Before I left Canada for Tanzania, I had to attend a four-day orientation on culture shock. I think we spent at least two hours staring at schemas of icebergs and discussing how some aspects of culture are visible while others are hidden beneath the surface. Along with most of my colleagues, I dismissed the discussion as overly simplistic. Most of us had work abroad before and could have benefited from a more nuanced discussion.
They should have warned us, for example, how difficult it would be to leave.
I arrived in the Netherlands after consecutive midnight flights. Johannesburg to Dar to Nairobi to Zurich to Stockholm to Amsterdam to The Hague. I was exhausted and had caught a nasty cold somewhere along the way, but I was looking forward to a summer of wine and cheese and cute cafes.
Instead, I spent my first day in Holland in the emergency room, trying to discover if the alarming bug bites I had contracted in Malawi were possibly fatal. The tropical diseases specialist wouldn’t make time to see me, but told his resident to have me come back in two weeks.
The resident was similarly apathetic about my plugged ears which, because of my cold, had not popped after my flight. I couldn’t hear myself speak and it sounded like everyone else was whispering at me from the other end of a long tunnel. The resident shrugged and told me that some things take time.
It started raining shortly after I arrived in The Hague and didn’t stop for 21 days. I was surprised to discover that July in the Netherlands can be cold and grey and merciless. I had just left a city where fluctuations in temperature are measured by how soon you start to sweat after leaving an air-conditioned room and I didn’t have any winter clothing.
Instead of spending my time sipping wine at sidewalk cafes, I sat huddled in blankets in my new apartment, trying to recover from my various ailments. As the rain splashed against my windows, I dreamed of the Tanzanian sun and the beach at Mbudya and the pineapples for sale in my old neighbourhood.
Last week, the rain finally stopped and the sun seemed a bit brighter and I noticed, for the first time, that The Hague is kind of beautiful. It’s not Dar. I still miss the colours and noises and smells of that city. But here there is grey stone and medieval stores and church towers. There are bicycles and canals and lily pads. There is a new corner coffee shop with green tables and yellow walls.
I continue to refuse to buy winter clothing (it’s August!), but as I write this I am sitting at an outdoor table in a square in the city centre. It will probably rain tonight, but right now the sun is shining. I’m meeting new friends for dinner in an hour. And yesterday my ears finally popped.
Maybe I am starting to acclimatize.