Coping with culture

Hannah O’Brien-Møller explores the phenomenon of culture shock as experienced by herself and others upon moving to Dublin.


Stepping off the plane from Brussels with an anxious mother in tow, I thought I was totally prepared for life in Ireland. I am, after all, half Irish. I have many Irish relatives and I’d visited Dublin countless times before moving here, albeit never for longer than a weekend.

I was wrong though – it quickly became apparent that Dublin was very different to Brussels, and short trips could never prepare me for full-time student life in Dublin. Culture shock quickly set in; amid all my excitement at living alone, it would pop up uninvited, unsettling me and making me long for home. An inescapable phenomenon for new arrivals, it can leave people feeling cripplingly homesick and others just bemused and intrigued by their new surroundings.

Student experiences

I spent the daylight hours of Freshers’ Week running around the city centre, getting acquainted with Dublin and its labyrinthine streets. When it was time to figure out public transport I was brought back to the first time I took the Dart two years previously. I spent twenty minutes on the platform, watching the arrival time flicker between two minutes, ten minutes and forty minutes.

After half an hour, a train arrived – a vintage steam train. Instead of throwing their heads back in exasperation as I expected, all the other people on the platform started clapping and cheering. I felt a long way away from the Brussels metro which runs like clockwork, connects an entire city, and always provides relatively modern vehicles.

Culture shock can mean funny moments like my Dart experience or the classic confusion over the word “craic”, but can also mean a deeper confusion over different perspectives and lifestyles. Many of those moving to Ireland from continental Europe are already familiar with Irish drinking culture due to the stereotypes. Belgium has its own drinking culture, of course, but it is far removed from what I experienced here –  I was quite shocked, for example, when I was asked for ID when buying alcohol.

Back home, children had been brought up tasting the wine their parents were drinking at dinner time. We are legally allowed to buy beer and wine at sixteen, and I’d spent a lot of my teen years sampling hundreds of different Belgian beers to find my favourite. So when I was confronted with the vodka-orange juice mix for the first time, I was horrorstruck. “Does that not just taste of orange juice?” I asked. “Not if you put as much vodka in as I do”.

I am sure I came across as a total snob when I insisted on buying a six pack of Carlsberg to have in reserve for pre-drinks. It only took a few months for assimilation and the realities of a student budget to lead me towards the dependable but purely functional Tesco Lager – never vodka-orange though. 

Similar to my own experiences, half-Irish Nicole, who grew up in Spain, quickly became acquainted with many colloquialisms after living with her Irish flatmate. She still found herself making mistakes, however; she was half way through the year before she realised that “to meet someone” wasn’t as innocent an expression as she thought. This explained the resulting awkwardness when a friend would tell her “I met so-and-so last night” and Nicole would enthusiastically reply “Oh, so did I!”.

This happened so often that she is now wondering if people know her as the overly friendly foreigner. When you’re new to a foreign country it is  impossible to avoid blunders like these, but Nicole says it’s important to avoid obsession over embarrassment: “You can’t get really worried that you’re going to mess up. These things happen and they’re honestly not that big a deal.”

She certainly got some good stories out of them, describing the first time she met her flatmate and being unsure of how to greet her: “I automatically walked over to kiss her, like we do in Spain, I got really close to her before realising she wasn’t leaning in and I kind of had to back away awkwardly. I ended up just kind of waving at her from a distance. I don’t think she even remembers, to be honest.”

Culture shock does not only affect people who move countries, but can also affect people who have moved across the country. Life in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere is very different to life in the “big shmoke”. As Geena from Kerry pointed out to me, even the air is different in Dublin: “Something so fundamental as the oxygen you breathe can feel strange when it’s not the air you get at home. You’re breathing in a different air, you’re living at a different altitude, your support network of your immediate family is gone – of course there are going to be repercussions”.


Moving away from home, to another country, all by yourself is no mean feat. The most difficult thing for the people I’ve spoken to is the physical distance from their family and friends at home. If you’re already feeling a little isolated and overwhelmed by these new people, the combination of culture shock and homesickness can be hard to deal with.

For Nicole, the hardest times were the holidays: “Everyone else in the flat would go home and, because flights back to Alicante were too expensive, I was stuck alone in the flat. I missed my friends and family, all the fiestas they were going to, and I was constantly shivering. I was so used to the heat back home. I remember walking into Lidl one day and getting excited because I saw there was a deal on Spanish food, but then just getting angry because it wasn’t even proper Spanish food.”

I experienced the same frustration with the poor quality of the croissants in Dublin. I think part of me began to idealise Brussels from afar, but going back to the catcalling Belgian men and smelly streets was a rude awakening.

Overcoming the initial shock

Whether you’re moving cross-country or cross-continent, visiting home is one of the best things you can do. I was happy to find that I could slot back into Brussels life. Seeing my friends, speaking other languages and revelling in my own culture came easily to me. Yet in spite of myself, I found I began to miss Dublin after a few days.

The initial enthusiasm of being back in my childhood home and having my favourite Belgian food cooked for me waned quickly. I realised that the fact that I was living independently in Dublin meant nothing at home, where I was still my parents’ child. I longed for my newfound freedom, and I just wanted to be able to have a night out in Dublin without having to think about texting my mother.

However the second I got back to Dublin I started missing Brussels, but bringing pieces of it with me made the transition easier. It was a wonder I was never questioned at the airport for smuggling tonnes of Belgian chocolate back to Dublin.

Finding a balance between two lives and two cultures can be difficult but once they’ve achieved this, new arrivals can find they are no longer combatting culture shock. In my own experience, coming back to Brussels and having my friends comment on how my accent sounded more Irish was when I realised I had finally aclimatised. I had managed to absorb Dublin, it had found its way into my very being, and I could now call it home.

Illustration by Anna Hardstaff