Forget overseas holidays – if it's culture shock you're after, just change neighbourhoods.
When I was 18, I took a three-month working holiday to Tokyo. It was the first time I'd felt really conspicuous. Here I was, not able to speak a word of Japanese, trying to negotiate subways and menus and supermarkets, and teaching language to people who couldn't speak a word of English. Let me tell you, this is difficult when neither party understands each other.
More than this though was my physical appearance. I felt like I'd walked on to the set of Gulliver's Travels. I felt ENORMOUS. At 178cm tall and fairly well rounded, I went the entire time without seeing a single person even vaguely like me. I'd forgotten what this felt like until a few weeks ago, when I moved into the inner city from the 'burbs.
That's right. I'm suffering massive culture shock just 11km from where I used to live.
Four years ago I moved myself, my partner and my then two-week-old baby to an area with '60s houses on big blocks. We loved it. Sure, it took an age to get to work. It took an age to get anywhere, really, so what happened was we stayed within a tight little radius of our home.
We shopped local. We did everything local. And when you get into the swing of all things local, you let your standards slip a bit. I thought nothing of racing up to see Ralph the butcher or Clem the fruiterer still wearing my nightie. I'd check myself in the mirror and think, "Well, this could technically be a singlet dress, and not a nightie, if I just whack on a maternity bra." And I fooled myself like this for almost every day of the four years we lived in our outer-suburban paradise.
One of our local haunts used to be "Katie's Kafe", but now we sidle up shame-faced for our cappuccinos at places called "Lost" and "The Pound".
But we kind of felt like we were missing out on life a bit, so instead of manifesting our midlife crises by way of plug-in hair and small red sports cars, we decided to move to where the groovers are. I am therefore the daggiest person who has ever resided in our new suburb. Ever. In its history. Which is long.
The first big difference I noticed was the names of the hairdressing businesses. The old neighbourhood was full of places called things like "Shari-Leanne's Salon" and "Snipz on High". Now, my closest hairdresser looks not dissimilar to an IVF lab and is named simply "Blow". Too groovy. I can't go there. Same for coffee shops. One of our local haunts used to be "Katie's Kafe", but now we sidle up shame-faced for our cappuccinos at places called "Lost" and "The Pound".
Last Friday, I thought I'd slip out and pick up some takeaway Thai. We had done this regularly at our previous address and it was a shoes optional, park at the door, 10-minute-round-trip affair. Not so any more. I ordered our pad thai by phone and headed out the door ... straight into traffic I hadn't seen since grand final day or the Olympics. This is normal? I had to circle the block five times before I could find a park (illegal), and by the time I collected the cold meal I was so stressed I could have used my own sweat as some kind of dipping sauce.
Also, where are the children? In the first week, I said to my partner when we were out with our two little fellas, "It's like that scene from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when the Child Catcher is in town and all the kids are hiding."
Then we rounded a corner and we saw them all! Every child in the postcode playing in a fairly impressive playground because, we guess, their houses might have low-maintenance courtyards instead of yards full of burnt couch grass and bindis, trampolines with cracked mats, and sun-faded Little Tikes paraphernalia. Just like our old place had.
It has changed us, though. In a good way. Just this morning, we walked up to the local market and did our shopping with our granny trolley. We got a good takeaway brew and bought organic blueberries and ham off the bone. On the way home I said, "Look at us. Look how hip and inner city we are!"
As soon as I was in a sidestreet and away from stylish eyes, I had to stop and rest on the aforementioned granny trolley because I was desperate for a loo and my pelvis was starting to hurt. These city fringe areas are not built for women with only two months to go until baby No. 3. Sensing my discomfort, my man said, "Do you want to push the baby in the pram instead?" To which I replied, "Great idea! It'll be like a walking frame!" (Someone call Who magazine immediately and tell them to call off the search for the world's sexiest person, please. I'm right here.)
We do feel plugged in, though. We can hear the rattling of trains and parties on the weekend and we see hipsters riding skateboards home carrying soy lattes. I'm seeing what's "in" and wondering if I could pull off a pair of neon sneakers or a French industrial dining table on casters.
Our kids are seeing different people, too. Brown ones, old ones, poor ones, eccentric ones. Not just wall-to-wall white people in station wagons with kids called Will. I think this is a good thing. It feels new and exciting and real. And it's inspiring me to put on some lippie when I leave the house. And a bra.
Maybe my metamorphosis to full groover will be realised when I have my own wispy little beard and a mini iPad to use exclusively for storing tunes I've heard on community radio stations and while pre-ordering my three-quarter latte? Stay tuned ...
Chrissie Swan is host of Can of Worms and co-host of Mix 101.1's breakfast show in Melbourne and 3pm Pick-Up nationally. Twitter: @chrissieswan