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Sunday, April 16, 2017


I knew there was culture shock going from country to country when it was a significant move. I didn't think it would hit this strong, though, after visiting a country I'd never lived in for just 5 short days. I'd like to blame it on a bad cold, my friends gone because it's Easter vacation, and too much to do, but I think I cannot. I think I really am experiencing a good old fashioned case of culture shock and I'm not happy about it one bit.

I booked a ticket to Austria a couple of months ago when fares were cheap and I knew my cousin and family were going to be around (the last time they were headed off for a weekend camping and hiking in the mountains with their church and that wasn't my idea of a holiday so I'd ended up not going). Splurging a little, I also booked tickets to a concert in Vienna and a Bavarian Salt Mines/Sound of Music combo tour in Salzburg, along with booking a nice little hotel in Lengfelden just outside Salzburg for the two days I would be staying there before heading back to Lebanon.

Bright and early on a Friday morning, after just two hours of sleep, I stepped into a shared cab, my arms filled with a stiff package that contained a wedding dress. Not mine, but for a Syrian woman who lived in Vienna. I was the courier, bringing it from her relatives, along with all the accoutrements that accompanied such a beautiful dress that was resplendent with tulle. I managed to get all said items through the various check points until the final security screening just before the gates.

It was then that some alert young fellow, awake so early in the morning, decided that the 6 feet of wiring that was carefully wrapped between the folds of the stiff skirt was not allowed on board. Perhaps it was seen as some sort of weapon, I don't know, but the poor young man's minimal English and my non-existent Arabic didn't help to resolve the problem.He went first to one colleague and then another, asking their opinion. I hastily brought up a picture of a wedding dress hoop skirt to show them what the wiring was for, to which they glanced at uncomfortably and resumed their discussion. A woman, re-dressing after security, shrugged her shoulders and wished me good luck.

Finally, the young man told me I would have to go all the way back through the 4 security and immigration check points to the front of the airport and check in the offending wire. He suggested I check the entire wedding dress, which was stuffed into an oversized khaki garment bag, but I decided to put it inside my backpack and check that instead. Then I looked at my ticket. Boarding time was in 5 minutes and there was no way I was going to make my flight if I had to go through all that hoopla. Plus, I'd already checked a bag and it was on my flight. I showed him my ticket. A more senior officer showed up just then and when asked what to do, shrugged nonchalantly, giving the okay for me to proceed to my gate, wire and all. I thanked the young man profusely.

Several hours later, the pastor of one of the Viennese churches was collecting the wedding dress from me at my cousin's house. I spent the first three days of my holiday with my cousin and family, thoroughly enjoying the culture, getting to know their vivacious kids, and drinking in the Viennese countryside. I was disappointed that the Danube wasn't really blue or beautiful, for that matter, and Vienna's industrialization was a bit much, but downtown more than made up for it with its opulence of architecture.

All too soon, I'd boarded a train for my second destination and slept most of the way to Salzburg. There I slid down wooden chutes, sang How do you solve a problem like Maria, dutifully ate the requisite apple strudel, and lost myself for a few blissful moments among storefronts that belonged in a museum. Reality had to catch up with me, though, and Tuesday morning found me on a train back to Vienna to catch my flights to Istanbul and beyond. Austria had been wonderful but it was time to go back home. At least that is what I thought.

I was at the beginning of a horrid cold so my trip was split between drinking green tea and sleeping, as I stumbled between gates and tried to find something reasonable to eat in the airports. As the plane descended over Beirut's night lights, I felt anticipation at my return. The drive home on now-familiar streets brought a huge smile to my face and I didn't even mind lugging my bags up the two flights of stairs to my room. I was happy to be home. I thought.

I'm on the tail end of the cold now, so just about back to feeling normal physically. Yet I find myself strangely unbalanced emotionally. I'm not sure why and it's somewhat discombobulating. It's strange to find myself wishing to return to Austria, Salzburg in particular, or even California, which I never wanted to feel homesick for. I can't place the reason, or even quite the feeling.

I'm tired of dusty grocery stores where I can't find what I need. I'm tired of driving down streets so congested, I can't find a place to park or turn where I need to. I'm tired of picking through a bin of aubergines to find just one that isn't soft and then being charged the wrong price when it's being weighed. I'm tired of cooking at a friend's house and trying to gauge how much I'll need for the coming week, though I'm thankful they let me cook there. I'm tired of waiting for the washing machines to be free so I can do my laundry, while making sure I have enough pegs and it isn't a wet rainy day so my laundry will dry properly. I'm tired of feeling stuck on a campus, but not sure where to do, who to go with, or how to get there if I were to find something interesting to do. I want a car, or easy public transportation that's cheap and clean. I want a grocery store that has everything in one place and in English, so I know what I'm buying. I want a washing machine that isn't full of someone else's balls of hair or lint.

I feel somewhat guilty writing this. After all, there are people who can't see colour, so they've never seen a beautiful sunset. There are people who can't hear, so they've never heard the voice of their loved ones. There are people who die every day from starvation, who struggle to get ahead because they were born into poverty, who live in war-marked countries and never know if the next bomb will be their last breath. I don't have any of those problems. I just have a bad case of culture shock and home sickness, though for what home I am completely uncertain. Perhaps for now, it's simply not this home. Though I thought, when I came, it would be forever, now that pronouncement is not quite as solemn as it was then.

I'm not exactly sure what to do. I guess I'll call home, eat some comfort foods, hold my friends' twin baby boys close, and remind myself that when I was there, wherever there happened to be, I wasn't happy either. When I tally the total marks, here is still ahead. Perhaps for now, that will have to be enough. I hope so.

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