Being a first time expat is a lot about being swept up in various excitements. Everything is new. Everything is beautiful. But culture shock is not only real, it's an important part of the expat experience and transition. Everything is a little scary, too. Everything is different. There's also the added complication of language, even when you begin to understand words and phrases in, say, Norwegian, that moment of necessary translation back to English costs you time and clarity. Actions as simple as grocery shopping or booking a dental appointment are suddenly more complex, and thus more time consuming. And then you have social norms which differ between countries. You think you're doing something normal (smiling at strangers on the street, for instance), and really you might as well be walking around wearing a sandwich-board that says 'I'm an American! Regard me with disdain!' Or you put on socks with a hole in them because they'll be hidden in your boots all day, so who cares, but then you enter a Scandinavian house and must remove your shoes at the entrance. Hello, Big Toe! It's happened.
Culture shock is real. It's important to recognize this curve up front, because culture shock is also not something you overcome in a week or a month or six months. Some would even argue that, for an expat, a perpetual outsider, culture shock never ends. The tremors simply become less shattering after a while. So the above wave continues endlessly, but appears shallower and shallower at every interval.
When you first arrive in your new home city, you'll be cruising on the same happy endorphins that make vacation so fun and memorable. Adrenaline will push you out the door and into the cold air in search of adventure. You'll take lots of photos, chronicle your neighborhood and the local harbor and the way your cats are adjusting (they sleep a lot, FYI). The honeymoon continues even as you contend with life's practicalities. Receiving your new residence permit will make you gleeful. Completing a grocery shopping trip and cooking a meal will make you want to take a bow. And along the way, you'll start believing that you're already adjusting to this new place. It will feel easy. Look at how well I navigate this tram line , you'll think. See how expertly I order coffee at the corner cafe. Nailed it!
Then one afternoon you'll be standing at a bus stop on your way to hunt down and buy a yellow onion for dinner, and a middle-aged woman in a fur-trimmed coat will approach you and begin speaking rapidly in Norwegian. She'll speak to you so directly and so quickly that you don't have time to do your standard Sorry-I-don't-yet-speak-your-language head duck and smile. Though you recognize her expression as friendly, her torrent of words will bounce off your high, surprised forehead and scatter across the pavement near the bus stop, around the feet of the other people waiting there, all of whom are, thankfully, ignoring you and the speed-talker completely. That's the Scandinavian way.
But the fur-trimmed woman will keep on going, and the longer she talks without taking a breath, the more you feel as though you're about to drown in the deluge. It occurs to you that, maybe, you'll recognize a word or two somewhere in the mix, just a scrap, and if you could grab onto it, you might be able to deduce the context and respond to her in English.
Then, as suddenly as she began, she is finished. Silence swells between you as her eyebrows raise inquisitively. You will gulp, preparing to explain that you've understood none of this, but before you can utter a sound, something registers on her face. Her perfectly lipsticked mouth settles into a grim line of acceptance and disappointment. She knows.
Standing before this woman, you are childlike. Illiterate. Dumb. You've wasted her time. She will snort her disapproval, loud enough to make the other people at the stop look up, and stride to the other end of the platform, as far away from you and your helpless, hopeless foreignness as she can get.
The bus will arrive then, larger and noisier than you remember past buses being. Doors will fold open. Passengers will disembark. New passengers will step into the body of the wheezing, red beast. Doors will unfold shut. The bus will rumble away. And you'll still be standing at the bus stop. Red-faced, confused and small.
You'll hurry home, worried that if you slow down for even a second, someone will reach out and tap your soldier and ask you for something else in that baffling language. When you're safely inside your apartment, you'll press your back to the closed door and shut your eyes, grateful for this space that is entirely your own. Grateful for the English language and its universality. After a moment, you'll compose yourself and walk deeper into your apartment, shedding your coat and shoes. You'll empty your pockets onto the bookcase in your front hall: keys, wallet, phone, and a reusable shopping bag, which will fail to trigger your memory. Only later, after watching several back to back episodes of Friends and checking Facebook to Like photos of your cousin's four-year-old daughter playing in a fountain in your old hometown, will you remember the yellow onion.
It takes a calling out like this one to draw the honeymoon to a close. A reminder that the new city and country aren't entirely allies in your cause of adventure. They have an adversarial side.
Recognizing your true descent toward culture shock crisis isn't easy at first. Occasional mistakes, like the first time you get good and lost or the first time you accidentally order pizza with shellfish on it, don't count, and probably won't trigger it. Because these things will be easy to blame on yourself, you'll blow by them. Learn the difference between Tøyen and Skøyen. Avoid the word blåskjell on the menu. Not until the problem you're faced with is rooted deep in foreign soil can the kind of exasperation and resentment build that will carry you down into that valley of disintegration.