Sunday, June 29, 2008

End of the Sabbatical - Reverse Culture Shock

You're Back: Don't Worry, Be Happy

So we’ve been back for a week and we are experiencing what is called “reverse culture shock”. It wasn’t a term we were even aware of until we did some searching. Furthermore, we were “expatriates” (sounds fancy) and now we are “repatriating”.

The three stages for repatriatization are: shock, homelessness and homesickness, then peace and acceptance. I guess we are in the second phase still. For some quick info on reverse culture shock see: The Art of Coming Home (preview), a consulting service for expats and repats with some good advice, a magazine article from Transitions Abroad, and a student-focused repatriatization tips from the University of Missouri.

What manifests reverse culture shock for us? Things like this:

  • Vague dissatisfaction with our surroundings and a perceived lack of anything interesting happening.
  • Reverse homesick for Italy and Florence and the style of life we lead there.
  • Feeling marginalized after the initial “honeymoon” period of being freshly back.
  • Subtle wording choices like “so how does it feel to be home”, “you came back!” etc. We understand they are just words but they can frame our experience in a subtly negative way. Living abroad was our home for a period of time.
  • The “public environment” of home seems out-of-scale, unsustainable, not human-scaled and downright unfriendly.**see below
  • Missing the “food culture” of Italy. Italians seem more educated about food and have conscious choices they can articulate.

Things that are sort-of annoying for us? When people say:

  • “How was your vacation?” Reaching for taser….
  • “It seems like you just left last week”. Finger on the trigger….
  • “So when are you getting a job?” Pulled the trigger! We are touched that so many people care about our job prospects (not really) but why? Is it that they can only relate to us when we have a job? Suggestion for people: ask how our sabbatical was? what did we do? what was it like?

Some things we are trying to do differently?

  • The change that we saw in ourselves in Italy and that we want to continue here must emanate from inside. Few in our world “back home” can assist in the change.
  • Make conscious steps toward moving our everyday lives closer to something that resembles what we had during the sabbatical.
  • Take stock of what we learned and accomplished during the sabbatical and keep it fresh in our minds. Do things that accentuate it. For example, during our sabbatical we learned how to stop and talk to people, whether in the street or in the store. For us, practicing it here continues a small piece of the sabbatical.
  • Don’t assume people haven’t changed during our sabbatical or nothing is different for them. Probe a little, ask what they have been up to. Be an agent of change for them?
  • Treat our repatriatization as a new phase, our home turf as a new place to explore regardless of how long we might have lived here or how familiar we think we are with it. It forces us to tell a continuous story of discovery and progress rather than discontinuous story of exploration-and-now-it’s-over.
  • Be honest with ourselves if we feel like we are slipping into old, less desirable patterns.

** Some of Seattle’s public environment that seems very odd to us during our repatriatization:

  • Waiting at traffic lights. Why do we spend so much time waiting at traffic lights? Have planners every heard of a traffic circle here? Seriously, the amount of time waiting is very strange to us. Maybe it’s a typical American approach: control your driving rather than let you be responsible yourself? I still go back and read this article on traffic called Roads Gone Wild and can’t help to believe in its basic message of engineering roads differently so people take more responsibility.
  • Basic car dependence culture. The first task when we returned was ensuring the car was operational (the battery died) because we were dead-in-the-water without it. And, we live in a walkable neighborhood but there were many things we just couldn’t do without the car.
  • Buying in bulk. We started to catch ourselves buying simple things thinking about storing them for long periods of time because access to fresh produce, meat, and basic groceries isn’t a quick stop in our normal day as it was in Florence. Back in Florence, excellent veggies were only a short walk away to the nearest piazza. Buying in bulk, in my opinion, leads to the oversized and multiple refrigerator phenomena.
  • Oversized roads. Oversized, yet still packed with cars not moving anywhere. See point 1 above.
  • Lonely sidewalks. Well, they say if you build it, they’ll come. Unfortunately, there are a lot of lonely sidewalks in Seattle (excluding downtown during parts of the day). Been to Redmond lately? (Okay, technically not Seattle, but close.) It has some of the widest sidewalks this side of the Mississippi, but you would be hard-pressed to see people on them. For more eloquent thoughts on this see James Howard Kunstler’s TED talk on sprawl and bad urban design.
  • No visible laundry. There is no visible laundry because everyone has a dryer because electricity is cheap here. We got used to seeing laundry hung out and not using a dryer ourselves because there wasn’t one to use! What’s wrong with saving some energy and hanging out some laundry?
  • Trees-gone-wild. No trimming just overgrown as if the more overgrown, the more nature is introduced into the urban setting. Don’t think so. Add an ivy plant that has invaded the tree and we have a typical Seattle tree. We got used to seeing trees trimmed and maintained in urban spaces and that is just not practiced widely here. If trimming occurs here, chances are it gives the Plant Amnesty people fodder to write about. They are based in Seattle after all.


  1. I've never lived in another country but I can imagine it would be tough adjusting again. I hope that wasn't a trigger pull. I totally agree about the traffic circles, they just put one in our little town here in Colorado and I love it!!! Also, over the weekend we had nice weather and I was disappointed that I couldn't hang out my clothes. It's actually HOA "illegal" in my neighborhood to have a clothesline. I live in an area that is always harping about being green but no one wants to see someone else's laundry hanging out...drives me crazy! I was vacationing in Italy last month and was able to hang out my white jeans...that Tuscan sun made them so bright!!!

  2. We just spent two weeks in Italy (Montespertoli) and I loved the traffic circles. I agree that they make so much sense. They just put one in my little town of Erie, Colorado which makes me happy! Also, I don't understand the laundry in my neighborhood, the HOA has banned clotheslines but they are constantly talking about "green". Aggravating to say the least.

  3. Angie - no trigger pull! Thanks for writing. Never thought that it would be illegal to have a clothesline. Funny. I think if we do it I'll do one of those portable ones. (

    I'm seeing a possible business venture for a brand of clothes detergent called "Tuscan White". Tagline: "if you can't make it to Tuscany why not at least have your jeans look like they did".

    Here in Seattle we technically have traffic circles but they look more like traffic donuts really. And they usually go up on smaller neighborhood intersections for safety reasons. But it's a start.


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