This French word has no English translation. It describes the feeling of not being in your home country. Many people apply this word to the feeling of being travellers in another country. The feeling of not being home. Of being in another country. Of being surrounded by people from that country and the unfamiliarity of that. Of being in a place where the people possibly speak a different language. Of things looking different. It is a scary feeling, but also exciting and novel. Your senses are fully attentive to your experience. You feel nervous. You feel apprehensive. But you are somewhere novel and exotic and that is exciting. Those alert senses and the excitement of the exotic make you feel alive.
Your senses are alert to help you navigate this different and strange place. Where do you need to go? Is it safe here? You may have heard of pickpockets or muggers in this place. How do you keep yourself safe? How do you detect danger? Your body is on full alert. The adrenalin is pumping. But the experience can be quite exhilarating. The feeling of mastery when you work out how to order a cup of coffee, when you find your way across town, when you buy food in the local supermarket.
Now imagine you have arrived in this place to take up residence. Imagine that no matter how long you stay you are still the foreigner. You are still identified by others as the foreigner. They know it every time you open your mouth. So you become hesitant to open your mouth and shatter the illusion you hope you have created that you belong here. You hesitate to answer the phone because you are not confident at being able to communicate in this new language.
You may obviously not be a local. You may have a different skin colour. You may hold yourself differently and react to things differently. Your style of clothing may not be that of the locals. Even if you wear the clothes you see others wear, you will put the outfit together differently, or hold yourself differently. Dépaysement still exists in your feelings. You may be more familiar with the situation but there is that knowledge that you don’t belong here. That when you open your mouth it will be obvious. No matter how hard you try to learn the language, your accent will give you away. You will always have that sense of not belonging. Your culture will be different.
After some time living in another country you will begin to observe the culture. Research has found people react differently to living in a different culture. Some embrace it and totally reject their old culture. They are often described as ‘going native’. Others will refuse to accept anything of the new culture and will stick rigidly to the old culture. Most sit in the middle. All will, for the first time in their lives, see their home culture more objectively. Instead of being that automatic way to be, they will realise it is not the automatic way to be for people in the new country. Over time people question their own culture. Those who take the middle ground will often adopt aspects of the new culture and reject some aspects of the old culture.
Through all this dépaysement is the feeling you most often experience.
Now imagine you return to live in your old culture. It has been some time and you have changed. When you return to the old culture it has changed too. You cannot slip what you once had back on and expect it to fit. Now you are in another culture and that sense of dépaysement again hits. But you are in your home country and that is not supposed to happen! It is disorienting, frightening. You long for the seeming familiarity of the country you just left. This new country, the one that should have felt like a comfortable old shirt, feels as strange and unfamiliar as the country you just left once felt. The person you became in that other country struggles for acceptance back home. The skills people recognised you had there are not appreciated here.
This is the life of the expat returning home, the repatriate (repat). It is a struggle to fit back in. There is a lot of pain, grief and loss. So much of the familiar has gone. It is like you don’t belong anywhere anymore. When I returned to Australia after 8 years away I found it hard adjusting to life back in Australia. There was the initial excitement, common to all expat postings. The novel and new is exciting. That excitement sustains you for a few months, despite all the logistical difficulties you may be encountering. But then reality sets in and you hit rock bottom. If you have moved back to the same area you may find your old friends no longer fit as well as they did. You have changed, and so have they, but in different directions. You may find yourself constantly talking about your old life overseas. This is your only reference point. Others may not appreciate that. They may think you are big noting yourself. Your experiences may be outside the realm of their understanding.
When I moved back to Australia I moved to a different state. There was no one familiar. I wasn’t worried, I had so much confidence that I would be able to find new friends. I was so used to having to do that and did not find it hard. But now it was a nightmare. People in their busy suburban lives were not interested in making new friends. I joined so many activities to meet people but found the people there had little in common with me. I found it hard to get a job. Being away for 8 years meant I effectively had no work history, despite all I had achieved while living overseas. My previous career was closed off to me because I had been away from it too long. At one stage I became really depressed. Everything was so overwhelming. I had lost my friends, who were all overseas, and my career, and no-one would give me a chance at a job. Eventually I found a job as a shop assistant in a large store. The staff were treated badly, which did not help my state of mind. Eventually I took the scary step of going back to university to gain new qualifications. It took a long time to establish friendships (my university cohort was where I finally found like-minded people who were interested in making new friends). It took a long time to learn to accept the new Australian culture. I still don’t totally like it, but thanks to my now two degrees and a lot of study I have been able to put this new culture into perspective and learn to find the like-minded people I feel comfortable with.
I still miss my life overseas. There were wonderful things I did there that I have not been able to do in Australia. I still love Australia. It is a difficult act of balancing what I had, have, lost and gained. Dépaysement is a beautiful descriptive word to summarise my feelings as an expat in a foreign country and as a repat in a strange new Australia.
Dépaysement can be a different experience depending on your circumstances. I chose the expat life and I chose to return to Australia. But if you are displaced due to war or oppression, then dépaysement will be clouded by the traumatic nature of your displacement and the journey to find a host country willing to take you. There will also be great loss at what you had in your home country, what you unwillingly had to give up and what you cannot recover. Then there will be the difficulties of trying to establish yourself here and find work. Life will often seem a lot harder in your new country. Rather than the headiness of the challenge of fitting in, there will be the fear of how you are going to survive.
A migrant will have willingly chosen to move here, and there will be great hopes of a new life to come, but this will be tinged with the memory of what has been left behind. And there will be the inevitable heady honeymoon period, followed by the thump of reality and wondering if you made the right decision.
If you are experiencing the strangeness of returning to your home country, or coming here as a foreigner, or just moving states or areas and finding it all different and difficult, I can help. If you would like help, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au.

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