Posted in cross-cultural, Spirituality

When Those Roots Break All Over Again

It was a year on from that roller coaster season of good-byes and packing and planning and crying and dreaming… Most of you know the craziness that is a major transition. After 15 years in the same city, my roots were deep. And pulling them up was hard.

Still – I had survived and even made it through the first year back in my passport country. My team needed (and offered!) a lot of grace and patience to put up with me. We had bonded over cultural mistakes and frustrations – and lots of coffee and pastries!


I was doing well. Or so I thought. Then June hit and those dreaded good-byes started again. Only this time, I was not the one leaving. I was staying when most of my team, most of the people I had done life with for the past year, came to the end of their time in this city. I was so not prepared for this. I was still recovering from the previous season of good-byes. I had started putting down small, fragile roots over this past year. They had become intertwined with those of the people around me. With them leaving, I found myself almost ripped loose again. Roots were broken. I was all alone in my little patch of ground.


Well, not quite, I wasn’t. Some people were still there. People who had been here a little longer, who were able to give me a bit of stability. And so I continued on. At first reluctant to allow the newbies to get close but with time, having enough of a network around me that the constant goodbyes became (a bit) more bearable. Even if they do still suck.


Here is what I’ve learned over the years. Not all goodbyes are created equal.


Leaving is hard. Saying goodbye to people and places that will forever be part of your heart and life is tough. Yet somehow, you build up to it, you have people cheering for you, and so you get through. My big transitions have all been by choice. A season came to an end. I have never had to leave (be it for medical, financial, security or other reasons). Oh my heart goes out to everyone who has experienced that. So many more layers to thpse goodbyes. I am keenly aware that’s a story for someone else to tell.


Few of us are prepared for the ongoing goodbyes that come with living in any kind of international context. Yet for many of us, they are so much part and parcel of life. The amazing gift of new people coming into our lives, and the sadness of friends leaving. So with time, we become good at doing goodbyes well. We help with the packing, cleaning, painting. We babysit. We express gratitude and appreciation. We have some of the “hard but necessary” conversations. And we stay.


In case you’re wondering – no, it doesn’t work that perfectly in my world either. But we learn, we grow. And we do get better at this, those of us who are stayers.


Ok, let’s get back to those “first time stayers”. Hearts still a little bit fragile from the big transition they’re starting to emerge from, they’re in a unique place. So many firsts in these x number of months! This “end of school year and lots of goodbyes” season is another one of those firsts.


If you’re in that place, can I give you a (virtual) hug? It’s hard! Please don’t give up! Please don’t let your heart be hardened, even if it does feel safer! Look around you and see who is still there. Have the courage to keep engaging in these remaining relationships. Allow yourself to feel the pain that comes with this season but equally allow yourself to look ahead, to find things to look forward to. Learn to hold the two in tension.


For those of us who have done this staying thing a little bit longer, let us extend extra amounts of grace to those whose fragile roots are getting damaged and broken all over again. Let us encourage their hearts and let us be grateful for the blessing that their newness to this is to us. Let us cry with them, keeping our own hearts soft.


And for all of us, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Let us receive God’s compassion and comfort, with the readiness to share it with others.



How have you experienced the different kinds of good-byes? Do you have any tips on supporting “first time stayers” well?


This post has been linked to Velvet Ashes, an encouraging site for women serving cross-culturally.


Photo by Renee Fisher on Unsplash

Posted in Art, Culture


10310657_650801698303093_5095080523172767115_n(Sculpture by Bruno Catalano)


(Welsh, noun) A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

Sculptures don’t often “speak” to me.  I’m more of a words kind of girl…  Yet when I saw these pictures, they didn’t just speak, they struck a very deep chord. Suitcase in hand, off to new horizons.  Somehow I don’t think he is off on his summer holidays.  This looks more serious.  Maybe he is emigrating, all his possesions in one suitcase.  Unlike me, shipping boxes and boxes full of stuff from my old home to the new one.

Either way, the travelling, the good-byes have left their mark.  He leaves part of himself behind.  The people, the places, that made that season of his life special. He can take his memories with him but there will always be the aching, the longing, the hiraeth.

“A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return”.  These days, travel is easy. Many of us are able to return to the places we have left behind.  Those are special times. And yet…  It is never truly returning home. Places change, people leave or pass away, we ourselves change.  Relationships will never be the same again.

In the leaving, there is great excitement and hope. There is also the first inkling of hiraeth, of leaving behind a part of yourself that can never be retrieved. So often the joy and the richness of discovering a new place, new relationships, and the painful longing for the old, “for the lost places of your past”, go hand in hand.

Refugees, emigrants of old, people who know, who knew, that a physical return will be nigh on impossible – how much more deeply must they feel, have felt that “hiraeth”.

Hiraeth bears considerable similarities with the Portuguese concept of saudade (a key theme in Fado music), Galician morriña and Romanian dor (

For a beautiful piece on “saudade” look here:

Another post inpired by these scupltures (and a bit more information about the artist):

This is where I first came across the sculptures and the quote:


Posted in Uncategorized

Love at first – actually, make that last – sight


It’s nearly midnight but still warm.  It feels like the whole city is out on the streets, celebrating.  Groups of people everywhere.  Laughing, chatting, drinking.  Kids running around.  Sometimes I hear music, usually the sound of an accordion, and people would be dancing to it.  Out on the street.

We came into town to watch the fireworks and now it’s time to head home.   For us and for thousands of other people.  Yet the city has not put on any additional trams or buses.  After a brief moment of thinking “Isn’t that typical – why doesn’t anything ever work here?” (but not saying it, as I don’t want to offend my local friend) we decide that trying to walk home is preferable to waiting for hours for a tram.  And so we start walking.

I have never seen the city like this!  There is a sense of fun and enjoyment that you don’t normally see in public.  The reserved, the suspicious people are showing their lighter side.

This is my last evening here before I leave the country and start building a life in a whole new place.  It’s been a tough year.  Many many times I’ve just wanted to pack up and leave.  The language, the climate, the team dynamics – all seemed to conspire to make things difficult. All seemed to be bringing to the surface lots of things in my attitudes and in my character that I would have quite liked to stay buried.  At times, it was only my stubbornness that stopped me packing my bags.  Love at first sight it definitely was not.

But on this night, as we spend a couple of hours walking across town, I am genuinely enjoying it.  It strikes me what an amazing gift that is.

To have this evening of seeing and enjoying so much of what is good about this country.  The warmth that is so often hidden behind a harsh façade.  The tremendous hospitality  (my friend lets me stay over in her very small dorm room, as walking home by myself would not be a good idea).  Their love for their country, even though it is not an easy place to live, at this time of great change and uncertainty.

It might not have been love at first sight but I know a part of my heart will forever be in this place.

Love at first last sight

Posted in Art, Culture


171a9734a9He is there, yet not quite.  Part of the town, yet apart.  Floating.  Luftmenschen, people of the air.  Art depicting what words sometimes struggle to express.

Marc Chagall describing his experience of growing up in a Jewish Schtetl in eastern Europe (now Belarus).  The search for stability, the desire to belong. Yet knowing it could all be over in an instant.  Always expecting to be chased away again, ready to run.

That time and place is gone, the experience is not.  Millions of people live like this.

Some, like me, by choice.  Deciding that the treasure to be gained by leaving home, by planting yourself in another place, another country, outweighs the cost of giving up those deep roots.   At our best, we belong anywhere and everywhere.  At our worst, we feel like Luftmenschen, always floating, never quite landing.

Others never get to make that choice, life chooses for them.  War, persecution, economic hardship drive them from their homes.  They live the life of a refugee, always waiting to go back, grieving what they have lost.  Some choosing to put down roots in the new place.  And yet a part of them left behind in the old place.

A way of life, a state of heart so beautifully expressed in this image.

“Mit seinem über der Stadt schwebenden Mann hat Chagall ein Motiv ins Bild gebracht, das in vielerlei Hinsicht als zentrale Metapher der jüdischen Existenz in der Moderne gelten kann: die „Luftmenschen“, die mittellosen Bewohner der Schtetl Osteuropas, die von Gelegenheitsarbeiten mehr schlecht als recht lebten, in ihrer Region nicht verwurzelt und beständig von Verfolgung und Vertreibung bedroht waren. Der Begriff „Luftmensch“ geht auf die zeitgenössische jiddische Literatur zurück, auf Mendele Moicher Sforim und Scholem Alejchem, und diente zunächst der ironischen Selbstbeschreibung, wurde aber im 20. Jahrhundert zum antisemitischen Stereotyp der Wurzellosigkeit gewandelt. Chagalls Luftmensch hält einen Wanderstab in der rechten Hand, auf dem Rücken drückt ihn ein großer Sack mit seiner ganzen Habe, ein Sinnbild für die historische Wanderschaft des jüdischen Volkes. Das Motiv spielt auf Redewendungen an wie „jeder trägt sein Päckchen“ oder „man geht über die Häuser“ – im Jiddischen ein Ausdruck für das Hausieren. In seiner Schwerelosigkeit wie in seiner Dimension schiebt sich der Schwebende als surreales Moment über die realistische Straßenszene von Witebsk. Chagall hat den Blick aus dem Fenster des Hauses gemalt, in dem er nach seiner Rückkehr aus Paris 1914 ein Zimmer gemietet hatte. Rechts im Bild zeigt er die markante Ilja-Kirche mit dem grünen Lattenzaun zwischen gemauerten Sockeln. Das Motiv des schwebenden Wanderers setzte Chagall mehrfach in Variationen um. Dabei identifizierte er sich oft selbst mit dem heimatlosen Wanderer. Schon im Epilog seiner autobiographischen Aufzeichnungen schrieb er: „Hängen wir denn nicht tatsächlich in der Luft, leiden wir nicht an einer einzigen Krankheit: der Sucht nach Stabilität?“ ” (
Posted in Weekend Chat

Weekend Chat 7 April 2013

215561_10150156966756445_7044587_nGrab a cup of coffee, find a comfy seat and discover some my favourite blog posts, films, etc from this past week.

Things to read

“He contrasts prescriptive cultures, where “social forms generate appropriate acts”, with performative cultures, where “appropriate kinds of actions create social forms”.  Intrigued?  I was!  Read here about how this concept helped Kate King understand more about her life in Papua New Guinea!

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas.  Absolutely fascinating read.  I learned so much not just about Bonhoeffer as a person, but also about the times and the context.  It’s long but so worth it!


Posted in Uncategorized

Home, sweet – what?

I can’t quite remember how many years into my cross-cultural life I realised I no longer knew where I belonged.  The first 19 years of my life were spent in one city (Hamburg, Germany) but since then, I have moved around quite a bit: UK, France, back to Germany, Russia and then 15 years in the UK.  Somewhere in there I realised the word home had lost its meaning.  Or maybe it had gained additional meaning.  There was “home” in the sense of a place that had shaped me and that held childhood memories.  But “home” as a place where my deepest relationships were, where I understood the cultural cues, and knew how to relate – that was a different place.  There was definitely pain involved in realising I had lost something many people take for granted.  At the same time, there was SO MUCH I had gained by living cross-culturally, that there was no way I would want to change anything.  The price was real, but it was definitely worth paying!

If nothing else (and there are lots of other things!), it has helped me gain a much deeper understanding of some of my favourite verses in the Bible (from Hebrews 11):

“They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country.”

A year ago, I moved to Berlin and am discovering that re-entry adds a whole other angle to the idea of “home”!  But that is a story for another day…