Beating Culture Shock

Utrecht Travel Blog

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Culture shock is not at all a myth. It's actually a very real and concrete concept, and even the most independent travelers like myself often encounter it. When I studied abroad in 2003, I experienced a severe case of culture shock on the first night of the couple-month-long backpacking excursion that preceded my semester stay in Scotland. I remember arriving in London at 8 a.m. after a long night of traveling alone and directionless, not knowing where my hostel was or what to do with myself. I suddenly had never wanted to be back in Tennessee more in my life.

I remember being extremely jet lagged given my 8 a.m. arrival at Gatwick, not at all happy with my choice to leave the States alone for six months, and locking myself up in my hostel room for the night, letting the tears flow freely, afraid to venture out into the frightening London territory alone. But the initial shock and discomfort only lasted a mere day and had completely subsided by the time I stepped foot onto Parisian soil. I knew then and there that I had made the right decision. And I never once looked back.

So, this time around, I was sad to leave Tennessee, but decided to take the necessary precautions to avoid a similar culture shock situation. Thus, after flying from Nashville to Chicago, Chicago to Copenhagen, and Copenhagen to Amsterdam, I, accompanied by my best friend and permanent travel buddy Megan of course, hopped the earliest flight to Edinburgh to visit my former friends and flatmates for a week. There's something comfortable about being back in a place so familiar, and once I was back, I didn't feel as I had ever left, nor did I feel like I a foreigner.

But that didn't stop the city's residents, my friends included, from treating me like one. I suppose I should have warned Megan about all the heckling we would both receive in advance - from being "slagged off," as they say, for calling "rubbish bins" garbage cans to American portion sizes and our country's obesity rate to how Americans in general don't get sarcasm (or as the Brits say "irony") and instead only have the mental capacity to appreciate slapstick comedy, an ironic statement considering many hit shows Europeans watch are actually American (Friends? Scrubs? Sex and the City?).

Having traveled abroad a good deal, Megan and I were both aware of the American stereotypes and tried our hardest from the start to not be those "ugly Americans," you know the loud obnoxious ones that you can hear coming from a mile away. My friend and former romantic partner Michael informed us that we would forever be those people until we learned to ditch the "shrill high-pitched voices" we use when we get excited and dress more European appropriate, meaning ditching the American uniform of North Face fleece, jeans and New Balance trainers (Birkenstocks for Meg). The only culture shock we really experienced was the weather - a bitter 40ish degrees the whole time (we had packed all tank tops and skirts) - strange climate for August, even in Edinburgh, especially after we had just braved our first muggy, sweltering New York summer that oddly rivaled the South in terms of discomfort.

Regardless, we managed to make it a week without too much banter (though that could be because most of my friends were still on holiday for the summer and not around Edinburgh!), so we left Scotland on Thursday ready to take the Netherlands by storm. Apparently, it wasn't quite ready for us.

I guess neither Megan nor I really thought studying in a foreign country would be all that difficult because "everyone speaks English," or so we've been told on numerous occasions. Still, we practiced Dutch phrases from our teach-yourself-Dutch manual and could successfully say, "Hello. My name is Kristin. Who are you? Can you tell me the way to the nearest pub?" by the time we arrived in Amsterdam. We figured that was all we would need to get by. Wrong again.

We did surprisingly arrive in Amsterdam on Thursday with no problems whatsoever - an oddity that has never happened to me while traveling before. However, once we tried to buy our ticket to Utrecht at the airport, we realized simply speaking English, the universal language, is not always going to help us get by, as the people may speak English as their second language, but everything everywhere is written in Dutch. And if you've ever seen the language in print before, you will know there is no logical way to even attempt and decipher it.

When we finally thought we'd selected all the correct options, we tried to swipe our debit cards, only to find they wouldn't work. Nor would our credit cards, as the machine required a pin number that we don't have. Finally, we found a tourist information booth and paid for our tickets with cash.

The trip to Utrecht was a simple one, as we only had to hop a train from inside Amsterdam's Schipohl Airport, and thirty minutes later, we were there. We even made a friend - a master's student from Greece. He helped us out, showed us where to go, then turned, smiled and said, "I didn't expect to meet people like you." Another stab at Americans? Perhaps. But by now, we're immune to it.

It took quite awhile to figure out the Dutch phone system, but we eventually managed to phone our housing officer, and 45 minutes later, someone from the university arrived at the train station to pick us up. He dropped us off at the home of Miss Lucia, our landlord/Dutch mistress who we had been placed with through the university. We were under the assumption that she rented separate flats within her home to students, so you can imagine our surprise when she led us up three stories of a narrow, winding staircase to reveal a stuffy, top-floor apartment that was to be our home for the next four months. I could imagine Cinderella must have felt after being banished to the attic for bad behavior. Only, where was my fairy godmother?

Megan and I knew beforehand that we would be sharing a bedroom - it was the cheapest option - and joked that we wouldn't be surprised to arrive to find a room with a sole double bed. Okay, so there were two beds, though both singles and adjoining. Due to the massive dresser and the minimal space, this was the only feasible arrangement. And we didn't realize either that we'd be sharing a bathroom with the 65-year-old woman. Not only that, but the bathroom has a bathtub, but no shower, and we're not allowed to leave our belongings in it, but instead must store them in our already cramped room.

We do have a small kitcheonette and sizable living room, with a TV that has mostly English channels so that's exciting, and our balcony that spans the entire floor and has entries from each room is marvelous. I guess that makes up for the fact that our wireless Internet doesn't work, our current converters spark and threaten to electrocute every time we plug something in, and Miss Lucia rarely understands a word we say. Compared to my living situation over the summer in NYC, though (an air mattress in the unairconditioned studio of a 40-year-old psychopath), I suppose I should feel like I'm in the lap of luxury.

At least there's Nana, the Swedish girl in our program who lives the floor below us who we love. She's quite a world traveler herself, speaks about six languages, and says Dutch has words similar to Swedish, German, and English. She speaks them all, so hopefully she'll be able to help us communicate with Miss Lucia and everyone else in this country. She doesn't know it yet, but she'll soon become our personal, live-in translator. Between the three of us, we can beat this culture shock epidemic, I just know it.

WarrenRodwell says:
' ... ditch the "Shrill high-pitched voices" ...'
Posted on: Nov 06, 2007
Garima says:
wow! This is AWSOME!!!! Which university are you attending in Utrecht? I have a friend who will be studying there next year and I was curious to hear what it's like! This is WONDERFUL to read and very well written! Thanks!!!!
Posted on: Jun 26, 2007
AndiPerullo says:
You have such a gift with words!
Posted on: Jun 04, 2007
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