The expatriate condition

The expatriate condition

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Is expatriation hereditary? Is home where the heart is? Gerald Loftus discusses the 'expatriate condition'.

Expat for life

Some of us have made this expat business our life’s work. In public service (I’m most familiar with diplomats and the military), multiple postings abroad are often the norm. And Brussels is brimming with semi-permanent expats whose professional lives revolve around the EU institutions. But I’ve known lots of private-sector people too for whom a life overseas is the culmination of a dream, and who have trouble going back. It’s an old problem.

How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm? (After They’ve Seen Paree) put to song the dilemma facing American soldiers who’d been sent to France in the Great War, survived the trenches, then met a pretty Parisienne on a weekend pass. Some, like Ernest Hemingway, stayed on for a while, and a similar thing happened after the Second World War. Less dramatic, but no less of a quandary: How you gonna send ’er back to Swindon, after she’s seen Ixelles?

This expat thing gets into your blood, and it may be hereditary. Ever notice how many expats are children of expats? It comes from going to school with classmates from every continent, and from growing up with a different – if not downright confused – sense of nationality. There are strident nationalists in every grouping but, as a class, expats are probably more inclined to see at least two sides to every question.

“Far away fields look green” goes the adage, which makes almost every destination potentially appealing. Born and raised in the United States, I’ve spent most of my adult life outside my native country. Mine is a conscious choice, a sort of “reverse migration” for someone whose parents came to the US from County Mayo. But I know a Frenchman, an interpreter, who chose to settle in the US because he finds it “exotic.” And he lives in suburban Washington D.C. – not especially known for its exotic allure.

Home fires

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” reminisced Rutger Hauer’s replicant in Blade Runner (1982); “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” And you don’t have to be an alien to feel like you’ve come in from outer space – just be a typical expat returning home to family or old neighbours, who feign interest in your international life for a few seconds before changing the subject back to local matters. They may not share your reverie about the good life abroad. Which is why many expats befriend other expats, who can relate to a life lived outside the boundaries of ‘home’.

Where the heart is?Oh yes, home. Many of us have a clear, unequivocal notion of where that is. Others aren’t so sure. Where home is, when home was a certain house, who was at home – home can be, as another old saying has it, where the heart is. Expats don’t necessarily live out of a suitcase, but they often have a more flexible idea of what ‘home’ means. When I consider Brussels as home, it doesn’t mean I reject my Pennsylvania upbringing, and feeling at home in Ireland is more an emotional link to the memory of my parents than anything territorial.


All of this is not to build up the expatriate condition as a universal solution. After all, not everyone can or should leave the land of their birth – you might not really want your embarrassing younger brother to show the flag abroad, at least not in your presence. I remember puzzling over some of my fellow diplomats who persisted in living abroad when their time there was spent largely in the company of their countrymen.

That can be a challenge, mind you – not just getting to know some locals, but actually befriending them. In a place like Brussels, people have seen scores of expats come and go, and may shy from establishing friendships that risk being broken by a subsequent transfer.

And if it’s hard on the locals, it’s also hard on the itinerant foreigner. Just listen to the BBC World Service programme From Our Own Correspondent and you’ll hear the occasional heartfelt goodbye to a place a journalist has called home for years. Hard as it is to say farewell to foreign places and people, it shouldn’t keep us expats from making local bonds, as the whole experience of living in another country is so much richer with the knowledge that host country friends and neighbours can provide.

So, is there a cure for the expat bug? I’m in my sixth decade, living in an adopted country, married to a French woman, with a dozen countries I’ve called home, and the siren song of foreign fields still beckons. Is that living the dream or postponing reality? Not sure, but it’s in my blood.



Gerald Loftus / Together Magazine / Expatica

Reprinted with permission of Together Magazine.

Photo credit: jelene (photo 1).

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3 Comments To This Article

  • Dvora posted:

    on 12th September 2012, 15:19:51 - Reply

    There is a difference between being an immigrant and being an expat, although it is hard to define exactly what that difference is. The easiest is to say that immigrants move to find a better life either poliltically or financially, leaving a place that is unacceptable for them. Expats move for adventure or for a different life style, to experience a different culture. Unfortunately most of the British expats I've met here in Spain came here for the good rate of exchange and for the weather.
    For that reason, I've had a hard time making friends with expats. I came to learn the language and participate in a new culture. I find myself alone when I'm with other expats. Then again, I don't quite fit in with the locals either. So I find my expat life a bit lonely, although as you have described, I have no desire to go back to the USA where I am from.
  • Ms Editor posted:

    on 12th September 2012, 12:45:27 - Reply

    There is no "gene" that makes one more likely to expat. That is very irresponsible journalism to just 'make up' a scientism like that (and weirdly just mirrors the 19th century right wing race rhetoric in circulation across europe right now that attaches people to nationalistic identities to the exclusion of any 'birthed' Other.) If you are trying to construct an identity for expats (I wonder if you are trying to 'distinguish' them from migrants? no?) this is a pretty flawed project - politically and scientifically. Politically of course it is just as dubious. Please don't project convenient misstatements of pseudoscience into the public arena like this just because they might make some section of the populace 'feel good'. We have enough trouble dealing with politician's purposeful manipulation of rhetoric on these matters. [Edited by moderator]
  • Sherry Foxcastle posted:

    on 12th September 2012, 11:20:43 - Reply

    Well-written article. Coming to work in Brussels was not the culminsation of a dream, but I don't wanna go back to Swindon, now that I'm retired and used to the comfortable lifestyle and charms of Brussels. House prices in the UK are ridiculous and a big house with garden here would get me a 1-bedroom flat in London in a dirty area. I was amused to read the bit about spending one's time with one's compatriiots abroad. I confess that I do, although my French is good enough for it not to be a barrier for mixing with Belgians. But somehow we have little in common and they tolerate us in a friendly way but don't invite expats home or out... The inherited gene idea is interesting. My father emigrated to London at 17 to study