Culture Shock, Jetlag and Me

4 am1There’s a fundamental difference between 3:15 a.m. and 4 in the morning.  Four in the morning is “Famous Blue Raincoat” cool.  It has the sound of smooth blues and dim brick cafe light; silhouette wooden chairs and a remembrance of stale yesterday in its eyes.  3:15 a.m., on the other hand, is just sleeplessly maddening.  It’s the exotic and the ordinary, separated by 45 minutes.  Intercontinental travel is like that: yesterday and today separated by a few lost hours stranded in the sky.  In the end, you’re left with a middle of the night kitchen table, ordinary dark from a street light window and the room full of deep roasted Italian morning, dripping into the coffee pot on the counter.  Two equidistant perceptions processed at the same time.  Utterly confused by what the senses know to be true, they shut down, and for long minutes you stare-face — catatonic into the weakening darkness.  You know morning will eventually arrive, but it isn’t going to be Italian and no amount of caffeine boost European stimulates can change that.  It’s called culture shock and it’s not supposed to happen when you come home.

Human beings were never meant to climb into aluminum tubes and fling themselves across oceans, time and space.  We were meant to stay home, close to the fires of our own tribe, huddled together against the “others” for warmth and protection.  That’s what fifty thousand years of step-by-step civilization has taught us.  Twenty-first century cultural voyeurism, sped forward by jet engines and the insanity of cheap airfares, is unnatural and disturbing.

The problem is nothing prepares the traveller for the “other” tribe.  No amount of tourist tales, photographs or video recordings can replicate the smell of hot tea on a Galway cold morning.  No carefully arranged after-dinner story is as lovers’ quarrel loud as an eavesdropped afternoon in the Borghese, when she finally throws the ring in his face.  It doesn’t work that way.  You need boots on the ground.  Unfortunately, once you get them there you’re already lost.  That exotic you so carefully loaded into your vacation starts passing for normal, and the ordinary life you put on pause to get there (here) becomes a fami4 amliar memory.

This morning, I’m reminded (again) that Italian coffee doesn’t travel further than the street it’s supposed to be brewed on; this place, strange as it may seem, is my house; and despite the fact that my mind thinks it’s cocktail hour yesterday, it’s nearly dawn in what feels like tomorrow.  It’s called jetlag and my theory is that it’s Mother Nature’s way of holding culture shock at bay.

Essentially, the hours scattered like unruly sheep need time to re-flock into a new normal.  Meanwhile, the senses, unable to process the discordant information they’re receiving, shut down to give the synapses time to catch up.  So the dripping coffee pot becomes an hour glass; the half-light night, an incubator; and that strange 45 minutes between exotic and ordinary, the gestation period – because all true travellers are really cultural mutations struggling to be reborn.


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