Home Leave is No Vacation

by Kate Goggin

I’m going home for a visit this summer and the anxiety levels are already rising. How do we visit both sets of grandparents when they live 960 km apart? Where will we stay and how will we get around since we sold our house and shipped our car? And how will we fit in the myriad of doctor’s appointments and commando shopping expeditions?

Contrary to popular belief, home leave is no vacation. We learned this early on during our first posting. We were excited to see our family and friends but we had no idea how stressful it would be to operate in “visitor mode.” Visitor mode is how you felt during college holidays – after a few days you can’t sleep on the lumpy bed, eat the unfamiliar food and observe the “house rules” set in someone else’s house. Now multiply that stress amount by three: that’s how the whole family feels on home leave.

I’ve talked with many expats and their suggestions run from the sublime to the subversive. We understand it was our choice to move to the other side of the world so we feel it’s our obligation to see all those relatives, especially for the sake of the children. Experienced expat, Diane, agrees reconnecting with your family is priority number one. “But why not do it at a central location with lots of fun activities for the kids?” That’s a popular suggestion – fly home and set up your own “home base” at a campground or resort and ask your family members to travel to see you.

Elaine, my expat mentor, takes a different approach. “Don’t tell anyone you are coming home. Then once you are in town call when you want to see them. You’ll be surprised how quickly schedules can work around you when time is limited. If you notify your friends and family three months prior to your visit, everyone has expectations and things get out of control. There’s no way to please everyone, so try to please yourself first.” I haven’t been able to pull that one off so far. It still seems a little too self-centered to me.

Whatever your approach, here are a few tips to help make your landing smooth:

Home Leave Costs Are High. Even if your organization pays for airfare, hotel and car rentals, count on a major blows to your credit cards and bank account. Nix the idea that your employer is paying for a free vacation home because it never turns out that way.

Save Your Receipts. The good news is that the high cost might be offset on your tax returns. Some of your out-of-pocket expenses can be claimed under the category of “additional business expenses.” Most countries allow for home leave deductions in their tax code.

Home Leave Is Exhausting. Plan accordingly. Make time to be alone. One of the most overwhelming problems of home leave is overstimulation – people, products and the hectic pace of life. Get enough sleep and say “no” a lot. This sounds obvious but it’s hard to turn down older relatives who are so excited to see you and your family. Just remind them the family will be less cranky and short tempered if they can overcome jet lag first.

Time Stands Still for Them. Every expat feels this way. It seems their lives stayed exactly the same – job, house, activities, etc. while your life expanded. There’s a disconnect here because they might want you to be the same as before, and you might want them to widen their worldview. There’s no magic answer to bridge the distance but spending quality time together seems to help. Try bringing a little photo album of your daily life with shots of your house, your office and the kids’ school (save the travel shots because they assume that’s all you do anyhow!) I’m a big supporter of activities also. Sometimes sharing a sport, a film or an event is enough to get familiar conversations back on track.

Commando Shopping is Weird Behavior. Family members back home will stand shocked at your desire to purchase peanut butter and taco shells by the case load. They really can’t relate to your sense of deprivation. A near faint in the grocery store aisle will be more fodder for family gossip. Ignore it. Let your brother-in-law tally how much you spent. Just be sure to invite him over here – then he’ll get an idea of how important it is to find well-fitting shoes!

Plan to Visit the Gym upon Return. Eating and drinking are the main sports associated with home leave. Everyone puts on a few pounds. Don’t sweat it, plan for it. Getting back into your routine and back into the gym will help you overcome the end of the excitement.

Short Visits are Best. You will pine for your own bed, your own abode and plain old peace and quiet. This is the reality of home leave. Maybe you spent months fantasizing about all that you’ve missed, but shortly you start to feel your host country isn’t so bad after all. The time away will give you a new perspective about your life and may force you to redefine your concept of “home.”

©2003 Kate Goggin