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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IMG_0720-3-300x415Serial expats are not always charmed by yet another new country and another new culture. Much is written about the strains and stresses of the expat life, so I will refrain from adding to it. Instead I’ll just jubilate about my own experience of moving to another new country: France. I am in love. Yes, I know, it’s France, how can you not be in love?

Alas, apparently you can hate the place, because I hear expats whine and complain and I read their diatribes about how bad things are. To them I say, go home.

I love the sounds of our village: The church bells chiming the hour; the cooing of the doves; the bonjours in the street of people greeting each other; the loudspeakers announcing the arrival in the village square of the butchery on wheels, or the mobile unisex hair salon. I love walking through the ancient, narrow alleys to the small village shop with my basket and buy a baguette and a few peaches and the garden tomatoes grown by the owners themselves.

Doesn’t it all sound romantic? What can I tell you: it is!

I love the open markets that come to towns and villages on certain days. The fabulous cheeses, meats, fish! You find yummy honey of all sorts from the fields and mountains just nearby, free range eggs, and artisan breads sold by weight. And now it is mushroom season again…

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Oh, what the heck, here a picture of cheese. You love cheese, don’t you?

French cheese

And let me toss in a quote by Charles de Gaulle: How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?

It’s totally cliché, but I love old buildings, balconies, windows, doors, ancient stone walls (but I don’t want to own them!).

Old door

Old door in our village

Just to be fair, there are many nice new doors in medieval villages, but the old ones are more romantic, and I’m in a romantic mood. Below a picture of a stone wall along the vineyards just outside our village.

Old wall

 

I love our morning walks through the vineyards, watching the sun rise and munching on the wild blackberries and figs, and picking more to take home.

Wild blackberries

Early morning harvest of wild blackberries

I love the summer festivals everywhere: the food fests, the art fairs, the wine tastings, the concerts in old castles. Every town and village far and wide bursts into activity with shows of all sorts, the centers of town being the stage. Food stalls, wine tasting stalls, and art displays line the streets. Tables are set up so you can sit down and eat and drink what you buy along the way. Music and other performances create a wonderful ambiance.

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Pasta and mussels, anyone?

 

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Children watching and listening to an Irish music/dance group.

I love watching the children. They will sit nicely in a restaurant, eating a bowl of mussels. They will attend piano concerts with their parents and listen and not fuss (usually). Teenagers will politely greet you with a bonjour when they’re passing you in the street or square. And it is rude not to greet everyone nearby when you enter an office or a shop, and to offer a proper bonne journée when you leave. You don’t just say thanks, turn around and walk out.

The French people here are warm and friendly, and eager to help, including waiters in restaurants and cashiers in supermarkets. They’re patient with my sorry French, and if they speak English, they’ll generously offer it up. I’m always surprised when foreigners say the French are rude. Of course they say that about the Dutch too, and that surprises me as well. Perhaps I don’t recognize rude when I see it?

Last week we were so busy doing things, eating out with friends, and doing all the above things, that we were not home for 5 evenings in a row. My prince and I do not normally have a wild and woolly social life, so this was quite a surprise.

One of the great advantages of our own village is the fact that it is near several larger towns that have all the attractions and conveniences of modern life: restaurants, theaters, art galleries, antique shops, health food stores, supermarkets, DIY stores (Americans, think Home Depot).

One of my favorite hobbies is to sit on a terrace while having a drink or eating a meal and watching the world around me. And the world around me is new and different and I’m enjoying it. And yes, it is summer, and yes, it will all look different in January, but no worries, I’ll keep you posted!

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What country did you love when you first arrived? Or after you got used to it? What did you enjoy and made you feel welcome?

PS: And if you’re into romance, check out my Finding Eden, a story set on the exotic island of Bali, one of the most romantic places on earth.

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