Tag Archives: living abroad

Foreigner Beware Of Crinkly Forehead

A few weeks ago, I went to the doctor’s. It was a big event for me. I’d never been in need of medical attention before. Not in Spain, anyway. I’m of robust design, you see. I don’t pander to fancy foods that can’t be eaten with a spoon and I don’t get illnesses that can’t be cured by spending an afternoon in bed. However, a rebellious mole on my back was starting to morph into an octopus and it needed to be stopped by a professional.

Health centres are confusing places. I glanced around in a daze for ages until spotting a desk with a person who wasn’t either bellowing into a phone or being harangued by patient-staff scrum. I approached the woman stationed there and told her that I had an appointment at 11:30. Turns out that this was the desk where you make appointments and not the desk where you go when you already have an appointment. Once this was clarified, I asked her where I needed to go next. Up to the third floor, she said.

I followed her directions and arrived in a big central waiting room surrounded by four walls with lots of doors with names on them. Only then did it occur to me that I was missing a vital piece of information.

I returned to the desk lady for help. “Sorry,” I said, “I don’t actually know which doctor I’m supposed to be seeing. Could you tell me their name, please?”

And there it was.

The dreaded Crinkly Forehead.

I repeated my query, only to be met with yet more crinkles towering over a blank stare. I asked again. The crinkles assumed attack formation. I tried once more, in really simple Spanish, words spaced at one second intervals (I’ve had some practice at this, as you can tell). I repeated my question three more times. Still nothing. In an act of desperation, I grabbed a pen and paper from the desk and wrote it down. Finally, the name of my physician was divulged.

The most flabbergasting aspect of Crinkly Forehead is that it can spring into action BEFORE verbal communication even has a chance to commence. This happened to me in my local phone shop. As I handed my phone to the girl and drew breath to ask if she could please top it up with twenty bucks, I found myself confronted with a quizzically cocked head disfigured by crinkle over crinkle over fucking crinkle! They were humping each other, I swear! Then they called for re-inforcements and a bundle of veins as thick as anacondas after a meal of jungle elephants joined the wrestling match and… Christ, I did not know that the rosy baby bottom face of a twentynothing could even do that!

I’m guessing her inner thought process must have gone something like this: She looks like a foreigner, so whatever she is going to say will be incomprehensible. But I will try to help, because I’m a good person. But… what if she tries to make me speak in English?!?! Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God! I’ve only studied it for ten years at school, I can’t say a word!!! What am I going to do, WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?!?! At this point, she reaches the conclusion that it’s safest just not to understand anything.

The Crinkly Forehead is the nemesis of every language learner, tourist, or foreigner in general. It is the iron curtain, the NATO missile defence shield and the wall Trump is gonna build all rolled into one.

Once the contortions commence, once you spot the merest ripple, the slightest tell-tale twitch in the face that may have been smiling benevolently at you just a heartbeat ago, dear language learner, you are doomed. It is the manifestation of Blue Screen of Death in a real live person. A re-boot can only be effected once the obstruction has been removed, and the obstruction, my hapless foreign friend, is YOU.

Attempting to engage with Crinkly Forehead is not like flogging a dead horse. It’s like flogging all the sausages, lasagnes, burgers and chicken nuggets that its macerated remains found their way into, expecting the clapped-out old mare to re-assemble and run the Grand National. It ain’t gonna happen. No chance. Go home. Talk to Siri.

I, my dear people, will be talking to my mole. At least it is forthcoming, if only with tentacles.


I think we all need a restorative wedge of cake after this.


Keen observers will have noticed that this very same specimen featured in the previous post, but from a different angle. C’mon… it still looks delicious, does it not?! If it fails to appeal, maybe hairy chested man in the back will do it for you…?


[Note for nerds: This post was also published on my new language blog http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com – please pop over for a visit to discover what you’ve been missing!]


Four Annoying Things That Spanish People Do


When Spanish people socialise, even if it’s just two or three of them meeting up for a coffee, a curious thing happens: They seem to lose any awareness that there are other people around them. I’ve had to raise my voice on many occasions to keep communicating with a friend sitting  a few inches away from me because of a group of diners in another corner of the restaurant. They were not drunk or rowdy, just Spanish.

In the UK or Germany, this kind of behaviour also happens.  Usually, though, the perpetrators of  noise pollution are either hormone-crazed teenagers or legless lager louts. In Spain, well-dressed middle aged ladies have no trouble outhollering a busload of pupils on their annual school trip – after all, they have half a century of practice under their belts and are eager to demonstrate that they are not fettered by the shackles of consideration for others or any such social niceties. The louder the merrier!

Kids everywhere, at all hours

Spain has one of the lowest birth rates in the world – just 1.3 whelps per woman in 2015. Even child-averse Germany’s is higher (1.4).

And yet, you cannot get away from tantruming toddlers. A true paradox.

A visiting UK friend remarked to me once, on seeing a 5-year old being wheeled around in a buggy one late Saturday afternoon, “That child is too old to be in a push chair!” Indeed. What she didn’t know was that the vehicle wasn’t about saving the poor little blighter’s legs, but about saving everyone else’s nerves much, much later on in the day. That buggy, was, in fact, a mobile bed.

The parents were going to be out till the wee hours, enjoying good food and wine. After running around and shouting its little head off, the sweaty, worn-out sprog would eventually collapse into the wheeled sedan chair around 1am. It’s my personal theory that this is why events like concerts start so late here in Spain – everyone has to wait patiently until the kids finally pass out on their own accord before people can get on with the adult stuff.

In Germany or the UK, a young child in a restaurant (or any public place) after 8pm is a rarity. There’d be disapproving looks. The little one needs its sleep. Some would consider dragging a cranky minor around in the evening to be kind of child abuse. Not so in Spain, school night or not.

Incidentally, Spain has the highest rate of “fracaso escolar” (lit. “school failure”) in the European Union. According to Eurostat data released in 2015, 21,9% of Spanish students abandon the education system prematurely without any qualifications, compared to an EU average of 11.1%. Am I the only one wondering whether, perhaps, there may be a possible correlation…?

Finders Keepers

If you happen to lose your bag, your wallet, your favourite pen, etc, you may as well say goodbye to it the second you notice. The chances that anyone will hand it in or, if you’ve left it in a shop or a restaurant, keep it under the counter in case you return, are extremely slim. If you’ve forgotten it at someone’s house it’s perfectly safe, of course, but strangers encountering lost property seem to operate a strict finders keepers policy.

This miserly mindset, you may be surprised to learn, is sanctioned by a saint. Yes. A saint. An Italian one that goes by the name of Saint Rita, aka the patron saint of impossible causes.

There’s a Spanish saying that’s commonly evoked when someone is blessed with some unexpected providence: “Santa Rita, Santa Rita, lo que se da, no se quita”. Loosely translated: Saint Rita, Saint Rita, what is given cannot be taken. In other words: finders keepers.

I lost a nice pair of sunglasses once here in Toledo, in either one of three shops that I frequent on a weekly basis. They never surfaced again. I also lost a laptop in Copenhagen, which duly found its way back to me. Thankfully, nobody’s ever heard of bloody Santa Rita in Denmark! I rest my case.

She said you can keep it...

If she says you can keep it… who’s to argue with divine providence?

The smoking

Before moving to Spain, I’ve never really had any close friends who smoked. It’s not that I’ve consciously avoided making friends with smokers, but it just so happened that people I connected with didn’t usually smoke.

Smoking prevalence is higher in Spain compared the UK, where I’ve spent most of my adult life – 21.1% of Spaniards smoke compared to 18.4% of Brits. In the US, just 16.3% of the population are smokers and in Canada it’s 15.6%.

Another factor, in my observation, is that in Spain, just about anyone, regardless of social background or level of education, may whip out a cigarette on a balmy evening. In the UK, the US and Germany, by contrast, people who went to university are much less likely to be hooked on tobacco.

Smoking is forbidden in Spain in bars and restaurants, and this is widely observed, but if you’re from North America or Northern Europe, you may be in for a surprise if you get invited to people’s private houses for a meal, a party, or some other type of social gathering. They will light up. Right there at the table. In a closed room. It will fill up with smoke, your eyes may be streaming, your unprepared respiratory system may start to convulse in distress. And nobody will give it a second thought. You have been warned.

*    *    *    *    *    *

Disclaimer (of sorts): I admit, I was scraping the barrel when I wrote this post… the positives of hanging out with Spanish folk far outweigh the negatives. I gather from other blogs that, in many countries, new arrivals, especially those who are longer in their early twenties, tend to find it hard to enter into rewarding friendships with locals. In my experience – and I’m far from being outgoing, personality-wise – this is not a problem here in Spain, where people, on the whole, are welcoming, open-hearted, generous and inclined to strike up a conversation with a stranger and show genuine interest in them.

As an aside, the old stereotype that Spanish people are notoriously unpunctual, is, in my opinion, totally unwarranted. People may, on occasion, be a few minutes late. I may be a few minutes late. Noting out of the ordinary. The bizarre thing is that the Spanish seem to have internalised this belief about their chronic unpunctuality, and are highly apologetic about this perceived shortcoming – particularly those, it seems, who are rarely late themselves. I’m not quite sure what that is about. I’ve heard that poor time keeping is particularly rampant in the south of the country rather than in the central/northern parts, but since I have little experience of southern Spain, I can’t really comment on that.


You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com


Honey, I’m Home!

Lola and leavesThis is Lola, my friend Gaynor’s cat, peering at me from the depths of the clematis. Although she looks a bit apprehensive in the pic, she was, in fact, very pleased to see me, when I wandered into her garden yesterday morning. I called her name, and almost immediately, she rocketed out from behind the garden shed and came bounding up to me, covered in sand and leaves. We’d not seen each other in three years, but it was quite clear that she remembered her old friend and neighbour.

So, the upshot is that I’m back in London, this great city which had been my home for a decade, for the first time since I left for Spain. Due to a fortuitous confluence of circumstances, I’m staying in “my” old flat in East Finchley. Everything’s the same, and everything’s different – a feeling most expats will be able to relate to.

Right now, I’m floating on a rose-tinted cloud of nostalgia and my diary is choc-a-bloc. Sadly, I won’t be able to catch up with everybody in the space of just a week, nor visit all of my favourite eateries… but I’ll have a damn good time trying 🙂


Battling The Night Away

In Peninsular Spanish, to experience “una noche Toledana” means to pass a sleepless night. I’ve never slept particularly well, and moving to Toledo, where the expression was coined, hasn’t exactly helped matters. There are a number of reasons why this city isn’t the most restful in the wee hours: the infernal summer heat, kids bouncing around till 2am (even on a school night), rubbish collections at ungodly hours, the never-ending building renovations. But these are not the only armaments Toledo has in store for torturing its insomniac residents.

Take Sunday night, which was a particularly frazzling one for me, even by Toledanian standards. And for a very Toledanian reason.

I’d dozed off while reading in bed, and came round again just after 1am. So, I put my book away and reached for the light switch, when I noticed a black shadow swoop across the ceiling.

Great. A bloody bat. It had come in through the lounge window and found its way into my bedroom. Toledo is full of bats. At nightfall, they rise over the city roofs like great big storm clouds. This place is a veritable Gotham City (the medieval version). The nocturnal creatures dwell in the hundreds of abandoned buildings, and they are probably the only reason why we’re not up to our ankles in cockroaches (although there are still plenty!).

I’m fond of bats, but not so much when they are hurtling through my bed chamber. I’ve had visits from the odd stray one before, and normally, they enter and leave the flat in the blink of an eye. To facilitate the hapless intruder’s escape, I opened the bedroom window as wide as it would go.

Unfortunately, this bat’s sonar seemed to be malfunctioning. It kept circling round the room like one of these toy aeroplanes that are attached to the centre of the ceiling with a string. It came dangerously close to crashing into my head a few times, so I left the room and peered at the infiltrator from the lounge.

If it would only fuck off through the window or flit back into the lounge, in which case I could just shut the door, and it would eventually dash back out the same way it had come in. I was certainly not going to share my bedroom with a short-circuiting bat!

OK... so it can home in on a miniscule insect in mid-flight, catch and devour it, but it can't make out a great big wide-open window?!?

OK… so it can home in on a miniscule insect in mid-flight, seize and devour it, but it can’t make out a great big wide-open window?!?

After fifteen minutes of this, the bat had finally vanished. Good. I shut the window and went back to bed. Once more I fumbled for the light switch, when the blasted black flutterer was suddenly back in orbit. After taking a little breather in my dressing room, it had gone full-on kamikaze. I let out my girliest shriek and flung open the window (I should perhaps mention that I was completely starkers, it’s too hot to sleep with clothes on), and bolted out of the bedroom.

That moron of a bat continued on its merry loops. Sigh. What to do? Unlike birds, you can’t catch these things, they are way too fast. A bird you can chase, you can tire it out, you can trap it in a towel once it goes to ground. Maybe I could manoeuvre psycho bat towards the window by shooing it gently with a large folded cardboard box?

I was forced to abort the attempt after about five seconds. It only served to make the pesky little critter even more frantic. Not sure what freaked it out more, the flapping of the box or that of my middle-aged-lady boobs.

Maybe she could teach me how to flap elegantly...?

Maybe she could teach me how to flap more elegantly…?

Eventually, it must have been around 2.30am, the wretched creature found the exit, and I collapsed onto my bed.

But my in-flight entertainment wasn’t quite over.

Just as I was about to glide into Morpheus’s arms, I heard it. That unmistakeable high-pitched buzz emitted by the most vexatious insect in the entire world. A freakin’ mozzie!

Well, what did I expect, after having the windows open and the lights on? So, I dragged myself off the woodpile yet again. To my relief, I spotted the little sucker sitting on the wall almost instantly. And I eradicated it. With evil chemicals. It felt good.

And yet, I would not find peace that night. When I finally did manage to get to sleep, I was plagued by a horrendous nightmare about somehow having ended up back in Peterborough, a soulless East Anglian commuter town, where I had once vegetated, enveloped in a grey cloud of drizzle, for an entire decade… the memory of which shall haunt me for infinitely longer than any of those connected to bats or mosquitoes.

My Take On Gibraltar…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by islands, archipelagos and peninsulas. Having been born in mid-continent, a thousand miles from the sea, to parents who were disinclined to travel any farther than the nearest cigarette dispenser, lonely outcrops of lands encircled by thrashing seas seemed just as mysterious and (un)real to me as the junglescapes of the Planet of the Apes.

Strange things happen on islands that nobody can explain, while, at the same time, they explain everything. Who erected those giant stone statues on the Easter Islands? And had Darwin not stopped by the Galapagos and set his beady eyes on a bunch of finches, he’d probably never have come up with the concept of evolution.

When humans settle on islands, things become even more interesting. Their identities are rapidly re-shaped by island life. I’ve perpetually been left confounded, for example, by the firmly held belief of the British, that they are, in fact, not European.

According to Brit gospel, those Europeans inhabiting “The Continent” are a species afflicted either by a lamentable sense of humour deficiency, or by highly questionable timekeeping skills. And sometimes, both. Said Continentals, who try to compensate for their languages’ inherent lack of precision by means of florid gesticulations, have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the British island breed, whose forefathers sprouted from spores that fell from the moral backbone of the heavens onto these mist-shrouded isles.

Applying the island rationale, when you ask a Brit whether Sardinians or Majorcans weren’t European either, or whether Japanese people ought to be considered exclusively Japanese and not Asian as well, you will earn yourself but a blank stare. With a dash of benevolent contempt, if you’re lucky.

Britons are, quite simply, more unique than anyone else. Incidentally, British citizens of Indian or Chinese heritage can both be British and Asian, but those pallid specimens descended from, let’s say, Norman conquerors and Danish seafarers, may be English and British, but definitely NOT European. Such is the mind-warping power of islands.

I’ve an interminable list of insular destinations I desperately want to visit, including Tristan da Cunha, Svalbard, Kamchatka, the Maldives, the Falklands, the Faroe Islands, Christmas Island… I could go on… but seeing that most of these are way beyond my paltry travel budget, I have to take what I can when the opportunity presents itself.

So, a few weeks ago, when the Andalucía trip came about, I was delighted – delighted, I tell you! – to discover on Google Maps that Algeciras, the town where Maria and I were going to be staying, was slap bang right next to Gibraltar.

And a "rock" it is. It even has its own weather! And what weather... what more proof do you need that Gibraltar is, in fact, British!?

Taken from the car as we were crossing the border. “The Rock” even has its own weather! And just look at that grumbling cloud casting doom and gloom over British territory while the rest of Spain is bathed in resplendent sunshine… what more proof does anyone need that Gibraltar is, in fact, part of the UK!?

Gibraltar, a lump of limestone fused onto the southern tip of Spain, a mere 2.3 square miles with 30,000 people squashed onto it. Gibraltar has been under British administration since 1704, which pisses off the Spanish no end. In the last referendum, held in 2002, 98% of Gibraltarians were adamant that they wanted to remain part of the UK rather than cede to geographic realities. The diplomatic skirmishes between the two nations feature prominently in the news here in Spain, and in the UK as well, of course.

View of the town half-way up the rock on our way to visit the monkeys

View of the town half-way up the rock on our way to visit the famous resident monkeys

"May I help you...?

“May I help you…?

"Got some nuts?"

“Got some nuts?”

You can even take one home!

You can even take one home!

I never realised that Gibraltar had caves... St Michael's cave, 300m above sea level, is like a giant cathedrals inside The Rock.

I never realised that Gibraltar’s innards were, in fact, a warren of caves. There’s 150 of them, apparently. St Michael’s cave, 300m above sea level, is like Mother Nature’s giant cathedral.

I half expected the Elven King to step down from that...

I half expected the Elven King to step down from that…

Overhead shot

Overhead shot. Best not cough. Those things could pierce your head…

We passed by some change-of-the-guards malarkey. Lots of stiff marching and intelligible shouting, as usual.

Back in town, we passed by some changing-of-the-guards malarkey. Stiff marching, peering out sternly from underneath slightly-too-big hats, and lots of unintelligible shouting. British tax money well spent.

Gibraltar House

Gibraltar lighthouse. That's Africa in the background.

Gibraltar lighthouse, with the African coast in the background.

So, is Gibraltar more like the UK or more like Spain?

Predictably, it’s neither fish nor fowl. It sports, of course, plenty of “authentic” pubs on every street, with the requisite British food items on the menu, from toad-in-the hole and beef wellington to chicken tikka massala. Listening to people’s accents, there were plenty of ‘real’ Brits milling through the streets and rummaging behind shops’ counters, but there was also a weird kind of indigenous English being flung about.

There are enough British High Street shops to have made me feel, for a fleeing moment, like I was back in the UK, and I got a bit homesick. I stepped into an M&S, and I may have had a minor orgasm somewhere between the chocolate Easter eggs and the hot cross buns. I also spotted a WH Smith and several UK clothing chains, such as Monsoon. But, to my abject disappointment, there was no Boots! I even asked about it in the Tourist Information office. Shaking of heads all round. But there were, I was told, “plenty other chemists”. I’m sorry, but a British town without a Boots is just inconceivable.

I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed by our trip, and I would certainly not label Gibraltar as “fake” or “boring”. It is what it is: Its own microcosm, a confluence of several worlds and a colourful history that has given rise to a way of life that is, well, quintessentially insular.

Gibraltar glows in hazy sunset. Viewed from Algeciras beach.

Gibraltar glows in a hazy sunset. Viewed from Algeciras beach.

Language Matters: Do You Sound Like Yourself?

I whine and I complain. Although I know darn well that there’s no point. The only thing that will fix it is time, patience, and perseverance.

I’m talking about my Spanish.

At this stage, I’m not exactly getting a lot of sympathy either. The consensus among my Spanish friends seems to be that my Spanish is “good”.

That’s certainly very kind of them, I appreciate the thumbs up and a pat on the back just like the next person, but I don’t agree, and it’s got nothing to do with false modesty. What they are doing is comparing their English to my Spanish, and of course my Spanish would be better than their English, because most of my pals have never been to an English speaking country other than for a brief holiday. I, on the other hand, actually live here in Spain and need to use the language on a daily basis. In other words, they are comparing apples to oranges.

I wasn’t really sure how to convey the nature of my discontent succinctly, until, about a month ago, I came across this quote by jazz musician genius Miles Davis:

“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”


Now, I cannot read a musical score, never mind hold a note, but the direct parallel for me as a language learner is quite striking.

What I want, quite simply, is to sound like myself when I communicate in Spanish.

My level of frustration is directly proportional to the discrepancy between what I am able to say and what I want to say. My conversation partners are largely unaware of my internal battle; what they hear coming out of my mouth are (fairly) intelligible sentences. On a good day.

What they don’t hear are all the words and thoughts that died a silent death on the way. I avoid “risky” grammatical constructions, and that great expression I stumbled across in a book last night and which would come in so handy right now, has left the memory banks for good. I sound like I’m cranking up a spluttering, second-hand speech generator by its rusty handle instead of being plugged into the mains.

Those unsuspecting friends of mine remain blissfully ignorant of the colourful diatribes that ricochet through my brain. My unvented sarcasm pools, like congealed blood, at the back of my throat, never reaching the vocal chords. My true personality thrashes around, bound and gagged, in the frayed straightjacket of my linguistic incompetence. Which goes a lot towards explaining, I guess, why people are still willing to hang out with me.

The unnerving – but also exciting! – dimension of this is that I’ve no idea, as yet, what I’ll sound like in Spanish once I do actually manage to sound like myself.

For me, there is no joy in staying on the well-trodden path, in regurgitating prefabricated phrases. What I love is messing around with words. But rather than contorting the Spanish language into a dissonant artifact that is going to grate native speakers’ eardrums to shreds, I’m dying to inject a dash of originality here and there, to break the rules in a way that is only possible once you actually know the rules. To have fun with language is an integral part of my being, and as long as I can’t do that, I’m just not going to sound like myself.

It is difficult to explain this process to someone who hasn’t been through it themselves. Some bi/multilingual people will describe it as “having different personalities in different languages”. This doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head, though. For one, it makes it sound like we have a mental disorder.

To me, fully integrating another language feels more like having a new module, a powerful processor, the mother of a mega-chip, hardwired into your PersonalityCPU. As the new part gradually comes to life, it starts to fuse organically with the existing linguistic units. Once the process is complete, they are quite capable of running independently of each other, while, at the same time, forming a multidirectional information superhighway so much bigger than the sum of its constituent parts. If this sounds like a paradox, that’s because it is. It leaves you forever changed, yet it’s still the same you.

When I look back at the first two monolingual decades of my life, it seems like I’d been cramped into a titchy hovel. Then Project English came along, adding not only a swish kitchen, but a whole new storey to the building.

Right now, I’m constructing a verandah, a conservatory, a patio, a pool – I’m landscaping an entire garden, in fact. As we all know, building works are a messy affair. There’s piles of rubble, mountains of dust, and raw, ploughed-up earth that is going to need smoothing over and planting.

But I’ll get there. In a few years’ time, I’ll be watering my lush flower beds and munching on my freshly harvested strawberries, while chattering to my Spanish neighbours across the fence. And I’ll sound just like myself.


You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com


Urban Language Myths: “You Just Pick It Up!”

“Have you heard? Dave’s moving to Egypt.”
“Does he speak Arabic…?”
“No, but he’s good with languages, he’ll just pick it up!”

I take it we’re all familiar with this conversation.

OK, let me hand it to you straight: A language is not a bunch of keys you’ve just dropped onto the floor or a box of washing powder. Nor is it a venereal disease. You do not “just pick it up” by casually passing through a supermarket or someone’s bodily fluids.

The harsh truth is this: Learning a language is darn hard work. There are days when you just want to hammer your head against a pebbledashed wall.

A widely held – and wildly unhelpful – misconception is that one must possess this magical quality called a “talent for languages” to learn a second language in adulthood.

Let me tell you this: Talent is hugely overrated. To succeed at something, to acquire any kind of advanced skill, what you need is an incentive and a strategy for staying motivated. Unlike passing a driving test, just focusing on the end goal is not enough when it concerns a skill that takes years to attain. The learning process has to be peppered with enough bouts of gratification to see you through the dry stretches.


Apparently, playing with dolls is a lot harder than it seems…

Languages do take a long time to master. The same is true for playing musical instruments, lacemaking, professional level sports, etc. I read once that a bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theatre) puppeteer needs a couple of decades before he can competently operate the puppet’s left leg.

In my observation, the difference between somebody who succeeds at something and someone who doesn’t is down to plain old perseverance and determination. A high aptitude, aka “talent”, might push an individual’s performance above the average, but it’s not a prerequisite, especially where languages are concerned.

I do want to stress this: we all have an innate aptitude for verbal communication, proven by the simple fact that the vast majority of us is able to speak our native language with a fair degree of competence. It’s an inherent human quality,  we are social beings and we have to communicate with others in order to survive.

Yes, sure, the world is littered with freaks. Like uncle Fred, who, despite puffing his way through three packs of cigarillos a day, was as fit as a fiddle until he conked it aged 95 after tripping over the dog bowl. Or that gap-toothed kid next door who can take one swift look at a jar filled with beans and know exactly how many of those you’d need for making a string long enough to circle the moons of Jupiter. Mozart started composing aged five. In the language realm, I’m sure we’ve all gawped in mute impotence at YouTube clips of “hyperpolyglots”, reeling off an interminable list of things they like to do in their bedrooms by themselves in 35 languages.

DavidHaving said that, even those who are considered bonafide geniuses didn’t get to the top of their game by watching Prison Break re-runs. There’s a famous quote by Michelangelo: “if people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”

So, it would seem that he didn’t just tumble out of bed one morning, and, after dispersing his hangover with a hearty breakfast of salted oat gruel and mutton fat (or whatever the Mediterranean equivalent is), took the chisel to a block of marble and, by lunchtime, a luminous David emerged in all his titchy-wienered glory.

Now, let’s bring this back to my original point: No pain, no gain. Sure, if you’re actually living in the country where your target language is spoken, certain things, like the appropriate greeting for the time day, as well as handy vocab for daily living, such as “special offer” and “not drinking water”, do sink in without having to strain one’s grey matter all that much. However, being able to discuss the environmental merits of drip irrigation, or why annual badger culls may not be effective in controlling TB in cattle – or any topic that requires the ability to argue a technical point or opinion to a fair degree of sophistication, are not going become part of one’s conversational repertoire by mere osmosis.

Perpetuating the myth that “you’ll just pick it up” does nobody any favours. It makes those, who’ve not managed to get to grips with a language after several years abroad, feel stupid, when there’s really nothing wrong with them, save for lack of dedication, and it belittles the dogged tenacity of others, who have accomplished their fluency goal by constantly pushing themselves further and further out of their comfort zone.

I’m guessing that at least three quarters of the people who stop by my blog regularly have first-hand experience with this, or some sort of an opinion at least, and I would sure love to hear what you have to say. I’m still developing my (half-baked) theories, as you can probably tell. I hereby declare the comments section (indefinitely!) open. Get to it! 🙂

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…

Language Confusion Buster: ‘Dried Fruit’ Is Not What You May Think It Is

On my arrival in Spain, I noticed that many local shops featured the words “Frutos Secos”, which, directly translated, means ‘dried fruit’, on their signage. It did make me wonder whether dried fruit was the equivalent of hot cakes in Spain, or why else would a little shop keeper spend his hard earned money on advertising this on his (surely quite expensive) shop sign? Here’s a corner shop close to my house in Toledo:

Whatch out! This is the most expensive corner shop in the Western hemisphere. Do not go in there. Ever. Not even for an emergency pack of chewing gum. You'll come out with the shirt ripped off your bleedin' back, missing an arm and a leg. (O un riñon, si eres español.)

Whatch out! This is the most expensive corner shop in the Western hemisphere. Do not go in there. Ever. Not even for an emergency pack of chewing gum. You’ll come out with the shirt ripped off your bleedin’ back, missing an arm and a leg. (O un riñon, si eres español.)

But my bafflement over dried fruits’ powers of customer attraction isn’t really what I was going to talk about. (Besides, I’ve since figured out that “Frutos Secos” is a generic term for this kind or establishment, to which, in the UK, we’d refer to as a “corner shop”.) So, as I discovered a few months down the line, frutos secos are not what an English (or a German) speaker would naturally assume them to be, i.e. this stuff:

DriedFruitNo, for a Spanish speaker, frutos secos is this:


Dried fruit, it turns out, is “fruta deshidratada”, which, at least, is not totally counter-intuitive.

The conundrum was not quite resolved, however. There was yet another twist in store for me.

If frutos secos means nuts, I wondered, I  what the hell are “nueces”?? I I took that to signify nuts. Nuez/Nueces sounds just like nut/nuts and Nuss/Nüsse in English and German, respectively.

Una nuez

Una nuez

Well, it turns out that nueces, in fact, are walnuts, and not nuts in general. Up to that point, I’d been referring to all kinds of nuts as nueces. Ooops.

As to the difference between fruto and fruta: Fruta is what you will find in a fruit bowl, while fruto is a more general term describing not only nuts and inedible fruits produced by all manner of plants, but also the “fruits” of one’s labours (el fruto de tus labores), the fruit of Mary’s blessed womb aka Jesus (el fruto de tu vientre), etc.

Have you been using a word in another language incorrectly for ages, only to discover much later that it was, in fact, one of those treacherous ‘false friends’?

Up For Contemplation: Cultural Differences In Reading Habits

The most fascinating thing about blogging, without a shred of a doubt, is other blogs. Populating every nook and cranny of this globe, there are REAL people willing to share their view of the world with you. Often, a seemingly mundane snippet torn from their every-day life provides enough reflective fodder to keep my cogs spinning for a week.

An example of this is the post below, published by Eastraveller. It offers an insight, which goes some way towards explaining her observation that few people in the Middle East appear to be reading books simply for fun.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Three Bad Boys Who Gave Reading A Bad Name – Posted by Eastraveller on 11 March 2013

I am an obsessive reader. I read everything I can get my hands (or eyes) on. 

I suffer withdrawal symptoms when I haven’t got enough reading matter at hand (and despite being a reading addict I am quite selective about what I like to read, which makes my daily foraging task doubly difficult). 

When I first came to the Middle East my confessions on the subject were met with suspicion.

Hello! What are you doing?

I’m reading a book.


It soon became apparent that most of my my bright, charming, lovely new friends hated it with the same passion I hated chemistry in school- and as I came to realise, for pretty much the same reasons: incomprehensible, deadly boring stuff somebody forces upon you for no obvious benefit. As filled with pleasure as a fork in the eye.  

A young Syrian guy I know went to London and he came back full of praise and awe. Everything was so beautiful, he said, but there was one thing I didn’t understand: people read everywhere, on the tube, train, side of the road, cafe, you name it. His mate listened to this account in disbelief, then said: “You must have been in a university district of some sort,  they were probably studying for an exam.”

Every time reading comes up as an entertainment option people shudder in horror. 

So when I said to my inner detective, dear Watson, we must get to the bottom of this, here’s what he found: 

1. There are two Arabic languages. There is Fusha (classical Arabic), the language of books, university lectures, news, serious stuff. And there is colloquial Arabic, which people speak every day and which, by some accounts, bears as much resemblance to Fusha as Dutch does to German. 

Now if you or I had to read the latest Nick Hornby in the language of Beowulf, we’d probably also find that a type of torture. Students are made to read a lot in school and all of it is in a difficult (though beautiful and poetic) language they don’t speak. No wonder the memory of it all is akin to my chemistry nightmares.

I know somebody who needed private tutoring during university to cope with the language of the courses. Eventually, he decided it would be easier to just switch to English.  

2. Reading is seen as a solitary occupation. You basically sit and read and ignore the rest of the world. Now here this is a big no no. The social structure of big families with very strong ties, in permanent verbal contact, means you are very rarely on your own. 

It would be supremely rude of you to sit in a corner engulfed in Pride and Prejudice while Uncle Ahmad is relaying the latest news of your cousin. And if you are on the bus alone, your phone rings every 2 minutes for much of the same, so no time at all to open that Orhan Pamuk novel you thought you might like. 

Obviously, this is a huge generalisation. There are people who love to read, who master the two languages (and more) with an intellectual ease that makes me green with envy. 

But for those who don’t, I have a suspicion that taking the combined baddies of Forced, Solitary and Hard out of the reading would make it fly.

Book clubs, dialogues, reading circles, a spoken follow up to anything you read would just inject life in its tired veins. Take the word of a reading junkie:)

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

PoppyReading this post sparked off a train of thought, which made me reflect on my own experience of growing up in a region where the local dialect differs considerably from the ‘official’ standard version of the national language.

Now, I know more about soil composition on Mars than I do about the culture of any Middle Eastern country, so the validity of the comparison I’m drawing here is, at best, questionable.

As you may have guessed, I love reading. It’s the only thing that kept me from chewing off my own toes during my teenage years, spent languishing in a tiny Bavarian village.

Bavaria is a region (and a state) of Germany where Bavarian, a dialect of German that is largely unintelligible to other Germans, is spoken. It’s still German, but it diverges, on occasions quite significantly, in pronunciation and vocabulary from standard High German (Hochdeutsch).

All Bavarians understand and (except perhaps for some elderly people living in rural areas) also speak Hochdeutsch; it’s the language of education, the media, literature, etc. Bavarian, by contrast, is not a written language, although there are a handful of authors, notably Ludwig Thoma, who have authored books in Bavarian, the latter with notable literary success.

I digress – the main point I’m trying to get at is that Bavarians read books just like Germans from other parts of the country. Bavarian is what you speak at home, with your friends, with your (Bavarian) work colleagues. Being a native Bavarian speaker is in no way detrimental one’s ability to understand and enjoy material produced in Hochdeutsch, or, heaven forbid, receiving an education. Bavaria is home to Siemens, BMW and Audi. It is, in fact, the most prosperous of all German states, despite its natives talking funny and having a reputation in other parts of the country of being…erm… let’s say, a tad eccentric.

I’m not going to pretend that I have even a sliver of a clue as to what degree the ‘standard’ Arabic used in written communication and news casts deviates from the versions spoken by people in the street, but I find the idea, that the two are light years removed from each other, disturbing. By the sounds of it, it leaves the average person effectively cut off, not only from education, but from communicating with anyone outside of their locale…?

This begs the question: Why isn’t there a thriving publishing industry in Middle Eastern countries churning out everything from leisure time reading (like novels etc) to educational material that people can actually understand and, even more importantly, enjoy? Is it because Middle Eastern economies are, by and large, underdeveloped with many ordinary people struggling to meet basic needs and hence, reading (for pleasure or otherwise) is way down on their list of priorities? And could this maybe be due to a lack of accessible education…? Who stands to benefit from this state of affairs if not the ruling classes, who, ironically, send their kids abroad to be schooled…?

So many questions…

[Here is a link to Eastraveller’s blog]