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Surprised by Culture Shock!

We’ve lived in France for 90 days and it has probably taken several years off my life. We figured our move with little ones trailing behind was going to stretch us. But oh-my-word, we could never have imagined it was going to be quite this grueling.

TM had three work trips planned over the summer, which admittedly intensified the moving stress. As on cue, things tend to unravel about three days into each trip.

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During his last mammoth trip, one child was rushed to the hospital after falling down some stone stairs, my smartphone was stolen, ferret-like animals began breeding in the roof above each room and kids were woken up each night with sounds of woodworm munching away at the wood. Welcome to life in the countryside!

Add on: setting up life and costs everywhere we look, and vehicle purchases, and finding furniture for us and for guests to stay, and figuring out how to maintain the property. Plumbing issues or a boiler bursting on a Sunday morning and being first responders at a road accident that same day. That’s keeping it short and sweet: no wonder our nerves are fried.

Thankfully, TM planned a staycation after his last trip so we could recover. Not entirely true – we couldn’t figure out how to find enough time to plan a short trip to the beach. Regardless, we’ve really tried to use each day to crawl an inch further out of the trenches. We’re frantically waving our white survivor flags, proclaiming that the light is at the end of these trench-tunnels. It has been a helpful time to recognize how much the intensity of all the newness, the differences of life as we once knew it and the lonely new beginnings have really affected us.

I finally found a moment to sit on the terrace under the lush grapevines, to reflect on our transition roller coaster since preparing to leave Denver. It did me good to notice the vines overhead had been bulging with fruit. I hadn’t had the time to take in details like that in a while. Under the lush, bulging grapevines, I wrote out all the things that have transpired, the emotions we’ve felt, and the painful questions we’ve asked over the past months. With great disbelief, I barged into the house, where Tall Mountain was keeping wild children from pouncing on me, and cried: ’no wonder we are so tired, babe, we’re going through text book culture shock!

I never would have thought we would be stepping over suitcases sprawling with clothes, still 80 days after we landed. Or that the pool maintenance companies would take ONE-HUNDRED-AND-TWENTY days to respond to our initial requests to open the pool. Save your breath guys, summer is pretty much over.

Despite living pretty much in paradise, so many of the little things are starting to bug us and we’ve found ourselves growing critical:
– Why can’t French pool guys just take their vacation when people don’t need pools? Don’t they want our money?
– Why does the doctor need my neighbor’s approval on us being a good family to take us as new patients? That’s ridiculous.
– Kids here eat so much sweeter than we thought. Why is healthy food is so expensive? Can’t they just..

Once I realized we were in the thick of classic culture shock, I was able to place where we were on the culture shock U-curve, straight past the “honeymoon” phase, dropped right into the “hostility” U-bend. Actually, the famous culture shock U-curve feels so terribly simple to encompass so many complex emotions, don’t you think?

Here is my take on what the Culture Shock road map should really look like (click to enlarge):

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I added those jagged lines to my graphic, the ones that resemble stomach lining, because it is a wild roller coaster of emotions, hardly just an experience of sliding down a U-bend and back up to victory.

I also added the path choices you have when you feel in that dark, frustrated place we’ve been in quite a bit: will we thrive (green) or dive (red)? What if we chose not to observe and listen, and get lost in the dark cloud of withdrawal? We all know expats who have been down that path and couldn’t wait to get home. You don’t usually mention that trajectory on the standard culture shock curve.

And, the curve is a nice idea, but how on earth do you climb back up from being in a hostile, frustrated state of despair? I wish we ourselves had all the answers on how to expedite the process, but at least on paper, we know it will take time.

We also know that, to not only adapt but thrive:

– we need to become better observers and listeners and keep our minds open to a different way of seeing the world
– it is okay to ask for help (sometimes burning through all the favors from people you don’t know so well: Errr, excuse me, but can we borrow your trailer to take our massive IKEA boxes to the tip again? We promise we aren’t normally so needy!)
– we need to be invested locally as much and as soon as possible (How about starting in the football club, buddy?)
– we will probably have to be the ones to invite people to our homes before we get invited into theirs
– we owe it to ourselves to focus on what is in our control and focus on the bigger picture
– we have to stop fighting the natural rhythms if we want to enjoy life here. Every government structure is closed for a two hour lunch break, so let’s go hiking!

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Starting a new life on the other side of the world is a painstakingly slow process and the ongoing struggle isn’t very fun. But it is ripping out all sorts of demands and expectations and replacing them with strong new growth in our family. They are sprouts of increased faith and patience and oneness.

It’s the beautiful transformation you kinda want without the struggle.


Featured image courtesy of Max A.

5 thoughts on “Surprised by Culture Shock!

  1. Comme toujours, tu arrives à prendre du recul sur la situation, à l’intellectualiser, la déplier et la mettre à plat pour mieux la comprendre et la maîtriser… Absolutely no doubt you’ll thrive !
    Merci d’avoir expliqué ce phénomène. Je le connaissais sans avoir réellement mis de mots dessus et il est finalement applicable à pas mal de choses dans nos vies. L’important est donc de savoir s’adapter, ne pas camper sur ses positions quand elles ne conviennent pas et zou, le train reprend de la vitesse…

    1. Merci d’avoir pris le temps de laisser ce mot si gentil d’encouragement, Aurélie ! C’était important pour moi sur le plan personnel de faire un petit état des lieux avant de se retrousser les manches et affronter la prochaine vague du nouveau avec la rentrée des classes. (Contente si ça peut t’apporter quelque chose aussi !) Je pense à ta petite famille à cette occasion d’ailleurs…

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