A lesson in the stages of cultural adaptation, as told through food.
You may think that you look like an idiot. You may feel like an idiot.
Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you this will not set the tone of your time abroad, and you will likely end each day retelling stories of comical follies and small (but satisfying) successes.
In the process of finding, ordering and eating food in an unfamiliar country, each trial and triumph serve as a lesson in how to adapt to new cultures.
Stage 1- Intimidation
Our first attempt to find sustenance in Spain that was not laid out in a hotel breakfast buffet proved to be nerve-wracking.
Like us, you may choose the first cafe with available seating, with portions so small, and prices so high, it is clearly meant for tourists (which we clearly were). You may think you’ve ordered a garden salad until the waiter hands you a bowl of pork and tomatoes.
After 30 minutes of nervously backing out of cafes whose systems we failed to decipher, we realized that starvation was a very real possibility if we didn’t make a move soon.
That leads to the next stage:
Stage 2- Strategy
If you want to make it through lunch time, and the rest of your experience abroad, you’ve got to adapt. As long as your attempts are not inspired by reluctance to venture out of your comfort zone (or your hotel room), developing your own strategies for acclimating isn’t a bad thing.
An alternative to learning how to dine out in another country after just six hours off the plane is going to the grocery store.
If you can pull things off a shelf and put them on a belt at your local market, you can do it anywhere else.
While you won’t learn the cultural norms of eating out such as meal times, menus, or ordering and paying, going to a grocery store will help you familiarize yourself with an essential aspect of daily life in any country.
Some of the most memorable experiences are the unintentional ones- like not realizing the pack of chocolate donuts you bought are actually a game of spicy roulette, until you get home and realize the next bite could set your mouth on fire.
You will find that flaming donut.
You will try that flaming donut.
You may not finish that flaming donut.
And that’s ok.
As long as you learn to attempt, rather than reject the unfamiliar, you’re on a good path.
Stage 3- Willingness
That willingness to turn the unfamiliar into a positive experience leads to more confidence and familiarity with your surroundings.
Ask your host parents three to twelve times to repeat the name of a dish, stare with a dumbfounded look for only a few moments into the sea of ice cream-bound locals pushing their way towards the counter before diving in yourself (no time to wait for a distinguishable line to form), and most importantly, keep trying.
Let mistakes encourage more attempts to learn, rather than push you further into your comfort zone.
When you get your cognates mixed up and accidentally order soap instead of soup, the waiter will likely laugh along with you.
The world awaits…discover it.