The first real phase of culture shock is the “Where the heck am I?” phase.
In traveling, it is easy to rush from site to site without really seeing what a city is like. On the way from one stop to the next “must-see” destination, it is possible to spot the odd bit of Americana in Europe without really comprehending it. It is expected to see a McDonald’s at the airport or on the main tourist streets, but then it is simply attributed to the presence of so many weary Western travellers.
Having been dropped in the middle of Europe with a non-negotiable ticket, I am slowly being forced to realize that there is more to this force than tourism. It is a clich to remark that Europe is becoming more international. It is also the absolute and incontrovertible truth. The implications make a good wake-up call for the fresh international student here.
The borders here are open to people and ideas, good and bad. To locals, the resulting mix is probably a bit confusing, though usually navigable.
To someone like me, an American two weeks off the boat, it is completely disorienting.
Bits of culture that I hadn’t associated with Poland started becoming evident. Every corner in the old town has someone selling gyros, known locally as kebabs. Colonel Sanders’ smiling face is nowhere to be found along the highways and Royal Road, but you can find KFCs in local supermarkets and back roads. There’s even a 24-hour outlet in Nowa Huta, a suburb usually avoided by tourists and locals after dark.
On first arrival, all these things that seem so American are a little comforting, you know that you have something familiar to fall back on. When the tourist stop becomes a new home, this starts to change.
The first stage of culture shock, as so many psychologists and Study Abroad advisers describe it, is the honeymoon phase. Everything seems new and exciting, and the subject can be described as a “hyper-tourist.”
To a point, everything still seems more like an elaborate documentary than a real-life experience, and the things that can’t be described in a guidebook are only occasionally starting to penetrate the bubble of being in an exotic new place.
Now, it’s the things that seem familiar that are going from comforting to disquieting, subtly signalling that all is not what it appeared to be.
Quick as I am to criticize it’s McDonald’s – and let’s admit it, only fun because it is so easy to do-the people at a Krakow McDonald’s at 3 a.m. are not tourists. They are locals needing a break from a night on the town.
Or, occasionally, hapless and tipsy international students not completely sure if the phrase McLody-in this case, ice cream -is in English or Polish. At this point in the process, the McDonald’s could be in Rochester, Manhattan, or Karachi and be just as daunting.
When this happens after a night of drinking Polish beer and watching English football with friends from Germany and Canada in an Irish Pub in Krakow’s Old Town, the idea of Europe without borders becomes more believable. Realizing that I am leaving the tourist track, but often still uncertain of where in Europe I am, takes the question from a complaint about Americanizing the travel experience to a debate about the pourousness of borders. That is an exciting step.
Of course, the point of coming abroad was to experience just this shift. The multinational world of airports, fast food and spotless hotels is exactly what I came to avoid, and I want to see what it really means to be a European or a Pole today.
The honeymoon does, however, appear to be quickly ending.
Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.