The Things No One Tells You
In the weeks before you prepare to depart your recently adopted homeland, your Facebook newsfeed and your group Whatsapp and your inbox will be flooded with articles and blog posts and op ed pieces about coming home. You’ll become a pseudo-expert and fervent disciple in Reverse Culture Shock.
But, for all of articles I read and the friend-of-a-friend experiences I heard recounted, there are a few things that I’ve realized in the last few months that no one amount of studying up on Reverse Culture Shock prepared me for.
1. It’s surprisingly easy. One minute you’re meeting friends for tapas in an alley behind your piso and the next you’re driving the streets of your hometown having flashbacks to high school and it’s almost as if you’ve never left. I was just there, you think as you pass the restaurant where you had your farewell dinner, conveniently forgetting the last year of your life. Sure, you miss Spain, but do you know what else you miss? First crushes and your mom’s tuna noodle casserole and your childhood bedroom. Spain seems like just one more thing that’s gone the way of high school relationships and deceased grandparents: there will always be a hole and an ache for the things you left in the past but, with time and new memories, it gets smaller.
2. The panic. You’re lulled into a false sense of security for the first few weeks. This is so easy! you think triumphantly. I should come home from foreign countries more often! And then the panic sets in. Is this it? Is it all over? This big, significant thing that you spent the last ten months living and will impact the person you are for years to come is now just one more memory out of many, like losing your two front teeth at that roller rink or your first heartbreak. What if you forget the language and the lessons and the person you became? What was the point of any of it if you can’t point to at least one thing and say, “And that’s what I learned in Spain.”?
3. Happiness is slippery and evasive and rare. This is the biggest shock that I was not prepared for. In Spain, happiness came easy. It fell in my lap like sunshine, it blew in on the breeze with my curtains through the open window, it was mixed into my tinto de verano and its the stuff that they cure hams with.
This isn’t rose-colored glasses talking; there certainly were frustrating times and hard times and dull times and times when I missed home. But, as a whole, my life was happier there. What makes happiness so easy when you’re not at home? Is it the climate? Is it the lack of responsibilities or reality? Whatever it is, I took it for granted and I want it back.
Maybe these are lessons that you already knew. Maybe they were lessons that I already knew, but this is the fourth thing that no one ever tells you about: you have to relearn them, and so much more, when you come home. How did happiness work before? In Spain, it just happened, but now: do I make it? Is it given to me? Do I take it? Where does it come from? This panic that reminds me I was made for greater thing, that I lived greater things, and now my life is a duller sliver of what it was: how do I get past it? This is more than deep breaths and positive visualization. This false sense of comfort lulls me to sleep and I have to fight tooth and nail to work harder and dream bigger than my high school self would’ve been content with.
Life from Here On Out
Y’know how people always say that it’s better to “have loved and lost than to never have loved at all”? Well, I’d like to call bullshit. Sometimes I think it would’ve been much better if I’d never experienced Montana or lived in Spain so that I wouldn’t have to feel this heartache that hits me in the gut so hard that I have to stop and catch my breath.
This is the fifth thing that they never told me about coming home: nothing is ever the same. Sure, it feels like home and looks like home and it smells like home, but it’s different. Or, rather, it’s not different: you are. And you can sleep in your old bed and hang out with your old friends, but it’s not the old you that’s doing these things. If home is where your heart is, this can never be your whole-hearted home again–just like Spain never felt like a complete fit–because pieces of your heart are missing: you’ve carelessly left slivers of yourself in Gardner, MT and Huercal-Overa, and College Station and Washington D.C. and wherever else you’ve been that you’ve lived.
But, what’s done is done. I’ve loved and I’ve lost and I’m back in the States. I don’t know where I’m going next or what I’m doing but I do know that my heart isn’t here in the Bay Area.
Or, maybe, once I leave, I’ll find that I was wrong. Maybe the Bay Area was just my rebound home and for that, San Francisco, I apologize: you didn’t get the best of me.
What I learned from Standing Still
After spending a month in Texas, I was given/offered/handed the opportunity to go to California for a while. It was a sweet deal–free rent, paying job, indefinite amount of time–that fell together so quickly that I thought it was Meant To Be, with capital letters.
And then I spent two months out here. I applied for countless jobs was offered zero interviews. I made all of five friends. California was not the American Dream I’d been led to believe.
So, two months later I say the words out loud, “I haven’t been happy for a while.” This acknowledgment brings me a surprising amount of peace but still something holds me back from cutting the ties completely and going somewhere else.
I feel like I’ve failed. I came all the way out here and what do I have to show for it? I thought California would be the Land of Opportunities and instead I’ve found the Land of Waiting. I’ve had some nice times with some nice people, some good stories to tell, but nothing that’s made me stop and say “Damn.” Maybe this is a consequence of a post-Spain life. Happiness is hard and breathtaking moments are just as rare.
But after a talk with Kristen, who feels similarly about the Bay Area and is preparing to cut her own ties with the Golden State and give Colorado a try, I have to admit, I’ve had a good summer. And maybe that’s all I get.
What I learned from standing still out in California is nothing. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe I’ve had enough personal growth and life-changing lessons for several years to come. Maybe I was supposed to just come out here and have some fun and drink too much whiskey and never ride a cable car and get on a first name basis with the receptionist at my dentist’s office and wear some Superbowl rings and accept that not everything ends with a life lesson.