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culture shock

Posted by Peter Walters on

kurdistan 2

How to begin? Four weeks in and we began to hit a communication barrier. As each day went by we quickly realised that it was impossible to convey what we wanted… not to our friends here but to all our loved ones back in the UK. Early on we began to trim our expectations of phone calls and correspondence, realising how disparate our frame of reference was becoming from life back home. The act of conveying daily routines would leave us fumbling for words; if the resolve was there we might be able to explain a ‘moment’ but the amount of energy it required left us a little defeated. And with energy being at a premium, needed for other more demanding acts like grocery shopping or driving the car, we found ourselves just answering, “Well, it’s just so very different here”.

Not that anyone will have noticed because of the assumption; the assumption that life here is just life there but with a few eccentricities. So the conversation becomes about dress codes, strange cuisine and witty anecdotes but bubbling underneath the surface is that nagging thought that our experiences are now no longer understood, simply because they’re no longer shared.

The frailty felt when you’re unable to communicate even one day of this new life only reinforces the sense of dislocation and being far from home. I’ve avoided writing about experiences because it promises to be too great a challenge. It’s uncomfortable to think that we might have changed and that the change might prove irreversible. It first occurred to me back in the UK, during our last fortnight there. The experience of leaving family and friends was so unlike any other I’d had that, whilst the impulse to share it was there, I didn’t know how. Even for the most empathetic of listeners, it just seemed like an impossible ‘ask’ to expect someone to understand. So not only is something different about you, but people have to work harder to spot the difference.

Mostly unaware that these changes are taking place, you notice them only in that life is getting easier. You start to feel more settled. Routines have now become not just daily, weekly but monthly. A challenge on Day 50 has the experience of the 49 previous days to draw from, which couldn’t have been said of Day 5. We’re becoming rooted in life here; something we welcome, enjoy and long for in increasing measure. But as each shoot pushes further into Kurdish soil it has to mean, for a time at least, that we’re uprooted from the UK. As your faces come up on our computer screen, with kitchens, studies and lounges we once knew too well serving as a backdrop, the reality hits us ‘we’re different’.

I want to suggest that holidays work differently; from the outset you’re tooling yourself to be able to share the experience when you re-enter your home environment. Postcards, holiday snaps and a return ticket are the visible reminders that you’re not staying and that you’re going make sense of this new environment and these strange people… back home. Even as you enjoy your travels you anticipate speaking of your holiday in the third person, past tense, “It was such a lovely time”.

I have the hotel receipt from our first night in Turkey sat, as some irrelevant icon to the journey we took, in the top drawer of my desk. It’s there next to some 10ps and a £5 note. Two years is a long time, too long to use a framework from a life we left behind in order to make sense of the ‘now’. Too many experiences have taken placed now for us to ever try and process them using our old categories; to think we could put them in storage and unpack them on our return is even more absurd.

So what we’re left with are the awkward moments when people sign off knowing there were a 101 questions they could have asked but didn’t and a month-long case of writer’s block. I think someone, somewhere put a label on it and to this day it’s been called culture shock.


Tags: kurdistan


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