My biggest piece of advice for an expat or traveler returning home and feeling uneasy about fitting back into the American lifestyle is this:
Head straight to your nearest university town.
Feel completely out-of-place and suffering from reverse culture shock? University towns welcome you. It’s no surprise they are featured in books and placed at the top of lists for young people, families and retirees with excellent schools, a vibrant community and rising property values even during economic crises. And it’s full of out-of-placers, people from all over the country and world. For us, it took two poor location choices and a bumpy re-entry when the sky parted and brought us this realization.
Fellow expats who have come home might recognize the anxiety of choosing where to live the next episode of life. And for those of us with kids who pass on the idea of raising them in the travel lifestyle, and like the idea of building some roots, committing to a school system and a community, it’s not a decision taken lightly.
So, a combination of life events brought us back to the States, and then back to West Coast. And after trying out places that just didn’t feel right or move us in the way we want to be moved, or meet our lofty international expectations, we arrived four years ago to a wonderful university town that I have come to believe can uniquely be so right for the world citizens, lovers of travel, even restless, never-to-be-pleased souls out there (this blogger included). Here are my top three reasons why:
Walkable downtowns with unique, one-of-a-kind shops and access to the arts.
I can complain all I want, but, no, there is no American town that will replicate the Italian piazzas where we spent our Sundays strolling. So once you get over that, you find there are things you won’t compromise with. Cookie-cutter mall concrete complexes (with the Old Navy, Barnes & Noble and World Market) are not going to do it. We want to window shop. We want to sit at a cafe and drink a cappuccino in a cup. See people we know. Ride our bikes. University towns by nature often have vibrant walkable downtowns, art galleries, used book stores, a newstand with a great variety of foreign language magazines, independent movie theaters, a farmers market and a vibrant and progressive community that supports buying local. You also have access to great performance halls, arts and theater - without facing big-city prices of living directly in or near a metropolitan city.
A community with a lot of smart people that places a high value on education.
Educators are curious about the world – they and their students change the world. They settle for a much smaller salary than they would be paid in the private sector. They drive an old 1997 Subaru (like us) and aren’t embarrassed. Their snobbery may come from the number of degrees they hold or publications published, not a fancy car. (If I have to choose which to be surrounded by, I will happily choose the former.)
It’s important to have the ability to laugh at yourself when you live in a university town but not affiliated with the university (my husband and I joke that we bring down the city’s education statistics), but you never need to worry “if there is a doctor in the house.” There will be one. There will be four. Or five. Or fifty. My daughter’s grade level includes children of at least a few dozen. Or you pick up the New York Times and learn that you daughter’s good friend’s father is a world leading so-and-so (you never knew, it never came up.) Or visit one of the many pub trivia nights in town where geeks are cool, and be prepared to be impressed – and slightly intimidated – by the contenders.
An international feel.
In today’s higher education and budget cut environment, international students are being sought after like never before. And in our town, you see it, feel it and hear it. I walk downtown and hear Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean. I go to the grocery store and see the university international groups come in to tour the store and learn about our food. For someone who has thrived on feeling out-of-place in other countries, you form an invisible bond with other out-of-placers (that is, now in a place where you are supposedly home). You smile knowingly as they take photos on their smart phones of food displayed in your market. You’ve been there. Outside, public transportation works and is used. Citywide buses are plenty - in our town, we even have a fleet of double-decker buses shipped from London in the 1970s and still in use today. We are also referred to as the “bike capital” of the U.S., with a huge biking culture and miles of bike paths. In fact, our school district sold its buses years ago, and children are expected to walk or bike to school (or catch a ride from mom or dad). A beautiful UC-owned arboretum is open for the community to enjoy. Our city street planners have placed five roundabouts in our city, and provide information on the city web site describing their environmental and other benefits. You can just close your eyes and you are almost back in Europe (that is until you have a near miss with the unseasoned roundabout driver).
More important, you could have finally found that place that incorporates – not all – but many wonderful aspects you’ve come to love through travel, curiosity and life abroad - and that you can call home, for now. We have.
Roundabout photo credit: wikipedia