Thursday, May 23, 2013

Culture Shock

Europe on Ten Words a Day

During my sophomore year at the University of Michigan, now many years ago, I discovered an organization that placed students in math and science in other countries for practical work - for what would now be called co-oping. The organization's primary objective was to exchange students among the various European countries, but somehow we managed to start a branch at U of M. I eagerly joined, and successfully lobbied a couple of professors who agreed to sponsor a foreign co-op student for the summer.

When I applied myself, hoping for a placement the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I thus had a preferred status; as someone who had worked for the organization, I went to the front of the queue, so to speak. Since I speak fluent French, I asked for France, Belgium, Luxembourg, or Switzerland, countries where French is spoken.

But placements for students from the United States were limited, and I was offered a spot in the Netherlands, at the Agricultural University of Wageningen, assisting a professor of mathematics.

Like many students, I ended up renting a room from a family. They live a couple of miles outside of town and had two young children. They showed me around their home, including a spacious washroom.

"And you'll take your bath on Saturday," my hostess said.

Bath? Once a week. As soon as I could locate a phone, I called my mother, who, fortunately, had a far wider experience than I of European culture.

"Water is expensive," Mom said. "Offer them some more money," she named an amount, "and see if they will agree to let you bathe three times a week."

They may have muttered to themselves about crazy Americans, but they did agree, much to my relief. And they agreed to lend me an old bicycle, one that needed some work. I took it into town the next day and the guy at the bike store fixed it up for me.

This was my first experience being totally alone in a foreign country, and one, moreover, where I didn't speak the language. Dutch has several levels of gutterals, with pronounced somewhat like the German "ch" and a couple more that are deeper in the throat. Gouda, the cheese, for example, is pronounced something like "How-da." It took me a week to learn to pronounce the name of the town, and until I could, I didn't dare go anywhere. Most people my age and younger spoke English,  but many of the older folks in the towns surrounding Wageningen did not.

I still remember my excitement that first weekend when I boarded the bus for a nearby, larger, town, Ede (pronounced Ay-da).

In relatively short order, I found a ballet class in town - I was passionately fond of ballet at the time - and signed up for lessons. It was there that I had another lesson in cultural insularity.

"I'm an American," I responded when asked where I was from.

"Oh, so am I," a diminutive student replied. "I'm from Nicaragua. How about you?"

"I'm from the United States." And that is how, to this day, I respond when asked what country I'm from.

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  1. Thanks for the peek into your interesting life and culture beyond ours.

  2. Very interesting :) I was in the military and my only overseas post was in S. Korea. I was too young and homesick to appreciate the opportunity I had to immerse myself in a different culture, and I regret not spending more time off the military base.

    It sounds as if you have many more interesting stories to tell! Thanks for sharing.


  3. You've had an interesting life Margaret. Thanks for sharing with us.

  4. I know some of my most interesting memories are from living on Guam and interacting with the local people and from living in Morocco and the experiences with the Moroccan people.

  5. Wow, how interesting, Margaret. I've never been further than the Bahamas (and that was almost 40 years ago), but would love to go to Europe one day.

  6. I had the good fortune to attend a Grammar school in the UK, with a [very!] enlightened SJ as Head Teacher. He believed foreign languages could only be effectively taught by native-born teachers. Two French & 2 Spanish nationals on the teaching staff, even our Latin was taught by Italians!
    He never found a German teacher whose qualifications were deemed 'satisfactory' so German was not taught at the school.
    Did this work? We were 33 in my Arts class: every one of us scored top marks in University entrance exams (in the UK these are called "A"-levels).
    Later I went to Denmark on holiday, fell in love with the country and stayed almost 20 years. I taught myself the three main Scandinavian languages, and after 6 months working alongside people who spoke very little English I got my first teaching post : I taught school-leaving classes Danish & Maths, and nobody failed the exam!
    Paul McDermott

  7. The farthest I've been from home is Canada (I'm from the USA as well.)

    Sounds like a different/cool experience. I'd love to go abroad someday. We'll see ;)

  8. Everyone, thanks for stopping by. Paul, I speak fluent French, and, since the local library in Wageningen was rather short on books in English, I spent the summer reading through their collection in French, including Simenon, Arsene Lupin, and a bunch of science fiction.

  9. Thanks for sharing, Margaret. Good reminder of a possibly different POV than our own. This would be a good point to make in your writing.

  10. Dear Margaret,
    It is interesting how we take things for granted when it's a different world in other places.

    Thanks for sharing. I'm glad you were able to talk them into more water. This has broadened your experiences and given you more fuel for characters in your books.

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Hey, Margaret. Interesting post. Brave girl to go off all alone like that. I'm thinking you've got use some of the emotions of that time in your writing. I lived in Puerto Rico for 3 years as a teen ager. Father in Air Force. Spent two weeks in Cuernavaca as an adult, living with a family who spoke only Spanish, but I wasn't alone. Traveled there with others from my school district. Unique experience. We take so much for granted here in the USA. :) And happy Memorial Day to all of you.

  12. Janet, Joan, and Marsha, thanks for stopping by. Yes, I did put a lot of this into my science fiction novel, "Relocated."