I’ve always considered myself to be an especially adaptable, laid-back and open-minded traveller. I suppose we’re all susceptible to that kind of self-congratulation, especially as you get into the double-digits of countries visited and the triple-digits of hostels slept in, unfamiliar cultural aspects observed, weird and wonderful people from all corners of the earth met.
So, in the face of such reckless and unjustifiable self-confidence, it took me some time to figure out why sometimes, in the last six months of making my life in Peru, I would cry and cry and cry at night. Red-eyed and sniffling, I would protest to Gabriel that this wasn’t me, I’m tough, I never cry. To his credit, he never once pointed out that I did, it would seem, cry on a regular basis. He would merely raise an eyebrow, wrap his arms around me, and wait it out. I never could explain, to him or to me, where the tears were coming from.
Culture shock? I always kind of laughed in the face of culture shock – isn’t that where the fun is? If I wanted to be immersed in the warm comfortable bath of familiarity, I would stay at home; drive the same roads to work every day, prop up the same bars in the Valley every weekend, and spend my holidays at the Gold Coast. But I don’t. Because I love to step off a plane and into the alien chaos of a city where I don’t speak the language, where nobody knows me, where even walking to the corner store for a bottle of water is an adventure. Where sights and sounds and smells I’ve never seen or heard or smelt in my life wrap me up in an exotic fog of novelty.
And so when the opportunity came along to study by distance, cancel my flight home, and extend my stay in Cusco indefinitely, I seized it with both hands with no thought as to its psychological impact. Culture shock? Ha!
But it ate away at me, a sly wearing down of my emotional stability; there were no panic attacks in crowded markets, no obvious sense of opening my front door and being assaulted by a wave of otherness on the street. Only night-time tears and a propensity to lose my temper.
So why here, and why now? I wasn’t this emotionally unstable travelling in Bahrain, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Southeast Asia; living in Spain, Greece and the UK was a piece of cake. And I’m a hardened and experienced traveller, right? Right?
Yes and no. I’ve lived overseas yes, but primarily in hostel jobs, surrounded by travellers, a traveller still. When we get Yamanyá Backpackers open I’ll be returning to that lifestyle, but for now I’ve shifted sideways into the real, real life of a place, surrounded by Peruvians, without the shared experience of backpacking to bind us.
Which relates to the next stumbling point – that I was always surrounded by European, Australian or North American friends. They spoke English and got my cultural references. We shared expectations of life, of relationships and friendships, of social interactions, dreams, modes of movement in the world.
Here I don’t have that. I live my life in a language in which I am, so far, incapable of expressing myself in a concise yet profound manner. I live, and am in a relationship, with someone who was brought up with a different understanding of how men and women relate to each other. Obsessed with reading the news and keeping up with politics, I find it impossible to understand the web of political parties and corruption that characterises my adopted country. Social satire goes over my head.
This is something I plan to explore in more detail over the next six weeks. What is culture shock, and how can I become more comfortable with the expat experience? I sent out a request to the wonderful Lonely Planet Blogsherpa and <a title="MatadorU" href="Matador U” target=”_blank”>MatadorU communities for expats who would be willing to share their experiences and was overwhelmed by responses (thanks everyone!).
So I’ll be running two expat interviews a week to find out how others have experienced the transition and how they coped. I’ll also be writing some articles of my own, and presenting some of the best resources on the web for expats. I hope this helps me deal with the expat transition, and any others who may be going through the same thing. I also hope this turns into an interesting dialogue, so don’t be shy – I want to hear your experiences, questions and comments.
Nothing very dramatic really; an obnoxious, slimy middle-aged man on a Buenos Aires street, sidling up to me as I walked past, commenting lasciviously on my legs, sticking to my side as I walked on, awkward, worried about being rude and hurting his feelings as I laughed uncomfortably and declined his offer to accompany me.
A story about suddenly grasping the opportunity to turn a corner and leave him behind, almost stepping directly into the path of a speeding car as I sought my escape.
I almost started the story that almost started this post with a description of the shimmeringly hot, oppressively humid weather, the buildings leaning in, breathing hot air down on pedestrians. The heat that explained that day’s short sundress and long expanse of bare leg under it.
And then I realised what I was doing, and I got even angrier.
What I choose to put on in the morning has nothing to do with how I should be treated during the day. I don’t have to explain those choices to anyone, not even you.
That story should start, finish and end with his behaviour, not my wardrobe.
I wrote aboutLatin American men with more bravado back in August 2011: 5 simple rules on dealing with them, for gals travelling solo! I’d made it all seem so easy; I even believed my own hype. What I left out of that post was that I’d been a bit of a mess for the previous eight months. Around Christmas the year before an ex-boyfriend, Latin, alcoholic, jealous, threatened to kill me, and I half, or three-quarters, believed him.
The Cusco police sent me to the tourist police sent me back to the Cusco police. Nobody seemed inclined to do anything until he actually followed through; I finally found a way through the tangled knots of professional apathy and bureaucratic inaction and filed a restraining order.
As Brayan reminded me, the increased attention can, in many cases, be chalked up to cultural differences. Casual sex is far more acceptable in Cuba than in many other destinations, and machismo, whether we like it or not, is a very real part of the Latin American social fabric. Recognizing the cultural background will help you take what you see as harassment less personally.
Dastardly Ex came back to Cusco, and I finally decided the city was slowly devouring me. I put the hostel on the market, and hung on in there for the months it took to sell.
Now I’m in Buenos Aires, alone, aware of my gender as a point of vulnerability. The harassment feels a lot more personal all of a sudden.
(It occurs to me that I’ve seen men publicly masturbate on three separate occasions, when I’ve been alone or with one female friend on an empty beach, or walking through a semi-deserted park at dusk.)
Is there an actual link here, or am I just feeling fragile? Does this “culture” of casual street harrasment feed in, in a meaningful and measurable way, to a machista culture in which ex-girlfriends can be threatened with death, domestic violence is rife and societal inaction the norm? There’s nutty, possessive ex-boyfriends (and ex-girlfriends) worldwide, and let’s face it, women are subjected to gender-based violence in many regions of the world, including the Northern developed countries where street harassment has been reduced in significant measure.
I don’t know, but I do know that I’m sick of it. Back when I had my travel armour on, was sailing contentedly through Latin American capitals, it was easier to write it off as a cultural tick, one that I could deal with (by following five simple rules!). Lately, it bothers me. It makes me think twice before leaving the house in leggings for the ten-minute walk to my yoga class. I jog in the late evenings, head down, guard up. I often cross the road rather than pass directly through a large group of men. I change my behaviour to accommodate theirs.
For all these reasons I was thrilled to read Sara’s post at The Titleless Blog, Let’s make ending street harassment go viral. She wonderfully dissects and rebuts the “it’s cultural” argument, but what got my attention more was her description of an encounter with the Chilean police, having confronted a man who followed her around a supermarket taking her photo. It reminded me of a similar incident described in Sarah Menkedick’s excellent My own Mexican Revolution.
And it reminded me of the police in Cusco who didn’t really care that I’d been threatened with death. This bothers me more than the whistles, the salty comments, the slurping kisses as I walk away. It’s a society that says “boys will be boys”, “you shouldn’t have worn that dress”, “cállate, pendeja“.
Sara’s wonderful post also introduced me to HollaBack!, a global grassroots movement seeking to change this “cultural” behaviour all over the world. (There’s a Buenos Aires chapter as well). This is a cool initiative, and I would strongly recommend that you check it out. What I like most about this project is that it encourages women to come together world-wide: this isn’t a collection of enraged gringas trying to shout sense into insistent Latin men and complacent, accepting Latin women. It neatly sidesteps Sarah Menkedick’s ethical dilemma of fighting for change in a foreign culture. These are just women, from all over the world, in their own language and cultural context, telling their stories.
Vamos, pendejas, no nos callemos.
Note: I still wouldn’t recommend getting into a verbal – or, worse, physical – altercation with a man on a Latin American street. I’m still a little cowed by the slang and manner of speaking in Argentina. It’s vastly different from what I was used to in Peru and I’m pretty sure I’d come off the worse in any exchange here in Buenos Aires. What I like about HollaBack is that there’s options: a stern look, maybe, instead of a stern word. It encourages girls to stick up for each other and explain to male friends that this behaviour is not OK. You don’t necessarily have to holler back, you just have to know that it’s totally within your rights to do so.
Image: Javier García Alfaro via flickr. One of the Madres y Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo addresses a crowd during a rally demanding justice for those “disappeared” during Argetina’s military dictatorship.
Saturday 24 March was the Memorial Day of Truth and Justice in Argentina. Thousands of people joined together in the Plaza de Mayo to remember those who disappeared during the Dirty War of 1976-1983.
Looking back across years of national mourning, truth commissions, the passing and repeal of amnesty laws, it seems incredible that violence perpetrated by the state can pass by almost unnoticed by so many; that it can become part of the social fabric, unprotested and ignored.
Last year, I read Peru’s Truth and Reconcialition report. That conflict raged in the mountains and remote villages of Peru for well over a decade before the bombs started exploding in the capital and then-president Alberto Fujimori finally captured Sendero Luminoso‘s leader, at great cost to democratic liberties.
A Foreign Policy profile on Patrick Ball, a statistician involved in the preparation of the report, says:
Ball merged six collections of data, reaching conclusions that were highly controversial … the report put the number of killings at 69,000 — nearly triple previous estimates. The enormous gap was proof of the disconnect between white Peru and the indigenous highlands — 75 percent of the victims did not speak Spanish as their first language. How could so many indigenous Peruvians have died without Peru’s elite taking notice?
La historia oficial, released in Argentina in 1985, examines the this phenomena of society-wide blindness. Alicia is a teacher, her husband a successful lawyer close to the military junta. They have a five-year old adopted daughter, Gaby.
Middle-class and comfortable, Alicia never guessed at the violence bubbling just below the surface of everyday life during the seven years of military dictatorship. A history teacher, she teaches the official version; her students, young and hungry for truth, resist, but Alicia cannot, will not, open her eyes.
It seems strange, this naivete in a woman so close to the regime. But perhaps she has even more reason than anyone to firmly squeeze shut her eyes and wish the nightmare away: to accept the truth is to accept her husband’s involvement, to lose the happy family they have managed to build despite her infertility.
It is not until an old friend returns from exile, finally ready to talk about her torture and imprisonment, that Alicia begins to understand what is happening and what has happened, and begins to wonder about Gaby’s parents.
Norma Aleandro is subtly wonderful as Alicia. Roger Ebert writes
It is a performance that will be hard to forget, particularly since so much of it is internal. Some of the key moments in the film come as we watch Aleandro and realize what must be taking place inside her mind, and inside her conscience. Most political films play outside the countries that they are about; “The Official Story” is now actually playing in Argentina, where it must be almost unbearably painful for some of the members of its audiences. It was almost as painful for me.
Through the devastating story of two families torn apart, La historia oficialpresents the larger story of an entire country trying to construct and preserve the memory of a tragedy its citizens – trying to wish away the monster under the bed – let go on too long, and that should never be repeated.
Today, I’m running the part two eighteenth interview in my Adjusting to Expat Life series. If you’re interested in being interviewed about your current or past expat experiences, please get in touch via the Contact page.
Gerrit left Belgium at the age of 22 and over the last seven years has lived in Ireland, Northern Island, Turkey, Germany, Czech Republic and Spain. In this interview, Gerrit talks about his ongoing battle with mental illness, and how this has driven and shaped his expat experience. His poetry project, Illusion of Purity, seeks to break down the taboos around metal illness.
This interview is a little lengthy, so I’m publishing in two parts. We finished Wednesday’s interview with Gerrit as he was on the cusp of leaving for Turkey – read it here.
Today Gerrit talks about falling in love with Turkey, dealing with reverse culture shock on his return to Europe and his advice for new expats.
I imagine you noticed a lot of huge differences between Ireland and Turkey – what really jumped out at you when you first arrived?
Istanbul has, if you include temporary residents and students, 18 million people. That’s like twice the size of New York or London. Ireland has less than half of that spread across the whole island. Istanbul was HUGE. Every district was like a city of its own. The maze of small alleys, the labyrinth of streets, … You could just get lost in a second and every district was so big it would take you weeks to get to know just that tiny portion of the town.
I remember how big everything was, and then the Muslim dress I saw everywhere, the beautiful mosques, the call to prayer coming out of the minarets… It was like entering a different world, but a very fascinating one. Each conversation with a person opened a new world to me because each time I learnt a bit more about the cultural differences. It was so exciting.
The longer I was in Istanbul, the more I also saw common things between Turkey and western Europe. I mean, they have a different religion, some different customs, but in the end we’re all people. They just cared for their family and spent time with their kids and partners just like in Europe, when it was sunny people would come out and socialise. Istanbul, due to its influences from the west, was a nice mix between Middle Eastern and European. The differences seemed bigger at first glimpse than they really were. But then that was part of the reason why I came to Turkey: to discover myself how different it really was, and immerse myself in the culture of the people.
In the end my conclusion is that Turks are much nicer folks than the average European. My pride in being European was gone. Turks pay a high attention to politeness, helping out strangers, making them feel welcome, and solidarity. Social activities are central: whenever they can, they go out to the public square and socialise. Tolerance and solidarity are very important in Turkish culture. Back in Europe now, I cannot say how much I miss that. I felt safer there than anywhere in Europe, I felt more at home there than ever before. And now here I am in Spain, loving it here too, but still missing Turkey and the Turkish people. A lot.
Tell us why you moved back to Europe – and how was the reverse culture shock on the way back?
Working permit issues left me little other choice than going back or working illegally. I opted to go back to Europe with the intention to leave back to Turkey with a fully legal work permit as soon as I could. Then the crisis came and I never managed to do that. I tried, but working permits became harder to get by then. I already missed Turkey before I had really left.
Back in Europe, it was very strange. I felt in familiar environment again, but at the same time didn’t really want that. I was lucky to be in Berlin then and find a job there. I lived in a district of town with a large Turkish expat population. I felt like a bit of Istanbul was present there, and that was nice. Furthermore Berlin is a city with an incredible artistic and cultural scene. It is a city where everything goes. Punks, goths, metalheads, hiphop… all were very present in the streets. There were expats from all over the world. It is one of those places where the whole world comes together and where everything goes. That made adaption a bit easier.
Tell us about the other places you’ve lived in Europe – how do they compare to each other, and where do you feel most at home?
I really loved Belfast and Berlin for the reasons mentioned already. Berlin is also dirt cheap. Electricity and water included, you can rent a nice enough flat for less than 300 euro a month. It is the cheapest capital of Europe I believe, although maybe the likes of Minsk and other ex Soviet states would be remotely cheaper. A great place to be really. Sadly enough, a huge depression forced me to leave, I needed a place where I could make a fresh start.
Barcelona, where I live now, is a great city too. It is very lovely in terms of architecture. Each district has a totally different feeling. The inner city is a maze of countless little alleys with very old houses, the authentic Barcelona. It is a very multicultural place too, with a lot of Pakistanis, Indians, Arabs, Northern Africans, Latin Americans… The houses are old and the alleys are a labyrinth, but that is the authentic Barcelona for you. Then the outskirts look very modern and have more of a big big city feeling. The cultural offer is huge too, with plenty of concerts, artistic options and other gatherings. Nightlife is very diverse too I heard, but I can’t speak for myself since I dislike clubbing. Also, this is a big city but also a seaside city. There is a large district with a large shore. In summer, the beach is populated day and night, people all gather by the seaside. The mountains are never far away neither. Architecture is amazing.
So while I miss the Middle East, it is nice living here. There is a downside though: it is incredibly expensive. For 700 € minimum you still only have a small flat. For a comfortable apartment you need to count 1000 € a month easily. Other costs of life are high as well, such as food, internet connection… Only healthcare is very cheap: visiting a doctor is free, and medication is incredibly cheap. But all the rest is very expensive. Also, even in a big touristic city like this, people speak English only poorly. You can of course cut expenses by living in a suburbian town, but those are extremely boring. It is recommended really to live in the city here, and that comes with a high price tag.
Then there’s two places left. Dublin and Prague.
I don’t want to be rude but I disliked these places a lot. Dublin is like one big nightlife place. I can imagine it is heaven for those whose spare time consists of clubbing, drinking with friends, and going out. For me, it was boring. Extremely boring. There was hardly ever anything culturally to do. Concerts were the only exceptions. But poetry nights? Artistic spots? Incredibly hard to find. It was also very decadent. People being so drunk they fall asleep on the street in their own vomit, women dressed so revealingly that you feel sorry for them, men and women alike urinating in the middle of the streets… In the suburbs, violence and alcoholism are a problem. And still Dublin ranks amongst the most expensive cities in Europe. When I was there it shared a spot with New York as 13th most expensive city on earth. And what do you get in return? Pubs, clubs, discos and that’s it.
Prague is more or less the same with the sole exception that there you at least have nice architecture. The city center is very compact but some streets have like 10 or 15 beautiful monuments and mansions, some residential houses are so nicely decorated they look like opera houses. I recommend people to visit for sure, but don’t spend more than a week or so there. Don’t let yourself be fooled to live there, because that architectural beautify hides emptiness. Below the surface, there is nothing cultural going on and the exceptions are often unaccessible to foreigners because of the language barrier. People’s spare time is often centered around the pub and beer. I saw a lot of brothels and casinos, all catering to the western investors of multinationals who earned a huge salary. Meanwhile locals were exploited and earned too little to even live decently on their own. It was sad to see. I also felt bored all the time really, there was hardly anything cultural going on. Mass tourism was taking over the place. I went there for the Eastern European feeling, the last part of Europe I had not discovered yet. Retrospectively, maybe Belarus or Ukraine or Poland would have been better options. I feel Prague westernised so rapidly that you hardly noticed anymore that it was a former East Bloc country. Probably great for the locals, but not what I was looking for.
How has living in so many places – 6 countries in 7 years! – shaped you as a person?.
It first of all showed me that there is a lot of beautiful things out there to see, and that leaving Belgium was the right choice. I learnt so many things and opened up to so many new experiences… I wouldn’t have want to miss out on that.
I feel I haven’t seen that much of the world yet. I want to leave Europe if my health allows me, and immerse myself in a totally different culture and way of life. Asia and the Middle East are large attraction poles.
Artistically I started writing in Belfast and started performing in Spain. My project, Illusion of Purity, was formed here, although some of the poems go way back in time.
Politically, I’ve always been very left wing really. In Belgium, the odd thing is most of my family vote Christian-Democrats or Liberals. I felt much more leftist, the family’s political background was not passed on to me. While I was already left-wing way before I saw the Czech Republic, seeing the exploitation, the harms of mass tourism, the alcoholism, the way multinationals were organised, pushed me further to the left. I realise a lot of people from the former East Bloc are happy with the fall of communism and having access to goods never available before. But the exploitation of low cost countries is a fact. Also, the capitalist bubble is bursting more and more too. I will agree that communism was never applied well in the former East Bloc, but I personally disagree that the current situation is a bright picture.
I began to develop a very strong interest in politics along the way and started reading up more and more about it. In the end, I shifted from just left wing to far-left because in my opinion regular socialism is not going far enough in caring for a fair society where people are not equal but have equal chances. I very strongly disagree that people should just make sure they survive by themselves and in my opinion the State has the duty to make sure everyone at least has access to the basics: good healthcare, education, housing. Those should not be priviliges in my opinion, but basic rights.
People wrongly interpretate the far left and maybe even leftist politics alltogether ; they think of totalitarian regimes while those are NOT what it stands for. Communism was not applied correctly in the former East Bloc and it certainly isn’t in North Korea. I wouldn’t want to live in a society where government dictates me how to dress, where to live, how to spend my spare time… So I don’t support totalitarian regimes. Sadly enough people misinterpret left-wing politics too often with that type of regimes.
In terms of religion, as I said I am atheist. However my experiences in Turkey and many contacts with Israelis left me with a very strong fascination for Islam and Judaism. Just because I want to understand the local culture, which is impossible for someone not aware of the religious impact on society.
Finally, emotionally, I think I became a lot more fatalistic. I mean, people sometimes ask me if I’m not worried about not making a long-term career commitment, not building towards a pension anywhere due to relocating often… However, I learnt that the future is unpredictable. All we have for sure is here and now. Who knows what happens in the future? I mean, who knows if I will make it to the age one would worry about a pension? No matter what happens, I want to look back realising I did what I wanted to do in life. And there’s no time to waste in terms of that. You’re better off, in my opinion, to not worry too much about the distant future but make sure you realise your dreams when you have the energy and motivation for it. Whatever I’ve experienced, no one can take away from me anymore. Delaying your dreams for later without even knowing what “later” will be like, is like delaying your life. I’m fatalistic in that and try to make the most of NOW.
How have the language differences gone – have you found communication a problem? Was it easy or difficult to learn enough to get by? Especially as you’ve generally moved around a lot, I’m fascinated to hear about this – so many languages, so little time!
I already spoke English, French and German well before I left Belgium. In Turkey I worked for an international company so communication was not a problem at work, outside of work it was but I tried my best! In Czech Republic, the language was a mystery to me, but since I disliked my time there I never really made an effort to learn Czech.
In Spain, I try to get by with a mixture of English and a basic Spanish and Catalan. I am not intending on learning it via a language course since I want to return to the Middle East if possible. Hebrew and Turkish are thus a more wise investment than learning Spanish, I know the words I need to get things done anyway.
Was there a moment – a country – in which you suddenly realised the extent to which you had integrated? To which you hadn’t?
In Belfast, Berlin and to some extent now here in Spain, I have that feeling. But then we are in culturally familiar soil. As I said, Europe has many regional accents but no huge cultural shocks. I am full of fascination looking forward to leaving that familiar soil and going to a place where I’m out of the western cultural influence. Nothing against that culture – don’t get me wrong – but I want to immerse myself in other cultures too.
I find that writing about my experiences as an expat helps me process the cultural differences. How has your poetry influenced the way you look at your adopted countries?
Not that much really since my poetry is very much focused on life with psychological problems. And those are around everywhere on earth. The poetry is rarely about a specific place, a few poems aside. Some poems are about places I long to go to, expressing the desire for continuous travelling. Some of those with a leftist political undertone have undoubtly been inspired by my growing interest and fascination in politics and my shifting further to the left.
What advice would you have for new expats? What do you wish you had known before moving to your new home?
My advice would be: don’t jump into the unknown without doing some research, but also don’t let yourself be scared of the unknown. A lot of doomsday predictions exist about the unemployment here [in Spain]. “Don’t go, you will end up unemployed”. Well, unemployment IS a huge problem here. But then you need to keep in mind the vast majority of Spanish don’t speak a foreign language. As a multilingual, doors open that are shut for many locals. However, I’d advise against going without assuring a job first here, because life is so bloody expensive. I mean, I’ve seen some ending up in squats because regular renting was too expensive.
In a place like Berlin, where life is cheap, I’d say: if you have a decent saving, you can take the risk of leaving and do your jobhunting there. In an expensive city, that would be not a good idea, although I will add I do admire those who have the guts to do it.
Today, I’m running the eighteenth interview in my Adjusting to Expat Life series. If you’re interested in being interviewed about your current or past expat experiences, please get in touch via the Contact page.
My latest expat interview is with Gerrit de Feyter. Gerrit left Belgium at the age of 22 and over the last seven years has lived in Ireland, Northern Island, Turkey, Germany, Czech Republic and Spain. In this interview, Gerrit talks about his ongoing battle with mental illness, and how this has driven and shaped his expat experience. His poetry project, Illusion of Purity, seeks to break down the taboos around metal illness.
This interview is a little lengthy, so I’m publishing in two parts. Today Gerrit talks about leaving Belgium, life in Ireland and how he ended up in Turkey. Check back on Friday for Gerrit’s time in Turkey and the reverse culture shock on return to Europe.
Tell me a little about yourself, and your current artistic projects. Where did the urge to write poetry come from?
I was born in 1981 in Ghent, a very beautiful city in Belgium. Ghent is a city which looks like time stood still and is very modern at the same time. It has preserved its medieval architecture, but due to the cosmopolitan vibe, expat population and big university, the city combines a modern vibe and cultural life within that medieval scenery.
I unfortunately grew up outside the city in the suburbs. Countryside life in Belgium was hell. I had a very bad youth. I have a form of autism, Asperger Syndrome. It basically means you have a normal or high intelligence but you have only a limited number of interests you’re very passionate about, socialising is difficult due to not reading body language and not interpretating sarcasm and irony correctly, you are prone to sensory overload… on top of that I have clinical depression and have been visiting psychiatrists and psychologists since very early childhood. I was always a loner, I never liked socialising with other children. During my youth, I absolutely hated school, and whenever I came home I locked myself up in my room to study maps and read travel guides. That was my big passion: geography, other cultures, far away countries. I could stare at the maps for hours, at very isolated little islands, very remote villages, small dots on the map, wondering what they would be like.
Belgium society is too conservative for my being. Family life, especially in the countryside, plays a very strong role. Like if I look at my family, all of them seemed to marry someone from the same area, have kids and a job and settle down within the 20 km radius of their childhood home. Everyone was following that same cycle of life. Imagine what it is like when you totally don’t fit in and your interests are very different. It was a very suffocating experience. It was almost as if being ambitious and doing something different was forbidden territory. My desire to leave Belgium and never come back, combined with my autistic background, made it increasingly hard for me growing up in that environment.
During my teenage years I developed anxiety disorder and OCD. I basically skipped my youth really, since at age 16 I was suddenly focusing on visiting psychologists, surviving in the battle with OCD that dominated my life. All other guys I saw were worried about dating, going out… I was suddenly into much more drastic problems and worry-free days were extremely rare. I guess it says a lot about my background that of all, someone with my problems was the one to leave for far off destinations rather than settling down.
All experiences of growing up with autism and OCD basically caused the urge to write poetry. I grew up in an environment where you had to conform or you were the black sheep, being different was not done. It was advised to be “as normal as you possibly can” and to hide your diagnosis. The stigma and taboo were huge.
At some point I thought “f… it, I am who I am, and my autism is part of what shaped me. I am not ashamed of myself and I am not going to hide my true self.” Since then I have been speaking very openly about my life with psychological disorders. Poetry was an outlet for my emotions but I kept them safely in a locked box for nobody to read, just writing them down to have the emotions on paper, and that was it. It wasn’t until I realised the impact music had on me that I felt like maybe my poetry could be more than just an outing of my emotions. If others’ lyrics and writings could reach for my emotions, maybe my poetry could do the same with others. The taboo and stigma have to be broken, we need people to stand on the barricade. I felt like starting to perform with my poetry was my way to contribute to the battle in raising awareness about psychological disorders, and telling other sufferers to be proud of who they are rather than to suffer in silence.
Do you think it’s a coincidence that you started writing when you first left Belgium and were living in Belfast? How are your expat and artistic lives related?
It was no coincidence that I wrote my first serious poems in Belfast. Belfast is a very artistic city. When I lived there for nearly two years, almost all of my friends were into arts. Either they were playing in a band, they were writing, … But I went to my first poetry readings in Belfast, open microphone nights, I saw all my friends being in a band… It was very inspiring.
You have to remember the background of Belfast. It is a war-torn city that is recovering from decades of violence and still trying hard to get rid of its image as “war zone”. In a place like Belfast, especially before the peace was restored during the last 10 – 15 years, art was one of the only ways to openly talk about what was going on. It is no coincidence the punk scene is very big in Belfast. Punk is the music of protest, the society-criticising music. Punk today is still very present both in the streets of Northern Ireland and in the number of punk bands emerging there. In artistic circles, people tended to be very open-minded, it wasn’t important if you were protestant, catholic, atheist… So it was one of the few places where the sectarianism was not present. Art for many people in Northern Ireland was an outlet of their emotions.
What drove the decision to move to Ireland to begin with?
Along with the Nordic countries (Norway, Greenland and Iceland especially) and the Middle East (in Ghent there was a huge Turkish community, so that triggered my interest in the area), Ireland was a place I was very much interested in from childhood onwards. I am not sure why really, but there was some attraction.
I was 22 when I left. I had one year of studying left to go to get my higher education degree, and I was combining this with my first job. I lived on my own in a seaside home that was very idyllic. It felt like life was falling into place.
But that in itself was a sign for me: if I wanted to realise my dream of going abroad, it had to happen NOW before I was so organised in life that the ties would be too hard to break. I was given the opportunity to take a job in Dublin and took that opportunity. It was now or never. I am still strongly convinced of that. I felt in fact that I already waited too long to leave. But when that job offer from Ireland came, I really still feel that it was a now or never case. I followed my dream basically. I took the hard road, but I am glad I did. Retrospectively I am regretting not having left earlier.
What was the adjustment to expat life like? Did you find the adjustment easier or more difficult than you expected?
More difficult, because I think I stayed just a year too long in Belgium, which made the decision to jump into the insecure and leave or not, a harder decision than if I left straight from that countryside “home” that never felt like home in the first place.
I took the leap but it took a while to cut the ties with Belgium entirely. I felt like I left behind some things that were harder to let go than I imagined before, and at the same time I wanted to be abroad so badly that I was really putting pressure on myself to make it work.
My psychological problems played their role too. Especially OCD. With everything I did, I was wondering how things would be doing those same things back in Belgium, and if I’d feel better or not. In a way it was absurd: I always wanted to just live life abroad, and when I was finally there I was obsessing about how things would be back in Belgium. OCD made it hard to adapt.
I was lucky that after moving from Dublin to Belfast, things changed for the better. I had a fantastic psychologist too who really helped me in stopping to look back. From that moment on, I managed to look forward with ambition rather than to look back with fear. Then Turkey came and this was such a nice experience that I realised the grass was greener away from Belgium. I found that better place, and then I was truly convinced I made the right decision.
Why did you leave Ireland, and why Turkey?
At first the plan was to realise the big dream of going to Norway and settle there for a while. The part above the Arctic circle, Tromsø especially, attracted me heavily. However, even though every Norwegian I encountered spoke English fluently, finding a job without speaking Norwegian was very hard and it didn’t work.
My interest in the Middle East stemmed from going to school as a teenager in a school where 1/3rd of the pupils were of Turkish origin. That triggered a strong interest in Turkey and in the culture of the country. In the religion as well. I am atheist, but I have a very deeply rooted fascination for Islam. It is like a mysterious culture that I want to fully understand. I was in Ireland for 3 years almost and it was time for a change of scenery.
At the same time I met some Israeli folks via the internet. That further triggered my interest and fascination for the Middle East and when Norway was clearly not an option yet, I started to look towards the east. Israel proved to be extremely hard to get into though: in a country full of highly skilled people and with immigrants from all over the world assuring languages are all covered, few companies will want to pay a working permit for a non-jew when a person of Jewish background can just get the passport and doesn’t need the working permits.
In Turkey I was more lucky. I went to Istanbul to apply and it was love at first sight… it felt like entering a different, very fascinating world, where every single conversation with a person and every new alley you entered was a new discovery. It was love at first sight and it never left. I still miss Turkey a lot. Anyways, I was lucky with the job application and three weeks later I was off to Istanbul.
Some homes were primly painted in pastels, green lawn manicured as far as the brown water’s lapping edge. Others were clashing primary colours, the gardens wild. Still others seemed about to be reclaimed by the delta, their docks careening drunkenly into the water, the occasional boat’s skeleton half-submerged.
Dad was visiting, and we were in Tigre. This delta town some 35 km from the centre of Buenos Aires has come back into fashion over the last few years, and is a popular getaway for wealthy porteños (Buenos Aires dwellers). We visited on a Thursday to avoid the crowds: this made for a very peaceful day, but did mean that the amusement park was closed and many of the restaurants weren’t doing parrillas. I’ll leave readers to guess which of these bothered us most.
There are regular ferries and catamaran trips around the delta, often including lunch somewhere on the island. We had my dog, Manu, so we opted for a private 1 hour motorboat tour (ARG350, or US$80). The contrasts are astounding: elegant, ivy-draped rowing clubs and country clubs with spas; secluded twists of the river hiding poorly-maintained shacks. All with the green-and-brown sunshine-draped lethargy of inland water systems: I was reminded of my hut on the Mekong River’s Four Thousand Islands, and any film I’d ever seen featuring the Mississippi Delta. At any minute I expected someone to press play on a John Lee Hooker album.
Next time I go I want to stay. Rent a little shack in ill-repair (I’ll need someone to kill the spiders first, though), read a book on my dock in the sunshine, let Manu paddle in the mud. I’ll need a hammock, and some good Argentine blues to while away the days. I will not need Internet connection.
If you go:
Don’t forget sunscreen and a hat, especially if you’re going out on the water. Consider packing a picnic, although there are plenty of restaurants in town. And remember, trains to Tigre, as well as the town itself, are likely to be packed between Friday and Sunday. Think seriously about visiting mid-week (unless you’re dying to hit the amusement park).
We had a hire car, but there are regular trains from Retiro (ARG2.7 return). You can also take the Tren de la Costa, a hop-on hop-off service that visits several other sites along the river on the way to Tigre. This leaves from Maipú (ARG32 return, ARG16 one way). To reach Maipú, take the Mitre line from Retiro to the final station.
Once there, you can enjoy the casino or amusement park (Fridays, Saturday, Sundays), the enormous market, and various water-related activities. Down on the docks in the mainland part of town are several stalls selling different packages for delta trips so shop around.
The Museo Sarmiento displays Domingo Sarmiento’s home encased in an imposing glass box: the seventh president of Argentina was a champion of democracy and equality in education, and an advocate for Tigre.
The Museo de Arte (ARG12, Wednesday to Sunday) is housed in a stunning columned mansion, once a country club, casino and hotel. They have a small permanent collection of Argentine artists as well as visiting exhibitions.
Flight Centre, the sponsor’s of this post, offer cheap international flights. Their website is a great place to start planning your trip to South America.
On Friday I took my first Chinese class ever, at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Belgrano, Buenos Aires. We were five Argentines, an American expat and myself: asked about our motives for learning the language, most responded with vague references to work possibilities and cultural interest, given the sizeable Chinese population in Argentina and the commercial links between the two countries. Ana, slightly built with iron-grey hair, simply wanted a challenge.
As we exchanged numbers after class before going our separate ways she reflected that she’d certainly got one.
Our teacher was tiny and giggled a lot, demonstrating the tones with dramatic arm gestures and stamping feet, singing the language and basically being exactly what I’d expected.
It reminded me of my brief flirtation with Quechua: a language completely foreign to my ears, with no Romance-language markers or sounds to grab onto and build comprehension around. We won’t be touching the Chinese characters until level 3 (thank heavens!) but I still felt cast adrift in unfamiliar waters.
When I got home I googled “learning mandarin”, wanting some audio lessons to help me wrap my head around pronunciation and the four tones before the next class.
Among the results I turned up a Newsweek article by linguist John McWhorter, English is here to stay. This is the kind of article that has language aficionados up in arms: the general gist being that hey, if you speak English, its not really worth the effort learning another language. The New York Times provides some forceful responses to this general argument in their Room for Debate section: that beyond the cognitive benefits, language learning provides and will continue to provide immeasurable returns in all facets of our globalized lives.
Language fascinates me. I had so much fun learning Spanish – after the initial panic – and struggle to understand expats who live for years in South America without getting beyond the absolutely necessary. Finishing Cien años de soledad on a beach in Peru was one of the most exhilarating academic experiences of my life. (Language geeks are sexy, aren’t they?). The time I invested in the language has brought considerable returns already.
Chinese is a different story. It will require a much greater investment of time to reach a comparable point of fluency, and that point may never be reached. I’m not living in China and have no plans to move there, so I’m denied both the learning facilitation of immersion and the immediate payoffs of a smoother expat life.
There’s a financial cost as well: I took Spanish classes here and there, but largely depended on friends, books, online exercises and lots of practice. I’m fairly sure Chinese is going to be classes all the way, a not inconsiderable financial investment if I’m going to reach proficiency.
But over the last few days the doubts crept in. Could McWhorter be right? I’ve been flirting a bit with Brazilian Portuguese. French also appealed to me. Mandarin went from possibility to decision very quickly. Had I really thought it through properly?
My primary motive was to add a little bling to my CV: I plan to stay in the Latin America region once I graduate and hope to work in development. China has links and trade interests here as it does in any every other part of the world and will be an important partner in regional development into the future.
But then I began the struggle with tones and Mary Anne began trying to scare with me tweets about Mandarin’s difficulty…
And then one morning I opened my eyes and saw my bookshelf, one of its shelves a ragged row of worn spines with Spanish-language titles. Bugger it. The New York Times team were right: it’s worth it, and for so many reasons beyond cold economic benefit.
Updated 31 March: There’s another interesting collection of articles over at Intelligent Life. Start with Which is the best language to learn? and work your way through the related articles on the right.
I may be feeling a bit more confident but I could still use some help – if you know of any Chinese bands, movies, podcasts, TV shows, websites, or other resources pass them on in the comments! I’ll be eternally grateful…