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Category Archives: Culture Choc

Experiences of other people, countries and culture.

Is that a chip in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

Actual pic of smuggled contraband

Actual pic of smuggled contraband

A dear friend came to visit from my hometown. It was wonderful to see her and to celebrate her first night with us, we decided to go to our local pub. Pubs (abbreviated version from ‘Public House‘) in England are much more beloved than in the US and serve more as a social network, versus just a place to have a drink. All that being said, when you go to your local pub in England, there is more of a community connection than you have in an average bar in the US.

So now, the table is set (tongue firmly planted in cheek) at this point. We arrived late for dinner in England, around 21:30 (9:30PM US time). The kitchen closed at  22:00, so we were pushing the courtesy barrier from the “git-go” (beginning) as we say in the Southern US. We are courteously escorted to our table, already thinking we need to have what we wanted to order in mind, given the time crunch. My friend, re-energized from the long trip over, was ready to settle in for a long night. She perused the menu, scanning repeatedly from page to page, still undecided with what she wanted. She began to ask us, “what’s really good here?”

“Everything, but especially the chips (french fries), they’re really great!” my husband and I chimed in, nodding to each other in agreement. So, after her final tour of the menu and asking us our recommendations, she settled on a steak with mixed vegetables. Funny how we often ask for opinions, but really, we end up getting what we think we want anyway. Only later, would her choice come back to haunt me.

By this time, it was about ten minutes before the kitchen was closing and we had not yet ordered. After the third time of the server coming by our table, we were finally able to place our order before the deadline and relax, knowing we’d not breached pub etiquette.

My friend was happy with her choice–until our burgers came out with a side of golden, thick and crispy chips! They were done the right way, the Belgian way (twice cooked). Did you know that chips/french fries are actually, Belgian? Glad to offer a side of chip trivia to you at no extra charge. Now, where was I? Right, so after our beautiful chips were placed before us, can you guess who wanted to have some? You guessed it, none other than Ms. Steak and Veg. Even before getting the first one in my mouth, I see her pinching her fingers together as she goes in to pinch one of the golden beauties we spoke so highly of. She took one bite and she was hooked.

One after another the chips began to disappear, not only from my plate but my husband’s as well. And like any junkie, she was wanting more. My friend even asked the server if she could order her own. The server, my husband and I all looked at each other, taken aback by her request. By now, it was 22:30 (10:30PM) so we all knew it was too late to order any more chips. The server made her way back to the kitchen, dreading asking if more chips could be cooked. After a just a few minutes, she returned and said apologetically, “I’m sorry, but the  cook has just turned off the fryer.” My husband and I were again relieved that the chip fiasco was finally being put to bed and we could get our bill and leave still with our heads high.

Sadly, none of us could anticipate what happened next. My American friend then added, “Well, if he just turned off the fryer, it should still be hot enough to make my fries.” Here it comes, I thought. Now, our server will take the walk of shame back to the kitchen and make the chef delay his exit because of my french-fry-loving friend. Dutifully, she did just that and fifteen minutes later, returned with a heaping “choke on it, you selfish American &!#@$” plate of chips! My friend was of course happy as evidenced by the mini clapping of hands when they arrived, oblivious to the gleaming, golden English cynicism they represented. In a word, my husband and I were embarrassed. We understood fully, but my friend on vacation had no clue. Having worked in the restaurant business, I know what other naughty things people can do to your food (never me, of course!). Let’s just say, neither my husband or I had any.

After about three, maybe four chips, my friend had her fill. She had several previously from our plates, plus the small wait to get her own, her stomach had ample time to catch up to her hypothalamus (part of the brain that tells us we’re full), much to our chagrin. I asked, “Are you sure you can’t eat anymore? They went to a lot of trouble to get them…”

She replied, “No, I’m full…besides, I’ll give a good tip.” How do you explain (or even should you?) that a tip isn’t always the answer in some cultures? In her defense, as an American, I do understand that money talks and most of the time, splashing out a little more cash for the inconvenience, will get you out of most situations. But in this case, it was more about the fact that several people had to stay late for the barely touched plate of chips and the routine of closing the restaurant also had to be delayed because of it.

Knowing that it would add insult to injury to leave the almost full plate of chips, I began searching for a way to hide them. I thought of going to the bathroom to ditch them, but then, I thought, someone might see them in the waste basket. Then I though, I know, I’ll flush them…then, what if the toilet overflowed (that would only happen to me!) how would I explain that? Then, I knew…I would smuggle the deep-fried contraband in my purse. It was a cheap purse, so if it smelled like a chip shop, I could learn to live with it. So, in they went, swaddled in a serviette (napkin) to be taken to their final resting place.

My friend looked at me like I was insane and frankly, I guess I was to a degree. We got up to leave and made our way to the bar to pay. We were greeted by all of the kitchen staff and our server (they wanted to get a look at us, it was certain). My friend had given us a few pounds and said she would use the restroom before we left. While she was away, we tipped everyone, not just the server. We all looked at one another with the knowledge that all was understood.

When we got home, our nerves turned to laughter and we took the photo of my purse and the chips that became the inspiration for this article. I guess the moral of this deep-fried story of culture, is that I have become accustomed (albeit, in a bit too neurotic of a way) to being British. Although I don’t claim that Britons would start stuffing their pockets and purses with chips to prove a point, I do think that there is a common connection of courtesy that is not always bridged by the size of your wallet. I’ve gotten another purse since then and will try to keep it, ‘chip-free’ from now on!

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Culture Choc

 

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Got Milk? A Curdling Tale of Culture

Courtesy of Google images

As you may already know, I talk about culture…a lot. Matter of fact, it’s the basis of everything I blog about. Never a time did this become more ironic, as now.

We needed some ‘niggly’ (trivial) work done on our flat and called in a handyman to help. Seems benign enough,right? We got chatting (having a ‘natter’ as the English say) and our handyman asked where I was from and then began as most do, talking about their trips to the US and comparing notes. I asked him, ‘do you really think there is a big difference between the English and American cultures? He was very quick to say, ‘Oh yes, definitely.’ He said that he felt Americans are much more open when speaking about themselves, and their thoughts, both good and bad. During our natter, I asked if he’d like a coffee or a ‘cuppa’ (cup of tea). He gave a big grin and said, “A cuppa would be lovely, cheers.” The word, ‘cheers’ in England is used in many ways: such as a greeting, as a thank you and the same as we use it in the States, as a toast.

As an American, I find it a bit intimidating to serve tea to an English person. It’s like serving your best homemade meal to a chef. You feel certain it can never be as good as what they can do and they can only judge it in degrees of badness. As an US Southerner, we do pride ourselves on our sweet tea, but an English tea is a different matter.

So, I watched him with hopeful eyes, as he took his first sip, staring ahead in anticipation of my colonial attempt. He blew on it gently, displacing the bit of steam that slightly fogged his square glasses. I noticed an ever so slight flinch at his temples. He was gracious and I apologized quickly, as I knew it couldn’t be very good from his covered reaction. Only later, did I find that I had actually put curdled milk in this nice man’s tea. Nothing says welcome like a cuppa full of friendly bacteria with a side of, ” I’m so sorry I gave you curdled milk” biscuits. I felt like Bridget Jones with a southern drawl!

Given our previous conversation on the differences between English and American culture, the experience solidified one of the differences perfectly; in the English culture, it seems to be that mentioning that your tea has curdled milk in it is worse than actually having curdled milk in your tea to start. I think as a southern American, we may find an overly nice way to tell you that the milk is curdled, but the point being, we would say something and not grin and bear it, as my brave English friend did.

To bring this full circle, I guess to become ‘cultured’, you have to drink your share of curdled milk though the process of making mistakes and learning from them. Although curdled milk won’t kill you, I still wouldn’t recommend it with tea 😉 Cheers!

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2013 in Culture Choc

 

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Is, “finish my sentences, SVP” carved on my forehead? (the sequel)

Courtesy of Google images (well, I did the carving bit)

Just when I thought that being corrected couldn’t become more unnerving, yet again, another piece of humble pie shows up on the menu. My last serving you may recall was (Is ‘correct my French’ carved on my forehead?) where I was castigated by an eight and ten-year old. OK, maybe that’s too harsh a description, but you get the point.

Last year, my husband’s family and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Champagne region of France for the La Route du Champagne en Fête, where you get to sample the goods by walking from one producer to the next in a given region each year. This is a tradition in my husband’s family and so I wanted to assimilate the best I could and be part of what they already shared. Perhaps in my haste to ‘fit in’, I may have done myself more harm than good.

We were all excited, it was day one and we had purchased our ‘passports’ as they’re called, which is a book that has each producer’s information along with perforations on each page, that you tear off as tickets, in exchange for a tasting portion of Champagne. It’s a great system and one that anyone who doesn’t speak great french, can use. Or, so I thought. As we made our rounds, I realized that everyone was telling me which ticket to tear, as if I were challenged in this area. I thought I was doing fine, but evidently, this needed explaining, being unaware of any personal shortcomings. So, I shrugged it off, continued on with my champagne flute gently swinging from its handy lanyard with each step, in anticipation of the next sip.

Maybe the bubbles were going to my head and therefore my actions reflected that fact, but I continued to notice that the others were watching my every step by guiding me to other paths on the road or telling me that cars were behind me and so on, as if the sound of the cars were different from in the US or that paths were harder to navigate. Whatever the case, I began to feel like the others felt I was somehow, helpless.

The final straw came when we were sitting at a large table getting ready to have our aperitif when the proprietor of the hotel came to take our order. I think this may be the same ritual in any culture when the discussion is had on what everybody wants becomes a topic of conversation. We could easily think to ourselves what we want, then order it when we are asked by the server, but that’s not what happens. We like to discuss as a group what we are having and why. As a result of this bizarre yet common custom, I was in prime position to discuss what drink I wanted and why. I really wanted a Vodka martini but in Europe, martini’s are not the same as in the US. I was picturing my Sex And The City version, but in Europe, it’s something all together different.

Vintage Martini & Rossi Ad

If you order a ‘martini’ in Europe (not UK), you will get vermouth, just like the vintage posters. Knowing this, all eyes were on me, everyone ready to see what I had decided and how well I would do at ordering it. I tried to explain the drink by deconstructing it; naming its individual components. This left me grappling for words and then the carnage began. Everyone started guessing what it was that I was trying to order. I was doing fine, until I got to the elusive cranberry juice (le jus de canneberge). The scene became like a bad 70’s game show. Who would win the prize if they guessed the right ingredient? Finally, after saying no, to each person who gave it their all to guess the right one, I threw in the towel in defeat by ordering a sparkling water (eau pétillante) instead. I could hear the imaginary announcer in my head saying, ‘thank you for playing and we have some lovely parting gifts for you.’ I felt like a first class loser. Not only because I couldn’t explain myself properly, but because I got angry with how everyone was trying to finish my sentences; not giving me time to think. I was so busy saying, ‘no’ to the contestants, that I couldn’t find the right word.

Do I blame them? No, I don’t. Why? Because they were trying their best to help and the more they tried to guess, the more they were trying to help me. This I understand now, but in that moment, it became so frustrating that I couldn’t appreciate that the ‘game show’ was an act of love, not a display of disappointment or embarrassment of my failure. Innately, I knew they were trying to be helpful, but my artful combination of vulnerability and hubris yet again, clouded my understanding and judgement of the real intention. I did apologize for my behavior and they of course were gracious, which made me feel even worse.

We just returned from our last pilgrimage to the Route du Champagne en Fête, hence my memory of how much all has changed from last year. Of course, my French has improved some, but maybe we all have gotten a bit wiser. I never said why I got upset before, but I think they knew and understood my perspective better than I did. Now, that deserves a toast–santé (good health, cheers)!

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2012 in Culture Choc

 

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A Dickens of a Life

Let me begin with one of the best beginnings from one of the greatest novels of all time…Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities. Although the past year for me pales by comparison to the travails of Dickens’ depiction of English life during the French Revolution, I can’t help but see the similarity in reflecting upon my past year as an expat in France and now, England. I think he said it best:

[It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…]

Innately, we know we cannot escape our circumstances and must face what life throws at us, but on some level, an expat by choice, wants some sort of escape. Maybe it is not a conscious choice (for some it is), but there is a desire to start over, to make anew for whatever reason(s) we each have. After the romance of living abroad settles, lies the dust of reality in the corners of our dream world, unable to be swept under the bed for another day, until we feel like facing our new reality.

In the past year, I feel I have equally and diametrically, touched the skies of Heaven and the flames of Hell. Upon our arrival to England, we had only been unpacked a week before our own, “French Revolution” began. My husband unexpectedly and tragically, lost his mother. ‘Maman’ (mother) was a, ‘femme formidable’ (remarkable woman). Even though she spoke no English and I no French when we first met, we bonded in a way that to this day, I admit I don’t fully understand how. We would play Scrabble together; she would play in French and I in English and when we both would get stuck, we would take a look at each others’ letters for inspiration in the opposite language–yes, we cheated for the greater good, as I like to think!

Maman was a mixture of great strength and sadness. During our brief but concentrated time together, I saw the strength, but also the sadness of a soldier who in the end, could not fight any longer. In knowing her, she underscored two important truths: first, we all are fighting something, whether our past, our fear of the future or… (fill in your own blank). Secondly, that place where our fear and insecurity meet, is where true character can be found. I think Maman visited that place more than any of us will know and ultimately, she became too tired to fight another day. She (for me) has set a standard of endurance not many can match, or would want to. She endured for her family, including me…and for that, she will always have my love and respect. Thus began the place were the dust settled in the corners of my new reality and I was forced to look. Still after a year, part of me feels she will be back, that she is just on an extended vacation, perhaps an expat like me. I do hear how ridiculous it sounds, but I can only surmise that I am still working on rationalizing her passing, until I can find a place to put the dust of that reality.

My husband and I returned to life as best we could and then, I began to feel unwell. I thought, all the same clichés, ‘well, I’m not getting any younger’ and ‘it must be the stress of moving’ and then…more dust. It wasn’t the change of life or stress, it was in fact, cancer. Life was getting dustier the more I tried to clean it. This could not be ignored until I was ready to accept it, it had to be dealt with now. So we did. I say, ‘we’ because anyone who loves you, has to deal with it too. And so, recently, I underwent six weeks of radiation and chemo. And yes, I believe I saw that place where fear and insecurity meet and I’m still afraid. I’m still working on building my character, still trying to figure out what I’ve gained. I do feel I’ve learned ‘something’, but it’s just that, something. It’s only a feeling of knowing: no instant wisdom, no revelation of understanding yet. I’m still waiting for it all to make sense. But for now, I still want to sweep the dust of the experience under the bed and deal with it later. My body feels like it wants to cry, but my mind won’t let it…yet another revolution (or beginnings of revelation?).

In France I lived the dream at its best: high times with travel, champagne, marriage and adventure: ‘the best of times.’ In England, it has been another matter altogether, until now. Why now? Honestly, I don’t know. I only know that it’s been long enough in ‘the worst of times’. My goal: to turn my internal revolution to evolution…

“Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see triumph.”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2012 in Culture Choc

 

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Falling in love in Paris (revisited): Cliché becomes reality

Being that today is Valentines Day, it seemed appropriate to update the blooming romance to a full-scale love story. Two years later, I love him more than I ever imagined possible:

This [my] story sounds cliché, but falling in love in Paris really can happen! We’ve all heard that Paris is dubbed as ‘the city of lights’ and a lovers paradise, but I had no idea it could happen to me. I love the movie Casablanca too, but come on, does that really happen outside the movies or books? I can now tell you it does. My crusty, sarcastic coating regarding love, has been melted away by the man I now call, ‘mon mari’ (my husband).

How exactly did this happen? Well, back when I jokingly say that I had a ‘real job’, working for a global manufacturer, my job took me to our Belgian office on a month-long project. During that time, I met my ‘would-be’ hubby, a shy, handsome Belgian with boyish good looks and manly charm (see, I told you my story was a cliché before we started!). At least I didn’t say he was tall, dark and handsome!

OK, moving on. I worked with him side-by-side, we attended group functions and interacted as most coworkers do. During the course of these interactions, we both felt there was something between us, but with working 15 hour days amoung a group of people and no time off, we never spoke of our affinity for one another. As time went on, I began to think that I was being overly intuitive about his feelings for me and having that crusty coating at the time, I soon let logic and reason take over any notions of budding romance breaking through the shell. And eventually, it was time to go back home to the US and it became business as usual and sadly, we didn’t speak again for 12 years.

In checking one of my networking sites, I saw his name pop up as a suggested connection and wondered if he’d even remember me after all this time. I composed an awkward reintroduction saying, ‘hope you still remember me, I was one of the Americans who worked with you 12 years ago….’ I held my breath as I thought, what if he doesn’t remember me or doesn’t want to reconnect? How will this effect me? I then exhaled and clicked, ‘send invitation’ and hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself or him too badly in the process. He responded by saying, ‘…of course I remember you Regina…’ and so, we reconnected as former employees do, right? Again, no bells, whistles, declarations or confessions, only the acknowledgment that he did remember me, a small yet important victory in my mind and unwittingly, a foreshadowing to the future.

In late September, a friend and I were planning to go to Paris for vacation. Since I knew my former Belgian coworker was living and working in France from his online profile, I asked if he was close to Paris to see if we could meet and get caught up on each others’ lives.  He said he’d love to see me again and would take the train to meet me in Paris to have dinner at Le Pied de Cochon, a Parisian institution for classic french cuisine. We met for a late dinner and already, I could sense my world was about to change.

Re-winding a bit to 12 years ago, we recognized the spark we had for one another, but never voiced our feelings, which only resulted in internal dialog about what could have been. The next morning, we met again for coffee with my travel buddy, so again, no time to explore our feelings from either of us on how we felt when we first met or in Paris, just great dialog between friends.

When he was leaving to take his train home, we hugged good-bye and it took all I had to not cry, which seemed ridiculous at the time, given that no outward expression of our feelings had ever taken place. Regardless, I hugged him and couldn’t even look back to see him disappear into the Metro, because I knew I would not be able to hold back my emotions.

Little did I know at the time, he was experiencing the same pain of leaving me and had all the same emotions he had then and now.  He told me later that he waited for me to look back and when I didn’t, he thought I didn’t share the love he had been carrying for me all this time. I was devastated that he was gone and that yet again, I didn’t have the courage to tell him how I felt.

As he disappeared into the Metro that day, he sent me an email at that time (which I never got until arriving home) that I had changed his life in just a moment, that he was starting to lose faith in love and happiness and that it all changed when he saw me again. He said he wasn’t willing to lose me again and wanted to find out if we were meant to be together. After returning home, I naturally got his message and I began to cry as I now finally knew the truth about how he felt and I could tell him I loved him too.

About a month after Paris, he came to visit for 10 days (his first trip to the US) and we actually got to talk and get to know one another without a constant audience. We found out that we do have a strong bond and connection that hasn’t waned over time or distance. And so it began, a romance that would take another year to come full circle, after 12 years in waiting.

“…See there’s this place in me where your fingerprints still rest, your kisses still linger, and your whispers softly echo. It’s the place where a part of you will forever be a part of me.”
–Gretchen Kemp

Happy Valentines Day everyone and keep on dreaming!

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Culture Choc, Daily life in France

 

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Gimme 5 minutes to ‘splain!

Sometimes [I think] we forget that language is the basis of culture. It shapes our experiences and in how we relate to others. If living in another country is not adventurous enough, learning the language can seem like climbing Mount Everest! I can honestly say, I am about halfway up the mountain and on good footing. Have I slipped and almost fallen? Absolutely! Many of these moments, I have humbly chronicled here (in my blog) for your amusement, but more importantly, in hopes that you will be able to step outside of your own culture and laugh with me (OK, ‘at me’ is fine too). Before moving to France, I was in love with all things French, still am. I thought there is no more beautiful language in the world and it has always been a dream of mine, to speak French. Well, again, “be careful what you wish for..”, as the saying goes! I have made every language gaff imaginable, made people laugh, cry and even angry at times. A veritable plethora of human emotions, I have insighted in complete strangers, new friends and family. I guess there is a sense of freedom in knowing that you’ve screwed up so much, that whatever comes is nothing new and hence; nothing you can’t handle. French truly is a beautiful language and I stand by my conviction, but it is certainly not easy to learn, not even for the French. For instance, there are multiple uses for the same word such as ‘toilette‘ (besides the obvious) and different words for the same thing, such as: ‘armoire’ (free standing cabinet), ‘placard’ (built-in cabinet) and just plain old ‘cabinet’ (hanging cabinet, like the kitchen type).

The biggest difference between French and English, is the subtlety. In French, you have to learn the differences between the types of cabinets and other seemingly redundant words, that have very close to the same meaning. In English, not so. You may learn English quicker than French to start, but the subtleties of English come later. After the basics are mastered, the nuances can then be put in place. It seems bizarre to me that a French child could know the subtleties of cabinets and toilets, but somehow, they do!

My poor hubby is constantly bombarded with questions by me about language differences between French and English, and he takes it like a champ. It’s like having a kid ask, ‘but why?’ all the time I would imagine. Sometimes he looks at me like I was just possessed by a body-snatcher (as in, the ‘invasion of’) to “I’m so proud of you, sweetie”, which I must say, is the one I prefer most. But either way, he supports my learning, even after a long day at work. Again, I can only compare it [my situation] to how a parent must feel when they have worked all day, feeling exhausted and your child needs help with their homework. That is probably the most important thing for any expat to know and commit to heart, is that you cannot do it alone. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating; we cannot succeed as expats without the support of those in-country, whether it be a supportive spouse or someone at the local market who is willing to work with you on your language skills.

In learning this [philosophy] early on, you will curb many feelings you will experience that are natural progressions of learning in an expat environment. The ‘imposter effect’ which is best explained as a chronic feeling of pretentiousness. You feel like the new kid on the playground, waiting for someone to pick you to play. At some point, your pronunciation exceeds your actual knowledge and this is the most difficult time. Why? Because you sound like you know what you’re saying, more so than what I call ‘tourist’ language.

When you learn enough to remove some of your native accent and construct simple sentences in present tense, people think you understand EVERYTHING they are saying. This is the imposter syndrome at its full-blown capacity! You feel like you have ‘faked’ your accent enough to trick them into thinking you know more than you know. And as a result, you feel awful that they have to repeat what they’ve said (especially when it’s very personal) which makes them feel more embarrassed than you. To combat this feeling, I would simply nod and smile and I got through most of it, but I still felt terrible that they walked away thinking I understood them, when really, I didn’t. There are just so many times you can ask someone to ‘parlez doucement’ (speak slowly) or repeat themselves, before it becomes awkward. In a nutshell, the expression, “fake it ’till you make it” is necessary to push past these insecurities. I now understand that in the end, most people are happy for you to just listen, nod and smile anyway. My takeaway from this? You can still claim to be a good listener even when it’s not your native tongue; you’re still paying attention to what they’re saying, even though you don’t understand everything. To listen to one another without judgement or interruption, transcends all understanding and never needs explaining.

 
 

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“To listen to this message in French, press 1″…go ahead, I dare you!

Courtesy of Google

We’re all familiar with the customer service prompts, “Press 1 to hear this message in English or presione 2 para escuchar este mensaje en español.” I never really thought much about it until recently, but after I read a post from a friend and consequently, saw all the “likes” for the Facebook group: “Press 1 to hear this message in English, press 2 to learn English,” I felt my blood begin to boil!

After reading the post and feeling my blood pressure rise, I thought, you know, I’m not going to dignify that with a response. Well, my good intentions were spoiled again, as I couldn’t keep quiet about a subject that was so near and dear to me as a visitor and now resident in France. It has taken me everyday, a minimum of 2 hours a day for the past year and a half to learn basic French. This is not to be fluent mind you, far from it! Only now, am I at the point where I understand the larger part of conversations when someone speaks to me and at least the gist of those I don’t. Passive understanding (comprehension without having to concentrate) is still (hopefully) yet in my future, but if I continue, by the end of the year (a mere 2 years later) I should be close to academic fluency. To become truly fluent (e.g. nuance, colloquial understanding), will take many more years. I am so grateful, that this opinion is not shared by my French neighbors, as they have been very understanding and helpful with my language mistakes and have tried to help me any way they could. They seem to inately understand how difficult it is to learn French and have complimented my efforts.

The point being, I’m not sure that those who are so insistent that we learn the language of the said, mono-linguist, truly understand the monumental task they have placed upon the heads of others (themselves, obviously excluded by default). I did in fact respond to the post and here is the excerpt;

POST: Happy Memorial Day!  Press 1 for English, Press 2 to learn English

me: Ouch, that’s a tough one on my end! My French has improved, so guess I pressed 2 to learn but am glad the French have been kind while I was learning. Maybe ‘Press 3’ for patience with those of us learning a new language? ;).

monophonic friend: When in France, speak French. When in USA, English baby! Enjoy France. Miss ya.

Well, I do miss him too, he’s a great guy, but I have to say, I was very stunned that someone who I thought to be intelligent, kind and considerate would still feel this way. Deep down, the devil in me one day hopes, that he will go on vacation or live in a place where he will have to learn a (at least some) foreign language to get by OR run into someone who speaks perfect English, who loves to correct him. I can dream, can’t I?

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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A Living Unknown Soldier’s Battle Scars: Cost of Freedom Series, Pt. 2

The following is the true, unedited story of a living unknown soldier (LUS) who served as a marine in Vietnam. This post contains graphic language and imagery. Discretion is advised.

The ground was loamy and wet and smelled of metal. With every step, his feet would resist being released from its grasp. There was a technique to walking through a rice field, so that mamasan (mother) and papasan (father) couldn’t hear you coming. His boots became living sculptures and socks became more trouble than they were worth, but they don’t call it jungle rot for nothing, so protect your feet, was the mantra. The sandy soil got underneath his clothes and cut like glass, with every move. The tiny droplets of blood became scabs, which begat blisters and eventually, became callused. The calluses were welcomed, because it actually meant relief from where weapons and packs found there resting place on a two-week, unwashed body. LUS liked to walk ‘point’ (lead his unit), because it gave him a sense of control, when in actuality, he knew there was none. They approached the village stealthily, always from the right. Always going to the right meant good luck. Watching the hooch (hut) draw closer into view on its bamboo stilts, they could see mamasan and papasan carrying over-sized baskets of rice–too much for a small family, so he now knew, that they were feeding the Vietcong (his enemy). They had to be silenced.

“Killing was doing America good”, he was told. They were taught that gooks (Vietcong) were dirty, disgusting animals who hate Americans and the idea of freedom. These were the recordings that played in his mind whenever it was time to ‘take-out’ the area. As part of the Walking Dead 1/9, they would leave their calling card, the ace of spades, at the front and back of every village, to let all know that the Walking Dead had come calling.

LUS and the other soldiers continued to approach the hooch, until they were within striking distance. He prefered to sneak up on them and use the butt of his rifle as his weapon to crack-open their skulls. Being the demolition engineer, LUS took the C4 he carried and blew-up the hooch and over-sized rice baskets, to prevent the enemy from benefiting from what mamasan and papasan obviously wouldn’t be needing anymore.

Walking around a hut, he sees a little girl, under 5 years of age, crying out in agony and speaking her native tongue of which he could only feel the intent of her words, but not the meaning. She lay on her back, still alive, with a machete wound, that had cut her from underneath her right hip to her left shoulder. She looked at him with pleading, tearful eyes, as he shooed away the pig that had been feasting on her intestines. He knew that a Vietcong unit had just been through the area, but why would they butcher one of their own children? This was one of many inconsistencies LUS would face. Even being captive in the living nightmare of war 24/7, seeing a child suffer was not something from which he could walk away. So he shot her in the head in the hopes of giving her peace, even if at the cost of his own torment.

“That child still haunts my dreams; I can see her like it was yesterday, even though it was almost a lifetime ago.”  The guilt associated with having to kill, especially a child, no matter the reason, exacts its toll for 45 years and counting. “Several of my buddies have committed suicide and I still think about it…I just want the bees to stop in my head.” LUS revealed that there were MIA‘s that remained (willingly) in Vietnam, because they were too addicted to drugs (to suppress the memories) to come home and face their new reality. They instead, befriended the ‘friendlies’ (south Vietnamese mountain farmers) and taught them how to automate their farm equipment in exchange for drugs and anonymity.

Which begs the question, how do you come home from an experience that is life-altering and be expected to be the person you were before you left? How can you just flip the switch from having no rules (then, there were no rules like today), expected to integrate back into society, as if nothing had happened? Vietnam veterans are husbands, fathers and employees, that go about life, suppressing all the anger [of the war experience] that has now disguised itself into self-loathing, anxiety and depression because it has no place to call home in a civilian environment. It puts on a cloak of deception, fearing revelation in the mind of the soldier it infects. Are the bees in LUS’s head a summation of the guilt he carries or the displaced anger that has never had a chance to be neutralized? I don’t have the answers, I wish I did, but I do hope his bees are set free someday.

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Posted by on July 14, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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Is “correct my French, SVP” carved on my forehead?

SVP: is the abbreviated, formal French phrase for 'please' (s'il vous plaît), used often on public signage

Let’s face it, no one LIKES to be corrected; we just try to stay open to it because it’s for our own good, right? Well, for many years, I have been open to being corrected. It was a long hard road, but I can honestly say, I don’t mind (not to be confused with like) correction. No matter the subject, I seem to be one of those people whom others feel a need (or is compulsion a better description?) to correct. Is it because I am constantly screwing things up and they take pity on me? It’s possible. Is it because I seem open to correction, that people are free to dole out the “you mean…” and “you should have said…” comments? Or is it because my past is coming back to haunt me after all the times I’ve corrected others, oblivious to the damage I was inflicting? Now, there’s a stark realization! My father always said I had a ‘noggin (southernese for head)’ made of wood, but I never thought the expression would have such literal impact (gee, thanks dad!).

OK, I readily admit, I was a ‘chronic corrector.’ My parents did it to me, so by golly, I should pass it on! After all, it really is in their best interest in the end, I told myself. But was I correcting others to help them or was I correcting only to prove [impress upon them] how much I knew? Regardless of the reason, I’ve had to re-evaluate my stance on correction and being corrected. This flawed logic kept me from not only understanding how hurtful over-correcting can be, but also how it can significantly undermine your learning. When everything needs correction, we don’t have the confidence to open our mouths, not just in learning a language, but in other things as well. We begin to cultivate an attitude of giving up before we start. I certainly agree that correction is needed at times and if someone cares about you, they will and should correct you. But every time is not necessary and being selective and compassionate in how you do it, makes all the difference. Guess you’ve figured out, I have a story about this one? Well, of course, you’re right again.

My husband and I joined some of his family (we were not married then) in Provence for vacation and naturally, we had a wonderful time. I got to spend time with his nieces and we decided why not take them with us to our place in the French Alps before they went back home to Belgium? Sounded like a great idea (and truly, it was) at the time. The girls were about eight and ten years old, so we got to be silly and goofy together; laughing, dancing and singing. My French was minimal, as I was just learning then. We communicated with my basic vocabulary, supplemented heavily with a plethora of hand gestures and facial expressions. It seemed like a pretty good system we had going. Maybe, I should have stuck to it a bit longer…

As I began to get to know them better over the past week, I began to speak more in French, but every word was greeted with some sort of correction. At first, I was OK and rolled with it, but then, after a while, I began to get disheartened and then, just darn mad! Yes, they were just children, I kept reminding myself. And because of that fact, it made it even harder to be corrected and consequently, not get angry about it. I was stuck! How could I get angry at them? After all, being children, they didn’t have the understanding that I had, the compassion, the…wait!

And there it was…the realization that our nieces were responding in the same way I had for years. Oblivious to the hurt that it caused, they thought they were helping, and they were, just not on my time schedule. Amazing, how we continue in the same mistakes and selfishly, we don’t ‘get it’ until we are greeted with the same emotions, but from a different perspective. What goes around always does come around. At 44 years old, I finally have lived long enough to see it happen, not just in my life, but also in the lives of others.

With all that being said, yes…I do apparently have, “correct my French, SVP (please)” carved on my forehead. It was being forged many years ago and now it has been a sign well-weathered from the expat experience. I have visions of one of those carved wooden signs, that we’ve seen at many a crafts fair. I can still smell the faint brûler (French for burning) of the wood, as each helpful correction is forging its mark, to make me a better person. So, please do correct the ones you love, just beware of how you do it–because you may soon smell the burning wood from your forehead, when you least expect it.

 
 

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A Living Unknown Soldier’s Battle for Independence: The Cost of Freedom Series, Pt. 1

This is not your typical, ‘hip-hip-hooray, it’s Independence Day,’ kind of post, but is still a tribute to not only our lost veterans, but also to the living ones. We will starkly look at the continuing cost of freedom for soldiers and how this battle is still raging in the minds of veterans wanting independence from their pasts. In this series, we will explore the causes and effects of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder): coping with suicidal thoughts from reliving the past daily, loss of contact with family and friends and most of all, the lack of understanding (validation) by others who can never truly understand the non-refundable personal sacrifices made.

When most civilians think of Independence Day, we envision spending time with family and friends, barbecuing and setting off fireworks while celebrating a day off from work. We might say grace for the soldiers lost, but what about the one’s still living, still coping? On an intellectual level, sure, we know what Independence Day is, or do we? Do we truly understand the cost of our freedom?

The inspiration for this series comes from a man who has elected to stay anonymous for many valid and understandable reasons, but most of all, until he can make peace with himself. From candid interviews with our unknown living soldier, we will explore the psyche of a Vietnam veteran who is still trying to reconcile his past, still suffering from a war that many have forgotten and replaced with the ‘war of the week’ headline mentality. His account is a first-hand, in-depth perspective of a Marine who served nineteen months, from 1969-1971, deployed to Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam and operated from the DMZ (demilitarized zone) of Da Nang, Dong HaQuang Tri, Hue, Khe Sahn and Caviet.

Our unknown, yet living solider was part of the famous 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, the so-called, “The Walking Dead.” This title was given to the one-nine (1/9) when Ho Chi Minh declared he would, “kill them all, so just consider themselves dead walking,” announcing over a loud-speaker (in English), just before the siege near Song Nu Yi River in 1966. After that infamous siege, “Di bo Chet” (the Walking Dead) name stuck. As foreshadowed, the Vietnam one-nine infantry battalion suffered the most casualties in marine corp history. Based on a typical battalion strength of 800 Marines and Navy hospital corpsmen, 93.63% (747) were Killed In Action (KIA) and 0.25% (2) were Missing In Action (MIA).

Always Faithful –– ©1997 Doug Todd

Here are those who have borne the battle

Those, in the crucible of combat, tried.

Tempered and turned of the finest mettle,

These were The Sons of America’s Pride!

The First Battalion of The Ninth Marines,

Hammered and forged in the fires of Hell;

Built of their blood and their broken dreams,

A legend for scribes, unborn, to tell.

They fought like Warriors and they died like men

‘‘Till their page of history was stained blood-red;

And they earned from foe as well as from friend

That Honorable title, “The Walking Dead”!

These were the Sons who stepped forward bravely–

Courage and Strength and Faith un-tried;

To fight as the Valorous “Always Faithful”.

These are The Sons of America’s Pride!

The following video contains mature content:

Our soldier, who we will call, LUS (living unknown soldier) to protect his identity throughout this series, started out like many others, wanting to serve his country and protect his and his family’s rights–freedoms. Economic times were hard and the prospects for a seventeen year old then, were slim. The opportunity to help his family through the difficult times and to serve his country by ‘saving it’ from communism, seemed like a win-win. He saw the images of gallantry on TV, along with the ads and was inspired to follow in the footsteps of his father: to make a difference for his family and country. Is there any more noble cause (to an American) than to fight for freedom? Freedom is a founding principle of our country and is a vein that runs very deep in the psyche of an American soldier and particularly, a Marine.

So at seventeen, LUS enlisted September 2, 1968 (his birthday) and headed for boot camp on November 5, 1968 at Camp Lejeune as a demolition engineer. Little did he realize the full impact of that decision, where it would take him or the cost of freedom for which he would be fighting. In the coming few months, we will tell you in detail about his personal journey and hopefully, you will have a better understanding of the impact of freedom on our lives that we now enjoy through a day off, eating BBQ, baked-beans and potato salad.

Please do enjoy a wonderful celebration and as you do, try to think not only of the ones lost in war, but also of those who are still fighting the living soldier’s battle. The battle for independence from personal guilt, the external pressure to justify their experience to those who never served and the understanding of the price veterans pay daily for our freedom. Happy Independence Day and deepest thanks to all soldiers: past, present and future for the freedom we enjoy today.

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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