What you do with a haystack (more English for Expats)

It always takes a while to get back on your feet after moving countries, and to be honest coming back to my home country (the Netherlands) – but to a new town – is no different.  But I’m back, and my struggles with the English language continue unabated.

At her welcoming address, the vice-chancellor of the University reminded the international students present that one of the main benefits of studying abroad is not only getting to know the host country, but to experience seeing your own culture from a different point of view.

These past two weeks could not be described better for me, as I watched the members of my international orientation group – representing Germany, Bulgaria, Israel, England, Ireland, Lithuania and Portugal – attempt to adapt to the Netherlands, and the town of Leiden to them.

Welcome to Crazy Town, Party Hard. (Wikimedia commons)

Welcome to Crazy Town, Party Hard. (Wikimedia commons; Leids Ontzet)

You can see where this is going, yes? A Lithuanian, a Jew and a Dutchman walk into a bar…

I learned that it is never easy to explain a culture in a 20-minute speech, especially when the audience represents almost half of the world’s countries. The Mayor’s welcoming words later that day made this particularly apparent, which were mostly lost due to the echoes in the church where the meeting was held and the unfortunate decision to serve drinks before and during the talk, not after. The net result was that despite all he said about the dynamic converging of cultures, these are  the words of wisdom everyone remembered :

“herring with onions, eaten raw; potatoes, carrots and onions, all mashed into a stew -”

Classy. (source: wikimedia commons.  Rotterdam, 1937)

You just don’t understand herring.  I mean, culture. (source: wikimedia commons. Rotterdam, 1937)

My new Bulgarian friends, much to their dismay, have still not worked out why Dutch public figures feel the need to recite their local recipes to their visitors.

This despite my best efforts to explain how mashed potatoes (hutspot) are related to a siege of the city in 1574 and a reminder of the excellent moral fibre of its defenders, who lasted without mash (or much of anything else) for two years against the Spanish.

At our induction into the faculty of social sciences, the director of which insisted upon asking the audience what we, personally, do with haystacks back home.

This might not have been so bad, if he had not drawn out the metaphor – in somewhat dubious English – for the next thirty minutes. He tried to relate how one of his students had challenged a certain widespread cultural assumption in his research, adding something to the field of knowledge.

All we heard was that the truth is a needle, or a needle is the truth, and if you happen to come across a haystack, the needle may also turn up, although – so the poor man was forced to concede to the suggestions from the audience- haystacks can be used for many things.

Walking home, one of the girls patted my arm and kindly said:

“You  know, no offence, but you Dutch have a strange sense of humour.”

I know. I’m sorry.

What we take away from this is that even if your English isn’t wrong, technically, doesn’t mean it’s right.

Or just ask yourself,

“Do I really need a humorous ice skating metaphor to make this speech to my Brazilian guests a succes?”

You’re welcome.


But is it not kinda nice here?


Hack my life, please

What do you do when you find yourself at a point in your life when you can make any one of a dozen choices, and you know each one will carry you down a path you can’t reverse and that will impact your life significantly?

When I was younger, I used to own a few of those “choose your own adventure” books. They usually were something along the lines of “for dragons, turn to page 36; for a dinner date with Mark, page 18.” I found these books upsetting, because this meant that I’d compulsively spend the next four hours following through every single choice pattern, all leading to somewhat disappointing pay-offs (Mark dumps you at a McDonald’s drive-through). Oh god, is this what my choices are going to be like?

If you're lucky this kind of stuff happens in your adventure book, but usually it doesn't turn out so great. (Picture credit Pixar)

If you’re lucky this kind of stuff happens in your adventure, but usually it doesn’t turn out so great. (Picture credit Pixar)

I’m finishing my BA degree this summer, which means I get to move town and country again, choose a master’s degree, and  wonder what will  become of my relationship. It’d be enough to give anyone a lump in their throat. But, when things get too much, I find the internet a reassuring place to be- especially the websites dedicated to so-called “life hacks”.

Life hacks are simple solutions to your everyday problems and annoyances, usually made from household objects; tennis ball-pegs for the eternally lost car keys and frozen grapes to cool white wine without watering it down.They make me wish everything was that easy and practical, just a brief oh-why-didn’t-I think-of-that moment away. Application letter to a university? Write your letters in green ink and tell them how you love books.


Mind Blown. Why don’t have we have these for everything? (Picture: theboredpanda.com)

Sometimes, I get the feeling that I don’t really know anything at all. I wonder how I should be making my choices (rational schemes, intuitive leaps?) or even give advice to others facing similar decision. But then, of course I did learn a hand full of things by now. Call them my personal hacks:

That if you screw up today, and feel like you want to die – chances are you’ll laugh about it tomorrow. Celt is always pronounced with a hard C, unless you’re talking about football. Always ask questions – ”no” can’t hurt you. The first draft of everything is shit.

Always write in your own voice (if you don’t know how to do that, read what you wrote aloud). Don’t drink milk when you have a cold. If the deadline of an academic essay is coming up, only read the first and last paragraphs of articles and book chapters for the argument- the rest is just proof. Real tragedy lies in ignorance (ask Oedipus). Be loyal to your friends.

Camping is an inexpensive way to travel, especially in countries so warm you hardly need to eat. Ink from a bottle is cheaper than fountain pen cartridges.  And, finally – never be afraid to choose.


How do you deal with stress and difficult choices?

5 Reasons Why You Should be Afraid of Clowns

With Halloween just a week away, I took a little break from studying to do a fiction writing exercise on the topic of fear. The idea was that by pouring some of my emotions out into a Word document, I’d be receiving free therapy and end up with a beginning to a story that wasn’t entirely dull.

The prompt I used runs something along the lines of the classic movie Psycho – you’re taking a shower in the house, no one is in and you aren’t expecting anyone, when suddenly there is a noise in the a room beyond the bathroom. You go to investigate, and-

All I can see is a vague shape stalking the corners of my living room. On every breath he takes, the figure makes a horrible rasping sound, for he has no discernible nostrils in the ruined bulb that sits where the nose should have been. He moves slowly and with an uncertain limp, as if his feet don’t belong to his body .The sound of the door disturbs his movement- he turns, I see his face in the light from the hallway; a skin deathly white except for where the paint crinkles around the eyes. Where the lips should have been there is only a thick smear the colour of blood that turns up at the corners when he grins at me…

Turns out the monster that haunts the depths of my imagination is, in fact, a clown. My career as the next Edgar Allen Poe died a quiet death backstage, while I pondered the psychological implications of it all. Or in other words, I googled “fear of clowns”.

According to Wikipedia, fear of clowns exists as an honest-to-god anxiety disorder, as evidenced by the fact that it also has a name in greek – Coulrophobia, creatively derived by psychiatry enthusiasts from the Ancient Greek word for “stilt-walker”. Obviously, the Greeks never invented such a thing as “clowns”, but if they had, I think they would have thought they made pretty lame monsters, compared to say, sphinxes, or Medusa.

Clowns are actually so lame that my boyfriend refuses to believe I find them more scary than spiders, and mocks me for lying awake at night because Mr. Giggles might show up. To prove him wrong, I bring you the 5 main reasons why it is not only rational to be afraid of clowns, but why YOU should be afraid of them, too.

  1. “clowns [are] universally disliked by children” (according to NBC News.)
    Think about this for a moment; if children are universally scared by something that is supposed to be entertaining for children, you probably have a reason to be worried too.
  2.  Stephen King thinks clowns are scary– as evidenced by the novel and movie “It”
    as King is worth an estimated 400 million dollars, all earned by writing horror stories, he should be a pretty reliable authority on all things scary.
  3.  Florida police dressed up one of their undercover officers as “Coco the Clown” – and busted four hookers. Remember, Gentlemen, nothing screams “desperate” like a red nose and an oversized bow tie.
  4. Some of popular culture’s most famous villains resemble clowns – Batman’s The Joker, who attempted to blow up Gotham, and Ronald McDonald, making children cry all over their Happy Meals the world over.
  5. Their face paint makes it virtually impossible to read a clown’s emotions-  because of their painted-on smile, you never know if they’re smiling at you or about to rip your head off. This is why they make such effective serial killers

Enjoy your Halloween kids- but never trust strangers, especially not if they’re wearing a fake nose and offering to make you a balloon animal. What irrational fears are keeping you up at night this year?

David Bowie goes to a Shop and George Osborne takes a Train

Emotions were on a particularly high pitch here in Britain this weekend, after it had turned out that David Bowie had been seen on the streets of New York to pick up a takeaway lunch.

Apparently he does not do this much, so it was news- or maybe he doesn’t do it much because he knows it will be news- but both the Telegraph and the Daily Mail leaped on the chance to report that the singer was wearing a grey sweater and jeans. They lamented the perfectly ordinary appearance of Bowie, who effectively blended into the crowd, by dramatically pointing out that the “only hint of his once legendary dress sense” was a zebra print scarf tucked into the collar of his jumper.

Meanwhile, the media descended upon Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who took a train on Friday, with righteous anger. The man had gotten himself into some confusion about whether or not he had paid for the right to sit in the First Class section rather than the Standard Section, which was a little too busy on a Friday for the Chancellor’s taste.

The Guardian saw a front cover story in this and gleefully accused Osborne of “Great Train Snobbery”, while the Daily Mail reported on “the drama” as it unfolded, noting that Mr. Osborne appeared “surprised” when he spotted the group of journalists waiting for him as the train pulled into the station.

My advice to Mr. Osborne is to wear a dainty zebra pattern scarf instead of a tie the next time he takes a train- Bowie knows it distracts them.

Open Letter to PETA concerning Pikachu

Dear PETA,

Well, I saw the interactive Pokemon spoof on your website, “Pokemon Black and Blue”, that you brought out in response to the release of the latest Pokemon videogame (Black and White 2), and I was not amused. What were you thinking, when you animated an image of Pikachu looking like he should be hospitalised immediately, with a torn ear and spots of matted blood in his yellow coat?

You were probably thinking you were making a clever statement about the fictional abuse of animals. This claim is a serious logical error at best and should be re-examined immediately to prevent loss of face on your part. For your benefit, I would like to helpfully point out that Pokemon are, in fact, imaginary, and while some Pokemon do closely resemble animals, others were modelled after mimes, magnets, ice cream, dragons and female figures. The last time I checked, you were not running a campaign to stop physical violence against mimes. Thus, I can only conclude you condone enslaving mimes to do battle in the real world, which strikes me as a very hypocritical and discriminatory policy.

Perhaps you are also not aware that apprehending a popular franchise aimed at children to deliver your own political message is not socially acceptable. When parents find out you have created a game in which Pikachu gets beaten half to death by a severely alcoholic pokemon trainer (as evidenced by the bottle in his hand and the crazy spirals for eyes), you should not be surprised if you receive some complaints, as children around the world will have been suffering from nightmares and a real fear of alcoholic beverages ever since viewing your game.

I became a fan of Pokemon way back in the late 1990s, and I distinctly seem to remember both the animated series and the videogames being all about friendship and respect in those days.  In fact, it strikes me as very curious that you have apparently not had a problem with the pokemon franchise for well over a decade. It makes me wonder if this has something to do with the introduction of Team Plasma as the villains in 2011, whose objective it was to liberate all pokemon from the bonds their trainers supposedly keep them in. Does that sound familiar to you? Or was it perhaps the twist at the end of the game, when it turned out that freeing pokemon wasn’t actually the organisation’s true motive,  that you began to suspect a connection with yourself? If so, I have to say your “Black and Blue” is a retaliation in particularly bad taste, and a decision you might want to rethink with your PR department.

Best Wishes,

A Very Concerned Pokemon Fan

5 Things Your Kindle Can’t Do (and paper can)

Personally, I love my kindle, it’s one of the best things I ever bought. Regardless, I’m still pretty attached to the paper and ink books.. So for those who haven’t made up their minds yet, here are 5 Essential but Overlooked Things your Kindle Doesn’t Do.

1.  Having a digital library of books makes it very hard to use your library to show off how erudite and intelligent you are at dinner parties, for instance by casually leaving a well-used copy of War & Peace out on the table for your friends to go “Oh, who’s reading Tolstoy..- wait, you speak Russian?!”

2. For those of you who like to check out what everyone else is reading on their morning commute to work, good luck peering over a stranger’s shoulder to see what the title is in the top corner of their Kindle without looking like a Creep.

3. Protesting against books you don’t like the content of for political or religious reasons will be a good deal harder in the future. Think about it- organising a “delete Salman Rushdie from your kindle” event is just not going to pack the same emotional punch as a mass book burning and bon fire for the community at large to enjoy.

4.  You cannot hollow out the pages of a Kindle to hide your valuables, like jewellery or money.
Kindles also do not provide your bored kids with the materials for an arts & crafts project on a rainy afternoon

5. The Kindle, unlike a traditional newspaper, cannot be rolled up and be used as a weapon to squash that pesky mosquito keeping you up at night. Granted, it may kill the mosquito, but chances are the kindle will break when you smash it into the wall.

Kindles are also not appropriate for use as cat litter.