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?