This is a topic that I (Helen) have kept to myself since moving to Kosova in May 2014, but I feel that now is the right time to talk about it. In August 2014 we visited some friends in Macedonia and they, like everyone else, asked me how I was coping with living in Kosova. I can’t remember what exactly I said but probably something along the lines of “Yes I like it here” (Side note: before moving to Kosova my view of the country had been based on a charity sales pitch which I have since found out is not reflective of the country or people). I remember feeling optimistic about learning Albanian and hoping that my awkward feelings about being a “nusja” (bride) would pass quickly. Our friends asked me if I had heard of culture shock and at the time I didn’t really know anything about it or think that it would apply to me. I didn’t think about that conversation for a while, the reason for which will become apparent.
Now the reason I haven’t brought this topic up before is simply because I didn’t want to worry any of my family or friends in the UK. Crying down the phone every day or complaining about every little thing that bothers me would give the wrong impression about what life is really like here and that wouldn’t be fair to anyone.
[noun] the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.
The four stages of culture shock
1. The honeymoon – “This is new and exciting”
The Honeymoon stage is exactly what you would assume. Everything is new and exciting and you can’t wait to experience new things such as food or the pace of life. Exciting things were happening in my life: we had just got married and had a Kosova wedding too, we went to lots of other weddings so I got to learn some traditions, we moved into our own flat, bought a car and I joined a new church after 27 years in the same one in the UK.
This is the stage I was in when we met our friends in Macedonia. I was excited about living in a new country, getting to know my new family, trying different food and learning Albanian. I can’t say exactly how long I stayed in this stage or what exactly triggered the downturn to the next stage but at some point things stopped being exciting and new and started to become frustrating.
2. The negotiation – “I’m an ex-pat get me out of here!”
This stage is really hard and to be perfectly honest I don’t think I’ve completely left this stage behind. The biggest issue I have is the language barrier. Languages just don’t come naturally to me and even after 2 years I still can’t tell the difference between the single “L” and double “Ll” in Albanian (which led to a temper tantrum just a couple of weeks ago). This language barrier can cause a great deal of anxiety and feelings of loneliness. I am blessed to be married to someone who speaks English and to begin with translated for me most of the time but it’s hard work for him and means that he can’t join in a conversation fully.
The most frustrating feeling is being with a group of people and feeling either lonely or as though you don’t belong there. Maybe because you don’t understand the conversation, or even if you do understand not being able to join in. I am not in any way saying that people exclude me or that noone makes an effort to speak English. But then why should everyone speak English just for me?
In this stage that you start to notice the differences between your new country and your home country, things aren’t new and exciting anymore they’re frustrating and confusing. It was perhaps a year after moving to Kosova that it really sunk in that this was permanent and not just a long term visit, I can’t just decide one day to move home to England because that would mean leaving my husband behind (who cannot travel to England without a visa). Other foreigners moved into the town and I noticed that they were making friends with local people and seemed to fit in a lot better than me. I started to feel lonely and isolated, like I didn’t belong here, and I remember praying for God to give me friends.
3. The adjustment – “Maybe it’s not so bad after all”
Gradually over the last year I have built stronger relationships with people here, including people at church who have become good friends, and Ilir’s family who have been very patient with me as I get used to life here. When I panic about not understanding something or not being able to express myself in Albanian they smile and say “pak ka pak” (little by little). God answered my prayer for friends but I believe it’s not an answer like a bolt of lightning but a gentle trickle that is an ongoing process.
In the adjustment stage you learn what to expect in certain situations and develop coping mechanisms just in case you find yourself in a difficult situation. I asked Ilir how to say “I’m sorry I only know a little Albanian” and I can’t count how many times I’ve used that phrase since. Coping mechanisms help to make you feel less like a square peg in a round hole.
When people ask me if I like living in Kosova Ilir will always interject with “It depends what day you ask!”. He says it for a laugh but it’s actually very true. Some days are better than others, not because of anything that is bad or wrong about Kosova but because I’ve had 27 years of living in England, speaking English, doing things in an English way and sometimes the cultural differences between what is comfortable to me and where I live become an obstacle and I revert back to the negotiation stage for a little while.
4. Adaption – “I love it here, I never want to leave”
This stage is the goal. I don’t know how close I am to being at this stage, I’m still adjusting, but I can at least see this in the near future. Each time we return to Kosova from a visit to the UK I dread it a little less and look forward to it a little more.
This is a difficult topic to talk about and I could have written a lot more about my experiences of moving to Kosova. Social media often gives the impression that people are always happy as we like to promote the positives and brush the negatives under the carpet sometimes. My journey with culture shock is by no means over and I might not have seen the worst of it yet. I know that there will always be something new to learn and many uncomfortable social experiences to get through before I fully understand this culture but today is a good day and I’m feeling optimistic. I still feel like a square peg in a round hole but gradually my sharp corners are being worn off and I’ll fit in one day!