You’ve just arrived in Prague, and the excitement in the air is palpable. Sure, you miss home a bit, and you’re not used to seeing dogs in restaurants or having big chunks of fried cheese for dinner, but Gambrinus is the best thing you’ve ever had, and really helps take the sting off that thing they call “culture shock.”
Two to five years later…
Oh my god, you’re leaving Prague. You’re at dear, sweet Letiště Ruzyně, boarding the plane that will send you back home. Where you no longer belong. How will you ever fit in again? You’ve forgotten how to drive. You can’t say “na shledanou” as you leave the Wal-Mart. And why did you just say “the” Wal-Mart? And what about Gambrinus, the fermented nectar of the gods?? Maybe they’ll have some on the plane so you can drink yourself into oblivion. There’s no place like home….right?
A commonly held belief by Prague expats is that those who try to move away from the city, whether home or elsewhere, eventually come back to Prague, to this city that just doesn’t seem to let go – a concept so strange and fascinating that Prague-based British expat and filmmaker Edward Longmire felt compelled to explore it in his documentary of four Prague expats, “Alive and Well”.
But back in December 2007, when the Czech Republic entered the Schengen zone, negating the lunch-in-Dresden-for-a-border-crossing-stamp trip and confirming the necessity for a long-term visa, many non-EU expats decided it was time to leave Prague. This exodus has been slowly continuing, and while some expats move on to experiment with teaching English and beer in other European or Asian countries, there are those who simply return home. But what is that “home” like after several years in an entirely different universe, when the gritty taste of foreign words and dark bread are still fresh on your tongue? Enter the inevitable “reverse culture shock” syndrome.
Reverse culture shock (RCS) might not be as widely discussed as culture shock, the initial feeling of transition when you first move abroad. But RCS can have rather severe effects on someone who has returned home and is trying readjust to a lifestyle he or she used to consider normal. Symptoms are often similar to that of culture shock and can include:
· constant criticisms and comparisons of home culture
· sense of loss, feelings of loneliness and isolation
· feeling less valued, unappreciated
· all around lack of interest
· boredom, easily distracted
· strong impatience
· drastic mood swings
· easily irritable
Former Prague expat Lily Morris has a story that will be familiar to many: she arrived in Prague with the intention of remaining only for one month, but ended up staying for five years. Now, Morris has recently returned to her home in the US, and is deciding on how to move forward in her life, with memories of Prague still fresh on her mind.
Based on her own experiences, Morris advises other expats preparing to move back home to “stop thinking about moving back. Have a proper farewell to Prague and live in the present moment as much as you can!”
She adds, “It’s hard for me to say what RCS is, but moving is a process. I’ve been back three months, and I am still sort of scattered and confused by the whole thing. It’s nice to be around friends and family, and even making new friends, but it takes some time to relax into a new scenery.”
Camilla Dessing operates Relocation Therapy in Prague, a counseling and psychotherapy practice primarily for expat children and adults and mixed-culture couples, and offers this advice to homeward bound expats: “While preparing to go home it can be helpful to visualize ahead of time the controversial situations and conversations that may take place at the workplace or when meeting with friends and family, and then attempt to visualize their solutions so that you can be prepared for these situations. Embrace your new-found identity and bi-culturalism and try to find ways to how it can improve your life situation. See the possibilities and not the limitations.”
Tips for homeward bound expats:
· If you don’t already have photos of your favorite places and people in Prague, now is the time to take them. Stroll through your neighborhood, your favorite park, gather with some friends at the pub or cafe you frequented. Basically, be a tourist. Buy a garnet or snag a Sparta scarf while you’re at it. It might be difficult to see that you will miss Prague right now because you haven’t left yet, but once you do leave, you will wish you had done and seen and captured certain elements of your life abroad.
· Don’t expect your family and friends to completely understand—or understand at all. Although you might think that your parents or your best friend would want to hear everything about your crazy life in Prague and your spontaneous travels across Europe and your mushroom hunting experiences, and see every single accompanying photo, think again: they probably don’t. Sure they will ask you a few questions for a few minutes, but after that, it’s all the same to them. How could they be so cold and uncaring, you ask? Well, for one thing, your family and friends have continued to live their own life (the very one that you left behind and exchanged for one abroad), with completely different concerns. It is hard to fully explain the entire spectrum of mental, emotional and even physical challenges and growth that you’ve encountered in your time abroad. Words and photos just don’t do this experience justice.
· Consider that there may be a tinge of envy. After all, while your nearest and dearest have been working the same 9-5 job or trying to tackle boredom, you’ve been gallivanting across the globe, drinking the finest beers in all the land, feasting on forest mushrooms and wild boar goulash among the lush green parks and ancient, architectural splendor of one of Europe’s most charming capitals. Feel lucky that you had such an opportunity, and recognize that there will be plenty of people who don’t particularly care to hear about it.
· Search for others in the same situation as you and communicate. When you realize that your stories aren’t as exciting to everyone as they are to you, and you feel like you really need to share them with someone, it’s time to connect with other former expats. One way to reach out is to join online forums or support groups, which can be found on ESL websites or even Facebook. Or if your hometown is big enough, you may even find some support groups meeting on a regular basis. If not, you could start your own by posting an ad on Craigslist or putting up some flyers. Or you might eventually hear of someone through a friend of a friend of a friend who also just got back home from spending time abroad. Seek out that person, as he or she most definitely is going through the same difficult readjustment as you, and also needs someone to share this transitional period with.
· Give yourself time to react and readjust to your new life back home. Don’t expect everything to be just as it was. No doubt, you have changed in many ways during your time in Prague; don’t forget that your friends and family have also changed, in different ways. You’ve got some catching up to do, both with the people in your life and with the culture around you, and you should realize that this is a process and takes time. It is common to have an idealized version of your home life that will likely disappear when you arrive to the reality of your new life, and this can be highly frustrating. Don’t be quick to judge and compare. Let yourself react slowly.
· Start planning your next visit. Even if it’s not for a while, you can soothe the shock of returning to your old life by knowing that soon enough, you’ll return for a visit to the place that you still call home. Or simply plan another trip somewhere else, so you have more traveling to look forward to and don’t feel “stuck.”
· But don’t give up after a week and try to book a ticket back. Write down the reasons you left Prague in the first place. Look at this list every day, several times a day if it helps. Remember them each time you feel the nostalgia for Prague washing over you. You obviously made the decision to leave Prague, to restart your life at home, for a good reason. Be careful not to over-romanticize Prague.
Additional Resources: http://www2.pacific.edu/sis/culture/
This site offers in-depth discussions and even worksheets on all aspects of culture shock and reverse culture shock.