Other Cultural Quirks

1677It’s the little things you notice most, when you make the transition to living in a different culture.  When you travel, you tend to notice the bigger things, like the fact that you have to look in the opposite direction when crossing a busy road to avoid becoming a pancake.  But when you start living alongside the locals, taking the bus, the U-bahn, using the local supermarket every day, visiting the doctor and trying to translate the untranslatable letters that turn up in the letter box on an alarmingly regular basis, you start to notice the little things.

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Three Cultures in a Nutshell

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Moving from New Zealand to Britain, when I was 26,was at least moving to a country where the same language was spoken and many of the same traditions and broad cultural behaviours were observed.  It was a little deceptive, as I discovered, because I expected it to be roughly the same country, half a world apart.  It wasn’t.  In some ways, it took me longer to adjust to the cultural differences because they were subtle, and I wasn’t looking for them.  Had I moved to India, for example, I would have expected absolutely everything to be utterly different, and prepared accordingly.  But England and Wales, where I lived the longest, were different from each other as well as from the country I had come from at the bottom of the world, in spite of the many superficial similarities. Continue reading

Such a feeble name for such a disabling thing

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The first thing I notice is a drop in my tolerance.  A short-temperedness, being rather too quick to swear under my breath, impatience with others.  Growing clumsiness, objects broken, dropped, and bruises on my body multiply as I miss doorways.  Along with that, an increase in worry; about the future, about my relationships, about tomorrow.  Anything and everything.  Little things start to become big things, as my rational mind starts to fall asleep.

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How to Celebrate

One of the things I love about Germany, and this applies to most of Europe, is the centuries-old traditions they have to mark the beginning of things, the end of things, the middle of things, etc.

For example, recently in Bavaria, they have just finished Fasching, their name for ‘Carnival’.  The reason for Fasching was explained in our German class – in German, obviously.  Hence I didn’t understand much of it.  Since then I’ve picked up a bit more.  Carnival is a ‘big thing’ in the north, especially Cologne, where they use huge floats to make political statements to protest about events of the previous year. (2016 must have provided them with a hell of a lot of material.)  It’s less of a big thing down south, but people still dress up as police and blue-haired princesses and blast rowdy music from stages in the city centres while dancing in what appears to be auditions for Eurovision. In the Black Forest region, they wear wooden masks representing Voodoo priests and witches, and then get confetti thrown at them to ‘drive them out’: this apparently represents driving away winter, the darkness, and all the ‘bad things’ to make room for the light of spring and all things good.  In Bavaria, the word ‘Fasching’ comes from the medieval word ‘vaschnc’ which in modern German means ‘Fastnacht’ or the ‘fasting night’.  This fasting begins immediately after Fasching and is known to the rest of us as Lent.  Shrove Tuesday is the culmination of the festivities, and at 11.11am on the 11th of the 11th month the Fasching Prince and Princess were selected to reign over the ‘crazy season’ which officially begins on 7th January.  There are Fasching balls for every society or guild, such as the Washer-women’s Ball, the Carnival in Rio, and the Schabernackt, as well as endless office parties.  Fasching doughnuts are sold by the dozen.  During this period ‘anything goes’ and it is said that the birthrate rockets from the ‘women’s day’ which begins the festivities.  Well, I wouldn’t know about that.

So I turned up in Munich with some visiting friends, having no idea about any of this, only to be faced with devils, red-uniformed soldiers, and music so loud we couldn’t actually do the free walking tour because we couldn’t hear the guide who was screaming at the top of his American voice.  It was Rose Monday, and the Germans were marking this in typical fashion with non-stop drinking all day.  We only just managed to find a seat to squeeze into at the Victoria Market (Viktualienmarkt) biergarten which seats about a hundred.  The beer, as always, was great: Helles (‘ein kleines Helles, bitte’ often produces a shake of the head – no, the smallest is half litre) or Weiss (wheat), golden and honeyed and hoppy all at the same time.  Or Dunkel (dark) which I can’t comment on because I’ve never tried it.  We ate caramelised almonds and roasted chestnuts and bratwurst, and there was gluhwein and schokolade obst (kebabs of fruit covered in chocolate, which the Germans seem inordinately fond of and I always find so disappointing).

I was taken by how, despite it being a work-week Monday, there were families everywhere, and passers-by being sucked into the general merriment, dancing at the very bad music and overflowing with wellbeing towards strangers and friends alike.  It felt like the beginning of summer, even though it was only 8 degrees (a big improvement on the previous day’s high of 3).  Of course, at the time of writing this (Ash Wednesday), silence has fallen and a sombre, serious tone has settled over the nation.
At least until Easter, when festivities begin again.

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How shall we respond?

With everything that is going on in the world right now, like many others I’ve been finding it hard not to feel overwhelmed.  I’ve found myself trying to distance myself from the news, unfollow Facebook posts that lead me into demoralising discussions with people who hold the polar opposite viewpoint to mine, or tempt me to read conversations by strangers across the world who are closed to everything and everyone who does not see the world in exactly the same way that they do.  Then I start to feel bad about my non-engagement. I mean, how is anything to change in the world if we don’t engage with unpleasant, disturbing and disagreeable people and situations?  How would women have ever gained the vote? Or Europe been saved from Hitler in World War II? Or precious drinking water protected from the Dakota Access Pipeline due to the actions of the Standing Rock Sioux?

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I’m Back!

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It’s been a while since I blogged.  This is because I had decided in mid 2016 that I wouldn’t blog anymore.  The decision was prompted by the amount of time and energy that went into blogging, squeezed between craft-creating and a full-time job, leaving me without time OR energy to create a single new thing.

In addition, we moved countries.

The most life-affirming part of it for me, is that I no longer have a job. I am lucky enough that for now P supports us both and I am free to write, to create, to make music and to learn German, the language of my host country. (And today, to shovel snow.)

This may not be a long-term thing, so I intend to make the most of it.

For the last five months, we have been settling in to our house in a quiet residential area in Bavaria, south Germany.  We finally have a garden!  Right now the garden is hidden under half a foot of snow. Not enough snow to sneeze at, by all accounts, but enough to resemble a fairytale from the Brothers Grimm (I figured this is an appropriate simile given that we are not so far from the Black Forest, now).  Certainly not enough snow to ski, which is fine by me.img_0788

I attended intensive German classes which consisted of 4 hours every day plus homework.  Doesn’t sound like much, but my brain begs to differ.  After two months of this I had had enough, and was able to have short, broken conversations with German locals consisting of where I’m from, where I live, where they live, what I want (e.g. the right train), the weather, how long I’ve been learning German, and what I think of Germany…and the price of weisswurst.  So now I’m attending twice-weekly classes of 3 hours each, which I hope to sustain over the long haul, as long as I have sufficient savings.

Guests arrived in quick succession for the month of December, the month of Christmas markets.  I think I must have visited around 25 markets in total, some several times over, and no, I didn’t get tired of them.  In fact I’m considering putting pins in a large map detailing where the best markets are for which products, who had the best gluhwein, the worst flammbrot, and so on.  This should help next Christmas.  I really don’t want to waste time on stalls selling sub-standard gluhwein, do I?  One day I was in a market with Australian guests and we were stopped by a young German journalist and her cameraman for an interview about the Berlin tragedy which had happened the evening before.  It explained why our markets were deserted that day.  (It was also a particularly freezing day in which the three year old Australian child with us nearly got hypothermia.) She wanted to know what we now thought about shopping in Christmas markets and whether this would affect our choices.  We said, if we allow mad people to determine how we will live our lives, then they have won.  Plus in Australia you take your chances everywhere with the wildlife.  But on the other hand, we understood the general reticence, and our hearts were breaking for those poor souls in Berlin.img_0051

New Year’s Day was glorious with a hoar frost that lasted 48 hours.  We went for a walk in the Bavarian forest and marvelled.  Yesterday P and I walked to our local park and watched families sledding and skiing.  Seeing children of all ages out there with their parents in the parks and forests and rivers is so refreshing. They don’t look like they’d rather be playing computer games at home or skyping friends.  It feels a bit like stepping backwards fifty years, in the best possible way.

Now all is quiet.  Guests have gone, P is back at work, the snow settles softly outside my window, and for now I am free.  This is when I decide to start my blog again since there is a lot to say about living in three different cultures: the idiotic things I have already said and done, the generosity shown towards foreigners, the impatience shown by others, the subtle cultural markers which you can’t learn from a textbook or from visits, but only from the experience of ‘full immersion’.  Plus a few updates about my creative experiments, since I may actually have *updates* (cue wild cheering). img_0630

I have no idea how many of you I have lost or how many I had in the first place.  But hopefully you will join me again in my wonderings and wanderings.

Curiosity: Part III

eb398-b79d6b6939181b267b644d6de59fdbc65b15dMy latest blog is once again about curiosity.  I have just finished reading Curious, by Ian Leslie, and there was so much food for thought there that I had to share it with everyone.  Some of my longheld convictions were even changed by reading this book, which is something that doesn’t often happen these days…

So Leslie begins by discussing education, and I suspected I knew where he was heading with this.  Turns out I didn’t. Continue reading