An Untold Story About Garden Gnomes

An Untold Story About Garden Gnomes

November 19, 2015

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.


  1. The mass consumerism is definitely a kick to the gut, for sure.

    The other thing I always struggle with when returning from extended trips is how disconnected I feel from people. I find they rarely want to talk about your travels. For some the concept of travel, especially to a place like Southeast Asia, seems so foreign a concept to them they have nothing more to ask then, “how was it?” I want to tell them stories of my adventures, the locals we met, the food we ate, but there are those whose eyes would glaze over. Instead… they start telling me about their new windows, the things they’ve recently bought, or the new purse they just had to have.

    We end up at a huge disconnect over what to discuss. I want to talk experiences. They want to talk things. We’re at an impasse.

    I’d rather collect experiences.

    1. I totally get that too Victoria. Some friendships have dissolved over that, but overall I think the majority of our relationships have actually grown stronger. It’s taken some adjustment on both sides, but because we have to work a little harder, I think that makes it better in a way.

      P.S. I love your recent post link that shows up. 🙂

    2. Victoria,
      I have experienced that same effect from our friends and family when returning home. In a trip out last year, I came home so excited to share some new cooking ideas with a cooking friend of mine and he just wanted to talk about a TV show he watched while I was gone. I was floored and dismayed. We never did talk about the cooking ideas. It was the same with our other friends. No one seemed to care about the awesome time we had.

      David and I came to the conclusion it is because we did something they wanted to do but did not have the courage to do for themselves. But instead of celebrating the fact we did do it, they prefer to ignore it as if it didn’t happen and are not reminded of their own insecurities.

      Or it could just be plain jealously. Who knows? The human mind is not always sane or easy to figure out.

      Now we search out our friends who do travel to exchange travel stories. It’s so awesome because they get the funny stuff, the pain and are always willing to listen to another awesome tale of adventures.

      Please feel free to connect with us, if you want to share your stories. We’ll listen 🙂

  2. Dalene, you are not alone. Whether my husband and I return from a lovely stay on a quiet beach in Mexico or 3months backpacking through SE Asia, we are greeted back home with only one question, “weren’t you scared?” We tell everyone we can about Sundays in Mexico where the beaches fill with families with not a harsh word to be heard. In Asia where people were so kind…as oldsters we were called Madame and Pappa. We’ve learned that they are just like travel and spread peace!!

  3. Hi, I’ve been back from travelling for a year in Australia and New Zealand for nearly 2 years and I still can’t get back into the swing of my previous lifestyle. I live near Manchester in the UK and everything around me now feels pointless and repetitive. I have changed so much, that I just don’t get this lifestyle anymore. Possessions have no meaning and I just can’t relate to the people that once I hung on every word. They seem to think that posh cars and pretentious houses is making it and it’s all that matters, my take is, less is more and I’ve never been happier than with a few family photos, as many books as I can stuff into my backpack, music and a little bit of internet thrown in for good measure, I’m good to go. My view of the world is now so different that people just label us as mad, eccentric or just plain stupid! We’re planning on leaving again at the end of this year, because the life that we have got wrapped up in isn’t for us anymore but how to sustain and pay for an idealistic lifestyle is causing some problems, because, unfortunately, even minimalism still costs money!
    Kindest Regards
    Jay Heaton

    1. Sorry that you’ve had such a tough go at home Jay, I can completely empathize. I hope you get it figured out for when you leave again – it does cost money (albeit much less) – there’s always money to be made somehow. 😉

  4. I experienced the reverse culture shock after return from Krasnoyarsk Siberia in 1997,a medical/missionary trip with friends taking in donated medical supplies; also return from bike ride from Tijuana to Ensenada,Mexico, also in the 1990s. My first solo trip will be Ireland and Scotland next year; have to do so before my offspring decide I’m too old! Hopefully this new refugee/immigrant crisis will abate somewhat by then!

  5. Since we began travelling in 1972 we’ve always experienced reverse culture shock. Mainly because our travels illustrate how very few possessions are necessary for happiness. Try explaining that to friends and relatives – especially those who refuse to even begin a conversation about our travels. Great post, btw. Thanks SO much for sharing!

  6. You are definitely not alone! We’ve lived abroad for 5 1/2 years now in Turkey, Poland and now Australia, which also was a bit shocking at first to hear English spoken everywhere. Whenever I visit my small hometown in the Midwest, I feel so out of place. There’s no public transport so you have to drive everywhere. Fast food is rampant. I hear you on the commercialism too. Old friends talk about their new 4-bedroom house, complete with a basement and 3-car garage, which is within driving distance of their parents, and I just don’t get it. I don’t want that and I’m not sure when we’ll ever “settle down” as people constantly like to ask. And that’s okay.

    I know it’s not always easy, but plenty of other people get you! 🙂

  7. Wow, that sounds stressful.Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who has cried in a store. I had a panic attack in a Whole Foods because everything was so expensive and we were so broke !!!

    I haven’t experienced any reverse culture shock to this extent, but I will say when I returned to the US after a year in the UK, everything felt bigger, louder, brighter, and more intrusive. I do feel some of our American/Canadian culture is all about big things, and as you said, unnecessary luxury items. Thanks for sharing your story! I’m sure soo many travelers can relate!

  8. We feel so lucky you guys are here at the same time as us! The Travel Massive event was like a beacon of hope when it appeared in our newsfeed:) Meeting and spending time with like-minded peopIe is a rare gift we treasure for sure. I am glad we had so much to read about re-entry.I tend to freak out more than Rob when it comes to doing scary things. Coming home was really scary for me personally, I did a good deal of freaking out before we stepped on Canadian soil, funny enough.I have managed to keep my emotions in check so far (I’ve only cried on a bus ride downtown once). It’s so cool, “kismety” cool, that we got to meet you before left the first time and how we got to reconnect our trip back home.We are so glad talking with us helped you deal a bit better too! Goodness knows we definitely fared far better getting to talk with you guys!

  9. This is exactly how I felt after camping/rafting for almost two weeks, and then being dumped at the Las Vegas airport. I cried the entire time I was in Vegas, which wasn’t long as I got a rental car and got out of town as quickly as possible.

  10. Dear Dalene
    This is so beautiful…It reminds me of the days in 2011 when our son returned from Sendai, Japan after tsunami with the same feelings.
    Thank you for sharing this with all of us!

  11. I feel like I’m having an odd form of reverse culture shock…or something similar. Andy and I don’t travel long term like you guys do, but it is a big part of our lives. Enough so that we don’t like to spend money on too much “stuff.” Going back to the US in May was rough for me because there was so much consumerism in my face, and I couldn’t relate to anything my friends were talking about. But back home in Berlin, Andy and I do need (strongly want?) some things to make our home feel more functional and more like a home. But we resist and put off those shopping trips because it feels so hard to spend money on something like a set of drawers, pictures for the walls, or a table for our porch. I’m somehow stuck between the traveler’s mindset and the typical settled person’s mindset.

  12. I feel like bursting into into tears reading this post and the comments that have followed–tears of “Yes, somebody gets it!”
    I have been back in Canada for a year and seeing the wastefulness, excess, and hoarding that many people have has been such a challenge for me to cope with. I think my catch phrase for people has been, “I don’t need that, but thanks.”
    I’m also about to head out again, down to an area in Costa Rica where I volunteered 15 years ago…the first time I went abroad. One of my two checked bags is stuffed with whatever I can bring as gifts for people who are so grateful for everything, including some high-end purses I’ve been given which are not who I am.
    I learned 15 years ago how the poor are the most generous people you can ever meet. I will be helping one of my contacts to raise funds to bring Christmas to the children in the very poor area where she grew up herself;she is such an inspiration, with little herself still trying to bring joy to the community.
    This is why I travel, and why I can relate to everything that’s you have all written. Thanks!

  13. Love this. My husband and I have gotten so used to living our one-room-studio-sized lives in Europe that we get so stressed out visiting the USA. The comment about how the people back home want to talk about “things” and we want to talk about “experiences” is spot on. Good luck to all of us!

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