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.

20130830_201528

But is it not kinda nice here?

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

I finished my undergrad degree!

There are moments that I wish I had kept a diary for the past three years. It would have given me a more accurate record of my time as a student in England than my memories, which mostly seem to be based on long afternoons spent writing essays, broken up by absurd moments and conversations I’m not always sure actually happened.

However, the question I get most when I tell people I study abroad is not what it was like, but simply why I went.

It suffices to say I felt, and still do, that sometimes, taking a leap out into something completely unknown is the best way to get a grip on yourself, and hopefully find some direction. Beforehand, you never really know what is going to happen, despite all your expectations.

Living by yourself for the first time, especially in a different country, is pretty confrontational. My first night in Leicester I spent sobbing into a take-away curry. I wished my mom and dad would come back to take me home. My room was small, the other residents hadn’t arrived yet, and I was suddenly sure this was going to suck.

one of the first evenings, october 2010

one of the first evenings, october 2010

Long story short, it didn’t, and here’s what I got out of it (besides my degree and a great boyfriend):

The best things I’ve discovered have come, generally, when I’m not really looking for them, but from being open to other people, their interests and whims for random activities. I went to bars to see bands I had no particular interest in, attended a national football game, a Christmas world food market, bar crawls, Chinese supermarkets, a mock UN conference, and even a puppet show (in a misguided attempt to overcome my irrational fear of all things masked, perhaps?).

In particular, the flatmates I’ve had in shared university accommodation stand out, as  their personalities have turned out to be a luck-of-the-draw kind of thing. There was the Texan who showed us how to fill a watermelon with Vodka, a prissy French girl with ongoing boyfriend troubles, an anti-social Marxist with a limp, and one with no face or name but with a penchant for making off with other people’s possession, particularly my blue jeans.

I learned from the girl with the bird tattoos on her back that there is always a point in keeping at writing this blog, even when no one but my parents were reading it (thanks guys!), as a source of strength when you might feel alone or powerless. I met a boy who called himself a writer, and speedily found out he never wrote anything at all.  Chance encounters both, but I did take away something from these that I couldn’t have picked up from just going to my classes:

I learned that I love to write,  and that doing so daily makes my thinking clearer, helps me work through problems, keeps my eyes open when I’m going around my day, makes me listen closer to what people say,  and gives me a ream of ideas to draw from when I’m stuck.

It is never one decision that turns your life around but rather the habits we make our own, and the people we spend time with.

“We are what we repeatedly do.” (Aristotle)

20120101_152651

Goodbye, spring-time campus!

What good things have come your way this year?

[on another note, I will be away on holiday for about 10 days or so. I’ll be back with some stories, pictures and a post on how to keep a journal, so I’ll see you then!]

English for Expats : 3 signs you’re not fitting in

I originally started writing blogs when I moved to England, to keep the homefront updated on my adventures. Of course, this early blog died a quick death due to the 101 other distractions that came with exploring a new country, but it was also written in my native Dutch, which I found couldn’t quite capture the challenge to my English language skills living in Britain has at times presented.

Britain is rightly famous for its linguistic eccentricities, and its wide range of accents and (slang) vocabularies provide a never-ending source of entertainment and inspiration. However, we all get that moment when something just doesn’t feel quite right and the conversation comes to a stutttering halt. And if you’re anything like me, it’s likely to be for any one of these three reasons:

1. From the Rain in the Drip
(Translating expressions to English that only exist in your native language)

All nationalities tend to do this, but in Holland we are generally a bit overconfident about our English, with sometimes embarrassing results. I’m not even joking when I say people call this brand of Dutch English “Dunglish” – and it’s hilarious. A popular passtime here in Holland is collecting the blunders of your colleagues and friends for everyone’s entertainment in books or on the internet. My favourites include:

“we should stop coffee thick looking” (we should stop guessing)

“I have not fallen on my behind head!” (I’m not stupid)

“The meeting is walking out” (The meeting is running late)

“Please thank your cock for the excellent meal” (Unfortunately, ”kok” is Dutch for cook…)

1450_07_9---Clogs--Keukenhof--Holland-The-Netherlands_web

we’re also real good at fashionable footwear.

2. Oi, W*nker. (You’re careless with your insults)

I know, I know. The best thing about any new language is without a doubt learning all the best swear words  (you don’t want to know how many times I’ve been asked for the Dutch for the F-word by now) As it happens, English has an enormous range to choose from, especially to describe the  male genitalia. While words like “bollocks” or “bell end” are pretty generally applicable, it’s surprisingly easy to take it too far, particularly if you speak in a Germanic accent.

In fact, the art of the British insult lies in slipping it by your victim unnoticed. You should always beware the understatement (“we have a bit of a problem” is code for “a catastrophe”) but nothing stings like the the back-handed compliment, and the isles have mastered it.

So the next time someone tells you, “wow, you speak English much better than I expected”, give it some pause before saying thank you.

Sherlock understands this stuff. Watch the BBC more.

Sherlock understands this stuff.

3. Come again? (Local accents confuse you)

Oh, god, I’m really bad with this one. Let’s say I was really not prepared for the enormous range of accents between different parts of England. They’re everywhere, tv, on the bus, the people you meet during the week. And naturally, every geographic region uses its own slang as well. Ever heard of a “Scouser”? No, I hadn’t, either.

On the other hand, all these different ways of speaking give the UK a lot of colour, and you will never cease to hear something that surprises you.  To quote David Mitchell, who is a much better dialect writer than most:

The relationship between dialect and place [is] really rich. I can’t think about the North of England without thinking about the Northern accent… because of course the grammar is different too. Dialect is a landscape feature.

But fear not, for the British Library has an entire website dedicated to telling the difference between a cob and a scuffler, and tracing the connection between the ‘Geordie shore’ and Scandinavian Vikings (we ain’t got nowt). It makes for some fascinating listening and, more importantly, will prevent you from “standing with your mouth full of teeth” the next time you ride the London tube or accidentally find yourself in Liverpool.

And you thought you guys on the Jersey shore had it hard?

And you thought you guys on the Jersey Shore had it hard? Try the Geordie Shore

What has your most awkward foreign experience been? Let me know in the comments!

Year of the Dinosaur

In response to this week’s writing challenge: truth is stranger than fiction

   **

HK '96

This is me, out in the garden of the old house in Hong Lok Yuen, Hong Kong, where we lived for some time in the nineties – according to my mum’s archiving, this was 1996 and I was about four or five years old. The problem with memories at that age is that you can never be sure whether certain images or phrases actually belong to you, or if you just saw them in photographs or heard them in your parents’ stories. The smile on my face in this picture is a real one, though. I know, because in the posed pictures my parents tried to take of me and my sister we sit around either distracted by Bambi video tapes, or screwing our faces up in an attempt to laugh at the camera.

People who know me well often say I look more like my four-year old self at 20 than I did at 14. What they really mean is: you look happier. And I was, and am: being happy for me has to do with being to able to feel something of the lack of self-conciousness I had as a kid (and not even thinking about that kilted dress and matching sandals twice: perhaps they were acceptable in the 90’s) and going along with my imagination. This I remember is true:

The humid heat over the garden and the banana tree out front, covered in black bin bags to stop the birds from getting at the fruits. The grass under my feet and the bugs that would sting your knees sometimes and the small bushes along the low wall, trees in my jungle up which my plastic lions climbed. The mossy green herbivore I’m holding was creatively named Brachio, having worked out that it must be a Brachiosaurus from the dinosaur books we had.  I used to take it everywhere; to the beach, out at restaurants, up the hills in the New Territories, from where parts of China could be seen. I think i may still have it, living somewhere in the loft in my parents’ house in Holland.

We were too far removed from the equator for a real rainforest, but if I knew I never cared: I loved that garden. It became the backdrop for so many games we played and in a way it made a perfectly good world of my own away from home. We’re so much more flexible as kids, in some ways better able to cope with new situations. Maybe because you don’t think so much, don’t analyze the things you do, are happy to sit in the garden with your dinosaurs and the paths they walk through the grass that no one else can see.

The truth is, of course, that I still create stories on the imprint of a person’s physical surroundings. Places, whether real or imagined, give you a map to organise your memory around. When you mentally explore the place again and run your hands over the rough stone wall of a house you used to live in,  the images or words you left there are easily remembered: the names of the friends down the street or the types of trees in the garden or the recipe to a meal you loved.

Sometimes, even a very particular feeling you had can be sitting around patiently for you to pick it up, years later, and it may make you smile all over again.