Unknown Known

It’s done: suitcase packed and unpacked, goods byed, ports passed. I’m back in the greatest of Britains, the most united of kingdoms. In the space of (heck) five days, I’ve changed country, time zone, and jumped between two cities. I have savoured the most Czech of all flavours (Too Much Višňovka) and the most Sheffieldest of tastes (Too Much Abbeydale Stout). I have said bye to a whole bunch of beloveds, spent time with friends I haven’t seen for years, and met what feels like millions of new people. I’ve bought a bus pass.

Reader, I’m tired out.

People mentioned the perils of reverse culture shock to me before I left the UK for the first time two years ago. Frankly, I was too worried about classic culture shock to pay any attention to their warnings. Why would I sweat about reintergrating into British culture when I had to face up to the daunting task about losing my Britishness in the first place? It seemed like skipping a step.

Besides, I thought to myself, I am inescapably British. No matter how hard I try, and no matter how much I will wrinkle my nose at my own passport and curse the Queen under my breath, I fit into British society as snugly as a bone china cup slots into its saucer. The phrase “citizen of the world” hits my middle-class liberal ears beautifully, but even I know it doesn’t convey anything meaningful, except highlighting what a twat I am.

And, sure, I am still English. This is true beyond any doubt – it says so on my passport. I must be English because I have an opinion on Marmite and what order the milk goes into the brew. Besides, I was undoubtedly a foreigner the whole time I was in Prague, and I’ve only lived outside of the UK for a measly two years. To claim to be more European than Mancunian would be misleading and silly.

Even so, I’ve been struck by how different everything here is. I feel utterly, completely lost. I’d got used to being a foreigner in Prague, but being a foreigner in Sheffield is another thing altogether, and entirely disconcerting.

I feel like there’s a disconnect between me and the people around me – I’m not sure what words I have to say to make them understand what I’m thinking. I had got very used to the rituals and habits of living in Prague, when I was supposed to smile at people, what I needed to say when I came into a building, how to tip and how much to leave. I feel like all the people skills I’ve picked up over the last two years don’t apply to Sheffield residents. My cheery ‘hellos’ whenever I enter a cafe or shop, for example, seem to upset people more than ingratiate them.

A massive thing is feeling a bit invisible here. This is, I’m sure, because I’ve not found a coherent peer group yet and because I’m not really doing very much in the day, but it’s also a bit related to cultural differences between Sheffield and Prague. People really stare at you in the street in Prague, no matter what you’re doing. This, of course, is upsetting for any English person, bred to avoid eye contact and pretend not to notice anyone else existing in the same space as them. I won’t lie: I found it quite rude to begin with, when I first moved to Prague. I was constantly anxious there was something on my face to draw all of these searching looks.

Somehow, in my year in Prague, being looked at on the street stopped bothering me. I got used to it. It was just a way of being sure that I was really there. Now I’m in Sheffield and people are consciously keeping themselves to themselves, I feel uneasy. I’m not sure that I’m really here. I have to look at my reflection in car windows to make sure I really am taking up space in the world.

These teething problems aside, I’ve also been struck by how much I benefited from not understanding stuff in Prague. The amount of effort I had to exert to glean any meaning from even the clearest and simplest sentences coming from the most familiar and friendly mouths meant that I didn’t even try to understand what the lady on the bus was saying. It was much easier to feel calm and centred in myself when I let 90% of what was going on around me flow past me without engaging with it.

I feel like I don’t have the option to do that now that everything is in English. I cannot stop myself from feeling invested in the lady on the bus’s phone conversation with her boyfriend. I can’t ignore the people on a shit date sitting behind me in this very cafe. Reader, I understand the news. I feel emotionally spent before I’ve even started talking to people that I actually know and care about.

Socialising in a second language suits me quite well. If you can’t understand everything your friend is saying, and if you can only express a third of what you’d like to say, everything’s necessarily simplified, and that takes a lot of the anxiety out of it. When saying anything is a success, you can’t worry about whether you’re saying anything of substance.

The only antidote to this, of course, is time. I’ve only been here ten minutes and I’m bound to be feeling a bit unsettled. Keep on keeping on!

Something my flatmate said to me as I was writing this mopey drivel illustrates what I mean.

“Who sends texts these days?” I moaned as my phone chimed.

“What do you use, WhatsApp?” he said.

“Yeah!”

“English people like texting,” he said.

This is what I’m talking about.

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