On how to alternate between cultures: tips and tricks.


By Audrey Sebatindira

Cultures are different; this goes without saying. Some are more different than others. We may (rightly or wrongly) question or even condemn other cultures, but more often than not we celebrate our differences. Occasionally we go further and book a flight to a country totally different from our own. We dip our toes into new customs before returning home to rituals and social rules that have bound us from birth, and feel more like swaddling clothes than the alien cords that bound us in that foreign land.

This, however, is not a luxury that’s universally enjoyed. For an (un)lucky few there is a perpetual shift from one strange culture to another. Alternating between England and Cote d’Ivoire – two vastly different countries – places me among that number and, in order to avoid cultural whiplash, I have had to adopt a set of rules and conventions. Call it a one-woman culture.

  1. Patience is more than a virtue: it’s a necessity

The first difference is noticed the moment you land in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire’s de facto capital, and it is possibly the most fundamental: nobody here queues. This can be a shock for some travellers in various countries across the globe. At the “line” before immigration countless people shamelessly saunter past the formless crowd to slot themselves in wherever is convenient. No one will complain because they’re all attempting to do exactly the same. The story is no different with regard to traffic: here there is no such thing as “defensive driving” (I hear my English driving instructor shudder) and instead everyone is on the offensive: cars from all directions trap themselves at one intersection. There is a total disregard for the traffic rules I remember in England. For the first few days, it is infuriating.

Yet, one month later, you land at Heathrow. You are not only amazed that everyone has, of their own volition, ordered themselves into a line, instead you are slightly annoyed. In fact, the snail’s pace at which the queue proceeds is exasperating. You spot an opportunity to jump ahead but must resist or risk becoming a social pariah. In the taxi from the airport the driver stops at a red light even though there are no other cars on the road. You pray to a higher being (any one will do) to give you the strength to endure such an aberration from logic.

  1. Maintain a large wardrobe

This may seem to be a normal requirement for most lifestyles but it is particularly important here. Abidjan is a very conservative city, at least with regards to dress sense. It wasn’t until I got told off by a stranger for wearing shorts and a T-shirt that I thought to look at what the local Ivorian women were wearing. In spite of the heat there wasn’t a pair of shorts in sight. All the women appear to don only knee-length skirts and dresses, with the occasional pair of leggings. Even the men seem to prefer jeans. This was a particularly disheartening discovery as the number of opportunities to wear shorts in England (without having to pretend you aren’t freezing) borders on nil. Nevertheless, it’s clear that I can get away with a lot more in a place like London than I can in Abidjan. So make sure you pack a large suitcase because you’ll probably end up having two separate wardrobes for the different countries.

  1. Be open to strangers’ vibes

Despite the traditional values to which the Ivorians I’ve encountered subscribe, friendship and openness form an important part of the culture, and surely of any culture. On a basic level this is evidenced by the way that strangers interact. Wherever you are people always greet each other; it would be rude to walk into a room full of strangers and not acknowledge their presence with, at the very least, a simple “Bonjour”. More than that there is the expectation that anyone who provides you with a regular service will become a part of your personal life. This I realised when my tailor, who I’d only met once previously, insisted that I join her and her family for dinner.

It is slightly different in England. This is not to say that strangers aren’t friendly in England, only that once you get to London from Abidjan you have to remind yourself that you cannot upon, for example, entry into a tube carriage greet everyone around you. Nor would it be wise to invite your hairdresser to your home after one appointment. The best way to avoid a social faux pas, then, is to be open to the vibes you’re given by (near) strangers. This is sometimes easier said than done.

  1. Keep your friends close and FOMO at bay

Close friends are another requisite that aren’t exclusive to any particular lifestyle. That said, strong relationships become particularly important when you leave those friends for months at a time. The most difficult aspect to this, however, is evading FOMO; that is, the fear of missing out. Watching all your friends make plans for New Years’ while you’re still struggling to make new ones elsewhere is no fun. Social media doesn’t help either; there’s only so many photos a person can ‘like’ before beginning to resent their absence from any of them.

I’ve found that the best cure is to realise that you can have fun on your own, and in a country that’s totally different to the one you’ve left this isn’t hard at all. Explore the nightlife, go on a hike, try out some of the local food (and, if you can, Instagram it all). Remember: an adventure a day keeps the FOMO away.

  1. Healthy dose of apathy

This final rule only applies if you’re not travelling of your own free will. I’m very conscious that this is perhaps the epitome of a first-world problem. In spite of that the negative effects of being rootless and having little control over your immediate future shouldn’t be easily dismissed. The ability to travel frequently is a privilege, but when you do it for reasons other than your own it becomes a drain. So sometimes it’s best to not think too much about what you miss out on when you don’t have a home-base. Accept that this is the lifestyle you have and run with it. It could be far, far worse.


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