The Swimmer

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”

– G. K. Chesterton

Reverse culture shock – strange term, right? The phrase gives me this mental picture of a swimmer feeling a literal shock from jumping into the ocean in February and then, like a VHS tape comically rewinding the scene, experiences an almost more disorienting shock at uncontrollably reversing back onto the shore. As anyone who swims in chilly water knows well, your body gets used to the water temperature after a while and you can even feel comfortable. Emerging from the water to return to familiar land often feels more disconcerting than the inward plunge. And the crazy thing is that with travel, we willingly choose to be the swimmer.

A bystander on the beach might ask the swimmer, “Don’t you feel cold? Wouldn’t you prefer to stay on the beach where the sun can warm you up?” After the four months I spent in Denmark, I think the question I would ask the swimmer is, “Are you different because you dived in and came back?” and I’m sure the answer would be “Yes.”

I’ve definitely been changed by my time abroad. Not all of my experiences were “good” in the sense of enjoyable, but they all affected me and helped me develop a new understanding of the world and my place in it. Like the winter-swimmer, I developed a sense of comfort in the once-chilly water of a new culture. And I, too, felt this weird sense of backwards motion as I returned to the culture I grew up with in the U.S. A week since my plane landed in Boston, that feeling is starting to subside and is being replaced with a mixture of familiarity, nostalgia, and (to my disappointment) boredom. It’s definitely good to be home; I missed my family and friends, and spending time with them makes me really happy. But in down-time or if something sparks a memory, I find myself missing the exhilaration, anticipation, and even the anxiety that accompanied exploring a foreign place.

The consolation I’m left with is that “Yes” I am different because of my time abroad. As Chesterton says, I do find some small things that I would once take for granted exciting and full of possibility like a new toy at Christmas. I never realized how BIG almost everything in the U.S. is – milk and juice, for example, is only sold in 1-litre cartons in Denmark, and my host family hardly ever had snack-food because it was so expensive. Opening the fridge and pantry in my home was almost overwhelming at first! I felt like it was all disproportionately large. The wonderful familiarity of seeing signs in English, hearing radio hosts and TV anchors speaking English without an accent, and simply knowing that everyone around me was from my country were privileges I never knew I should cherish. The U.S. was foreign in that it felt different, or I felt different, than I did back in August.

Now, I’m not worried about my future. I learned that I really love travelling, so maybe I’ll backpack some more? I’d really like to explore the U.S. – I’d like to see Yellowstone, mountain bike the Appalachian trail (or part of it!), listen to a super-indie band perform in Seattle, eat lobster in Maine. I want to meet people from all over, learn about their lives, their worldviews. I want to share my experiences with as many people as possible – for the personal gratification of doing so but more so on the slim chance that maybe something I say will have meaning for them. I know I’ll graduate in the spring, not with a fantastic GPA but a respectable one. I know my path will lead to medical school, and I know I’ll eventually become a doctor. But if my study-abroad experience taught me anything, it taught me to enjoy the things I don’t know, to delight in filling in the gaps between the “I know’s.”

I’m excited to explore them.

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Filed under Nathaniel in Denmark, Western Europe

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