I’ve been home for 37 days now. I’ve gotten past my mopey stage. Thank goodness; it wasn’t fun. Now that I’m readjusted, it’s good to be back. I’ve truly come full circle. I left the United States ready to embrace a new culture and now that I’m back I’m ready to embrace an old culture, one that’s familiar to me. I still miss Norway, but I realized that as much as I was able to connect with the people in Norway, I am still American and I can’t change that. I notice little things about my family, friends, and myself sometimes, and I can’t help but chuckle and think to myself, “How American.” It’s nice though. To be able to label things that I grew up doing as something that is distinctly part of my culture. I have a culture! I always have. The only thing that’s changed is now I know what it is. 🙂
Getting on the plane that was going to take me to Newark International Airport was a funny feeling. Or lack of one. I expected to feel really sad or really excited, but instead I just felt nothing. It was just another day. I said goodbye to my friend who had given me a ride to the airport, got on the plane, and was up in the air. I thought maybe when the plane left the ground I would feel a rush of emotion. Nope.
I have this tradition of having new friends that I make write in this little journal that I have. It can be a note, a quote, an inside joke, anything. That way as I travel and meet new people I get to take a little bit of them with me wherever I go. The rule is I can’t read what people write until I am a good distance away from them on my way home. So of course, as soon as the plane was up in the air I opened up the journal and read through the notes. I thought, maybe now, I will be hit with emotion and can just have a good cry like I know I need. Nope. Even that didn’t do it.
So I watched The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Horrible Bosses, Drive, and an episode of the The Big Bang Theory without really feeling a tinge of sadness. I took a little nap. The flight attendants served us a lovely lunch and supper. Still nothing.
Then all of the sudden the eight hour flight was coming to an end. The intercom clicked on and a voice told me we would be landing shortly. I waited patiently and calmly. The plane landed and still nothing. Then I looked over at my roommate and saw her excitedly turning on her phone and calling her dad to tell him that she was back in the U.S. That’s when it hit me. I dug out my phone from my backpack and looked at it like it was a foreign object. It had been so long since I had called anyone or tried to text on it. I sat there thinking about turning it on and receiving all the texts that people had sent me while I was off studying abroad and I got a heavy feeling in my stomach. I couldn’t do it.
See, for me, the study abroad experience had really began when I turned my phone off when I was flying from Newark Liberty International Airport to Frankfurt International Airport. I had been texting my friends and family right up to the point when the flight attendant said to turn all electronic devices off. I flashed back to that moment and realized that I wasn’t ready for my study abroad experience to end. That moment seemed like just yesterday!
My anxiety increased as my roommate continued to chat and text on her phone. She kept on looking over at me and asking, “Aren’t you going to call your parents at least?” I just said I didn’t want to be rushed or I didn’t want to do it on the plane with a bunch of people listening. But really, I just didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be home. I didn’t want to have to call my parents and try to force some enthusiasm into my voice when I said the words, “I’m home!” I didn’t have the energy.
Eventually, I called them and before I knew it I was walking up to them in the tiny Dickinson airport. My little sister was considerably taller, my older sister had grown her hair out, my dad was smaller around the middle, and my mom was wearing new clothes. I wondered what changes they saw in me and wished that I could see them myself.
I was exhausted on that last plane ride. Emotionally and physically. But once I got home I couldn’t go to sleep. I stayed up late getting caught up with my sister.
Now that I’ve been back a few days I am starting to remember how things were before I left. Family life certainly was a little romanticized in Norway. I saw my family through a different lens. Now I remember the little quirks about my sisters that used to drive me up the wall. One of my Norwegian friends told me that when she went to school in the United States she had an amazing relationship with her mom and then once she returned to Norway things went straight back to how they used to be.
I am determined for this not to be the case for me! Coming back has been rather like a slap in the face as I am remembering all the problems that I left, but it has also been a pleasant surprise in some ways. For instance, seeing all my friends and family has made me remember all of the reasons why I missed them as well.
So here’s to yet another new beginning! The third one this year. I can’t turn back the clock so I might as well set my mind on moving forward! Norway, I won’t forget you. You and the people that I met and the places that I saw will forever be a part of me.
Someday, I might just go back!
The days leading up to my departure from Norway I felt a bittersweet combination of contentment and regret. I thought a lot about what all I had done in the semester. I had managed to travel to Norway, Italy, France, Sweden, Britain, Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Sweden. I had learned a lot about culture and countless new ideas. I had made life-long friends at the American College of Norway. Yet there was a small voice in the back of my head that said, “You did a lot, but you could have done more.” When I first arrived in Norway, I was shy and completely out of my comfort zone. I held back. I was anti-social. I can’t help but think how much different things would have been if I had started out my semester with the confidence that I ended it in. How many more friends could I have made? How many more chances would I have taken on the trips that I went on?
Thank God I spilled coffee on my laptop a couple months in. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise! Had I not wrecked my laptop, I never would have been forced out of my comfortable apartment. I wouldn’t have had to do all my work at the school where I ended up visiting with lots of people that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the courage to introduce myself to. Spilling coffee on my computer turned out to jumpstart my social life at ACN!
More. This word has been a recurring theme in my thoughts lately. If there’s one thing that studying abroad has disappointed me in it is satisfaction. I had hoped that finally getting to travel and see new places would help to defray my desire to constantly be changing places. I’ve always had trouble sitting still. Whether it be with a job, a major, or an opinion. I never seem to quite have a solid grasp on anything. I thought that seeing more of the world would help me to solidify my identity and my restlessness. It hasn’t. I find myself wanting to travel more and less certain about all of my beliefs. I feel like I just dived into the pool of human identity. Before I only had one foot in. And now I’m drowning. There’s nothing to grab onto and call my own. There are so many ideas, so many places, so many people out there! Where do I fit in? I have a better idea of who I am in other’s eyes, but am even more lost as to how I see myself. There is such a discrepancy between how the rest of the world views America and Americans and what the reality of it is.
When I said my goodbyes to my friends at the American College of Norway, I only cried once. It was an unsettling feeling to think that I might never see them again. But as one friend told me, “You will see them again so long as you set your mind on it.” So what was more disheartening is the fact that I knew we would never all be in the same place again. We would never all be in Moss, Norway, again. And even if we were to have some sort of reunion, we will never all have the same mindsets that we have now. I felt like I was in high school again. All of my friends going off to different universities, to different states, all set on changing in different ways. So in a way, I wasn’t saying goodbye to the person. I was saying goodbye to the person as they are in that moment.
Ever since I left my hometown of Dickinson, North Dakota, I have realized that goodbyes are more complex than what I thought they were. I realized that the sad part of goodbyes is not the act of not seeing a person for a period of time. It’s the fact that you both are going to change in profound ways during that period and when you meet again, there is the tiny probability that the dynamics of your relationship will have shifted dramatically.
Coming back has been hard not only because I see huge changes in the people around me, but also because I sense huge changes in myself. So my subconscious has an identity dilemma. Do I let these changes override my old self or do I let my old self take control? I was reading about reverse culture shock and I guess it is common for people to compartmentalize their study abroad experience and only revisit it when they are feeling nostalgic. When the experience is such a break from the normal routine of life, it is hard to integrate it upon return. Already the past semester holds a dream-like quality in my memory. I feel as though I am looking back on someone else’s life or looking far back in the past.
I remember when I was little and I moved to a different house I was so worried that I would forget my old house that I became obsessed with trying to remember it. For weeks after I moved, I would mentally go through every room and think of every table, every picture hanging on the wall, and every pillow. I would mentally go back to my old house and arrange everything just how it had been before it was all packed in boxes. I had to or else I couldn’t fall asleep in my new foreign home. But eventually, I stopped this tradition and forgot about the placement of all the pictures and figurines on the side tables. I moved on.
I suppose that same fear that was in me as a little kid still lives on. I don’t want to forget about my study abroad experience so the only way I can think to do that is to continually try to remind myself about what Moss looked like. What my apartment looked like. What the weather was like. What the grocery store looked like. But lets face it. These are just things. What I’m really trying to recreate is the atmosphere. And I can’t do that. We forget because our memories can’t recreate perfect replicas of what we want to remember. And then we stop revisiting the imperfect replicas altogether.
For anyone who is still reading my rambling it must be quite obvious that I am in the mopey “I feel like I just arrived there, how can it possibly be over?” stage of culture shock. I apologize for going on and on and on! I’m afraid I don’t even have any pictures for you this time!
I haven’t really had a chance to talk about what the whole process of studying abroad feels like yet. The emotional stages of studying abroad can be broken down into the following stages: honeymoon, frustration, understanding, and acclimation.
I can definitely vouch for the honeymoon stage! When I was on that last flight from Frankfurt to Oslo all that was going through my mind was, “What have I gotten myself into?” I was scared to death to set foot in the country that was to be my home for the next four months or so. However, after getting the introductions with the students at ACN out of the way, I regained my confidence and was immediately glad that I had taken the leap of faith and decided to study abroad! The following three weeks everything I saw was amazing. Going to the grocery store was magical… Every sign that was in Norwegian captivated me… And hearing the Norwegians speak was mesmerizing. I even broke out a Norwegian phrase book and tried to memorize a few terms. I was so proud of myself the first time I uttered a very poorly pronounced phrase. Every day I woke up early. I didn’t want to waste a single moment in the beautiful country of Norway! My camera was my constant companion; everything needed to be documented.
Then came the frustration stage. Brief but difficult. It only lasted about a week. My jar of peanut butter that I had packed was scraped clean; I was devastated. I was told that I would have to make the trek to Sweden to buy a jar of that creamy heaven that would be up to the standards of Jiff. I wanted REAL FOOD! Everything seemed to cost a fortune though. And then there were those darn Norwegians. Nothing like standing awkwardly in a crowd of jolly people speaking in a language that you can’t understand a word of. It’s like that moment when someone tells a joke and everyone bursts out laughing, but you miss the punch line. Except worse because I couldn’t even fake knowing what was going on. I’d daydream about my beautiful Chrysler Concorde. 1996. She’s a beauty. Or was…in 1996. But that’s beside the point. The point is that having to trudge through a foot of snow to get anywhere wasn’t exactly an enjoyable form of exercise. Yep. I wasn’t too enthused at this stage.
The understanding stage was by far the best. I had made friends. My classes were going good. I had scheduled some flights to Dublin, Paris, and Rome. I’d started to figure out how to bargain shop for groceries. I’d finally figured out the confusing washing machine. Best of all I’d gotten internet and heat up and running in the apartment. Life was good.
I am currently in the acclimation stage. I was walking the harbor in Moss today as the sun set and it just hit me. Norway feels like…home. I really like it here. I like it…more than the U.S. in many ways. I know that this country is changing me and I can’t help but think how much harder these changes are going to make readjusting to North Dakota. What am I going to do when I go back to America and have to eat American bread? And where am I going to get brown cheese? Or Norwegian chocolate? My professors at UND certainly aren’t going to allow me to skip class to take a weekend trip to Paris…my bank account won’t either for that matter. Not with the insane price of travel there. The pace of life here is so…wonderful. I can afford to just go out and walk around and take everything in. Everyone is so accepting. And let’s face it, for the first time in my life, I’m a novelty. People here idolize the States which means I’m interesting to them. I’m the one who can answer their questions about the U.S. I’m exciting. I’m…American.
Meaning I can’t stay in Norway forever.
I think I vow to myself that I am going to make the most of every opportunity here at least once a day. Because before I know it…I’ll be boarding that plane and heading for home. Home won’t feel so much like home anymore though. I’m already bracing myself for reverse culture shock.