It’s Thanksgiving, and I’ve only just realised that this is not something that is really part of my life any longer. For the first time in eight years I’m not on American soil. Rather, I’m at a loss. Obviously, nobody celebrates Thanksgiving here in England, why would they? (Why Black Friday is a thing here doesn’t make any sense to me. But we got a new dishwasher and a couple of Christmas presents at a reduced price, so I’m not complaining.)
So what am I supposed to do with this day? I am not American, and neither do I have any American friends nearby. The rational thing would be to just ignore it all and go about my very normal work/school day. S isn’t in the UK with us for the next couple of weeks anyway, so we’re spending Thanksgiving apart in a very un-American way, and both E and F are vegetarian and would pull a face if a turkey crossed our threshold. That means that nobody would actually notice. But for some reason I feel an internal obligation to do something. This dilemma is probably symptomatic of my general mental state and an explanation of a lot of my actions these days.
It seems that all this moving around the globe has finally, unavoidably, messed with my head. My poor old brain is working overtime to catch up with itself. As if moving and all it entails (packing, unpacking, redecorating, sorting out doctors etc.) weren’t enough, I’m also constantly confronted with situations that overwhelm me in unexpected ways.
The other day, for example, I went to the supermarket and couldn’t work out why I couldn’t find a particular kind of cereal. It took me a whole ten minutes to realise that the desired cereal could only be bought at Trader Joe’s, my beloved US supermarket chain, and not at Tesco, where I currently searched the aisles.
Another day, I couldn’t remember the British equivalent of “parking lot” (“car park”), knew I couldn’t use the American term and ended up saying “where the cars wait”. Puzzled expressions ensued.
I also constantly see people I expect to be elsewhere, i.e. a woman I could have sworn was a mum at our Austin elementary school was waiting in line at the local coffee shop, and one of my neighbours, who greeted me cheerfully the other morning and even remembered me from eight years ago, almost gave me a heart attack, as I was convinced he actually lived next door in California.
And only two days ago, as I was chatting to someone I’d never met while out walking the dog, I couldn’t seem to stop myself from speaking with a decidedly American twang. For no reason whatsoever. Just as my British accent was actually starting to sound almost normal again.
I guess I’ve filled my brain with too many people, too many faces, too many names. In short – and this is probably the most perfect opportunity to use one of the most delightful English words in existence – I feel utterly discombobulated. I am discombobulation personified. Anyway, that’s my excuse for not being very sociable those last few months….
I simply dread the question everybody seems to be asking (fair enough, as we’ve been back for almost six months): “Do you feel settled now?” Or even worse, its more presumptuous relative: “You must feel quite happy and settled by now.” I just don’t know what to say to that. It’s a bit more complicated. Yes, I do feel somewhat settled, in that I’m not a stranger here, I know people, places, how things work. It’s familiar. But no, I don’t feel settled at all, because the familiarity is only on the surface. In fact, I think settling in might take longer this time than anybody can imagine. Of course, in true Brit style, I usually grit my teeth, plaster a smile on my face and say something like “Oh getting there, getting there. It’s good to be back.” And it is, at least on some days.
On those days, it’s really good. I’ve had gorgeous days out in the countryside (Kent has vineyards, just where we live, who knew?!), gone to the beach on a gloriously sunny autumn day, eaten excellent Indian food (oh how I’ve missed this!), strolled through London, my favourite city in the whole world (which is so close now), have spent time with wonderful friends whom I can see any time I want now that I’m back, and I’ve already been to Provence and Lisbon, and am flying to Munich next week. Being back in Europe is really rather nice.
On the days when it’s not so good to be back, and I miss previous lives and places, and question every single decision I’ve ever made, I usually bury myself in work and wait for those thoughts to pass. Experience has taught me that these things need time, and I’ll get there eventually. Of course it doesn’t help that S is splitting his time between here and Austin, which means we don’t see him for weeks on end. Until he’s fully back here, and we can close the door on our Texas house and life, we’re still living parallel lives, which is challenging to say the least.
I’m also well aware that I’m experiencing what is commonly known as “Reverse Culture Shock”. Google has a myriad of articles and websites on offer, and it’s good to know I’m not alone in feeling like this. For those who like a definition:
“Reverse culture shock is experienced when returning to a place that one expects to be home but actually is no longer, is far more subtle, and therefore, more difficult to manage than outbound shock precisely because it is unexpected and unanticipated.” (Dean Foster, founder and president of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions)
Robin Pasco, the author of Homeward Bound, says: “Re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.”
That is exactly what it feels like. Everything looks almost right. I’m confident that the days when it doesn’t will slowly dwindle, until one day this country will feel like a proper home again.
For now, I’m taking things day by day. Baking helps. Baking always helps. Running does too. When the dog and I returned from our morning run today, mud-splattered, panting and happy, I decided to go and get ourselves a bit of turkey. And make an extra effort to be thankful for all I have. My life is full and rich and busy. (But I still miss tacos.)