The Feeling of Coming Home After an Erasmus Semester in Istanbul
Text and translation: Judith Blumberg
Let me tell you, no one prepares you for the depth and darkness of the hole you fall into, when coming back home from a semester abroad. Also, most people don't know that this hole is called "reverse culture shock". My mom, for instance, was very skeptical, when I used this term to explain why I was spending most of my time in my bed upon my return to Germany. Yet, the feeling of coming home is much more complex and nuanced than the black linear "W-Curve" that illustrates the Wikipedia article about reverse culture shock. So I have taken it upon myself to put together an emotional inventory of what it felt like to return home to Germany from Istanbul:
The feeling of coming home is wonder. Wondering about all the small things you never picked up on before, which now catch your eye all the more fiercely. For instance, that I now have to pay attention again to what I say, since everyone around me speaks and understands German, that I have to separate trash again and recycle plastic bottles. Or that the supermarket has a whole section with vegan products, whose ingredients I can suddenly read and understand.
The feeling of coming home is loneliness. Its the feeling of being surrounded by people and still feeling all alone. Because the lives of your family and friends have also continued, while you were gone, and after a few weeks people quickly start to lose interest in all the stories you want to share about your time studying abroad. It’s clinging to the new friends you made in Istanbul, who luckily like to reminisce about all the memories you share just as much as you do.
The feeling of coming home is pride. Pride that shows itself, when you think about all the challenges you mastered living in a foreign country. Talking on the phone in Turkish, getting onto the correct bus line or simply enduring the annoyance of always being branded with the, Yabanci-stamp. It’s being proud of successfully having translated feelings of alienation into a learning experience.
The feeling of coming home is being overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with the fact that people demand evaluations and summaries from you, where not even words have started forming themselves that adequately grasp and describe what you have experienced. But also being overwhelmed with returning into a society, where you have to perform and play your role and where the “foreigner bonus” does not count anymore.
The feeling of coming home is recognition and respect. Recognizing the hardships of those people in Germany, who have migrated; voluntarily or involuntarily to our country and who face constant discrimination and prejudice because of it. Recognizing how hard it is to learn a foreign language and to find one's bearings in a foreign culture. And a newfound respect and appreciation that these people, despite all the struggles they face, so often radiate such openness and warmth towards you.
The feeling of coming home is frustration. Frustration that developed so quickly when engaging with people from home, who hadn't broadened their horizons in the way that I had. Who confronted me with generalizing statements and gave me the feeling of either being the new political correspondent for Turkey or not being able to change their view of the world, no matter what I said. At every family gathering I am now questioned on my views regarding Islam, refugees or current Turkish policies. When I then respond by saying that I find it difficult to make general statements about these matters, because I have met such different people with diverse personal stories, I only receive disappointed or angry responses of how much I have changed and how they don't recognize me anymore. It remains a huge struggle for me to not let this frustration turn into defiance and resentment, and to nevertheless go into such conversations with an open mind and attitude.
The feeling of coming home is ease. An ease that you need to develop very quickly in Istanbul, to not go crazy in the chaos of this city. I took this ease with me to Germany. It showed itself when I had to re-schedule a doctor's appointment three times, because every time I was 15 minutes late and the receptionist refused to let me see the doctor. I just quietly smiled to myself and made a new appointment. It is so liberating to develop this ease in situations that are beyond your control. What's more, is the ease in situations that would have affected me much deeper before my study abroad. Having experienced multiple terrorist attacks, an attempted military coup and so much poverty in Turkey, my problems in Germany suddenly seem like luxuries.
The feeling of coming home is confusion. Confusion that so many people live their daily lives in their own bubbles without questioning them. Confusion, that it is precisely these people who think they can explain the world to me. But most of all confusion, that there is still so much hatred and intolerance, when now is just the time when we all need a little more openness, acceptance and love.
The feeling of coming home is a sense of purpose. It is a feeling of wanting to turn all the wonderful, but also educational experiences into something meaningful. For me that meant finally being able to transform the helplessness that I felt when I was confronted with the many Syrian refugee families living on the streets of Istanbul by volunteering in a refugee shelter back in Germany. Not only my newly acquired language skills, but also the experience of being introduced to Muslim culture helped me greatly in my work there. It is the feeling of suddenly seeing the bigger global puzzle picture and wanting to contribute your own puzzle piece all the more.
The feeling of coming home is shame. It’s the shame that you feel, when you quietly admit to the sense of relief of coming home. Shame, that because of a little red booklet you are able to leave all the sorrow behind you, whenever you want. Shame, that with this you are leaving behind the people, who aren't able to flee the current political climate so easily. And shame, that life goes on in Germany.
The feeling of coming home is gratitude. Gratitude about having this possibility. But even more so, gratitude towards all the people, who invited you into their homes, who helped you with your daily concerns and who showed you how breathtaking and multifaceted Turkey really is. And with this comes gratitude, because you know that precisely these people are eagerly awaiting your return.
The feeling of coming home is nostalgia. Nostalgia towards places, people, sights, smells and sounds. A nostalgia that always makes me excitedly smile, when I walk past someone in Germany who is speaking Turkish. Nostalgia, that constantly urges me to walk into Turkish supermarkets, so I can fill my refrigerator with all the delicacies. But also nostalgia, that makes it hard for me to admit, that even I find the current political climate highly alarming.
When you've gone through all these feelings, the feeling of coming home is acceptance. Acceptance that the people in my surrounding have changed in my absence, just as much as I have developed and grown. Acceptance, that both Turkey and Germany have their bright sides. Acceptance that the range of feelings I am currently experiencing will teach me something in the end.
And finally, the feeling of coming home is knowing, that Istanbul will always have a place in my heart.
Judith Blumberg is a student currently based in London and fell in love with Turkey during her Erasmus year in Istanbul. She is an author and editor at MAVIBLAU, a German-language online magazine which is based in Istanbul and deals with stories, events and encounters between Turkey and the German-speaking world in the field of art, culture and society.