Don’t you just love learning a foreign language? It is so much fun! Okay, it’s also exasperating, difficult and often confusing. I am now learning French, and I know whereof I speak. However, even a language you are familiar with spoken in other parts of the world can offer up befuddlements, discombobulations and mortifications.

It is a truth like a cow (a Dutch expression) that as an expat or a world traveler you have a great advantage if you speak English. You’re especially lucky if you live in a foreign country that actually has English as its official language. It makes shopping for food and reading signs so much easier, don’t you agree?

Road sign in KenyaNo Picking or Alighting!

So, having learned English (in school in my native Holland and later living in the US) paid off for me when I lived in Kenya, East Africa, where both English and Swahili are official languages. I did learn some Swahili, like Cho iko wapi? (Where is the bathroom?) and other such useful phrases.

My mate was an American Peace Corps volunteer at the time and we lived in a shabby little house loved by spiders and army ants. The kitchen was a built-on little shack without a fridge or oven. But I was delighted with the little lemon tree in front of the house and other (to me) exotic plants and flowers in the garden.

A maize field started at the bottom of our lawn and often we would see women tending the corn. Kikuyu farm women toil like no others. Most stunning to me was seeing women carrying huge loads of firewood on their backs, often with a baby strapped on in front.

Photo credit | Creative Commons License

I was home one afternoon when a rain storm hit. A deluge of water poured forth from the heavens, drumming on our corrugated metal roof. Somehow, above the noise, I became aware of voices outside the front door. I opened it to investigate and found two young Kikuyu women hiding under the roof overhang, farm implements clutched in their hands. They were drenched. They must have come running over from the shamba below to take cover.

They looked at me wide-eyed and terrified. This was a new experience for me, since it’s not usually the reaction I get when people look at my most ordinary person. Clearly these girls – they were teenagers, really – had not expected to see a white human emerge from this little house. They may never have had a close encounter with one of my kind before, since not many wazungu lived in the area at that time.

Since the rain kept a-pouring, I did what was the right thing to do: I invited them in to wait out the deluge. Their eyes grew wider and they looked even more terrified than before, they with the pangas (machetes) and other sharp tools in their hands.

What to do? Clearly, they’d be happiest if I just closed the door and left them alone out there under the overhang. I understood this, although it made me feel uncharitable. So I decided to do the other proper thing, at least for a Dutch person, and offer them a cup of tea.

A green field of black tea. Kenya is the largest exporter of black tea in the world. India is the largest producer and consumer.

“Would you like some chai?” I asked. Chai is the Swahili word for tea, a most beloved beverage in Kenya.

“I don’t mind,” one of the girls said. This took me aback a little. I looked at the other girl, who had said nothing.

“Would you like some chai?”

“I don’t mind,” she said.

Sheesh, I thought, you don’t mind? You can take it or leave it? If I really want to make the effort to fix it, you’ll do me the favor of drinking it?

Peeved a little, I went to the shacky kitchen and brewed the chai, the Kenyan way. I steeped tea leaves in a pan with boiling water, then poured in a copious amount of milk, added a motherload of sugar and brought the lot up to a boil again. No spices like the Indian variety. I had a package of British cookies (biscuits) and put some on a plate, because in Holland you never just offer tea and coffee without something sweet to go with it. The girls said thank you very nicely when I handed them the tray. I left the door ajar, since it seemed so rude to just close it in their faces.

After the storm blew over, I went outside again and found the girls gone, the cups empty, the cookies eaten, the world sparkling.

It wasn’t until later that I learned that in Kenya “I don’t mind” simply means “Yes, please.”

As in many countries that have English as their official language, Kenya too has its own local usages and idioms. It’s often referred to as Kenglish. Here are a few:

“Let me give you a push.” No, that does not mean your Kenyan friend will shove you in a corner. It means that when you’re leaving to go somewhere, he’ll walk along with you.

Say you’ve been gone for a while, on vacation, or on home leave. After you’re back in Kenya, people are happy to see you again and will comment: “You’ve been lost!” (And been found again!)

“Can you pick me?” Pick you for what? To win a prize? To join your team? No, it means: Can you give me a ride/lift? And when you’ve reached your destination you ask the driver to stop because you want to alight. Now you can make sense of the sign at the top of the post.

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Have you ever been flabbergasted by some language confusion? Do share! The more colorful and embarrassing, the better. Go ahead, scroll down and hit that comment button!

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An Armenian dermatologist once told me not to bathe for a week. I found this medical advice a bit problematic.

When you travel around the world and live in foreign countries, you hope you don’t get to deal with serious or annoying medical issues. But invariably you do. Or at least I did. I had malaria once, and I broke my leg in a tropical rainforest, and well, it’s kind of boring to listen to other people moaning about their medical catastrophes, but I thought you might want to read this one because it’s sort of a mystery story that moves all over the world itself. It begins in Ghana, West Africa, travels in Europe and the US and finally ends in Armenia, a small isolated country in the Caucasus Mountains where I lived for 6 years (I now live in France). So here goes:

GOING CRAZY

“No bathing for a week,” the Armenian dermatologist tells me.

I stare at him. Did I hear this right?

“And for eating, only boiled beef and madzoon.” Madzoon is yogurt, sacred food in Armenia. You will suffer if you don’t have your daily dose.

The above instructions are given me in order to start a search for whatever is giving me an off-on allergic reaction and causing me to itch like a fleabag monkey. It’s been going on now for almost a year and it’s driving me nuts, bananas and crazy. Not to speak of desperate. I don’t like to scratch myself in public, at the butcher shop or at dinner with friends. It’s so uncouth, don’t you think?

I glance from the Armenian specialist to the Indian doctor who is our GP. He has requested the dermatologist to come here to examine me. It’s how it is sometimes done in this very nice, shiny clinic in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Patients who need specialized care do not always visit other doctors at their addresses because often these physicians work at government hospitals and have no private practice of their own. So these specialists come to this private clinic for a little consulting on the side.

The reason my Indian doctor has requested the dermatologist to check me out is because he himself is at a loss to cure me of my mysterious itch. He’s tried his Indian magic and his western medicine magic and now it is time for the Armenian specialist to try his Armenian magic.

Eating boiled beef and yogurt, and no bathing for a week.

“No bathing for a week?” I ask. To stop itching?

The Indian doctor seems a bit embarrassed. The specialist looks impatient. He is a big man with a huge vodka-and-barbecue belly and an unshaven face. No white coat, just ill-fitting, rumpled trousers, shirt and jacket, no tie. Very unusual in Armenia, where appearance is everything and you don’t leave the house until you’re groomed and spiffed to within an inch of your life. This man looks like he slept in his clothes, just crawled out of bed and arrived at the clinic at the ungodly hour of 9 in the morning to see this expatriate woman with her mysterious itch.

I go home. I do not follow the given advice. I stop itching only because my Indian doctor gives me antihistamines once again, but soon enough I will start another round of itching some time after I stop taking them.

I’ve itched for a year and a half. It comes and goes mysteriously. Every time it goes away and I haven’t itched for a week or so, I pray this is the end. The Itch Witch has found someone else to terrorize and I’m in the clear.

But no. She keeps coming back for days or weeks at a time to make my life miserable. I have a yearly physical in the US, but the one time I’m hoping to have a huge flaming scratchy case of the itchies I am symptom free. The exam and the blood tests say I’m in perfect health. Maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe I am tired of this expat life, maybe I need tranquilizers. Anything. Just somebody tell me!!

It started while I was still living in Ghana, a very steamy tropical African country, and the first symptoms were itching around my hair line and behind my ears and I was in an instant panic of having caught head lice. Well, I fly a lot. Who knows if the head that has rested against the back of the seat on an earlier trip was not infested with varmint? But various medical professionals at three different times examined me and found no evidence of this. Nor evidence of anything else, because at the time I managed to get into their offices for an appointment, I was symptom free. Two days later, or a week later, I’d be itching again, but by then I was on a plane off to other climes.

An allergy of some sort. But what? I change laundry detergent, soap, anything I can think off. Nothing helps. I wake up in the morning with scratches on my stomach.

I itched in Ghana.

I itch in Armenia, but not always.

I itch in Italy on vacation,

I itch in Holland at my mother’s house, but not every time I visit.

I itch in the US, except when I have a doctor’s appointment.

I start surfing the net, googling dermatology and itch and so on. Maybe I have some horrible tropical disease — tropical rat mite dermatitis, scabies — there are plenty to choose from, but let me not bore you with the gruesome things I learn. However, nothing seems to quite fit my symptoms. So it’s probably something rare and exotic I picked up in the tropics and that’s not yet found its way on Google, and I’ll be dead soon.

But I don’t die. The itch stops. And the Itch Witch stays away. For weeks and months. I do not know what has happened. I’ve done nothing different, I still live in Armenia, I have not changed climates, houses, or husbands. It stays away wherever I travel and a year later it is still gone. I am mysteriously cured. More months go by. Another year goes by.

I forget all about it.

Then one day the Itch Witch comes back. With a vengeance. I itch at my hairline, behind my ears, I have red welts all over my belly and I wake up with scratches.

My despair knows no bounds. Why, oh why? I wander around the house in numb despair. I still live in Armenia. Nothing has changed. I have not moved to a different location. I have not changed climates, foods, husbands, nothing.

I am in the kitchen, scratching myself like a monkey in a cage and my eyes catch the fruit bowl.

Bananas. B A N A N A S !!!

Something has changed, indeed.

Two years ago my mate and I decided to lose a few pounds. We left out some of the more starchy foods in our diets, like bananas. Then we forgot about the diet but didn’t go back to eating bananas because there is so much other wonderful fruit in Armenia, so why eat the imported stuff?

Fruit Market in Yerevan, Armenia. Photo by Rita Willaert

So no bananas. Until a few days ago. When my man said, “We haven’t had bananas for a while. Let’s have some for our cereal.” So I’ve had one with breakfast the last couple of days. And I’ve eaten some for a snack and had a couple more because they were getting ripe and really they were kind of yummie even if not nearly as good as the ones we used to get in Africa. We had so many bananas in Ghana, daily, and I loved them. I had them all the time. ALL THE TIME!

No wonder my body said: ENOUGH!

And here it is, saying it again: ENOUGH WITH THE BANANAS ALREADY!

Well, I hope that’s what it is. I take a deep, hopeful breath and say goodbye to bananas. I send up fervent prayers to the banana god, to the itch god, to any god who’ll listen.

And the Itch Witch slinks away never to return.

The End!

NOTE: I live in France now, where doctors don’t tell you not to bathe, and where the health care is the best in the world, so says the WHO. So far so good.

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Go ahead tell me your itchy stories, your medical mysteries, your weird medical prescriptions.

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