Sunday, 25 November 2012

On being a foreigner...

You are constantly lost and confused.  You can't understand most of what other people say and do.  You feel like an idiot, and many people treat you as such.  The smallest, simplest errand always turns into the most complicated task.

Welcome to life as a foreigner.

I have written a great deal about my reasons for being in Belgium and what I'm learning while I'm here, but I haven't really written about what it's like to be here.  Well, let me tell you, it's no picnic.  Unless of course you are imagining a picnic in the pouring rain where the ants are stealing all of your food.

Stupid ants.
When you're living in another country, everything is weird.  Absolutely everything - including you.  You are a weirdo to everyone around you.  Why do you dress like that?  Why don't you speak their language?  Why do you act that way, and why don't you understand that things work the way they do?  As a foreigner, you don't just have to adjust to everything being different - you also have to adjust to YOU being different.

For instance, there is the small matter of language.  I am lucky enough to live in a part of Belgium where people speak excellent English.  Their mother tongue is Flemish, a language which (to me at least) kind of sounds like a mash-up of German and English with a funny accent.  Most people, if prompted, will speak fluent English to me when I enter a shop or cafe.  If someone speaks Flemish, my knee-jerk reaction is now to say "I'm sorry.." and before I can continue with "I don't understand Flemish" they exclaim "oh!" and immediately switch to English.  Unfortunately, sometimes they will speak for quite some time before I can manage to get a word in edgewise and let them know that I didn't understand a single word they just said.  Then they'll get really annoyed and huff "well why didn't you SAY so??" 

If I am lucky enough to be the first person to speak, I usually launch into English right away without warning.  But I've recently noticed that at a certain sandwich shop I get dirty looks for doing this.  My Belgian friend pointed out that it is sort of rude of me to assume that they will speak English, and it would be more polite to start off with "Spreekt u Engels?"

Now, I know what you're thinking.  Why haven't I learned Flemish?  A perfectly reasonable question. I know how annoying it can be when you encounter people living in your country who haven't bothered to learn the language.  But let me just say that a) I am only here for an 8-month course and am not likely to stay in Belgium afterwards, b) my course is taught in English, and c) Flemish is only spoken by a small number of people in the world, and it would be much more practical for me to continue improving my French and German than to start learning Flemish.  That being said, I did buy an audio-course in Dutch before I came here (there were no Flemish courses and Dutch is the closest thing), and I have managed to pick up a few words of Flemish here and there.  I know how to say my numbers and things like please and thank you.  And I know the word for sandwich.

A very important word, as Dagwood would have you know.
Armed with this knowledge, I returned to the sandwich shop determined to place my order in Flemish.  I confidently ordered "een broodje Grieks, alstublieft" and even managed to understand how much it cost.  But then they began asking me a bunch of other questions in Flemish and I was at a total loss!

There is nothing more uncomfortable or embarrassing than attempting to speak a new language to someone, only to have a bunch of words you don't understand fired back to you at warp speed.  Just ask the cleaning lady at the studio.  I once spoke a few words of Russian with her and told her I'd studied the language in university.  Now she's constantly babbling to me in Russian as if I'm a fluent speaker, and it's too awkward to let her know that I only understand about 30% of what she says.

Seriously, so awkward.  One day she's going to tell me something sad and I'll laugh and say "da".
But language barriers are just the tip of the iceburg.  Living in a foreign country is like playing a board game when you're the only one who hasn't read the instructions.  There are all kinds of rules and conventions you don't know, and people just don't understand why you don't know them.  It's so obvious to them!  Why isn't it obvious to you?

This week I had to travel to Stuttgart for an audition, which involved catching a 6:15am train to Brussels airport.  I often travel by train, so to save some money I've bought a 10-ride train pass.  You buy this pass for a set fee, and for each trip you write the details on the card and have it stamped by the ticket collector.  Until now it's worked pretty well for me.  This time however, it being 6 in the morning, I fell asleep before remembering to write on my pass.  When I woke up, I remembered and asked my neighbour if I could borrow his pen.  Just as I began writing the journey on the card, the ticket collector came up to me.  She was absolutely furious!  Apparently it is very important that I write my journey on the card BEFORE I get on the train.  She could not believe that I had been on the train for AN HOUR and still hadn't written on my pass.  She insisted that I pay her a fee of 26 euros.

I could not understand why she was so angry.  It wasn't as if I hadn't paid the money - I had already bought my train pass.  I had simply neglected to write on it until now.  But in her eyes, by failing to write on my train pass before getting on the train I had somehow failed to pay for my trip.  I wasn't just being absent-minded, I was being dishonest.

As a foreigner, I was unaware of this rule that I had to write on the pass before getting on the train.  Furthermore, I couldn't understand why this rule would be so important.  As far as I'm concerned, the important thing is that I bought my train pass and I recorded the journey on it.  But in her rigid worldview, writing on the pass an hour later was the same thing as not writing on it at all.  The end result?  I was charged over three times the cost of the journey and made to feel like a criminal, just because I didn't know the system.

And this is how I felt as I got off the train, 26 euros poorer.
This is just one example of the millions of situations in which not having the necessary cultural background or knowledge can make things more difficult - and often more expensive.  It's extremely frustrating and stressful, and it never gets much easier.  It seems that no matter how long you live in a country, there will always be something new like this to trip you up.

But the hardest part of being a foreigner?  The feeling of isolation.

You're away from your family and friends, away from people who speak your language and understand your culture.  You don't get other people's jokes, and they probably don't get yours either.

Why is noone laughing at my references to the Simpsons and Seinfeld??
Surrounded by all this unfamiliarity, it's tempting to close in a little bit.  To avoid venturing out.  To limit your life to a safe routine of work/school and home.

I've been living here for just over two months now, and I can't say that I have much of a life outside of the opera studio.  It's partly because my schedule is quite busy, but it's also because anything outside of my home and the studio is, well, a bit daunting.  I don't speak Flemish.  I'm unfamiliar with Belgian culture.  I still don't know my way around the city because I have a terrible sense of direction.  I don't know how the public transport system works.  And so, despite having lived here for over two months, I really don't know my city at all.

My friends are in Scotland.  My boyfriend is in Sweden.  My family is in Canada.  The other students here are a lovely bunch of people and we have a lot of fun together.  But outside of the studio?  My home life mostly consists of cups of tea, skyping with the boyfriend and the parents, reading, and watching episodes of my favourite shows online.

So my home life is pretty quiet, and I'll admit, sometimes a bit lonely.  I know I should probably be more adventurous.  I should be out and about, exploring Ghent.  Not staying at home taking refuge in familiar things like English novels and American TV.  But sometimes it takes so much energy just to function in a strange city that all I want to do at the end of the day is sit around watching the Office.

You've missed us, haven't you?
To sum up, being a foreigner is fairly difficult.  It's just like living at home, except that everything is ten times less familiar and ten times more confusing.  So why do I do it?

Well first of all, I've never been one to do things the easy way.  Easy is boring as far as I'm concerned.  But also, as I've said before, you learn a lot about yourself and the world by living in another country.

And if you can have a sense of humour about it all, if you can stand to laugh at yourself a bit, being a foreigner is actually pretty fun.

Yesterday I decided not to set foot in the studio.  Not just because I needed a day off from singing, but because I needed a breath of fresh air.  So I left home and wandered into town.  I used my terrible sense of direction to find a nice cafe.  I browsed through a sale at a vintage store, trying to decide which clothes were "interesting" and which were just plain ugly.  It was a miserable rainy day and I got lost several times.  But I'm glad I did it.  I had a nice cappuccino and waffle, and for just 6 euros I got new shoes and a sweater (which my boyfriend informs me is a "granny sweater" - guess I didn't judge that one too well).  More importantly, I got to know my city better and feel a little bit less like a foreigner.

I am slowly starting to get the hang of all this - the new city, the new language, the new culture.  It might never be comfortable.  It will probably never be easy.  But it will most certainly never be boring!

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