assignment!



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