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Back in the UK after 20 Years – Reverse Culture Shock

Back in the UK after 20 Years – Reverse Culture Shock

Back in the UK after 20 years, how we’re dealing with reverse culture shock

What exactly is reverse culture shock? Reverse culture shock is a feeling of emotional or psychological distress experienced by those who have been away from their home country for a long time, usually years which in our case equates to nearly twenty of them. We knew it would be a challenge returning to England after so many years away living in Spain and tried to prepare ourselves as best we could.

a term used to describe the feelings (of surprise, disorientation, confusion, etc.) experienced when people return to their home country and find they do not fit in as they used to

On a quick visit eight months before making the final move we experienced a taste of the UK, I had never been back since moving to Spain in 2004 and Gayle had only been back once for a wedding in 2008. During our holiday we saw that things were different but a week is nowhere near enough to get the full vibe of a country you’ve been away from for so long.

How we prepared

Nothing really can prepare you to be honest, besides from a flying visit all we had to go on was what people said and what was on TV. There are two problems with this, anything on the news has to be taken with a grain of salt as it’s all doom and gloom and people, while trying to help as much as they can can’t really offer a balanced view. For example almost everyone we put the idea to said we were far better off in Spain. If they had asked us about moving to Spain we’d have advised against it [at least rural Spain anyway].

Everything is different…

Communication on a level that was unbiased was hard to find, ultimately it was our decision and we also had to be mindful that nobody really knew what we were going through from a grieving perspective after the loss of our eldest son. We watched as many Youtube videos as possible [hiking, driving, town walkabouts, Northumberland, Scotland etc etc] again as balanced as possible trying to get a view on what ‘real life’ was to be like upon our return.

We knew it was going be tough to begin with, weird, uncomfortable with a feeling of not belonging perhaps. Even so we’d dived straight in at the deep end of Andalucia 20 years ago so we knew we could do it again with the added advantage that everything that needed to be sorted out could be navigated in our own language.

How to recognise reverse cuture shock

Having read up on reverse culture shock and prepared ourselves for the inevitable we tried to envisage how we might be feeling after we landed back in the UK, ironically this actually starts in Spain and, quite a few years ago too. We’ve had situations where we’ve tried to share things to friends and family about life in Spain and they simply have not been able to get it – the level of understanding we have only comes with living there for a significant length of time.

One of the main aspects of RCS is that people don’t understand what you are going through and what you have gone through plus the differences in both. On top of that you can’t fully explain either as nobody understands in depth like you do… this causes frustration.

Back in the UK after 20 Years
dealing with reverse culture shock

Nobody wants to know. This is another one we have experienced whilst still in Spain, nobody wants to know. It’s like we left them behind, jumped ship and therefore nobody is interested as they still have their lives back home which you chose to leave and detach yourself from.

Other symptoms of reverse culture shock:

  • Boredom
  • Changed friendships and relationships
  • Loss
  • Lonliness and isolation
  • Depression
  • Reverse homesickness
  • Restlessness

Re-adjusting

To be honest it has not been anywhere near as bad as we thought it might be. There have been many changes in the time we’ve been away and most are positive. You do tend to feel like a fish out of water sometimes, in certain situations that crop up and conversations but it’s nothing that we have found problematic.

getting used to weather in the uk
getting used to the cold weather with a local river walk

The difference between a holiday and actually returning home is vast, I can’t stress this enough. It’s hard to put your finger on but it’s the knowing that you’re staying that makes it different, the fact that you have sold up and left your old life behind. This is the thing about being back in the UK after 20 years, it’s not like moving to a new area in England, you have to bring your old life abroad to an end and begin a new one with openess, mindfulness and a degree of caution.

nobody cares about your life abroad and nor should they. It’s quite refreshing and beneficial depending on your approach to being ‘back’.

There is no getting away from the fact that going into a big UK supermarket is way different to your small Spanish shop in the village or even the bigger supermarkets over there. People are everywhere, nobody knows you, you’re anonymous which is no bad thing, nobody cares about your life abroad and nor should they. It’s quite refreshing and beneficial depending on your approach to being ‘back’.

Once you have arrived back on UK soil there is what seems like a thousand things to do, registering with HMRC, contacting the DVLA, registering at the doctors and more. It is when you begin to sort out these essential things that you realise how much people in the UK like to complain.

For example our friends did nothing but complain about the health service but we have found everything thus far highly efficent, quick and the service from the front desk to the doctor is far superior to anything in Andalucia.

Being patient

When there is so much to do it’s easy to become overwhelmed by it all, sometimes it’s difficult to keep up and you find yourself doing so much you never really have the time to sit and digest how your life has changed and is changing. Patience is important, things will take time including your own personal adjustment.

Taking things one step at a time is key, knocking jobs off the list one by one, posting the forms away and making the phonecalls. Trying to do it all immediatly will stress you out and probably result in mistakes so a relaxed approach is best.

Getting excited again

A positive approach to it all is crucial. Yes things are going to be different, you might feel left behind but your new home will throw up a plethora of new opportunities, what you remember from all those years ago may not be as bad as they seemed at the time, the grass is not always greener on the other side…

We love the outdoors and the UK is a fabulous change for us. Swapping the dusty campo for Scottish hills and the rolling countryside of Northumberland is something to look forward to in a big way, it’s different, greener, colder, more changeable, better for photography and as the added bonus that you can get your tent pegs in the ground plus a whole lot more.

sheep in northumberland
Northumberland sheep“bigger than the ones in Spain Dad!”

Our biggest problem from an overlanding/outdoor point of view is where to start? We’ve never had this much choice before!

You will also have your native language to look forward to using again, speaking a foreign language and dealing with everything in another language [especially in business] is hard work, there are many things that will make life easier – it’s actually brilliant once you get over the initial teething period of being back.

Staying adventurous

One thing we found very helpful in dealing with it all was to keep things familiar, by this I mean not giving up on the things we enjoyed when we lived in Spain. This obviously includes overlanding but also the smaller outdoor things we used to do like hiking or simply going for a walk armed with the camera.

k90 overland
frosty mornings in Northumberland

Okay so we can’t just head off into the countryside and drive the 4×4 up to the top of a hill like we could in Spain but there are many alternatives and the places to visit seem never ending. It is adapting to what we used to enjoy doing to a different country and culture, ultimately much of our outdoor activity remains the same albeit a little colder with more rain!

Things we have noticed

Traffic: Lots of it, the UK always was busy but yeah, you’ll notice the traffic. Cars are also a lot newer too, if you lived rural in Spain for example then the chances are the vehicles were pretty old, they drive them until they drop over there so coming back to England was a shock as many of the cars I didn’t even recognise.

Without an address: It is very difficult to do many things without a fixed address. We stayed with friends initially and in a lot cases their address would not suffice as it was not our ‘permanent address’. Banks, police checks, employers, agencies wanted proof such as a council tax bill for example – this is a major issue, it’s like without a house you don’t exist. There are ways around it but it is not ideal, you just need to be creative.

Missing something: Sometimes people look at you like you’re a right plank, think about what has changed being back in the UK after 20 years abroad – how you pay for stuff, the things you’re supposed to just ‘know’ but don’t. There are new road markings and zones, apps for everything and what used to be handled face to face is now all done online… Sometimes it’s like a different world.

Waiting: You’ll be surprised at how quickly things will happen even though people will tell you it’s taking ages. You’re so used to having wait a million years in Spain that everything happens almost straight away by comparison. As a result you may find that you will have to speed yourself up a bit, there’s no point dropping the car off for an MOT expecting not to see it for a week as it will probably be ready that same afternoon. Things like that will make your head spin!

It’s not that bad: Okay so this is a big one, it really isn’t that bad. Read up online and reverse culture shock seems like it’s going to be a real challenge – it’s not, everyone is obviously different and will handle it in a different way but as mentioned earlier in the post it’s your approach to it all that makes the difference.

It’s an exciting time, a challenge and something very similar to taking the plunge to live abroad in the first place with one distinct difference – you have a head start. You already know about British culture, you already speak English therefore you’re streets ahead already. It’s just a matter of settling in.

While I’ve been writing this RVS article I realised that it won’t be long until it’s actually very dated such is the speed that the UK is moving forward. In a few years time things will be different again. Everyone has their reasons for ‘going home’, reverse culture shock can be a real thing but don’t let it put you off.

A new adventure is just beginning.

Resources:

1800 1200 Mac

Mac

K90overland is Mac and Gayle, they lived in Andalucia for 19 years before moving back to the UK. Overlanding since 2019 the pair have built up a 'budget rig' and now enjoy a relaxed approach to discovering Scotland and the north of England.

Mac

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