First impressions

When we first arrived in Azerbaijan, all I could see was the ugliness.  My 9 year old son summed it up in an essay he wrote at school, “When we arrived in Baku it was dark and my mom said it would all look better in the morning, but it didn’t.”  For the first few weeks, all I saw from my apartment window was the dirty rag stuck in the tree outside.  When I walked downtown, all I saw were the broken roads and sidewalks, the peeling paint on the buildings and the dilapidated cars and buses.

I distinctly remember the day that changed.  I was walking back from the bazaar, with the straw shopping bag I’d bought from the old lady at the entrance a few weeks back.  As I crossed the road to my building, dodging the hooting cars, I noticed the marigolds just coming into bloom in the long neglected flower beds in the park and looked appreciatively at the elegant lines of the green bell tower on top of my building.  I suddenly had a flash of realization that this was now home, and I felt good about it.

From then on I started to appreciate the beauty of the architecture, the narrow alleyways of the old walled city, the blueness of the sky and the breeze which blew the traffic fumes away.  I didn’t know then that what I’d experienced is part of what’s called “culture shock” so I called it “getting my Baku eyes,” the ability to see beyond the first impression and notice what really matters.

It happened again in Cairo, and even in Dubai and upon my repatriation to Toronto.  Getting my local “eyes” is a distinct and important part of the adjustment process for me when I move to a new place.

A couple of weeks ago, in my job as a relocation specialist, I took out a client who’d just arrived from Singapore.  I’ve never been there myself, but a friend who just visited described it to me; “It is a BEAUTIFUL place:  the Switzerland of Asia.  So organized, so clean, so green and no scooters and no honking.  Surely, people that work and live there cannot ever be happy anywhere else.  IT IS PARADISE!”  As we drove around the rolling tundra of Toronto’s northern suburbs it was a cold, grey day in March.  The snow had been melting but there were still dirty black piles of it at the side of the wide bleak highways.  As we passed strip mall after strip mall it started to sleet.  I wondered what was he thinking?  Surely he was horrified at what he’d come to?  He was far too polite and inscrutable to say, so all I could do was assure him that in a month or two it would all look much better.  I’m sure he thought I was referring to the weather, but I hope he stays long enough to get his “Toronto eyes.”

4 thoughts on “First impressions

  1. Hell, I’m still waiting to get MY Toronto eyes!

    Your poor client certainly won’t be getting them on a dreary day like today. By June, though, once all the exhaust-blackened snow has finally gone and the plants are in full bloom, he’ll see things differently. When patio weather comes, I don’t mind T.O so much myself.

  2. Downtown Toronto is great in my opinion – much improved from 15 years ago before we first went overseas. But the inner suburbs really seem to have taken a nose-dive, areas I remember as new now look desperately shabby. It seems the wealthy suburbanites have now moved further out.

  3. I love this article! We had “Cultural Training” last week and the trainer expressed concern at the end that perhaps we were not as prepared for culture shock as we could be. I’ve read and read and read about the various stages, have some strategies planned (although they could all get scuttled in favour of never leaving the house) and really don’t think there’s much more I can do at this stage. I can’t wait until I get my “Singapore eyes”!

    • Don’t worry, we headed off on our first great expat adventure to Azerbaijan with NO preparation at all. Heck we didn’t even know if I would have to homeschool or not (thank goodness for all concerned that I didn’t). We had never heard of culture shock, trailing spouses or third culture kids but we survived and even thrived, as I’m sure you will too.🙂

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