I have moved to different countries before, once where I needed to learn the language, once where I didn’t.
I know culture shock is a Real Thing. I know how bad it sucks.
I know it takes about three months for it to really hit. Long enough for the honeymoon period to pass. Long enough for the excitement of being somewhere new to die down. Long enough to start to see people’s true personalities. Long enough to see the reality of all the hard work which has to be done. Long enough to start to lose one’s first language while still not gaining a word of the language(s) of the host country.
Yesterday, culture shock hit me like a brick.
Sunday evening, after a couple of days of heavy rain, I found water dripping into the church kitchen. But when I looked more closely, I realised that it had nothing to do with the rain and everything to do with wonky plumbing above. And judging by the damage, it had been going on for a very long time.
Those who know me know I can be practical when I have to be. I can suck it up and get done the things which ought to be done even though I loathe the tedium of finances and building maintenance and dealing with contractors and sifting through insurance policies and digging out contracts. I’ll do it. I’ll hate every second of it. But I’ll do it.
But here? Here everything is in Hebrew. Or Arabic. Or both. Neither of which I read. Neither of which I speak. Neither of which I understand. So communication often feels like an absurd mix of charades and pictionary. Hilarious until water is pouring into your building and you don’t know (a) whose responsibility it is to deal with it (b) who can authorise the finances to fix it (c) how much damage has really been done.
I feel like a child.
I can’t even deposit the last six months of church offertory money without someone coming with me to the bank and showing me what to do.
I want to see all contracts, all policies to do with the building and property. But they’ll be in Hebrew. If they exist at all.
I want clarity. But I have to rely on others to translate.
I want to communicate with all the qualifications and nuances that I am used to using as a writer and preacher and pastor. But instead I’m reduced to simple words and phrases.
And just as I was feeling about as low and frustrated and incompetent as I could get, I found a letter in my tray in the office. It was from a beloved parishioner at Old Saint Paul’s, telling me how much she appreciated my visits and our times of prayer together, telling me that I’m a good priest and pastor.
I opened the letter just before meeting someone, and my eyes welled with tears. I just about made it through the meeting and then ran down to the church to sit down on the floor in the middle of this shabby soggy building that I don’t know what to do with. And I cried the kind of childish sobs of an adult feeling truly sorry for herself in the most pathetic way.
I raged at God, listed all the costs of this particular calling in a litany of anger and lostness.
I missed being at my grandmother’s side when she died back in November. I missed her memorial service just over a week ago. I missed even grieving her death properly because I was so wrapped up in the move and Advent and new things and …
I gave up my beautiful, neurotic dog who adored me.
I turned down a job that wouldn’t have been easy and wouldn’t have been right, but it would have been in English.
I am miles away from friends and family and people to whom I have nothing to prove, people who know I am competent, know I can be trusted to do what I say I will do, know better than to mansplain and talk down to me and treat me like their inferior.
I left a sweet comfortable house in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland.
I sold my car.
I left behind my banjo.
I miss my cowboy boots…
The list started to get ridiculous. I knew that. But the loss was real. If there had been internet access in the church, I would have bought a plane ticket back to Scotland there and then. I loathed this place. I loathed my dependency on others. I loathed myself for not being stronger.
This is what culture shock feels like. It sucks.
This morning the sun is back out. I woke up feeling better. I am stubborn and determined and know that I have been appointed to do a complicated, difficult, even impossible job here, but I will do it. I have A Plan. I will not let the building dominate my ministry, but neither will I allow it to deteriorate further. There are good people here doing good work and in them, I find hope and joy. And slowly, friendship.
So, friends in all my many homes around the world, thank you. Thank you for your love. Thank you for your kindness. Thank you most of all for your prayers. God knows I need them.