“Home” Work

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.

“Home” Work

"Home" work

Image credit: digitalart, freedigitalphotos.net

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.

Oh dear.

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? 

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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15 Responses to “Home” Work

  1. Russell says:

    Ouch, that’s not a good word to mix up. Interesting that Braam’s eyebrow shot up and he smirked. I hope this was because of your mistake and no other reason!

    Jeez, it’s hard learning and speaking another language – and then having to actually use it in public when minding your own business on a walk home. I’m thankful my language mistakes generally come down to uttering the odd little English phrase that Australians either don’t know or haven’t heard before. This is usually followed by many jokes (at my expense).

    The things we put ourselves through…………….

  2. Sine says:

    That’s the beauty about writing. The worse the situation, the better the story afterwards! This one is a classic. Now you’ve got me thinking along those lines and I’ll have to dig up an embarrassing expat moment as well – great topic!

  3. I went for a fossick on someone’s desk when I first came to the UK…said desk owner was rather alarmed until I explained, red-faced, that it meant rummage (ie. we fossick for gold Down Under.)

    She laughed with nervous relief.

    I returned to my desk wondering what other words, in this country that speaks the same language as my homeland, would get me into trouble!

  4. Oh Maria! I can’t stop laughing! I also made the “rooting” error once in the company of several Aussies. Someone asked me which team I wanted to win (I can’t even remember what the sport was). I said, “Oh, I’m rooting for the home team, of course.” The sputtering gentleman asked incredulously, “The whole team?” Emphasis on “whole”. I guess I should just join you in the huur house!

    • Maria says:

      Anne, I wish I could claim credit for this excellent post, but the huur house hijinks are courtesy of Linda at Adventures in Expatland. I’ll cop to the “rooting” error, though. I wish someone had told me what it really meant before I’d traipsed all around Sydney wearing — as all good Canadians do — a shirt emblazoned with the ROOTS logo. What those Aussies must have thought!

  5. Sine says:

    Ok – now I can only guess what “rooting for” means in Australia, since you’re not forthcoming in your explanations! But I can imagine!

    • Maria says:

      This is a G-rated website! Lol. But I’ll give you a hint: it’s how babies are made. 🙂

      • Sine says:

        Lol, I guessed as much:-) You guys are too funny. I’ll have to remember that whenever I visit Australia again. I think it’s especially embarrassing if you speak English fluently and just use the completely inappropriate word. If you learned a new language and now speak it haltingly, it might be more easily forgiven and forgotten, without being teased about it until the end of your days.

      • Maria says:

        At least I’m getting a laugh out of it now!

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