I left my country in April.
I haven’t always lived here in Bogotá. In fact, I spent ages nine through fifteen in the US. I was young, however, and didn’t experience too much of the country. The fact of the matter is the only place I’d known, truly known, and understood was Colombia. Even so, there wasn’t any anxiety the day I boarded my flight to Europe, just pure excitement. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but I was looking forward to being an observer to how other people lived their lives, and to get a small taste of other places.
Look, the truth is Colombia isn’t too different from Europe, culturally. We’re a former Spanish colony, after all. Sure, there are huge differences even in neighbouring countries there, but the odds of me experiencing culture shock weren’t as high as they might be if I’d gone to other parts of the world.
I was right, of course. Things were very different in some ways, but familiar in others. It was a little funny to be taught that in Germany you respect traffic lights no matter what, and to be stood at a crossing waiting for the pedestrian light to turn green, even though there were no cars to be seen. In Colombia, for reference, crossing the street resembles a game of Frogger more than anything else.
It was not very different to find the streets empty and quiet on Resurrection Sunday in Dortmund when you’re from a formerly Catholic country, or to see a city come alive to watch the football when you’re from South America. Riding the metro in Paris was every bit comfortably and awkwardly quiet as it is taking a Transmi in Bogotá, and the intense passive aggressive annoyance at some guy who got on and played loud music was every bit as intense and passive aggressive as it gets here when the same thing happens. There were kids playing with footballs at a park in Barcelona, which made me smile and remember doing the same while growing up here.
What I didn’t expect was what would happen when I came back to Colombia.
See, I’ve always loved Bogotá. It’s my city and yeah, it’s dirty and unsafe and a little crazy, but it’s mine. I grew into an adult here. I had my first borrachera, my first time getting drunk, here. I know the ins and outs of our streets, the tips to ride public transport, the hidden little parks and shops and restaurants scattered around the city.
None of that was on my mind after I left for work the day after I came back. I was heading down the stairs, taking my phone out so I could listen to some music while I walked to work, as I’d sometimes done while exploring Barcelona. It wasn’t till I was about to leave the building that I remembered going out with a smartphone in my hand was a good way to have someone nick it and run off at best, or pull a knife on me at worst. So I put the phone in my purse, and walked to work in silence, internally both feeling furious and wanting to cry. The walk back home was just as miserable.
The next week, once I’d fixed my bicycle after a month of disuse, I headed outside to bike to work. No more miserable walks, I was in my element again. Then I was brutally reminded of the total lack of respect for cyclists Colombian drivers show. Sigh. Not quite Amsterdam, then.
It kept going on and on and on. Little things, which I’d always been low-key aware of but simply accepted as fact, became huge inconveniences that made me irate. That’s the main emotion I felt my first month back: anger. I was angry at my country, angry at our open and shameless corruption, angry at how unsafe I felt here, angry at everything. It became a nearly daily occurrence to spend my nights crying because I didn’t know how else to let out the frustration that was tearing me apart.
Maybe for the first time in my life, I was seeing my city and my country in a more honest way than before. My love for where I live and where I’m from was being stomped on by the knowledge of what other places can be like. My brief stay in other countries gave me new eyes, and what I saw back home was not as pretty as I thought. I was miserable, and drowning in disappointment.
Halfway through my second month back, the anger started to fade somewhat. It was still there, but it took a back seat to something else. See, that’s when I started feeling homesick for places that weren’t my home.
I would be feeling content in my daily life until something reminded me of how much I’d enjoyed safely biking through all of Amsterdam at midnight. That was the end of any contentment for that day. I spent nights sobbing because I couldn’t just walk through Montmartre again, couldn’t picnic by a random canal in Amsterdam like I’d gotten used to, couldn’t see fantastic art I’d only ever admired from a computer screen.
I remembered all the amazing days I spent in Paris with my best friend, the wonderful time I had with new friends in Amsterdam and Castricum, the lovely and quiet days on the beach in Gran Canaria. As I remembered, I could feel my heart being pulled apart by the pain and frustration of knowing it’d be a long time before I could go back and see my friends and all those places again.
Once again, I was miserable, though this time it wasn’t because of what Bogotá and Colombia are, but what they aren’t. Every night I’d bawl my eyes out in my room, and would occasionally spend my breaks at work locked in a toilet stall because it was the only place I could openly weep without making a scene. I’d settled back into my old life, going to work as usual, visiting my family, biking around town, but my heart wasn’t in it. Even when I did stuff I once liked, I couldn’t fully enjoy anything.
Planet Earth to Lily…
I knew I was being ridiculous. On an intellectual level I could see I was overly romanticising the experiences I had on holiday.
No, things weren’t perfect in Paris or Barcelona or Dortmund. There were hungry people there too, homeless people. Yeah, overall fewer people than we have here, but still a reality. Traffic was probably shit there, too. Visiting those places might’ve been nice, but the magic probably starts to go out of them when you spend half your day at a dead-end job, and the rest of the day alone in a tiny flat. And yes, it was safer and cleaner there, but so what? At least there aren’t thousands upon thousands of tourists destroying and ruining local places here.
Apart from the fact I only got to know those places as a tourist, and not as a long-term resident, I was also forgetting all the negative experiences I had on my trip.
While I sat at home thinking of the great time I had in Amsterdam, I was conveniently not also thinking of how much hunger I had while there, trying to get by on a lunch of a 3 euro sandwich and an apple. Remembering how much fun it was to see snow for the first time in my life while I was in Kraków was not being remembered along with how exhausted I felt going outside knowing absolutely no Polish. My rose-tinted view of Las Palmas and its lovely beaches filtered out the nights I spent crying because even though I was finally back in a country where they spoke Spanish, I still felt like a total stranger to the local culture.
It still hurt to think back to all the amazing places I was privileged enough to visit, and of all the dear people an ocean away once more. It hurt a lot. I still feel like crying sometimes thinking of my trip. However, now I know what to do. Just like idealising a person you can’t be with will lead to nothing but pain and disappointment, idealising real places that have real people and real problems is not a good idea. So I try to balance out the overly-romanticised memories with a bit of the truth.
Truly Coming Home
So that took care of romanticising places in Europe, and my sadness at all the things Bogotá and Colombia are not. Yes, Bogotá is not like the amazing places I was remembering from my travels, but honestly neither are those places as perfect as my brain keeps trying to make me think.
That still left me with anger at all the things my home is. My city is filthy. It is dangerous. I can’t just totally accept those things anymore, like I did before. The privilege I’d gotten to try out in Europe had felt far too comfortable for me not to miss it. I still feel intense anger at how the beauty of Bogotá is severely limited by the ridiculous corruption of our politicians and government. And listen, it really is ridiculous. The head of the Anticorruption Department over at the Public Prosecutor’s office was arrested last month for, you guessed it, corruption. You can’t make that shit up. I still feel anger at how badly taken care of our roads are, at the way we all think we’re exempt from following any and all rules, and so, so much else.
I can’t ever see my home the way I did before.
So what I’ve been doing is re-discovering it. I went to a concert last month, and had some of the best time I’ve had in my life. I also went to a play, and currently hold tickets to see two more shows in the coming weeks. I’ve visited the delicious little ice cream shop hidden away in a small neighbourhood, the fun nerdy shops with Golden Snitch earrings and Pokémon mega-evolution stones, the park where I’ve had so many lovely picnics on my own, watching the lake or just napping under the sun. I’ve also bought tickets to travel to Medellin, a gorgeous city in another part of the country, and I’m so excited to get to know it.
My city is not perfect. My country is not perfect. I know that now in a way I couldn’t have before getting a tiny taste of life in another part of the world. There are so many ways in which we could change, in which we need to change. And just as it’s true that Paris and Amsterdam and all the places I saw aren’t actually perfect, my home isn’t some shit-hole completely devoid of qualities.
My people are incredibly outgoing and friendly. There are a million parks scattered around Bogotá where you’ll see little kids playing football every single day. While cars might not respect us, there are a TON of cyclists here, and we have exclusive bike paths that allow you to travel from one end of the city to the other without having to ride next to cars. There are so many things to do every night, from going to board game meetups, to foreign language clubs, to parties and pubs to have a great night in.
Today I went to our flea market and walked around a bit, then just sat and smiled at all the happy people walking around one of the most beautiful spots in my lovely city, and for the first time in four months I felt truly content. This is what I enjoy about living here, this is the city I love.
I finally came back home today.
How about you?
I can’t be the only person to ever experience something like this. Have you found yourself seeing your home with unflattering new eyes after travelling? What has been most difficult about reverse culture-shock for you? Does this get better with time, or have you had to deal with it every time you travel?
I’d love to hear your experiences 🙂