Reverse-Culture Shock

Emily Binchy describes the experience of reintegrating to Irish student life after studying abroad.

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UPON return from erasmus, not only does one have to cope with the comedown of a six month high, one is also welcomed home by the alienating sensation of reverse-culture shock. This feeling results in many humorous anecdotes which lead us to identify with the ironic phrase of being too foreign for home and abroad.

The main struggle with reverse-culture shock is the need to refrain from blurting out all of your stories and tales which in your mind are compelling, fascinating and hilarious; yet to everyone else are uninteresting and dull.

Over time, one learns to bite their tongue and refrain from jumping into conversations with “this one time in France . . .” You learn to compartmentalise your wonderful memories in order not to become that irritating ex-erasmus student.

This unspoken ban on sharing stories of erasmus can have a corrosive effect, as gradually this life-altering experience fades into the recesses of the mind, causing you to wonder if it ever really happened at all or if it was just the result of vivid dreams.

On a more general note, the distinct lack of the smell of freshly baked bread filling the air and flowing through the streets is almost tangible. The unavailability of fresh, cheap, delicious food on every street corner is one of the primary issues to grapple with upon returning home. The need to cook for oneself in order to save money resurfaces after six months of not owning a pot and is, in itself, capable of inducing shivers and waves of cold sweats.

Coffee is another bone of contention when it comes to reverse-culture shock. Being overwhelmed by the size of a small americano and the amount of time it takes to drink when compared to the shot of coffee you get in France and have downed in a few seconds having asked for a normal ‘café’. The widening of your eyes when the large cup of watery brown liquid is placed in front of you needs to be contained in order to slot back into the loop of library coffee breaks and avoid potential isolation from friends.

“The eyebrow raises and sideway glances exchanged as friends give each other the she-wouldn’t-have-said-that-before look became all too familiar.”

Nights out are another element of post-erasmus life which require readjustment. In an optimistic attempt to slot back into a normal pre-erasmus routine, the decision to go out only a few days upon arrival home was a tentative one. Standing in the nightclub in my worn pumas and jeans, I was given a sharp reminder of the standards of dressing-up which one is expected to attain in Ireland compared to the more casual France. As everyone towered above me in their high shoes and the old familiar scent of fake tan came flooding back, I instantly regretted my decision to throw myself back into the Irish social scene so soon.

This experience inevitably lead to a reluctance to go out, which served only to deepen the subtle changes in relationships which had arisen as a result of six months’ worth of Skype dates. The eyebrow raises and sideway glances exchanged as friends give each other the she-wouldn’t-have-said-that-before look became all too familiar. Mutual feelings of being misunderstood as friends suggest getting a bottle of wine and sense your silent protest about the extortionate price and poor quality go swept under the carpet, as we attempt to renegotiate the lines of our relationships and navigate around the reverse-culture shock.

With time, a sense of normality begins to return as the disenfranchisement wears away and Erasmus becomes an increasingly distant memory. When asked about the experience, one learns to be content with answering ‘really good thanks’, aware that these things are simply formalities. One learns to relive moments in the mind, safe with the knowledge that reverse-culture shock eventually loosens its hold over us as our home lives reveals the gems which they too possess.

With this comes a sense of awe whilst visiting the cliffs of Moher, a new found appreciation for the breath-taking Irish landscape and a love for Dublin’s quirks and hidden caverns. Becoming a tourist in your home country is an integral part of the healing process of reverse-culture shock, and when you live in somewhere as picturesque as Ireland, many post-Erasmus woes eventually begin to appear insignificant.