Unni Holtedahl is a Norwegian journalist who runs CLEW, an online magazine for women living abroad. She currently lives, works and writes in Luxembourg but would like to go back to Norway one day. She is married with two daughters and spends a lot of time in France. You can find CLEW on Twitter and Facebook.
How did you get into traveling?
I guess I’ve always had a longing to get away and experience new places and cultures, and after secondary school it was clear that that’s what I had to do. So I went to France to study, and coming from small-small town Norway, that was actually quite a leap.
And then, once you’ve lived abroad – or travelled a lot – there’s the itch to get out again. It might be dormant for a long time, but it’s still there.
What was your most intense culture shock experience? What did you learn from it?
In one way that time, going to France at age 19, because at that age everything is so intense. But you also worry less and tend to take things as they come, so it was a culture shock in a positive sense. I feel I really took it all in – differences in people, culture, language…
My second move was to Luxembourg, and being heavily pregnant when we arrived and then having a baby when the first winter came wasn’t easy. The winter streets were empty and I couldn’t understand where all the people were and felt it was difficult to get to know anybody. I also found it hard to figure out the codes, partly because by that time, I guess I was more set in my ways than at 19. It didn’t take that long before my children became a door opener in terms of getting to know people.
Any tips for someone going through culture shock for the first time? What helped you?
If you don’t work, find familiar faces – the baker, the florist, whoever – for daily smiles and an exchange of words. It’s funny how people like that can become a bit of a safety net to begin with. Find an activity you really like to do that feels familiar to you, chances are you’ll meet like-minded people that’ll help you get a start. For me, it was a choir. And then – one thing at a time.
What also helped me hugely was getting a sort of “family”, as in friends that become close enough to fill some of the functions of family. And as always, time. What has reverse culture shock been like for you?
I haven’t experienced it yet, but am very aware that I will if/when we move back. I wonder what my home country will be like to live in again, what will seem strange or different or difficult, will enough old friends still be there… And I’m thinking that I’ll need to find others who’ve returned after living abroad who can understand it.
What is your favorite travel learning experience? Anything that triggered a profound shift?
Very generally speaking, and regardless of where I’ve travelled or lived; the broadening of horizons. One thing that comes easily to mind is my experience with people when travelling in the USA; ready to help and make you feel welcome as a traveller. In New York, you don’t necessarily expect people to walk you to the place you’re looking for to make sure you find it. It feels nice, and I think a lot of us could have something to learn from that approach. And even if it is superficial, it doesn’t really matter that much when you’re passing through.
A profound shift – I’ll have to go back to France at age 19 again, because it was the kind of emancipation that you tend to have around that age anyway, but mine was made stronger because I moved abroad.