Seven years ago on Monday (Memorial Day), my mom arrived in Germany, serving as a Colonel (specifically as a command liaison officer to European Command) in the U.S. Army. One year later, her son started college in Dallas, and her husband and two daughters joined her overseas. Today, three out of five of us – plus two pups – are home and happy here in Stuttgart.
But, as is so often the case, home has changed over the course of seven years. Having moved from the house that sheltered the four to five of us, plus numerous other friends, family members, and guests who visited over the years, our family is now cozied up in an apartment in a different part of town (Mom and Dad wanted to downsize as they prepare to move back to the States, and Katrina and I are in Stuttgart less often than we used to be).
What does this mean for me? Well, for one thing, there’s a severe lack of closet space, meaning my clothes are staying in my suitcase for the next three weeks. Katrina and I are sleeping in the living room, and I’ve adorned the apartment with goodies from Ghana. After sharing a small room with a roommate in Ghana and living in a close-knit hostel with tons of people, though, none of this really bothers me. I know I would have felt lonely returning to a big house that’s often empty during the day. And this way, I get to be close to my pups 24/7 (couldn’t help but sleep on the floor with them my first night back). But I think we’re going to have to do something about our sparsely furnished kitchen – Mom, Katrina and I ate our pasta dinner with two serving spoons and a ladle last night because our limited amount of cutlery was all being washed in the dishwasher.
But I have more than a lack of kitchenware to worry about. Ever since I stepped foot on the Lufthansa jet that flew me from Accra to Frankfurt (on which I was offered a hot towel to clean my hands with before dinner – Nein Danke, I politely declined, and then dug into my carry-on for my trusty Purell hand sanitizer that had carried me through four dusty months in Ghana), I’ve been suffering from a case of reverse culture shock. It’s definitely coming in phases, and it’d be great to have a chart of some kind to consult so I can be prepared for what’s coming next. (Before leaving for Ghana, we Elon students received a chart outlining “Stages of Culture Shock,” explaining to us the honeymoon and homesickness stages we were certain to experience in a new country. Well, I was on a constant four-month-high in Ghana, and never looked at that paper once. Now, though, understanding more about reverse culture shock would be pretty helpful).
At first, it was really great – an overwhelming variety of food, my pups Saavik and Kobe, a night downtown with old friends, a big soft bed.
But now, I’m in some kind of slump. My stomach can’t handle any more cheese, and having constant access to the NY Times and Facebook just isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. My first night back, Mom and Katrina implored me (though it’s possible they just asked nicely) to take a shower before I went to bed. They were very concerned when I resisted. I don’t smell, I told them. I’m in no rush to wash Africa or its dust off of me. They were not amused, however, so I stripped down. The only perk about that shower was that the hot water warmed my bones and body, which are still not accustomed to chilly Stuttgart. But I had an inordinate number of soap and hair products to choose from and the steaming water burned my face when I turned my face towards the shower head. And when the water shut off as I was shampooing, my first thought was Oh, the water’s out again – but I quickly realized that my back had accidentally hit the tap, turning the water off, and I had to wistfully remind myself that no, this is not Ghana where running water shuts off frequently, this is a small German shower that I’m standing in – now soapy and shivering.
According to a study abroad website I just found, there are four stages of reverse culture shock: disengagement, initial euphoria, irritability and hostility, and, finally, readjustment and adaptation. While I am by no means sitting here depressed and angry at the world for having left Ghana, I would say I’m in that third stage. Do you find yourself becoming quickly irritated of others and their normal behavior? Yep, especially at how often those around me raise their voices and quickly lose patience. Do you feel somewhat like a stranger at home? You bet – I feel a little like I’m fifteen again and just landed in Germany for the first time. Feel less independent than while you were abroad? Absolutely.
So, I’m a little bit of a fish-out-of-water these days. But this website promises that “things will start to seem a little more normal again, and you will probably fall back into some old routines, but things won’t be exactly the same as how you left them.” It recognizes that the majority of us who spend time abroad have “developed new attitudes, beliefs, habits, as well as personal and professional goals, and you will see things differently now.” I’m lucky to have close friends I shared these past four months with to talk about all this with. They’re all back in the States, and after so long of living just a matter of feet from them, I really feel the miles between us these days. But knowing that they – and so many of my other friends who have spent semesters or even years abroad – know even a little bit about what I write about here, helps tremendously.
A couple of people close to me have asked if I fell in love in Ghana, to which I answer Yes, but it was Ghana I fell in love with. They laugh, thinking I’m half-joking, and don’t press the issue. If they did (and sometimes, I wish they would), I’d share the following quote that I found on a favorite photo blog website of mine (shuttersisters.com) a few days before leaving for Ghana last January. It resonates now more than I could have ever imagined:
“…I’m finding that relationships hold great value. It seems that connections between people are stronger here in Africa, or perhaps these connections are just more visible when you strip away unnecessary physical possessions, when you cut away the clutter and focus on the person seated before you or beside you. Africa is flattening me. She’s taking me back to the basics. Asking me in a gentle and honest whisper to question long-standing assumptions about my life.”
And, I’d share with them one of my favorite photos from my semester:
My dad recently asked me how I will pass on some of the values and important lessons I learned in Ghana. I told him I’d be lucky to embody them myself, and I don’t think I can really pass anything on. I will strive to practice patience, will try to greet and smile more and raise my voice less, will attempt to do one thing at a time with mindfulness and clear purpose. And those are just a few of the myriad of things I picked up from a country where, in many ways, the quality of life seems – to me, at least – higher than any other place I’ve been. Today, I’m wondering if the following is true: You can take the girl out of Ghana, but you can’t take Ghana out of the girl. In a few years, I’d love to look back and see that proved right.