Sixty Degrees of Separation

What to expect with culture shock

For all television’s advances in recent years I still feel it’s got a long way go before it attacks all of our senses. I’m already trying to guess what the next ‘gamechanger’ is going to be.

They’ve got sight and sound pretty well covered. How about smell-o-vision? Indiana Jones slides into the rat infested passageway and you shriek in horror as you get a waft of sewer stink.

Or maybe taste-a-vision? We could enjoy some delicious doughnuts as Homer Simpson chomps away into his morning break.

One sensation that I think would add to the experience would be the feeling of true temperature. We would really feel the heat as Bear Grylls tramps across the desert and we would dive under five blankets as The Titanic goes down and Leonardo Di Caprio freezes in the icy ocean. “I... I’ll... never... let go” would become “p... please... pass... the popcorn.”

We really don’t get a sense of the sheer extremes in temperature on screen at the moment. Take Goldeneye for example. James Bond really gets around in the 1995 action romp.

He starts in the snowy wilderness of Russia. That’s got to be -10°C, right? He saves the damsel in distress, dives away from a massive explosion and heads on his way.

Days later he’s in Cuba. Now that’s got to be 30°C... probably even 35°C. He doesn’t seem to suffer from the drastic change in temperature too much… in fact, he loves it! He swans around in a Hawaiian shirt for a while, saves the same damsel again and dives away from an even bigger explosion.

I chalk that up to be a 45°C swing in temperature. It’s not bad, but anything Bond can do… I can do better.

Recently I’ve experienced a 60°C swing in temperature. I’ll stretch that out for dramatic effect - SIX…TY… DEG… REES!

Sixty Degrees of Separation

  • Location 1: Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Home to snakes, scorpions and the odd camel.
    Hot season high: 40°C.
  • Location 2: Val D’Isère, France. Home to skiers, snowboarders and the odd hangover.
    Late evening low: -20°C.

Short of the invention of a revolutionary heat-o-vision, this is a sensory swing that few Brits will ever experience. And boy, it ain’t easy!

I’ve had the privilege of seeing diverse wonders of the world; I just didn’t expect to be viewing them so soon after each other.

Burkino Faso

I lived in Burkina Faso for 18 months and I loved it. Nestled between Ghana and Mali, it’s a sector of West Africa that has so much to offer. There are luscious waterfalls in the south and dusty desert in the north, painted villages in the west and spacious cotton fields in the east. It boasts a rich culture a world away from our own and a vicious climate that spans from the hideously hot to the downright drenched.

I landed back in the UK at Christmas time and was dumbstruck by reverse culture shock, the process of settling back into your home culture.

It’s a strange sensation to describe, the feeling that everything is familiar but not quite normal. They were the same clean pavements, giant shopping centres and crowds of people hurrying from place to place - but I found myself stopping and staring.

I was back where I belonged and yet everything was a novelty. On Christmas Eve I wandered down Chatham High Street in the pouring rain. I glanced around to see all the shoppers taking shelter under the shop overhangs watching this solitary man shifting through the puddles. I hadn’t seen rain for over three months. I wanted to stretch my arms out and embrace it... (I didn’t).

And then there was television. Everything happened at 100mph. Adverts were relentless. There was such a sense of urgency. All so frantic and fast.

BUY THIS! BUY THIS! You want this! BUY THIS! Pretty lady! BUY THIS! Are you in debt from your reckless spending?… THEN GET A LOAN! Now you’ve got your loan… BUY THIS!

Everything seemed so expensive, yet everyone was throwing their money at the stores. I was looking at £300 iPads when only two days before a lady was at my door asking for £5 to be able to send her son to school.

Days one and two I shivered under a blanket, thinking of all he friends I’d just left over 3000 miles away. “Isn’t this winter mild!” people would try to encourage. “No,” I’d think. “It’s freezing!”

I had no appetite. People would invite me round for dinner and I’d barely be able to eat half the portion. Imagine the frustration of knowing you’d lost weight in Africa, but not being able to eat to put the weight back on.

At one stage I was really concerned a vomiting bug I’d had in Burkina may have given me lactose intolerance. I went to my local GP, another ‘Back to Britain’ experience, and thankfully it hadn’t.

Friends had moved on. They had swish jobs, flash cars and rings on their fingers. Some friendships were picked up just like they were before but others were now foundationally flawed.

And then there’s the most terrifying feeling of all - uncertainty. So, what’s next? What do you do now? Don’t switch on BBC News, because it just projected shots of long queues of depressed people lining up outside job centres.

The reporters spoke to glum middle-aged men saying “I’ve applied for over 20,000 jobs the past five years and not been called for a single interview. *wiping tear from eye* Oh, woe is me!”

I think we get the picture.

So, what did I do next? I went skiing!

Val d'isere

I went to visit my sister, who’s enjoying her gap year adventure as a chalet host in the French Alps. And while it may seem like an odd choice, it was a brilliant one.

You might think going from sunny savannah to snowy slopes would make culture shock only the worse. It didn’t. It healed me.

The picturesque wooden cabins and stunning mountains were so detached from reality that my brain just seemed to deal with it. “This isn’t real life, therefore I don’t need to get my head around it.”

That’s why you never see James Bond collapse into the foetal position murmuring, “too… much… change. Can’t… cope.”

I was away from the stress of settling back into Western life. I didn’t need to worry about jobs. I just had to throw myself down the mountains as fast as I can and break my skis in the process (but that’s a story for another time!).

For anyone getting back from an extended time away in another culture I really recommend trying some escapism as you re-adjust to English life. You need it. It can all get far too intense if you don’t.

There are some huge challenges to experiencing the changes that a gap year will throw at you.

And let this be a BIG WARNING to potential gappers. Culture shock can hit you and it can hit you hard. And reverse culture shock, the process of settling back into England, can be much harder than going in the first place.

If you’ve been away for an extended period the chances are you will face similar trials to me.

Time is a great healer. It will be hard at the start, especially those first three weeks, but it will get better.

And my top tip: If you can’t deal with culture shock… go skiing.

And if you can’t do that, watch Goldeneye. For England, Jon? No. For me.