NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches The expat life is one of adventure, discovery, glamour, and… bumbling social ineptitude. And so, for the September edition of NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches, our ongoing guest-post project, our four expat bloggers are divulging their most embarrassing expat moments.
Linda of Adventures in Expatland (North) demonstrates that a small vowel can cause big problems. Russell, who blogs at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary (South), discovers that wherever you are in the world, people enjoy a good laugh at the newbie’s expense. Erica of Expatria, Baby (East) writes of disastrous first impressions that last and last and last. And finally, I tell the sad story of how my expat mantra of “try new things” led me astray.
I hope you enjoy this month’s guest post by Linda, and do check out all of the other posts. As Erica says, there are many, many lolz to be had.
Embarrassing expat moments? Let me count the ways.
So many choices, so little time to narrow it down to one.
If I were making a list, this one would certainly be at or near the top, so here goes.
It was early autumn two years ago. I’d been living in Den Haag for three months, and was slowly getting acclimated to life in The Netherlands.
I regularly ventured out in ever-widening exploratory circles, getting to know my own and nearby neighborhoods. I’d discovered the various shops needed to run my almost daily errands; I walked out of each brimming with the burgeoning confidence that comes with being able to find light bulbs, the correct size of trash bags and a favorite mustard in a foreign land.
I’d mastered taking the tram, bus AND train all by myself. Thanks to Daughter’s playing for a Dutch voetbal club in a small town 30 minutes away from our urban home (it’s a long story), I had conquered any fear I’d harbored of driving in Nederland. The need to always look right an extra time for bicyclists was carefully seared into my brain.
I’d even started an intensive Dutch class: just me, three other newly arrived expat students and our kind instructor, face-to-face. Three hours a day, three days a week for several weeks. Four hours of homework and preparation for each class.
If you think I’m kidding, imagine the repercussions if you didn’t come to class at least moderately prepared. There was nowhere to hide in a class that small. It was learn to speak or feel the burning shame of having let down your fellow students.
True to her word, our patient teacher had gently but firmly forced us to open our mouths and emit some semblance of the Dutch words and phrases tumbling around in our scrambled brains.
I was settling in. I was feeling good. I could handle what life threw me.
In other words, I was ripe for a fall.
My hard landing came about on a sunny October weekend afternoon as I trudged back, laden with groceries, from the nearby Albert Heijn. I looked up and saw my Dutch neighbor Anneke approaching. Her husband Braam followed behind, having stopped to chat with the elderly woman on our street who likes to name the birds that she feeds daily.
Eager to demonstrate my growing multilingual prowess, I led with a snappy ‘Hoe gaat het met je?‘ (How’s it going with you?)
‘Heel goed. Druk. En met je?‘ Anneke replied. The wheels in my brain churned round and round as I deciphered that she was good, busy and was asking how I was.
‘Goed, ook,‘ I answered as she drew near.
Anneke speaks four languages including fluent English, and from the start has been very supportive of my feeble attempts to speak what passes for Dutch. We stood chatting for a few moments. She spoke slowly and distinctly, occasionally offering a definition in English if I seemed stumped by a particular word.
By this time Braam had joined us along with another neighbor I hadn’t yet met. He quickly introduced me to Karin, then turned to her and let fly with a string of Dutch that I could barely understand. The gist was that I was the new American who lived on our tiny street and that I was learning Dutch.
Karin smiled and asked me which ritjeshuis (tall, narrow Dutch brick town house) was mine, what brought us to The Netherlands, how long we’d been there, how long we thought we’d be living there. Slowly I shared the answers: 32, Husband’s work with an international organization, three months and three years or more. She then asked if we’d bought our house.
Feeling a bit flushed with linguistic success, I decided to go beyond a simple negative response. Instead I was going to make use of a couple new words we’d learned in class the previous week.
‘Wij hebben een huur huis. Het is leuk.‘ (We live in a rental home. It’s nice.)
Braam’s eyebrow shot up immediately. The women looked puzzled. He repeated back to me what I thought I’d said.
‘Ja. En ik werk thuis,‘ I replied. (Yes, and I work at home.)
Now his other eyebrow lifted, and a smirk began to form on his lips. Karin looked taken aback. Only Anneke laughed outright.
She carefully said the word huur several times, indicating that I should repeat it. Still laughing but obviously satisfied with my corrected pronunciation, she explained that I’d said the word hoer. Very similar in sound to huur, it seems that I’d told them we had a nice whore house, and that I worked at home.
To this day I’ve never uttered the word huur again. Or the other word, for that matter.
So why share my private shame with the world?
Because if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re taking life far too seriously.
As for me? I’ve got a regular comedy marathon going on.
Any embarrassing expat moments you’d like to share?