Category Archives: Cross-cultural quirks

Why Valentine’s Day Isn’t SO Bad (Take Note Germans!)

I used to be an absolute sucker for Valentine’s Day. The gifts had to be perfect, the night had to be perfect, and yet no matter how perfect it all was – think trips to Paris, flowers, messages in newspapers and fucking giant teddy bears – it never felt quite right. The problem with all this consumeristic romance is that it never lives up to what you’ve seen in the movies. There’s no backing romantic music, the perfect ending leads to a much more mundane sequel, and often the reality of big gestures is that they’re masking a relationship devoid of what it actually important.

And yet, though I’ve gone off the idea of Valentines’ Day being perfect, I still like a little celebration. RZ and I have established through much negotiation that for this and our anniversary, one of us will organize a present and the other will organize a night out. It doesn’t have to be on the night, but just something a little different and special to celebrate the fact that we are a little different and special together.

Meeting up with a fellow former-CELTA student last weekend, I told her about our possible plans for this Valentines’ Day, which falls conveniently on a Saturday this year. If there’s any time to be a little cheesy, now is it, and I want to take us to Neuschwanstein, one of the major influences behind Disney’s fairytale castles. Her reaction was one that is becoming all-too typical; that such a day is just for businesses to make money off cards and flowers and charge too much for dinner. She suggested I try it as a class topic with my students this week and I did – with extremely one-sided results.

Only one student I asked has any plans for the weekend – to buy his wife some flowers. The Germans I asked look at Valentines’ Day with such disdain they couldn’t hide the looks of disgust from their faces when the mere name came up. They scowled and shook their heads as though I asked them if England might win the next World Cup.

It’s a funny thing, people’s attitudes towards celebrations and holidays. You have the Christians who tell us that we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas if we’re not religious, even though the holiday came from Pagan origins. You have Australians claiming that Halloween is too American, and then spraying their Christmas Trees with fake snow so they glimmer in the summery windows over December. You have those who say Valentines’ Day is too commercial and just after your money, who then spend every free day at the Christmas markets handing out cash for Gluhwein, decorations and christmasy themed goodies.

Come to think of it, it seems Christmas in general gets totally let off the hook in the holiday complaining category. People complain that the shops go christmasy too early in the year but that’s about it. It can be Americanised to death – Coca Cola invented Santa for goodness sake – and totally commercial and we all go about it like it’s the family highlight of the year.

Perhaps being ‘commercial’ is not actually such a bad thing – in a time when Europe are recovering from an economic crisis, buying one or two things here and there and a dinner out doesn’t have to mean the end of the world. To me, Valentines’ Day is a time to remind yourself how lucky you are to have that special someone, and if you’re single it’s a great time to go out, find all the other single people who don’t want to be alone on such a day and have a fantastic drunken kiss or 6.

Ooh baby it’s cold outside

 

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Snow in Europe has always brought with it many happy memories for me – the first time I saw the real thing in England was exactly a year after taking a one-way trip to the country and getting my working visa stamped. It was amazing having it on my doorstep and between building snowmen in our backyard and having snowball fights with friends I knew the European winter wasn’t as bad as the naysayers in Australia told me.

Claude - our London snowman and house protector.
Claude – our London snowman and house protector.

The next time I saw it was in Chamonix, just next to Mont Blanc, two years later almost to the day. The 2013-14 winter brought no snow – something which was particularly frustrating as my parents had come to visit for a white Christmas and just got rain instead – but my first skiing trip with my snowboarding-obsessed boyfriend couldn’t have been more spectacular. We didn’t have a chance to build a snowman and my skiing was as terrible as I remember but I was introduced to a new and wonderful concept called ‘apres ski’ :)

This year, I’ve been pleading to the weather gods to bring me some snow. We’re still stuck in this little village just outside Stuttgart while we look at apartments closer to the centre, which is not so bad now that my schedule at work is dying down, but one of the positives of living so far out of the city is that when it snows, it’s like someone has taken some whiteout and turned your whole area into something from a wintery Christmas cartoon.

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The trees sparkle and snow covers your coat and scarf as you walk along the street. It’s perfectly soft under your feet and as you find parks and long walkways nearby you really start to feel like you’re in that Christmas movie.

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So many Europeans complain about the snow, in the same way we Australians complain about the hot weather. I hope I never lose this excited feeling over seeing it fall and settle around me, because it makes the winter so much more enjoyable. When we noticed the flakes falling at rapid rates on Friday night, despite being in my pyjamas and suffering from a bad cold, I was dressed and ready to explore within minutes. And what we found, even in the dark, was pretty spectacular. Perhaps it’s partly that it reminds me how far away from home I am, and how happy I am to still be having this adventure.

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Let it snow! xx

A new season, a new food to try in Germany

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Gotta love a pumpkin on Halloween. source: fruitycuties.com

As the days in southern Germany get a little colder – not as much as I expected though as it seems the summer we missed out on was just a little late coming to the party – yet another season of interesting food is upon us.

In Australia, most of our trees stay green all year round and equally, a lot of our food is available throughout every month. Of course, berries are more expensive in some months but we’re not known for our seasonal treasures. In Germany though, my diet is constantly being peppered by some type of food or drink that is only available for a short time each year, and therefore must be consumed in bulk and with as many variations as possible.

During the spring, it was Spargel. We learned to cook it after a few trial and errors and the white asparagus tasted delicious with hollandaise sauce and almost every meal. The summer brought fruits which all but disappear completely otherwise, and I ate so much watermelon and strawberries I’d picked myself I nearly popped. Over September, we drank a special wine called ‘federweisser’ which is only available in it’s purest form for one month. It tasted like a delicious sparkling juice but with an alcohol content of 11% it’s also quite lethal. As this phase dies down and the production ceases at our local supermarket, it’s been swiftly replaced with the pumpkin.

There are now suddenly pumpkins everywhere. They weren’t my favourite vegetable growing up though they are a staple in a roast dinner in Australia. But now, I’ve found myself Googling countless recipes and taking tips from friends to put pumpkin in almost anything we can think of.

Last week, when I felt slightly ill, my medicine was always going to be pumpkin soup, and it worked a treat. I’m a big fan of BBC Good Food and use the site for most of my recipes, because they often have great feedback and the ingredients are mostly available in German supermarkets (big ones anyway). This week I am cooking a roast for the first time in Germany and plan to include as many pumpkins as possible. We are also hoping to cook this pumpkin pie for the first time and a friend has given me a recipe for pumpkin frittatas. If I turn orange by the end of this month I’ll know why.

I’ve said it many times before, but this is one of the reasons I love living in Germany so much – every season brings a new treat, and the excitement over what’s coming next into our kitchen creeps up on me without fail every year.

The end of daylight savings is upon us as I take to a dark street on my way to work every morning. But while in Australia that time of year brought so much gloom as you looked ahead to winter, here it means something else is coming around the corner; Christmas Market season. Hello gluhwein! :)

 

xx

When Learning a Language Gets Interesting

Learning a language is a funny thing – you can get a word right in the sense that it is correct, but in the context of a specific culture it can mean something so different than you intended. Before moving to Germany I had never really thought about the words I use in different situations and how they could translate into other cultures. When practicing my German with a local friend, I said ‘ich habe eier’ and she burst out laughing because apparently eggs in this country can also mean balls and I just said that I had some.

Equally, finding out that the German equivalent of the English word for intercourse – Geschlechtsverkehr – literally means ‘gender traffic’ made for a particularly interesting German class a few weeks ago.

I never set out to be a language teacher myself, but the more I teach the more I enjoy it, and the subtle confusions over translations are definitely part of the fun side of learning a new language. Here’s some recent moments that have made my classes a lot more interesting:

  • Applying for a job as a scent tester (students had to pick the worst job in the world): a student wrote ‘I like to go to the gym and smell the fat boys and girls when they exercise.’
  • The same student confused ‘how to get over a cold’ with ‘how to get a cold’ – his advice for getting over it? ‘I take off my clothes and throw them in the box, then I run in my street naked in winter.’ It took us a minute to work out he got it wrong and didn’t have a weird method of dealing with sickness.
  • A student trying to politely start a meeting when everyone is talking. His attempt – ‘let’s get it on’. Er… not appropriate in that situation.
  • The constant use of ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ when Germans are speaking about friends. It made me laugh for the first time when my actual boyfriend asked how dinner with my other boyfriend was. Today another student, who has a wife, told me about his holiday with his boyfriend.
  • A student telling me his colleague couldn’t come to class because he was working on an erection for the day. The erection of a building, obviously.
  • Trying to explain to students that winky-smileys are not ok to send to people you’re not dating.
  • Of my 10 groups of students, at least 8 found it hilarious that to iron means getting the creases out of your clothes. Why? Because Iron Man. Yes he saves the world, but he does it with a perfectly pressed suit for a reason!
  • I just had a student tell me he wants to go to Australia to make some dirty parties. He meant he wanted to go to some cool parties… I wonder if someone said dirty to him one day and he asked what it meant, and they just responded with ‘it’s something cool’.
  • A week before the World Cup final my students had to say 5 defining years in their lives. One student had every year related to Germany’s World Cup triumphs apart from his marriage (which was down the bottom), and made sure he included 2014 as he was so sure they’d win it again.
  • I was teaching superlatives and asked a student who the most attractive person he had ever seen was. I was expecting a celebrity but instead he said, ‘you, (the other girls in the room) and my girlfriend are all the best’. He got some serious brownie points that day!

Planning ahead of time; A fourth trip to South Africa

These last couple of weeks have been a mixture of job hunting, settling, exploring, language school searching and travel planning. Normally around this time of year I’m looking ahead to summer travels, but with the uncertainty surrounding my work and how I’m going to juggle everything, my attentions have turned to where we will spend our next Christmas.

The option of Australia was always unlikely as my boyfriend is also unsure of where he’ll be job-wise around then and with flights going up in price we decided to leave the big Aus trip for when we are both settled in our work and know how much time we can take. He still wants somewhere hot though, leaving Europe and Russia out of the question, and after fleshing out the possibilities South Africa brought so many positives we had to get on the planning straight away.

The beautiful Morgan Bay in South Africa, where we plan to spend Christmas this year
The beautiful Morgan Bay in South Africa, where we plan to spend Christmas this year

As an Australian living in Germany, for me the prospect of calling one place home has become rather complicated of late. And though I don’t have any relatives or connections to South Africa apart from my best friend coming from there, for some reason the country feels like a place I can certainly relate to in many ways and despite going there three times in the last seven years I want to visit more.

South Africa is a lot like Australia in certain aspects, with it’s vast landscape offering so many things to see and do. I was there for six weeks during the World Cup, and only got part of my list of things I wanted to do finished. I have been to Cape Town twice and still haven’t gotten around to climbing Table Mountain.

South Africa obviously can bring up some uncertainty when travellers are considering their next getaway, with safety a huge concern for someone who isn’t aware of local customs or cultures. I wouldn’t claim to be even close to understanding how life really is in South Africa; on my second trip there I was nearly robbed at a cash machine and had my car stolen, for reasons of which I only have myself to blame. I let my guard down at particularly important moments because for me, having grown up in Australia, safety has never been a great concern. If someone tells me a cash machine isn’t working I believe them, if someone says a carpark is safe they have no reason to lie. Such thinking can potentially be life threatening in South Africa, and because of this, even though I’ve been so many times already I’m taking advice from locals all the more seriously as I plan to return for the third time.

Having said that though, I’ve noticed how differently locals look at their own country and the great things to see and do compared with visitors in general. I was recently talking to an English friend in Aus who said the Whitsundays are at the top of her list of things to do. To me, those islands are overpriced and overrated – all-inclusive resorts aren’t the real Australia, seeing beaches that are undiscovered will give you a much better idea of the beauty of the country than these manicured surroundings ever will.

In the case of South Africa, when my friend got married there we all travelled over for the festivities, and went to a small private safari park before the big day. It was so amazing, we saw all of the ‘big 5′ and then some, washed and walked with elephants and went a quad bike ride around the park that left us covered in dirt and me feeling like I was having one of those perfect travel days that remind you why you spend all the money and make all the effort.

White lions at Inkenkwezi private park... Such an amazing creature and to see them so close was magical
White lions at Inkenkwezi private park… Such an amazing creature and to see them so close was magical

But for my friend, this park is only ‘ok’ and certainly not the kind of place she would consider having a wedding. To her it’s cheesy and has nothing on Kruger National Park, a place which costs 5 times the price to visit and shows you exactly the same animals from what I understand.

But that’s the thing about us being tourists in our own country; we don’t want to follow the path most other tourists do, we feel like we know it better because we’ve seen the highs and the lows of the place over years of existing there. This whole experience of preparing for South Africa has taught me to be a little more careful about dismissing some of the more cheesy – in my mind anyway – touristy things to do in Australia. And in turn, when my South African friends tell me to give a lion park on the way to Cape Town a miss, I will kindly explain that I do in fact want that ridiculous photo playing with a tiger cub ;)

Learning To Relax Around Naked Germans

The scene of the nakedness...
The scene of the nakedness…

I went to an all girls school in Melbourne and while you might think that would make it a lot more comfortable changing for gym classes and in front of one another, it was quite the opposite. I perfected being able to change a whole outfit without showing an inch of skin to the outside world and I turned my nose up at any girl who showed off her half-naked physique while doing something crazy – like changing into her uniform or coming out from the showers. I don’t want to see another naked girl! What is wrong with her!! My prudish nature continued until my late 20s, with changing after adult gym sessions taking place in the toilets when I couldn’t be bothered to manoeuvre my outfit with the above-learnt process.

Meanwhile, when I moved to Germany and heard about the wonderful-sounding natural spring baths in Wiesbaden, just half an hour away from Frankfurt, I put it at the top of my list to check them out. That was until I found out they were naked ones. ‘I knew someone who wore a bikini in there, and someone actually complained about them because they said it was distracting!’ a German friend told me, as my eyes widened with shock. ‘Everyone is naked and all the men are with the women, that’s the case throughout most of Germany.’

She was certainly right about that, and it was nothing like the spas I had experienced in Australia, where the masseuse hiding her eyes with a towel as I rolled over being the closest another woman had come to seeing me naked. As expected, I found England to be equally prudish about such matters, unless you played cricket with the boys in the country for some reason…

Anyway, my boyfriend found it laughable that I would have a problem with going to a sauna and being sans-clothes around other people. Having grown up in this culture, he is much more comfortable with the whole being naked in public thing. After discussing it for a while I figured maybe it was time to get over my hang-ups about getting my kit off and jump in the deep end; it’s worked before when I’ve been problem solving, why couldn’t it now? So we got a Groupon voucher for the best spa in Frankfurt and headed out to relax and have what was for me a very new experience. When we arrived, everyone was in bikinis. I was entirely confused. But there are sections for clothed people and unclothed people, it was explained, which made me feel a lot more comfortable.

We went for a swim in the clothed pools first and it was really enjoyable – I haven’t really been to a public pool since I was quite young, so experiencing the cool whirlpools, diving board, waterslides and the outdoor pool where you could swim indoors took me back to being a kid again. After an hour or two RZ suggested we go into the more adult area and my heart started to pound.

We went into the changing area, and while he slipped off his shorts with the upmost confidence, I resorted to my school days of taking my bikini off underneath my towel. It wasn’t so easy this time around, with me trying not to make it obvious how uncomfortable I was, but I got there eventually. Never have I been so thankful for a towel in my life – it would become my shield for the next six hours or so whenever I was experiencing feelings from slightly bashful to completely embarrassed.

Having said that, RZ assured me that everyone uses their towel in the sauna. This is fine I thought, I can just chill out in there whenever I’m feeling a little less comfortable with my nakedness! But as it turns out, people take their towels in, lay them out and just sit on them showing off all their best and worst assets. It took me a few hours to become comfortable with that, but by the end of the day I was at the point of happily lying down on my towel with my legs firmly crossed, which I would say is serious progress.

My comfortable-ness came slowly as the day turned into night. Seeing so many different people in all shapes and sizes around me just going about their business naked made the whole process a lot easier as I acclimatised myself.

I’ve grown up only ever seeing photoshopped and skinny pictures of other women naked, so it was quite refreshing to see what real bodies looked like, though I made a huge effort not to stare and to try and, like everyone else, just do my own thing.

We ended the day with a swim in the outdoor heated pool before getting our swimsuits back on and having a hearty schnitzel in the cafeteria for supper. It felt like I’d been on holiday for the day, my skin felt fantastic, and I no longer felt so horribly scared of being around other people with no clothes on. It’s something I definitely want to do again soon and for Christmas both my boyfriend and I gave each other presents involving spa trips.

While I’m not quite at the stage of heading there with my girlfriends or anyone apart from the guy who sees me naked on a normal basis anyway, I certainly feel a lot less inhibited about my body and any issues associated with it, and can see the benefits of relaxing in that feeling. Once again Europe, you have taught me something lovely and new! ;) xx

What I learnt About Europe During My First Eurovision Screening

Last night I fell in love.
Last night I fell in love.

I have a confession to make. I had never watched Eurovision until last night. I had no idea who the acts were who won it in the past (apart from ABBA, though I didn’t know they were on Eurovision), and I didn’t even really know what the structure of the show was, or what was involved. I have a friend who travelled to Europe to see the Eurovision final from Australia and he’s obsessed with it, but when he would talk about it I wouldn’t really pay attention. I’m not a fan of pop competition shows like Idol or The Voice, why would I find this interesting?!

After watching the show from the beginning to the end last night I cannot believe what I have been missing for the last 28 years of my life. The ridiculousness of it all, the glitter and the lights and the creativity, the hilariously weird presenters and how seriously every country takes the voting and all the accusations of political influences and cheating… it’s absolutely amazing! For so many reasons I loved Eurovision and here’s just a few…

– The women are fantastic role models, of all different sizes and body types and showing a much more diverse and interesting picture of a pop star than all the naked ones that keep coming out of America at present. I grew up idolising the likes of The Corrs, Alanis Morrisette and the Spice Girls, and yes Geri Halliwell wore short dresses but you never really noticed it when you were a kid. I do worry for young girls growing up with constant imagery suggesting to them that women must be as naked as ratings will allow and as often as possible to be considered sexy. And excluding Poland on this occasion (laundry porn seemed slightly out of place), 2014 Eurovision offered an alternative style, from beautiful skinny women to tall and short, curvy and big and even men dressed as women. There’s no shame here and that’s something I would love for a possible future daughter to witness and enjoy.

– It certainly improved my geographical knowledge of Europe. San Marino a country? You don’t say! More to add to my travel to do list…

– People might criticise it for being political but last night’s political involvement was all positive from my point of view. With Russia currently making it all the more difficult for gay people to feel comfortable in their own skin, it was great to see viewers protesting with their votes and voices during the show. And Austrian cross-dresser Conchita Wurst winning the contest will help people struggling to deal with their sexuality all over the world feel more comfortable with it and have a role model to look up to. That is bloody fantastic.

Conchita Wurst won the contest last night despite objections from some homophobic countries.
Conchita Wurst won the contest last night despite objections from some homophobic countries.

– I love bubblegum pop, there, I said it!! I had a friend in London who hated all mainstream music and was always trying to convince us to go and see bands that sang about depressing subjects. The way I see it, music is supposed to make you happy. I love listening to pop music because it puts a smile on my face, it makes me thing about one of the most positive and simple things life has to offer – love – and it puts a spring in my step as a result. Coincidentally, said friend was a pretty unhappy person. And probably would detest Eurovision. I know which camp i’d rather be in ;)

– Somehow, without even meaning to care, you get really involved in the results and towards the end you’re insisting you will never watch again if the Netherlands or Sweden or Armenia win. To end up being so enthralled in the result of something I didn’t care about until 2 hours before… they must be doing something right entertainment wise!

– The games that you can play during Eurovision (from the drinking ones to betting and guessing what the judges will say) are almost as much fun as watching the show itself.

So after watching the show I suggested to my boyfriend that we go to the next one. He didn’t particularly like that idea too much. But being able to partake in this European tradition, whether you love it or hate it as a European, made me feel a bigger affinity with this great, strange and wonderfully interesting continent.

 

xx