Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Reverse Culture Shock: Looking Back Six Months

Two days ago (Nov. 4) marked six months since I officially came back the United States from Italy.  I used to refer to this jokingly as the worst day of my life, but I have found ways to use my study abroad experiences in my life now and enjoy any opportunity to help enrich the campus community with my experiences.  Working for the study abroad office has given me quite the outlet, as well as participating in PALS.  I'll pretty much jump at any opportunity to talk about Italy, and my friends find this quite amusing to say the least.  So yes... I've held off for a while, but here's a post about Italy (or rather my experiences after Italy).

Anyone who knows me knows that I had a bit of trouble adjusting back to the United States when I came back (aka reverse culture shock).  I compared everything to the Italian equivalent, yelled at the Olive Garden "Taste of Tuscany" commercial, still wanted to say, "Ciao, grazie," when I left public establishments, and talked about Italy non-stop. I was – and in some respects still am – an Italian snob. Yes, I'll admit it, I was a bit out of control.  But, can you blame me?  I had just returned from the four most wonderful and adventure/experience-filled months of my life and had an intense passion for the Italian culture as a whole.

I first went through sadness of leaving Italy.  Then there was the excitement of being home and being able to tell all my stories to more than willing ears.  Then when those willing ears diminished in number, there was denial that I was actually back in the US for more than a week.  After a few weeks of being home, I moved to Boston to do my internship.  That was a bit of a distraction from my obsession, but I still felt rather sad and alone when I thought of Italy and how much I wanted that experience back.  I started journaling about everything Italy and writing down memories.  I even read "Under the Tuscan Sun" and "Eat Pray Love" among other books to curb my obsession.  I'm still quite obsessed six months later, but the aching for Italy has become happiness that I had the opportunity to experience studying abroad in the first place and still missing Italy a little bit when reminded of my experience.

Right after leaving Italy, my group of friends and I made a private Facebook group for just us so we could all keep in touch, exchange phone numbers and US contact info, and obsess over Italy in private. I probably would have gone nuts if not for the messages from the girls and numerous Skype sessions filled with, "Oh my gosh, nobody understands," and, "Today I spoke to an old woman in the supermarket about my experience because my parents are sick of Italy stories."  My study abroad friends became my support system, and I still love hearing from all of them about junior/senior year in college.  When Hurricane Sandy hit a week ago, there were messages of "Stay safe," and "Love and miss you." Now and then, there is still the occasional post about certain fashion shows happening in Italy or encounters with Italian students/speakers on our various campuses.

During the summer, I made a list of all the things I experienced during my reverse culture shock. Here are some of the top things I can remember right now (the list was pretty long).  Everyone goes through reverse culture shock in some way, but everyone experiences it differently and for varying amounts of time:

  1. I thought I broke the toilet on the day after I came back from Italy.  I forgot that American toilets had standing water in the bowl, so when I looked into the toilet, I had this awful sinking feeling in my stomach that something was wrong. In reality, there was nothing wrong, and I quickly remembered I wasn't in Italy any longer. 
  2. Hearing English and only English again was really weird.  On the other side of that, not having to prep myself in another language before speaking to a native was also really odd.  At first, it was nice to be able to understand everyone, but after a while I really missed hearing the musicality of different languages being spoken all around me. It also took me a lot of effort not to respond in Italian in certain situations.
  3. Food was a HUGE adjustment.  I was definitely spoiled because of my meal tickets while I was abroad.  These tickets allowed me to eat out at Italian restaurants for most of the week.  My program, AIFS, really understood that food was a huge part of the culture and one part we should not miss out on.  Americans just cannot do Italian food well because they end up complicating what should be simple and delicious. 
  4. Going from a beautiful half-medieval city with cobble-stone streets and buildings so close together you could practically reach across the street from your window and touch your neighbor to rural Adams, Massachusetts, was really weird. I went from having everything to do to nothing to do and from walking everywhere to driving everywhere.  
  5. As I mentioned, I talked about Italy non-stop when I came home.  Everyone was really interested at first, but this interest quickly went away.  It was also really difficult to tell stories to people who had not lived in Italy for four months and did not understand Italian culture the way I knew it.  Explaining the layout of the city was really difficult too until I figured out I could show everyone a satellite view on Google maps.  Unfortunately, interest had gone away by the time I discovered that. 
This might sound like a depressing return to the US, and it was for a little while.  However, now I'm just really thankful that I was able to experience everything in the first place and that I'm able to share my experiences with my peers and family members (in a less overwhelming way now, of course).  Right now, it would be culture shock for me to go back to Italy since I've adjusted back to the American culture so much (though I resisted for a while).  Someday, I will return and will probably still remember my way around and be bombarded with all the memories I made during my four months there.  I look forward to that return trip, but I know I have important things to complete in the US first.  Until then, I hope I can a way to use my study abroad experience during the rest of my college life and afterward.

My friends (excluding my friend Ryan) on one of our last evenings in Florence on top of Piazzale Michelangelo.  Photo courtesy of Molly Byrne.

If you have any questions about my study abroad experience or my life as a student at St. Michael's college, please feel free to email me (emurray@mail.smcvt.edu), Tweet me (@LizMurraySMC) or ask me a question on formspring (lizmurray3).


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