From Southern California to Dublin: Culture Shocks and Assimilation – Coffee, Coins and Self-Deportation


By Allison Woodworth, Summer Study Abroad Blogger

“I cried,” my sister said, sheepishly admitting to getting emotional while listening to the “Outlander” soundtrack as she and her boyfriend drove through rural Ireland on their way to visit me in Dublin.  My sister and I grew up in suburban southern California, where the only sheep we saw on a regular basis was the puppet Lamb Chop and where nearby historic sites consisted of late 18th century Spanish Catholic missions. Where San Diego is dotted with palm trees and coastline, Dublin is blanketed in nature and history and rain. I mocked my sister’s emotions as an older sister should, but I couldn’t deny that Ireland was beautiful. Four weeks earlier, I’d found myself staring out the airplane window over Ireland and thinking that this surely embodied “picturesque”. I wasn’t quite sure if it was the 18 hour travel, the lack of sleep, the rabbits hopping around the runways, or the impeccable timing of an early morning arrival to catch my first Irish sunrise, but everything felt surreal.

My nine weeks in Dublin have been grand. I’ve learned to use a French press, broken a French press, almost been pancaked by bike and bus, claimed a couch in the Rathmines library as “my spot”, and was visited by Irish immigration (more on this later). I’ve enjoyed all my small culture shock moments because they personify both the fun and the difficulties of assimilation. Here are a few of my observations, experiences, and culture shock moments:

  • The Library: anyone who knows me won’t be surprised to hear that my “goals after landing” were listed as such: 1) sleep 2) find grocery allison_blog-1_photo-1store 3) locate local library. I was thrilled that the Rathmines public library was a short walk from our dorms. Andrew Carnegie funded construction of Ireland’s first public access library in 1913. Although the two story neo-Georgian building appears huge from the outside, it has a rather small, efficient layout. I did try to immediately sign up for a library card, but they insisted I be a resident or have a resident vouch for me. This was a huge disappointment – I collect library cards like some people collect shot glasses – but I compromised by reading shortallison_blog-1_photo-2 graphic novels and comics when I stopped off on my walk home from work before the closing gong around 8pm. Yes, closing gong. I’m not sure there is a PA in the library. Just before closing, the staff gives bangs a gong by the door to warn patrons to head out – or in my case to jump three feet off my seat in fright. Every time.

Photo 1 (above): Rathmines Library Gong

Photo 2 (left): Rathmines Library

  • Coins are actually valuable: In the US, it can take a year to fill up a spare coin jar and even then it probably only amounts to $40 of pennies and annoyingly small dimes. I use coins so infrequently back home that I used a wallet without a change purse for years and got on fine. Not only do coins accumulate quickly in Ireland, they are of substantial value. 1 and 2 euro coins are common change, and quickly weigh down my wallet. I have to remember not to toss them all in a drawer or down the back of a couch. In an amusing turn, the ATMs give out shockingly large denominations. I’m not sure if it’s the specific ATM I use, but it gives out 50s. I had to break it at a SuperValu self-service till.
  • Let’s talk about coffee. I’m a coffee addict. Tea is grand, but coffee is my jam. It’s my study crutch. One of the greatest developments in my coffee addict life was my move to New England, land of Dunkin Donuts, where the large iced coffee is the size of your forearm and less than the price of a gallon of gas. In fact petrol is routinely cheaper than a fist sized Americano here. (Side note: I laughed when I saw my first gas station sign advertising petrol for €1.22/gal. It’s routinely ~$2.59 at non-Costco locations in San Diego). Aside from the iced coffee deficit (not even at McDonalds! In summer!), I found my coffee fixes stunted by lack of simple drip coffee. Most shops here offer Americanos as basic coffee, which is a very particular taste. I was going broke from buying coffee that I didn’t particularly like, so I soon picked up a €10 French press at TK MAXX. (It’s TJ MAXX in the US. What is the point of this letter swap? Someone explain this to me please). The glass cracked two weeks later and I was baptized as a new French press owner in hot coffee grinds. I’ve since settled down into an acceptable coffee lifestyle, but the four day heat wave sans McDonalds iced coffee did set me back a bit (habits are hard to break!).
  • Irish Immigration Catches Wind of my Plan to Stay Here to Avoid Trump. None of windows that I’ve come across that open outward – at the library, at work, in my dorm – have screens. I like screens. They keep stuff perched on a ledge from falling out a window (goodbye hand sanitizer bottle) but their paramount utility is in keeping things out. Like bugs. Or GIANT SPIDERS. For example. It’s not generally hot enough that windows need to stay open, but I do occasionally like a breeze when I’m working or cooking or sleeping. I had my window open one night while I was talking to my mom on Skype. I joked that I wasn’t coming home to subject myself to a possibly Trump-led America. I’d stay in Ireland and live in the library or Phoenix Park. I’d just logged off Skype and was browsing the internet when I caught movement about 2 feet to my left by the window. I then promptly yelped and leapt off my chair. A gigantic spider, like a daddy long legs but the almost the size of my palm, was spidering up and down my ledge. I don’t do spiders, no matter how harmless they are to humans and how useful they are to ecosystems. They crawl around with the creepy disjointed way of possessed people in horror movies and they give me the willies. I have goosebumps just typing this. Although my immediate reaction was to BURN EVERYTHING, I held my ground and took a roll of paper towels and shoved the spider back outside, shutting the window behind it. I then immediately googled “Ireland Spiders” to try and figure out what kind of monster had just tried to eat me, which was in retrospect a rookie mistake because the first headline I read was “Here’s why massive spiders are invading Irish homes right now” and that was the end of that. Irish Immigration officers reading this: don’t worry. I’m going home.
  • PUT YOUR HANDS ON THE WHEEL ARE YOU TRYING TO KIL-oh. It’s one thing to know the practical differences between cultures – like what side of the car and street one drives on – but it’s quite another to actively remember them. One of my coworkers offered me a ride after work and as I thanked her and pulled open the passenger door she shook her head and pointed to the other side. I was getting into the driver’s seat. It’s amazing the number of times I’m momentarily startled by a car that appears to be driving itself before I remember that I’m looking at the wrong seat. I was once standing on a corner momentarily shocked by a small lapdog in the driver’s seat all alone. You’d think I’d eventually get used to this. You’d think. A few weeks ago I was in the back seat of a car chatting with my coworker and her boyfriend. My coworker pulled out her phone and started looking up directions and my heart jumped into my throat. She wasn’t even TRYING to watch the road…..yeah, she was in the passenger seat. How long does it overwrite parts of your brain? More than nine weeks apparently.
  • Air conditioning: San Diego summers are routinely in the 80s and high 90s farenheit. In Arizona, it’s so hot it is practically medically unadvisable to go outside all summer. We cope with these inhumane conditions with copious air conditioning and iced drinks. So when the “heat wave” hit Ireland (I’d acclimated so quickly to Irish weather than 70F+ degrees (21+C) felt sweltering), I stopped off at the library on my walk home for an air conditioned reprieve. I was out of luck. I ended up in the frozen isle of a Tesco trying to roll up my sleeves and cursing myself for not packing any shorts. On the bright side: I got my first summer tan…two months later than usual, but I got one. Also: Dear Irish weather, do you intentionally make me dress one way in the morning and then change and make me look like an overdressed or underdressed fool in the afternoon? I keep my raincoat on me at all times now, even though it marks me as a tourist. Fool me once—drench me. Fool me twice—I’m a local? The mark of a true local appears to be not giving a toss about being caught out in a downpour.
  • The Country struggle: Today at work I was helping a young person edit a movie she and her friends filmed at the park. I pulled up a few music tracks to play in the background that she could choose from, one of which was from Zac Brown Band. I sampled the first two tracks without incident but when the country band’s first chords came through the computer speakers a look of bewilderment then horror passed over the youth’s face. It’s the look my mother gives me when she discovers I’ve reprogrammed her car radio’s presets to country and year round Christmas stations when I’m home on holiday. “I had to try,” I mumbled. My mission to spread the word of Country continues to be a struggle. I suppose if cracking California was a challenge, importing it across the Atlantic was a pipe dream.


Allison is a Returning Undergraduate Education Student (RUE) senior and Urban Studies concentrator at Brown University. She was thrilled to come to Dublin and work at SWICN Computer Clubhouse. She grew up in San Diego, California, USA, but has lived in eleven states. She has library cards from at least six different cities, but sadly only an internet access card from Rathmines Library. She will miss Dublin’s greenery and late sunsets. In her spare time she makes cheesy jokes and has been knitting the same scarf since 2013.


Tell us what you think:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s