I 'chose life' over New Zealand
Home sweet expat home
If anyone reading this has just returned home from their OE, and occasionally find themselves in a state of anguish - you are not alone.
After seven-and-a-half years in London I returned to Wellington in 2007 to find the answer to a question which I'd been pondering for some time: "Wasn't I supposed to go home at some point? And is my future here - or there?"
It was, I know now, something I had to do in order to find out. A friend described it as "burying ghosts".
Anxiety settled upon me as the plane taxied to the runway at Heathrow. I wasn't at all sure I was ready. A lady sitting next to me saw my tears and said: "Don't worry love, you can always come back."
The next 18 months was an exquisite form of hell. Sitting in a GP's surgery blubbering: "Ive-made-the-biggest-mistake-of-my-life-and-wading-into-the-harbour's-looking pretty-good-right-now" was perhaps my first clue that square pegs don't fit neatly back into round holes. Not anymore, at least.
I had a good job, which I enjoyed, but after that finished - then what? I had a stark realisation when I visited the offices of a former employer from 25 years previously and saw the same faces.
That's when it hit me: in New Zealand, once you've hit a certain level career-wise, there's just nowhere left to go. Parties at Parliament were an equal shock - same faces, in a comfortable merry-go-round of humdrum predictability - as if time had stood still, and yet I'd moved on.
All my friends from seven years ago had left - almost all for Australia. I bumped into old buddy on Courtenay Place and discovered we had absolutely nothing in common anymore. That's when I understood that my time abroad had shaped me more fundamentally than I'd realised.
I also met other returning Kiwis who were equally struggling. Together we formed our own informal Chardonnay-and-Citalopram support group. One confessed she had bought a return air ticket to London just in case she couldn't hack it. It ate at her soul until I insisted she burn it.
New Zealand felt painfully parochial, the locals suspicious of anything they hadn't seen or experienced. If I mentioned my old job which required me to travel to Paris twice-weekly, people would look at me like some kind of twat. But that had been my life then - and now, this. I wasn't just a long, long way from Kansas, I was smack bang in the damn cornfield.
Sitting over coffee with my friend Chris brought another startling revelation.
"Get out, Jonathan," he said. "Just get out. I want to leave for Australia but I've got two kids from a previous marriage, and I can't go anywhere because I'd never see them, plus I have to pay child support."
Indeed, several friends bemoaned failed marriages and family commitments as things that were holding them back. Others complained that having hit the peak of their careers, they'd hit a dead end and their futures felt like a giant anti-climax.
In my deepening depression, the sound of Boeing 737s became an eerie soundtrack to my life. Seemingly every time I stepped outdoors I would hear a roar which - Siren-like - would silkily seduce me.
"Come away," they would sing. "Come away." Awful doesn't even come close to it.
Then my 35th birthday came - a gusty, drizzly Sunday which marked my nadir - and I realised I could take no more. I booked my flight back to London that night and resigned the following day. And the sun came up.
All of that said, I made some generous, loving, warm-hearted friends while back, always there with a hug and a listening ear, and who - quite literally - saved my life. Angelique, Louise, Colin from the Kiwi Pub, I cannot even begin to thank you enough.
When the plane back landed at Heathrow, again there were tears. Not out of a sense of failure, but of homecoming. There, I've said it. Home. The next day I sat in St James's Park feeding ducks and munching a hotdog, and I've never felt such joy.
I've now been back in the UK for six years and I'm loving it. In five weeks, I'm getting married - to a Brit admittedly, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
When I reflect on quitting Wellington for good, I'm reminded of Julianne Moore's words in "The Hours", when she explains her reasons for escaping her old self:
"There are times when you don't belong and you think you're going to kill yourself. That night, later that night, I made a plan. It would be wonderful to say you regretted it. It would be easy. But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It's what you can bear. There it is. It was death. I chose life."
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