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?


A Stork Prospect: Water Birds & Campaign Posters

For all those interested (probably not many of you), the Dutch national elections are coming up. Again. The definite drawback of coalition government is that regular elections are pretty much inevitable, because it’s pretty surprising if a cabinet completes its 4 year term. The last one didn’t, and a couple of months on, I have to say I’m pretty unimpressed with the new electoral campaign so far.

Cycling to town today, I had a good opportunity to inspect the campaign posters that appeared on notice boards everywhere. They struck me as rather unsettling: the first poster I saw depicted Alexander Pechtold, leader of the liberal democratic party and self-styled best friend of students. His unusually large eyes were leering back at me from the shadows. The lighting placed a special emphasis on the black rings around his sagging eye lids. In fact, the likeness to one just escaped from the wizard prison Azkaban wasn’t lost on me- it’s mainly the hope-starved expression, as if he knows he’ll never be successful again. I expect he won’t. After hearing him tell an undoubtedly hard-working medical student that his future salary was the only thing in the way of solving the problems with health care, I certainly don’t hope he will be.


The others aren’t much better. Geert Wilders, known for getting along particularly well with the rest of world,  is posed in front of the Dutch flag, rather like Napoleon but with signature blond hairdo. The Socialist Party has limited itself to a large tomato on a white background, no text. I know the tomato is their logo, and perhaps they haven’t bothered with the text because they feel so assured of winning.  All fear a government with this little creativity.  In fact, the Pirate Party’s “Don’t believe a poster, inform yourself” seems to be the only sensible statement there, but unfortunately my views don’t quite line up with theirs.


In a glum mood now, I started on the trip back, which takes me home through the fields and rivers over roads where cars don’t come. Suddenly, I saw a large bird swoop overhead, perfectly white but for the black bars that flashed up every time it beat its wings.  A stork! As I stopped to watch, I noticed another one take off from the water side and join its mate in the air, whirling over the meadows in search of frogs or fish. Storks were on the brink of disappearing entirely in this part of the country as little as four or five years ago. You never used to see them; until a large campaign was undertaken to get them to settle in and breed again.

Storks seem to me to be highly optimistic birds; surely it’s no coincidence that the stork is the bird that supposedly delivers human babies to expecting mothers in popular myth. One could not hope for a more positive symbol in a country facing economic misery, in part caused by the fact that the population on average keeps getting older and there’s not nearly enough children being born to match the effects of this trend.

Maybe it’s my imagination taking a flying leap here, but a big poster saying “we brought your favourite bird back from the brink- we’ll save the country too” would earn my instant favour. In fact, I might even vote for the Stork party. I’m all for clean rivers, soaring birds and laughing babies. Who isn’t?

At the very least, it’d make a better poster than the socialists’ tomato or Wilder’s falcon, and give me one last hopeful straw to cling on to.