Updated: Jul 11, 2021
This is my first blog post inspired by England's Euro 2020 campaign and the upcoming final, my personal experiences as a homesick expat, and a sprinkle of polyvagal theory.
For any diehard England football fan, having the national team reach the final of the delayed Euro 2020 championship is a dream come true. I can’t pretend to be a diehard fan, though I can bluff my way through a description of the offside rule with flair and I’m old enough to know the lyrics to the classic football songs of the 90s, which are the only ones that matter. This will be no slick run-down of the competition and the run-up to the big match. I’ll be watching along with the rest of you this Sunday in the evening, long after the chicken roast has gone down, next to my suitably kitted out son and equally excited other half. Unlike the majority of Brits, however, I’ll be watching as one of the 5.5 million or so living abroad.
Coronavirus has been a veritable party pooper for more or less everyone on the planet over the last eighteen months or so. That’s such an obvious understatement, in fact, it almost bears deleting. For British expats in Switzerland and many other places, any recent relaxation of local social restrictions is having very little impact, if any, on separation from family back home. When we arrived in Switzerland from the UK, our son was barely one month old. I’d agreed to the exciting but frankly ludicrous idea of moving away at that vulnerable time on the basis that I would be free to travel back to Blighty every few months or so. As it is, I haven’t seen my Dad in the flesh since December 2019. It’s 16 months and counting since I saw my sister and Mum, who thankfully got to join our son’s first birthday celebration. We last saw my husband’s family in September 2019 when my son was only six months old. Any one who has had young children in their family will know how much transformation and joy happens in these first few years. Much has been missed that cannot be recovered. In the meantime, we’ve felt pretty lonely, an all too common human experience which is understood as a threat to emotional and physical wellbeing.
I haven’t always felt comfortable expressing my British-ness here in Switzerland. It is a beautiful nation with many advantages, but it is easy to feel like an outsider at times, at least in my experience. At one point I even felt self-conscious about speaking English in the street, so aware was I of my non-existent command of Swiss German. By the time coronavirus struck, I was sorely missing the friendly bus-stop or corner-shop chat I’d previously enjoyed easily with strangers at home and British humour of course, some of the best there is. As a psychologist, I know too well what difference a warm smile, a soft tone of voice, a kind offering, a warm handshake, a shared joke can have on the nervous system. Easy things to miss when you’re hesitant to look up, speak up or show up, or you’re stuck in a mask and in fear of microbes. The recent easing of social restrictions gives me a second chance at being a bit brave and finding opportunities for connection here in my adopted home, but I can’t help but continue to miss the mother ship. With UK quarantine restrictions making a summer visit home with a toddler very tricky and a painful wait for a much longed-for break with family in September, I needed a boost.
Enter Gareth, the lads and the Euro 2020 championship. It has been a gift in fostering a sense of being connected with others, even those whom I can’t see or name, solely through our shared identity as English folk. After I’ve danced in my kitchen to a dedicated playlist heavily featuring those 90s footy classics and the best British bands and artists of the 80s (I was late to the Sweet Caroline party), I’ve come out buzzing. If there is any such thing as a collective consciousness, I swear I have felt it while walking down the street humming to Come On Eileen/Come On England. Having my nation become very visible in a positive sense through the medium of footy success, particularly post-Brexit, has not only given me courage to be comfortable with and proud of who I am, it has helped me to feel part of something, part of the gang, even if I am not able to be with those that feel like home. In that place, so much feels possible.
Good luck boys. This is it!