From Nomad to Resident : An Out of Body Experience

Zürich, Switzerland

Walking into a bike shop today to pick up a part, I heard the owner helping a tourist who spoke English. The shop owner turned to me, continuing to speak in English, then corrected himself, asking me in German how he could help me. For simplicity’s sake and because it was just a matter of a few words, I just responded in German, and that’s what we spoke for the remainder of our interaction. Meanwhile, he (the shop owner) was intermittently turning and speaking English to the other guy. I left the shop, not having spoken a single word of English, never letting on that, for me, it would have been just as well if the shop owner hadn’t troubled himself to switch back to German.

Ten minutes later, I had walked up the street to the grocery store where I found myself being asked by a fellow shopper if I happen to speak English. I suppose he never realized it was actually my mother tongue. But that wasn’t the issue at hand. The issue was coffee creamer, and he couldn’t find it. The most traumatic moment of my day was breaking the news to him that they don’t sell Coffeemate in Germany. Traumatic for both of us really, because I deeply empathized. I listened, pained, as he continued down all the aisles asking everyone if they’d seen it. He was in denial.

A little while later I found myself giving directions and train times to a Swiss person at the train station. As I waited for my train I finally stopped to reflect on how strange this whole day seemed. I sort of felt perhaps I’d wake up soon from a dream about some other person. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Who even are you anymore, Kay?” When did I become the person giving these sorts of answers instead of the one asking them? Was it even me? “I” had seemed to be watching some other girl blend in with society. There was this strange feeling I’d seen her before, but I didn’t really recognize her. She spoke in German as if it was second nature. She wasn’t the one feeling lost in the grocery store. She was the one who “just happened” to be able to speak English. You know, instead of being the one hoping someone could speak English to her and point her in the right direction.

I wish it was a sure sign of acclimating and integrating, but I’m honestly not so sure. It feels more like just another stage of it. The one where I get just that much further from the person I knew myself as, even just a couple of years ago. Or maybe it’s that some people experience culture shock, and I, instead, experience “adjustment shock”– a feeling of wonder that I actually lived somewhere long enough to know where things are located in the grocery store aisles.

Regardless, I’ll chalk this weird feeling up to being some sort of hidden bonus to expat life, although that sounds perhaps a little too positive for what I’m feeling at the moment. It’s simply yet another stage when I have to tell myself, “just give yourself time.” But instead of giving myself time to adjust, I’ll be giving myself time to adjust to adjusting. I guess. If that’s even what this hard-to-define feeling is.

Why not share your story(ies) of adjusting to a new place or new life? Which stage of it are you at?

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Expat life, nomad life, and becoming a resident. The process of settling down and adjusting

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