Culture Shock


We’ve been back for three days, but sometimes, Italy seems like it never happened.  It’s like a book we read or a dream we had.  Time feels distorted.  I feel disconnected.  It’s as if half of me missed the connecting flight.  Sometimes I can picture the windows overlooking Via Mazzini or the green tiles in the bathroom or the handle on the refrigerator door; it’s all so vivid. I am there.  But it disappears quickly when I open my eyes.  Then there are phantom sounds.  Yesterday, I thought I heard an Italian police siren in the distance.  This morning I thought far-off church bells were ringing.  But usually, it’s just very, very quiet here.

A friend pointed out that culture shock is more acute when one returns home after a long trip.  I think I understand.  When we left for Italy, everything was disorienting and different.  We expected it, and the adjustment came gradually and unnoticed because our brains knew they had to learn how to function in new surroundings.  Then, when we came back to our old home, the familiarity registered instantly and subconsciously; these past few days, I defer to rote movements when turning on the kitchen burners or unlocking the door.  However, these little tasks can surprise me.  My hands are used to pushing the knobs of the stovetop before turning.  When that doesn’t work, I need a moment to catch up and make sense of it all.  My brain says “home” but my muscle memory says a different home.  And in that moment, the colors of our Perugia apartment surround me.  And my heart dips as I realize again that we are no longer there.  I’m surprised when the clerk bags my groceries for me or when pencils have erasers or when there is no hard  mineral residue in my pot of boiling water.

I’m trying to figure out how to bridge the chasm between the two lives.  I want to make the experience of our last year part of me.  I want to stay connected and remember everything, but I don’t know how.

I had two wonderful encounters at the grocery store today.  The first was with Sara.  When I called her name, we ran into each other’s arms.  It was emotional and a little loud.  It was happy and exciting and full of disbelief that here we were together after a year.  It felt really good.  Soon after, when I was in the dairy department, I overheard an older couple looking for pecorino cheese, and they were speaking Italian.  So I quickly jumped in.  I told them I had just returned from Italy.  I asked where they were from.  We talked about Sicily and Umbria.  I helped them find the right cheese.  Then I helped them find Italian rice and Italian flour.  We kept talking and talking.  Then we made a coffee date for next Monday at 10am!  They are my new friends.  When I walked out of the store, I was feeling alive and hopeful.

10 thoughts on “Culture Shock

  1. it’s wonderful to have those opportunities show up when you need them most. how very fortunate to meet the Italians and even better to be open and welcoming to those new connections. I am sure you were a welcome site for them too. -xo

  2. Your year in Perugia will go on forever. Now your brand new Italian friends from the grocery can blog about the wonderful, thoughtful, knowledable young American who came to their rescue in the cheese dept. You are correct that yesterday will never come again, but then, neither will today. Enjoy the next several days relaxing with your dear friends, all of whom must be so happy to have you back. Love, Mom

  3. Someone once told me it was one month of adjustment for every year spent abroad. Maybe I’m mistaking it with jet lag – one day per hour time difference – but I would say we found both estimates true! We embraced some things on our return (attached garage, laundry room, groceries bagged for us) and missed others (full fat yogurt, chicken pies w/no veggies, the walkable neighborhood we lived in). Your adventure will influence you & your family for years to come – it’s all good! Welcome back!

  4. I’ve been home 4 months and it is a difficult transition. I too, feel like it never happened. And life here didn’t stand still. You will be different but others won’t be. I think it’s the gift we have for having the time away.

  5. First– congrats to Sara 🙂 Second- WOWOWOW what a great story!! ‘Angels” sent to you, and you to them.
    So, so, so glad you’re back. Really hoping we have a great week, one so great that I make the blog next week……
    love you!!

  6. I’m glad you guys got back alright. Noé is still getting your postcards, thank you so much! He should send you a letter but we need your home address 🙂

  7. Dear Jill,
    Thank you for continuing your blog. Sharing your Italian adventures and your reflections on your year has been a great gift to many. May you thrive in every life venue by being present to the moment. You are a dear. See you soon. Anita

  8. 🙂 how wonderful to find an old friend and new friends at the grocery store. So wish we were going to see you in Portland this weekend, but I know that you’ll have a great time where you’re going. The reverse culture shock will go away, which is both good and bad. But it is what it is; you are where you are. And you are greatly loved and welcomed in both Perugia and here! Love you!

  9. Sorry you had to leave Perugia, but glad that you came back to Mercer Island to tell me about it, and about your blog. Surprisingly easy to find–searched “jill perugia blog” and there it was.

    Best wishes on your readjustment, and keep wordpressing on.

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