Moving to the Netherlands has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, but it surely has had its difficulties. A lot of questions and concerns came to mind, one of them being the fear of the unfamiliar, the uncertainty of whether I will feel at home again. Now, with the holiday vacations approaching, and the Covid-19 restrictions getting tighter, most of us will be forced to spend the holidays away from home. It is definitely a new experience for me and while I’m really excited to experience the Dutch way of celebrating Christmas, my homesickness is not quite enthusiastic about it! With that being said, I wrote this article to discuss what homesickness is and how the pandemic made the process of dealing with it even harder.
What makes a place so special to us are the connections we form with it. These connections are made through a pattern we follow and grow accustomed to; the familiar streets, smells, people, language etc. Therefore, familiarity is very important because it is what makes us feel safe and connected to the world we live in. The familiar pattern we follow embodies what we call ‘home.’ In other words, ‘home’ is where you feel most safe and at ease. In this regard, what makes moving to a foreign place so challenging is finding or building our ‘familiar pattern’ in an unfamiliar environment. While doing so, a sense of longing for the ‘familiar’ starts to creep up and that is we all call homesickness. According to The Good Therapy Blog – a network of mental health professionals dedicated to empower people to live healthier, happier lives - homesickness “can be similar to grief, [..] a person experiencing homesickness is grieving the temporary—or sometimes permanent—loss of the comforts of home.” It is the sadness we feel when we lose the familiar pattern in our life.
Although most of us experience homesickness, its symptoms differ from one person to another. The Good Therapy Blog suggests that some people experience mild homesickness while others might “be anxious, depressed, cry frequently, or have difficulty keeping track of daily routines.” However, it is important to remember that homesickness is not a ‘forever’ feeling, it can be overcome or dealt with in multiple ways. In an article written to help prospective students in the UK, Mason (2019) suggested various ways to deal with homesickness, such as: meeting new people, getting involved in local events, studying in a library or a coffee shop, and managing our contact with home.
Surely, these solutions worked better in a time when we could actually get together without fearing the spread of the virus. The restriction measures placed new obstacles that we didn’t even think about before. We can’t immerse ourselves in the vibrant environment of our new place, because there simply isn’t one. With the Covid-19 restrictions, it has become more difficult to feel engaged with our surroundings, making homesickness even more difficult to deal with. Personally, none of the methods of dealing with homesickness worked for me; most cafes and restaurants are closed, and meeting new people has become more difficult with online learning. So, I found myself calling my friends and family back home more frequently, even more so than when I was there. I was trying to hold on to my familiar pattern, since building a new one was a harder option. But that only made me feel worse, and I realized that if I keep this routine, I will not be able to achieve the goals that brought me to the Netherlands in the first place. Thus, the new challenge became: how to deal with homesickness in times of Corona?
As described above, experiencing homesickness can be pretty tough, especially nowadays since the pandemic added some unprecedented obstacles. However, this does not mean that dealing with homesickness became impossible. All we have to do is adapt the customary methods of dealing with homesickness to our new reality. For example, instead of going to campus to meet your new classmates, you can do so in your online class. You can all join a WhatsApp group and plan to meet each other physically in a Covid-19 proof environment. You can also join student associations to feel more engaged with the student life. I joined the Maastricht Diplomat (UNSA) since I wanted to work on my writing skills and meet new people from different parts of the world, kind of a win-win situation!
Another adaptation would be exploring the quiet side of Maastricht instead of the busy and crowded one. Maastricht is a beautiful city with so many hidden gems and places to discover so hiking or walking around would always be an option. Take advantage of the quiet streets to walk around or find a good spot that you can frequent to watch the sunset. I, myself explored the city on foot, while shuffling through my favorite playlist. If you’re not a fan of walking, there’s always the option of riding your bike and exploring the city and its surroundings. Also, you can sit in a park to read a book or simply to enjoy some fresh air.
If the suggestions above still don’t work for you, you can get inspired from students who shared their experience with us on Maastricht Diplomat’s Instagram. We asked them how they have been dealing with homesickness during the pandemic and what advice would they give to those going through it. Some suggested recreating a habit you used to have at home; like cooking your favorite traditional meal. Others suggested spending as much time as you can with friends and discovering the city. Additionally, an answer from a student, that I found particularly important, was to remind yourself of the reasons that led you to moving here in the first place. Thinking of the reason why you came here will help you re-focus and re-energize, for it will put things in perspective and it will make you see that you’ve already made it this far. All you have to do now is keep going!
It is important to remember that homesickness is not a sign of weakness. We are all humans, and even though we lead different lives, we all however, feel the same emotions. When moving to an entirely new environment, most of us - if not all of us - will experience homesickness, it will only differ in degree. What we can do, is notice the small details that surround us, benefit from every moment that allows us to make a connection to our new environment and who knows, maybe in the future we will feel homesick for the place where we are right now. So, let’s make the most out of every minute!