I’ve been living abroad on and off for the past 15 years and I get homesick from time to time. It’s weird when it comes, it could come when I’m in England and some guy in a tie takes a bite of a potato skin with sour cream and says with a baffled look, “Oh, that’s quite nice.” It could come in Italy when someone tells me a story about getting the flu after eating some watermelon while sitting in front of a fan on a really hot day. It even happens when I go back home to New York and someone puts a bottle of milk on the dinner table.
Homesickness comes when you feel like an alien and you’ve landed in a fog-filled town. You need a signpost, a familiarity, something to make you feel like you’ve touched the ground. Someone to meet your eyes when no one else gets your joke. Those periods of isolation and loneliness are going to happen wherever you are, so here are some ways to deal with it.
1. Go to McDonalds.
When I first moved to Rome, I’d go there once or twice a month, sometimes even more than once a week if things were really bad.
Aside from it being recognizable food no matter where you are, it’s a big fuck-you to Italian cuisine and the rules of eating. I mean, I love Italian rituals and the only time I’d drink a cappuccino in the afternoon is if I woke up at noon, but sometimes, when you’re living in a different country and it feels like all of your memories and likes and desires are being questioned and supressed from the people and the culture around you, it feels good to give them all a middle finger by putting something greasy and familiar into your stomach.
2. Listen to a podcast, radio station from back home or watch a movie or tv show.
God, it feels so good to listen to a familiar voice and being able to get the cultural references. On one particular bad day when I felt like I was on the verge a panic-attack induced by loneliness and I watched The Hangover for the first time and I laughed and laughed and laughed the panic demons away. It was like the screen was giving my face a high-five.
3. Pick a bar and have a coffee there everyday.
This helps a lot if you do it right away, as soon as you arrive in your city or town. There are so many things to see and do, but starting the day with a coffee at the bar in your neighbourhood makes you a familiar site. You may not become friends with the barrista (one time I got called a bambina because I ordered a cup of steamed milk), but a nod from him when you walk in and say Buon giorno makes a difference. You want to feel known, you want to feel like you’re a part of the city vibes.
4. Take a class.
If you don’t know the language, take a language class. And if you speak allright, then do something you like. A class gives you a routine, something to look forward to, and it also forces you to talk to other people, especially if you’re shy. I took a pizzica class (folk dancing from Puglia) in Rome, I wasn’t very good, but I got to go to a lot of parties where they organised music and folk dancing. It also let me dance in the piazza in San Lorenzo when the sinistrosi started to play music.
5. Make your home/room pretty.
Build your nest. It’s yours. It’s where you sleep, work and dream. And it makes you go out and hunt for things. And those things that you buy will have memories. And that dreamlife that’s in your head you will start to see around you at home. Plants, drawings, postcards and letters from friends back home, photographs, books, rocks, etc.
6. Go to an ex-pat meetup or to an american bar or pub.
I get it. You want to fully immerse yourself in the culture. You want to make friends with the locals and you’re afraid to surround yourself around too many Americans or Brits or whatevers. I thought that, too. But it takes time to make friends and even if you have one or two or a boyfriend or girlfriend, every now and then, it’s nice to branch out. And ex-pat groups have a lot of Italians. And they’re all generally curious of one another.
I’m not into sports bars or pubs, but every now and then I’d like to go to one in Italy, especially by myself. Just because it was different and familiar at the same time.
7. Invite people to eat with you.
If you have housemates that keep to themselves or if you’re the type that keeps to themselves, prepare extra food and on a whim ask them if they want some, too. I bet they’ll yes and you’ll have some company. If you can’t do that, then go to some restaurant that has a lot of tourists and start talking to the table next to you. Drink a lot of wine. It helps. And it’ll feel good to talk to strangers. I love eating with other people.
8. Write and take pictures.
Document what you see and hear. Record it all. It’ll help pull yourself out of the sad feelings and bring you into the moment.
9. Let yourself feel sad.
Finally, don’t fight it. We all know you’re doing this because you want to be there. But it’s also hard and no one’s judging you. So have a good cry and call a friend.