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When travel becomes a strain: 3 tips to survive the trip back home

Longing woman
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I am fortunate enough to have friends from all over the world, and that means I get to hear about their travel adventures when they go back home. Going back home to one’s country of origin – or the Motherland, as some of them call is – is usually the kind of pilgrimage that takes at least a year (and often several years) of saving up and making plans. It’s full of joyous anticipation, but also the worry and anxiety that can come with seeing close family members again for the first time in ages.

Recently my friend Jamel went back to the Philippines to visit his aged and ailing parents. It was a sad homecoming because since his last visit, several of his relatives have passed on; his parents have frail health and rely on Jamel not just for financial support but actual caregiving as well. It was a bittersweet trip in which he spent a great deal of time trying to convince his parents to do things differently than they are used to – no small feat when it comes to parents who are set in their ways, but even more difficult in a country with different customs and challenges than we have in Canada. His experience inspired me to write about my own take on surviving the long-distance Family Visit.

Setting clear boundaries can help prevent disappointment

People with distant family members automatically have a tough choice every time a paid vacation comes up: do they go on a ‘real’ vacation, or do they visit family? Talking about and honouring your own needs in advance can prevent guilt and hurt feelings later. For example, I once avoided my great-aunt for months rather than admit I had been in Florida – not even her home state, but close enough that if she knew about it, I would have been expected to make the 8-hour drive to visit her, even though that would have seriously impacted my own travel plans. Then I realized I have the right to my own vacations now and then! Always consider the needs of your spouse and children too, and of course, open your own home to visiting relatives from time to time to keep things fair.

Before your trip, frankly discuss expectations on both sides. It’s amazing how many people visit family without ever clearly setting out how long they will stay; what or whom they will be bringing; and what kind of support they will provide. For example, my friend Jamel found himself a virtual slave in his parents’ compound when their caregivers took his arrival as a signal to quit abruptly. He had intended to help out with big jobs like repairs and decluttering, getting the utilities in order, and even purchasing new appliances out of pocket, but was sidelined by also having to cook meals and assist with daily routines. Obviously it’s difficult to set boundaries in emergency situations, but doing so can help avoid resentment and misunderstandings.

Loving detachment is a must

Going to visit the country you were born in after a long absence is very different from going back to an old neighbourhood, where the storefronts may have changed but little else is different; traveling outside of Canada can mean a completely different standard of living. Family members have aged, Canadian amenities are a luxury or non-existent, and basic rules for everything from traffic to standing in line are now alien. At the best of times, the culture shock alone can leave you feeling like a stranger. But what about when the family you’re returning to is far from idyllic? It’s important to have strategies for healthy detachment from what you experience, lest you wind up feeling and acting like an unhappy child again. You can’t help or save everyone. You also aren’t 13 again and chafing against your parents’ judgments, values and authority – no matter how much a week with them can make you feel that way.

Bring a piece of home with you

My favourite travel hack to survive the trip back home is to bring a piece of Canada with you. If you’ve been gone a long time, you may be caught between two worlds, feeling like a guilty tourist in your country of birth. Centre yourself by packing something (or many somethings) that remind you of home, whether it’s movies or media, maple syrup or a favourite pillow, pampering products or tasty nibbles. You’ll likely be gone for a couple of weeks, so make it a mix of checked baggage and carry-on luggage so you don’t exceed the luggage weight allowance…because you’ll likely be bringing back many new memories as well.

Your trip back home will be over before you know it. Take deep breaths, take in as much positivity as you can, and try to make the most of it!

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