Remember the airport scene at the end of Love, Actually? The one with the montage of lovers and families reuniting at Heathrow–a general air of excitement and joy and even a few tears set to a melodic Beach Boys soundtrack? Well, when you live a long distance flight from your family, it’s quite possible you’ve actually lived this scene out. Perhaps more than once. Maybe without the music though. What the producers don’t show you as you fade to black is the flip-side–the return flight. When you lug moms and dads and siblings and luggage back to the airport at the end of another visit and leave them, returning all by your lonesome.
There are great things about living in another country. There are even good things about not living in the same country as your family (no surprise visits when you are hung over and ignoring your kids and your laundry hasn’t been done in a few weeks, fewer well-meant suggestions….) But there are downsides too. And often, particularly when you’ve just say goodbye, the scale tips massively in favor of the downs.
The bittersweetness of the family visit.
We’re a bi-national household, so we have always lived at least an ocean apart from one family or another. We’ve become fairly adept at navigating the perils of holiday time-shares and experienced the supreme joy of hauling children, gifts, and ourselves through airports during the Christmas season. Thanksgiving–that most wonderful, secular American holiday (and my favorite b/c there are no gifts to stress out over), was a god-send as its only an American thang. But now that we live overseas, it’s a thang of the past.
My kids are the only grandchildren on my side. And we live nearly 4,000 miles away. Guilt, is that you? My mother also has the misfortune of living in a neighborhood where many extended families have chosen to live together–old world style–adding on to houses, living above, building around the corner. So she is surrounded by OPG: Other People’s Grandchildren. And while she would never tell me how much it hurts, or how jealous she is, I am neither blind, obtuse, or dumb. When she sees my kids, they’ve grown 3 inches and are learning another language. They’ve completed 6 months of another grade, taken up a new sport, joined six new clubs and don’t like the same toys they did the last time. Like a lot of ex-pat families, we spend summers at ‘home’, so my mom and my sister get to spend larger chunks of time with the kids than they would if we lived nearby. But I will not kid myself into thinking that it is a substitute for cheering them on at a sport’s match or coming to a birthday party or watching them wake up on Christmas morning.
Then there are the selfish things, like the fact that free familial babysitting is only a forlorn fantasy. When you live in a place where importance is placed on family (and it certainly is in Denmark, as it was in Cyprus), you can get a bit lonely when it’s just the small family unit-over and over and over again. Family time is overrated when it’s All family, All the time. There is no watching a football game with a beer while Granny chases after the kids, no Mom-can-you-come-and- help- because- the- kids- and- I -are- playing- vomit -roulette- and- I- need- someone- to- take- care- of- me- as- well. No cheeky overnights away with your spouse to catch up (on sleep). No 2 am phone panicked phone calls trying to figure out why your baby has a fever hot enough to fry an egg.
Extended families miss out on the everyday–the funny things my 2nd one says, the perfect score the older one comes home with on his math homework. You store them up for Skype chats and weekly phone calls, but most of it slips through the cracks. Add a time difference that puts you on different sides of the AM/PM divide and it gets even harder.
When politicians in the US are elected, they spend the first year trying to do something and the rest of the time planning the re-election campaign. And it’s a bit like that on family visits. We spend the first day or two catching up and having fun, and then the rest of the time is spent on trying to figure out when the next visit will be. Plotting the graph lines between school vacations, time off from work, and finances takes military precision at times.
It’s great to be instrumental in opening up someone else’s eyes to another part of the world, another culture, fantastic sights–places they probably never would have gone had we not decided to live this upside-down life in a bubble. But saying goodbye is always hard.
If it truly does take a village, what do you do when you’re half a world away from home?