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Finding Familiar Foreign: Coming Home From Your Family Sabbatical

Jamie Stambaugh December 2, 2012

You can’t go home again

Leaving home for college or…just life…is a rite of passage. And though you return to it, home is never the same again. Or rather, you can never experience it the same again, because you will never again be the child who experienced it before. When returning home, we may find that it is not, and never was, that place we imagined, but rather a place inside of us that changes as much and as often as we change. Our guest columnist this week, Jamie Stambaugh, explains that sense of finding home in a foreign place, then returning home to find it a foreign place.

Finding Familiar Foreign

by Jamie Stambaugh

Our little family of four returned just seven weeks ago from an amazing family sabbatical in South America. As many do these days, we started a blog to help us keep in touch with loved ones back home and give my mother the routine verification she needed to know that we had not fallen ill or been taken hostage along the way. We named our blog Finding Foreign because that’s what we were so ready and anxious to do—find things and people and places that were foreign to us and dive in!

To explore! Discover! Learn! Grow! Change! Adapt! Live!

Honestly, we were near chomping at the bit for this chance to wrestle with culture shock, believing that on the other side of that struggle would be true insight and untapped joy. We were not wrong on that score. Our sabbatical experience provided all of that and so much more. So. Much. More.

But the ups and downs of anticipated culture shock is not what this article is about.

This article is about the ups and downs of unanticipated culture shock. About how we were culturally blindsided not by leaving, but by coming home. For one, the god of busyness, that measures your worth in hours of exhaustion and declarations of stress, is prevalent in American culture and for some reason really hard not to buy back into, no matter how determined you are to maintain the more fulfilling pace of life you just experienced. Also, the abundance of available Stuff—really cool, useful, fun Stuff—awakens your “wanter muscle” and wrestles with the simplicity you’ve come to know and love. The strangest surprise for me though, in coming back, has been how all the different communities of people I’d held close to my heart as being Sure and Certain and Familiar, when approached in homecoming, revealed themselves to be undeniably…foreign.

First of all, we’d changed. We had ventured so far outside our norm; living in a predominately indigenous community high in the Andes of Ecuador between two towering volcanoes and then devoting two months of time in a remote, dirt-street fishing village on the Caribbean coast of Colombia with cool water and fascinating locals willing to let us into their life. We were scared out of our wits in Bolivia and put all our strengthening relationship skills to work trying to break out of there without breaking down as a family. That unbroken unit then tasted freedom in Buenos Aires, as well as steak and wine and churros filled with dulce de leche. We learned Tango and Polo and watched as the boys’ imaginations exploded with the creation of games and toys that were made with their own hands from their minds’ eyes. We wrestled with language and cultural barriers, talked and laughed with each other more than we ever did at home, and experienced the process of being knit together in utterly unique and particularly binding ways. Travel changes you. Every time.

Secondly, they’d changed. Which was a shock because I had expected to find everyone as completely, Same. To write this out, reading it back to myself right now, of course such an assumption on my part was ridiculous. It’s just that there are days, when you have been in foreign places and situations for a long time, when it is hard not to console yourself, and your children, with the comfort of what it will be like to go home. To go where you know how the grocery store is laid out, where you can speak fluently on any topic that comes up, and, most importantly, where you can be surrounded by people who know you. To stop being an anonymous, clueless minority and just be…known.

Our hometown is small but vibrant, and it has been living its own triumphs and tragedies while we were away: Too little snowfall for the ski area, unprecedented wildfires, businesses closed, businesses opened, babies born, birthdays celebrated, wedding vows taken, and school years finished. The community I knew here has been busy living, and that alters things. Life changes you. Every time.

And so it is okay that we need to get reacquainted a bit now. We are trying to be a new us, sure. But I’d lost sight of the fact that our community is a year newer and changed as well. The pieces don’t automatically fit together, not the same way they did before, and when you think about it, isn’t that the point of going away? Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen when you come back? It sounds so obvious now, but I can’t tell you what a relief this acknowledgment has been for me as I make my way through the flip side of our family sabbatical.

So when there is that slight squinting of the eye or subtle once-over of evaluation during a handshake or after a hug, that is a good sign. It means we recognize each other as familiar and foreign. It means we’ve changed. It means that wherever you are while you’re reading this, you are right smack in the middle of your own adventure and chance for…anything you have ever wanted a chance at.

It means that my plane ticket home was not the expiration date I feared it was for all the things I’ve yet to do and see and hope to become.

It means that right now, you and I, we get to explore, discover, learn, grow, change, adapt, live.

So it turns out that the same is true of reverse culture shock as traveling culture shock. On the other side of the struggle, there really is true insight.

And untapped joy.

 

[Ed. note: Travel has certainly changed Jamie Stambaugh. She and her husband Bo quit their jobs in a Colorado ski town to travel South America for a year with their two young boys. She is now a writer. Their experience is captured on their blog, Finding Foreign. Don’t miss “The Bolivia Incident“.

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About Author

Jamie Stambaugh

From a childhood on a trout farm dotted with family trips to the Cayman Islands, to the high school and college years focusing on music and theater and singing her way with a choir through Europe, to marrying her handsome best friend and trekking with him across Spain and Nicaragua, a constant in Jamie’s life has always been a deep love for all things travel. In between trips, she and her husband live in a small ski town high in the Rocky Mountains where they raise their two rapidly growing boys. Having returned in October 2012 from their first family sabbatical in South America, Jamie now works as a freelance writer—that is, when she’s not directing plays at the local theater, having impromptu dance parties at home, or trying to keep up with her boys on the ski hill. You can read their sabbatical story on their blog, Finding Foreign. View all posts by Jamie Stambaugh →

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