So…Where is this relationship going, anyway?

It’s funny the things that stick in your craw when you learn a new language. For some its pronunciations. For others its words in the new language that sound like swear words in their mother tongue (Irish had some real humdingers!).

For me, one of the hardest things to adjust to with German is the use of formal and informal speech when addressing others.

For those of you not familiar, in some languages you use one set of personal pronouns (the second tense, so “you”) when addressing people in a formal setting: your boss, people older than you, people you’ve just met, your teachers, etc. Then there is a second set of informal personal pronouns you use the rest of the time: with family, close friends, people much younger than you, and so on.

Other than adding a “Sir” or “Ma’am” into the mix, we don’t have this in English. For example, we have other words that we use (called modal verbs for the grammar geeks among us) to make our speech more formal – or polite. For example, with some with whom we are very close we might say, “Can I please have the peas?”

So...Where is This Relationship Going, Anyway?For someone with whom we are well acquainted, but want to add an extra layer of decorum we might say, “May I please have the peas?”

And for extra special situations when we want to afford the person in our company with the utmost respect and polite discourse, we might bust out with, “Might I trouble you to please pass me the peas?”

Well, in German (and many other languages) the formality (aka politeness) is communicated mainly through the manner in which you address the person. In short, there are two different ways to say “you.”

When you first meet someone, you always, always speak to them with Sie (pronounced zee). You continue this formal speech until you both decide you have become close enough to move to du.

However, in order to come to that decision, you have to embark upon the incredibly awkward conversation akin to a dating relationship in which one person asks the other, “So…where is this relationship going, anyway?”

Someone has to brooch the subject by saying something along the lines of, “So…we’ve known each other awhile now and I feel fairly comfortable with you. Should we switch to du now?”

I’ve only had to endure this conversation one time, but I assure you it is just as awkward and tedious as it sounds. I don’t know if its as awkward for the native German speakers as it is for someone like me, who has never spoken a language with the formal/informal set up. But I’m telling you, people…its weird. I mean, what if you suggest moving to du and the other person doesn’t want to?? The shame and embarrassment felt is similar to changing your Facebook status to “in a relationship” after the first date, only to have the other person never call back. Awesome.

And then comes the inevitable time that you accidentally du someone you should have Sie’d. Although, I’ve found most people to be quite gracious in understanding the slip. And, from what I’ve heard this can also be a less awkward way of beginning the “so…where are we?” talk.

Where I’ve found the most offense to happen is when you accidentally Sie someone that you’ve previously du’d. I did that once by complete accident with one of my best friends here. She was obviously insulted because for me to Sie another adult that wasn’t in a position of authority over me meant that I saw her as aged. We laughed about it and she knew I didn’t mean any offense – it was truly just a slip of the tongue – but it definitely knocked the wind out of her at first.

After living here a year and a half I still stress over whether or not I should du or Sie people, and I know more “So…where are we?” conversations are coming. I just hope over time they will get to be less awkward.

How about you? Do you speak a language that uses formal/informal? Is it difficult for you? Or do you find it more awkward speaking a language like English in which there is no distinction?

You Say Potato, I Say…Zulassungsbescheinigung

We get a lot of comments from people about how lucky we are to live where we do, how exotic our lives must be, and one question we get asked all.the.time:

What’s it like living in a foreign country?? 

 Let me tell you a story…

Today, I needed to run some errands. I needed a winter coat – like, a real winter coat, not the cute little cotton thing I had last winter – and I needed to get some things checked out on the car. In case you didn’t know, it snows in Austria. I mean, the Alps? Hullooo! So, it would stand to reason that on occasion, one needs to drive on said snow (and ice) during the winter months. (It’s also totally the law that every car be fitted with winter tires from October to April).

I’d like to share with you the conversation I had with the man at the tire shop about getting an estimate on winter tires. This entire conversation happened in German, so I have provided the translated version here for your enjoyment.

Me: Hello, I would like to get an estimate on winter tires and wheels, please.

Tire Man (TM): Of course! Do you have a Zulassungsbescheinigung for me?

Me: … I’m sorry, what was that?

TM: No problem. Do you have a Zulassungsbescheinigung for me?

Me: I’m very sorry, I don’t know what that is.

TM: *chuckle* Oh, right. It’s a Zulassungsbescheinigung.

Me: But…what is that?

TM: It’s a Zulassungsbescheinigung.

Me: I’m sorry, I am new to Austria and I don’t know what a zu… zus…what a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is.

TM: Oh, haha, of course. It is a Zulassungsbescheinigung.

Me: *blank stare*

TM: *blank stare*

Me: …

TM: …

You Say Potato...

Eventually I did find the Zulassungsbescheinigung…at home, in a file.

Me: Could you maybe write it down for me?

TM: *reaches into a drawer and pulls out what looks like a European driver’s license*

Me: Oh!! *pulls out my European driver’s license* This??

TM: Exactly!! Oh…no. This is a driver’s license. You need a Zulassungsbescheinigung.

Me: *headdesk*

The End.

You may think I embellished this story for humor’s sake, I assure you I did not. (okay, I didn’t actually say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but whatever word protruded from my lips was just as nonsensical, I assure you.)

If fairness to Mr. Tireman, he probably felt that he was in fact giving me an accurate description of the item, because that’s how German works. All those big, long words German is so famous for? They are a bunch of smaller words jammed together so that it very accurately and in great detail describes the item, location or office/department to which it refers. Zulassungsbescheinigung probably means “little card containing all the pertinent information pertaining to your car ever in the history of man”, because that’s what it is. And, as I learned today, any time you need work or inspections done on your car, you must present this.

Later this afternoon, I went to a second tire shop for another estimate. When TM2 asked me for my Zulassungsbescheinigung, I grinned slyly to let him know I’m hip to the code and whipped out my supercalifragilisticexpialidocious before he could even finish saying the word. Booyah.

Yes, living in Vienna (or any European place) has its amazing highlights. Just the other day, I was buying paper towels and coffee in the shadow of the world-renowned Stefansdom Catherdral. I mean, wow. So many times we stop in the middle of our day and just look around and take it in because we – how do the kids say it these days? –  just can’t even. Sometimes we literally can’t even.

However, most days…this my friends – this conversation right here – is what it’s like to live in a foreign country.

7 Ways Learning a Language is Like Being the Parent of a Newborn

We are currently in the middle of learning our third language (not counting the snippets of Spanish and American Sign Language we both picked up growing up). As I’m going through this process again, it struck me once again how humbling it is to start learning to communicate from scratch.

7 Ways Learning a Language is Like Being the Parent of a NewbornA friend recently asked me what language learning is like. As I described it, I realized it is a lot like the first days of parenting a newborn. So, for those of you who have never learned another language, maybe this will help you understand your language-learning friends a bit better (or those you encounter in public who are learning your language!). For those of my friends who have learned/are learning one, I commiserate with you.

1. Its frustrating. Like, way more frustrating than you would have expected. All of the travel brochures make it seem like a dream come true. Yet nothing makes sense, everything takes at least three times as long to do as it used to, and you’re never quite sure you’re doing it right. And someone else always has an opinion about how you should be doing it differently.

2. You’re tired. Exhausted. Brain dead. You now have trouble making a coherent sentence in either the new language or your mother tongue. You resort to a lot of grunting and pointing because you’re just too tired to make the effort to use real words. You have bags under your eyes and your clothes may or may not match because you just don’t care anymore. Your whole body hurts and you wonder how such a small thing can suck so much life and energy out of you.

3. You pantomime. A lot. You talk in weird voices, make creepy faces and say things you never would normally say. Once proud of your literary prowess, you are now reduced to speaking one syllable words in a Me-Tarzan-You-Jane tambour while using the words most 3 year olds in your new culture mastered long ago. “Where milk? Need Bread.”

4. You get overly excited at the tiniest  most mundane of achievements – and completely over share them with your friends, family, postman, or anyone else that will listen. You may or may not also have photos to go along with your story. “You guys! You guys! I totally used the Genitive case today while I was in the store! It was so cool! I was all….”

5. You make relationships with people you otherwise never would have met. The depths of these friendships shock and move you. You’re in a club now. The Language Learners of the World club. You’ve been through the war of tenses, conjugations, and irregular verbs together. You’ve toughed it out in the trenches of homework no one understands. You’ve all spent sleepless nights stressing over that autobiography or class presentation you’re supposed to do. It’s the blind leading the blind, and you’re friends for life now.

6. A few months into the process you look back and see how far you’ve come. You’re feeling more comfortable with the language, using it in daily life. You start to think, “I’ve got this! I can totally do this!” You might even start to imagine what it might be like to learn another new language. You picture yourself with your adorable little set of foreign languages and how fun it would be to travel together. And then you have the verbal equivalent of a complete diaper blow out all over yourself in public. And you decide maybe you don’t need another new language after all.

7. It’s one of the hardest things you have ever done, and yet one of the most valuable. It brings you closer to others, teaches you things about yourself you never knew, and pushes you to grow beyond what you ever thought possible.

Have you ever learned another language? What do you think – is it like having a newborn all over again? If you have never learned another language, what language would you learn if you did?


In A Courtyard of Stone

We enter the empty courtyard on a brisk Sunday morning. The sky, a cloudless azure, is a stark and beautiful backdrop to the towering stone spires and turrets hovering above.

We are stopped in our tracks by the beauty. The stature. The solitude. The silence.

We stood there for an eternity – though really only a moment or two – and took it all in. A lone bench stood sentry between two bare trees. The monastery sandwiched between some classical architecture of which I do not know the name; I only appreciate the beauty.

These buildings, standing longer than my mind can engulf, represent my new home. Beauty. Strength. A deep and rich history – one of which I have barely begun to scratch the surface.

I stand before these structures and all I can do is stare. In awe. My balance waivers at the weight of the emotional and historical atmosphere. Or is that just the cobblestones beneath my feet? Or is it the jet lag? Or brain fog?

Everything is the same color. The same taupe-ish white covers the walls, the spires, the cobbles below. It is stunning. It is imposing.

It is the perfect mirror for the culture surrounding me. So beautiful and intricate and delicate and strong it all looks the same. At first glance. Yet the more I look, the more I learn, the more details emerge. The distinctions that once made it all look exactly the same are now the things that set one thing so distinctly apart from another.

My internal wandering and monologue is interrupted when something catches my eye.

A balloon, as orange as the day is long, bops and swoops on the breeze around the floor of the plaza. It makes no noise. No squealing child chases after it. It dances and sways this way and that. Its bright color and chaotic activity stand in stark contrast to the quiet and stoic setting.

I feel like that balloon.

Standing out, sticking out, no matter how much I try to blend. I just want to fit in; blend in. To know all those unwritten rules everyone else just follows without even knowing it.

Even in those moments in which I exhibit the perfect behavior, my very appearance gives me away. I’m simply an orange balloon in a courtyard of white stone.

And yet, there is something I enjoy about the chaotic blowing of the cultural breeze…of being swept about and dancing around the social cues and unwritten nuances of a city alive with a thousand nations, countless languages, running on the heels of a millennium of history.

One day, and I probably won’t even notice it happen, I will cease to be the orange balloon and will have emerged from my cultural cocoon some creature closer to what is native to this land. I won’t have to think about every step, every word, every road, every turn. Life will just be life, with it’s routines and friends and jobs and laughs.

I hope, though, not to lose some of the sheer awe and delight found in these early days in a new place. I am treasuring the newness; the discovery; the excitement. I will never experience these particular firsts again.

So, while I look forward to the day when I seem to belong in this courtyard, I know it is ok to be a little bit orange for awhile.

From Sea to Shining Sea: Tips for Helping Ex-Pats’ American Re-Entry

So you have family or friends living overseas, and they’re coming back to America! Whether they are coming for a short vacation,  a few months, or moving back permanently, you’re ecstatic and can’t wait to see them. Right? If they’re anything like me and my family, they can’t wait either!

Photo by Deibel Photography

Photo by Deibel Photography

We have been back in the States for almost six months now, and I feel like our re-entry back into America was fairly smooth. This is due in large part to some highly thoughtful things people did for us to help ease the transition. As much as we experienced culture shock when we moved overseas, reverse culture shock (culture shock upon returning to your home culture) has always been harder. It would have been infinitely more difficult without these tips I’m about to share with you.

Whether they are military, businessmen, humanitarian or in any of a myriad of other roles overseas,  these tips and ideas can help make the transition back into American culture much smoother and more comfortable for everyone.

1. Stock the basics. Our first morning back in the States, we may have fumbled for 20 minutes trying to figure out how to work the coffee maker, but that was the worst of our worries because the house was already stocked with coffee, tea, sugar, milk, bread, butter, cereal, granola bars, peanut butter and jelly. There was also a stash of basic toiletries, lotion, sunscreen and Chapstick (perfect for helping our Irish-soaked skin adjust to the Arizona dryness!). Even if they are staying in a hotel, giving them a bag with some snacks, bottled water, and toiletries really goes a long way. This saves them from dragging their travel-weary bodies down to the store only to have a stroke trying to choose a bottle from two aisles of shampoo!

2. Give them time. Jet lag’s a killer. If at all possible, avoid dragging them around to see everyone and everything the very first day. Give them time to sleep, and their bodies to adjust to the local clock. At the very least give them a couple of days – a full week is even better – before putting any kind of expectation on them for any kind of normal schedule. They are most likely waking up in the middle of the night or crazy early in the morning, and struggling to keep their eyes open by dinner time. The bigger the time difference, the longer it will take.

3. Let them be in America. Chances are while they are in America they want to be immersed and enjoy all their favorite foods, music, places and treats they can’t get overseas. So while you’ve been eyeing that Filipino restaurant and dying to take them to it to show your interest in their life, they may want to avoid everything to do with their host culture for a little while. (Remember that scene at the end of Cast Away when they served sushi and crab legs for his welcome home party after he had been living on an island for four years??) Having said that, it is fun to experience something of their new culture together, especially if you are unable to travel to where they have been. So, let them know those things are there, but let them take the lead on how much of that they want to do – particularly if they are only in the States for a short time before going back.

4. Give them grace when it comes to social norms. We’ve had several instances the past five months when we have been out somewhere and I’m suddenly aware my children are the center of attention – good or bad. Every culture has different rules for what is normal, acceptable behaviors, speech, etc. I’m the first to laugh at myself every time I try to get into the car on the “wrong” side! So, if they automatically kick their shoes off before entering your house or speak with a British accent, it’s okay to giggle in amusement, but try not to poke fun.  Kids might also not be aware of the American social norms when it comes to acceptable behavior, particularly in public. Modeling the acceptable behavior is a great way to educate without stepping on too many toes.

5. Don’t be hurt if they call their place overseas “home.” Chances are when they are over there they refer to America as home. Its part of the weird belonging to two (or three or four) places at once, which is now their reality. Home becomes much less about a location as it does about an atmosphere and the people.

6. Don’t assume they’ve been able to keep up with American pop-culture. Not every place in the world has access to Philip Phillips, Duck Dynasty or Downtown Abby (gasp!). Try to be sensitive to when they are getting lost in the conversation and be willing to fill in the back-story. And its okay if they never really “get it.”

7. Avoid asking for command performances. This is particularly important with children. Once you’ve been able to have a conversation with them about where they live, what they like to do, who their friends are, etc they will most likely be more than happy to share with you a demonstration of their latest karate moves or teach you a few phrases in their new language. But try not to say hello and immediately ask for a language lesson or song performance. Chances are they love your interest, but nobody likes to be put on the spot.

8. Educate yourself. Take a few minutes to learn the basics about their host-country/culture if you haven’t already. When we first moved to Ireland in 2002, we had people ask if we were going to have to grow our own food, if we’d have electricity, and how we were going to get clothes. Little did they know that Ireland is the second largest software producing/distributing country in the world – and they had a woman president at the time! It will mean a lot to your friends/family if you know enough to ask relevant questions about their life.

9. Be a stress defuser (did I just make up a word? I think so). Even if they are just coming for a short vacation, the transition is always going to be stressful, no matter how many times they do it. Work to ease as much of the stress as you can. Some of the most meaningful ways people have done this for us has been to make sure we have enough car space to get from the airport (with us and all of our bags) to where we are staying, offer to babysit so we can do some American shopping on our own, offer to come help sort, clean or pack when it was time to leave again, and offers to take us out for a meal – or to bring one over – particularly at the very beginning or very end of the trip is incredible.

There are always things we can do to help one another, and being a part of a family or a group of friends is not always easy and rarely is it not messy. But without the mess, it wouldn’t be beautiful. We have been on the receiving end of all of these things I’ve shared with you and it has been so encouraging – and freeing.

Have you ever lived overseas? What things helped you when you returned to your home culture? Do you have family/friends overseas? What things can they do when they return to help you understand where they are coming from?

First Name Basis (Or, Culture Shock 3 Years On)

Hello My Name Is...

Photo by Alan O’Rourke (creative commons)

Padraig. Maire. Mairead. Sinead. Siobhan. Luisne. Nora. Deborah. Tony. Traolach. Donal.

These are just a few of the names of folks we know around here.

I’ve noticed since we’ve been here people always greet me using my first name.

This has both made me smile, and unnerved me.

It made me smile because I felt special; the fact that they remembered who I was.

Unnerved me because chances were I couldn’t remember their name, and I was embarrassed.

You see, I’ve always been truly horrible at remembering names. I’m the queen of greeting you without using your name, but making you feel like I remember. Usually using some sort of cute nickname when I say hello.

I hadn’t paid this too much conscious mind, though, until recently when I heard the DJ’s of my favorite morning radio show talking about this very thing.

They were talking about what to do when A) Someone calls you by the wrong name, and B) You can’t remember someone’s name you’ve known for ages. One DJ offered up to just be bubbly and say, “Hiya!” However, the other DJ’s in the booth were indignant at this notion.

That’s when I really started paying attention. Sure enough, just about everyone I pass in the school, at the shop, wherever uses my first name every time they greet me.

You guys, there are people we have known or had contact with the entire three and a half years we have been here and I still cannot for the life of me remember their name!! Suddenly I was mortified that I had been unconsciously committing what I now know to be quite the large social faux pas.

Now, I’m stuck in this crazy limbo land where  I know I need to start using people’s names when I say hello…but I can’t remember so many of them!! And after 3 1/2 years, how do I ask?

Curse this foggy memory of mine. Of course, it doesn’t help that so many people have the same name, or a version of it. Take the name Mary. We know I don’t know how many Maire’s (the Irish form of Mary), Mairin’s (Maureen), Mairead’s (pronounced either MAH-rad, MAW-red, or muh-RAID, depending on who you ask)…sometimes its hard to keep them straight. And so then, at times I think I have an idea of the person’s name, but doubt stops me at the last second, terrifying me that I’m about to say the wrong name. Still not sure which evil is the lesser…

But, I’m not going to make excuses. I’m doing my best now to use the names that I know, and to find out the ones I can’t keep straight. And remember them.

So, what’s your best mnemonic device for names? And what do you do when you can’t remember someone’s name you’ve known for ages?

I’m linking up with The Better Mom