Tag Archives: expat

Expat 101: How To Give Everyone Culture Shock

If the blogs are anything to go by, we expats are in a perpetual state of culture shock. It’s one harrowing experience after another – waiters don’t smile back at us, there’s hamster paws sticking out of our stir fry, one’s gophers keep ringing the doorbell at all hours for irritating reasons like returning a pile of freshly starched shirts.

And it doesn’t all end when the expat eventually returns to the homeland, oh no. There’s the much talked about phenomenon of reverse-culture shock, when people, after a prolonged period of absence, discover that they don’t neatly slot into their native culture anymore. It’s all very distressing.

How the hell, you might wonder, do expats stay sane?

I’m about to tell you. It’s a well-guarded secret that nobody ever talks about, not even on the blogs. ESPECIALLY not on the blogs.

Culture shock is like an electric current that constantly whooshes through our insides, torching our mental and physical wellbeing. To stop this beast from killing us off, we have to try and discharge some of it by zapping an unsuspecting victim.

Just about anyone will do, but by far the best targets are found among a particularly hapless group commonly referred to as ‘The Locals’. (By Locals I mean people who have not left their country of origin for any significant amounts of time, besides annual holidays or the occasional business trip.)

Individual talent for dispersing culture shock waves varies considerably, of course, but by rule of thumb, the expats harbouring the most virulent strains are those who have spent more time outside of the country that issued their passport than within it. Their power is further amplified by the number of countries they have lived in, and also by how old (read: young) they were when they left.

So, how do you go about offloading a hefty dose of culture shock? One highly effective way is to scramble your conversation partner’s conversational “script” from the get-go.

All Locals have firmly embedded, pre-existing scripts to help them deal with The Great Unknown, which, needless to say, includes foreigners. When confronted with such a specimen, the first question will inevitably be, “Where are you from?”

You answer will trigger a set of script responses. For instance, when I first moved to the UK, the initial reply to “I’m German”  would invariably be countered with, “I have a brother/cousin/ex-window cleaner who’s stationed at [insert name of British Army base somewhere in Germany]”.

Now, I have never seen or been to an army base in my life. These places, as far as I’m aware, are inhabited by a barely literate species typically referred to as  ‘Squaddies’ who only leave the grand hive in search of…erm… certain services that can’t be provided by their fellow drones.

Subsequent script lines would pertain to the Oktoberfest, German cars and, of course, beer. At one point, I seriously considered writing out a set of flash cards with the answers and handing them out on social occasions, with the words, “please read these. Once you’re done, can we talk about something interesting, pleeeeease”.

Well, I was a mere novice back then, but I’ve learnt a thing or two since. For example, that it’s far more fun to throw something at The Local that completely corrupts their script. So, one could say, for instance, “I have a French passport, but I’ve never actually lived in France. I grew up in Norway, went to University in the States, and then I worked on Asian oyster farms for fifteen years.” (Though my own script busters are much less adventurous than that).

For a few long seconds, The Local will assume the semblance of a fish pulled onto dry land, momentarily robbed of the ability to blink, their mouths gaping as if trying to suck in air through their paralysed gills. You can almost make out the cogs spinning behind their glassy little eyes, bashing against their square little brain cells in the desperate hope of extracting a viable comeback. But it’s too late. The contagion has taken hold and a short circuiting event is imminent.

It’s not only The Locals who make suitable targets, but also fellow expats, especially those fresh off the boat. Long-term expats’ accents, for example, can be a great source of confusion. In my case, I get mistaken for a Brit. NOT by actual Brits, I hasten to add, they can tell, but everybody else, including Americans, Australians, etc, are routinely taken in. I do get a modicum of amusement out of that, I must admit.

Once, on a flight to Miami, a Central American lady mistook me for being Spanish. I have no idea how that could possibly have happened (a lot of engine noise??), but it sure cheered me up. On the flip side, I’m sometimes told that my German is really quite good…

But anyway, these “linguistic perks” that are part of the long-term expat package provide a fun opportunity of changing nationality for an evening, enjoy a novel set of script questions (yipeeeeh!), and then, if so desired, go full throttle for the killer reveal.

So, are any of you bored stiff by having the same cliché questions and trite topics flung at you over and over again? What are your least favourite subjects? I might do a separate post on this, so I’m hunting for ideas…

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The 18-Month Toledo Review – And Where To Next…?

I’ve been living in Toledo for a year and a half now. From the outset, I thought I might stay here for two or three years, and seeing as I’m half way, it’s time for a review.
The main reasons I chose Toledo as my first place to live in Spain were as follows:

  1. It has (or rather, its inhabitants have) the ‘right’ accent. Considering that I moved to Spain with the firm goal to finally learn the language properly, this was of prime importance. The costas sure are nice, but they either speak barely intelligible aberrations of Castilian Spanish, or different languages altogether.
  2. You can be at Madrid Airport in two hours flat by public transport
  3. It’s a (very pretty) small-ish town almost devoid of foreigners (except for masses of tourists). When you’re struggling with a new language, it’s extremely tempting to get sucked into the expat bubble to spare yourself the initial pain. Had I moved, for example, to Madrid first off, I would probably have ended up speaking English or German most of the time, and learning very little Spanish in the process.
Ah, Toledo... I found out today that it's home to 45 convents. But not a single Cake Order! I won't be signing up.

Ah, Toledo… I found out today that it’s home to 45 convents. But not one of them dedicates itself to eating cakes. I won’t be signing up.

Have I considered staying in Toledo for longer… perhaps even indefinitely? Yes. I’ve made some really nice friends here, and my heart aches at the thought of having to say goodbye, but deep down I know that it just won’t do for me in the long term. I need to be in a place that’s bigger and a little more ‘international’.

More frequently than I’d like, I find myself craving face-to-face contact with least a handful of people of different nationalities, and/or with Spanish people who have lived in other countries for a while. The experience changes you profoundly many ways that are difficult to describe, and I have to have some direct exposure to people who can relate to this. Also, I dream about fresh sushi and a gob-scalding curry… but there’s none of that to be had here. It’s ham and tortilla all the way. In short, I miss variety, and not just the culinary kind.

I’ve been ruminating over whether or not I should move to Madrid. At first glance, this would seem the most convenient option. It’s only 70 miles from Toledo, there’s a fairly decent train connection, so I would be able to see my Toledo friends regularly. They also speak Castilian Spanish in Madrid. Needless to say, it’s international, as you’d expect from a capital city.

Trouble is, every time I go there (which isn’t very often, I must admit), it fails to inspire me. I find the city a bit bland and generic looking. On top of that, it suffers the exact same extremes of temperatures that I find difficult to bear in Toledo – freezing cold in the winter and 45 stifling degrees in July and August.

So, now I’m thinking… Barcelona. I’ve never actually been there (embarrassing or what!), but it looks absolutely glorious. It has both sea and mountains, an airport, and sushi must exist there. It just has to!

The one major drawback, apart from being expensive (but then again, so is Madrid), is the language issue. They speak Catalan, although everybody also speaks Castilian Spanish, which is the second official language. And…I have to concede that living in a bilingual city does appeal to me. It’s very international, and I’m sure I’d even find a bunch of Brazilians before long to help me work on my Portuguese. A virtually impossible feat in Toledo!

As it stands, I’m in no desperate rush to move. I’m still enjoying Toledo, I’ll probably be here for another year or so, especially as I’ve got big travel plans towards the end of the year and don’t want to go through the hassle of a move between now and then.

I know that there are a lot of expat bloggers in Spain, so if anyone has any thoughts on this, I’m open to suggestions…

Why Move To Spain? The Answer Is Clear.

Some of you might recall a post I wrote a while back entitled There Are Only Four Valid Reasons For Moving Country. While I was working on this,  I remembered an amusing phone conversation I once had with a fellow freelancer before I decided to move Spain. (I didn’t know him personally, I got his number from one of my clients.) He very kindly agreed to have a chat with me, for which I was (and still am!) very grateful. He gave me some valuable tips on freelancing from Spain, including the need to pay a whopping €254 monthly to social security, which, had he not warned me about it, might have toppled me off my chair when I registered as self-employed shortly after moving here.

But I digress… now, this guy had made the move from the UK a few years ago with his wife and kids. In the middle of imparting his wisdom to me, he suddenly asked, “And why is it that you want to move to Spain? It  is really important to be clear about your motivations before you do something like this. Never do it on a whim”, he went on, ” you need a sound enough reason. Do you know why we decided  to take this step?”

I sat there, in spell-bound anticipation, receiver pressed to my ear, waiting for his profound revelation. “I shall tell you,” he continued, “the weather. The weather with a capital ‘W’. We don’t care all that much for Spanish culture or the food or the people. We don’t really have much contact with them. But we just love the weather here”.

My friend sent me this picture she took in January this year, when London weather reaches the height of shittiness. This bus stop is a few minutes up the road on which I used to live. Ah, memories... ;-)

In January, London weather tends to reach the height of shittiness. My friend sent me this picture she took a bit over a month ago. This bus stop is a few minutes up the road on which I used to live. And now that I’m looking at this, I can almost see (part of) the freelancer’s point 😉

‘Moving’ to Key West… Shall I or Shan’t I…?

My Caribbean holiday has come to an end, sigh. I’m back in freezing-cold Toledo, suffering from a severe attack of the post-holiday blues.

I usually feel a bit lacklustre after a trip, that’s nothing new, but this time I’m more deflated than usual. The episode has made me realise just how much I miss my friends Vicky and Ian. Vicky is a long-standing, close friends of mine. She was my landlady and housemate for many years in London, and when she got married, she and her husband Ian bought a house three minutes away from me, so we continued to see a lot of each other. In 2011, the two of them decided to move to Key West. This provided the impetus for me to leave for Spain, which I’d been wanting to do for a long time anyway.

During my visit, Vicky and Ian were running a concerted campaign for me to come and live in KW. Their houseboat has a self-contained apartment on the lower deck, which would be ideal for me.

I am seriously tempted to take them up on it. Well, just to clarify, we’re talking about a temporary ‘move’ here, i.e. for a few months, rather than a permanent arrangement.

Here are the pros:

1. Instead of words, I give you this:

A Key West beach...aaaaaah...

A Key West beach…aaaaaah…

2. Spending time with Vicky and Ian, needless to say.
3. Vicky’s glorious cooking (in one of her many professional lives, she was once a chef.)
4. KW is very convenient. For example, everything is within cyclable distance, it’s one of the very few towns in the US which is perfectly adapted for cyclists. An important consideration for me, since I don’t drive.
5. Key West is very international, which I like, and this includes a large Spanish-speaking community.

And the cons:

1. The organisational hassle of living in two places. My official residence would continue to be Spain.

2. Blasted visa issues… Ideally, I’d like to be in KW for six months. I can stay in the US for 90-days on a standard tourist visa, that shouldn’t be a problem, but I may run into difficulties when I try to re-enter the US for the second time shortly after the previous three-month-stint. I’ve no desire to settle in the US permanently, Europe is home, but US immigration officials have the reputation of being a suspicious lot.

Time-frame wise, I’m thinking early 2014. It’s quite possible that I’ll be spending the last three months of 2013 in Brazil. A friend of mine is really keen for us to go there together, ostensibly to learn Brazilian Portuguese (but mainly to have a rollickin’ good time, lol), and I’m definitely game, but nothing’s fixed yet. 2014 is also the last year of Ian’s current working visa. He’s highly likely to extend it, but you never know where visa issues are concerned, and I wouldn’t want to miss out on a great opportunity like this by leaving it too late.

I guess my plans will solidify for the next six months or so…

Taken by a kind waitress after Vicky's birthday meal last week. Vicky and Ian at the back, two of their friends (Graham and Frankie) in front, me in the middle.

Pic taken by a kind waitress after Vicky’s birthday meal last week. Vicky and Ian at the back, two of their friends (Graham and Frankie) in front, me in the middle.

Key West Day 1 – Doggy Nappies and Girly Shopping

After a loooong day’s travelling, involving a train, a bus and two flights, I woke up on a boat this morning. Or rather, a floating house. And if I crane my neck just a little bit more, I think I might be able to spot Cuba in the distance…

For the next two weeks, I’ll be posting from Key West, Florida. I’m staying with my dear friends Vicky and Ian, who moved to the sunny little isle from cold and drizzly London a year ago.

My view onto the pier this morning. In case anyone's wondering, that strange pink thing on the washing line is a dog nappy (diaper), as worn by Princess Pugsy. She had a stroke a while ago and is no longer in full control of her waterworks.

My view of the marina this morning. In case anyone’s wondering, that strange pink “garment” on the washing line is a dog nappy (diaper), as worn by Princess Pugsy. She had a stroke a few months ago and is no longer in full control of her plumbing.

And here she is, giving a live demonstration of her very best of heartbreakingly pathetic looks

And here she is, Princess Pugsy, who travelled from the UK to the US in style, voyaging across the seas on the Queen Mary II, because my friends didn’t want to subject her to being sedated (Pugs don’t handle the medication well) and shoved into an aircraft hold

My friend Vicky and the puglet as celebs of day in Key West's local paper The Citizen

My friend Vicky and the puglet as celebs of day in Key West’s local paper “The Citizen”

My first day in Key West featured some girly shopping (of course!!!!) and what better purchase to make than a pink leopard print rucksack with a matching pair of knickers

My first day in Key West featured some girly shopping (of course!!!!) and what better purchase to make than a pink leopard print rucksack with a matching pair of knickers

Moving Countries: It doesn’t get any easier with practice

I’ve moved country twice in my life. The first time, in 1991, I moved from Germany to the UK, and last year, I left the UK for Spain. And I’m finding the whole experience quite different this time round, especially in the areas of making friends, language learning and integrating into society.

It’s not the same changing your country of residence when you’re barely 20 and taking up sticks as a middle aged crone. Also, people regard you differently. In a nutshell:

Moving at 20: they think you’re adventurous and looking to broaden your horizons
Moving at 40: they think you’re eccentric (that’s really a euphemism for ‘insane’) and running away from something (by ‘something’ they mean yourself)

Building a Social Circle
When you’re older, making new friends is a bit like going house hunting at Breezy Point after hurricane Sandy. There ain’t much left still standing, and whatever appears to be holding up, is best approached with the utmost caution.

In their late teens/early twenties, everybody’s pretty much clueless, it’s all a bit experimental, it’s about new people and new experiences. At this tender age, the usual scenario for people leaving their birth country is to study or start a new job.  In either case, on arrival, there will be hordes of other eager puppies bounding up to them, tails wagging, desperate to find pals to crack open a can of beer with.

Not so at 40. Proper responsible adults are married and busy chauffeuring their kids to oboe lessons and, in what would be their spare time, they are running themselves ragged looking after ailing parents. Besides that, they’ve also got to earn a living, so there is very little room for anything – or anyone – else.

When you do find someone potentially willing to add a tiny trickle of fresh blood to their social mix, and their conversational topics extend beyond junior’s college applications and organising the remodelling of the guest bathroom, you probably end up being squeezed into a 3.15-4pm slot every other Thursday. And you’d be lucky!

Language Acquisition
I’ve been in Spain for 14 months now, and my Spanish is probably comparable to my level of English four months after my arrival in the UK. I don’t think my excruciatingly slow progress has much to do with my age, lol, but that it’s down my life circumstances being completely different now compared to the first time I did this.

When I moved to the UK, it was for a job as a Food Technician, which meant constantly flitting between the factory floor, the lab and the offices, communicating with a bunch of different people all day. Eventually, I even managed to comprehend the kind of English spoken on the production line. That was quite a learning curve…

On top of that, I was living with British people, so it was non-stop surround sound. Exhausting for the brain, certainly, but I made swift progress. And within a short space of time, I added le pièce de résistance: a boyfriend.

Today, I’m in quite a different position. I work at home on my own in front of the computer, reading and writing in English. If I didn’t make an effort, entire days could pass by without me having to speak any Spanish at all.

To try and make up for this lack of natural day-to-day exposure, I took Spanish classes for the first nine months. (I never had any formal English lessons in the UK.) I’m also heavily involved in language exchange meetings, and, of course, I spend time socially with the friends I’ve made.

I am slowly improving, but in a far less organic way compared to two decades ago in the UK.

Social Integration
This time, it seems, I’m not sliding as seamlessly into the societal fabric as I did in the UK, despite the fact that all the people I socialise with locally are Spanish, and that I haven’t been ensconcing myself in expatlandia (which really isn’t my style, anyway).

I’m convinced the main stumbling block is that I’m not employed by a local company. Going to work every day and building relationships with Spanish workmates, I believe, would make a massive difference in terms of being regarded as a social equal, i.e. as somebody who shares the same day-to-day experiences.

From the reactions I’ve been getting, being freelance writer with a client base abroad is a somewhat exotic concept for people in a medium-sized Spanish town. In North London, where I lived before moving here, freelancing is a fairly common way of earning a living. People are even more perplexed when I tell them that I pay income tax and social security contributions here in Spain, just like they do.

Lastly, there’s the seemingly trivial matter of appearance, but I think it does have an impact. Being pasty faced and fuzzy haired, in the UK, I blended right in. Not so in Spain. Granted, the visual difference between me and the majority of the local populace is not as stark as if I’d moved to, say, Japan or Rwanda, but I do look suspiciously like a foreigner emanating from snow swept forests of Northern Europe. And once I open my mouth, this is confirmed.

Last week, I was listening to a podcast, where a Brit, who’s been living in Spain for well over a decade with his Spanish wife AND who speaks excellent Spanish to boot, commented on the fact that he was still being treated as a foreigner a lot of the time. I must admit, this didn’t exactly inspire me with confidence. After living in the UK for about half a decade, people there had made me feel as much as a foreign body as Big Ben.

Anyway, let’s see how things develop, it’s way too early to assess this last aspect properly. Sangría season starts again in April, and all my hopes are firmly pinned on that.

[P.S. I’ve written a couple of posts on what it was like for me when I first arrived in Spain – the red tape, the frothing-at-the-mouth frustrations, the little hilarities…]

Kitty Litter

If you’re not a cat person, you may cover your eyes now. I promise I won’t go on for too long.

In a previous post, I mentioned that the streets of Toledo’s historic town centre are largely impassable for vehicles. And neither is there any space for rubbish containers to collect household waste.

Toledo Street

Where would you put your wheelie bin? And a standard rubbish collection truck is hardly going to climb up those steps…

Toledo Street

…and nor is it going to squeeze through there.

Toledo Rubbish Collection Truck

So, what happens is that the residents put out their trash every night in a pile, and around midnight, a squadron of custom-built midget-sized rubbish collection vehicles picks it up. (See above. Refuse from local businesses, such as shops and restaurants, is collected during the day)

Toledo Trash

In the evening hours, when the garbage bags are multiplying on every street corner, Toledo’s enormous population of feral cats comes looking for tidbits.

This tortoiseshell (calico) cat is the alpha female of the trash collection point outside my front door.

This tortoiseshell female rules the roost at the trash collection point opposite my front door.

One of my neighbours leaves our a pile of food on a piece of aluminium foil. The ginger tom on the right is the male boss cat. The two cats in the centre are two of the many kittens he's produced with the female in the previous picture.

One of my neighbours leaves out a pile of food on a piece of aluminium foil every night. The ginger tom on the right is the male boss cat patrolling my corner. The two kittens in the middle are but a small sample of those he made earlier with the aforementioned female.

And to finish off, a couple of random pictures of Toledo’s cats, taken at a different location.

Toledo Cats

Nicely lined up and all snuggly

An exotic beauty...

An exotic beauty with a forlorn stare… moggies beware!