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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

On the move: reverse culture shock in London

The challenges of expats returning home include psychological, emotional and cultural experiences. Temporary re-entry can be even stranger, says The National's travel editor

London's Hyde Park. Rosemary Behan
London's Hyde Park. Rosemary Behan

I flew “home” to London last weekend, which was unexpectedly befuddling for mind and body – and not just, I think, because I flew economy in a packed cabin on four hours’ sleep, with an ill woman’s loud coughing punctuating the seven-hour trip every 70 seconds.

I experienced that strange sensation of long-familiar places which have existed mostly in memory for the past 10 years I’ve lived abroad suddenly becoming real. Partly, yes, this was because I was staying in Mayfair, which is hardly my home, though I’d like it to be. Yes, partly, it was because I was staying in a new place, a hotel, and partly because the trip was relatively last minute and I hadn’t had quite enough time to organise my schedule and contacts.

But what I was experiencing was a more extreme version of that which I’ve felt in previous years, and what I’ve noticed is that as each year passes I go back to the UK less often, for less time and with less predictability, the ties that bind are unravelling, and it’s frightening, a bit like I’ve woken up from a coma. At the various shops, DIY checkouts are a challenge.

I met up with my brother, who it took a while to recognise. I wandered into Hyde Park, which looked so luminously green I couldn’t take my eyes off it. As people jogged, cycled, and got on with their lives around me, I felt like I was watching a film. I was invisible, not part of this place any more – it was all too strange. I breathed in the air, which seemed so fresh. There was so much to look at.

For so long in London, I had stomped with a headful of ambition so fast I barely noticed the things I was now seeing. I didn’t have time to stop. In this way, I thought, this is interesting: in so may places I’ve used an outsider’s perspective to my advantage: could it be this way here, too? It could. I can see London through tourists’ eyes now, which means that I appreciate it in a way I never did before. I interact with people more.

It also means I see all its faults. Stepping off the plane at Heathrow Terminal 4, the scruffiness is depressing. The faults with the baggage handling system that result in a half-hour wait at the baggage carousel, and the casual way it’s announced, are embarrassing. The suburbs of Hounslow look like one giant council estate, and my areas of east London are unbelievably dirty, crowded and decrepit, the housing and streets a visual shambles. The Underground still smells.

The people are nice: one man saw me carrying a batch of post from my house and asked if I was a student. Another carried my case up two or three flights of stairs at Marble Arch station, possibly not realising how heavy it was until he picked it up.

“You’ve been on holiday,” he smiled.

“I live abroad,” I replied.

“But you’re back now,” he said.

I didn’t have an answer, and he walked off, but I thought to myself no, not really... I’m not.

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