Since I moved over here, the questions I get asked most frequently are, what is the main difference living there to Britain and, is there a Tesco?
Living on the ‘mainland’ has highlighted a lot of differences but the most obvious is, of course, the language. I work with a variety of nationalities. French, German, some Spanish, Italian, a few Danes and, of course, no multi-cultural European experience is complete without at least one Pole (PJ!). Every nationality I work with speaks at least one other language apart from their mother tongue. Compared with my offerings, it is shameful. Actually, the longer that I spend over here, the worse my English is actually getting. I am finding myself cutting out large parts of sentences to make it easier for people to understand. Instead of basic sentences like, “shall we discuss this after lunch?”, I say, “me, you, talk after lunch?” I am an idiot. I have no idea how to form basic sentences in English anymore – I really am doomed as I have no other language to fall back on.
To highlight the high-level of linguistic action I am up against – I work with a girl who learnt Dutch in 3 months by reading the Dutch version of Harry Potter. I am not one for Harry Potter in English, never mind Dutch, but still, this is a credit to her. This Dutch Harry-Potter-reading-wonder-girl was born in Poland, lived in France most of her life and married a German man. I am in awe of her. I mean, some of my family are masters of all these languages in one sentence after a few glasses of Vina Sol, but somehow it’s not quite the same really.
If I look into my family ties, maybe I have more of an answer. I will never forget one holiday in snowy France, upon leaving a restaurant, my mum shouted to the waiter, “en hiver!” but didn’t quite get the annunciation truly correct so he thought she had said “on y va!”, which of course is something else entirely. She thought she was mixing with the locals and saying to him ‘see you next winter!’, when in fact she had said to him, ‘let’s go!’. This talent for languages does not stop here. When my father orders takeaway food from restaurants, he can be likened to a chameleon because he starts to take on the accent of who he talks to. This used to make it very embarrassing for me when I was sent to collect the Chinese food from Mr. Chows and Mr.Chow wondered why I wasn’t Chinese. Mr. Singh from the Indian take away, he also had some questions about my family tree.
Based on my extensive and thorough research (my parents), the summary of my findings are that the people of Great Britain are not the most natural of linguists.
Some other differences are more obvious such as the currency and driving on the
other wrong side of the road. I still call everything pounds and pennies and I still veer to the left when anything comes towards me and that causes me some anxiety. I still drink tea with milk but nobody will take that from me. You can take my pound but you’ll never take my Typhoo sort of thing. I have never seen such a variety of fruit and herbal teas in my life. Growing up in the North of England, tea is tea. When someone offers you a tea, you get a tea. Herbal tea in the UK is regarded with suspicion or, as my granddad says, “something for hippies.” There are maybe 2 or 3 varieties and that’s it. Over here, in a restaurant, ask for a tea and the waiter will wheel you over a cabinet filled with an assortment of tea flavours that will all ultimately taste the same. On the shelves back home, the PG stands proudly next to the Yorkshire at eye level. Over here, it’s just ‘English Tea’ and is relegated, like a cheap copy of Playboy, to the top shelf of the tea area in the supermarket, shoved carelessly between the Starmint (what is a starmint exactly?) and the Venkel (don’t get me started) tea. Anyway, I digress.
Aside from my language handicap, in general the language barrier proves to be troublesome to my general social skills. I am a person who relies on being able to make people laugh and if I have not got that, then I don’t have so much to fall back on. I can’t slip into a pithy conversation about politics. I have no interest in watching sport and therefore have no knowledge. I don’t know about global financial situations. I don’t even know about my own local financial situation (I use my bank statements as door wedges) so I am hardly going to be clued up on the bigger picture. I need to crack gags to get by but unfortunately humour is something that does not translate easily. Sarcasm is something that definitely does not translate at all. I found this out when I made a comment to some colleagues about how I love a drink in the morning – which was of course a joke. My comment was not helped by the fact that Dutch t.v. insists on airing episodes of ‘Booze Britain’ each week. Come on!!
Anyway, in spite of this, I have managed to secure some friendships since I arrived. The friends that I have made are a multitude of nationalities of course. I can get through entire evenings and have no idea what anyone is saying. I have a few German friends, Danish, Polish, Dutch, French…the list is exhausting. It makes for fun times when we meet up for social events/binge drinking. We’re like the UN with wine.
Of course, the Dutch speak English with ease but it isn’t quite good enough that I don’t speak Dutch so I have committed to taking some Dutch lessons. I want to be in the Dutch gang.
But for now I will be content with just shouting really loudly and pointing to things.