Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Understanding A British "How Are You?"

We were once again in the dizzying climes of Cornwall, England over the summer and obviously we came in to contact with a lot of British people. This summer I consciously observed British behaviour (don't worry, nothing creepy, just a casual-in-passing kind of mental note when I saw a custom or habit more than once. You see the longer I live away from Britain the more neutral I can be when I go back. And, quite frankly, the more "British" British people seem to me.

Take "How are you?" as an example. An innocent question for sure, but one that turns out to be very British indeed.

During the summer we were staying in one of eight cottages so there were plenty of other guests around too. On many a morning a fellow guest would walk by our cottage with a genuine smile, saying, "Good morning. How are you?" Friendly. Pleasant. A nice greeting to start the day. However, it was a fly-by question. By the time they had got to the end of the sentence they would actually be long gone, completely out of view around the corner or attending to their recycling in the barn. I realised it's a question requiring no answer. It's a way of saying, "Hope all is okay but if it isn't I don't need to hear about it."

In the eyes of a Brit there isn't anything much worse than casually asking 'How are you?" as a greeting and someone actually launching in to a long diatribe about their achey knees, how their day got off to a terrible start thanks to an exploding coffee machine and how the rest of the day isn't looking too bright either. Telling a Brit about your woes is just not done, even if they enquire about your health.

When a Brit asks you how you are you say fine. Nothing more. It's a rhetorical question. Don't share how you actually are. We're not actually that interested. It's us being polite.

Unless.... unless we are actually, genuinely interested and we are having a conversation with you. For example, we do care about how life is going for our friends, family and those with any significant relationship in our lives. On the contrary, if we don't actually know you, then the question is merely politeness.

Still not clear? Try this. If you, for example, are checking in to a hotel and the person behind the reception desk asks "How are you today?" you do not relay every detail of your horrific car journey along the M25 and what it has done to your nerves. You do not share the epic state of the pounding in your head, how tired you are and how you really just want to have a lie down before dinner. You say, "I'm fine thank you. How are you?" As a response you can expect a "Very well, thank you." Then you can check in. The hotel worker doesn't know you. He doesn't need or want to know the ins and outs of your personal life. This applies to shop workers, customer service workers and officials. In short, if you don't know a person you answer "How are you?" with "Fine, thank you."

However, if your British friend asks how you are after you landed in hospital after falling under a car (for example) then she genuinely wants to know how you are. Then it is perfectly acceptable to lay it on as thick as you like. Describe your injuries, the pain you suffered, how bloody awful you feel. She cares. She wants to know. If she addresses the same question to the stranger entirely wrapped in plaster-cast in the hospital bed next to you, their only acceptable answer is "Fine, thank you."

Easy right?

Monday, 15 September 2014

A Foolproof Way of Measuring My Dutch

It struck me over the weekend in a moment of pure brilliance that I have managed to establish a system that can accurately assess my level of Dutch. As many of you know I am British and my mother tongue is English but I spend most of my time navigating through life in Dutch. But it is by no means perfect. Not even close. Whilst reading a story in English to my seven year old son, it suddenly, out of the blue, struck me that getting a grip on what level my Dutch is actually at was easier than I thought.


Well, I can talk to my two year old in Dutch and he understands me perfectly. He doesn't correct me. He doesn't do what I ask either, because he is two and his way is better. So my Dutch language skills are better than that of a two year old. Actually he is nearly three. So, minor correction, my Dutch language skills are better than an almost three year old.

I can talk to my four year old in Dutch and he understands me. What I say quite often has no consequence, simply because he is four and he knows better. However, I do know he understands me and he also doesn't correct me. I do sometimes have to correct his de or het when he says something. It's not often mind because most of the time I am not actually sure if the noun should have de or het in front of it, so I let it slide. He also says "hij hebt..." a lot and I absolutely correct that because that is something I do know. And just so you know, should you ever hear him say that, he hasn't picked it up from me. In fact, we have no idea where he has picked up that from. Anyway, moving on. My Dutch language skills are definitely better than those of a four year old.

I can talk to my seven year old in Dutch and he understands me perfectly. But he does occasionally sometimes often have to correct me. (Well, actually he doesn't HAVE to correct me, but he does. Even though it agitates me. I'm his mother, for god's sake.) And sometimes I ask him for help with a word or two when I have to write something in Dutch and his father is not around, but in general my Dutch writing skills are better than his. (And I am well aware that he has only been reading and writing for a year but small victories and all that). Anyway, so my Dutch language skills differ little from those of a seven year old, but I do contend I have a superior vocabulary under my belt. But I fear time is not on my side.

And lastly, I can talk to my husband in Dutch and half way through the conversation I often feel like I have lost him, and his eyes are a little wild looking, as if he's not really hearing me. Then when I stop talking he reels out a list of words I used incorrectly, every noun that should have been de and not het and questions every word that I just actually made up on the spot which sounded a little Dutch at least to my ears.

From these conversations I deduce that my Dutch is nowhere near as good as a forty year old's command of Dutch.

So there you have it. The level of my Dutch language skills lies somewhere between that of a seven year old and that of someone who hasn't yet celebrated their fortieth birthday. A scientific approach it may not be, but my goodness it's accurate!

Based on my utterly amazing measurement system, what level is your second language currently at?

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Monday, 8 September 2014

That's Not Branston Pickle: The Dangers of Sandwich Making and Motherhood

The dangers of motherhood and sandwich making
Photo Credit: Pedro Simao
As a result of my blog post about all the things I never dreamed I would say before I became a parent I was reminded of a Branston pickle incident many years ago that I think I'm finally ready to share.

Picture the scene. My kitchen, just over seven years ago. My eldest son was just a few months old. He was a mere baby. Our little family comprised then only of the three of us. I was a new parent and I was sleep deprived. Bewildered. Operating on auto pilot. And I was making sandwiches for a long road trip we were about to make.

To be more precise, I was making cheese and Branston pickle sandwiches whilst my baby son lay in the play pen. Screaming. Screaming like he was being savagely attacked by rabid dogs. So I picked him up, gave him a cuddle and he stopped crying. I continued to make sandwiches with my one free hand, baby nestled in my other arm.

Drawing to the end of the 'tricky with one hand' sandwich packing process my husband took our son from me and I noticed I had pickle on my non-sandwich making arm. Strange, how on earth did that get there I wondered. So I licked it off my arm. It didn't taste much like pickle. I wrapped the last sandwich in cling film and cleared away.

"Ohhhhhhhhhh!" cried out my husband suddenly. "Nappy explosion!"

"Gadverdamme," I uttered. "That wasn't Branson pickle on my arm."

I know I'm not alone - go ahead, feel free to share your gross poop stories with us........

Monday, 1 September 2014

Setting the Counter to Zero: A Real Summer Break

Six weeks came and went and the children are now back in school. The summer holidays flew by but we wrung every drop of fun we could out of them before a new school year takes us in its grip.

We spent nearly four weeks in England, most of that in Cornwall. We saw planes, trains and stock cars. We spent time on sandy beaches, time in the countryside and time in stately houses. We witnessed jousting knights, scaled castle walls, collected glimmering shells, played in the rock pools and built dams on the beach. We ate fish and chips, bacons sandwiches, crumpets and enjoyed many an ice cream. The boys added countless words to their English vocabulary list and played with lots of British children. We had a fabulous summer holiday.

Then we had two weeks at home which we kept quiet and low key, particularly after a bad bout of man-flu hit the man of the house and put him in bed for the best part of a week. And today a new school year begins. And we are ready for it. We are refreshed. Ready for the routine. Ready to work again.

I have taken a break from the blog over the summer. In fact, I took a break from all things writing, except for journal entries and one article about school uniforms, or rather the lack of them in my life. Hopefully, none of you noticed as I worked my butt off in July to schedule weekly posts and keep new posts popping up. But it does mean I have a head full of ideas, blog posts and general musings. But all in good time.

One thing that hit me over the head hard this summer was that time is moving at an alarming pace. My eldest has started in group 4 today and with a new teacher and a new classroom my little HSC was a little stressed. In a month or so my youngest will turn three. One more year at home with me before he also starts school. My middle son continues finding his feet in group 1, but this school year in a smaller group than that of the last term of the last school year and hopefully with a little more continuity. In one way or another, they need my support to get through these first few weeks back at school.

Before the summer break I had started putting more time into this blog, taking on more monthly writing commitments and I took pleasure in watching the blog grow. But I plan to take my foot of the accelerator a little. Just a little. I'm a mama first. And I have enjoyed that feeling over the summer holiday. The calmness of no conflicts with my time - beating myself up about whether to spend time with my boys or to slip off and write a blog post. I'm not sure whether you will notice a difference here. Only time will tell. In any case, the summer holiday did us all a power of good. It provided the break we all needed. The counter was set to zero again.

I hope you have all had a great summer break too!

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Straying From The Path to Now

Unknown to my younger self, I am sure that the path I have been on since I was a teenager was one leading me to a life abroad. It just wasn't a direct path. Sure, there were signs, hints and indications in my youth that a life beyond the borders of my birth country was something I should prepare for. That my later life would involve speaking a second language should have been clear to me at an early age.

My first trip abroad was a family holiday to Tangiers in Morocco. The unfamiliar sounds of an unknown language spoken all around me, the rich vivid colours of North African wedding attire sparkling in the glaring evening sun, the enchantment of a music so different to Western pop, the smells of exotic food cooking in the streets all served to pique my curiosity about life beyond the borders of my home land.

A school trip abroad to La Rochelle started my long lasting love affair with France. I homed in on modern languages, namely French and German for my GCSEs and continued my French to A-Level. My love of the French language went beyond the allure of my Liverpudlian French teacher. A school trip to Berlin a year after the wall fell enticed me to be a part of something bigger, it lured me to take a closer look at the world away from my own doorstep. Foreign languages became an integral part of who I was, who I was to be.

I centred my university degree search around being able to use my French. I eventually picked a European Studies course in Bradford, which included a study year in Toulouse. I use the word study lightly. It was less of an academic study year, more of a cultural immersion. I loved the smell and bustling of the local bakery every morning, I loved watching the old man in a beret that shuffled to the local supermarket in his well worn but clearly loved checked slippers, I loved browsing at the snails in the freezer compartment as I did my grocery shop - week after week failing miserably to pluck up the courage to actually give them a try.

After graduation jobs with companies like Michelin kept my French alive but when I later chose a career in Human Resources the need to speak a second language soon dissipated. My path seemed to change, leading away from where I had been sure I would go.

As a teenager I’d envisioned a life for myself abroad, in France, where I spoke the language and loved the culture. Somewhere along the way I got distracted and forgot where I was headed. My linguistic mind stayed with me, laying dormant but patiently waiting whilst I strayed from the path I should have been on.

And then one day my little brother met an American girl, online in a chat room. I was clueless. I had no computer of my own and had no idea how you could ‘meet’ someone in a chat room. After what seemed like no time at all he announced he was moving to Long Island, NY to get married. One family globetrotter fled the nest. But my own path kept me firmly rooted in England.

I needed to write a dissertation to finish my Post Graduate Diploma in Human Resources but the absence of a computer at home made progress slow but Father Christmas (disguised as my father) saved the day and I became the proud owner of a personal computer. It became my indispensable companion. It was to put me back on the right path.

For a reason I no longer remember nor can imagine looking back, my brother’s once uttered words, “go try a chat room. It’s fun” popped into my head one evening. I did a search and ended in a chat room talking to a Mexican. Just as I was getting bored with the whole 'chat room' experience a pop up appeared from another chatter. This time it was a Dutchman. My boredom vanished.

Christmas and the millennium were closing in and my days were filled with MSN Messenger and an endless string of emails. After that fateful evening I never entered a chat room again. Online chatting turned into a phone call on New Year’s Eve. Talking on the telephone turned in to visits to each other’s homes in foreign lands.

Seven months later my wonderful boss moved on and in his place came a woman who had a reputation for clearing the decks and bringing in her own people wherever she went. Business trips that were planned months ahead were suddenly superfluous and I whispered to my dad that something was afoot. I knew something bad was looming. He told me I was being paranoid.

Then one evening, sure enough, I was summoned to the dragon’s den. She informed me that my position would end in two months. Walking home with tears streaming down my face I made a call to the Netherlands with my mobile phone. I shared the lowlights of my evening and told my Dutch partner that I needed to find a job fast so that my mortgage didn’t become a problem.

“Or instead of finding a new job there, you could move to the Netherlands…” he said and I could hear the smile on his face.

And suddenly I was back on the path I was destined to walk on.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Dutch Peanut Butter or Nothing

Photo Credit: Crystal Alifanow
It's that time of year when the Dutch nation leaves home en masse and heads for sunnier climes. It's a bit of a standing joke that Dutch people pack their hagelslag and pindakaas to take on holiday with them.

Except that it is real. Apparently the peanut butter sold in British supermarkets is not good enough for my Dutchman. He mutters,

"It looks like wall filler, and it's the colour of...."

"Yes, okay, I get the picture!" I say.

"It's Calve or nothing. Crunchy pindakaas. Not that British swill that sticks in your mouth," he says, doing an impression of what looks like a dog dry heaving.

So Calve pindakaas goes into the holiday crate, alongside the hagelslag. The peanut butter on the British grocery list that is to be delivered to our holiday cottage in Cornwall is taken off the list.

It's Dutch peanut butter or nothing I learn.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Brits on the Beach

"don't understand this settlement behaviour," my Dutch husband uttered as we plonked ourselves down on beach towels on Daymer Bay beach in Cornwall, England.

There were couples, groups and families camped out on the overpopulated beach around us armed with fold away chairs with built-in cup holders, light portable tables, tents in every size and colour you could imagine, multi-coloured wind breakers, portable radios, enough reading material to make the nearest library more than a little jealous and large cool boxes brimming with enough to satisfy the most ravenous of hungers for many days should the world's food chain suddenly implode. One group parked on the other side of the beach to us had even brought their own full size BBQ and looked like they had no intention of leaving anytime that summer.

"You don't see this in the Netherlands," he muttered, genuinely bewildered as he looked around the beach.

Anyone beg to differ?

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Doe Normaal Doesn't Apply to Sports

The phrase 'doe normaal' is widely heard across the Netherlands, and if it is directed at you then you have certainly crossed the invisible Dutch line of what is acceptable and what not.

You may also hear, "Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg" which in essence means "behave normally - that is crazy enough". Both common sayings make it very clear that there is a high regard in Dutch society for behaving 'normal', however you may wish to interpret that.

These sayings are in line with the reputation the Dutch have for not liking to stand out in a crowd - everything should be a bit average, a bit middelmatig. There's no need to boast about things, show people how exceptional you are in a particular field. There's no need to take yourself that seriously.

Unless of course you are the sporty type. When you can speed skate at gold medal level, play football or hockey to the highest of levels or swim like a world class fish then you can shout about it, or more accurately the people of the Netherlands will shout about it for you. Oranjegekte will take over and carry you to sporting wonderland.

Take the last winter Olympics and the unbelievable speed skating success of this little Dutch country. Look at this year's World Cup and the outpouring of pride that a third place bronze medal created, the happiness that a fantastic run and being so close to playing in yet another World Cup final brought to the land of orange.

For such a little country the sporting achievements are truly remarkable. And it is the one area of life it seems that doe even normaal really doesn't apply. And thank goodness it doesn't!