How to Successfully Avoid Reverse Culture Shock

At the study abroad meeting waaaay back in November, before I left for France, I was given a timeline of culture adaptation stages and told that my emotions would roughly mirror this:

It was a little complicated, but yes, I managed to understand it, thank you.

I agreed with everything except that I would get reverse culture shock. At the time, I was dreading leaving so much that I considered the next 5 months to just be some sort of cruel self-inflicted torture designed to force me into maturity (or something somewhat resembling it). Once I settled into my life in Grenoble, though, I realized that leaving was probably not going to be as easy as I had originally thought. In fact, I was absolutely dreading it. I mean, who would want to eat dinner at any other table, with any other decoration?

You know, just where I ate every meal for five months.

And so when the opportunity arose to take the roadtrip of a lifetime – commencing three hours after I landed in America – I took it, and said to myself: “If there is anything at all you have learned over these months, Sarah, it is this: Pourquoi pas?”

So when three of my best friends showed up on my doorstep the night I came home from France, I left with them. Bags still packed, circadian rhythm out of whack, hair dreadfully unwashed. It was impulsive and possibly foolish and to be honest, we didn’t really know if it would work out until the day before – but we went. And by doing so, I discovered the cure to reverse culture shock.

Nineteen hours in a car can teach you a lot. It can teach you what your friends look like when they are at the end of their rope, when they fall asleep in the middle of a sentence after driving four hours straight through the middle of the inky black Indiana-highway night.  It can teach you what sleeping positions you can actually live with when unable to lie down. It can teach you that drinking soda can probably make you bloated, and thus either very uncomfortable or very embarrassed.

Nineteen hours in a car can also show you a lot. Everything you pass is somewhat slightly different. Scrub-table diners in the middle of scrub-field towns. Enormous water parks, across the street from one another. Ridiculous grammatically incorrect sign after ridiculous grammatically incorrect sign. Unfamiliar faces from unknown walks of life.

To avoid – yes, avoid, not get stuck in and subsequently have to conquer – the phenomenon known as reverse culture shock, you must throw yourself into your home culture. Stop preaching about Belgian beer, and start laughing as you choke down Milwaukee’s Best Light. Stop throwing around your French catchphrases, and learn the new slang that you missed when you were gone. Flop down on a manicured lawn and suck in the scent of the well-tended earth.

Shake hands with America. Memorize every road sign, giggle about the ridiculous town names you pass. Roll your eyes once – but just once, no more than once – about the ridiculously wasteful size and probable gas mileage of the innumerable Chevy SUVs that cut you off on I-80. Stare, stunned, at the Chicago skyline at dawn, orange sunlight cascading through the car windows. Marvel at the fact that you can now see the stars , and go for a run without having to cough up smog for the next two days. Let yourself be amazed – not disgusted – by the sheer number of Wheat Thins flavors, brands of orange juice, and types of cereal.

To avoid reverse culture shock, you must not let yourself be shocked. Explore the parts of this indescribably enormous country that you do not think of when you think of the word “home” – the parts that are so utterly different from the culture you left, and your hometown, that you find yourself not disoriented and melancholy, but instead exhausted with taking it all in.

And then – return home.

The things you have learned from living abroad don’t go away. The sense of wonder, independence, and adaptability are engrained within you, it doesn’t go away. Yes, you have lost your boulangeries. You have lost your ability to buy and drink €1 bottles of wine in a park. You have lost the thrill of constantly speaking, learning, and loving a second language. You have lost the people you have called your family and best friends for the past four months; they are flung out around the world now, and the chances of seeing them all in the same place again are slim to none. But you have not lost yourself. So push the still-sharp, bittersweet nostalgia to the back of your head. It doesn’t matter anymore – what matters is the sense of adventure that you will carry with you for the rest of your life.

Embrace this next adventure of home.



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Grenoble, somewhat explained.

How do I describe, exactly, how life here is? I can give you snapshots: walking down the wind-tunnel side street near my house, cursing as my umbrella turns inside out no matter which direction I make it face. Gagging as I maneuver my way through yet another group of men on the tram who really just can’t find 3 seconds in the morning to put on deodorant (or maybe they just don’t know what deodorant is – which is perfectly plausible). Nearly crying with laughter as I sprint around the perimeter of a deserted dark square with my best friends, for no other reason but to sprint, and feel the cool city wind on our faces, and collapse, winded and gleeful, to cry “Santé!”, clinking together our 1€ wine bottles.

But I think I speak for everyone here in Grenoble, that I can’t ever really make someone else understand what it is to spend every moment here, wide-eyed and tongue-twisted in this busy little city in the heart of the Alps. And as the days tick down to our departures on Thursday morning, I can’t help but want to freeze this all, so that we all do remember what it was like to sprawl out in Parc Paul Mistral on a hot Friday afternoon, and eat kebabs at Notre-Dame as the tram clunks on by, and grudgingly shell out 10 euros at the discotheque to end up having one of the best nights of your life.

So that’s why I’ve made this little montage. So everyone back home can know – and no one here in Grenoble will ever forget – what it means to be young and in France.


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Happy Cinq de Mai!

I feel a tad uncomfortable celebrating Cinco de Mayo here in France, seeing as it’s Mexico’s way of celebrating the day they defeated the French Army against all odds back in 1862. But, then I remember that you can only say “Happy Cinco de Mayo!” once a year after taking a tequila shot, and then I don’t feel uncomfortable anymore!

Alors, because I could not present you with a Happy Thursday music tidbit – as my Thursday was not happy, and spent studying for the Diplôme Universitaire d’Etudes Françaises exam – here is my gift to you, mes cheries, two days late.

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How I Finally Conquered Depression (Sort Of)

It’s been a while – welp, 25 days, to be exact – and I feel like I’ve been around the world and back in that time. It’s been a weird 25 days, an exciting 25 days, an upheaving 25 days – but most accurately, a humbling 25 days. And I’ve been searching for awhile, for much longer than 25 days, in fact, to describe exactly why I’m feeling this way. So, without further adieu, I’m about to get a little personal.

I’ve struggled with a mood disorder since I was about 11. I knew, even in my horse-obsessed 6th-grade head, that something was wrong the November day that I was standing in my kitchen, tears streaming down my acne-studded cheeks, unable to muster up the will to put away the dishes from the dishwasher, because we were all going to die someday anyway.

Insurance companies call what I “have” Depression 311, or  “Depressive Disorder Not Otherwise Specified,” because I don’t quite fit the bill for any of the DSM-IV’s finicky labels. When it comes down to it, though, is that there are some days where I cannot move, cannot think, cannot do anything but stare at a wall and breathe, in and out, in, and, out – and then there are other days where there are so many words, so much frustration, inside me, that I feel as if it’s all coming out of my very skin, and I can’t do anything but chuck innocent objects across my room and yell obscenities at the top of my lungs.

That is – when I’m not on my medication.

Now, stop. Reread the above sentence. What does it mean?

It means this: “She can’t be a normal person unless she’s on her medication.”

Welp, cool life, Sarah.

But technically, yes. And this is why, on April 2nd, when I ran out of my prescription for a lousy 20mg-per-day pill, I didn’t go through the hassle of refilling it. Don’t get me wrong – this is not a new thing. I’ve tried this before. And every time, it’s the same. I think I’m fine, and then depression hits me like what happens when you forget that your attic roof slants. Yeah, ow.

So of course, what happened about a week after I stopped? What you’d expect. Did it stop? No. So I went back, as I always do – but this time, I had realized something. When I stop taking those teeny-tiny pills, it’s always with a resolve – I don’t need medication to make me a normal, functioning human being. And when my mood inevitably starts to downswing, I lose faith in myself.

Until now. Because what I really should have been saying to myself was this: I need medication to help me conquer something that shouldn’t be a part of me, but unfortunately is. Depression is not me. It never was, even on that November day in my kitchen back in 2002. It’s just something that’s always going to be there, unless I fight it. And that fight is part of who I am. Not a chemical imbalance, or a dependence on 20 mg per day.

So what I mean by this all, is that we all have buried within us things about ourselves that we want to change, but can’t. And what I say to you, mes cheries, is this: don’t. There are some things that you cannot change, no matter how many times you try. These past 25 days have showed me that this road of self-discovery is filled with shifts and changes and upheavals, in perceptions and relationships and experiences. However, the final destination is acceptance. Not a “giving-up” acceptance, but an acceptance where you say, “Okay, c’est comme ça,” and then you go out and you succeed even more because of it. … And that sometimes, in order to be at peace with something that makes you upset, or ashamed, you simply have to reword it.


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Happy Thursday!

SO… never mind

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April 5, 2012 · 6:13 pm

A little sentimentality, si ça te branche…

There’s something to be said about the verb “brancher” in French. It’s used in a very common expression for inquiring about interest: such as, “We’re going out to London Pub tonight, ça te branche?” It means, roughly, “Are you interested?” A willingness to branch out, to try something, if you’re down for it.

And so far in France, everything has me branche – from singing off the balcony of a centre-ville apartment at 3 AM, to impulsively drinking pints with random French friends-of-friends-of-friends and scoring (yet another) swerving ride on the handlebars of a bicycle down Grenoble’s busy avenues, to challenging myself to run the 2.5 km up to the Bastille (no easy task, might I add), to braving the twisting mountain road in an oversized bus (anti-nausea pills previously gulped down, of course) up to these absolutely éblouissant caves in Choranche.

It was a bit like Khazad-dûm, to be honest. No? No one got that reference? ... Fine.

But brancher has other meanings, as well – one of which is “connect.” And however wonderful it is to  dabble and experience and taste and explore and do everything there is to do, I find myself feeling just a little empty, a little less-than-content from time to time, when I switch off the light at night. The connections that one makes while abroad are often superficial, good for a text now and then – we’re going to London Pub, ça te branche? – but they don’t truly know you. They wouldn’t recognize you after you’ve rolled burritos for six hours, when your skin smells like fajitas and barbacoa, and your brain is so addled that you nearly ask them if they want black or pinto beans every time you open your mouth. They wouldn’t recognize the expression of unimaginable joy you make when your beloved dog sprints to the door to lick your face and whack his tail against the walls. They wouldn’t recognize the face you make when you realize that you’re completely and overwhemingly in love with the person in front of you. They couldn’t. They never can.

What we have makes even French couples jealous.

In our lives of arbitrary choices based on moods and to-do lists, it is hard to stop and count the number of people who mean so much to us. Yes, the network of vrai connections I have here in France are not numerous. But, they exist still, and mean just as much to me as my closest friends at home. Just the fact that we can still make these types of true connections gives me hope, that maybe we can overcome the baggage at the back of our minds, and still truly brancher, regardless of total time spent together, unfamiliar contexts, growing pains, and culture shock.

Yes, it is important to brancher in the first sense, in this wonderfully bizarre world. But it is just as important to brancher in the second sense. To connect. To know. To trust. And that’s what I mean, I guess, when I tell you that I miss you, or that I truly appreciate you. That nothing in the world – not even the caves of Choranche – really compares to having a true friend – home or abroad.

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Happy Thursday!


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