My first overseas adventure was a week or 2 after my 13th birthday, when I went to France for a three-month student exchange. Looking back, the experience was a very positive one: I learned a lot about myself, was exposed to a life that was different from my own, and (almost) became able to communicate in a language I knew next to nothing of before I left. At the time, however, I was an angsty young adolescent who was her own worst enemy in a strange land. The first month and a half I spent in France I was completely miserable: I barely spoke to anyone other than the other 2 Canadian exchange students at my school, and I spent most of my time locked in my room writing letters to my BFF’s back home, who were so lucky to have been able to go to the mall and have sleepovers with each other all the time while I was stuck in this weird, smelly, mall-less hellhole for another hundred years (or so it seemed at the time).
As time went on, I eventually got my act together and started allowing myself to enjoy the experience. About half way through my time in France, I realized that I could actually speak and understand French at an acceptable level. This opened to door to independence, pain au chocolat whenever I wanted it, and new friendships with people who were as foreign to me as I was to them. I started to participate more in activities with my host family, no longer relying on their English-speaking daughter to be my sole companion and guide, and became a part of a new family. By the time my 3 months were up, I didn’t want to leave. Forget the mall, le printemps dans la France m’attendait!
There’s this idea of a parabola of culture shock: after the peak of the initial honeymoon period is over, you start to resent the differences between this culture and your own, and you sink to an emotional low point. After a time (the length of which is different for everybody), you reconcile yourself with these differences however you see fit, you get happy and comfortable again and you settle in for the long haul. (Or, you don’t reconcile, and you leave if you can.) Once you return home, a similar parabola of reverse culture shock usually follows.
Ever since my formative experience of spending three months in France, I have found myself relating to this culture shock parabola for not just travel, but for any big life changes. It’s different for everyone, but it seems that for me three months is the amount of time it takes to run the gamut, establish a level of comfort with a situation, place, person, idea, etc. and have a clear opinion of whether or not it’s for me. Over the years I’ve had relationships, jobs, and living situations that have reached the three-month point and been abandoned, just because by then I knew it wouldn’t work. I have often caught myself living my life in three-month chucks of time. Last year was a prime example: 3 months in Mexico, 3 months in Haiti, 3 months in Canada, another 3 months in Haiti.
Now it’s been just over three months that I’ve been back from Haiti. I haven’t been blogging during that time, mostly because I felt like I didn’t have much of interest to say. I’m pretty sure that exposes me for the crap blogger that I am, so let’s pretend that it was because I’ve been riding out my three-month adjustment period. How have I reconciled myself with the difference between my new-old life, my old-old life, and my most recent travel experiences? It hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes I still can’t believe that last year really happened, or that it was actually me who lived the experiences I did. (Re-reading my own blog now I think, “Really? There’s no way it was me who wrote something with a title as pretentious as ‘Political Cacophony’. Please.”) It was hard to come back to things like fashion, consumerism, and the way people go on about things like how unfair the electoral system is in Canada (compared to how they roll in certain other places I’ve been). It freaked me out to think of how I maybe used to think before, and how I might return to thinking that way, being back in this world. It’s hard realizing that the more you learn, the less you know, and trying to find a way to work that realization into your daily life.
At first when I came back there were some aspects of my new life that I tried to force, to prove to myself that what I’d learned was tangible and real. That ended up making me pretty unhappy. So I did the mature thing and gave my whole experience the middle finger, declared it just a bunch of stuff that happened, and wallowed in some serious regression for a while. That also didn’t really do it for me, so I decided to just stop worrying about it and just let myself live. Much to my surprise, the laissez-faire attitude has been working out pretty well so far. Maybe the things that I’ve learned aren’t tangible, and the changes that came didn’t come because I decided they would. These lessons and changes are manifesting themselves in surprising ways now that I’m allowing them to just be. Some of it is what I’d hoped for, some of it maybe isn’t. For example, I’m no longer obsessively following the situation in Haiti as I was trying to do when I first got home, although I do stay in touch with my friends and dream about being back there at least once a week. I’m prioritizing taking care of myself and focusing on doing what I’m doing here and now as well as I can, instead of relentlessly planning my next adventure like I usually do. I’m not frantically working my butt off to be able to make everything happen as quickly as possible, and it’s insane how much free time I’ve discovered as a result.
My life right now isn’t as exciting and interesting as it maybe was this time last year, but I feel happy and healthy and sane, so I really have no cause for complaint. Adventure comes in many forms, and right now the one I’m on is a bit more slow-paced than I’m used to. This likely means less blogging, but it’s good to not share everything with everyone all the time. (Especially when it makes for an uninteresting read.) Maybe I’ll write again in another three months, by which time I might be on a whole other level I’d never imagined before. Or I might still be here in Ottawa, doing the same stuff and feeling the same way, which would be great as well. You’ll know I’ve reached a point where it’s time to stage an adventure intervention when this turns into a cooking blog…but considering the state of my perpetually dirty kitchen, I don’t think there are any worries for the time being.