Friday, October 14, 2011

Adjusting to Life in Another Language


We got 'told' in Dutch about
our inproper disposal of
glass bottles, note was
taped up in the elevator
for all to see in our building
 (Bottles were mostly wine
and beer...stupid, drunk
Americans)
Living as an expat can be challenging, and I now have a newfound respect for all the foreign folks who seemed lost in so many ways back home in the states.  I hope I was helpful enough when asked directions in the past or asked where the best restaurant was in broken english or with hand gestures while out and about in LA, NYC, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta...etc.  I must have one of those friendly, helpful faces, because I am often asked for help in public, even here in Belgium.  I have had people approach me for directions in more than one city here in Europe.  But, more often than not these days, I'm the one asking...and in my broken Dutch or Frenglish or my idiot attempt at German, please...don't try this at home.  I find that if I smile a lot and help them along with their English, people can usually tell me what I need to know.  And lately, I must say, some words in Dutch are just rolling off my tongue, which surprises ME the most and I want to give myself a star everytime I remember the correct way to ask for something or greet someone or thank someone or say good-bye (tot ziens).  I'm also getting very good at the three-kiss (drie keer).  Right cheek kiss, left cheek kiss, right cheek kiss.  It's not as easy as it sounds...I have a good-sized nose that tends to get hooked on people's cheeks or worse yet, sometimes I even bump their nose with my nose in the process.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, people in Belgium like to kiss on the cheek when they greet a friend or colleague they know (in a social situation or even sometimes a professional situation).  Some folks will shake hands if they know you are American, which seems uncomfortable for them, especially men shaking a woman's hand. So, I'm getting good at just going in for the kill...kiss, kiss, kiss.  Sometimes the language barrier is funny and sometimes embarrassing, and I find myself trying to be more careful about what I say, so not to be misunderstood, which for me, is an interesting exercise in self-control.  I think I'm getting even more polite and certainly more politically correct.  Lots of Europeans like to tell me what is wrong with American government and what needs to happen for the world economy to be fixed.  Not a lot different from the rhetoric I hear back in the states and just like at home, I strike a smile and nod and wait for them to feel like they've had their fair-say.  I'm just not that politically conversational -- at home or abroad.  I vote, study the issues, but it's a private matter for me, just like religion and well, some other things too.  At least out in public, that is...if you know me well, I'll share my views (it's the Norwegian gene in me to play my cards close to my chest).  That all said, the funniest thing happened this week.  We've been careful to research and figure out (well, I had anyway, because I tend to be anal about domestic things) the different color bags to use to dispose of our trash and recyclables here in Antwerp.  We'd heard (again, really just me) that they are strict about their policies and we not only wanted to avoid high fines, but also because we like being green.  We've been carefully separating our plastics, bottles, cans, garden debris, paper and all other trash.  Since we travel so much, we hadn't noticed that our glass was being set out in the hallway near the refuse closet in the lobby of our building.  Someone was nice enough to dispose of it properly for some time now, and we don't know who that was, but whoever it was, they finally got mad enough to leave a note in the elevator with our bag of glass in the lobby.  We didn't get it at first, because the note was in Dutch and the glass was now in a box instead of our bag, so we passed right by it for a few days.  Finally, we got on the lift the other night, and their was a longer, more intense looking letter with lots of explanation points!!!  I told Mr. Lane, someone must be in trouble, because this letter looked threatening.  It was late, but I was curious, so I took the note into our flat and tried to translate as much as I could (the handwriting was not very clear, probably because they were so angry when they wrote it).  From what I was able to translate, it seemed as though some idiots were putting glass into the plastics-only container, which was dangerous and could cause someone to cut themselves if the glass broke inside the container and that these disrespectful people were obviously too lazy to walk their glass to the proper disposal site.  What?  Disposal site?  It's a plastics-only container?  "Honey! I think this note is for us..."  Of course, Mr. Lane was already asleep by then, so I woke him and made him go down to the disposal area with me and retrieve all of our glass debris (and we'd had a party recently, so there was quite a bit).  I'm a rule follower, so later, after searching the web, I found that Antwerp has these really ugly receptacles around town where you put your glass.  I'd seen one at the end of our lane, but didn't know that's what it was...so again...Mr. Lane was retrieved and off we went, after midnight, mind you, to find our neighborhood receptacle.  There it was...right there all the time, that ugly roundish looking thing that blocked my view to the west when turning onto the main road from our flat.  "Ahhh, here it is," I said to Mr. Lane, "help me load our glass...the green opening is for colored glass and the white opening is for clear glass."  We both looked at each other and laughed, the six foot tall container was completely full, and so was the next one at the end of the next lane.  Completely cobblestoned out in our flip flops and tired from a very long day, we grumbled all the way back to the flat with our box of glass containers.  Yes, we are still waiting and checking daily for the receptacles to be emptied so we can race down with our glass debris.  These are the moments that we miss all the wonderful services right at your doorstep in America.  We removed both our apology sign and the Dutch language warning sign and placed them in the paper recycling container...we hope this was the correct way to handle the situation.  If we can figure out who was disposing of our glass all this time, well, of course we will bring them flowers and Belgian chocolates, and hopefully we will become friends...and then of course, there will be another person to kiss, kiss, kiss, each time we meet.  My life on the lane is all about recycling and kissing and translating and speaking in Dutch.  Begrijpt u mij? (do you understand me?!)  Tot zo! (bye for now)...
         

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