Al Contrario

A drawing in charcoal and black ink of the holm oak trees and path in Greenbank Cemetery

It’s so long since I’ve been away so long that I forgot what it was like – reverse culture shock. Being back in Bristol is at turns an enjoyable daydream and a slow dislocation from my surroundings. I sit at pubs and in parks with faces and bodies that for months I met only across a fuzzy screen – now they coalesce into spirits lit by colour and live in stereo sound. And the next day, I’m the one behind glass: dancing at a party when suddenly the set changes and I feel the strangeness of the people here, who are all exotically tall and pale and look just like me. I follow my internal StreetView in a foreign city. As I round the corners I’ve travelled by for 5 years I think, I think I’ve been here before.

There are lots of good parts to reverse culture shock. First, everything is so easy. I slip into twists of language I could never manage in Guatemala, rejoicing in curls of the tongue and turns of the truth. I can make people laugh more easily, I am sharper, I am got and I get straight to the point. I’ve never been so charming! I’ve also never been so fast. I can dart about town on my bike while dodging only the occasional pothole. I travel from London to Bristol, a distance of slightly over 100 miles, in under two hours. A road built straight in Guatemala leads only to the sea. I think of travelling to and from Antigua, of highways that spooled across the volcanoes and valleys. Here is quick, straightforward, convenient.

But it’s the inconvenience of Guatemala that makes it at once so charming and so maddening. Listen to the frustrated car horns and see the clashes of the camionetas. The force of sound and colour press in upon you. Here in south-west England, the spring is rising and the trees flower on the hills. It’s the perfect time to come back, the romancing season with the oak corsages and the cherry garlands. Things are quietly lovely – but I think longingly of the bombastic bottle-brush tree that graced my yard in Antigua. Over there I was exotic like that tree is to me. And it’s self-indulgent to say that, but there is a part of me that liked standing out, that liked being acknowledged as an outsider or interloper, and people would ask me curiously where I was from, because they guessed that I was from elsewhere and had myself come with curiosity to their country. ¿De donde eres? I was asked every day, and it is a privilege to be asked that question with interest and openness. I also miss the answer. Not speaking Spanish every day feels strange and unnatural, like a secret I’m sharing only with myself.

Most of all the shock manifests as longing: I feel homesick now I’m home. I imagine the feeling will fade over the summer, as I sink back into the roles and routines of life in Bristol. Knowing that now and then a memory of the other home will resurface unexpectedly, or I’ll be brought up sharply to the feeling of not being fully here. But I have a trick. At any point I can recall my second home, by closing my eyes and travelling the roads around Fuego in my head. In there, there’s no StreetView; but the mind map is quick and vivid.

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