Grocery stores are always where culture shock – and reverse culture shock – hit me hardest. Why do you have so many yogurts, France? Why do you have so many canned foods and fake cheeses, America?
But no, more importantly, why is the wine $10, America??
I was more prepared for reverse culture shock this time. Last time, after studying abroad, it hit me hard and fast and I spent
weeks months bemoaning the lack of good bread options in my life. This time, it was the small moments that have come as a surprise : the toilets don’t have buttons on the top, they have handles. Grocery stores are open on Sundays. You don’t have to tell cashiers you’ll be paying with card and you also don’t have to say hello as you enter the store. Waiters are overly friendly. A “French baguette” is, apparently, as long as an alligator. But, then again, everything in America is bigger, anyway (which I also forgot).
Reverse culture shock is harder to cope with than culture shock. Culture shock you expect. You’re ready for the Monopoly money to become a part of your life, for everywhere to close on Sundays, for snails to be haute cuisine instead of garden pests. But going back is a mixture of two problems: 1) you think you know the culture you are about to dive head-first into because it is the one you grew up in, and 2) you just acclimated and adapted yourself to a totally different environment, one that not everyone you’re close to can relate to. You forget that small, mindless phrases in French don’t make sense to a lot of Americans (“c’est parti!” “allez ciao” “bises”).
It took a long time for me to realize just how pretentious and snobby it sounds to begin every sentence with, “When I was in Paris….,” or “I just got back from Provence…” For those of you returning, I advise you to use these terms sparingly (heartfelt apologies to everyone who interacted with me post-Paris before I learned this). If possible, try to find other people who have also returned from a stint overseas who want to talk about the current state of the American kebab or how they also have a pile of terrible Photomaton pictures. Seek out friends who have also been to the places you did – I promise they will find your stories more interesting than someone who hasn’t. Or just watch Sabrina, which I’m convinced is entirely about reverse culture shock, anyway (Audrey Hepburn, not Harrison Ford).
On behalf of everyone who has to deal with someone who has just returned home from an extended stay in France (or anywhere else!), my deepest sympathies. We want to tell you everything we saw and smelled and about everyone we bised. The only advice I have for you is simple: profitez, because likely your friends and/or family members will be craving a lot of recipes involving Nutella and herbs de Provence (miam!). Listen, but (gently) tell your friend or loved one that hey, maybe you aren’t interested in hearing about when they got lost in the Louvre or their favorite crêpe stand again. Ask for their favorite moments and leave it at that. But most importantly, be patient. It is (well, at least for me it was) an incredibly emotionally sensitive time for them – especially if the return tickets haven’t been bought yet.
Adjusting and adapting is hard, so for anyone (especially those returning from studying abroad) back in America, know that you are not alone. I think the coffee tastes bad, too, and the money is ugly. ♦