These people. I can’t even-

My host family in Kentucky and their friends, neighbors and extended family are the kindest people I have ever met. Good-hearted to the core, forgiving, accepting, loyal – and they give and give and give, without ever expecting anything in return. There’s 7.000 kilometers of ocean and other countries between them and myself. It’s been five years since I saw them last. Sometimes I forget how much they mean to me, and how huge an influence they’ve had on who I am today. Sometimes it feels like everything I do in life is just to distract me from how much I miss them and how much I want to go back.

You gain and you lose

As you know by now I’m a huge fan not only of Sweden itself but of the work they do to represent their country to the world online, be it through the Curators of Sweden project, their Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeting away, their wonderfully personal Facebook page, or the collection of blogs organized by the Swedish Institute that lets Swedes, expats, exchange students and others blog about their experience in Sweden.

I stumbled upon the latter only recently, and one entry from last year by the American student Ben Mack who studied at Linnaeus University in Växjö really hit a sweet spot. (Linnaeus University is a school where I’d like to study just for its namesake, by the way: Carl Linnaeus was the inventor of binominal nomenclature, of course, bringing law and order to the formerly utterly chaotic sciences of botany and biology. He was the first Swede I ever fell in love with, I think, back during my second semester at uni in Maastricht. I could read books about this dude. I have. But I digress.)

Ben Mack from Oregon spent a year at Linnaeus University in Växjö. Then he had to go back home, and it sucked, and he wrote about it, and I would like to share with you some thoughts from that blog post (in case you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing) because he is dead-on about describing what that goodbye feels like. When you live in a foreign country for a certain (limited) amount of time, you can fall in love fast and hard. The grass is greener here, and the only regret you have is that you didn’t come sooner. You are exhilarated because it feels like you found a second home, only to realize upon your departure that – somewhere between discovering what else is out there and seeing your native country from a different perspective and leaving a piece of you behind in the new place – you no longer feel truly at home back home. Leaving again is the most difficult part about spending time abroad.

As Ben puts it:
“I’m already dealing with reverse culture shock. Let me tell you: integrating back into the culture of your home country is much harder than assimilating into [a new] culture. That’s what no one can prepare you for, what no study abroad advisor can tell you: that sometimes you don’t want to go back, and when you do it can be almost overwhelming. (…) The journey was over, [my life] had been forever changed, and no one else would ever understand. (…) Studying abroad is not merely a physical journey – it is also an academic, cultural, emotional, and spiritual journey.

———-

I spent 11 months in the US (at 15/16) and 6 months in Sweden (in 2010). I have never cried as much as I did when I left those places. I don’t mean teary-eyed goodbyes at the airport. I’m talking about heavy sobbing and ugly crying not only on the plane but for days and days after, holed up in my old room, not knowing who I was anymore, being sure only of one thing: that I couldn’t stay. I needed to go back, or somewhere else entirely, but I couldn’t stay. And that feeling doesn’t leave. You are changed forever and you learn to live with it, you are grateful because you are a richer person for the experience – but you are uprooted, restless, and hungry for more, and you actually lose the one thing you thought you’d gained: a place where you belong.

Remember the days when you made spaghetti Alfredo in the neighbors’ kitchen, inspired by that one night at Johnny Carino’s, and you were all burned from the merciless Kentucky sun and exhausted from that impossible humidity, and air conditioning seemed like magic; dry grass sticking to your legs, your exotic new friend from Norway talking about things you had never heard of, the quiet hum of the ceiling fan, Friends reruns all afternoon; no concept of anxiety or worry – and life seemed infinite and solid yet so, so light?

No? Good for you.