A few weeks ago, as the sun dipped beyond Embankment and shadows crept across the Thames, my wife and I strolled down the South Bank and across Waterloo Bridge, as we had done almost exactly five years before on her first ever day in London.
Back in 2008 the walk was part of a cunning plan I had devised, a plan whose primary objective was that she’d be seduced by London – the clincher being the views from the bridge of Westminster to the south and St Paul’s to the east. Seemingly, said plan worked because within a year she had moved there permanently.
Yet, skip forward five years and it was I who was now the besotted, gawking tourist – not with my wife, mind, but the views of London (it’s ok she probably isn’t reading). Initially I was taken aback by the sight, somewhere in the distance over by London Bridge, of the latest phallic addition to the city’s skyline – a now fully erect Shard. But, it was also as if, having spent 18 months away from home, that I was seeing the beauty of London afresh with new eyes – just as my wife had five years earlier.
At that moment, I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be on such a beautiful, (mildly) warm summer’s evening than London. It was good to be home.
And it’s precisely these moments that make a flying visit home home* so dangerous, because like the holidaymaker who returns home vowing to quit their job and change their life, it might just cause you to pause and ponder whether you really want to catch the return flight back home**.
For example, in the build-up to going home home there’s the excitement that after so much time away you’ll see your family, friends and favourite old haunts. Just as exciting is the anticipation of being able to devour the delicacies your adopted home so outrageously fails to appreciate, which in my case includes baked beans, pickled onion Monster Munch and warm ale.
Then, there’s the actual excitement of flying (less so if it’s with Iberia), landing and the subsequent novelty of having to re-adjust to certain aspects of your own country (we’ll come back to this in a minute).
Over the following week or so you’ll then actually meet up with people, and if you’re lucky enough to have a close group of friends it’ll be as easy to fit back in as slipping into your old pair of Converse. The crap jokes will still be funny, as will the old school, travel and uni stories. The problem is, you might have such a good time that you start to wonder if you are missing out by being away from home home – in my case I’d physically missed the stag-dos of two of my best-friends.
Of course, not everything will have stayed the same. Despite having only spent 18 months away, three babies had been born, two more were on the way and a couple had got married – and the very reason we were back was to attend three other weddings. On top of this, others had bought their first homes or moved to even bigger ones, and so gradually you start to wonder whether life as an exile might just becoming a direction-less gap year(s).
Not that people at home will think this, because how can you possibly be missing out when you are leading such an exciting life in Brazil? Cue, umpteen explanations that in reality living in São Paulo doesn’t entirely reflect the beach / samba / football / exotic / paradise (delete where appropriate) ideal most people assume it to be. Effectively, I’m just living in a bigger, greyer city than they do – the only difference being it’s 5,000 miles away and bit a warmer (apart from in May).
Alas, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the world, especially in São Paulo where in truth grass is actually something of a novelty.
However, the grass is greener argument works both ways, and this is probably why visiting home home is indeed so dangerous. In this sense, it’s deceptively dangerous.
Firstly, the novelty, as I noted earlier, of experiencing ‘reverse culture-shock’ may not actually be that novel. In fact, it may remind you why you were so keen to get away in the first-place.
For example, one of the things I had actually looked forward to most about going home home was the opportunity to be back in an English speaking country, so that I didn’t have to have the daily challenge / struggle (depending upon my mood on any particular day) of trying to understand – and make myself understood in – Portuguese. Unfortunately, it turned out that I’d forgotten how annoying it can be to be surrounded by English speakers.
Living in Brazil as a non-native speaker of Portuguese means that I can, at will, switch-off from the chatter around me. In fact, said chatter can often be pleasantly comforting, especially when combined with the rhythmic motion of a train or bus – a combination that is almost guaranteed to send me to sleep instantaneously.
However, back home home, every word of every banal conversation spoken in your native tongue penetrates your consciousness whether you like it or not. For example, during a train journey from London to visit my parents in Kent I was treated to the following: 1) Some tosser on his mobile talking loudly about his bonus; 2) A middle-aged woman complaining to her friend about her husband not doing the washing up, and; 3) Two ruddy-bloody-blokes moaning about immigrants: “I’m not being racist but….”
No, no, no….you are.
It’s also mindful to be aware of the fact that having a string of reunions with your friends is not how life is like back home throughout the year. Most of the time people have stuff to do – you know, like work and shit.
And getting married, having babies and buying houses.
And also be mindful of that ‘work and shit’ stuff itself. It may well be the case that your job back home home may have been one of the reasons you were so excited to flee abroad in the first-place – although in my case it’s because there were no jobs.
Finally, your first glimpse of home home (unless you live in Croydon) may well induce tears of joy, just like London – despite the dildos – did for me. However, remember that this is a novelty that will also wear off rather quickly when you move back for good, because just like when you were there previously it’ll just become normal again.
Beware then the dangers of making short visits back home home. Everything will probably just be the same as when you left it, and for the time being it can probably just wait that little bit longer.
* / ** To avoid any confusion about which ‘home’ I’m referring to, I’ll refer to São Paulo as home and London as home home, although I guess this confusion is itself a reflection of why visiting home home is so dangerous. Frankly I’m confused by what ‘home’ is these days. Obviously, I’m a British national and London is the place I most readily identify with. However, it is currently difficult to argue that my home is anywhere other than São Paulo, seeing as though that’s actually where I live – and the fact that as yet I have no immediate plans to leave. Additionally, my connections with London are slowly declining, a case in point being that since my parents have now moved away from the capital my lodging options are restricted to my friends’ futons. So where exactly is ‘home’ then?