I’ve been home for almost 6 months. Right now, I figure, is probably as good a time as any to try to wrap up/wrap my head around this fantastic adventure Victoria and I have had living in Europe. Almost 6 months to reflect, yet I feel like I’ve hardly processed a drop of it. It probably didn’t help that I got off the plane and walked straight into what was undoubtedly the busiest summer of my life so far. While the province burned around us, the memories and highlights of an adventure unlike any other got pushed further and further into the back of my mind. Recently, however, as things have begun to quiet down, I’ve embarked on the process of mentally and digitally unpacking our time in Europe. So far, three things stand out to me.
1) Reverse Culture Shock
We’ve all heard the term used at some point or another, and we were certainly told to expect it coming back to Canada. However, as with most helpful advice, nothing can really prepare you for the actual experience. I could spend pages talking about all the ways in which we were “shocked”, but I’ll limit myself to the two the struck me the most.
Number 1: Driving. Simply put, Europeans are good at it; we’re crap. Seriously. The mindset around driving in most parts of Europe is so different than it is here (I say most, because Europe is quite a big place; so while I admit this is a bit of a generalization, it’s based directly on my experiences driving in and through no less than 13 countries there). While we’re endowed with luxuriously roomy lanes on our roads, most Europeans make do with a strip of pavement that looks more like a bike lane to us. When your margin for error is smaller, you have to be better. Fact. There’s also a hell of a lot more traffic in their built up areas (ie. cities) than we have here. You think driving in downtown Vancouver is bad? Try Rome. Except don’t, because you’ll probably have a massive accident. So, smaller roads and more traffic. How can that coexist? Simple: smaller cars and faster driving (and if you’re Italian, having a flexible interpretation of what constitutes a “lane”). At first glance, it seems like reckless chaos. My first time driving around Paris I was a stressy, whimpering mess. I felt like I was the only one who could actually see the road lines because I was the only person driving in a lane. But stick with it, and you realize that there’s actually a method to the perceived madness. Drivers in Italy were even worse (or better?). And sure enough, upon returning to Canada it didn’t take long to spot a stereotypically terrible North American driver: a frazzled looking woman wrestling a huge minivan through traffic while inhaling a wrapper full of McSomething, paying too much attention to her phone, and breaking up – or participating in, it was hard to tell – a fight between her children in the back seat. I guarantee that if she were to try and drive in Europe, she would literally crash every time she went anywhere.
Number 2: Actually knowing how to do things. As basic as it may sound, it takes a lot of effort and learning to figure out how things work in another country. Banking, health care, insurance, taxes, transit, housing, shopping (seriously, where the hell do I find salsa here…), and the crucial difference between a cafe and coffee shop, just to name a few. Even by the time we left Rotterdam, we still honestly didn’t understand the process of registering and de-registering with the city, which is supposedly the first and most basic part of living there. Then anytime we travelled to another country, we’d have to learn many of these things from scratch again. Now, this isn’t meant to sound complainy, rather it’s meant to build and provide context for the tsunami of relief felt when we got back to Canada, and just intrinsically knew how to do everything. Something as simple as being able to unlock my front door on the first try (I struggled with our weird Dutch lock until the day I left), call Rogers to activate my cell phone, or enrol in MSP… These things were incredibly affirming for my basic life skills.
I’ll start here by once again deferring to my excuse of being stupidly busy all summer. I’ve only just started wading through the metaphorical barn-load of pictures and videos that we accumulated while in Europe. My Photos app tells me there’s over 6000 of them, in fact. So to say that starting this project was a daunting task is somewhat of an understatement. The point I’m trying to make, I guess, is that I’m only now remembering just HOW MUCH STUFF we did while we were over there. Most of it happened so quickly at the time that the details were forgotten almost immediately (fortunately, we’ve got a 2 TB hard drive full of memories to fall back on and fill in the gaps for us). As I reflect on our adventures, however, I’m realizing that just because I may have forgotten the details of a trip or event, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t affected by it. I believe that even if we don’t allow ourselves the time to fully process something through journaling, or creating an album or whatever, that our subconscious is still churning away behind the scenes. I believe that our experiences are absorbed immediately and directly into our very beings, subtly integrating into the complex mass of brain fibres that makes us who we are. And it’s during this process of thinking back over the past year that I realized what point #3 is.
3) Home hasn’t changed, but you have
It’s a tough pill to swallow. I think it’s because there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. If you believe that your experiences shape you, then there’s no getting around it. It feels, when you return from your adventure, that your home town has been frozen in time since the day you left (especially if you’re looking at the Johnson Street Bridge…). It’s the little things that I noticed first; the way I drink my coffee, the way I style my hair, going to the grocery store every day or 2 rather than stocking up for the week.
But lurking in the background, bigger things have changed. Relationships are different: for example, living in a strange and foreign country in close quarters with another person and being all but forced into utter co-dependence… You better believe that has an impact on things. Fortunately for Victoria and I, we didn’t murder each other even once; in fact we came out the other side stronger for the experience, and I can’t imagine living our lives the same way we did before we left. Friends and family is an interesting one, too. Some connections take a bit of time and effort to re-establish, whereas others feel like putting on a comfortable old sock you haven’t worn in a while (sorry for the metaphor, old sock friends). And then there are others that I still haven’t even seen yet. No pressure guys.
Then there’s the lens through which you view the world around you. If your understanding of “the world” has changed, then ergo, so does the way you look at it. This is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, it just… is.
As the months and weeks roll by, I’m constantly discovering new ways in which I’ve “changed”, and I imagine this will continue for quite some time. And with an important Canadian election just around the corner, I feel I have a new understanding of how such similar people can have such different views on the important issues that affect and define us as a nation. I’ve grown acutely aware of how the rest of the world sees us, and the importance of a global reputation. And so I’m ending this final blog post with a plug. Vote. Voting isn’t just a privilege – it’s a responsibility; and not merely to try and make our country the way we want it. More importantly, it’s the easiest and most effective way for us to participate in our country. Don’t take it for granted.
The more Canadians get out and vote, the more Canadian our Canada will be. Think about it.
And finally, a big thank you to all who followed along with us on our adventure either through this blog or the videos we made (and have yet to make…). Honestly, nothing made us feel better than knowing we had friends and family back home who cared, and took the time to keep up with what we were doing. You have our eternal gratitude.
Until the next adventure,
– Ted and Victoria