This Spanish summer has been full of changes – after D-Man finished his osteopathy studies and I began working on my thesis, we had a wonderful stroke of luck and got new jobs in the city, moved into an apartment by the mountains, and sneaked a trip in to Portugal for our one-year anniversary – all within the span of a month.
And though I’m relieved and ecstatic that everything we’ve been working toward is coming together, I’ll meekly admit that I have the heart-wrenching twinge to hop on a plane and spend the rest of the summer back home. A handful of sleepless nights have found me sighing heavily and staring at the flat white ceiling, aching for friends and family. A night or two may or may not have found me sobbing on the cool bathroom tile, convinced that I should just leave the adventure and charm of living abroad for the comfort and familiarity of home.
But when the sun comes up, I realize that what’s holding me back isn’t just the financial dip of buying a plane ticket halfway across the world on a whim, but the knowledge that, in my case, the grass only looks greener on the other side.
It’s a knowledge I’ve carried with me since over three years ago, when, during a summer home after a year abroad, I found that I felt restless, emotionally drained, and doubtful of everything I had ever known. I felt that I didn’t quite fit in, that my priorities had shifted dramatically. I wanted a simple, less-rushed lifestyle. I wanted quality free time. I wanted to continue traveling and learning from the world.
So while in Spain I ache deeply for family and friends, my native tongue, decent customer service, and the warm California cheer, I know that should I ever return to the highly-wired and fast-paced U.S., I would terribly miss the endearing lifestyle I’ve become accustomed to in Spain – the extra time I rarely ever had back home, the laid back lifestyle, the food, great public transport, and being able to walk most everywhere.
Those of us who live abroad might initially travel with the curiosity to see what’s out there, to break out of our bubbles, look for adventure, to observe and participate in new ways of life. We may even become so caught up in our new lifestyles, our new friends, and our new experiences that when we discover that “home” isn’t the same anymore, and never will be, we’re faced with the fact that it is we who have changed. That the world has continued and will continue on without us, and, as in my own case, we might even find ourselves at a standstill, questioning our niche in the vast world.
Now, from greener fields, I would like to introduce you to Monique from Bringing Travel Home. While I live in Spain and dream of home in California, Monique lives in California and dreams of her previous life in Italy. Having lived in Italy for years and even starting her family there before moving back to California, she still dreams of the charmed life she once led abroad.
Ladies and gentlemen, from the other side of the fence, I bring you Monique:
How Reverse Culture Shock Hit Me Back Home in the U.S. (Or maybe it was a blast of air-conditioning.)
When I moved abroad to Europe from the U.S., I expected some level of culture shock.
But when I moved home, I must have missed the books written on reverse culture shock. Did three years living abroad in Italy require a transition back? Had the experience changed me so much that the culture and practices of my home country – once accepted without a second thought – and now viewed with a new set of eyes? Strangely enough, upon return to the U.S., I experienced “home as foreign.”
Everyone who has lived abroad will experience reverse culture shock in different ways. For me, several observations struck me as hard as an American blast of AC.
Large American kitchens, backyards with rolling green grass and play sets the size found in small Italian parks and monstrous gas-guzzling cars drew raised eyebrows from my husband and me when we returned. Even in wealthy cities in Italy, there are more apartments with people living in smaller spaces. Backyards are a rare sight. Buying “things” became less important. A bike with a basket replaced my car. As travel and cultural, outdoor experiences replaced shopping, I lost my appetite for anything resembling a mall. Following the Italian lesson of “less is more” but in better quality, I consumed less, but better things.
Make Yourself Comfortable.
Part of the reason we looked forward to returning home was that we wanted things to be easy again. But it gets boring quickly and feels absurd. Precise AC temperature controls in your car to avoid getting too hot. Pedestrian right-of-way – to the extreme. Order a sandwich – or coffee – any way you want. Drive-through banking. And, in California, months and months of predictable weather. Now I actually miss unannounced storms, or surviving in a house without AC during a heat wave.
The (Lost) Art of Conversation.
In a country where you gather constantly around a table with friends to eat or drink, there seemed to be a lot of hosting going on. Being invited and inviting others for a coffee happened regularly, and often without (gasp!) planning. Back home, I found myself out of sync with social interaction, which seemed to take a lot of scheduling and pre-planning and came accompanied by “doing something – ” Let’s go on a run together. Let’s go shopping together.” The idea of having someone over to your house for a coffee and chat suddenly seemed awkward and old-fashioned.
Re-Entry Humdrum. I’m just a little bored and not so impressed with all that.
When you’ve been surrounded with amazing architecture, Roman ruins, and beautiful vistas for years, the California coast is, well, nice, I guess. And the excitement accompanied with living in a different culture and speaking a different language just makes life back in your home country a little less interesting and adventurous.
Anyone who has lived abroad knows that The Grocery Store symbolizes a lot for an expat. It’s an introduction to your new country, where you practice a new language, currency and rules, like wearing plastic gloves to handle vegetables and self-pricing them in Italy. When you return, you feel overwhelmed in American Supermarkets (particularly the cereal and toothpaste aisles) when all you want to find is some real parmigiano reggiano or a deli that knows how to cut prosciutto properly. Eyes glazed, overwhelmed by choices, you wander aimlessly like a foreigner, peering at the XLL quantities, shivering under blasts of air conditioning that would send AC-suspicious Italians running for their lives.
Where are the old people?
Italy is full of “gli anziani” or older people, especially in the lake region we lived. Observing them, I couldn’t help think they live better than in the States, where they don’t seem to participate as fully in daily life. There, they often are the center of a family and you see them gathering in piazzas, cafes, in front of churches, chatting, gossiping…. together.
I’m a girl. You’re a boy.
In Italy, there is an undercurrent feeling of gender awareness and acknowledgement of beauty through verbal and non-verbal compliments (this goes both ways). Italy is a center of Fashion and Beauty for a reason. When interacting socially in the States, it feels almost …genderless. While women have fought for equality and comments by Italian men can quickly turn to harassment, there is something weird about a puritanical-like avoidance of acknowledging beauty here in the States.
Building on the above, you learn pretty quickly in Italy – thanks to the undisguised, unapologetic looks from Italians- that you don’t just pop into the grocery store wearing gym clothes after a workout. So you dress up more, and you iron more. Then you come home. And like a visiting European, your jaw drops watching people in – oh my God! – what looks like pajamas walking downtown. Or ignoring the unspoken dress code in Italy by wearing shorts and flip flops in winter. You seem to have adopted the European opinion that sloppy people make you feel, well… “unwell.” Your parents are proud that you have improved your table manners that are so important on the other side of the pond.
“Oh, We looooove Italy!”
You get used to all your friends thinking you lived like a character in “Under the Tuscan Sun”. They tell you they “did” Florence, Rome, and Venice in three days and how all Italians are “sooo nice.” And then you give up on trying to explain anything negative about living there or the people, because they really don’t want to hear it.
You’re just not that special anymore.
Just like your friends abroad seemed disinterested and smiled passively when you spoke of life prior to moving to their country, don’t expect your friends back home to want you to reminisce about life abroad. Remember while you’ve been gone, they have continued on with their lives without you in them. And you no longer enjoy the special privileges, rules and attention you enjoy abroad because back home, you’re just like everyone else.
When we left, we couldn’t wait to get back home. We were tired of struggling through everyday life Italy. The stress of navigating our way in a country with lots of people and less space, the combative nature and complexity that comes with doing almost anything there, especially in a second language and where your rules no longer apply. We came home with two elements of reverse culture shock – an idealized view and the expectation of familiarity – that nothing had changed while we were away.
Then, after a bumpy reentry, Italy became nirvana. Sure, being back was easy peasy with drive-through banking and neat lines. But I only remembered my experiences there in the most favorable light. I idealized time abroad and this, too, is a symptom of reverse culture shock.
It’s been seven years since we returned to the U.S. What I’ve learned is this. Things aren’t all good or all bad in Italy – nor are they here. We’ve moved on and try to combine the positive aspects of living abroad with the best of life now. Today things feel normal but different. We weren’t here for 9/11. We missed the explosion of reality TV (thank God). During my time away, I had re-examined my priorities – accelerated by trading in a fast-paced lifestyle for a simpler life in Italy – and developed different interests, values and beliefs than I had before. I don’t like doing some things I used to before I left (mall shopping for one). Life is simpler. I consume less. And we try to enjoy life, without that American guilt. We make an effort to cultivate friendships with people who have lived abroad and have had similar experiences as we have, or speak the language we picked up. We keep in touch with our friends abroad and are planning our first trip back next year. I finally pronounce I-kee-a (instead of EE-kay-a), write the date in “month, day, year” order again. I can drink a Starbucks and not spit it out (although it’s still not great). And I don’t wear white socks anymore.
By meeting all sorts of people abroad, we’ve learned that there are many ways to live life and we make sure our kids learn this too. For some it might be a 9-5 corporate job with a pre-planned family of two kids and mortgage. For others, it might not be. And for this once frantic, overly ambitious executive, a walk with the kids and making tomato sauce from scratch is sometimes enough for the day and that’s okay. Finally, I learned “home” can mean a lot of things. While we bought a home and are building roots now in Northern California, Italy still feels like home for us (my daughter was born there) even if we don’t live there anymore. Reverse culture shock has faded, even if the shock of American air conditioning hasn’t.