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My definition of a home as an expatriate includes: the architecture, the layout, the light and energy vibes of the house, the neighborhood with its schools , the sport facilities. the shopping, the recreation zones, restaurants, support groups and communities, possibility to work as a spouse, public transportation, commutation time.
Choosing the right home is a crucial piece in the success of an expatriation, yet most of the time expats learn at the last-minute they will relocate to another place, usually they only have one week maybe two to find a home with a relocation company hired by the company. If the new country is too far, like Japan from France, it is rare to have a pre-visit paid by the company so expats usually stay in a business hotel or furnished apartment until they find a suitable home.
All my expat life (20+years) I have followed that pattern every three years on average. Of course the definition of my home changed along the years starting as a young student couple followed by an international double career with no kid (or DINKs), then we became a family of three with my son and I quit the corporate ladder for becoming an entrepreneur while my husband is still climbing at it.
I am going to share some of my experiences about what it means to make “home” abroad for me.
In Japan we have lived in 4 houses at different periods of our lives between 1990 and 2006. Our first expatriation to Japan was in 1990-1991, we were post-Doc students and around 25-year-old. We were outside the “yamanote line” ( the train line in a circle that marks the limits of the center of Tokyo), in a small town called Oimachi. We had a pretty new apartment but with a traditional Japanese room with new tatami mats and futons(beddings used at night but put in closets during the day to make a living room). I still remember the smell of rice straw and reeds, the natural and biodegradable materials that make a tatami.
At that time outside the Yamanote line no English or roman letters were used in the trains or in stores, so we learned survival Japanese pretty fast as it was not an expat area or even a place for international college students. I fall in love with Japan and this tatami smell is part of what made me at home in Japan. This first experience had a tremendous impact on the choices of our other homes in Japan.
Because this first experience was linked with wonderful experiences both about the culture and the Japanese people, we always felt at home in all of our houses and apartments in Tokyo in very different neighborhood such as the vibrant Shibuya or the very calm Komazawa-Daigaku and Shirogane
What we experienced in the USA was very different but still what made me most at home were places where I had strong emotional bonds and feeling good with people around me.
In NYC we had a relatively “big” apartment for Manhattan (3 bedrooms) on 38th street an 1st Avenue. with a tiny kitchen with no table or sun light. It was very noisy all day and night long with car horns, police and ambulance sirens. The fruits and veggies were not very fresh compared to Japan and more expensive. Yet I adored NYC ! I could walk like in Tokyo, no need for car, I was feeling free, arriving in July 2001 expecting my son to be born 1st week of October. I was just enjoying the relocation process without the usual rush to be settled quickly. For some women having a baby makes them seeing everything in pink and I was one of them and even if our apartment was far from being the ideal home, it was my home and I liked it. My baby was delivered in the NYU hospital with great doctors and nurses although it was only 12 days after 9/11. I was blessed to become a mom as that time and felt strongly connected with New Yorkers and other people during this dramatic event.
The second time that we came back to the USA was in Atlanta. At first I hated this place that was not a real city for me where you have to take your car for everything: drive in pharmacy, drive in Starbucks and Mac Donald. It was the first time I did not have time to explore and do my homework to find a house and I regretted it. It was a true culture shock as I thought I already knew how to live in America because I spent 3 years in NYC. I did not like the house I chose although I had one week to find it with a relocation agent. I did not feel safe in this house because I had a wooden backyard, and my husband was travelling often. The heating system broke in the winter and we could not find a good handyman to fix some other stuff that were not working. I look at my new house in Atlanta with all negative filters, it was a big one but with an empty heart !
Hopefully we had a happy end like in most American movies. After 6 months, we moved to a small community of 30 houses with very nice people in Buckhead and I really loved it. It felt home because it was only 15 min drive to the school, the sport club, 5 minutes to shopping mall. I had time to make friends at the International school and I started studying how to become a professional coach and registered my coaching business Zest and Zen International there and got some clients before moving to Brussels.
Reference: At Home Abroad:How Design and Architecture Influence Overseas Living: http://www.interchangeinstitute.org/files/At_Home_Abroad_final.pdf