Main image by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash
In English, when we miss our homeland, we say, “I feel homesick”.
In French, when we miss our homeland, we say, “J’ai le mal du pays”.
Close enough, but not quite the same. Taken literally, the English version seems just to be about missing one’s “home” (parents, family, one’s house, perhaps what one had in the house – toys, books, records, pets). Whereas the French version seems, on the surface, to be about missing one’s whole country. Or at least one’s region of a country.
I have been lucky enough not to feel homesick too often in my lifetime. I was lucky enough to truly enjoy the places I moved to, each time I moved (to university, to the UK, to the US for work for a period, to France).
I always missed people – friends and relatives particularly. I even missed some foods (I still miss Stilton cheese! And excellent marmalade. And perhaps hot crumpets with marmite and butter oozing through the holes. All food, no surprise).
And there are some landscapes that just do me good, that I can’t find anywhere else (such as Gower beaches in Wales, Lake District hills and that green you cannot find anywhere else).
Rhossili Bay, Gower Peninsular. Wales. Image by Nick Russill on Unsplash
But I can’t say I missed Belgium as such, or England, or the US, France, or Switzerland as I moved from place to place.
I suspect that it’s because I have been lucky enough to feel that, corny as it sounds, “Home is where the heart is”. For so many years, I was lucky to have my closest loved ones, in particular, Mike and the kids, whenever we moved. All was good.
But since two of the four of them died? I am homesick. I do miss my home. I miss how our home used to be. I feel a deep sickness, a bottomless sadness in my heart, and sense the emptiness of the house, my home.
“I feel homesick” feels to be a truer statement than it has ever felt, despite living in the same home for the past 20+ years.
I was reflecting on the similarities and differences between the two expressions, yesterday afternoon, as Medjool and I descended from a snowy plateau in the nearby French Alps. We’d been away for a lovely long weekend, celebrating my 55th birthday. So much loveliness in that weekend, but those details are not what this bit of writing is about.
I have had a beautiful Ukrainian family of four living with me for the past week and a bit (minus a couple of days when they schlepped all the way to Milan to see about a job, then returned, as it was not a viable option).
Mum and dad, perhaps in the region of 35-40 years old, with their spunky 5 year old daughter and charming 9 year old son.
Oh my! What I have learned about homesickness for a country from them.
Love for one’s country.
Love for one’s homeland.
And the pain of losing it.
A sudden and devastating rupture (war) in one’s country ripping through the tapestry of their lives.
So similar, in some ways, to the rupture caused by death.
Present affected – upping and offing from one moment to the next, not knowing where they would be the next hour, let alone that night or the next day.
Future affected – not knowing if their building, apartment, dog, city, relatives would be there when/if they return.
Past affected – they show me photos and videos of their lives just months ago – redecorating the kids’ bedroom, celebrating birthdays, Christmas decorations, dancing, cooking, mum and daughter manicures, go-karting and roller blading for the boy, building snowmen, having walks in the woods, along the Dnieper shoreline.
A normal life. A nice life. A beautiful life.
Now just memories.
And those memories forever washed over in “bittersweet sepia”.
They have “mal du pays”. They are homesick. They cannot get back there. Not now. Maybe not ever. And if they do, they and their country, their city, their landscape, forever changed.
There are similarities between their mal du pays, their homesickness, and my heart sadness. They miss their lives from before. They miss not having a sense of their future. As do I.
Today, my Ukrainian family welcomed me back home from my little weekend jaunt with tens of balloons, fresh daffodils, and birthday cake on the terrasse.
They had figured out that it was my birthday this weekend, thanks to the calendar that my mum prepares for us all each year. It has each of her 12 grandchildren (including Julia) on the January-December pages, and our birthdays are all painstakingly hand-written in by my dad (including Edward’s, Mike’s & Julia’s).
We had a rich conversation about life and death, grief and loss, fear and fright, home and heart, homesickness and heartache, thanks to Google Translate’s Ukrainian language function (without which such depth of conversation would not be possible).
The mother, who just so happens to be called Yulia (of course!), said that her daughter had asked her this morning if their home would still be standing when they get home. And Yulia had replied, “Our home is where we are together, and where we feel safe. This is our home right now, with Emma”.
I feel so moved by that.
Yes. They have lost their home. Safety. Places. Jobs.
Their memories are tarnished.
They have not yet lost very close people, though it is a constant worry.
And I have not lost my home or my country. I haven’t lost physical safety. I haven’t lost my job.
But I have lost people. And my memories are also tarnished.
Whether it’s homesickness, heart sickness, or mal du pays, there is considerable commonality in our lived experiences, even as there are also unfathomable differences.
I know some people will ask me how you can also help. I am on multiple websites – German, French, Swiss – saying I offer space. Official and unofficial.
This is the site that led the family to me after 2 ½ days of driving from their hometown, Vyshhorod, near Kyiv, to the Geneva area. Not knowing a soul, but trusting that something would turn up. Thank goodness for trust.