Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Four Seasons in a Strange Land

Spending a year in another country is a unique experience.

I did it the first time when I was 17, in Sweden, and although there were huge differences between my experience there and here in Ireland (namely, level of freedom and especially the language), it roughly followed the same pattern and timetable of reactionary response.

Sentiments about place, people and distinctive cultural differences seem to fit neatly into quarters like a seasonal cycle cliché as the year unfolds.

Stage One, or ‘The Photo Stage’ begins before you arrive, with ideas of what one thinks the place will be like. Arriving is always a slightly surreal experience. The images and stereotypes present like aged photos; they fade, destroy, or are restored to a brighter and more brilliant image.

Stage One fluctuates between the exciting, disappointing and exhausting. It’s like Groundhog Day centered around first impressions, and you find yourself answering the same 3 questions so many times that your revised answers even stretch to include a joke or anecdote. As a New Zealander these days it usually leads to a well versed Lord of the Rings reference (‘My cousin’s cousin’s little sister was an extra in Lord of the Rings’).

My least liked but inescapable stage is Stage Two, the ‘Superior Comparison Stage’. It plagues one like a nervous tick after 2- 3 months in the country, and no matter how much you try to stop vocalising it, you find yourself making countless references to how much more efficient/cheap/friendly/warm ‘your’ country is. Time seems to go slower than a leprechaun on sedatives. The excitement of tasting the local cuisine wanes and you find yourself daydreaming about kumara. You miss your family, friends, and perhaps even your pet goldfish. You resent the tourists, who never pass Stage One and can be overheard talking about how much they love the country, and who rarely retreat beyond the borders of such places as Temple Bar, the Dublin Disneyland of clichéd ‘Irishness’.

By Stage 3, ‘Spring’, annoyances start to abate. Friendships are firmly established and you’ve been long enough at work to be able to pre-empt tasks and cruise along nicely. If you are learning a language, the grammar finally starts to make as a whole at this point. If it’s still in your native language, you find yourself throwing in local colloquialisms without realising it, leaving you looking like a foreigner who is trying just a little too hard to be a local. As a foreigner in the Emerald Isle this means throwing the word ‘grand’ into sentences at every opportunity. You now look at the tourists with a gleeful superiority because you know the secret to the ‘real’ Ireland.

By Stage 4, the 'Summer' you don’t want to leave. You even find yourself showing symptoms of the Superior Comparison Stage, only in reverse, as all the good things about the place become exaggerated with blind nostalgia. Time seems to go faster than an Ethopian runner on Speed.

Things that previously would have induced extreme irritation become ‘quaint’ or ‘charming’, to the point that when the bus driver pulls over for 10minutes to pick up his drycleaning you laugh instead of grind your teeth (this actually happened today). This is a sign that it’s time to leave, before the worst part of the last 3 quarters ome back to haunt you.

Leaving is as surreal as arriving. It's hard to really come to grips with the fact that your life as it is has expired its term. It will always bring some regret for the places never visited and the friendships that will never be progressed due to lack of time. But it's also liberating, because you can leave behind all the things you don't like. And exciting, because new adventures are coming.

I have 2 weeks left in the country before embarking on new travels.

Slan go foill!

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