An Untold Story About Garden Gnomes
A couple of weeks ago, we met up with fellow travellers (and former Calgarians), Rob and Tracey. They had just returned from their first foray into nomadic travel that lasted a year and a half. Just prior to their return, in a chat with Rob, I had commented that I hoped they were ready for reverse culture shock that would probably hit upon arrival.
When we saw them they appeared relaxed and stated that being prepared for it had helped. But that yes, the pervasiveness of consumerism was having an effect on them. Immediately, flashbacks to my own first return to Canada, after almost a year in South America, began to rush back to me.
My own re-integration was far from smooth. And for whatever reason, it’s a story I’ve never told here.
When we left for South America, we knew nothing about travel. We had never heard of blogs and we did almost zero research. We jumped on a plane with only our first few nights booked. That was it. It’s a miracle that we never ran back home with our tail between our legs or sustained something traumatic considering how little we knew of what we were getting into.
And when we returned almost a year later, we similarly had no idea what to expect. Reverse Culture Shock? I had never heard of such a term until I started searching online for an explanation as to why I was struggling to adjust.
At the time, I had returned solo to help a family member through a difficult situation. Pete and I decided that he would stay behind to complete a volunteer project that we had started, which meant that we would be apart for roughly five weeks. This, after having spent every single moment of our last ten months together. Somehow, stupidly, we thought that this wouldn’t be difficult. It turned out to be the most excruciating experience we’ve ever had in our marriage, and could be why we are so hesitant to try solo travel (even though we are sure it would probably benefit us as individuals).
It started on the plane ride from Ecuador to Calgary, stopping in Miami. Flipping through the magazines and catalogues that plugged the seat pocket in front of me, I couldn’t get over the array ads for things that seemed so unnecessary. The repetitive promotion of expensive face cream before the inflight movie. The people around me talking about ridiculous celebrity news.
My anxiety grew with fervour upon arrival, and without Pete, I had no one around me who could possibly understand how I felt. I had to restrain myself from berating every single driver in the long line at a Tim Horton’s drive thru when they could have parked their vehicles, saved a bit on harmful emissions, and got their coffee much faster anyways. The stacks and stacks of trashy magazines that lined a wall at the grocery store seemed so utterly wasteful I had to rush by them in disgust. Mindless evenings spent watching TV almost brought me to tears with the endless parade of commercials pushing things nobody really needed.
And then there were the garden gnomes.
A whole wall of them in a hardware store, from top to bottom, rows and rows of garden gnomes wearing football inspired jerseys. On sale for only $80 each, the sign said. My mind reeled.
I just stood there, staring and staring at these gnomes. I thought about people buying them, placing them on their lawn just for the football season, then chucking them in the basement where they would probably remain and be forgotten. I thought about them later lying as waste in a landfill. And I thought about how $80 could buy a family in Bolivia food for a month or more.
I was taking up valuable space in the middle of an aisle. Patrons swerved around me, surely perplexed at my fascination with these ugly ceramic creatures. And then, without warning to myself or those around me, I burst into tears. I ran out of the store, near a state of hyperventilation, crouched by the door and buried my head in my arms to try and calm myself.
I think that is called a panic attack, but I’m not sure.
I got over it, I guess. At the very least, I don’t cry in stores anymore, and I will admit to using a drive-thru once or twice since then.
The weird thing is that I have never experienced culture shock anywhere near to the same as the reverse. Every new culture, no matter how foreign or weird it may seem to me, I want to experience and learn every little detail of it. But the return to my own often sends me running and hiding from it. To be faced with consumerism and excess that could instead be put to significantly better use gets me on every single return. A little less each time, but it still does. And when family members tease us about our shopping at second-hand stores or wearing the same items repeatedly, I just bite my lip and take it. I smile, sometimes make a gentle protest, but most often just let it ride. Because I have learned that no matter how much I rally against excess and garden gnomes, there will be someone to buy them. People who will never meet a family from Bolivia who could use the money so much more. And it’s in those vital experiences where such lessons are really learned. I can’t force them on anyone.
Sometimes that makes me feel very very alone. But I’m happier to meet people like Rob and Tracey who get it.
P.S. Want more behind-the-scenes looks at our lives? Check out more of our In Real Time posts.