Travel, Habit and Culture Shock


"I would hear the train whistles, nearer or farther, that like a bird’s song in the forest communicating distances, revealed to me the extent of the deserted countryside where the traveler hastens towards the nearest station; and the little path that he follows will be engraved in his memory by the thrill of new places, unaccustomed activities, a recent conversation and farewells under a unfamiliar lamp that haunt him still in the quiet of the night, and to the sweet thought of being home again." (Swann's Way, Marcel Proust - my translation)

Have you ever lain awake at night in a new environment and wondered "What am I doing here?" A strange town, a new country, maybe your first night away at college. Nothing is familiar: the room, the bed, the sounds from outside, the people and places you will see the next day. An unsettling experience. Perhaps this change wasn't such a good idea afterall. I frequently have this thought as I board a plane. I could be in the comfort of home. Why in the world am I leaving?

What we call culture shock might be less a case of cultural differences than the loss of the familiar. The popular sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" has a character, Sheldon, who desparately clings to habit and to the familiar. He's obsessive and we find it humorous, but maybe only because of the extent of his obsession. We all have habits and find comfort in the familiar. Minor disruptions to our routine are usually no problem, but travel can be much more than a minor disruption. It can wreak havoc on our state of mind.

Perhaps you've found yourself returning to a restaurant simply because it's a known commodity? Even one visit will make the second one easier. You know the layout, the menu, perhaps recognize the waiter. Where's the adventure in this? When you travel to a new country, is your first concern logging onto your facebook account? That's the equivalent of going home, surrounding yourself with the familiar.

The most fulfilling trips have nothing to do with the familiar. They are trips where you break away from rountine, where you embrace the new, the different. You come alive, moments no longer blend into each other, your senses are in overdrive, your mind is racing. Sure, simple tasks can become headaches, nothing is quite as easy as it was back home. How you react will determine the success of your trip. Do you hide in your room? Hop on the next plane home? Camp out at an internet cafe? All of these reactions are more common than you might think.

I opened with a quote from the great French novelist, Marcel Proust. His work revolves around the role of habit and disruption. And although his protagonist yearns for tranquillity, he truly comes alive when there is disruption. Creativity springs from disruption. So my advice is take a trip! Allow disruption to enter your life. Experience the turmoil that accompanies it. It's not always easy or comfortable,  but in the end, the good and the bad will live on in your memory as a time when you truly felt alive. 

By Kevin O'Neill


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