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Mostly photography and some other musings.

Posts tagged Culture shock


Ok, gardening. In the long list of things that I have no idea about, gardening is one of them. And here in the UK is a very appreciated thing. Houses have a garden, and even if you live in a flat, in a big city like London, you may know someone with access to an allotment. It’s also the case that I’m not very fan of plants, at least taking care of them. I remember once someone at my office told me to take care of a tomato plant during her holidays. The tomato survived, but I can say now that it wasn’t because of my efforts. I just completely forgot about it! That tomato plant was a really strong one I think. So maybe its a combination of both things, the attention given to gardening here, and my total lack of interest on it, what makes me, still today, find all this gardening stuff a bit funny. I enjoy visiting them though, as some pictures in this blog can show. I took the ones in this post quite a while ago, in the garden of my previous place. And I don’t miss that garden… At all.

This days are hot here in UK. In a way, its different to what I’m used to in Madrid, where the weather is less humid. With just above 20ºC there is a quite summery sensation. More if it is a sunny day. Reach 30ºC and they call it heat wave. Ha!, in Madrid we usually get to 40ºC and in some parts of the south of Spain even a bit more. But it feels completely different. Any way, what I think we have missed this year is a proper winter. These pictures are from a few years ago, where we had a proper snow falls. I remember that some airports were closed, and satellite pictures of the British islands entirely covered in snow made the news. It felt really much colder than in Madrid. Although winters in Madrid are usually cold enough. Something that still is surprising to some people I speak to.

A couple of weeks ago I went to another of those local photography meetings. This time it was about a project someone wanted to show and discuss. You can read more about it here. It is not about followers on social media but people who just follow their loved ones from one place to another because many reasons. Work is the most common one.

Somehow it felt familiar. I was myself one who followed his parents along the years through some different places. And now I am one who has dragged his family with him to a new place with the promise of a better life. Now I have my own followers, so I can easily relate to this project. There are many known things that happen in a leader-follower kind of relationship in a foreign country that this project describes.

One is the follower having to stop working. Developing her/his own career becomes difficult if not impossible. Depending on the country, the academic titles might not be recognized. In some countries you can only work with a permit of some kind, that doesn’t usually include your partner. The unemployment numbers might be high for specific kinds of jobs. Specialization means having to do courses, that cost money and time. And time for oneself is not easy to get, given that now she/he will need to care of the children at home, if there are any.

Another issue comes with the concept of home, a place that you are supposed to live in forever. Or is it just the place where you actually live?. While the leader can be perfectly fine at his/her office doing the job, meeting with co-workers, feeling part of the experience, the follower can feel just the opposite. Difficulties on people in the new place and possibly a complete lack of sympathy with the new place that she/he refuses to call home.

There are more things that can happen, but as a start, these two can become quite complicated. Sooner or later this will produce frictions in the relationship. Doubts about her/his role as a follower will appear. So at some point she/he will start questioning what was all this fuss about the expat life.

I asked to the host of the meeting about the leader part. If she ever did talk with the ones that at some point decided to bring his/her followers to a new place. She told me that only in a few cases. The project is more about her interest in people is this particular situation, one that she also is having, by the way. Another similar project could be done, or a second part to this one, about the leaders. These can also have their own sort of issues and doubts, more if not everything goes as expected. If that happens, the dynamics between leaders and followers can become even more difficult.

And what this has to do with photography? Why this discussion took place in a photography meeting? Part of the project are portraits and pictures of some of the places where the followers live. And while they initially didn’t look like very interesting pictures to me, they made more sense when explained. The most interesting ones were the portraits, with a split composition showing an empty space and a half of a follower’s portrait. This was meant to show that somehow, the follower was and at the same time wasn’t there, in a place that doesn’t look exactly like home. Other pictures were more about the place itself, like specific corners of the house, or personal belongings.

You can see a few of these pictures here.

+ high-res version

…in London’s British Museum. I took this picture a few years ago, in my first visit to London when I arrived here. No need to say much else about this place. It is just amazing. As are most of the museums I’ve visited in UK. Maybe because here museums are free, most of them. We have also great museums in Spain, but they are not free. That’s not an excuse, but I can tell you that I have visited more museums here than in Spain. I have never been to the Museo del Prado. Not even after  living for 20 years in Madrid. It is too expensive and queues are enormous. I should be ashamed…

Yes, I have an imaginary friends. I must be going nuts or something, but that reality is becoming more and more obvious. I thought this things just happened when you a are a child. I see my daughter sometimes talking to people who is not there, as far as I know. They have different names, they tell her things, she plays with them, or she runs away scared. When this happens, I cannot avoid some strange feeling. Maybe, there was someone there, next to my daughter.

Anyone with children has had this experience. It is a very usual phenomenon, a child’s imagination is completely out of control, as it needs to be, and when you become older, your own self-control and awareness of reality makes this things more difficult to happen. At least, that’s what I thought. I’m almost 40, and long time ago I stopped playing with cuddly toys and LEGO (although I like LEGO still and I find broken old cuddly toys heartbreaking). I don’t consider myself a very imaginative person though.

Then, why at this age I’m thinking I have imaginary friends? What has happened in my mind lately to make me think so. Enter Social networks vs Real life. Everybody  this days is into social networks. Facebook, twitter, google, etc… The first thing I find funny is calling this social. Social for me is hanging out with friends or colleagues and chat about whatever comes across. Social is receiving an invitation for a dinner in some friends house. Social is doing a bbq in your garden, if the weather is right (oh, the weather). Social is inviting someone to your house or a restaurant or a pub to have lunch. Social is going with other people to places or just have a walk. Social is to meet new people, like when you start a new job in a foreign country.

All that, and a few more things, mean social to me, while seating in a computer reading status updates I don’t care about, laughing at the nth version of the latest meme, browsing pictures of holidays taken who knows where, or parties you haven’t been invited to, is not. At least not for me.

When I started using facebook, I thought it was great. I did what most people do. Added as friends some real friends I had close to me at that moment. Also, I added some work colleagues, not thinking first, what if they know about… whatever, It doesn’t matter. Also I started looking for people who I knew in the past. I have lived in a few different places along my life. It is always hard to move to another place and more so if you lose contact with people who at that point in your life was important to you for any reason. Old friends, old girlfriends, old crushes… old things generally speaking. I think everybody using this social networks have added at some point this kind of old people. Why? I don’t know, maybe you still have hope to continue things were you left them, maybe you are just curious about their lives, possibly you are a secret stalker. And lastly, I added some family to the mix. That would work right, I though…

Now a bit of culture shock. When I first knew about Facebook, I was living in Spain. Maybe its the weather, maybe its the people, I have no clear idea what it is, but people there is quite different. I know it sounds stereotype, but it’s that way. In three years living here I have met some people from different places, and there are some clear differences. Being myself Spanish, I know there are things, or ways of being and behave here, that I still don’t get. And I’m not talking about just being more introverted or extroverted. In fact, I am more the former. But I care about simple things like saying good morning or asking about the weekend, things that most of my colleagues at work just seem to ignore. Just a tiny example, a tiny detail that can drive a Spanish guy completely crazy. Here it looks much more difficult to know about someone in an informal conversation. You may end thinking that everybody ignores you, or that everybody is quite reserved, as the stereotype says. Everything can change in a pub though, under some alcohol influence. Then you really start knowing people. More so, if you manage to understand a word of what they say, a skill not taught in English schools in Spain.

And there is another place where people here seem to expose themselves really well, which is… Facebook. People here disclose all sorts of personal issues using Facebook. You know about birthdays, holidays, divorces, engagements, weddings, births, all sort of mental health issues, political and religious views (another kind of mental health issues), etc…, more from reading your wall than from real conversations with people. And it looks perfectly normal. To me, it doesn’t. It is not that I am not interested in those things. It is the way I get to know about them, reading a website, and not with a coffee (or tea, or beer) at hand listening to a real person in front of me. I find something weird about this kind of social interaction.

While these facebook/twitter/whatever sessions it is like entering into Matrix. You escape from the real world to the world of disclosed thoughts and musings in a website. And it is al-right. The wrong part for me comes when that becomes the only way of interaction with them. And in a foreign place, given the usual language and cultural differences, that can happen quite easily.

Hey, you are writing about some personal things in your blog! Yes I do but I find posting things in a blog a bit different. I am not forcing anyone to read them.  And as far as I now, none of my followers knows me in real life (well, that may not be strictly true) . And what this blog is most about is pictures I’ve taken. It clearly says that in the title, top left corner. I write about things that maybe are interesting to people but I don’t expect much in exchange. And I write here because I enjoy having conversations with my imaginary friends… 😉

There must be something weird happening with the weather. Yes, I have already complained about it, but I feel this is far more important. Spiders haven’t appeared yet! This is one of the best kept secrets about UK. At least, is something nobody told me when I decided to come here. Most of the inhabitants of the UK are spiders. Yes, there are loads of them. Living in houses, gardens, in your loft. Everywhere.

People here are perfectly used to them. They have even ways of dealing with the ones that appear crawling in the kitchen cupboard or wall. You must use an empty glass and a piece of  paper,  to trap and throw the poor animal gently out to the garden. “Do it gently” they say. I’m more used to just kill them, stomping my shoe on for better effect. I know that looks a bit violent towards the poor insect, but that’s my first reaction when I see a spider.

Children here see spiders as something completely normal. Spiders are everywhere for them. Nursery rhymes, toys, tale books, TV shows… My mother had once an issue when my daughter showed her an innocent spider toy that she loved.  She was having nightmares during all her stay. Maybe that’s the reason she have not visited us for a while. So, that’s one thing to keep in mind if you plan to come to the UK. Deal with your arachnophobia.

After a few months and some scary episodes, all became normal again. For instance, if I see a big spider in our bedroom, I just set up a glass trap, like they do here, and gently throw her out of the window. In the mornings when I grab my bike for work, chances are that a spider web ends in my face. The spider will come with me to the office, attached somewhere, and it will crawl over my shoulder at some point during the day. There is no need to make a fuss. Just get rid of it, gently.

In fact, these spiders are appreciated by gardening enthusiasts. They can talk to you for hours about the complex relationships between the spiders, the ladybirds, who eats who and how this improves the health of your plants, flowers and all the stuff that usually grows in gardens. Gardening is another big topic here in the UK, I will talk about it in a future post. So, how do you deal with spiders, glass or shoe?

The pictures above are some friends that lived in my garden. I miss them (my friends, not the spiders).

+ high-res version

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Shops close their doors quite early in UK, compared to Spain.

I remember my first days here, going out after work to see a shopping centre and finding it closed. And nobody on the streets. Weird… One of those nights I saw this store-front. The almost symmetrical display of colourful things grabbed my attention. The processing here was adjusting the black level, to get rid of the surrounding wall of the shop.

…is mostly cloudy, always. Don’t underestimate the British weather. Even British people hate it. After a few years here I understand why they come to Spain for holidays or retirement. Why as soon there is a bit of sun, they all go outside to catch a bit of energy from our star. Winters are miserable, someone told me when I arrived here.

When I first came here, in summer, it was glorious!. In Madrid we were having 38 degrees and here almost 20 something. My family and friends in Madrid were sweating like pigs and I was riding my bike along the town with a perfect breeze of fresh air in my face. That was the last glorious British summer I’ve seen here. I don’t know what happened the other next ones, but to me they weren’t summers. And it is said that I live in the driest area of the UK! We have had even a drought alert! This people don’t know what a real drought is… Yes, it is true that it doesn’t rain as often as in other places in the UK, but there is a constant humidity, and sometimes drizzle, that mixed with cold temperatures and constant grey skies makes Winters…. miserable indeed.

My wife loves to watch weather forecasts. I don’t know why, everybody has their own hobbies and interests. I think she is going to start a blog about the subject. I will keep you posted about it. Her favourite website is BBC Weather. In Spain, this things are terribly boring. Everyday almost the same. Today: sun, Tomorrow: more sun, the same one as today, etc. Here, the weather can change  a lot during the day. That say of “Four seasons in a day” is absolutely true.  A few days ago we had periods of  sun, rain and snow changing every one or two hours, in the same day. It was maddening. Here you don’t know exactly what to wear in the mornings, but it is advised to have some layered clothes, just in case, so you can start peeling yourself like an onion. If you wear sunglasses in the morning, later in the day they may be of no use at all.

But I am adapting slowly to this situation, I think. I can ride my bike in the worst snowy day without complaining (almost, only falling to the ground once or twice per year). I’m still not able to go out in T-Shirt this wintry days, neither my wife can wear mini skirts and beach sandals, as people do here when the sun shines a bit with below zero temperatures. But, when I go to Spain now, I found it a bit warmer than before, even in winter. Maybe it is that climate change thing, I’m not sure. Sometimes, at home, I point a hair dryer to my face, remembering how summers were in Spain. I even start to appreciate the weather forecasts…

Weather forecast

Weather forecast

Living in a foreign country is hard. One goes abroad with lots of expectations and preconceptions. You are first warned about the weather, also about the food. About cultural shock. And you think: I will be able to adapt quickly. I will improve my language skills. I will meet a whole lot of new people and friends. And everything will be fine.

Green stage, “The Tourist”
Wide-eyed amazement, the big screens in Shibuya, the toys, the people, the clean and punctual trains.

LeafGreen, “The Honeymoon”
You’ve just moved here, life is good and exciting. You’re learning new things every day.

Orange, “The Hangonaminute”
Culture shock creeps in. “What do you mean I can’t order extra mayonnaise?” “How many times do I have to fill out the same form??”

Red, “Mr Angry”
Aggression. The trains are too crowded. Salarymen stink. People are not friendly at all, just very annoying and unaware of others. No one speaks English one tiny bit after six years of mandatory study at school. Some things are way too expensive. Tokyo is dirty. Mental isolation. Pure hatred! Rampant racism and xeno-ignorance.

Grey, “The Realist”
Acceptance. Hey, Japan is a country pretty much like every other country in the world. It has good points, bad points, nice people and arseholes. Live with it.

via A Game Developer’s Take On Japan: The Myths And The Reality | Kotaku Australia.

The first months are great. You are a newcomer and that changes your perception of reality. Everything seems fine, fun, and as it should be. You radiate optimism and positivism. If there is any issue, you see it like just a small bothering thing that you can quickly fix. You are curious about all sort of things related to this new place.

Times passes, and you have your first missteps. Mostly related to things that get lost in translation. You can invite people to just have a coffee and that is seen as the most awkward thing in the world. You wont see them again. Or you try to follow a conversation and suddenly you need to make the funniest comment of your life. And it is not fun at all. Only you thought that it was. Some days you feel not only like a foreign but like an alien from outer space. But still, you are able to make fun of it. At the end of the day, everybody is so polite and friendly here, that you cannot feel bad about this little things. You start wondering in the mornings why the sky is grey, as it was yesterday, and the day before yesterday… And what do you have for lunch today?  Pot noodles and a sandwich. You miss proper food.

The first years passed and you are extremely proud of yourself, your job, and everything else you seem to have accomplished. But somehow, some cracks start to appear. Things at work and/or personal life may get more complicated, as happens to everyone and everywhere, but you realize that you are very far from your “comfort zone”, your family and friends. You cannot just take a plane to see them when you want, that can be expensive. And you are saving money for a better, bigger, and nicer house, because the one where you live since this thing started, is getting smaller, like Alice in Wonderland. Or saving for a car, because what you thought about riding a bike everywhere, now is not so clear any more. You realize now that it rains and it is cold. Annoying weather… Your mind starts playing tricks, and again your perception of reality slowly changes, but now in the opposite direction.

I don’t want to go into a “red phase”. That way of thinking always seemed to me of little use and absurd. You just become an annoying person. At the end, you actually ARE living in a new place. I would like to go from “orange” (dark orange, to be more precise) to “grey”. But to be honest, I miss the “greenish” side of this. It was addictive and inspiring. Maybe it’s because I always have been a bit of a nomad and just moving to a different place IS the real reason to move. I took this picture the day I moved here. The sky above the clouds is still blue!… 🙂