Saturday, May 19, 2012

Advice from a broad abroad


Oh, hello!  Has it been six months already?  Where does the time go?  Not only have I failed to contribute to this blog in the last 6 months (I cringe when I think of my mother’s steely ‘look of truth’ as she reads this), but it’s now coming up on 2 years since I left Canada.  To move to the UK.  In the middle of a recession.  Yikes, what were we thinking?

Luckily it’s all turned out well for the most part.  We’ve gotten into the routine of life in London and we’re quite happy here for the moment.  I feel like a real expat success.  I’ve conquered the expat lifestyle.  I have become an expert on all things expat.  I could even write a guidebook if there weren’t already a thousand of them out there (these ones are quite good, by the way).

Still, in all the times I’ve moved overseas, I’ve gained little nuggets of wisdom.  Wisdom I wish I’d had from the start.  Wisdom I’ll now share with you.

Your body will always crave what it cannot have.  When I moved to France, I bought maple syrup at a premium.  In Brazil my cousin and I ate an entire jar of imported peanut butter with a spoon.  While living in Korea I forced my parents to send me care packages of Lipton noodle soup, with its fluorescent yellow salt-broth.  Regardless of the fabulous food in your new country, you will begin to crave unavailable home staples.  You will yearn for foodstuffs you previously found unappealing for the simple reason that you can’t find them now.  You will then go to ridiculous lengths to source them, paying terribly high prices along the way.  Start a fund for this before you leave.  It’s no fun to realise you’ve been spending all your pocket money on what is basically dried pasta and powder cheese-like flavouring.

You will feel like a teenager again.  Remember the rollercoaster of emotions?  The elation at a newly discovered song, or despair at not being able to join your friends because you were grounded?  The confusion and clumsiness of your new body, and the frustrating dynamics of your friendships?  They’re baaaaaaaaaack!  Oh, I’m sorry.  You thought you were a grown adult and now I’ve gone and burst your bubble.  You see, the expat’s life is full of emotions like these – lofty highs when you discover you can now speak to the butcher instead of pointing, and crushing lows when you have to fill out yet more paperwork.  Interactions with new friends will seem fraught with complications (in Brazil it took me a frustratingly long time to realise that a planned outing had to be confirmed about 8 times, and even then it was common for my new friend to cancel last-minute).  Your body will seem clumsy as you catch yourself trying to mimic local gestures.  And even when you’ve reached the final stage of culture shock, you’ll still have the occasional day when you burst into tears the second you get home because some undeserving commuter managed to squeak onto the train ahead of you, despite the fact that you’d given him your best pointy-elbowed jab.

There’s a reason many of your friends are expats too.  You may not all share the same nationality, but you share a common experience – coming from all over the world to make this new country your home.  These friends understand what you are going through because they are living the same thing.  By all means, you should have local friends.  Go out, get to know your host culture and befriend its people.  This is an essential part of integration.  Just don’t beat yourself up too much if you find yourself gravitating towards other foreigners.  It’s a natural and powerful bond, one your local friends won’t understand even if they’ve lived abroad themselves, because it’s hard to wrap the mind around the foreign experience of one’s own country.

As your perception of home shifts you will begin to feel deeply disconnected from your old life.  Things you thought you’d miss terribly (having a proper bathtub, for example), you find you can do very well without.  You come to think of your new life as being better than your old one.  Returning for a visit, while a pleasant prospect, also seems a bit of a chore.  You can also go months without speaking to friends with whom you used to keep in touch on a regular basis.  When you do think to ring them, you fluctuate between feeling sad that you’re no longer a big part of their lives, and feeling resentment that you’re the one who always has to make the effort.  You might get jealous of their easier and more comfortable lifestyles, and feel miffed that when you extol the virtues of your own life, they don’t really seem to get it.  Given this cocktail of angst, it’s no wonder you don’t ring them more often!  But it’s not really their fault, either.  You are, after all, the one who chose to move abroad.

I know I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Carrying watermelons

I first saw the movie Finding Nemo in French. It was at a cinema in Strasbourg known for showing movies in their original version with subtitles, so when we went to see Nemo I didn't think anything of it. Of course, being a children's movie it had been dubbed into French. Not that this was a problem in terms of comprehension for me, but in case you're wondering, no. It wasn't the same as it would have been in its original version. I remember whispering to my friend over halfway through, "Oh! I get it. The turtles are supposed to be Australian surfer dudes!" This was not conveyed very well in French, and it doesn't surprise me in the least.

Movies are always better in their original version, so you can hear the inflections of the voice. I'm not saying subtitles don't make a mockery of the dialogue, though. When my husband and I watch a French movie with English subtitles, I can't help but notice that someone will say something like, "Get out of here you limaceous endomorph! You make me sick!" and the subtitles will read "Leave now." At least they're not as bad as dubbed voiceovers though.

I was discussing this just today with a friend who informed me the plot of Dirty Dancing was subtly differerent when dubbed in French. When Baby delivers the classic line "I carried a watermelon" and then repeats it afterwards as though she can't believe how dumb she sounded, it's clear that she's already fallen hard for Johnny. But dubbed in French, she replies "Is it a crime to carry a watermelon?!" Not only have the words and the delivery changed, but with the change in language comes cultural imposition. French Baby doesn't go around making a fool of herself because she's madly in love with some unobtainable crush. French Baby is rather feisty.

To be honest, as a character I probably prefer French Baby, but she changes the original story. Anyway, I know I had my share of 'watermelon moments', and the original line at least makes me feel like a member of the 'I've just said something so pathetic I want to die' club, and I think we can all relate to that on some level.
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I am very glad NaBloPoMo is over for another year. Hurray!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In sight of the finish line

I'm almost finished with NaBloPoMo, and I've got to say it's a bit of a relief. This year hasn't been an exercise in good writing (I freely admit some of my posts have been terrible) so much as an exercise in discipline. If you knew me outside of my professional life, you'd think this was the funniest thing you'd ever heard.

I'm not known for having great discipline or stamina. I've always been more of a sprinter in all things. Combine this with my competitive streak and you can understand why my father was greatly disappointed in my failure to love cross-country running. I knew I'd never be the winner. I wasn't built for long runs, and just finishing the race was not enough motivation in my eight year old mind. Often I'd stop and walk just as the finish line came into sight. It must have frustrated the spectators, but I didn't care. I was almost there and the hard part was over, so I deserved a little break, right?

This was how it was in school, too. Catch me at the beginning of the school year and I'd have a binder painstakingly labeled for every subject, my agenda constantly updated, and my notes clearly legible. By April I would be shoving outlines haphazardly into my backpack, and handing in assignments just in time - or sometimes late. At least I taught myself how to charm my teachers into accepting the late assignments, and to argue for better grades - two skills that actually have had bearing on my success as an introvert living in an extrovert world.

Plus I've managed to convince you you're reading a bona fide post, when really I'm just rambling about my brinksmanship. I WIN!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Moving on

Today we went and checked out a flat in the suburbs, as we're unsure if we'll stay in our current building next school year. This other flat isn't really any nicer than what we're currently in, but it has the undeniable advantage of being about half of what we're paying now. Still, it's a world away from inner London, and I think we both found it a little foreign.

"Smell that. I think it's what they call clean air."
"Shh! It's too quiet here to talk in a normal voice. We'd better whisper."

The area is nice, though, with wide, leafy streets. The high street seems lively(ish), and it has earned bonus points from me for having a Vietnamese restaurant. So we'll see. It's not the only place in contention for next year, but so far we like what we've seen.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Top 10 things to do in London

The other day a friend kindly sent me this article listing the top 10 things to do in London. I'm sorry, but whoever wrote this article has probably never been to London. The list is terrible, poorly researched (the bridge in the photo is actually called Tower Bridge), and definitely not the top 10 of things to see in London. While I appreciate that some items like the aquarium were added for the benefit of families with children, places like that are hardly unique enough to London to qualify in the top 10. If you must travel with your children, and frankly I don't see how that could ever be considered a vacation, take them to the Tower of London for pete's sake! There's enough gory history there to appease even the eye-rollingest of teenagers.

So without further ado, here are my top 10 things to do in London - catered to my own interests of course, but noteworthy nonetheless.

1) Tower of London - I have been several times, and each time I learn something new. The beefeaters are charming guides, there are numerous towers to explore, crown jewels to covet, and you get to see the place where Anne Boleyn had her head chopped off. WIN!

2) Westminster Abbey - This made it onto the list in the article, but I would give it the edge over St Paul's Cathedral. Both are beautiful, but the Abbey has lots of dead monarchs buried inside, plus the trend factor of being the church in which Will and Kate got married last year.

3) Borough Market - foodie heaven. Need I say more?

4) Regent's Park - gets my vote every spring for the most beautiful park in London.

5) The V&A museum - this has fast become my favourite museum. Excellent permanent collection, cool special exhibits, and much less crowded than the British Museum.

6) London's West End and other theatres - do yourself a favour and don't see a popular musical. Opt instead for a play like Pygmalion, or some Agatha Christie or Shakespear. The audience will consist of real Londoners and chances are there will be someone famous in the cast.

7) Westminster Palace and the riverbank - the houses of parliament are a must-see, and strolling along the river at night can't be beat.

8) Buckingham Palace - you'll have to get there early to beat the crowds before the changing of the guard, but like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Empire State Building in New York, it's one of those things you have to tick off your list.

9) The Churchill War Rooms - left as they were at the end of the 2nd World War (though I'm pretty sure the mannequins were placed there afterwards). Very cool history.

10) The bus - no need to take the underground, it's just full of disgruntled commuters like me. Take the bus instead and enjoy the scenery. Okay, I guess this one is pretty self-serving, but the bus does give you a better idea of where you are in the city.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tiny dinner party

I'm having two friends over for dinner tonight, which in our tiny studio qualifies as a dinner party. It's sort of in honour of American Thanksgiving, but since three of us are Canadian, it's probably not the best substitute. Suffice to say it has motivated me to scrub toilets and wipe off counters and actually put my clothes in the closet. And if you know me at all, you know I don't do that sort of thing very often, especially with such a dutiful husband to do them for me. He's at the library right now, though, so I'm braving the lysol alone. Wish me luck!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Variety - the spice of food

Let's continue with this food theme, shall we? Mostly because I deny myself dinner until my obligatory daily post is finished, and at this point I'm so hungry I think I'm hallucinating. Computer screens can look like a leg of jamon iberico, right? Okay, maybe not...

Yesterday I confessed to using a popular cooking shortcut, the no-cook lasagne noodle, and the fact that though it always fails to delight my tastebuds I keep going back to it. I think this happens to a lot of people, with a variety of products designed to make life in the kitchen easier. Lots of them do work, of course, but some of them don't - or at least not to the extent that the time saved is worth the inferior result.

I can't think of any more time-savers offhand, but I do know that I am almost always disappointed with substitute products for authentic exotic ingredients. If you don't live in a huge, cosmopolitan city like I do, you probably don't have a choice but to buy Mr Woo's Generic Stirfry Sauce (or some other subsitute product from the tiny 'foreign foods' section). That's unfortunate for you, but so long as you've never tasted the real thing I suppose you don't notice the difference.

When I first moved from my the city where I grew up to a small town in the Maritimes, I was shocked at how little choice there was at the supermarket. No bok choy in the produce, no fresh jalapenos, no spices more exotic than dried basil. I suppose there was an Oriental section - if Mr Noodle pots count as Oriental. Other than that, it was a pretty meat 'n' potatoes kind of place. Which is great if you like meat and potatoes. Every day. But I don't and I don't think it's too dramatic to say I nearly died from lack of variety. Yes, I'm sure that was the cause of my walking pneumonia, and not, you know, life at university.

Any products you love that save you time? Any decent substitutes? Any products the rest of us should avoid? Comment please. Especially you people from Russia who are on this site 10 times a day (who are you?) - though with my moniker you probably think I'm some sort of 'special bride service'. I'm not.