Monday, 25 June 2012

Things I am not very good at: Language Learning

I am ashamed to admit that my husband Greg and I have failed to learn not one, not two, but three different languages;  which is highly embarrassing to say the least. Many would claim that we can’t even speak English, such is the confusion over our kiwi accents, but that is another story. Our excuses and reasons for our linguistic failures are varied, but I like to tell myself it has nothing to do with lack of intelligence, and certainly was not from lack of trying.

We started our first language learning experience in Bangladesh (I don’t count my attempts at school girl French, which were mostly spent trying to write love notes in French to a certain boy I was keen on at the time).
“Ami beshi Bangla jani na, ami Bangla sheikchi, ”  (I don’t speak much Bengali but I am learning) was one  of the first phrases we learned and we ended up using it for the entire three years we lived there.  I was still saying it to the porter who helped with our suitcases on our last day in the country. Greg should have been good at languages, he has the right personality; i.e. doesn’t mind making a fool of himself. 
“My name is Greg. I am from New Zealand. What is your name? How is your mother? How is my mother? Do you have a school bag? I like to eat oranges, the apple is red,” he would repeat in his kiwi Bengali over and over to every man he met wandering around our neighbourhood. Sometimes he would get mixed up and say: “My name is New Zealand, and I am from Greg,” which did not even bother him, whereas I would have been mortified. His new male friends would laugh and shake his hand and then not let go, wanting to walk along the road holding his hand so they could introduce him to their friends and on it would go. (In Bangladesh it was very normal to see men holding hands which took him some getting used to.)  My language attempts, on the other hand, usually consisted of me planning and practicing the perfect phrase in my head for hours and by the time I was ready to say it, everyone had gone home to bed or had died of old age. Or I would say something that I thought was perfect only to be met by completely blank looks, or worse, laughter, and I was usually left feeling stupid and irritated. Other times I would nod and smile and say “ha, ha, bhalo,” (yes, yes, good) and Greg would ask me to tell him what they had said and I would have to mutter through clenched teeth, still nodding and smiling, that I had absolutely no idea. I kept telling him to stop doing this but he persisted as my nodding and smiling was obviously very convincing and fooled even him.

We were even worse at Arabic, which we attempted to learn when we moved to Jordan after Bangladesh. Fortunately though, Arabic is full of praises to God, blessings, greetings and farewells so we learned to carry on a five minute conversation in which we praised and thanked Allah for the person's health, the lovely day, asked how they were, how was their mother and entire household, did they sleep well, blessed their house, their heads and hands, saying how much we missed them and it was a long time since we had seen each other and insha'Allah we would meet again soon, then goodbye, travel safely, may God go with you and keep you safe etc etc. By by the time we had finished, we felt like we had carried on a fluent conversation without actually saying anything new, but at least we were talking.  Greg had a few innovations, such as asking taxi drivers where they kept their combs (usually they kept one in the glove box of their car which they always seemed happy to show him). He also loved to say; “min zayman ma shuftak,” (I haven’t seen you for ages,) to people he had never met.  Fortunately, Jordanians have a great sense of humour and are extremely friendly and hospitable, so we managed to get by with a lot of smiling, nodding and doses of our kiwi charm.

Sometimes though, that hospitality and charm would be stretched  to its very limits. Greg seldom had this problem as usually some of the men would speak English, but we were often separated and I would be ushered into a room full of women, who, especially in rural areas, could not not speak a word of English. After I had exhausted my greetings and blessings, asked them how many children they had, what their names were and where their children went to school, told them how delicious their food was and that I was from New Zealand and had two children, I was stuck. This would take about 10 minutes. The meals would last about 2 hours so I think you get the picture. Sometimes (thank you God) there would be some children who were studying English in school, so that always helped a lot as we muddled through together. I learned to always take my camera as this takes up time and I cuddled a lot of babies. But there was always plenty of smiling and nodding and by the time I came to leave, hugs and blessings and you must come again soon, God willing. Greg always came out looking full, happy, rested and a little smug, while I would almost run for the car and demand to know why he had to take so long and couldn't he eat a lot faster, or better still, next time suggest takeaways.

So alas, language learning is another thing I am not very good at. By the time we got to Tanzania, I was languaged out. I went to language school for a while, but my tired brain seemed to be saying; “you already have two failed languages banging around in here, add another and I may just explode.”  When we moved to South Africa we did not even try. There are so many languages spoken here that we thought we should just stick to the one we know, which fortunately the majority do speak. We were very fortunate that in all of the countries we have lived in, English was a strong second language, so we could usually get by. But this was also the main problem, as I am convinced the only way for me to learn a language is to be surrounded by people that don’t understand a word I say. Then I am sure I would be fluent in weeks, as the thought of not being able to talk for three years would, most certainly,  drive me crazy.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Things I am not very good at: Keeping Greg awake

My husband Greg suffers from a sleeping disorder. He is awake when everyone else is asleep (the middle of the night) and is asleep when everyone else is awake ( any time he sits still for 5 mins during the day).

He sleeps at restaurants

He sleeps through movies, church, business meetings, parties, dinner conversations.

He sleeps on boats

He sleeps when we are at home and he sleeps when we are out. 

He sleeps at picnics

He sleeps sitting up and he sleeps lying down.

He sleeps on planes
He sleeps with other people and he sleeps alone.

He sleeps at church home groups
He sleeps on trains

He sleeps with his mouth open and he sleeps with his mouth closed.

He sleeps in cars
He sleeps with his hat on and he sleeps with his hat off.
He sleeps on safaris

He sleeps when he has a moustache and he sleeps when he doesn't have a moustache

He sleeps on bus tours

He sleeps on beaches

The bad news is that I am not very good at keeping him awake as I was with him when all these photos were taken. The good news is that I love him awake or asleep; in fact sometimes I prefer him asleep as then I can do all the talking!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Things I am not very good at: Making decisions while shopping

Shopping can be a nightmare for me. To give you just a tiny glimpse into my world, I will try and describe a typical shopping experience, that is if you are brave enough to follow me. I should warn you, it can be very disturbing...
I am in a department store in a shopping mall, searching for a birthday present for a friend. I am standing in front of a rack of the scarves.  My face is furrowed in a frown of concentration, and I am muttering to myself.
“Should I buy this one or this one? This is more expensive but doesn’t really look it, and she may never wear it, it is probably the wrong colour, or the wrong style or really when I think about it, it is just ugly and why the heck am I even standing here looking at it?”
I put down the scarf and pick up another one.
“Oh this is nice! But it’s red, does she wear red? I can’t remember, and now that I look at it, it seems a little long and is that a hole? No, but still if I thought it looked like a hole then so may she.”
I put it back.
“What about this one? It’s black, so will go with everything.  But it is kind of boring and it looks cheap and actually when I think about it, does she even wear a scarf?”
I put the scarf back and turn around and wander off and now I am standing in front of the jewelry section.
“Oh this is nice, but maybe it looks a little cheap. What about this, it is a little big, does she wear big necklaces? What about these earrings? Are her ears pierced? I think so but does she wear silver or gold?” 
By now sweat is starting to gather on my top lip and my right eye is twitching and I can feel a headache developing.  I need a coffee. I leave the department store and after several coffees and about 30 other shops, end up in the supermarket settling on a box of chocolates (light or dark? Nestle, Lindt or Ferrier Roche?) No what about a bottle of wine…that will do...but wait, does she drink red or white, Merlot or Chardonnay? "AgggGGGGGGHHHHHHHH," I run screaming from the mall, get a little lost trying to find the car, which causes even more stress and by the time I find it, I am unable to start the car as my hands are shaking so badly.
“I will buy a gift voucher," I tell myself as I finally calm down enough to head for home, wishing I had bought her the wine so I could have some to calm my nerves!

Unfortunately, this lack of decisiveness runs in the family and my son Jarred and I make a toxic combination when we shop together.  I can remember some agonising trips to the very limited shopping options for birthday presents for his teenage friends when we were living in Tanzania. These usually ended up with me wanting to strangle him, and him wishing he had come with his father, who has no trouble making decisions and would usually buy the first thing in the shop.
“What about this Jarred?” I would say.  
“I don’t know, maybe? I’m not sure. What do you think?” he would answer.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s not right. What about this?”  I would say.
“I don’t know, maybe? I’m not sure he would wear that. What do you think?” he would answer
“I don’t know either. What about this?”  I would say.
“Oh I don’t know, I don’t think he would use it. What do you think?” he would answer.
We would usually came home feeling that we had bought completely the wrong thing and Greg’s stupid comment; “What on earth did you buy that for?” did not help.

I was going to include my experience of shopping for my mother of the bride outfit for my daughter's wedding, but feel this is an entire blog of its own and you have probably had enough of being in my head for now. But as Schwarzenegger said in the Terminator, I'LL BE BACK and you should Be Afraid...Be Very Afraid!!!

Monday, 4 June 2012

Things I am not very good at: weddings and saris

The Queen is telling everyone about my blog 
In honour of the Queen's Jubilee, I thought I should show you my photos of the royal wedding. As you can see from this photo, I was a tad underdressed as I was going to a rugby game straight afterwards and couldn’t be bothered changing. But I have to admit that dressing for weddings is another thing I am not very good at. My family are still recovering from the trauma of helping me choose my outfit for my daughter Alana’s wedding, and she and I both still remember another wedding dress saga that occured many years ago when we were living in Bangladesh.

I had been honoured and thrilled when my Bangladeshi friend Shova invited Alana to be part of her wedding party. Alana was a little less excited, especially when she saw the dress Shova had chosen for her to wear. She absolutely hated it with all the passion and intensity that a young nine year old can muster for something she deemed to be totally unacceptable to be caught dead in, and what happened if some of her friends saw her???? I had to admit that I was equally dismayed. It resembled a party dress for a toddler; white organza, knee-length with layers and layers of frills and lace and it looked decidedly odd on a young girl who was more into jeans and t-shirts. Alana begged and pleaded to wear something, anything, else, and I was totally sympathetic, but there was just no way I could say any of this to Shova. I assured her that none of her cool nine year old school friends would see her, and to her credit, and very reluctantly, she wore the dress. But as it turned out, I was to have some dress issues of my own.
The Queen insisted I join the family photo
Despite living in Bangladesh for three years, I never really mastered the art of wearing a sari. It is harder than it looks as there is a lot of material to be wrapped around ones person, though a number of highly annoying expatriate women could do it with ease. My few attempts were disastrous and after I started to unravel once in a restaurant, leaving a trail of sari behind me as I rushed into the toilets, I gave up trying. To avoid any chance of unraveling for Shova's wedding, I had asked Momena, the lady who worked in my friend's house, to help me before I set out. I thought I looked quite delightful (really I probably looked like big white galumph compared to the natural grace of the small beautiful dark Bengali women, but I liked to kid myself) until I reached the church and looking down, realised the material was inside out, and the pretty little gold threads that looked beautiful on the right side were sticking out all over the place, making me look like a prickly pear. I had a sneaking suspicion Momena had done this on purpose, being particularly disparaging of the fact that after so long on Bangladesh I could still not put one on myself and she had been doing a fair amount of muttering in Bengali throughout the process. What was I to do? My husband, with all the calm assurance of an utterly clueless male, assured me that no one would notice. However, I knew three things for sure:
  • I had noticed and now felt I had a sign attached to my forehead saying stupid foreign women wearing inside out sari.
  • Every woman there would also notice because we are women, that is what we do! No matter what culture, we are trained in this department like navy seals, we can spot a back to front top or an upside down skirt or an inside out sari from 100km.
  • Bangladeshis love to stare; they will stare at each other if they have to, but if there is some stupid white woman stuffed into an inside out sari, they are certainly going to notice.  
So I thought I was doomed and was hiding behind a rickshaw until I saw another Bengali friend arrive, and she helped to unwind me and then wind me back up in the church toilets so I could face the world with much less embarrassment. Fortunately my dress issues could be solved, but poor Alana’s will be caught for all time in Shova's wedding album. (Many of my photos of Bangladesh are in storage in NZ so can’t find one to show you, which I am sure Alana is very pleased about)

Wills and Kate are laughing about my latest blog
Greg's parents were due to arrive to visit us from New Zealand the day of Shova's wedding so we were unable to stay for the reception, which was probably just as well as if there was one other wedding thing we were not very good at, and this was a problem for us in both Asia and Africa, it was knowing what time to turn up at a wedding reception. Clearly the time printed on the invitation was NOT the time to arrive; that was the time that you began to make lunch at home, then went to visit a friend, did some shopping, watched a movie and then began to get ready and strolled along to the wedding but not too fast as you don’t want to be early. Apparently everyone knows and understands this but the stupid foreigners! Even when the stupid foreigners have taken a poll of all their local friends the day before and been assured over and over again by a varied number of people.
“Yes, the invitation says the wedding starts 3pm so I am going at 3pm.”
“Oh yes, you should definitely be there at 3pm!”
“Most definitely, we will see you there at 3pm!”
“My family and friends are all going to be there at 3pm, no doubt about it.”
Even when we have been particularly daring and turned up at 3.30 or even once at 4:00, guess what? Apart from the people cleaning up from a function the night before, we were the only ones there!! Everyone else was just getting into the shower. We learned to make sure we had eaten something as it can be a long time to sit waiting for something to happen, and you can’t leave because the bride just may turn up at any moment. Oh and to pray the venue is air conditioned. It is pretty hot in a sari, whichever way round you have worn it.

(Thanks to Arina for my completely unaltered and totally unshopped royal wedding photos)