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culture shock

Culture shock

This is England, in late-spring. When I left La Serena it was late autumn.
Haworth, England
May 2020

Culture shock happens in both directions

When I’m on the outbound stretch of an adventure, I feel somewhat prepared for it. I expect things to be unusual. I know local street food is likely to make me sick. I expect to take ages navigating the supermarket and to finish my shop still not sure what I’m going to eat. I pretend I’m prepared, but, in reality, I never am. Culture shock isn’t merely something that happens in your mind, it also happens physically. Bodies do not like being uprooted. They like the status quo. When you screw around with your habits, your body kicks up a fuss.

I mention my impromptu driving to Santiago from La Serena and people are aghast at what I did, but the drive was not as hard as the moment of body shaking realisation when you realise all you have had to leave behind, all the goodbyes you couldn’t say and those you said but wish you didn’t have to. That is painful. We are social, tribal creatures and the faces of my every day are now thousands of miles away. In a way, it’s like being cast out of one tribe and suddenly finding myself embedded in another. My name changes, the language changes, my role is different. Although I am still me, I am not the same.

And going back, this me that I am is not the me that I was

A student of mine tried to explain to me that there is a huge unemployment problem in Chile. I listened, took notes of his English and thought about how unemployment is ravaging the lives of some of my Chilean friends. Those who aren’t unemployed do not, by any means, take their employment for granted. It creeps into the edges of conversation. People worry about how the pandemic and the inevitable economic impact will affect their jobs. It seems it doesn’t matter how hard some people work, how generous and caring they are, life remains unfair and cruel.

This stands in contrast with my life in England where I live in a house which now feels like a palace. I come back to England and within a week I’m ordering a computer chair so that when I sit at my desk my body is supported and the impact deskwork doesn’t have too detrimental an effect on my posture and long-term health. I have a laptop stand and a separate screen so that I’m not craning my neck to read. I have a separate keyboard and a full-size mouse. I wonder how many of those ‘there-is-no-Chilean-middle-class’ colleagues I worked alongside this year have a similar set-up.

This feels unfair.

The anger that houses itself inside me is proving hard to tame

How do I come to terms with all the privilege that I am suddenly faced with when it stands in such contrast to the realities of the lives of people I’ve come to care for and admire? No, England is not all filled with safety and security. There is poverty here too. There is racism and there is desperation and there are too many people living without a fulfilled sense of meaning, but at least when they get sick there’s a hospital that will accept them and the state education system tries to educate.

I am angry. In my opinion, Chileans often underestimate themselves and each other. Many sighingly see fault in their compatriots, complianing of their materialistic desires, credit card debt and apathy. Chileans are always asking me why I would want to be in Chile when I could live anywhere in the world and I have not yet found an answer that satisfies them. Chile is home to some wonderful, kind, loving, generous people but I believe this truth is dominated over by their fear. I am angry; maybe my anger is sadness strangled by my fear.

I cannot pull all my disparate thoughts and feelings together

My mind is in a state of shock. I am struggling to come to terms with my newfound perspectives and the contrast of these two lives. My stomach churns. The discomfort shows itself in more ways that one.

Inevitably the culture shock on coming back to the United Kingdom hits me with more force than I anticipate. It never seems to get any easier.

Adding a pinch of salt to some well-meant advice

Lorca Castle (Fortaleza Del Sol)
One of the towers of the castle that stands staring down over the town of Lorca in the region of Murcia. The Fortaleza Del Sol, the fortress of the sun. I ate a roast pepper and tomato salad here that was not quite as I expected.

A hall, with plastic chairs and a projector. A short, smiling Spanish lady fiddles with the computer controls as she tries to make the presentation show. It starts late. We’re in Spain, so no apology is deemed necessary. Patience is expected. The first presentation begins with a man who speaks a challenging form of Spanish. Here they drop the ends of the words, particularly anything with an ‘s’ and speak ever so fast. I don’t catch a single word.

The heavily-abridged English translation, haltingly forced out by another Spaniard who’s uncomfortable with having to translate, could be summarized as ‘welcome’.

Then the men disappear; the cheery Spanish lady takes over. It’s an improvement of sorts. It feels like a meeting that’s convened because having such a meeting is the done thing. She informs us that on moving to a new country it’s useful to adapt to your new culture. I agree, to a point. However, in my opinion, this isn’t something you learn by being told.

In my opinion, it’s an uncomfortable process where your habits are wrung out of you. You cling to your old ways of doing things but are squeezed into something new. Round peg, square hole. Little by little you come to realize that there’s more than one possible way of living. Maybe you get there quicker intellectually, you know you have to adapt, but physically and emotionally, I think even the most seasoned traveller has norms they fight to cling to.

We were advised that sticking rigidly to dinner at 7pm would result in a very limited understanding of Spanish culture. And here I agree. Food is everything. If you are going out for dinner and you turn up at 7pm, you’re only going to find people eating in the most touristy locations. It was a message intended for those people who would later complain about Spanish food, but it missed the point. The same people will still complain.

To fit in with the Spaniards you need to show willingness to do things like them so that they understand you want to join in. But it would be silly to think that all Spanish people do things in an identical fashion, or that eating a meal at 7 o’clock in a restaurant with friends who were happy eating at such an hour would be a problem.

We eat breakfast at half eleven here, toasted baguette with tomato, olive oil and salt. This suits me because after three classes I’m hungry. I’m told it’s the traditional Spanish way of doing things, but not everyone eats breakfast. One teacher has tea and toast without tomato, I have a café americano and another teacher has a glass of orange juice.

What’s more, when I arrived home from work at one o’clock this afternoon, my Landlady was finishing her lunch. Lunch here is typically a three o’clock affair, but that’s not always convenient.

One Spanish lady I met, who had been a nurse in Manchester told me that eating at English hours had been the hardest thing about her placement to England. She explained to me that in her opinion, you have to listen to the needs and habits of your body at the same time as embracing a new culture. I think I agree. I’m easy going and have tried a variety of different food here in Spain. But I can’t deny I miss my mother’s cooking and Indian food. On a week night, if I’m heading to bed shortly after ten, I’m not interested in eating at nine. If I’m alone I eat when I’m hungry. The children at school inform me that in Spain you have five meals a day. When you want to eat, it’s probably time for one of them.

When I ask my classes how many of them would be willing to try a Yorkshire pudding or toad-in-the-hole I’m faced with only a few courageous hands. Fish and chips fares a little better. Not everyone is adventurous when it comes to eating. Food has a lot to do with nostalgia and comfort and a sense of home. Just because you’re living in a different culture doesn’t mean you don’t still have these same needs, albeit maybe they’re less strong.

I think that the advice to eat at nine, not seven is misguided. I think that time is not the important factor. And I think that the advice should be if you choose to live like a Spaniard, and it’s a choice, you need to surround yourself with Spanish people and invite them to share with you their culture so that you can learn. What’s more, when you decide that there’s something you don’t like, politely say no. You get to choose how you adapt, and when and what you eat.

Day two in a Sicilian household: “Caterina!”

Sicilian goat-dog


I appear and am instructed to an armchair, in front of the armchair is the stove. My Sicilian host, Leonardo, is wearing a fleece hat that reminds me of my school PE teacher whom we nicknamed Dopey after the seventh dwarf. He used to tuck his hat behind his ears in the cold English months of school hockey.

Leonardo pointed to the stove and explains, in gestures and a word or two of English, that the stove is the central heating and will warm my room; it’s also the heat for the kettle so I can have a cup of tea (I wonder how exactly as we have no teabags); since I need it to stay warm, when the wood burns through I’ll need to reload the stove; and I should relax with the company of my computer in the armchair.

We have a common language, but it doesn’t involve words. It exists through the mutual understanding that comes from having similar cultures. It’s easy to notice the differences when you travel, but such communication happens through the similarities. It’s action and hand waving, and what you might call common sense. It works surprisingly well when you stick to the concrete. The abstract less so.

His partner, Maria, is away, returning tonight. In the meantime, we’re having our meals at Francesco’s house, our neighbour.  He runs a home for stray and abandoned dogs with the help of a volunteer who’s staying there. Dinner time company is therefore two Sicilian men, smoking, drinking wine and talking with their arms; a grounded nomadic Swiss woman, Greta; and little English me.

During dinner I learn that Francesco has a philosophy of resorting to Nutella mid-afternoon to fill the empty hole in his soul that’s caused by the absence of love. Greta says Nutella is bad for our bodies and bad for the environment and sugar isn’t going to solve lovesickness. She does the cooking and believes in eating with kindness. She also is fluent in at least four languages including Italian and English.


Enough. The kitchen is also home to supposedly two dogs – the house dogs – but frequently four because, like me, they don’t understand the rules.

The awkward unknown of adapting to a Sicilian household

Sicilian Almonds

[Attempt two]

It took a full day of travelling to cross Sicily: a falling apart car, three trains, and then a yellow van.

I’m still a fan of the Italian trains. One of the three was a tiny train up through the hills across Sicily. It was beautiful. The scenery reminded me of the North of England for reasons I cannot explain. Maybe I was just thinking too much about home. In another train, I stared out of the window, as we followed the stunning Mediterranean coastline. No train arrived on time, but all of them had enough room that I could keep my suitcase close by. I panic about leaving my suitcase out of sight.

Then there was the yellow van. By the time I was strapped in the van seat, my suitcase safely tucked in the back beneath some large sheets of wood, I was tired.

We took a detour to the house of Maria’s mother. Maria, a Sicilian craftsman, is my current host.

I exchanged pleasantries in a British fashion with her mother, a wonderful Italian nonna (grandmother) who insisted on giving me a pomegranate.

“My mother,” Maria explained.

An enormous pomegranate filled the fruit bowl and I admired it as was pointed out. You could have played football with it. Maria’s mother and I discussed the wonder of the night’s sky. Her father turned up fully dressed, with the addition of a dressing-gown, holding a pair of binoculars.

Leonardo, Maria’s partner, and I got ready to go; Maria’s mother disappeared to find me a plastic bag for my own small pomegranate. Maria shook her head despairing affectionately.

“The house of my mother – perfect, mine no.”

This not so perfect house – which I’d describe as lively – is where I’m living for a little while. Lively is an understatement.