The Real Shock in Culture Shock

The Real Shock in Culture Shock

The first hint was Buienradar. Why would it ever be useful to have an app that shows you only the next two hours of precipitation activity? Why not the whole day or week?

Answer: You bike in the Netherlands and no, you’re not a biker like the tatted-up kind who speed past in packs. You’re the kind that seizes any opportunity to take your bike absolutely anywhere. In fact, it’s simply expected that you will. I even got called a “real Dutchie” when I started doing this.

An average ride home is between 5 and 90 minutes, and any window the rain gods allow of lighter fall is a blessing for the three-step process of locating, unlocking and preparing your bike before getting on your way. Note: I didn’t say when the rain stops, but simply when it gets less heavy, as if you wait for this, you should probably settle in with an insulated sleeping bag and a good book at your local dry location.

At home now, quivering and confused, the thoughts set in.

Why when I’m doing what I have wanted to do for so long — “living the dream” — I still long for the nostalgic mundane spontaneity of the family home, unplanned drop-overs turning into cups of tea and taste-testing the loaf of banana bread fresh out of the oven. Dad, the wandering minstrel with his guitar, sis in her elf nightie, big enough to look silly. Mum, beaming in her gym gear, fresh off a run.

Denial is a useful stage. It might seem obvious (or ridiculous), but it’s kind of inevitable. The common thought pattern: Wow, I’m so independent! Nah, I don’t miss my family that much… why didn’t I move overseas earlier and why don’t more people live in Europe because everything is so close, rich with history and iconic?!

Two-to-five months later (times may vary), and you’re questioning everything. Is being able to grow out my leg hairs out for longer than two months a year worth missing impromptu weekend beach trips? Should I cut all my hair off just so it doesn’t get stuck in the faux fur of my winter coat? How many ugly sweaters are too many ugly sweaters?

I would never have imagined that this is what culture shock would be like. Amsterdam culture isn’t that different to Australian culture. There are people who get me and I get them. I have my go-to vintage shops and know which Dutch specialties to indulge in and what’s strictly limited for tourist consumption. I feel like I fit in and that I’m used to my life here.

But I have gone through the motions.

Maybe I do miss family dinners and dancing in the living room afterwards, bellies full and oxytocin levels soaring. Maybe I do miss my friends thinking they can read my mood and giving me unwanted advice, which I will instantly bat down yet always mull over for days and eventually act on. Maybe I do miss being silly on a wild night out and not having to worry if it will be a defining feature of who I am later.

Trying to conceptualise why someone would ever live somewhere this cold (it’s only November) and rainy crosses my mind often. Longing for the way Aussies speak, the humour and slang that encapsulate so much more than the meaning or sound formed by a word or phrase itself are hints too.

It’s almost like a feeling or an atmosphere that I miss. An energy. The Dutch have this word, gezellig, that describes this, but with more of a cosy connotation. I like the idea that a person or a space or a feeling can also be gezellig, though.

I do think Aussies have their own cosiness. We can’t really describe it, because, well, we are Aussies and it’s just too mushy and literarily challenging to invent a whole new word. I guess, “Mate, can you chuck me a cold one?” could suffice.

Despite trying my absolute best to fit in, donning an all-black knee-length coat and beret look, discussing philosophical thought over an espresso and cigarette; walking around the aisles of Byron Bay Woolworths, barefoot and half-draped in sarong, sand in every crack, fresh from a dip will always be my idea of home.

I’ve been a traveller many times, but have never done the deed and lived abroad until now. Culture shock to me was when you experienced a huge difference between another culture and your own, so different that you simply break down and couldn’t go on.

“Europe isn’t that different to Australia,” I told anyone when they asked me what living abroad was like.

“Sure, it is more progressive here in Amsterdam. Everyone eats more bread and potatoes and it’s hard to escape that grrr sound made at the back of the throat rather than with the tongue (think every bus, tram, train, elevator and supermarket aisle); but on the whole, it’s fairly similar.”

Or so I thought.

I was FaceTiming a friend who had moved from Brisbane to Melbourne the other day, and she hinted at feeling the same way too.

“It’s more about the layout of the city and new spaces that you have to adjust to,” she told me. Which, I think, makes sense. Your brain physically has to alter its idea of place. Where things are, and what they mean. It’s not the same as the rather fast-paced, RGB-stimulating short-term travel that I’m used to, because there is another layer to process: this is your home. Even if temporary, it’s a long kind of temporary. Building a community with people who get you is one thing, but a geographic remodel of your cranium is another.

I guess culture shock isn’t really a clash or a big change from one’s culture at all. It’s more like adjusting and accepting a new sense of feeling at home.

The other day, another friend brought up the topic. Last year, she set herself the goal of learning five languages in five different countries. Naturally, she conquered it — being the highly ambitious girl she is — but what I really wanted to know was how she coped with all that culture shock. First up, she went to South Korea, and the culture shock (by now we should have an acronym I’ve said this word so much) set in a whopping five months after she got there. By the end of her journey, upon arriving in Tel Aviv, it hit her almost instantly.

“Actually,” she told me over a bowl of pumpkin soup in the warmth of a foggy Dutch cafe, “I think it’s about to hit you.” It was like this witchy, tarot-reading side had brewed in her all of a sudden.

I was freaked out.

How do you know that you’ve got it when you get it? Even though it took her five months, it still seemed super ridiculous that it would take that long for me.

As I thought about it for the next few hours though — interspersed by thoughts of, Wow, my feet have never been this cold! — I realised.

I was in the midst of it.

This whole week, I’d been feeling weird, and I now had a viable answer. All the feelings were simply brewing until I could categorise them, be vulnerable and let it all out.

Hello breakdown that night over FaceTime to Mum and Dad.


Living here keeps me humble. Not many can verify my extensive rattling off of Aussie bands and music knowledge, but I’m learning so many life lessons. We can justify the phenomenon of homesickness or culture shock because it is worth the price of travel. Every traveller comes to the realisation, more or less, that we escape to test ourselves and our seemingly stable sense of identity.

We do it to experience and enjoy and wonder, of course, but that desire to learn and grow is most speedily fulfilled by living somewhere else. It’s bloody worth it, though. When you come through on the other side, more self-confident and world-savvy, more aware and enlightened, the breakdowns and tears all seem like insignificant little blimps on the horizon that is your oyster.

Photos by the author

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