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.


Jet Lag and Culture Shock

Every travel writer since Herodotus has penned a line or two on how to get over jet lag and culture shock.  Don’t drink alcohol; suck Meyer lemons; wear those weird tight socks that turn your toes into Vienna sausages, etc. etc.  There is only one cure for jet lag, and you heard it here first: outlast the bastard.  Go about your business as best you can; eventually, time will re-telescope and you’ll get back to whatever normal looks like at your house.  Culture shock, on the other hand, is a completely different beast, and for some people, there is no cure.  They’re scarred for life.

Culture shock is your mind rebelling against a massive shift in your comfort zone.  It’s as if somebody set off a bomb in your inner baby carriage, and all the things you know and trust — like Boogy Bear and Blankey — are gone.  The air smells funny, the food tastes strange, the people around you are odd, and you spend half your time being lost.  Invariably, your senses simply overload and shut down.  This is a natural reaction that happens to even the most seasoned traveller, and you don’t have to go halfway around the world to get it.  Any sociologist will tell you, for example, there are some serious cultural differences between cities and their suburbs, or even between neighbourhoods.   Of course, it’s all relative.  Taking a trolley to the ‘burbs to visit Aunt Helen and hiking the Karkaar Mountains of Somalia are noticeably different experiences – depending, on your Aunt Helen.  My point is culture shock is unavoidable; it’s how you handle it that counts.

Speed Rabbit, my guide to the Latin Quarter

It’s been my experience that most tourists start fading out around Day

Five.  This

is when the ruins all start looking the same, the quaint local Corn Dance seems remarkably similar to the Wedding Dance and it’s too much trouble to read every plaque on every wall.  At this point, most tourists go back to the hotel and get heavily into the Tylenol™.  However, a select few, stop, find a bar, sit down, take three deep ones and look around.  They might look like they’ve just been given an overdose of Novocaine (it’s the vacant eyes) but they’re actually looking past the crumbling ruins and the colourful costumes.  They’re seeing the guy serving the drinks, the two women having lunch and “What the hell is that gorgeous smell?”  These people have instantly become travellers, and they’re never going to be anything else.

Travellers understand that people in different places do things differently, and while it might take some getting used to, it’s neither better nor worse than what we do.  They wonder how the waiter got to work and why the appetizer is moving — not how much the dessert costs in real money.  They see the sights (like everybody else) but they notice that somebody has to cut the grass and they wonder how they do it.  While tourists assume that their destination is a carefully planned theme park, travellers understand that every place they go is filled with ordinary people who live, breathe, cry and go to the bathroom.  (In some parts of the world, it’s very important to know where and how.)  Travellers are there because they’re curious.  They see the world as a gigantic playground with swings and slides and kids they haven’t played with yet.  I’m not knocking tourists; I just think they’re missing out on a lot of stuff.

Culture shock is the slap in the face everyone gets when they travel.  For tourists, the cure is a return to the familiar comforts of home, but for travellers it’s an addiction that will never go away.  Like James Kirk, they have a burning need to “seek out strange new worlds…and boldly go [etc. etc.]”  In short, travellers travel and tourists go places.  Tourists bring photographs and souvenirs home with them; travellers bring their experiences.  But the main difference is travellers also get a mild case of culture shock when they get home.