Alice and the Cheshire Cats

(what is the “cultural shock” and how I overcome it)

     Author: Angela Maddalena


Last week, in Stolichna Library, two events took place: an exhibition of drawings and a movie projection, both about African culture and lifestyle.

My coworkers in Open Space Foundation and friends Shamusa and Gudrun, prepared and hosted these events as their personal project as EVS here in Bulgaria.

Both the drownings Shamusa made and the movie are a realistic insight in the African life and culture, a window opened, suddenly, on far far horizons. I took a look from that window, on a new and totally different landscape.

But it was not during the events.

I’m looking through that window four months now, since I arrived in Sofia and moved into this “Big House”, as we call it.

Four beautiful people, from Tanzania and Uganda, I found here in the Big House. The window opening on far, far landscapes basically opened all of a sudden in my face, hitting my head. Hard.

Because, you see, when people come to you and speak about “cultural differences”, well, you should listen to them carefully.

I didn’t.

As I always do, I didn’t spend a second considering what I would have found in my EVS experience: I just took off from Rome’ airport (I was late and I reached that plane only out of luck, anyway) without looking back, yes, but also without looking forward.

Blind girl flying, they may say, falling into an adventure like Alice into the mirror.

And, believe me, lot’s of strange, magical creatures I’ve found!

Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I heard those people telling me about how hard it could be, to live with people coming from totally different environments and countries. I’ve heard them saying about how different it is, European mentality, tradition and lifestyle. I listen, really, I do, but sometimes I just don’t pay any attention.

So, yes, everything was totally unexpected for me.

Their English, first of all, when I met them in the office, my first day.

Their fluent, smooth English, caressing my face like a promise of laughters, but also constantly reminding me how tattered and broken were my own language skills after so many years without any practice.

Their super astonishing white smiles, their voices. First was confusion, then a bit of fear: will I be able to ever communicate with them? I asked myself.

And how?

We don’t speak the same language, this was my primal fear. But I’m not speaking about “actual” language, of course: eventually, my English started to improve (mostly thank to them) and my ability in conversation reached again a satisfying level. Still, I was feeling like Alice.

Did you ever wondered why that girl is not scared, in the novel, even when she meets absolutely strange people or find herself in the most unbelievable troubles?

Most of my childhood, I thought she was just mad.

But I know now what it was, in Alice’s head, that I never understood before: when things are SO strange, you simply stop being afraid and you become curious.

Sometimes mad, sometimes happy, sometimes you find yourself considering the option of poisoning the ketchup, for example, and kill ‘em all (joking, joking!), but always you are curious.

Now, in a week, they will leave the Big House, coming back to their beloved Africa. So, Alice is staying and the magical creatures are leaving Wonderland. How strange is it? But, out of metaphors, let’s go for a moment more deep inside this “living all together” thing which should be the center of my piece and that I’m avoiding to speak about:

People, I’m telling you, living all together is hard. To find a middle ground, a contact point, to find a common base for understanding each other is one of the more difficult things I’ve ever tried.

Because, basically, there is no middle ground at all, if you don’t build it.

Not only we humans are all different, also our realities could be.

The way we think and act, our personal beliefs, our idea of what is proper, what is acceptable, is shaped by the Society. But Society is not the same everywhere.

Let me go back to Alice for a moment: for her friend the Cheshire Cat, normality was madness.

For me, coming out of my nation and comfort zone like a little chicken from his egg, normality was simply and only Italy.

Which is madness, most of the times, yes, but in a different way.

It took so long, for me, to understand a simple thing: for them, for those friends of mine, I was the Cheshire Cat.

I was mad.

That was the turning point, for me. I’m not saying that, from the very moment I understood this truth, everything became easy, because it’s not true. I’m only saying that the moment I realized that everyone is the Alice in his/her own story, everything was at least more clear to me.

And yes, people, I see that, in your own story, Europe is madness and I might have helped you more in understanding Her and I didn’t… But, still, you’re eating spaghetti with ketchup. So, in the end, I would say we are even.

You people taught me so many things about myself, my true self, about my ways and styles, you helped me to grow up so much stronger by teaching me how I can see from different points of view, I’ll never thank you all enough.

You were part of my adventure, I hope I was part of yours.




Angela (Angi) and other heroes in this story are volunteers in Open Space Foundation, participants in European program “Erasmus+” – European Volunteer service