Monday, 20 April 2009

Getting my cultural references

When I moved from the UK, I was expecting to find a number of things difficult. The loss of a network of other mothers that I could talk to was the big one. Not having around my Mum was another. Not being able to get a decent cup of tea, a packet of chocolate hobnobs or some marmite toast was always going to distress me. I knew that the success of our adventure abroad would depend upon my ability to be able to deal with these issues and I was ready for them. More or less. They were still difficult to deal with but by expecting them, they weren't such a big deal. Like an invited guest, I knew they were coming and could prepare myself for them, which made them less of an problem when they arrived (and they certainly did arrive).

It was the uninvited guest, the dropper-inner at that most inconvenient moment, that was the most difficult to come to terms with. What I wasn't expecting was how much more difficult life becomes when you lose the inherent cultural references, the instinct which points you in the right direction. So – for example – if I was looking for somewhere to cut another key or get a pair of shoes fixed in the UK, I would make train and tube stations a priority. You can usually find a cobbler, who also cuts keys, lurking in a little cabin somewhere around there. Here, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start looking. The train station is a relic of an early communist era and people don’t go there for anything, not even to catch a train.

Supermarkets became bizarre places. It took me months to find the butter. It wasn’t where I was expecting to find it, by the other dairy products. Margarine, check. Cheese, check. Yogurts, check. Butter – AWOL. I knew it was here, everyone eats it, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. Only when looking (more in hope than expectation) for some fish fingers did I suddenly come across the butter. In the freezer. Between the potato pie and the peas.

Ingredients for cooking are a further source of bewilderment. I now know that you can’t buy self raising flour anywhere. You can, however, make it mixing plain flour with baking powder. I’m just not sure what I am actually using as baking powder is in fact baking powder and I don't have a clue what the ratio should be. Probably unsurprisingly, I can’t get anything to rise. So non-rising cakes for us then, luckily, chocolate brownies remain a winning formula in this household.

It was only when I was told that the billboard advertising campaign I thought was advertising laxatives was in fact for the most fashionable clothing store in town (I did think the adverts were a bit bizarre) did I realise how many submerged cultural references there are that are invisible to the newbie in town. There are so many assumptions you can make as a local that when you are the local you don't even realise you are doing it.

We've been here 9 months now and I know that I am starting to settle in. I automatically check the km/hr speed in our car rather than mph. Driving on the right isn't quite so bizarre. The supermarkets sort of make sense. I know the pink and purple butterfly billboard campaign is not advertising sanitary towels but glamourous slim style cigarettes. I'm used to the fact that the internet is not going to be able to tell me where the nearest tailors is, or what time the sports centre is open until. The city is taking on a feel of a worn glove and even beginning to make sense. It has taken awhile, but I'm starting to get my cultural bearings.


MoaningMum said...

I think it's amazingly brave and adventurous to do what you are doing. I know you won't regret it- life is short you have to do these things or else time will race by and the opportunity will be lost. We are seriously considering a move to Goa for a year this autumn and though the most marvelous place on earth i know i too shall crave those home comforts you mention..x

Sparx said...

Moving to any new country brings these sorts of issues but some are much more marked - I thought returning to the UK from Canada wouldn't put up any of these sorts of barriers but there were subtle ones I wasn't expecting. I've never made the move to somewhere as different as Bosnia and I can't imagine all the things such as you point out that there must be to whip the rug out from underneath you at unexpected times - it must feel great every time you begin to 'get' one of these things and fit ever more gently into your surroundings! By the way, my word verification here is 'expaloat' - seems vaguely appropriate!

Iota said...

You explain it well. When you're totally new, and everything is totally strange, you expect to be adrift. Then you begin to get your bearings, and life functions pretty normally. But the uninvited guests (as you describe them) are round every corner, and as you say, are much harder to deal with.

I've been here over 2 years, and today at the doctor's surgery (doctor's office, of course), I just nodded and smiled as the receptionist said she'd arrange for "an order and a referral". I have a kind of idea what those are, but I don't know exactly what will happen and what I need to do. In my early days, I'd have asked. Now, I nod and smile and pretend. Silly, but no-one likes to appear a newbie once they're no longer a newbie.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

MM - you are right to say that the opportunity for these things is now. We very much felt that, that is why we decided to go for it. Go for Goa! Whatever else it will be an adventure. My only bit of (totally uncalled for and therefore eminently ignorable) advice is that living somewhere is not like going on holiday. Life has an infuriating habit of catching up with you. Grrr.

Sparx - I haven't even thought about moving home yet, but lots of people say that can be the most difficult move of all. Think I'll bury my head in the sand for a bit longer on that one.

Iota - I am finding that now - not a newbie anymore people are less forgiving. We should speak the language better etc. But I look back on my newbie times and am pleased that we have moved on since then!

Almost American said...

I remember the summer that I lived and worked in Taipei suddenly realizing that I had absolutely no idea how to tell if I was in a 'bad' area of the city or not . . .

Kit said...

I can only help on the baking powder ratio! Here in South Africa self-raising flour is not the norm either. I use 1 cup or 100g flour to 1 teaspoon baking powder and it works well enough ... as long as it is baking powder! Good luck - at least here the language is mostly the same!

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