by Gregory Wilde  /  non-fiction  /  9 Oct 2007
"I'm a soul drifter, and I'm out of this town, ain't no use hanging 'round."
"There's always a way to get happy somehow."
A lot of us travel well. We arrive on time, we gather our luggage, and we walk to the streets without the slightest degree of loneliness or the vague sense of isolation. If you're that way, you're lucky. My roommate traveled to Europe every six months for lectures and claimed to never feel culture shock, or jet lag even. How he did that I'll never understand. I'll admit it; I'm a poor traveler. I get sick on planes, usually have a loss of appetite before, during, and after flights, and take a couple days to adjust to vastly different time zones and cultures.
I've learned that I cannot control my travel woes. There are only so many ways to ease the effects of jet lag. Some people claim their success lies in sleep adjustment. They'll stay up late when they arrive at their final destination, and they'll sleep until eight or nine a.m. the following morning. In doing this, the theory goes, you'll feel rested because your body's timed to the local sunsets and sunrises. But this technique rarely works for me. I need time to let my body catch up, all the while letting the wheels turn round and round, believing they'll hit the road again.
What I'm really getting to is culture shock. Some people refer to it as homesickness, but I like to use both terms as one because they really mean the same thing -- you miss home and you want to go back. It's really a straightforward definition. But culture shock hits everyone uniquely. Some of us get it mildly: we arrive and have a brief wave of cold restlessness -- that wave of not knowing who we are in this strange society. Then there are those who get it so bad it strikes them cold.
When I went to France for the first time, I was with a bunch of students who dealt with their own culture shock in a private manner. Some of us walked into the town and roamed around until we felt better. I think we, and I include myself in this, went to the town because we wanted to belong to something. There is a strange feeling I get when I'm in a foreign country. I have no friends, no common traits really. In essence, I'm an outsider begging to fit in. The best way I can describe this outsider feeling is by imagining that you're falling from the sky. You want to stop falling, you want to slow down and understand what's happening, but time cannot stop, and society continues with or without you.
There were friends I knew in France who got over culture shock well, fast, and permanently. And then there were those who never got over it, they just kept falling and couldn't understand why or how to stop the feelings of isolation and coldness from the foreign city. I remember my friend, Julian, mister suave, we all called him behind his back. He told me about his culture shock therapy while en route to France. Julian said to find the one thing you always enjoyed to do at home. The "always" being the word Julian emphasized. "What do you always love to do, one-hundred percent?" Julian said. "It has to be in the open, it has to be socially acceptable. It has to be easy to get, and easily obtainable if the culture shock hits again. Do you have it? I'll tell you mine."
What Julian told me was a stroke of simple brilliance. He would search for the nearest ice cream parlor and pick out his favorite flavor. Then he would walk around the town with his ice cream cone. The reason why this is a stroke of simple brilliance, is because how many times have you found yourself sad or upset while eating a cone of your favorite ice cream? It has a way of cheering up the soul, right? Julian found his escape from culture shock, in any city he would travel to. I think culture shock is just a matter of elementary psychology. If we possess something we love that's familiar to home, then the world around us, however strange it seems at the time, gets smaller and familiar, and soon enough we belong.
I want to tell you about my first culture shock experience because it may help those traveling to France, Europe, or anywhere else you plan to be. And I love telling it. It's one of my favorite stories to share. So, I had arrived in Europe, still on my way to Annecy, France, which is a small town in the Alps near the border of Switzerland. We were a group of thirty who all knew each other, but for just a week during university introductions. We weren't friends -- yet -- instead, we were trying to fit into the European culture. We were scheduled to study French for a month at a small school called IFALPES, located at the center Annecy, which boarders a beautiful lake. Some of us would stay longer and travel France further, and some of us had no plans after the month ended.
When we arrived in Geneva we took a bus to Annecy. I felt universally peaceful. I had the comfort of my soon-to-be friends, and the funny bus driver who told us what sights to see in Annecy while making jokes about frogs and wine and mustaches. We arrived at noon and walked to the school to check our names in and to get our keys for the dorm rooms located above the school. The rooms were like tiny apartments, with one rectangular room and a hexagon bathroom. There was this odd balcony, too. It was about two feet wide with just enough space to stand with a drink while watching the sun set into the Alps.
I had a roommate. Most of us did, but for some reason I was partnered with a French roommate instead of a classmate from my university. I really didn't think about it at the time, but looking back on it, I'm endlessly grateful for all my roommate helped me with during the first couple days. When I settled down in my room, I unpacked and talked to some classmates down the hall, all girls -- to my satisfaction. I left the school and walked the quarter mile into town. It was a beautiful day. The sun was out, the people were walking in T-shirts and bathing suits, and the town felt massively alive. I could almost hear the town's heartbeat between my ears. There was fresh food and drinks everywhere I looked. Cafes lining the ancient cobblestone streets with chairs and tables set outside in the sun with just enough charm for the occasional passerby to stop in his tracks and order a cafe au lait -- with fresh bread and chocolate, of course.
I remember being stuck by the age of it all. Not one building had been torn down, leaving an empty shell in its place. There were no strip malls lining the avenues like any typical American city. No ugly condos blocking the views from the five-hundred-year-old, three-story apartment buildings. The ville was an honest and truthful look at a time and place when life was simple and slow. If you didn't like the holes in the cobblestone roads, if you didn't enjoy the rusted terraces and splintered handrails, well, maybe it's time to head back to Los Angeles, or Houston, or Detroit. I continued to get lost through the small alleyways and across the ancient bridges and into dark fire-lit tunnels. But then something inside me felt cold and empty. The awe of the ville had dissolved and culture shock was starting to kick in.
By the time I made it back to the school, it was afternoon turning into twilight. The town was clearing out. People were leaving to go back home, or back to Lyon, or anywhere else. I went back to my room and met my roommate. He was sitting at his desk reading a novel. He looked to be about twenty-five and was the nicest person you could imagine. He was studying computer technology in a nearby town and reserved this room because it was the cheapest available in the area. We talked about where I was from, about America in general, and about France. He gave me some quick French lessons on how to start a conversation and what to say when meeting a hot girl. Then he had to leave to meet a friend for dinner, and I was alone again. And it was still light out, as bright as it was at mid-afternoon! I was getting a fleeting sensation from anything abnormal. Too much change and no one to talk to.
I walked to the lake and sat down on an old green bench. I told myself I could make it. It's only 30 days! After that, I can go home again. It's only culture shock. Everything will find its way. Give it more time, you'll meet new friends and you'll get into a routine just like home. I told myself these phrases over and over again until I thought I believed them. I shook with pain, a cold wave of nausea and fear. Finally, I managed to walk back to the school, and up the stairs to my room. Then the fear resurrected like a tidal wave -- a tidal wave that kills anything positive in its path. By the time I made it back to my bed, I was a shaking panic attack.
I started reading a book to pass the time. My heartbeat was louder than any car down the road, or any noise down the hall. I started sweating and my throat got tight with tension. I paced the room, maybe a hundred times, back and forth, looking at the brilliant bright sky in the windows. I ditched my room and walked into the hallway looking for classmates. But the girls had left. They probably went to dinner. I started to move into an infinite mindset. I was alone, forever. There was no one to talk to, nothing to do, nowhere to go. I had to convince myself that people would come back. I would find my place in the world again, I wasn't the only one left in town.
Hours later, I was in my room reading from a French phrase book a friend had given me on how to pick up women in pubs. My roommate opened the door with a smile on his face. He asked me how I was, and I told him the honest truth. I was feeling uncomfortable with being alone, with the culture. I felt lost. I don't have any friends to relate to. He just looked at me and laughed.
"You'll learn French," my roommate said. "I will only speak French to you next week. You'll have tres bien friends, and girlfriends!"
"Merci, I hope so. Your English is ce bon," I said.
"Only now we speak English! If you need help with courses, I will help you. Do not worry. You are in a beautiful place, mon ami."
He then went into the bathroom and returned seconds later wearing a bathing suit. He told me to change into a suit too. I rushed to my suitcase and grabbed a suit. After I changed, we left the flat.
"Don't we need to lock the door?" I asked.
"No, this is Annecy, not America, mon ami" he said.
We walked to the stairs and ran down the last flight, sprinting through the hallway and leaping over the three stairs to the walkway paved downhill to the street below. My roommate waved me across the street and we jumped over a small fence behind some bushes. We ran to the lake to see a bunch of people sitting on the long pier. When we got to the pier it rocked side to side and up and down. There must have been at least fifteen people at the end of the pier. Imagine it like a flat balcony, a loft in New York, but on a lake. Everyone had bottles of wine between them, with cigarette smoke waffling into the crisp night air. Finally, it was dark.
My roommate introduced me to his friends. I told them my name, and I asked everyone their names in my horrible French. But no one laughed or made a joke, instead they pleasantly introduced themselves, each woman kissing my cheeks. Why can't American girls be this friendly? After our introductions someone asked where I was from, and I tried to answer the best I could. They tried to improve my pronunciation and vocabulary, and the girls taught me ca va was much better than comment allez-vous.
"Come, Gregoire, jump into the lake!" my roommate said. He was hopping up and down on the pier and laughing with his friends. Maybe he thought I wouldn't do it? Little did he know I was an advanced swimmer.
"Isn't there rocks?" I said.
"No, not here, it's too deep now! Allez!"
"Go, Gregoire, jump, allez," everyone said in a chant. So I threw away my inhibitions, the culture shock, the loneliness, the timidness, the paranoid Americanism. I jumped into the lake and the cold water released my troubles. My culture shock evaporated like an ice cube enveloped within a sun-bleached ocean.
My roommate crawled back on the pier and did another jump, this time a back flip into the lake. Then his friends followed him, and we jumped back and forth into the water like a bunch of children. Then we decided to race to an orange cone fifty yards in the distance. We lined up on the pier and someone said, "un, duex, trois!" And we were off. I didn't need to worry about closing my eyes in the water like the ocean back home. The water in Annecy is as fresh and clean as any water in the world. We could even drink it straight from the lake. And I did, every time I took a swim. The race was close. I was a distant second behind my roommate, who flopped over the cone and laughed as everyone made the finish line.
After an hour or so we had to say goodnight. People had to get up early, go to class, or to work. I just had to wake up and take a placement test downstairs in a classroom. I said goodbye to everyone, even though I knew I probably wouldn't see them again. I was so gracious for their friendship, even for one night, and they were more than happy to have me there.
I walked with my roommate back to the apartment, and I forgot to worry. There were a few classmates in the hallway, and I said goodnight. I'd see them tomorrow.
"Don't you shower after the lake?" I said, as I saw my roommate climb into bed.
"No, the lake is the freshest water in the world. It is a shower. Bon soir, Gregoire. See you tomorrow." He turned off his light and I sat on my bed looking through the window, at the stars, at the Alps, and the lake below. It was a dark night and you could see for miles. I had found my routine, I thought. Every night I would swim in the lake. I would be part of the culture. I belonged to Annecy.
The next day we took our placement exams and my roommate wished me good luck. How could I know that afternoon would be one of my best? I met many people then, made dates with different girls at the pubs all throughout the week. It was easy and simple, the way France always was and always will be.
I knew dozens of people who had similar experiences when getting over their own culture shock. Everyone seemed to have a unique way of adapting their life to that of Annecy. Some would walk along the lake at night with a friend. Others ate pizza at the town pizzeria. Then there were those that had crepes and ice cream after class, and it goes on and on. The important thing to remember is that the beginning of every trip to a foreign city is tough. Adapting to another culture, getting a good routine, and meeting people always cures culture shock. Don't worry about fitting in. The country will find a way to fit into you, if you just let it be. Soon enough you'll have a routine to follow, people to see, and pubs to socialize in. The best part about traveling is the beginning, when everyone and everything is vibrant and new. In order to experience the sensation of total culture immersion you must defeat and conquer culture shock. Then it's treading water: Annecy style.
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