Albania, Europe, Expat life, Personal, The Balkans

Culture Shock

I’ve always heard this term and thought I understood what it meant. I don’t really get culture shock, I’d think to myself, as if I was somehow immune to it. Well, yeah, you sweet little peach… It’s not that hard to adapt from one western destination with great food, culture, and comfort to the next. In fact it’s often thrilling. Like a natural high! But culture shock is a lot more complex than the image of a tourist freaking out over some slight change in what they’re used to. No ice in European drinks, for example. No. In fact the, “Culture Shock Model”, was really made more for those staying in another culture for a long period of time. The model I’m sharing was developed by Dr. Deborah Swallow (as told by me). I think this last week I cycled through the first three stages a few times in what was a bit of a rough week that mercifully ended quite beautifully.

1. Honeymoon stage

In this stage, it’s much like being a tourist or on vacation. The sights, sounds, smells (I mean not ALL smells) language, and differences are all thrilling. I think of this stage like Frances sitting atop the medieval building describing Cortona in Under the Tuscan Sun. Everything she says is expressed with pure delight and an absolutely positive slant. You look at your new home through rose-colored glasses.

I was in this stage the first week…. I’m not anymore.

2. Distress stage

In this stage all the differences start to impact you. That charming language barrier is no longer cute. It’s annoying and difficult, and at times makes you feel inadequate and incompetent. A trip to the grocery store that used to be fun and exciting becomes a chore. I don’t want to google translate every damn package. I just want friggin Costco! (And Target…. and Smith’s Marketplace and yes, freaking Starbucks. There, fine, I said it.) But, I digress…

People staring at your family because you sound different (and are obviously not from here) isn’t fun anymore, it just feels… exhausting.

3. The re-integration Stage

In this stage you often feel angry and hostile towards your new country. You look at it as inferior. If you let yourself, you can quickly develop prejudices about the people and culture you’re living in. You start to idealize your home country and wonder what the hell you were thinking in leaving such a wonderful place. “Don’t worry”. Dr swallow says, “This is absolutely normal and a healthy reaction – it means you’re adjusting. You are reconnecting with what you value about yourself and your own culture.”

So glad I read her words, because I was starting to think I was a terrible, terrible person last week.

4. Autonomy Stage

In this stage you start to emerge from the fog. You start to feel confident and competent. You accept the differences and feel able to cope healthfully. You’re able to accept and like or even love your surroundings and enjoy yourself again. Hint: I’m not in this stage. But I want to be…

5. Independence Stage

This is when you feel like yourself again! Like all the parts of who you were, and are, have become one. You embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light. Things start to become enjoyable. You feel comfortable, confident, able to make decisions based on your own preferences and values. You no longer feel alone and isolated. You understand and appreciate both the differences and similarities of both your own and the new culture. You start to feel at home.

So, how am I cycling through these phases? How are the kids? Well, the kids seem really good, so far. William has had a few meltdowns where he wanted to go back to his “white house”, and he wanted a donut. I mean, I want a donut too, Will. I hear you. I really do.

Scarlett told the waiter the other day who asked (because they always ask) whether she likes Albania or America more, that she likes Albania more. I asked her later. She said, “I like the beach and the pool, and the pizza and just everything here better”. Fair enough. I told her she doesn’t have to choose. She can love both. “But, I do miss Bentley” she said. Bentley is our neighbors’ adorable puppy back in Salt Lake.

Okay. That’s pretty good. We’re doing okay…

I, on the other hand, had one particularly bad day last week that threw me into a bit of a tailspin. While walking with the kids into the city to meet my hubs and Scarlett’s new teacher William started running way too quickly and I panicked. What if something happened to him! ( I’m already so protective of him because of all he’s been through) I was scared of dealing with him on the busy streets, and it was hot, so we decided to grab a random taxi quickly rather than calling Asllan (first mistake).

I used google translate to show him where to take us. He acted like he understood and we got in the cab. It clearly become obvious that he had no clue and I would have to navigate. Which, I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO DO in Shqip (Albanian). I quickly google translated, left, right, and straight. I tried. He got mad. It was a disaster. He was a jerk. He eventually stopped and opened the door and yelled at me and my two little children to get “out”. On a busy street. Nowhere near where I needed to go. I was shocked… and furious. I got out and called my husband and unfortunately proclaimed (too loudly.. probably) what I thought of this place and this mysoginistic old cab driver. We then had to walk 15 more minutes to where we were meeting and the whole way every sight, sound and person I saw was tinged with grey.

We met at a really lovely, modern air-conditioned cafe. My husband took the kids across to meet Scarlett’s teacher since we were late and I was sweaty, grumpy and not up for it. This will be better, I thought. I’ll grab a nice drink here and collect myself. I’ll feel better. The waiter served about 4 local people even though I’d been sitting there far longer. He saw me. He knew I was there. I eventually left feeling angry and defeated. In the U. S. I would have words to express myself. I don’t let myself be stepped on. Ever. But here.. I don’t know what to say. I wonder if I’m misunderstanding something. And heaven forbid I be some loud complaining American. Should I have ordered at the bar area. Am I confused? But no, he took their orders… I don’t know. Whatever. *sigh*

THEN to top it off, I went down to the big grocery store. “Why do they have freaking grocery stores in malls anyway”, I thought grumpily. I found an Espresso Maker on sale (as per the sign which said it was ON SALE and clearly stated the SALE price) that I decided I was going to treat myself to. Once my hubs and kids came back, we went to check out and it took 40 minutes for the clerk to call 15 people to determine that it was, in fact, not on sale. “Mmmmkay, suddenly not on sale, huh… wonder if that’s because I’m Foreign?” They looked at me, surprised. As if waiting for 40 minutes to be charged $60 more was ” No problem”. Fine. Whatever. Just ring me up so I can go back to my lovely air-conditioned house. My sanctuary away from all this crazy, I thought.

Outside my husband tried to hail a cab. “Yeah, no. Call Asllan.” I said. “I will not ride with anyone else ever again. And that wire transfer better hurry up so I can buy a car”.

It was a really crappy day. In part because of unkind people and in part because of my irritable, angry, and probably irrational culture-shocked self.

Thankfully, the anger and anxiety passed and we spent the weekend relaxing at the beach, eating great food, and spending lots of time together.

We have had a hundred other interactions with local people that were nothing but genuinely lovely and incredibly kind. People always look out for kids here. One sweet woman grabbed Scarlett’s hand tightly as we crossed a crazy city street because she saw I had my hands full with William. I looked at her and we both smiled. We couldn’t understand each other’s words, but we could understand each other in that moment. I think most Albanian people are this way. I really do.

Still, I prefer this “hard”. I do. Rushing kids to 15 different competitive activities, literally worrying yourself sick about getting them on the right teams, and the keeping up with the Jones’, the consumerism… and you know the Orange Cheeto in the White House? Yeah, I don’t miss that.

Also, I’m currently planning a trip to Greece for Fall break. Our flights will take 1 hour and cost $100, so, give me a minute, but I think I’ll be okay.

I realized that my culture shock meant I’ve really been knocked off my center and that I need to implement my normal self-care habits. I’m working on another post about what I did to feel better. Self care habits for expats and travelers.

Self care and mental health are soooo important on this journey, and I’m determined to take better care of myself so that I’m present and joyful as my kiddos inevitably cycle through these phases too.


❤️ Melissa

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  1. Sara

    September 9, 2018 at 4:35 pm

    Okay, Melissa. I’m just going to come out and say this. I FLIPPING LOVE YOU. I love you for being honest. I love you for trying so damn hard to acclimate. I love you for your pretty pictures and keeping it real all at the same time. This is hands down one of the best posts that I’ve read on expat life. <3 (Also I'm lowkey sad. I'm going to be in Salt Lake in a few weeks for work and I would have totally made you hang out with me. SIGH.)

    1. admin

      September 9, 2018 at 9:09 pm

      You’re so nice! Ah. Thank you!
      No!!!! We totally could have hung out!

  2. admin

    September 17, 2018 at 11:09 am

    Thanks for catching that! Fixed it.

  3. admin

    September 17, 2018 at 11:31 am

    Thanks for catching that!

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