Sunday, 19 December 2010

5 Things to Conquer As an Expat

1. Learning the Language In my view, coming to grips with the language of your adopted country is the most important step towards successful integration. You will feel a perpetual outsider if you're struggling for words (say when shopping at a market), aren't able to reply to a friendly remark by a neighbour, or have trouble understanding numbers (makes paying so much more difficult!) Learning a language is fun and it is also an excellent way of getting to know people (fellow foreigners as pupils, or natives as teachers might be your first contacts.)

2. Marginalisation There is no way around this. Every expat will know the feeling of being an outsider. This can either be self-inflicted - because you "feel" you can't be the person you used to be at home (because of linguistic and cultural inhibitions) or it could be that as a foreigner you are made to feel you don't quite belong. It's important to accept those feelings as necessary stepping stones; there's little you can do about it. Marginalisation, especially during the first year, say, is just part of the process. Accept it as a stage.

3. Homesickness
This is the bread and butter of expat life. After all, you've left friends and family behind.Your new country doesn't (seem to) offer the same comforts as home. You feel alienated, alone and awkward. Accept that there is nothing wrong with homesickness but try not to wallow in it. It's probably not a good idea to listen to your favourite familiar tune while reading a letter from your mum, or looking through childhood snaps... Go for walks, look at sites, visit a museum (all visual rather based on language) and try to enjoy your new surroundings for what they have to offer. Another good way of conquering homesickness is taking photos, it helps to make you feel in charge.

4. A (temporary) feeling of dislike of your new country
Believe me, we've all been there! You feel you can't take it anymore, the customs, the people, the language, the weather, the rudeness, the traffic - whatever it may be, it will be powerful, all-encompassing loathing of "the other".Simply because it isn't home, there will be a period where you'll be convinced your new surroundings are inferior. Or that you just "have" to leave. Again, I would say this is a necessary stage you have to fight your way through. There will come a morning when you'll be enchanted by the light, a stranger will smile at you or you accomplish a whole sentence in your new language.

5.Your shyness
It's natural to be shy when you're a stranger. Potentially, a lot of things can go wrong. You don't know your way round - literally and culturally. But try not to be too self-aware and inhibited. People will cut you a lot of slack as a foreigner. There's no need to completely blend in, no need to get everything right. Be yourself, smile, speak the language (however inadequately) and try to make as many contacts you possibly can.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Expat Life -Examples of What to Negotiate When Living Abroad

Expat issues have become a bit of a free for all lately. We're all expats now -people who own an indebted building site in Spain, people with a relative in Australia that they sometimes stay with get the drift. But being an expatriate is not just about fuelling a cottage industry of "relocation advisers", intercultural specialists" and "localization experts". Living in a foreign country, whether by choice or forced to by circumstance is first and foremost a huge upheaval - actual and psychological. It is a cultural adventure - you need to be both flexible and grounded. And not everybody will be able to handle it.

Speaking personally , almost my first memory is of living abroad (in Holland) but at the same time being conscious of the fact that this wasn't "home". I was small enough to adapt quickly, make friends and pick up the language. Which brings me to my first focus point.

- Without wanting to get into a philospohical discussion how language constitutes being and personality (which it undoubtedly does) being able to talk the language of one's adopted country is the most important element of settling in. Especially in the beginning when things have to be sorted, not being able to communicate is a nightmare. Command of the language takes away the feeling of being regarded as an outsider. To me that is the most important safeguard against cultural alienation

Local culture
- I am often amazed when I hear of British people moving to countries which will feel utterly alien to them. At the height of the property speculation boom lots of people moved to countries like Bulgaria or Hungary to make the most of low property prices. I would dearly love to have a progress update of what happened to those enterprising souls! Take Hungary, of which (being part Hungarian) I am half-way competent to talk about. A) The language is extremely difficult to master. B) Notions of Hungarian history, ethnic complexities, political alliances and violent national dislikes feed into daily life and virtual any aspect of its society. I would think it extremely unlikely that (apart from specialists) any British subject would have the background, cultural empathy and ability to adapt easily to such a cauldron of cultural complexity.

And Hungary is just one example; I would imagine countries like say Turkey, Portugal, or even southern Italy to be equally challenging to the newcomer (and these are all still in the Western hemisphere)

The weather
- trivial as it may sound, the weather in your new country can be a huge hurdle in the adaptation process. Heat, cold (associated darkness) or extreme hunidity are physically challenging and can literally make life difficult for the prospective expat. Again, speaking personally, I found living in Scotland challengingfor that reason. It actually turned out to be a deal-breaker as I was not prepared to change my life totally and settle into a permanent winter existence.

Fashion - That's not just an ephemeral phenomenon, it's a cultural signifier, and a very tricky one at that. Two examples: 1. I remember wearing a flowery summer dress in Rome, and feeling totally self-conscious - everybody else was wearing sharply-tailored clothes. 2. My husband spent some time working in an an advertising agency in New York, and found the dress code totally at odds with European practice (Americans not favouring the creative look.) Again, awareness here is key. British fashion, for example, is fairly out of kilter with European main stream dressing; lots of British people in France, say, are simply not aware of the fact that the way they dress is a major obstacle to being taken seriously there.

- Even the most a-political person will get sucked into some of their new country's issues. The way women are treated and expected to act (especially in southern or Islamic countries), tolerance towards foreigners (whether you thought of yourself as belonging to that group or not: Now you've become one!), levels of poverty and the country's attitude towards it ... these are all issues far-removed from party-politics, yet you will have to deal with them afresh in a new country.

Those are just a few of the challenges expats encounter on a day-to-day basis. I would love to hear what were/are your major issues as an expat and what you personally found challenging.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Dialects and Tribalism -Time for a Re-Think?

Let me put my cards on the table: I dislike dialects. They are ugly, incomprehensible, and yokellish. In the past year, I've lived in two areas of two different countries which both specialise in local lingos that are pretty incomprehensible to outsiders (and in my view both slightly unattractive) - Scotland and Bavaria. Actually, that very incomprehensibility is much more of a problem to the natives themselves than to an outsider. They are victims of their own presumed exclusivity. Imagine a Bavarian teacher applying for a job in Hamburg - and the unnecessary misery they'd be creating for themselves.

Obviously I am aware of the decade-long discussion about the beauty, fairness and real-ness of local dialects, as opposed to the soullessness, dirigism, and enforced standardization lurking behind a universally comprehensible language. But there is nothing liberating or particularly individualistic in speaking a heavily accented language not shared by other people. It is a sure-fire way to marginalise yourself. Not because of any class-stigma attached, simply because other speakers find it a) difficult to comprehend b) possibly ugly c)possibly culturally offensive.

In Germany, this is merely cause for good-natured, if tedious banter; in Britain however, where tribalism and a dangerous "pride" in one's (arbitrary)
locale is so often a cause for aggression and prejudice this is a different and dangerous matter. Especially in the UK I would therefore be totally in favour of a re-introduction of a standardized language. This need not be one associated with dominatory forcces like public schools. When Italy first established itself as a unified state, Florentine dialect was consensually adopted as the nation's language. Something similar could be done in Britain. What I certainly consider a totally wrong move is the encouraging of dialectical aberrations by state institutions, such as conducting lessons in Scottish dialect ( not: Gaelic).

Dialects have ceased to be comedy material. In an increasingly tribal society (which in itself is a worrying development) they are a potential - and unnecessary -powder keg.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Non-Whites in Scotland

*)I should make it clear that whenI mention "race" I am not referring to the topic of "Anyone But England", i.e. some spurious and pathetic tribal rivalry on the football terrace. I mean visibly defineable characteristics which might induce prejudicial reactions from the locally prevalent majority. ('differance')

Living in Scotland is in many ways like living in a post-war society (dilapidation, social deprivation, poor housing, visible poverty, widespread health problems due to various forms of malnutrition etc.) But what makes living there very strange, unreal and out of touch with present times, is the almost exclusive white make-up of the population. Why is it that a whole part of Britain is ethnically/racially un-mixed?

"It is well known that black and ethnic minority communities in Scotland are faced with various problems such as: under representation, institutional racism, lack of coordination, lack of resources and disadvantages at various levels (health, housing, employment and education). This is coupled by a lack of understanding about the diversity of the black and ethnic minority communities in Scotland and lack of effective consultation and research work."

This is a quote from a Scottish Government publication.

I lived in Scotland for exactly one year. Time enough to be an observer. The government has obviously got the right (-on) intentions. No shortage, in fact a barrage, of well-meaning bumf, just like on every other issue (alcoholism, obesity, anti-smoking) so on race. But where are the people they are actually talking about? Where are blacks, the people from the Indian sub-continent? Where is anybody who's not white? Simple answer: Not there.

98.19% of Scotland is white. The biggest ethnic group are Pakistanis (0.63%) Blacks constitute a whopping 0.16% of the Scottish population. When you live there, you do not come across non-white people in your daily life. There was one black cashier at M&S, I remember that, in no other shop did I ever see a non-white person working (or shopping, for that matter.) I had some insight into the creative industry - to the best of my knowledge, there was no non-white person working in advertising or PR in Edinburgh (The capital, as well as the capital of the creative industry.) Of the 47 members of the SNP in Holyrood not a single one is from a non-white background.

Despite the constant barrage of well-intended (and taxpayer-funded) government declaration on racial equality, I cannot see this happening very easily. Otherness of any kind is met with total disapproval in Scottish society. It can only be remedied by total and complete adoption of anything Scottish. Neutrality is not allowed. Scottish supremacy would have to be reiterated at any opportunity, not as a one-off lipservice, but for ever, at all times. Scottish speech patterns and habits would have to be religiously adhered to. Any outsider is pressurised into that sort of behaviour. The issue of skin-colour would, however, remain and woud, in my experience, be insurmountable. In a middle-class environment it might just about be conceivable - at the price of being totally ignored, blanked and unintegrated. What would happen if a black person moved to one of the estates which are exclusively white-Scottish, and where national "pride" is the only currency, is open to debate.

Based on my observations and insights in Scotland, I can unfortunately not come up with an encouraging and workable model for racial integration. Even constant government reminders (in the form of adverts, admonition, factsheets, flyers etc.) will not break through the passive stone-walling of a society where any outsider is still met with suspicion and potential aggression.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

English? Na klar!

There are very few Germans who would not maintain that they speak fluent English. And indeed, English is everywhere - music, films, social media, brands, youth culture... you name it, it's in English. But when it comes to actually speaking English, Germans are - whether they like it or not - quite shockingly bad at it. Of course, if you go there as a tourist, you're probably quite happy that almost everybody has a smattering of your language, and you won't find yourself totally lost. But proper, idiomatic and proficient speaking of English is almost totally absent. I've been paying quite close attention to this phenomenon since I moved here, and have identified what are, in my mind, the most obvious weaknesses.

1. Pronunication. Only the other day I heard somebody say "Latin Lover" in typically German pronunciation . It sounded like thiss "Lett-hinn luffa". Most Germans don't make any effort to pronounce English as it should be. Annoyingly, they often also transport their own local dialect into the foreign language, so you end up with Swabian English, Berlin English etc.

2. Un-idoimatic use of language. Germans seem to be blissfully unaware of the fact that English is perhaps the most idiomatic language in the world. You simply can't go about in your own way and disregard idioms. It ends up sounding clumsy and naive, and that unfortunately, is mostly the impression created when Germans speak English.

3. Treating English as if it was German. Probably the gravest sin, and probably responsible why Germans think they can easily deal with the language: Just translate word by word and you end up with... gibberish. A good example I overheard the other day: "It is now nice since two days, so I go out." Err? There is also a total disregard for tenses (esp. Present Perfect to indicate an on-going state of affairs and Past Continuous which doesn't exist in German.)

I think there is great scope for improved English teaching at German schools and university. It should be a prerequisite that English teachers have spent a considerable amount of time in an English-speaking country. I do believe it's worth learning to speak a language properly (i..e as native speakers handle it) and not in some pidginified version.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Twitter - Is It Time to Quit?

First there were the spammers, now there are the bores.

If you think that quite a polemical statement, hear me out. WWhen I first started on Twitter, it was like a new world opening up. The Social Media World. I suddenly had access to ideas, concepts, people, blogs and unprecedented creativity. In my first 6 months on Twitter I joined two campaigns, uncovered a spy (no, really!) got two job offers, took part in a collaborative history project, wrote articles for an e-paper, and was generally overawed how Twitter could actively and tangibly change my life.

Maybe I didn't look too closely, or it all happened very stealthiliy.. but it all seems very different now. Has Twitter reverted to type? Is it becoming a catchment area for the terminally bored? Foursquare messages abound, evenings seem to be taken up by chatroom-like conversations with feeble jokes about too much alcohol and page-long farewells "Nite Nite R", "Sleep tight Hon", "Dont let the bed bugs bite xx" and so on and so on until it's time to start all over again in this tedious and pointless routine.

Social Media? Don't kid yourself! Turf wars, pettily observed rules "I will only RT their blog post if they RT mine" spoil the concept and take the fun out of it. Some people get book deals or other publicity through Twitter - this is then cattily discussed and dissected "That's only because..." All very undignified and more akin to office politics then the big wide world of a new web generation!
My personal disenchantment became tangible when a middle-aged matron started jealously policing my access to her partner - someone I'd so far considered my social media guide. Another strand cut off. The whole thing is now more like a scene from a suburban meantown rather than a multi-lateral engagement platform.

Maybe it's me,maybe it's come full-cirlcle. Maybe it's time to quit, and look elsewhere for those once so prevalent creative impulse. Cause one thing's for sure -I don't want to be part of a jealous chatroom crowd.

Friday, 10 September 2010

My Dutch is perfect... My Dutch is non-existent

If you read my posts regularly.... or occasionally, you will know that I have a special interest in languages. As I've said before there probably isn't a European language I haven't at one stage or other studied, started to learn, or at least examined the structure of. It's an obsession, I can't help it!

One language, however, I've never studied is Dutch. I have a funny relationship with that language that many people assume is so close to both German and English (my 2 "perfect" languages) - but which really is full of faux amis, and quite a treacherous little number.

A funny relationship because on the one hand I'm ultra-perfect in it: My pronunciation is pitch-perfect and I defy anyone to conclude that wasn't born and bred in Haarlem when I read out a piece of text. Or speak it. Albeit the latter with an enormously restricted vocabulary, and preferably revolving round ball games, dolls, and "mens-erger-je-niet".

Why? Because I grew up in Holland, learnt the language solely by picking it up orally from our neighbours, especially their two daughters who were my best friends.

Other than that, my Dutch is non-existent. I cannot hold a normal adult conversation. I cannot spell at all in Dutch, I've never written a single sentence. It is a mystery to me how even the most ordinary greeting would be spelt (goej morgen? goeje avond? goed middag?.. something like that, but don't quote me on it!)

It always struck me as a bit unusual that you can feel utterly familiar with a language, and yet totally not know it.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

From Edinburgh to Munich - A Personal Blog

I'm not a great one for writing
personal blogs. I distrust their facile, almost masturbatory presentationism: Look this is my house, my cat, my husband, mybrilliant kids who (together with 99.8 percent of the others) got brilliantGCSE results etc. etc., and I dislike the hypocritical comments even more "Oh X,thanks for sharing, my kids are equally gifted, my house just as big...) There is something HyacinthBouquet-ish about personal blogs, and I certainly don't want to be associated with that.

But there it is, I'm writing one. If only as I thought a little explaining might be in order.

I've recently moved from a very northern town (Edinburgh) to quite a southern one (Munich). It's not actually that far: 827 miles - can this be quite right? It certainly feels like a totally different planet.

Why did you do that, a lot of people have asked me. Maybe assuming I was some quirky traveller who tried out weird and wonderful locations, decided they weren't quite right, and then moved on.

Well not quite. The reality is a little more prosaic, and it is one I share with lots of people in the modern world. I am a corporate spouse, as the official parlance goes. And wherever my husband's job requires us to go, I will move.

So I didn't choose Paris, London or Frankfurt, where we lived in the past. I did not choose Scotland, and neither did I choose to live in Munich. I just try and get on with what's thrown at me as best I can.

The other thing that people have said to me recently about my move is "You must be elated, you're going back home". Home? Hmm. Most of you will probably know Munich better than I do. I've been here a few times as a tourist, but that's about it. Even in the wider frame, it's not homeby any stretch of the imagination. I was brought up in Holland and spent my formative years in England. Most of my family are in England. To be honest, I couldn't say where my "home" is. I've moved about so much, somewhere amongst the boxes, the new flats, and new experiences, the concept must have got lost.

Still, I wouldn't want it any other way. I'm not ready to call a place my home, and settle there for good. I'm glad that I have the opportunity to try out new locations, tune my intercultural antennae, and maybe find out, one day, where I'd really like to live.

Meanwhile thank you for sharing the journey!

Monday, 19 July 2010

5 Trend-Predictions for the UK

The situation in Britain is currently a bit like in an aeroplane after a bumpy flight: Passengers are a bit fed up, and had enough but feel that altogether it hasn't been too bad. On comes the voice of the captain, warning them that NOW "please fasten seat belts, we're in for some turbulence". Collective sigh goes through the cabin.In the light of the up-coming budget cuts I've been canvassing people, looked at Social Media behaviour and evaluated newspaper articles. On that basis, I have formulated 5 trends which I think will become relevant in the coming months, heading up to April 2011 when most of the cuts will have been implemented.

1. Retrenchment

This is a sort of meta-trend which will influence and spin a lot of others.
Currently, the best way to monitor this trend is on Social Media sites like Twitter. People in the UK are boosting their accounts with local followers. Where somebody say 6 months ago had 300 followers from all over the world, they now have 600 with the on-top influx made up of followers from their home town/region. This makes perfect sense as people are huddling together not just for comfort, but for real and tangible benefits. Business contacts, future referees, people with clout in the ever shrinking job market will prove useful when the going gets tough. Also,bartering services and skills will make an awful lot of sense when applied locally.

2. Going loco

For some time now, people have preferred to holiday in Britain ratherthan go abroad. Cost, currency fluctuations and travel disruption saw to this. In future, this tend will become a lot stronger. Not just abroad will hit the dust, but also any far-flung UK destination, like Scotland or Cornwall. Petrol costs, and the unaffordable insecurity of whether a costly holiday will work out (weather, accommodation etc.) It is simply too risky to travel for hundreds of miles, spending hundreds of pounds just to find out you don't like what you see. Lots of people I spoke to have confirmed this trend, and have already made bookings far more locally, i.e. directly in their area. For example, local campsites in Essex for Londoners, will definitely see a business increase.

3. Adieu Foodies
Eating out in restaurants is expensive, and not always as pleasurable as hoped for. Few families in future will be prepared to take this financial risk, esp. with high prices and increased VAT. But not just restaurants, food in general will feel the pinch. This week, Waitrose has pre-emptively and quietly increased its prices, especially for pre-prepared food. As soon as families will feel the pinch, anything outlandish, experimental or simply too expensive will fall by the wayside. Experimenting will no longer be a part of eating/cooking. Faddish recipes and unknown ingredients will be out, traditional cooking methods and homely, cheap meals will be in. Already, food magazines are losing readers by droves. People are playing it very safe. Baking (esp. cupcakes which cost virtually nothing to make, but look pretty) is a major trend. Stews, one-posts etc. which can be re-heated on several occasions do not allow for the foodie-allure of the past decade.

4. Migration

This time round, migration will also be affected by the spirit of "no experimenting". People will not be prepared to risk their whole livelihood by, say, emigrating to the US to make their fortune. Migration from economically disadvantaged areas like Scotland or Northern Ireland will be a lot more "local" thereby minimising cost and risk. "Nearby" better-off places like Newcastle (for Scots) , or Liverpool for NI, will take the brunt of inner-British "migrants". If it doesn't work out, people can always go back. Also, cultural alienation and the feeling of being looked-down upon will be minimised if your background and values are still similar. Whilst people will still be hoping to do better for themselves, the are no longer prepared to seek a fortune in a totally alien environment and simply hope for the best.

5. Vote Labour

Already, people are criticising the areas where budget cuts are deemed necessary. Regional dissatisfaction will also increase ("Why us"?) The natural receptacle for this discontent will be the opposition Labour party which should see a huge increase in membership and support. Already, Labour is organising vox pop protest forums on Social Media. In general, people will feel that "something will have to be done" to raise their voice against a cut-trigger-happy government, especially when those cuts will hit targets that can easily be seen as "unfair", i. e. victimising the already disadvantaged (the elderly, poorer areas etc.)Voicing their opposition will need to be channelled, and the Labour party will be there to accommodate the vast numbers of dissenters.

I will continue monitoring social and cultural fluctuations over the coming months, and will be publishing further selected trends for specific areas. If you have any comments, I'd be most willing to incorporate them in what will become a major UK lifestyle study.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

On Swearing

A couple of times, recently, I got told off for swearing. It wasn't actually swearing though - I'd used the word "wanker" - so in the parlance of the anti-swearing brigade that should be called "bad language" I suppose.

I have to admit I always found people who go "tut tut" or "language please", or suck their teeth on hearing a swear word slightly comical. "Wash your mouth out with soap", they say, and I just want to say "oh do get out more".

Because that is exactly the point -the very people who are "ever so sensitive" when it comes to swearing - and do I detect a slight Northern bias there - blithely overlook the sordidness of a Friday night culture in all its obscene glory - mooning blokes, obscenely dressed women, drunken behaviour of the most objectionable and shameless sort etc etc. -but say "Fuck", and they react like lace-capped spinsters in a Victorian village.
Indeed I find there is something weirdly camp in their utter shockedness, their hurt and pained looks, and their slightly pitying but ultimately forgiving look.

Coming back to the Northern topic, I wonder if there is something in Methodist circles that explicitly forbids swearing. I suppose there must be, but I don't understand the reason. "Don't use the name of the Lord in vain" - yes from a religious point that makes sense (this also exists in Catholicism) and I do understand that religious people don't want to listen to "In God's name..." or "For Christ's sake". But that is something entirely different from saying "shit", or "fuck".
Maybe it is a way of expressing to the world how refined you are. That you take offence at coarse language. I think that comes closer to the truth, and also explains the slightly comical- old-maidish impression those people make. One feels a bit sorry for them because their ruse of fake sophistication didn't work.

What I'm not so keen on, though, is their assumption that everybody shares those values, may just have temporarily forgotten, and therefore needs "reminding", and if that doesn't help, a firm telling-off. It' sno longer common practice to go round telling people what's what in your books, and assume other will take kindly to your viewpoint.

My own background for example (Southern, Catholic, middle-class) does not negatively sanction swearing/bad language. I don't therefore quite see why I should adhere to "standards" that are neither commonly accepted nor at all aspirational.
I presume they would say: I feel offended by swearing and bad language. Well, apart from thinking, it's more a case of petulant prissyness, everybody in a multi-cultural society has to put up with a degree of "offense". Muslim people feel offended by the way we dress here, but they don't go round telling people off. Upper-class people and the aristocracy have always sworn, so has the working-class. It's just the "refoined" bit in the lower echelons in the middle that thinks they have to teach the world good manners. And good manners in their books, is using "nice" language.

It's a pity that they end up with a comedy vocabulary "Pardon my French" and "You naughty little so-and-so" they say.
Maybe it's time to realise that not everybody shares either your background, nor your values. And that the times where you could claim cultural superiority, lead the way, and show people the errors of THEIR ways are definitely over. Soap, please!

Monday, 21 June 2010

Rich Pickings for the Interculturalist

These are heady days for anybody interested in intercultural issues – starting with BP's various gaffes, which are not just PR disasters but show a lack of cross-cultural understanding…. and then the various on-goings with the England football team that are not just a sporting issue but indicate a breakdown in inter-European discourse.


Can anybody understand each other- even when they're allegedly speaking the same language? It seemed communication was almost at breaking-point when BP's Tony Hayward testified at the US congress this week. US governors from Southerrn States - well spoken and immaculately prepared - were reduced to apoplectic rage, shouting "Yes or No, Mr. Hayward???" when once again British Hayward proferred an "Oim afraid I can't tell you that" response, or tried hedging with "Oi believe that's the case". These weren't just the prevarications drilled into him by Brunswick PR. Almost every other language (certainly European) uses the words "yes" for affirmation and "No" for dissent. Not so British English - a veritable pitfall for anybody who didn't grow up with it. Say "No thank you" (which sounds polite enough to most ears) to the offer of a cup of tea, and you're classified as rude in England. "Very kind, but I think I'm alright for the moment." would be the correct response. Another example – in British English, it’s fine to say “I think so, yes” when what is meant is “yes”, whereas to many other cultures it sounds like a statement of uncertainty. Or indeed obfuscation. Americans do not share this habit or passion for circumlocution. To them, a refusal to answer yes or no smacks of obfuscation and weaselliness. Brunswick PR would have been well advised to look into this.

The England Team and Fabby-o Capello

Another intercultural hot spot is the on-going uneasiness between the England football manager Fabio Capello and his team. This is fascinating as again a linguistic culture-clash becomes a problem of national concern. Maybe it was never a good idea to employ a manager who could not speak a word of English when he started, and is only vaguely beginning to make himself understood now. It seems quite incomprehensible how he manages to convey intricate issues (well ok, we are talking football)... But that is purely a language issue and not an intercultural one. The expectations of an unrelenting, seemingly autocratic Italian used to hierarchical structures in 1970's Italian club culture sit uneasily with an oafish (and to many Brits equally incomprehensible) Rooney, say. Peevishness, resentment, frustrated blokeishness ("We always just sat in our rooms", J.Terry) form an explosive alliance which obviously does not bring out the best in everybody. As one football commentator put it "The squad thought he was different".


Wayne Rooney is also an interesting intercultural phenomenon, although this time it's unrelated to language. In England, Rooney enjoys near-messianic cult-status amongst broad swathes of the population. The image of him draped in a St George's flag has become iconic. Foreigners however, just see him as an un-prepossessing, slightly flabby teenager who rants and grunts at fans. Rooney is so much the epitome of what English football is all about - the will to win, to crusade and conquer, pride in wearing the shirt, an unintellectual approach to the point of oafishness… that his image will never translate into any other culture. Which guarantees two things: Rooney will be "England til he dies", as no European football club would want to be saddled with him; and secondly that he will never be a marketing torch-bearer for international football, like say David Beckham.

Interculturalism has so many fascinating aspects, but it all depends on your perspective: Like an Australian friend commented the other day when told about all the undercurrents and likes and dislikes between nations. "You Europeans are funny".

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Euro - A Non-British View

According to the British press, the Euro hardly exists anymore. European countries - or as they like to call it - the "Eurozone" are destitute, people staging angry protests, imploring their leaders to abolish the Euro. I have a few things to say about that.

First of all, Europe is not a zone. Just because Britain would not (or could not - remember those desperate John Major days when even hyper-interst inflation would not help) join in, does not make anybody else a "zone". It's like Cuba calling the US the "Democracy-zone".

Secondly, more importantly, and probably totally outside the British "zone" of imagination: Europe isn't a sort of Poundstretcher shop where you go if you want something cheap. Europe is first and foremost a dream. Why should "The United States of Europe" be less feasible than the "United States of America", the beloved and only wished-for partner Britons would be happy with. (Shame, the US is both broke, and doesn't give a hoot about Britain.) So, why is "The United States of Europe" such anathema? "Oh, it would never work... the countries are too different". I see, but Florida and Alaska are quite similar are they? Red Necks in Minnesota really gel with New York metropolitans, do they? So that's not it. It is of course, as ever the fear of a powerful Germany. The perma-bind of British thinking that finds it impossible to get beyond the mindset of the Yalta conference.

Few memories are more off-putting than a hysterical Margaret Thatcher screeching "No, no, no". Even the unspeakable Ian Paisley had more dignity with his infamous "Ulster says no"slogan.

But why always say "No" to everything which doesn't automatically translate into some grubby "And now we're quids in" thinking? Britain's attitude to the Euro is unfortunately typical of its general world-view. Like suspicious peasants who hate anything that smacks of idealism and has an intellectual underpinning, they nevertheless would like to go on a profiteering spree. When it looked as if the uniquely strange British housing market - with its hyper-inflated prices for something objectively worthless - could be extended into the Eurozone, Brits were not above to doing a few deals. Busloads of wannabe-Euro landlords turned up in far-flung countries like Bulgaria, gobbling up off-plan housing that never materialized. British pensioners flocked to bungalows in Spain, hoping to make a killing via the Euro. A very British way to participate at the wrong end of something which is outside their grasp.

So the Euro is going through a difficult patch? So maybe it could have been forseen that Greece and Ireland didn't have the economic muscle of Germany and France? Big deal. Big intellectual insight. The Euro - being a common European currency is the first step towards a united, peaceful, and non-antagonistic Europe. A Europe without squabbling, internecine warfare, and tribalism - all of which are not just wrecking Britain atmospherically, but are also responsible for its abysmal economic performance. Saying "No" to everything is easy, but it is neither attractive, nor admirable. It's just sad.

Monday, 19 April 2010

5 Reasons Why I Don't Really Like Blogging

I've been taking a blog break. I didn't visit my site at all, in fact I pretended I didn't have a blog (consequently I haven't looked at my blog roll either and haven't written any comments on my favourite blogs... apologies for that!)

I just felt I needed a break from the relentless (if self-imposed) ritual of writing a post every other week.

I have been thinking about blogging though, and why - for me - it's a chore rather than a pleasure. I hope that by reflecting about it, I can overcome my hesitations, and I'm also hoping for some tips - maybe from people who've been doing it for longer than me. The following are my thoughts, they're not complaints or rants, or anything serious - just some reflections.

(1) I am still struggling with the formatting and layout. When I upload photos, it can still happen that my whole body-copy gets messed up and shaken around. That's defintely something I find discouraging... but of course I know this is my own fault and could be overcome by better know-how!

(2) I am very very interested in my chosen "field". I find inter-/cross/-meta-cultural communication and everything related to it fascinating. However, this subject doen't easily find a like-minded community, like say Food, or History, or Photography. I therefore feel I lack community-support. Like I'm just writing about some odd-ball topic which people are happy to share to a certain extent, but don't find very relevant.

(3) I'm not totally comfortable with the shifting balance of personal confession and purveying of information. I know some people are happy writing about their dog, husband, or innermost feelings. And that's perfectly alright. But that sort of public diary-confessional isn't me. I recently read a post which got 30 comments, almost all of which said "Great post, thank you for sharing". That's not what I want to do at all. But it's not possible to go all scientific, and technical because a blog just isn't the right format, and readers aren't sufficiently interested (quite rightly!) to go down that route with you. So for me, there remains an uneasy balance between information and confession.

(4) Whilst a blog is your very own form of expression, and can in theory be written and designed however you want to, I feel that would be an imposition on my readers. It cannot for example, be terribly long. People would quite rightly switch off. Which means you have to talk about a subject which can easily be handled in bite-size pieces. Ideally with a short intro, a bit of banter, and own experience, and then rounded up with a question or statment at the end which makes readers want to comment. But a lot of interesting topics cannot be presented in such a way. Are they therefore unbloggable? I fear that's the case.

(5) My last point, and by far the gravest, is the promoting of posts. I really really (and I mean really) dislike hawking my stuff around and getting on people's nerves. But there's so much pressure - after all the comments are what connects you to your readers, so you need to pull' em in. I have been very fortunate with my comments, and have often felt that the comments were more interesting than what I'd written. But that doesn't make the promoting any easier....

How do you feel about blogging? Do you have similar concerns? Do you feel blogging is fun and worthwhile? I feel I could really do with some advice...

Saturday, 3 April 2010

I Love Languages

I can't really imagine what it's like not to speak more than language. I think everyone I know does. Maybe that's just a sign of the times. People are not so rooted in one place anymore, they go abroad to study, they have foreign friends. Increasingly, people are forced to leave their country to find jobs elsewhere, so of course they need to be able to speak the language.

For me, it wasn't really a choice. I grew up bi-lingually, and then we moved to Holland, where I went to an international school. So mono-lingualism wasn't really an option. But as far as I'm concerned, learning languages isn't really a chore. I don't think there was ever any time in my life when I wasn't busy learning a language -not always successfullly!
Languages I started and then gave up on: Japanese, Russian, Old Norse, Turkish, Norwegian, Arabic, Ancient Greek, Bahasa Indonesia.....oh dear!

Still, it was fun, and not just that. Learning languages - and this is more than a truism - helps you appreciate that cultures are really very different.

Think of the word 'Bread'



These aren't just different WORDS arethey? They are a porthole into a different culture - how people live, eat, imagine food, what they eat with 'bread' (couldn't have a ploughmans with that cholla, could you?).

I'm quite curious to hear what your experiences are with languages? Do youl like learning them? Do you speak them when abroad? What was your first reaction when you first encountered the adventure of a foreign word? Please let me know... I'd love to hear your views!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Oxford - Et in Arcadia Ego?

After graduating, I came to England. I had got a job as lecturer at Hertford College, Oxford. The appointment ("tenure") was for 2 years. These two years turned out to be the happiest of my life - after Oxford, nothing ever really lives up to it, you just get used to things because you have to... But that's not what I'm writing about.

I was about 100 years younger than the youngest don there, so whilst officially part of the Senior Common Room (all the teaching staff of a college), my social life happened in the MCR (i.e. the graduate students). I still saw a lot of my colleagues though, mainly at the daily High Table dinner where you wear a gown, Grace is said in Latin, and you make formal conversation over not so good food.

You'd expect an Oxford college to be a hub of academic internationalism. Researchers from all over the world mingling for multinational exchanges. But this wasn't the case at all. I was the only foreigner and one of only two women. Conversation with me at High Table was laboured - Rhine cruises were remembered, and war reminscences (possibly not their own, their fathers'?) offered with the tough duck à l'orange. Narvik featured heavily. It wasn't easy to chime in, I had never been on a Rhine cruise "That must have been so lovely!" and Narvik meant nothing to me "That must have been... terrible!"

Over in the MCR, it was the polar opposite - the graduate students came from all over the world, fee-paying Americans, Japanese, Nigerians, Dutch. In fact I only remember one British national there. It was lively, fun, international - one got to know people and learnt an awful lot.

It struck me, that living in Britain, my life is still organised along those lines: The international background through family, friends, travel, and media. And on the other side there's Britain. Yes, there may be a whole multicultural aspect to it, but that SCR-Britain prevails. British reality is still mono-lingual, awkward with foreigners, still treating "abroad" with polite suspicion. It still chews on that tough duck. Proudly chewing, but inward-looking, and increasingly marginalised.

*)On the photo, the window of my room, second floor on the left hand side, is just about visible.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The Pretentious Foodie

You know the type... the one who urges you to book into El Bulli before it closes "I can put in a good word for you, and tell Ferran to give you the chicken skins as an ante-starter, they're absolutely divine..." He's been to more Michelin starred restaurants than you've had cheeseburgers and can tell you the difference between a Hollandaise and a Bearnaise with a slight sneer at your ignorance.

I would classify myself as VERY interested in food/cooking/nutrition etc. but I feel dreadfully put off by all those bores who want to tell you what's what. The best bagel in New York? Salt beef in East London? Borschtsch in Moscow? Yeah, please just go away, I prefer to find out for myself.
Another most irritating characteristic of the Pretentious Foodie (PF) is his (they are mostly male, funnily enough) prediliction to call perfectly ordinary ingredients or dishes by their foreign names.

I'm not of the "Call a spade a spade"-brigade, but I bristle at people who - with a thick English accent - happily talk about "
prosciutto", "petit pois", or "moules". The Pretentious Foodie does not realise he just sounds like a provincial sea-side hotel in the Fifties. I recently read about a trade union leader who rather than having sandwiches, asked for "goujons de sole" -so very genteel. But my personal favourite in the PF stakes is calling "steak and chips" steak frites - how very sophisticated. Not.

What next? Call a baked potato
un pomme de terre au four? I've often wondered why food of all things attracts such a lot of pretentious types. I mean, okay - music, or literature... but food??

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Intercultural Icons -The Pizza and The Pub

Whatever country you choose to go in the world - two things are certain: You will most certainly find an Irish Pub there and you will find some pizza. Why is that? What makes them so ubiquitously popular? How do they manage to cross borders so easily - why does everybody from Japan to Chile love a slice of tomato-y dough or a good sing along and a glass of the black stuff?

And that's precisely not the point: it isn' about what you actually get. Instead, it's about what everybody associates with them. Pizza - that means Italian homecooking at its best. Simple, tasty, unfussy. And in an Irish pub you can be sure of congeniality, great vibe, craic.

So you become part of a concept you secretly adore. There is no exclusion, no snobbishness about either. Everybody can share, everybody likes what you like, and everybody is happy. So really, it's about a community you're "biting" into - the simple lost world of homeliness and comfort.

Ireland and Italy with their metoynmic offerings - have managed what other countries struggle with. They've exported their national symbols and in turn got people to associate those very values with their nations. Maybe not everything in Ireland is that congenial, maybe Italy in reality isn't that homely and comforting... But so what?

I am full of admiration that some countries manage to spread such joie de vivre, such a feeling of togetherness and shared value on an international, and poly-cultural scene - and with so little effort!

Oh and Happy up-coming St.Patrick's Day!

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Frankfurt - An Interview with Mariam M.Kobras

- Mariam, you were born in Frankfurt and know the town really well - how would you describe Frankfurt to someone who doesn't know it?
Frankfurt is a very modern town. It is dominated by its Financial District and the high rise buildings that make up the impressive skyline - and by a lively intellectual scene, enlivened by the annual Book Fair, the most important one world wide. Sadly, not a lot of the old town is left. You won't find a lot of historical buildings or a lovely medieval part in Frankfurt, but you will find diversity!
Growing up in Frankfurt, we were very strongly influenced by the American Way of Life because of the presence of the US Military in our surroundings, and you still get a lot of that now. Of all German cities I have seen. Frankfurt had the liberty to embrace the ease and pace of America early on. Thus, the high rise building? Never thought of it like this before, but it makes sense.
Today, Frankfurt is a little like New York, I think. It is the closest to New York that I can see in Europe.

- When you're there, Mariam, are you aware of a special feel about it? Meaning, is it different from other (German) towns?

All cities feel different from each other, I think, and a good thing, too.
There is something about Frankfurt though that is indeed special: I never got a feeling of "old" history in Frankfurt, like, say in Nuremberg or Munich. It has a distinct "After WW2" feeling to me, as if the city re-invented itself then.
There are some historical highlights, of course, like Goethe's birth place and the Paulskirche and City Hall, but that's about it.

-Would you say there is a "Frankfurt mentality"?
Not.... really. Or is there?
I think there is a strong intellectual mentality, which has its origin in the Philosophical Scene that developed around Adorno and his group, and of course the ever-present Book Fair. Way in the East of the city, where it borders on Offenbach, you'll find Oberrad, which is a bit of a surprise because it is indeed something like a farming area. That is where the famous "Green Sauce" herbs are grown. A small heart of the old Frankfurt, where you will also hear the original dialect being spoken. These people are "natives", and indeed have a mentality of their own.

- That's facinating! Is there anything in particular you yourself like especially

It's home. It's where I went to school and to the movies and shopping, and I love to return whenever I can. I've long since lost the native language, but when I'm back, I'll fall into the patois within the hour. There is one place I love particularly, the Kleinmarkthalle, a farmers' market inside a huge, old hall right in the center of the city where you can buy EVERYTHING that is edible all year long. I've never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. Oh, and I lied further up about history: Frankfurt has one of the most wonderful Gothic cathedrals ever, and a number of German emperors and kings were crowned there. ("Kaiserdom")
And I like the food in Frankfurt. The local, hearty fair, but also the curries, sushi, the Malaysian, Arabian, Indian, Thai (especially that!!!) American, French, Italian.... oh you name it. Another thing I like very much are the museums along the Main river. The city has done a brilliant job there.

Mariam, this has been absolutely fascinating. You talk so animatedly about your home town. I could imagine, quite a few people have now become quite curious to see what it's like... in fact I'm very much looking forward to going there myself in a couple of weeks

Mariam M. Kobras is a writer and teacher. Check out her profile and blog

Sunday, 14 February 2010

I'm sorry - Nationalism is Not Acceptable

Nationalism - especially in its celtic varieties exudes a certain panache that chimes in with a lot of people. Moody landscapes, knitted Aran jumpers, hauntingly romantic songs, and maybe the odd rugged-looking native. What's not to like?

Since I've been living in Scotland, I was able to observe it at close quarters - and have totally changed my mind. Nationalism is based on the belief of the supremacy of one's own nation above all others. In its day to day appearance, it is ugly, spiteful, and hurts anybody who is not of that nation.

"Everybody here is nationalist, in one way or another", a journalist friend told me recently, "and everybody dislikes the English". Oh right. So that is acceptable to say things like that, is it? No way.

Whilst support for the actual Nationalist Party in Scotland has waned, this is just a reflection on the fact that most voters now know that secession from Britain is no longer economically possible. Nationalism as such, however, is on the rise. And there is nothing to curb it, as "everybody thinks that way".

So "everybody" here thinks nothing of it when obese thugs (nationalism is much stronger in poor, uneducated strata of the population) glower at people who, say, speak on the mobile in a foreign language. Bus drivers habitually profess not to understand you when you speak with an English accent. Any criticism, if only of the weather, is met with utter hostility, and a threatening glare. When two English people talk to each other in a shop, the other shoppers fall silent, and everybody stares at the offenders. Officially, the line about Eastern European workers is that they are very welcome. They don't feel welcome, I've spoken to many of them.

The hatred is sharp, visceral and ubiquitous. You don't have to go football matches or obscure pubs to feel frightened by it.

I understand that nationalism and chauvinism come about through feeling marginalised, economically disadvantaged and bitter. But bigotry, xenophobia and hatred of people who aren't like you cannot be an acceptable form of voicing your frustration.

For me, the ugly face of nationalism is definitely a big problem when it comes to living in Scotland.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Snow in February

It's quite funny with snow... two weeks before Christmas, we're all longing for it. Snow makes Christmas special, memorable and magical. Come February, though, it's a different matter. Suddenly snow is a nuisance - cars skidding, roads blocked, trains late, airports closed. No more magic. I can't stand the stuff, we say.

It's rare that love turns to hate so decisively. Why can't we remember all that cosiness, that fluffy, secure feeling snow gave us at Christmas?

This led me to think about snow outside the cosy, fairy tale image of it. And I suppose as a philologist, it was only natural for me to look at literature.

In Russia, where snow sticks around often til April, books are covered in snow so to speak, and not always in a good way. Russian writers know that snow can be evil. From Pushkin's "Snow Storm" to Joseph Brodsky's famous line "After such snow, there is nothing indeed" -snow is used as a profoundly disturbing and alienating element of existential change.

In Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, the Snow chapter is a turning-point for the protagonist who barely survives the blizzard. And Orhan Parmuk's novel "Snow" takes the white stuff as a complex metaphor for Anatolia's remoteness and frozenness in a dangerous belief-structure.

Pesonally, I think it's good to be reminded that nature won't always do as we please. That it is still a force of its own.

But that doesn't mean I want more snow now!

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Up in the Air- Aspects of America

Whenever one says anything, and I mean anything at all about America these days, it is customary to start out with the disclaimer "I'm not anti-American, but..." Well, I'm not really anti- anything.

But,yes I do have some problems with America, or rather with the cultural influence America wields over Europe. Deal with it.

But yesterday I saw this film "Up In the Air" with George Clooney - and yes, he is quite easy on hte eye - but that's a different story.

The film is about a guy who works for a sub-contractor whose business it is to fre people. These scenes are brutal, there is no other word. Real life people's first reactions to the message "Your position is no longer available" is recorded. It is painful, it is raw, and it is honest - and I say all credit to you, America! For scenes like these have not been happening in US movies - maybe forever. And it gets worse, for the Clooney character really gets it in the neck. AND you see scenes from small-town America you've not seen before. Madison Avenue this ain't. Or Disneyland. Or L.A. This is nothing like you've ever seen about America before. Not glossy, not chic, not aspirational. These are provincial, dumbed-down, dirt-poor, awful towns. These are existential images that Wim Wenders in Paris, Texas aspired to, but never managed.

And you know what? All credit to you, America! That something so raw, so cynical, but ultimately so true and so touching can come out of this country which I - as your consummate European - had written off long ago, That IS something.

Chapeau bas, America!! Here's to you!

Go see the movie, as they say over there.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

France - Why Do We Love It So?

What exactly is it about France that makes everybody utter the sort of vowell-y noises more commonly associated with pictures of tiny pets or scrumptious dishes of food? I mean, nobody goes googoo over Denmark, or Macedonia do they? And those are nice places too....

Don't get me wrong -I am just as besotted by it! My favourite holiday would always Paris? In the lovely Languedoc? Or beautiful Brittany? But still, there must be something about that country which appeals to us more than anywhere - what is it?

The food, I hear you say. The lifestyle, the joie de vivre, they drink a lot of nice wine, the women have such style, they dress so much better over there, the men are so good-looking - they just know HOW TO LIVE. And then there is Paris of course,
ah si belle, si chic! Apart from Spaniards, Brits are the most frequent Eiffel Tower climbers, did you know that - now that's true devotion!

We all KNOW of course that there are fat, badly-dressed women in France, there is food you wish you'd never seen let alone eaten, there are social problems (those grands ensembles on the outskirts of Paris aren't exactly beautyspots are they?) and the lovely family gatherings we envy so can be oppressive and fraught with tension.

I think it's more that France allows you to live out your dreams - if you're into fashion, why where else to look than the avenue Montaigne? If you're a foodie,
bien sur, you've dined in that très chic resto in Valbonne. You can discuss Henri-Bernard Lévy ("Ash-Be-El") or Edith Duflo if you're intellectually minded. Or you could just go to the beach.

France has the unique ability to provide the perfect answer for anybody's dreams, longings and, passions. I think THAT's why we love it so...