Adjustment to a new culture nearly always leads to some degree of culture shock – simply because culture is not just a collection of new foods, a translated phrasebook, and new horizons.
Culture is all of it – all the small, crucial elements that shift and vanish and reappear and rearrange themselves.
I noticed differences in the air when I first stepped off the train here – heavy and hot on the platform, pressing down on my limbs, suitcases rooting themselves to the cement. I walked downhill towards where the sea glimmered between buildings and palm trees, but it was the wind that caught me first. It pushes through narrow streets, like the wavering wand of a compass pointing me toward the skyline, slivers of wind through heavy wooden shutters, cooling the sweat on the back of my neck. After the first few days I can’t smell any difference in the air, but the breeze still catches me as I come around corners.
Foreign snippets: People in the street – liquored-up laugher at 6am, high heels stumbling across cobblestones. Music from the square – twirling violins, merengue beats, or the Piano Man. Silverware noises from kitchens above kitchens, filtered up through laundry hung above other laundry. Italian and French coming from the other bedrooms – unknown words in familiar tones. Toasts in five languages at our red-checked kitchen table. Real bells.
Sometimes the smallest adjustments can feel like fundamental shifts – as though the ground is tilting almost imperceptibly. In my kitchen is a small Italian coffee pot that perches precariously on the gas range – or that tips and dumps hot coffee all over the stovetop, in early morning light. I am using cups with saucers, and eating toast with pureed tomato or olive oil and salt sprinkled on it, instead of butter or jam. I am eating Spanish food on a Spanish schedule – lunch at 2pm. Dinner at 9. I am taking the bus every morning – catching the 8:25 bus and sitting with my forehead on the glass and music in my ears. Or watching the earlier bus sail past, and waiting along with the private school kids in their blue and white uniforms, until they climb onto their swanky private school ride. When the 8:40 bus arrives, it is packed and warm with crowded breathing, and I am always clinging to some pole near the front, adjusting to the jerking stops that throw me off my balance. (And invariably, the people I am thrown awkwardly into are either frail, elderly women or young, attractive men.) My first day riding the bus to school – while in the early stages of being an allergic, coughing mess – I sat next to a somewhat larger and significantly older gentleman. We sat there in silence, both slightly wheezing, until I got caught in an uncontrollable coughing fit – at which point he silently handed me a cough drop. I thanked him, and now we nod at each other most mornings.
(All of which is to say: I’m not a visitor here. I live here now.)
Time and Space.
The magic of technology can be a soothing trick of the eyes (and the ears.) From across oceans you can hear the same voices, see the same faces, say the same things in the same language, pay the same bills, read the same news, and watch snippets of familiar faces and lives slip by. Decades or even years ago, you didn’t have the same illusions. You could watch for the mail. You could read and re-read words on creased paper. You could wait at train stations or airports for faces that had grown thinner or hair that had grown longer or unfamiliar clothing on familiar bodies. Your skin could still prickle with loneliness, but without the pixelated faces and garbled voices. I’m trying to remember these things, and I’m putting more on paper than I am on this screen.*
* But please note that I have written 2 blogs this week – I told you I’d try to keep up better!