An unexpected home: Moving from Asia to Europe

by Georgia Knapp

When I left Bangkok at the beginning of 2019, I was ready to leave. After a lung infection, a disastrous relationship, and an exhausting job, I was practically giddy at the thought of watching the smog and sprawl of the city disappear during take-off. What I never expected was that when I landed in my new home, I missed that smog and sprawl. Desperately.

A large part of my life has been spent as an expat (and, I’d argue, that growing up as an agnostic in the Deep South made me a permanent expat, but that’s another story). My parents’ jobs with the US military allowed me to spend my childhood in England, Cuba, and Germany before finally settling in the US for my teenage years. Throughout middle school, high school, and university, I dreamed of living abroad again someday. The only question: when? After university, I moved to Chicago. I periodically scrolled through TEFL and CELTA programmes on my lunch breaks, but job opportunities kept me anchored to the Windy City. Then I moved back to the South to enrol in graduate school and be closer to my boyfriend of nearly five years.

Just before graduation, life threw two grenades at me. The first came with the sudden death of my father. A few months later, this was followed by the equally sudden and unexpected call from my boyfriend saying we were over. Not knowing what else to do other than spiral into a debilitating whirlpool of grief, I packed my things and boarded a one-way flight to Asia. I figured now was as good of a time as any to finally start my new expat experience. I moved to Thailand because I had never been to Asia before. I planned to use Bangkok as a travel hub for the rest of the continent. I wanted to live and work there for two years, before heading to my ultimate expat destination: Europe. A lot of expats, especially American expats, dream about settling in Europe. Maybe it’s a siren call from our ancestral home or maybe too many movies have romanticised the idea of living in Paris, Tuscany, or Barcelona. I’d lived in Europe twice before: in Germany as a child, and in Scotland for a semester abroad in uni. Whenever I envisioned my future, settled down life, it was always in Europe – walking along the Seine, taking tea near Hyde Park, or eating bratwurst at a Biergarten. I couldn’t wait to live in a quintessential European city, walking on cobblestone and surrounded by buildings older than the US.

My life in Thailand was that of any expat: an intoxicating cocktail of chaos, beauty, frustration, joy, and sweat – lots and lots of sweat. I travelled to other Asian countries just as I’d hoped: Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, and India. I landed a decent job at a prestigious school and started dating a guy. Life seemed nice in Thailand, but not great. The country exhausted me in small, but significant ways. I hated the need to shower twice a day to clean off the sweat and grime, and whatever is in the dirty water that shoots up from Bangkok’s loose street tiles. The constant pushing and bumping on crowded roads and the BTS infuriated me. I hated the lack of a quiet, peaceful spot in the city. By the time I reached my one-year anniversary in Bangkok, I felt anxious to leave, but also unsure where to go. When a writing job in Portugal seemingly fell into my lap, I jumped up and down in my apartment for a solid 30 minutes. I felt like my life’s journey was finally complete: I was moving to Europe. My last two months in Bangkok were spent saying goodbye to friends and enjoying parts of the city (and country) that I hadn’t before. With each passing day, I felt a small pang of I shouldn’t leave this place, but I chalked it up to the typical jitters before moving to a brand-new country. When my plane took off from Suvarnabhumi Airport, I waved goodbye to the cluster of city lights, not sure if and when I would ever see them again.

As my plane descended into Porto, Portugal, I felt a wave of comfort wash over me. Theland surrounding the small city was green and lush. I could almost feel the cool Atlantic Ocean breeze from inside the plane. Orange-tiled rooftops dotted the expanse, and not far away were rolling purple and blue mountains. This was it; this was where I’d always wanted to settle down. Just before touchdown, another wave crept over me – a subtle wave; similar to the trickle of a stream that slowly pushes at the bank of a river until it cuts straight through the land: did I miss Bangkok?

It took just one month for the longing to really hit. I didn’t just miss Bangkok, but I missed Asia, too. I sat at quaint outdoor cafes in Porto drinking cheap, delicious wine, and yet I fantasised about buckets of cold Chang beer. Whiffs of freshly glazed croissants and pastel de natas wafted from bakeries, and I craved the salty tang of meat skewers sizzling from Thai food stalls, and even the stinging cloud of ground chilli pepper that attacked like tear gas. I walked down quiet, empty cobblestone streets, surrounded by buildings from the 1600s, and all I wanted was to sit side-saddle behind an orange jacketed moto driver as he wove between cars and exhaust.

Every day in Portugal I found myself rolling my eyes, sighing, and wishing I were back in Thailand. Then I’d shake my head and wonder what was wrong with me. Asia had never been a long-term goal of mine. If anything, it was supposed to be a paid vacation; a time to reset and recover from two hits of grief. Instead, it had felt like a relentless, stressful business trip. It wasn’t like I didn’t like Portugal. I liked the people that I met, the calmer city streets, the food, and, of course, the wine. In many ways, my new European life was exactly as I’d always dreamt it would be. Yet, something about Bangkok and Asia tugged at me in the same way wanting to live abroad had tugged at me for nearly two decades. As a military brat, I grew up hearing the phrase “distance makes the heart grow fonder.” I’d always assumed it meant the distance between people and their fondness of each other once they couldn’t get together every day, but as my months in Portugal wore on and my longing for Bangkok grew, I realised the saying could just as easily refer to places. Something about not being in Bangkok made me suddenly miss it and appreciate it more.

Whilst I was living in Thailand, I didn’t love having to cross busy streets where traffic didn’t stop, but I liked the confidence I had that drivers and motos would swerve around me as long as I kept walking in my chosen direction. The chaos had worn on me, but I’d taken for granted that with the chaos also came good naturedness. When someone bumped me in the street, it was nearly always followed with an apology. When everyone crammed into a BTS train together, there was an almost palpable sense of, we’re all in this together, so make sure no one falls and that everyone gets out at their intended stop. There was also a lot of blind trust in Thailand (and in Asia) that things would eventually work out. That blind trust was right 99% of the time.

As I now near my one-year anniversary of leaving Bangkok and moving to Portugal, I find myself doing something I never expected back when I waved goodbye to the sprawling mess of the Thai capital’s city lights: I’m looking for jobs in Thailand. Whether I will leave Europe is still yet to be determined, but I am open to the possibility. When I first moved to Bangkok, and even when I left, I never expected to feel at home there. Yet, looking back on it, I realise it had become home, just not the home I was expecting.

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