Geneva, Budapest, Amsterdam, and reverse culture shock

I’m back in the US after nearly three years away. Will I stay? For a while, at least. Maybe forever. I have some grown-up concerns to address, like my jaw problems and my quickly-accumulating pile of student loans. It’s hard to look past those huge obstacles at this point.

Traveling has me totally burned-out and grateful. I promised to write about Geneva, Budapest, and Amsterdam, and I will here, briefly. My last trip was to Iceland, which I’ll write about next time.

I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland alone and couchsurfed for the first time there. My host was great, but I’d never do it again. The expectation to chat and wow and entertain a stranger while traveling is exhausting, even if they are cool. I got to dip into France again after six years away, which was surprisingly nice, despite bringing back memories of my traumatic au pair experience. I ate delicious pate and drank delicious coffee and got treated like shit by my waitress, so everything was just as I remembered. It felt like returning to a sort of home after ostentatious Spain. Geneva proper was lovely, opulent, and liveable, if you’re part of the 1%. I spent a nice afternoon by the lake, reading on a sunny spot of grass. My French has deteriorated embarrassingly, but I hardly needed it. I tried to use it anyway, after rehearsing whatever I wanted to say in my head first. I usually got Englished, but not in a rude way.

Budapest feels like a dark cloud. It rained almost the entire time I was there. That coupled with soviet-era buildings made for a depressing time. I mostly remember my wet shoes, always wet. I’d take sopping shoes off at night and put them back on in the morning. I started to have a very bleak outlook on life that radiated directly from my feet. On the last day there, I went to the Hungarian baths, and though my feet were wet all day again, I didn’t mind it. The sun actually came out for a couple hours and I got to luxuriate outside in a pool full of Polish people, touching my sallow skin to the feeble sun. The ruins pubs were dark, strange, dilapidated, varied, and perfect. Beware of palinka: it will put you on your ass if you’re not careful.

Everyone knows a Dutch person who incessantly brags about how great Holland is. I also grew up in a Dutch immigrant-saturated area of the US where a common saying is, ‘If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much,’ so I was out to prove that wrong. But Amsterdam (or Hamsterdam, my preferred name for it) really is a little inclement paradise. Even the red light district was tasteful. I ate amazing cheese, drank great, dark beer, and stayed in an ideal apartment. I only almost got ran over by bikes twice. It was expensive, but not obscenely so. I went to a sex show, and even watching a woman feed a drunk American a banana out of her vagina seemed tasteful (no pun intended). Add to that stroopwaffels and the torture museum and Amsterdam gets an A+, as much as I hate to admit it.

Now that we’re caught up to present-day minus Iceland, some thoughts on re-entry. I feel like that kid in The Flight of the Navigator minus the alien abduction. He falls down a ravine on the 4th of July and is unconscious for ten years. Don’t ask me how he stayed alive, but when he comes to, he runs home only to find that another family lives in his house, and, though it’s the same house, everything is strange and different. He’s reunited with his family, but they’re all ten years older now. I feel that kind of depressed being back. The area I’m from seems both stagnant and different. Time has passed and I no longer belong to this time and place, just this place, which isn’t the same thing at all.

In general terms, I’ve forgotten how American things work. When I arrived at the Boston airport my first day back, I ate at a restaurant and forgot how to leave a tip on a card. I thought I had to add it before they ran the card. The waitress looked at me like I was an alien. I’ve also forgotten the sequence of how to buy things with a card without a chip in it. I’ve been handing my card to the cashier a lot when I shouldn’t, or trying to insert it into the bottom of the machine. I also forgot I could run a debit card as credit. I’m not used to being able to pay for everything with a card again either; I keep on having mild bouts of anxiety over the fact that I only have $4 cash in my wallet. Dollars too–they’re all the same size. Reais and euros vary in size and color based on denomination.

It’s amazing to be able to freely make calls on my cell phone again. A sense of dread comes over me every time I have to call my loan service provider, the bank, or even a family member, thinking I’ll have to use Skype, Viber, or some other equally annoying application to use when you have a bad internet connection, something I’ve consistently for the past few years.

I drove to Holland, Michigan my first weekend back in the US and I was surprisingly stressed out about driving on I-94 after not driving for months. I find myself not driving as fast as I normally would or stopping before I have to. Car repairs, gas fill-ups, and car insurance haven’t been parts of my world in a long time. Neither has autonomy.

Libraries are a wonderful thing. To be able to get virtually any book I want to read and have that book be in English and made out of paper and ink is exciting. My Kindle has been invaluable over my years abroad, but nothing compares to feeling the heft of a real book in your hands and the sense of accomplishment you get from flipping the pages as you finish them.

Lastly, I’ve forgotten my Subway order. This is no small feat, since I love Subway, always order the same thing, and used to work there during my darkest of days. I went in the other day and forgot all my options. What’s that bread with the grain things on it called? What is that white cheese called again? I am an alien exploring this place called Subway for the very first time and I don’t know what food is; please help me, please be patient with me.

So basically, I feel like an 80-year-old freshly-escaped from a nursing home. I don’t know how to work new phones, I don’t know what movies are out, I haven’t watched American TV in a really long time. I hope as the days pass that I’ll gradually feel 70, then 60, until I’m back to my normal age, because it’s disorienting being Rip Van Winkle.