Home visits. Almost every expat looks forward to home visits, and almost every expat fears them, even more so when they have kids. Travelling with jetlagged children and living out of suitcases for weeks do not generally rate high anybody's list of favorite things to do. Home visits add an extra twist, though.
I asked my expat friends what they hate most about home visits. Everyone of them answered that they found most annoying how all the relatives and friends claim a piece of you. Since you're the one "on vacation", everyone expects you to visit them, spend time with them, and pay attention to them. You end up with an agenda that would make the busiest executive faint.
And who has all their relatives conveniently in one place? Ours are scattered among two continents, and in the US in five or so states. So we're spending a lot of time in transit, on trains going to New York and Connecticut, or on planes going to Florida. Hauling your tired, jet-lagged, cranky kids from a train onto a platform where you're waiting until a redcap shows up to help you with your mountain of luggage drains a lot of energy. I'm snapping at my kids and husband a lot more during these trips -- which adds an additional layer of guilt, and more stress.
Since flying across time zones to visit your passport country takes a lot of ressources (energy, money, and vacation days), and all of those are precious, you are tempted to limit your spending. So you end up cramping visits to all possible relatives and friends into 10 days or less in order to save vacation days, plus sleeping over at relatives' and friends' houses to save money. Bad idea.
You don't know how noisy your jetlagged kid is at two o'clock in the morning until you try to keep him quiet in order not to raise the rest of the house. We've done all sorts of desperate things, like driving around for hours in the night, waiting for some damn breakfast place to open, or pushing strollers in below freezing temperatures while mumbling the age-old mantra "just sleep, damn it, just sleep!"
You are trying to be a good guest while maintaining your own plans and adjusting to the third or fourth set of house rules and daily routines on this particular trip.
Did you know that no two people on this planet load their dishwasher the same way? It's true, believe me. Some rinse, some don't. Some put pots and pans in, some don't. Some run two cycles, one for delicates and one for sturdy stuff, some pack everything together. Some put chopping knives into the machine, some don't. Chopping boards - yes or no? We've scorched baby bottles and nipples because we didn't know the cycle was too hot for plastics.
People will have the strangest hang-ups. Some don't like you to use their phone for long-distance calls, even if you offer to pay the bill when it arrives. Some are really peculiar about receiving packages for you at their homes. A friend of mine ended up shlepping her laundry to the laundromat every second day because her mother-in-law objected to her mass of laundry. With two kids and a limited amount of clothes, laundry is a daily essential. We don't ever stay at places where we can't wash our clothes.
Then there are the meal rules. Some regard a sit-down lunch as essential, others don't talk to you anymore when you don't appear in time for the five o'clock dinner. Some will leave you leftovers, some won't include you in the meals at all. Some people have coffee, some don't. Some have only soy milk, so you better go shopping for your own supplies. I hate soy ice cream, I really do. When I'm in the States, give me Ben & Jerry's, and lots of it.
This all costs a lot of energy. You want to please everyone but in the end, you're just exhausted. You feel stressed, tired, worn out. Then you have to explain why you were late for dinner and didn't call ahead.
My friend A. has solved this problem perfectly. She and her husband bought a house in a fancy vacation resort. This is where they spend their home visits. Every family member and friend is invited to come and visit them, and since it's on the sea shore and a nice place, everybody loves to come. No hassle with all the travelling, you're in your own place with your own rules, and you can enjoy your guests and your visit. I asked Doug whether we could do the same. He said I would need to win the lottery first. I'm working on it. (In the meantime I prefer to stay at my friend Natalie's house who is the most uncomplicated host I've ever encountered.)
Anyway. At the end of the trip comes another challenge: you have to pack up your shopping and all the presents in a deceiving way. Those carry-ons? Nothing essential in there, just all the heavy books -- this makes the suitcases a little lighter. A little. The cheerios are in sturdy boxes, the maple syrup in plastic canisters, the electronics hidden away in ingenious ways. You make really begging eyes at the check-in counter and place your sweetly smiling toddler on the counter. You hope that the booster seat will be allowed as additional luggage but not count towards your six pieces. And that she'll block the seat next to you for your under-two-year-old without a seat. And then, on the long flight back to your country of residence, after weeks of stress and little sleep, your kids decide to get sick. right. now.
So why do we do these home visits, you may ask yourself?
Well, because we miss our home countries. Because we miss our relatives and friends (and since they don't come to visit, we have to go). Because some of our relatives are getting older and older, and more frail, and we want them to see the kids as much as possible. Because we want to buy cheerios and eat good Thai food and hang out in book shops for hours. Because we want to walk our feet hot and stinky in Dupont Circle and look at our old place on New Hampshire Avenue, reminiscing about good old times. (Because I have to for green card reasons.) Because it's where our roots are. We will always return.
But, when we finally get out of that taxi from the airport, and open up our front door, when we step into our house and dump the luggage, when the kids immediately recover and pull out all their toys, we breathe a deep sigh of relief. We look at each other, and we realize - we're finally back home.
And we desperately need a vacation.