When I was nine I had to say goodbye to my best friend because she had to leave Oman, where we’d spent two years playing, swimming and exploring the idyllic paradise by the sea. Little did we know that we wouldn’t be seeing each other until twenty years later. We wrote to each other, of course – in the pre-internet days, this meant actual hand-written letters, that filled a red suitcase I have kept in the cellar over the years – but the weekly letters turned to Christmas cards and at one point even those became scarce. As we got older, we occasionally chatted on the phone and then one day, as chance would have it, we found ourselves in Cornwall at the same time and we arranged to meet. It was very exciting to see her again in person after all those years. And she was still as funny as ever.
“You haven’t changed a bit!” was the first thing she said to me.
Rather nice having friends like that, who recognise you even after so much time has passed. We had so much to say and in fact it felt like home. Which, granted, might sound strange but being with someone that meant so much to you and who knew you so well even if it was all that time ago, or perhaps because of it, meant that there was no putting on any pretences – there’s no fooling a past impression! And then she said something that truly struck me.
“I hated all that moving around,” she said.
I was shocked. My entire life I’d travelled and I’d loved it. It was a part of me, it defined who I was. How could she say that and mean it? I wanted to know more, understand her as this wasn’t how I remembered her, laughing and poking at a stray Portuguese Man o’ War from a dangerously close position perched on some rocks.
“No,” she said, “I’m not joking, I really hated always having to pack up and say goodbye to my friends and start again in a new place, I couldn’t wait to settle down.”
Wow, it took me a while to let those thoughts settle but I’m not sure they ever did. It’s something I found impossible, I don’t think it had ever occurred to me to hate the moving. Yes, of course it was difficult and sad to say goodbye to friends but then there was always the prospect of new friends and anyway, you could always keep in touch, it’s not like you’d never see each other again! Then there was the excitement of seeing new places. I got to see oases with tall date trees and bubbling water that came out of nowhere after hours of bumpy Land Rover trips across sandy desert roads. We saw real cave drawings no-one had officially registered before and found arrowhead tools from the Stone Age. I got to learn Dutch and practically live on a bike plus find out all about bullfights and flamenco and I got to fly with a Jumbo Jet. But still, she insisted that she had become tired of all the moving and goodbyes and all she had wanted was to return to Britain and settle down.
I decided to ask my sisters how they felt about the life we’d had. They both agreed that they’d found the moving hard and for one of my sisters it was important to stay in one place. In her case it was Switzerland, which, as you know, is where I ended up too. However, I have to say that I have always felt the tug of my past and with it the desire to move, to travel. To this day, I feel I’m not really happy with this sedentary life, to the point that when my kids were little I met mostly expats, because I felt understood and accepted. I even started looking at international schools for the kids. The first time I set foot in one I felt like I was coming home and I knew I wanted my kids to go to school there, not least because they could begin two years earlier than at a local school. However, my partner didn’t quite see it my way.
“Why send them to an expensive private school when we have perfectly good local Swiss schools?” He said, “after all they are Swiss!”
I was dumbfounded. But then I realised he was right. They are Swiss, and even though I speak English to them mostly, and they are very fluent, it’s not really their mother tongue, in fact I didn’t even know what to call their relationship to the English language, there’s no word for it as far as I know. I realised I was loading my world onto them, my past, my memories. And that this had nothing to do with them.
So how was I to pass this passion onto them without actually being able to live it? A passion that I felt had been passed on to me by my Grandfather, whom sadly, I never met but who had planned to start a new life in the States at a time when travelling wasn’t as easy. How I admired his passion for people and for travelling. Then I realised it’s in the tales. They begged to hear my travel stories of when I was young. Maybe my past would influence a part of their future. Perhaps this is the reason that they are so interested in seeing other countries and always ask to travel during the holidays, because they want to see what they’ve been told about. And when we travel they actually compare it with what I’ve told them – they remember!
I have often felt guilty about the fact that I haven’t been able to give my children the amazing childhood I experienced and also upset that living other cultures hasn’t been a part of their upbringing. However, when I see their natural inquisitiveness combined with what they’ve heard from my past, I realise it’s not just what they experience first hand that influences them but also what touches their imagination. Don’t we all have a favourite tale from our childhood that hugely influenced who we became? A passionately told tale about a faraway life that is not a fairytale but actually happened, might that not be enough to tickle a sense for adventure, or an innate urge to understand their heritage or as in our case, in wanting to understand and experience what they’ve been told that will move them on? I’m sure their future will be informed with this sense for exploring and interest in understanding all things new, of course we cannot look into the future but I am excited to see where it takes them! In fact my fourteen-year-old daughter has decided she wants to study in the UK when she’s older. And our son is looking at exchange programmes in the U.S. or Canada.
By Karin Mohler
Karin is a former expat, having settled down in her native Switzerland after a childhood abroad. She is challenged daily with balancing the peculiarities she picked up on her travels and integrating them into daily life in what is supposed to be her homeland. Her three children aged 15, 13 and 9 help her bridge the gap in understanding the culture she is now living in. Failing that, she gains insight and inspiration from the book: Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, by D. C. Pollock and R. v. Reken (2009).
Illustration by Laura Munteanu
Laura studied journalism and advertising, and has worked as a journalist and an illustrator. She has illustrated for magazines, websites, charities and diverse campaigns. She lives in Zurich with her husband and nine-year-old daughter.