23 March 2012

Nostalgia, medically speaking

Yesterday the International Herald Tribune/New York Times published an article about the malady known medically as “nostalgia” — homesickness — written by Sandra J. Matt. She's a university professor in Utah who has published a book titled Homesickness: An American History. According to Matt, people who leave their home countries to work and live as immigrants elsewhere suffer unusually high rates of depression and anxiety. She writes:
“...many people who leave home in search of better prospects end up feeling displaced and depressed. Few speak openly of the substantial pain of leaving home.[...] explicit discussions of homesickness are rare, for the emotion is typically regarded as an embarrassing impediment to individual progress and prosperity. This silence makes mobility appear deceptively easy.”
Vierzon, ville d'eau

People have been migrating, emigrating, and immigrating for centuries, of course, but modern transportation and communications make it easier for people to act on the desire to change countries than it used to be. Jobs are more plentiful and better paid in some countries compared to others. In the case of many of us who have chosen to live in France, a range of factors — better weather, better food, less traffic, more peace and quiet, and a lower cost of living, among others — have motivated both retired and working people to uproot themselves. We didn't move out of necessity, but because we just thought we'd try it.

The view from our “front porch” yesterday afternoon

Sandra Matt writes that for some emigrants, improved international communications via telephone and the Internet might actually heighten feelings of displacement and homesickness. In the past, it was much harder to stay in touch with family and friends in the country you'd left behind. Now, we can stay in such regular and close contact that it might be harder to make the break and distance ourselves from the life we used to live. We're constant reminded of what we're missing.

If you're an American living in France, a sort of homesickness
might motivate you to cook and eat a sandwich like this one.

In past waves of migration — I'm thinking of the millions of Europeans who crossed the Atlantic in the 19th and 20th centuries to settle in North America — the emigrants didn't have much of a choice. They couldn't easily return to their native countries and families, for economic or political reasons. Now, Matt says, 20 to 40 percent of all immigrants to the United States ultimately return to their home countries.

The church in Vierzon

Language is an issue that Sandra Matt doesn't address in her New York Times article. How much of the homesickness and anxiety that emigrants suffer from comes from living in an environment where their native language is a foreign language? As an American, moving from the U.S. East Coast — North Carolina — to live and work in California, for example, was in many ways as big a move as coming to live in France. The main difference was that in California, I could speak English (though maybe with a different accent).

Many of you who read this blog have left English-speaking countries to come live in France. Many of you have also had the experience of leaving one English-speaking country to live in another country where English was the spoken language. How different is that experience?

You can read Sandra Matt's article here, but you might have to create an account and sign in to get to it.


  1. Obviously all emigrants miss their families, but I'd be curious to know what you both miss about the US. I think it would make an interesting post.

  2. That would be a short post, Andrew. I love going to the U.S. for visits — it's so comfortable there. But specific things I miss I find hard to think of.

  3. I don't miss the UK at all. I miss aspects of city living and the cost of things drives me mental when you compare them with Germany or England, but I consider myself profoundly lucky to have such beautiful architecture, amazing weather and wonderful aspects of village life. If anything, the UK made me depressed because of the way my life was there.

  4. I don't want to sound too depressing but... after a couple of our fellow expats have died here in France (leaving spouses) and were of the older generation like us, I have started to think a little more of what it might be like to be old/ill in foreign parts. Perhaps it's as bad everywhere.

  5. There are times I have been homesick for family, but easier communication and, finally, death, has taken care of that. I still have a brother in the States and we call each other occasionally.
    I have missed food items, but most of what I missed is now available here if I really want it. I learned substitute ingredients. And, lots of it was junk food (Tastycake cupcakes) that I simply no longer miss.
    I have grown much closer to the American community here than I ever could have imagined even 10 years ago. Starts out having shared problems (taxes, for example) and then just making friends. Via these associations and your blog, for example, after many years, it's nice to have people I can speak English with.

  6. Apparently missing family members is the most likely reason for English people to move back to the UK after living in France for a few years.
    I think the ease of communication is probably a strong factor in this. It's hard to stay in France if children or parents have problems back in the UK that they need help with, especially if they are constantly emailing or phoning about it !!
    Apparently women are more likely to initiate the move back than men and many couples actually split up because of it - one moving back and one staying in France. That's what happened to friends of ours. It was traumatic for them but they both have new lives now and are happy again.

    There are of course lots of other reasons that people move back such as money problems and difficulty integrating. All things we need to think about so we can avoid the pitfalls if/when we decide to take the plunge ourselves.

  7. I just read Ms. Matt’s article and I must say I wasn’t really impressed. Maybe I read it too fast, but I think it is very superficial.

    I’m probably an exception, but I never felt depressed or nostalgic about my move from France to the U.S.
    I had no special family ties, and if I left very dear old French speaking friends in France, I found very dear old French speaking friends in the U.S. For me, my move was more like a geographical one than an affective one.

    If everything goes according to plans, I’ll end up back in France for convenience, just as she says. LOL

    I'll tell you then if I feel nostalgic! Probably not.

  8. No nostalgia here. Maybe that is because I have been in the US for so long and I work in an industry where I know thousands of people. I am not sure where I will end up.
    I can go back to France to visit anytime I want. My family comes to visit when they want to. I am grateful for so many things in my life compare to others, I am happy and hope I would be happy wherever I am. (I haven't read the article yet but will this weekend).

  9. The most obvious things I'd miss would be friends and family, as well as the beautiful area I live in. But I realized a few years ago that what would be hard for me personally is not to be able to get books, actual hold-in-your-hand books on paper, in English. I'll never be able to read in French the way I can read in my own language.

  10. Carolyn, that's a good point. I read French, but I'll never be able to read French for pleasure the way I can read English for pleasure. Movies are different -- though there's nothing like a good movie in American English that I can just sink into, kind of mindlessly.

    CHM, your situation in Washington was fascinating, as was mine for the 4 years I lived and worked there — living in English and working (and therefore living 8 hours a day) in French. Very few people ever have that experience.

  11. I've wondered about this from your perspective (you, all of you expats who read or write Ken's blog). I love so many things about France, but I admit that I'd prefer being able to spend a few months at a time, and come back... I just remember always feeling like an outsider when I was there. Perhaps that would lessen if I had a full life with family and friends there.

    I'd say that many people I see who have emigrated to France from the U.S. seem to be people whose families moved around a good number of times as they were growing up. It seems like that's a good thing to help people feel less frightened of change. On the other hand, I do feel envious of people I know here who live near all of their family members and can have big family get-togethers for holidays. I miss my sisters who live on the east coast.


  12. Ken, on a completely unrelated topic, I was wondering if you might have a whim to write a post about how you go from lawn to vegetable patch -- I don't know quite how to begin making the little tomato patch I want, which is in an area all covered with grass, weeds, and a few odd plantings left over from the previous owners. Does one need to get all of the grass and weed layer off, and discard it? Or can you till it all back into the soil? What kind of top soil do you then add? I remember you mentioning about things you've learned to mix in to your soil, but I'd be curious how you start from step one in transforming lawn to vegetable patch. :))

  13. Joan Rivers says the key to happinness is having a very close family...that lives thousands of miles away.

    I can't imagine there is much I would miss from the US if I moved to France...certainly not the health care system. When I lived in Montreal, I missed the convenience of US stores being open 24 hours and on Sundays, but that was about it. Loved everything else.

    chm - my partner had to see a piece of land in Yuma, so we drove out from LA. Past the Salton Sea, which I'd never seen before. Much larger than I imagined and a different world from Palm Springs, etc. What side of Salton are you on?

  14. Judith -- I've just started what is called Square Foot gardening (Potager au carré). Here's a link to a site that explains it: http://www.squarefootgardening.com/
    I've made my own frames, 1.2m²x30 cm high. The French books I've consulted suggest dividing into 9 40cm² plots rather than 16 30 cm² ones (30cm² being a square foot. Although they are not yet planted, I can see already that having these raised beds will be better for my back. I don't want to publish my email address here, but I'd love to be in direct contact with you. Ken, would you be our middle man?

  15. The relative ease of traveling back to the States, almost unlimited access to US radio, TV, and movies, and having Walt there with whom to speak English in your home, must greatly lessen any "longing for home" feelings you might otherwise have.
    It must be much easier living abroad than even 20 years ago thanks to the "space age" technology we use daily and increasingly take for granted.
    I've always loved this scene from Stanley Kubrick's, "Barry Lyndon" showing the power of overwhelming nostalgia.
    Two Irishmen, one posing as a Prussian, one as a Hungarian, try to maintain their disguise until, "a friendly voice, a look, brought the Old Country back to his memory again".

  16. Hi Diogenes,
    I’m on the West Shores of the Salton Sea in Salton City. As the saying goes: “Salton City, known for absolutely nothing.”

    You probably took US 86 down to US 8 and Yuma, and doing so you passed through beautiful Salton City, but probably only noticed that huge service station in the middle of nowhere.

    I sold my house and I’m moving out on April 10th. I’d like to meet you before I move back to Virginia. Ask Ken for my e-mail address. I’ll give you more information, if you so desire.

  17. As a serial ex-pat (3 times now) I suffered most from wanting to be somewhere else when I was living in Australia and visiting England every couple of years. It wasn't nostalgia, or homesickness, or any of the like, it was wanting to be somewhere where stuff happened.

    When we moved from Australia to the UK the first couple of months were a bit edgy, but that was because we arrived with nowhere to live and no jobs. The feeling soon left, and apart from reading the Sydney newspaper every day and staying in contact with our families we haven't really missed that much. Since moving to France we have missed even less because the internet has got faster.

    I don't think I ever get nostalgic for places, but I do get nostalgic for times. I wonder if a lot of people have the same thing but don't separate the two?

  18. Love this post and the photos.
    Like CHM, I didn't much like the article. I think some of us are destined to roam, so we will be homesick. My dad lived only about 60 miles from where he was born, but he had nostalgia for the life he left behind and didn't see his family much.
    During my first trip to France when I was only 15, I was very aware that my life had changed because I made friends that were far away. My life was bigger and I was glad for that, but I knew it would bring sadness since I would only be able to write these new friends which I did. I have loved the experience of a bigger world.

  19. Yes, chm, we took 86 to the 8 Freeway. Wish I had thought to contact you through Ken before the trip.

    Anyway, I would very much enjoy meeeting before you leave.

  20. Living in Canada is pretty much the same as living in the US. Many of the stores are the same: Walmart, Home Depot, McDonald's, Safeway. The language, of course, is the same, with the exception of some pronunciations: a long "O" in "project;" accent on the first syllable in "composite;" "Eh?" at the end of a question. But the cost of living is higher, offsetting the higher wages that are paid.

  21. Nostalgia
    Yes when I first left home to travel halfway around the world to attend university. Was missing my mum's cooking since all I knew was PB&J sandwiches and cafeteria's meals.
    Now I just think of visiting since I am very comfy in Montreal.

    Bonjour Cousin

    Congratulations for selling the house- now you have to tackle the next one . Good luck

  22. Merci Cousine. This one was somewhat easy. The next one is full of junk, and junk is my bread and butter. What can I do? Just close my eyes and put everything in the trash. Easier said than done. LOL

  23. Simon, I agree with you about how in human experience a place is really a place in a certain time. Though I do feel a special attachment to my home area, its geography, and climate. But I also felt right at home in France the first time I came over here in 1970, and that's never changed.

    Thanks for the comments, everybody. I'm going to re-read them and re-enjoy them. Ken


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