Reverse culture shock & feeling dumb

Seventeen days ago we made the 10 hour direct flight from Paris to Orlando. Our kids did great and the low-cost airline Norwegian was actually a positive experience. (No, they don’t provide water, so we brought 8 liters, just in case.) Since then my adjustment to American culture has been a bit… um, rough.

Three areas that have me reeling:

1. “What time do you open?” This should be an easy question; right? Well our trip to the DMV proved otherwise. The lady at the welcome desk said, “Come back tomorrow at 7 A.M. and there will be no line; you’ll get in and out right away.” I clarified, “So, if we come back when you open tomorrow, at 7 A.M., we’ll have no wait?” She confirmed. The next morning we were all up by 5 A.M. thanks to jet lag and were equipped with donuts and standing in the short line outside the DMV at 6:50 A.M. By 7:10 A.M. I think, “it’s strange the doors aren’t open yet,” so I check the sign on the door– 8:30 A.M.!! Are you kidding me? I have to stand out in the heat and humidity for an hour and a half with my kids? A donut is not a strong enough bribe. No wonder people brought chairs to sit on! I ask the gal in the front of the line if she plans on waiting that long and she confidently replies, “yes.” Dave and I decided (ok, I decided) the kids and I would leave and come back and he was good holding our spot in line. At 8:25 I pull back into the DMV parking lot and there is no line. Uh oh. Turns out they opened the doors five minutes after the kids and I left. Over an hour early! That left Dave hanging out (without the needed paperwork) trying to get ahold of his wife (who had left her phone at home) in line at the DMV watching his number come and go. Recipe for marital strife. Thankfully the lady with the rhinestone glasses (it always pays to compliment a gal on sparkly accessories) at the welcome desk from the day before was gracious and let us jump to the front of the line. On my way out I asked her, “My friends need to apply for their Florida drivers licenses, what time should I tell them you open?” She looked at me and mouthed, “7:30.” Huh. Ya got me lady. The door says 8:30. I smiled and said thank you.

In France there are also communication issues with the question “what time do you open?” It is often a suggested hour and perhaps when you show there maybe be a note on the door that says, “be back in an hour” or “closed between 12-2pm” or “Vives les vacances, fermé du 28 julliet au 29 août” (“Long live vacation, closed from July 28- Auguust 29”), or maybe it is just closed. But somehow that seems more normal to me than a government office opening an hour early.

Our monkeys posing next to me as I got my drivers license photo taken

2. The grey bags from Walmart. We’ve made a few impressive trips to Walmart as we’ve settled into life in America and now I have a collection of 96 grey plastic bags from Walmart chilling in my pantry closet. A gallon of milk apparently requires double bags all for itself and a 20 pack of hangers takes up a whole bag. Our second trip to the store I brought my grey bags won on my previous Walmart trip and took over the bagging process because I couldn’t handle it. I hope you’re laughing because I looked a bit ridiculous. Fortunately it was about 7 A.M. by the time we checked out and hardly a soul competing for a check-out. We also don’t have recycling in our apartment complex. That’s right, in 2017 there are still places in America that think it is normal to throw out plastic milk jugs and cardboard cereal boxes. In Minnesota we’ve been recycling since 1988 when they did a huge Earth Day special on T.V. and educated my young 8 year old mind on how much energy was saved by recycling one tin can. Our Florida apartment manager explained that they have a large trash compactor and no room for recycling cans. (The trash then goes the garbage hill a few miles down the road…) The Orange County website says they will finish equipping the county with the possibility to recycle as of the end of August 2017. Carole, our apartment manager, gives me little hope that I’ll be able to recycle “locally” this year.

In Paris you have to pay for plastic bags and in fact this past year single use plastic bags were outlawed. So, my Walmart bag collected would’ve cost me about $19.20. We bring our own reusable, heavy duty plastic bags to the grocery store. Even the produce bags are now biodegradable thanks to the COP 21 that took place in Paris last year.

3. Kindergarten. I could pretty much leave it at that and go to bed as it is 4 A.M. (I can’t blame it on jet lag anymore), however that wouldn’t produce the hard cry my body is needing right now. So let’s talk about our Kindergarten experience. Lexie did kindergarten, grande section, in France last year, Moving here we were on the fence as to putting her in kindergarten again or first grade, as the curriculum is different and she’s young for her grade. Well the Florida board of education has very strong feelings about you being 6 when you start first grade and since Google (yes, I actually asked him where he was getting his information and he confirmed Google was his source) told him that grande section is actually only pre-K, and Lexie should be in kindergarten again. I would’ve challenged his, um sources, a more but after talking with a kindergarten teacher and learning their evaluations are largely based on how many sight words the children can recognise, I agreed that kindergarten would be the best fit.

Next was the school supply list: Lysol disinfectant wipes, antibacterial gel, antibacterial hand soap, dairy-free snacks to share with the class, headphones- these are all new to me. Between Lexie and Jack (who is doing pre-K) I spent about $75 and two hours ordering on Target and Walmart’s websites (an advantage of ordering on-line is that I could do it at 4 A.M. when I was jet-lagging.)

First day of school. Here was my conversation with a school administrator a couple weeks before school started:

Me: What do we do when we bring our kids on the first day?

Administrator: Well, the gates open at 8:30 and then you can get in.

M: Um the gates open… what does that mean?

A: The gates are open… it means you can come in. (With a bit more insistence in her voice.)

M: So, do I walk through these doors to get to her classroom or…???

A: No, the gates will be open so you can go straight to her classroom. There will be people around who can help you. (This time with a bit more bite.)

M: Hmmm…. OK. (I left still having no idea how to get to my child’s classroom.)

This poor lady must have been born in a tropical state and never left because as it turns out the gates she was talking about were the gates (which I hadn’t seen) which close off the open air hallways which lead to the classes. In Minnesota we didn’t have gates. We had front doors that blocked the crazy *** cold and snow from getting into the school building and keep the school above freezing. Gates. Outdoor hallways. Who knew! Needless to say, I felt very lost and helpless and, well, dumb. But it doesn’t stop there.

Locked doors. Apparently I was too focused on the gates and their functionality because I didn’t retain the time the doors to the classrooms open and then get locked (we are in a high security school, which I think, if I read between the lines means they’ve taken real and important steps to keep crazy gunmen from entering through the gates and doors. More on this later). So first day of school our clan of five rock up at Lexie’s classroom door and the door is locked and all but two students, including Lexie, are seated and apparently learning new sight words. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.) We bang delicately on the door and Teacher comes to the door and we sloppily make our way to help Lexie sit down in her spot and unload her mother load of class supplies (because, no we didn’t have them at “meet the teacher” because the Walmart order arrived late and I was at a funeral). Fortunately little Caleb, Lexie’s table mate, was there to confirm she as in the right spot. Then, Teacher, in a very high pitched and enthusiastic voice, decided to reward Caleb for his helpfulness. “Oh Caleb, you helped a new friend! Good job; you get a point!” Then she turns to her massive touch screen thing with icons all over and clicks on Celeb’s name and a monster shows up and makes an impressive, exciting blinnngg! noise. Welcome to kindergarten, Lexie (and mom).

Paris… how to compare grande section and kindergarten? First, no supply list. They’re happy if you bring in the occasional box of tissues and empty toilet paper rolls for art projects. No gates. We wait for Catherine to open front the doors at 8h20 and greet us and then we walk to the third floor to Lexie’s class. There, the teacher greets each child by name. Parents chat for a moment and then we’re all off. No screens. True story, when Lexie saw I had packed her headphones in her school supplies she giggled  when I said she’d be using computers at school (like, “oh mom, you’re not serious!). Lexie was learning cursive and about how to care for their class escargots (snails) and what they like to eat. No points. Everyday now Lexie gives me a run down on who has how many points and how many monsters they got. Gross. I’m sorry, that’s just not my thing. And on being a high security school… I’m used to this, except instead of crazy gunmen, our schools were trying to keep terrorists out.


There you go, 17 days and I’m swimming. Why is it so hard? Because I feel dumb. I like to feel competent, to do things correctly or at least know that I’m choosing to not do things “the way you’re supposed to.” I look and sound like the moms from this area but I’m clueless and seemingly challenging the concept of a gate and am uncomfortable with my daughter’s photo being posted on the class app (yes, a class app!). Holy smokes folks, give a gal a break. I haven’t done this before. My babies were born in Paris; that’s been home. That’s what we know and I would hope if you came to our city we’d try and throw you a bit of a bone. It’s tough being a mama and real tough trying to learn to be one in your “home culture.” There, I cried and now it’s out and I can go to bed. Day 18 is coming.

12 thoughts on “Reverse culture shock & feeling dumb

  1. Oh man it’s sooooooooo hard coming “back” when you felt you were home already. I would have felt dumb with some of those things too! Granted, I’m Canadian, but it’s always a surprise at how some things are still really different. I crossed the border earlier this year to get groceries cause they’re so much cheaper and people were shocked I waited 15 mins to buy milk (the truck was late). I told them it’s 7$ CAD for a gallon of whole milk in Montréal. They were selling it for $1.50 or something. Later, I was at Walmart at asked if they did something called “cash back” (lol!!!) and the guy looked at me and said “lady, have you ever been to Walmart before?” Which seemed like the craziest question to both of us obviously. Turns out in the US it’s the first question on the key pad, “would you like cash back?” 🤦🏼‍♀️ At least I could tell him I’m from Canada.


  2. I’m praying for you and your family. Reverse culture shock is so hard and honestly the things you’re describing would all be a shock to me too coming from MN. I just bought Maggie’s kindergarten supplies and she just needed markers, crayons, a notebook – pretty basic stuff. I hope the FL culture starts to feel a bit more like home and that you meet see great ppl who help it feel like a home


  3. Sounds rough, Heidi. First off, you’re in Florida. Way diff than MN. We used to take the day off work to get new licenses, tabs, etc. Couldn’t believe you did those things in 30 mins or less when we moved to MN. Next, have you considered spinning these questions off in French? Then giggle and shake your head and apologize. “Mais oui, I forgot I’m not in Paris!” Giggle again and smile. Smile some more. You can’t shake your curls because they have either gone kinky or drooped out from the humidity. Best of all, you have a plethora of stories for your advancing years. You and Dave will laugh at these tales one day. I promise. Hang in there and start planning a way to get to Minnesota. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember moving back from Mexico and standing in the grocery store crying over the amount of choices I had to make. I was supposed to grab a box of granola bars which was easy in Puebla because there was one kind (if any). So I stood there staring, not being able to choose and eventually I walked away without any. I can only imagine how many more choices there are with your kiddos involved! I’m praying for all of you! Cry, hopefully laugh, share memories with each other, and cling to the Lord… It will get better!


  5. Hang in there! Remember, in the US, Florida is almost its own country/culture. I’m in Cali now, which could also be argued is its own country, and our experience sounds more French than Floridian (most of our state has required composting!) I think most Americans would have culture shock moving to Florida 🙂 I’m glad that you will be bringing some Paris and MN awesomeness to them!

    Side note: “And on being a high security school… I’m used to this, except instead of crazy gunmen, our schools were trying to keep terrorists out.” I think the white males who have been responsible for 99% of US school shootings are also terrorists.


  6. Heidi, I think I would have burst into tears on the phone with that woman and again seeing the “monster” point system…and probably multiple other times. I’m just impressed that you held it together and were able to cry at the end of the day as you processed it all. I’m praying for you…for daily sustaining grace and glimpses of beauty in the midst of it all. Sending lots of love and prayers!❤️🙏🏻


  7. Don’t worry Heidi, we had culture shock starting kindergarten in California and then moving to Mississippi. I agree, the school supply lists are crazy. Each of our girls had two full grocery bags.


  8. Three years on and I STILL have not gotten used to the enormous waste of plastic bags at the store, that they put one item per bag, and that when you bring your own bag so you are living green, you have to fight them not to STILL try and bag some things in plastic. (Meat is covered in plastic already. It does not need to be bagged separately to be sanitary.)


  9. I enjoyed reading this, I feel for you! I think all elementary schools want to make new parents feel like idiots. At our school every single place the school hours are written says that school starts at 9:15, when really the bell rings at 9:05 and all the kids line up and go inside. If you get there at 9:10 you have to sign you kid in at the office. This year my older son started at a different school, I had to drop something off mid morning. I parked on the street (there is no parking lot for nonstaff) and was inside the school for 10 minutes. About 6 inches of my van bumper was in front of someone’s driveway. There was a nasty note on my windshield telling me that if I blocked that person’s driveway again, they’d call the police. The beginning of the school year is tough for mamas! Also, I don’t think anyone south of Kentucky recycles.


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