The Cultural Adjustment Cycle

Wednesday was a red letter day for me in Spain. I successfully asked for all of my desired vegetables in the market, got my hair cut and highlighted (and even cracked a joke with my stylist!), and, most importantly, after spending four hours over the past several days on the truly terrible RENFE website (Spain’s public train system) I successfully purchased roundtrip tickets for Barcelona for when my parents visit next month. After days like these, I celebrate with a drink and am like “Foreign Country: Bring it. I got this.”

Lest you think I’m too cocky, let’s contrast this with Wednesday of last week. I was supposed to meet two friends for dinner. The plan was to meet at a nearby Starbucks and we’d find a restaurant from there. Problem was, I only had a rough idea of where this Starbucks was, and I am wretched with directions. (As a teenager, I once accidentally drove to Canada when tying to get home from an orthodontist appointment). So last Wednesday, 45 minutes and 20 Euros later,  I was in my second cab of the night, after visiting my second (wrong) Starbucks of the night, with no phone (mine broke) from which to inform my dinner companions to continue on without me when I told the cabbie “Just take me home!” In tears. Tears! I am not a crier. Generally when I cry, I channel Seinfeld and think “What is this salty discharge coming from my eyes?” But these were legit tears. I assumed I could handle a seemingly simple task — meet friends at Starbucks — and I failed. And then I cried. I felt so….incapable. Incapable of navigation, yes, but also maybe incapable of living this life of always being somewhere new.

These wild swings of emotion are new for me. I pride myself of being a pretty even-keeled gal. I actually thought “Maybe I’m pregnant.” (Spoiler: I’m not). How else can I explain all these emotions? One day I’m flying high and the next I consider not leaving the house for a week just to avoid looking like the idiot with the terrible Spanish.

As if on cue, another spouse of a diplomat (who happens to be a therapist) gave a seminar on acclimating to foreign countries. I almost didn’t go because I thought I was acclimating just fine. But as I sat there and listened to her explain this thing called the “Cultural Adjustment Cycle,” and listened to the other participants share their stories about trying to fit in in Spain, so much of it rang true.

curveAllow me to paraphrase the five stages of cultural adjustment:

  • The Honeymoon: I just arrived to this new country. Everything is peachy. Beautiful place, wonderful museums, good food, cheap wine. Actually it’s not so different than America.
  • Culture Shock: Hmmm, maybe this isn’t so much like America after all. Why is everything closed from 2 to 5 and all day Sundays? Why does everyone insist on waiting at the cross walk even if there is nary a car in sight? Why do men on the street think it’s okay to get my face and say “Que guapa”? Why does everyone look so fancy at the gym? Do I really need to weigh and print out a label for my vegetables at the grocery store?
  • Initial Adjustment: Okay, maybe I was overreacting. Weighing one’s own produce certainly saves a lot of time at checkout. That break in the middle of the day – it’s because people here aren’t slaves to their jobs. They stop to enjoy life. I can totally get behind that!
  • Continual Problems: Argh!!! Why is this store closed after I walked a mile to get here? Oh, it’s 2pm. Obviously taking a three hour lunch is more important that the store actually having business, so, whatever, enjoy your massive lunch and glass of wine. I’ll just come back another day. Or never.
  • Acceptance and Comfort: Listen, I get it. This store being closed is really not a big deal. Me coming back = more exercise, which is a good thing. Also, my personality in Spanish may be excessively prone to wild hand gestures and out-of-control facial expressions. And that’s okay. I’m never going to be Spanish; I am always going to be American. Still, and I can make the absolute most of my time here by being unafraid a greater number of days than I am fearful, and by traveling around and seeing this crazy interesting and majestic country; and by constantly improving my Spanish language abilities.

As one woman in the seminar so aptly put it: If you’re in a really hard country (like Yemen), it feels totally acceptable to say “This is hard.” Because it is hard. From being totally isolated, to having constant intestinal issues, not having favorite foods, not to mention the constant threat of violence….it’s legit hard. But in Madrid, it’s hard in a lot of other ways, but none of them are overt, and that makes the hardness of it seem less legit. There is great wine, food, culture, architecture and we live in a gorgeous apartment and life is so, so good. That makes it feel all the worse for me to come to the realization that “Sometimes, it’s hard.”

To “cultural adjustment,”

The Dame in Spain


  1. So very true! I have been through each of these stages, and 5 years in, am thankfully in the final one. But we have to weigh our produce in Italy, too – and I don’t know if I’ll ever get over that.

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