Moving overseas, I expected things to be different, but I was unaware of reverse culture shock syndrome, that feeling when suddenly things that used to be normal now seem foreign. This was my third return to the U.S. after living overseas, and it hit me hard once again. Even the simplest things feel unnatural, leaving me disoriented.
-I got used to small shops that focused on one thing, such as food. You rarely see superstores. You are more likely to buy your bread at the bakery, fruit and veg at the produce market, and meat at a butcher. Walking into a grocery store here, I am overwhelmed. Who needs a cereal aisle that runs the store’s width with numerous brands of the same item?
-And eggs. In Europe, they are unwashed and don’t need to be refrigerated. Did you know they can last a surprisingly long time?
European refrigerators aren’t big enough to hold a typical American shopping trip. Dave and I quickly slipped into the habit of shopping for the week. A positive side effect is that we rarely had food that went bad.
-People take their own shopping bags. They are available for a fee. But it’s easier to keep some in the car where they are always handy.
-And there is less to recycle. All three European countries we lived in made recycling easy. Germany had curbside pickup for almost all of it. Our bi-weekly trash fit in a tiny bin.
-Eating out is a social affair ranging from two hours in Germany to three or more in Italy or Greece. While the food is superb, it is incidental to the time spent with friends and family. You know when you enter the table is yours until you finish. When I came back to visit my mother, we went to lunch. The waitress brought the check with the food and then stopped by the table to see if we’d put our credit card in the holder! Seriously? What if we want dessert? Or coffee?
-The pace of life is different as well. Europeans take time to smell the roses. They say they work to live, unlike Americans who live to work.
-And driving. I’m sorry if you’re the man behind me wanting to make a right turn on red while I wait for the light. Just give me a toot! And you will never see anyone pass on the right unless there’s an incident ahead. You drive in the right lane, pass in the left, and move back over. Simple.
-Speed limits didn’t seem to matter in Italy or Greece. They do in Germany, but the system is straightforward. If you are between the signs in town, it is 50 kph. If you are outside the town, it is 100 kph unless otherwise marked, which it rarely is. The autobahn is unlimited most of the time, but 130 is recommended. Too fast for you? Keep right. And yes, I used the metric system for the speed limits above. A base 10 system makes much more sense than 12 inches or a foot.
-In each country, I tried to learn the language. Communication, however, goes far beyond that. There are other customs as well. I wonder how some of my American friends would feel if I rushed up and kissed them on each cheek?
– These are just a few of the things I find difficult to adjust to, and many of them I would like to keep. But the thing I will miss most is not being able to take Widgit everywhere we go.
It’s hard to find people who understand why I sometimes get confused. I once was so overwhelmed in a grocery store I walked out without buying anything. A friend who understood told me not to look at the lights; they only emphasize how long those aisles are.