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The Myth of Home Leave

by Daphne Vlachojannis

18-year-old university student: “I’m going home for Christmas.”

45-year-old professional with two kids: “I’m going home for Christmas.”

Arrested development, or a sub-culture that has normalised this phenomenon amongst expats?

Those who work for the UN or other international organisations will be familiar with the concept of home leave. Pursuant to the rules of one such organisation in The Hague, “staff members and their families shall be entitled to visit their home country at [the organisation’s] expense. Such leave is intended to permit staff members to maintain or renew ties with their home country.”

Many expats have been bouncing from duty station to duty station for the better part of their working life. So where is this mysterious “home country”? For some it is clear; for others not so much. But it must be somewhere out there, since it’s etched into the organisation’s rulebook that its staff members are not “at home” in the country they live in: “The staff member’s home country is a country other than that of his or her official duty station or of his or her normal residence.”

The rationale behind home leave is for staff to “maintain or renew ties with their home country.” So while our little jetsetter has left home, everyone else is assumed to have stayed put, patiently awaiting his or her Messiah-like return. The very words “home leave” conjure up images of family and friends waiting with open arms and champagne at the arrivals gate.

The specific place of home leave is “the place to which the staff member had the closest residential ties during the period of his or her most recent residence in the home country.” For me that place is New York City. And as an expat who has been going on home leave for many years, I will admit that I have fully enjoyed my rock-star status while visiting New York. The text messages that used to greet me at JFK say it best. “I can’t believe you’re home! We’ve missed you so much!” “We’re all in the Village waiting for you – get off at West 4th and text us!”

I basked in the glory of this near fame during every visit. People would take time off from work, I’d have to turn down dinner invitations, and between friends and family, I was literally engulfed in a warm embrace 24 hours a day. I would board the plane at the end of these stays, tearfully clinging to the tarmac. My batteries recharged by all the love and support, I could make it on my own out there for another year.

Fast-forward several years, and the first text that greeted me at the airport was “Daph – the keys are with the doorman. I parked on the corner of 64th and Madison and the meter’s gonna run out before I get home from work – could you move the car? And order dinner – there’s nothing in the fridge.”

Fast-forward even more years, and I’m lucky if anyone remembers the date I’m arriving. Far from hopping on the express train downtown to be greeted at the bar like Norm from Cheers, I now make the trek to my cousin’s house in the suburbs, trying to manage jetlagged children and a vague sense of abandonment at being picked up by a taxi. My face pressed against the window, I gaze longingly at the Manhattan skyline as it zips by and wonder whether I’ll manage a dinner in the old hood if someone can organise a babysitter.  

For some people, no matter how long they are away from their designated place of home leave, they can walk back in like they’ve never left. Their families and friends are all still there, and they even visit their regular doctors, dentists, and hairdressers.

But for many of us, the longer we are away, the more the place we disembarked from dilutes – often so much that it’s no longer recognisable. This is especially true of places like New York City. People move away, favourite restaurants and bars close, and the mom and pop pizza shop with late-night post-bar memories turns into a Starbucks. Consequently, home leave and its surrounding culture can sometimes have the unintended effect of saddening us about this natural progression of things. Of course if we are away from a place for long enough it is harder to “maintain ties.” One visit every two years does not a home make. And even if we visit much more often, nothing prevents the people “at home” from doing their own thing. I will forever remember the feeling I had in those first years as an expat when one of my people in NY moved away. It was all I could do to stop myself from breaking into a Paul Young rendition of “every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you.” If I could have, I would have put New York and everyone in it in a time capsule and frozen them the moment I left so that I could dip in and out as I pleased. In short, I wanted to do to New York what I had never allowed to be done to me.

I think that when based in the field, or even in the Netherlands but for a finite period, the concept of home leave makes more sense. But for those of us who have more or less permanently landed somewhere, the culture of home leave can perpetuate a sense of being unsettled and transient, and can leave us feeling homeless.

For me, the shift away from thinking of New York as home occurred upon return from one of my home leaves. Although I had boarded the plane at JFK with tears in my eyes, when I landed at Schiphol, saw the familiar arrivals lounge and heard Dutch (which at the time I couldn’t even understand), I felt a strong sense of having come home. When I switched my phone on, I found a barrage of messages welcoming me back home, making me smile with the irony and the blatant truth of it.

It was at that moment that I started to let go of the need to time-freeze New York. I embraced the fact that I had graduated from the shaky feeling of having one foot on each continent and was now firmly planted on (albeit sinking) Dutch soil. I am curious to see how this feeling plays out if my family and I switch countries again, which will likely happen one day. I suppose it was also necessary for that reason to have both feet here – so that one of them will someday be free to take the next step.     

About the Author

Daphne Vlachojannis is a New York-qualified international human rights lawyer who has worked in London, Florence, Sarajevo, Brussels and Kinshasa. In 2013 she settled in The Hague where she lives with her husband and three children. Daphne is passionate about languages and creative writing.

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