The Shock Of Your Life – Culture Shock

Moving to a new country with different customs, values and language, will cause you to experience culture shock.  We went through it.  Our friends went through it.  It’s normal, so try not to freak out too much (even though meltdowns are inevitable) and don’t worry, it will get better.   The crazy part is that once you’ve successfully adapted, the odds are that you will return to your native culture and experience the same thing (known as reverse culture shock).

Dictionary.com defines it as “a state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange or foreign social and cultural environment.”  Everyone’s different and everyone’s experiences are different, but there is a common pattern.  People experiencing culture shock generally go through these stages.   It starts with the ‘Honeymoon Phase.’  This is the “oh, how charming” stage. You will find everything is an exciting and interesting.   It seems like you are on vacation.  Who ever vacations someplace long enough to get sick of it (‘Paris Syndrome,’ ‘Jerusalem Syndrome‘ and ‘Stendhal Syndrome‘ excluded)?

How much you put yourself out into the other culture, how insulated you are from it and the pressures you experience will help determine its length, but generally it this phases lasts a few days to a few weeks.  Obviously, the more you mix it up with the local culture, the quicker it will end.  Don’t worry though, the loss of this euphoria should ultimately lead you to better understanding of the culture and adaptation.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this, what happens next distressing, you will probably drop an expletive (in your native language since you probably don’t understand too much of the local one) and realize you have changed almost everything in your daily life.  While this may arrive in a time of peace (and induce panic), it is much more likely that you have just locked yourself out or had some other bad experience.  This is called the ‘Negotiation Phase.’

Just like that, the honeymoon/vacation is over and you have to start living your daily life someplace where you don’t know how to do it.  Between us, we felt disoriented, confused and lonely.  After trying to get the apartment set up and start work, we were exhausted.  Having been though it I fought the urge to speak in English and succeeded some of the time.  Other people, watch their American shows on sling boxes, hunger for food from the US (even if it is McDonald’s and they don’t even like fast food) or spend their time with other expats.  Essentially, you become nostalgic for your native culture (while forgetting its problems).

Instead of getting better, things only get worse (or at least they do until they get better).  Living somewhere where you don’t understand how things works is disorienting.  You get sick of feeling incompetent (see Les Incompetents posts).   You wonder how you went from someone who was competent to, well, this.  Plus, with your support systems far away and your new ones not well established, it can be even harder.  It’s easy to focus on the negative.  Even if you don’t, you’re likely experiencing many more negative emotions than usual.  Anger?  Check. Sadness?  Check.  Frustration? Impatience?  Dissatisfaction? Depression?  Aggression? Rage?  Check.  Check.  Check.  Check.  Check.  And, um, yep, check.

If this is you, remind yourself  that this is inevitable when adapting to a new and different culture.   It’s at this time that most people want to leave.  Others get really depressed or negative.  Try like hell to keep a positive and open attitude.  It will be hard to connect with people if you seem like a loose cannon.  I know that life is a minefield of potential problems and you will completely screw up the simplest things (that you used to do without thinking in your native country).

Trust me when I tell you people may try to help, but 99% of them don’t understand what you are going through.  Trust me also when I tell you that lots of others of them flat-out don’t care.  I know it sounds bleak and you are probably asking why would anyone ever do this.  Remind yourself that you are in the middle of the ‘Adjustment Phase.’  Trust me one more time when I tell you that it will get better and it is worth it.  I repeat.  It will get better and it is more than worth it.

If you work hard to learn the culture, accept the customs, adjust and integrate, at some point things will get better (usually from six to nine months).  You will acquire a critical mass of knowledge, reach an inflection point and things will get easier.  You will start to feel like less of an idiot all the time.  Heck, you might even feel competent.  Even if you still don’t understand everything, daily tasks won’t induce the same level of anxiety.  It makes your life a lot easier and enables you to have a more balanced view of your new culture.  You will get happier and people tend to respond positively to this.  You’ll still probably make a fool of yourself (see Les Incompetents posts), but it won’t be as often.

Finally, you will enter the ‘Mastery Phase.’  It’s enriching and rewarding.  It builds your confidence and increases your understanding of the world.  You better understand and appreciate your native culture (or aspects of it anyway).  You will grow in ways you never imagined.  You have made amazing friends.  Some continue even further break through to an even deeper and richer understanding of your new culture.

Culture shock isn’t the easiest thing in the world to deal with, but since when do you get something for nothing?   It’s the price you pay for the wonderful experiences, knowledge, growth and friends.

This post is for one special person who rocks.   Hang in there.

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Some Of The Things We Learned This Year

Sorry for the poor posting lately.  We went home to the US for a bit.  Between irregular internet access and cute nieces/nephews, I didn’t update as planned.  Now, we are at home and are both sick.   Our germy, jet-lagged heinies are planted on each couch and drinking tea.

This past year has been filled with changes.  Here are some of the things we have learned:

  • Certain actors become much more bearable when dubbed in other languages.  Although I generally avoid watching David Hasselhoff like the plague, I enjoyed watching Knight Rider dubbed Spanish.
  • Seeing other ways people live has helped us to better understand American culture and how we are products of it.
  • Shockingly, not everyone is as loud and expansive as we Americans are.  When we were in the US, we were a bit overwhelmed by the size of stores, malls and parking lots.  I guess it is a sign we are adapting.
  • What my dad said is true, only boring people are bored.
  • He was always a good packer, but I have learned how to be a much better one.  I can now make it a week with only a backpack!
  • There are all kinds of different ways of communicating.   As Americans, we tend to be more direct, linear and explicit.  Others are more indirect, circular and/or implicit (putting responsibility for understanding on the listener).    People aren’t going to change for you, so you’d better learn how they express themselves so you can understand what is being communicated.
  • If someone does a bad job cutting your hair.  Do not let them be the one to fix it.  Trust me on this one.  If you expressed dissatisfaction with their work, they may bear a grudge.  If they bear a grudge, you don’t want them with scissors anywhere near your hair.
  • Try not to complain.  Regardless of whatever pickle you may be in or frustration you may have, there is always someone who has bigger problems.   What seems like a big deal at the time usually isn’t a bit down the road and you will feel like an idiot if you’ve made too big a deal about something small.
  • You can’t treat your partner too well (especially if they are one of the only people you know on the continent).
  • It makes you feel a lot better when you understand why people do things so differently.  Getting yelled at for crossing the street the wrong way becomes a whole lot easier when you understand where they are coming from.
  • My photos are improving.  Despite regular practice (due to Geneva‘s high cost of living) my cooking has not.  On side note, the war with my oven continues with no end in sight.
  • We are still working on perfect mastery of conversions, but we’ve definitely learned some conversions (metric, Celsius, currency, etc.).
  • Lots of times, we call things learning experiences because there isn’t anything more positive we can say about them.   Change is difficult and stressful, but it is also a huge opportunity to learn and grow.  Plus, change is inevitable.  You may as well learn all you can and try to enjoy yourself along the way.

 


Before

 
Dining Room

We have been very lucky.  Apartments are hard to come by in Geneva.  It is on a lake and surrounded on three sides by the mountains.  This makes land scarce. None of the buildings are taller than six or seven stories tall (preserving the mountain views).  It has made a perfect storm for a housing crisis of epic proportions.  I have heard that there is .5% vacancy (it may even be less). When we only put one offer and got our dream flat we were extremely lucky.  We were even luckier that we could get the keys within hours of landing!

Every makeover show has a before and after.  I decided to show our apartment the same way.  Plus, I am still putting things away.  Here are the before shots of our place:

Living/Family Room
Entry/Main Hall
The Number Two Room
Guest Bedroom (Washington did not sleep here)
Our Bedroom (insert cheesy “Cribs” reference joke here)
Bathroom (sorry about the toilet seat and notice the showerhead)
The kitchen with my nemesis (the stove)
You shouldn’t have to wait too long for the “after” photos should not take too long. I have invited everyone in our building over for a housewarming party on Friday (not a very Swiss thing to do).  I am frantically trying to get pictures up and get the apartment ready.
 

 

Does Anyone Need A Sherpa?

I can now add a new position to my resume.  Sherpa.  If you need a Sherpa, I am your woman.

We live in an old building from the turn of the century. As a result, it does not have a garage. Rather than rent a parking spot for a few hundred Swiss Francs a month, we are leaving the car at work. We will be able to park in the neighborhood when our local registrations come through. In the meantime, we are hoofing it during the week.

Everything we buy, we must carry home ourselves.  It’s not a problem and we don’t mind it one bit. It does yield some interesting train rides. Here is a top ten list:
10. I purchased a shelving unit from Ikea for my (admittedly excessive) shoe collection. I received lots of honks on and even a thumbs up with an “Allez, Yeah” on the way to the station.  Enjoy the photo above even though it doesn’t do it justice.
9. Carrying 6 bottles of wine home.  I tried not to look like an alcoholic. Funnily enough, carrying 6 bottles of wine doesn’t even merit a raised eyebrow here.
8. Walking down the street carrying an iron (purchased from the Salvation Army for a steal) with no box.  I couldn’t fit it in my backpack because it was full of groceries.
7. He and I carried our (possibly too large) TV to our apartment.  We had to carry it from the other side of the city because we also purchased this secondhand.
6. Although technically not in the same category, I have been carrying magazines home.  Everyone recycles here (more about that in another post).  On Wednesdays, everyone puts their paper goods out in front of their doors for the city to pick up. On our Tuesday evening walks, I have seen perfectly good new French fashion magazines sitting on top of the recycling.  They are perfect for me because I can easily read them and the articles aren’t too long.  I have scooped them up and gleefully carried them home.  The $6-7 that they cost at the newstand is prohibitively expensive.  Free is the right price.
5. Lavender.  All the old ladies on the tram (and a few men two) wanted to ask me about the beautiful plant I was carrying.  They wanted to know where I got it, tell me how lovely it was, how nice it smelled, etc.  It is currently ailing.  Here’s hoping that it will pull through.
4. A toilet plunger (again the backpack was full). Enough said.
3. A lamp that was taller than me. It was a smokin’ deal that the Salvation Army and even has a dimmer! How could I have passed that up?
2. An excessive amount of wine and beer bottles to take to recycling (see #9). We invited all 7 people we know in Switzerland to dinner.  Funnily enough, this didn’t merit a raised eyebrow either.
1. One day I carried this table home. To it, I taped a vacuum cleaner, a steamer and a plant stand.  Oh yeah, I wore my backpack too.  It was full.*
*Swiss people have been very nice.  That day, I had no less than four people ask me where I was going so that they could help me carry it.  I politely declined. For me, it was a point of pride. How else can I train properly for my Sherpa job?

Our Obligatory Laundry Story

If you read Swiss expat blogs, you will soon realize that everyone has a laundry story.  It is inevitable and they are usually humorous.  Ours arrived ahead of schedule…

Having heard laundry horror stories, we decided that it was essential to get a washer and dryer immediately.  We hadn’t even been in the country two hours when we were investigating our laundry hookup to buy a machine.*  Above is what we saw.

The former tenant removed everything, and I mean everything. The man at the appliance store had to arrange for special plumbers to come and install them.  They were installed the day we were on our last pair of clean underwear!

*We met our realtor immediately after landing to pick up keys to our place. This is very, very unusual. When I tell people this they get a shocked look on their face and their jaw drops.

 

Update

Sorry for the lack of posting recently. We have been wireless, busy, but wireless.  We now have regular (not the free internet access in the park*) internet access!   I will update more on the fun things we have been up to in the coming days.  


In the meantime, all I can say is that the gods have been smiling upon us. When you arrive in Geneva, the first thing you need to do is find an apartment.  We got our keys right after landing.  This is unprecedented.  Our belongings arrived soon thereafter, very rare.  We were able to go right to Swisscom and open an account for phone, cable (would be good if we’d purched a TV here yet) and internet.  Also rare.  Finally, thanks to the sound advice of friends, we immediately purchased a washer and dryer.  They were delivered yesterday. This is HUGE here.  


The importance of reliable, convenient internet access cannot be understated. It makes it feel less like camping. 


*The free internet access is great. Unfortunately, I found it a bit slow and there was often the threat of rain.  

Moving Day!

The movers came and delivered our things yesterday!  It was so nice to see our things.  I was slightly embarassed at the number of shoes that came out of boxes.  If you catch me show shopping, please stop me.  I may have a serious problem.


All of our dishes, glasses, silverware, etc. were covered in unappetizing container dust.  He washed dishes in our tiny sink for about six hours straight and there are still some things to wash today!

We are very happy with our apartment and discovered an awesome patesserie in the neighborhood before meeting the movers.

I wish I could say that we are heading to Grenoble, France today to watch the time trial of the Tour de France.  We are getting the apartment liveable and getting groceries.   

Crossing Things Off The To Do List

Moving to another country is not like moving across town.  We aren’t familiar with the lay of the land, they don’t speak English, there are different norms and everything just looks different.  We were prepared for everything to take a long time and for many problems. Fortunately the gods have been smiling on us.

Here is what we have managed to accomplish thus far:

  • got keys to apartment
  • purchased washer and dryer
  • toured gyms
  • got a tour of our neighborhood, to learn where the post office is located, met with a doctor (to have one if necessary), went to grocery stores and lots of little things like that
  • Went to the bank
  • got our phone, cable and internet set up
  • bought a special Swiss phone
  • visited the office office
  • got our yearly public transport passes

Needless to say, we are going to bed early.

First Impressions of Geneva

Here are our first impressions of Geneva and the first few things we saw:

  • The streets are very clean (especially after a visit to NYC).  Everything is clean, even the gym floors.  When we went to check out a gym, we had to slip hospital booties on over our shoes to keep us from getting them dirty (this happened multiple times).
  • We saw Lamborghinis, Porches, a Maserati, Range Rovers and just about every make and model of German Luxury cars.  Auto enthusiasts can just park themselves on the sidewalk near the Four Seasons and gawk.
  • We heard lots of English spoken in the streets and at restaurants.  We heard French and a lot of other languages too.

 

We’re Here!

We have arrived safely.  After arriving, we dropped our excessive number of bags off at the hotel and met our realtor at our new place to pick up our keys.  He got to see it for the first time and liked it.  We will post pictures soon.