woensdag 16 mei 2018

Tripping over culture

Learning the ins and outs of a culture is like walking in the swamp. Seems solid enough until you step in the mud, or sink to your knees in quicksand.  At my age, I am actually pretty flexible, inside my head, not one to get hung up on the right or wrong way to do something. However, I do find my self walking in that swamp here in Belgium when I thought I was strolling in a pleasant forest instead.

I love the house we are leasing here. I had to get used to having a staircase between my bed and the toilet, but I have adapted and gotten stronger even though I occasionally bounce between walls on the way down in the middle of the night. I like the attic on the third floor with it's windows and extra space, just like attics I've read about all my life, but never experienced. It could easily become an overflow bedroom for short people. I haven't quite gotten used to the dungeon/wine cellar/spare-space-I-think-is-home-to-spiders-and-mold. But a house with four levels is fun. I got my feet wet in the swamp when I couldn't find the two faucets for the washing machine, though.  I asked the landlady how I was supposed to make a washing machine work with just a cold water faucet. She looked at me rather askance and said, "Why would you need a hot water pipe?"

 Many things raced through my mind, but what came out was, "To get hot water in the machine...?"
"But that's why there's a heater inside the washer."
"What a brilliant idea! But American washing machine don't have that."
And she just shook her head.

Sure enough, there's a setting on the machines for what temperature you want - in Celsius.  It's more exact than "cold, warm, hot", like 30, 40, 50 or 60 degrees, and how many RPM's of spin, from 400 to 1600. And a delayed start for from 1 to 24 hours.  But if you can't read French or Dutch, it can be painfully slow to translate the instruction manual because these models don't exist in the UK or Australia so there isn't an English version online. Even though Siemans is the brand.  There are at least 7 settings I haven't translated yet, but I'm working on it. And the manual for the stove-top, microwave and oven are also only partly translated, so only partly used.

I sank up to my knees in the cultural swamp at the bus stop last week.  There was no one there when I sat on the bench, so out came my cell phone and the book I had loaded. I was peripherally aware of others arriving, then a gentleman sat next to me and started poking his finger in the air in front of me, so I looked at him, and he started talking in French and pointed at my cell phone, so I showed it to him, saying one of my standard French phrases , 'Je ne parle pas francais.' So he mimed reading a book and turning pages, then tapping a finger, like one does on an ebook. For the next half hour (as two buses in a row failed to come), he used gestures and spoke in French, and entertained me and himself trying to converse.  There was a lot of patting my shoulder, and poking my arm. When the bus finally arrived, he helped my get my cart on board, then made someone move so he could get it out of the aisle and sit next to me. When we got the the exchange stop, he made sure I knew which bus was my transfer, then kissed me on the cheek when his bus came.  Now, I have seen office workers do the cheek kiss as they pass one another in the hall, and people chatting in the store whether male or female do the kiss cheek thing, but it was my first experience with a pretty total stranger leaning in for the kiss! Flat-footed, I stood there in the rain and thought "Flirting, or casual?", "Normal or unusual?" and mostly, "Did I just kiss a stranger?"  So, am I being rude to not kiss someone's cheek in this country? Is there a manual I can try to translate like there is for the washing machine? And will I only get part of it translated?

Google Translate is not helping with this one, and I haven't asked the landlady yet, lest she just shake her head again.

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