MILSA blog 2016/2017
Reflection on an aspect of life in the host country
Bridging cultures, provinces and language: ‘ Braai’ in South Africa
The South African culture is different in so many ways that it was hard to choose one single aspect. When I say the South African ‘culture’, this is actually wrong, as there is not just one culture in this country. South Africa is not called the rainbow nation for nothing – it has 11 official languages and hence, at least, 11 different cultures. Interestingly, English is the most commonly spoken language in official and commercial public life, but only the fifth most spoken home language. The cultural composition varies also in all of the nine provinces.
The one thing, however, that is typically South African, almost clichéd, and that bridges different cultures, provinces and languages is the South African “braai”. A braai is basically a BBQ, whereas the word is used to describe the event (the BBQ itself), the verb/activity (to grill, or to host a BBQ) and also the grill facility. In the grocery stores you can find special braai sauce, braai meat, braai bread, braai spices; and there are also typical braai sides. A braai is not just a BBQ though – in fact, never ever refer to a braai as a BBQ when you speak to a South African, BBQ is a chips flavour here.
A braai has its own set of rules, one of them being that the fire has to be made with wood, never with coal. Subsequently, the whole procedure requires a lot of time, usually South Africans start putting on the fire in the late afternoon – just to start eating at around 9 pm or later. There is a braai going on every day, whether it is a week day or the weekend, warm or cold, exam season or vacation. The way it usually works is you get invited to a braai – rather spontaneous, most of the time on the day, you bring your own meat and wine and you make sure you have nothing else planned for that night. Meat only refers to beef, pork or lamb, ostrich and game, chicken is considered salad. Once you have arrived the atmosphere is very relaxed, the host is always the braai-master, you just find a space for your meat and enjoy a night in a very warm environment with great conversations and a lot of meat - typically all together once the braaing is over. South Africans are typically very open and welcoming, curious to hear your stories and eager to share theirs – following the principle of “bring friends” you can be sure to meet tons of new people every time.
For me, a braai is the perfect symbol of the South African lifestyle. It reflects their notion of time – with the starting time as a simple suggestion, and starting “now now” meaning you can arrive whenever you feel like it. It also reflects their hospitable mentality and openness, warmly welcoming everyone, according to “the more the merrier”. A braai is a social event, where young and old meet, locals and internationals engage, people of diverse cultural backgrounds with different mother tongues share stories and where nothing else matters but being together and celebrating life.
This kind of social gathering was at first very strange to me. In Switzerland, our notion of time and our social interactions differ strikingly. We would not take hours and hours every day to cook dinner, it is more about cooking dinner to eat some food, whereas a braai is not primarily about the food but the whole event as such. Among us students, we would also not think about spending several nights a week out socializing around a grill – probably because of the social and societal pressure of performing the best. If so, this would rather be with friends and people you already know. Furthermore, everyone in Switzerland would arrive on time and also “prepared” for the braai. The first time I ever attended a braai, me and another international student brought salad to a braai (like we would at home), just to find out that no one eats that for practical reasons, as you stand around the fire, chatting here and there, not at a table. We also expected to find cutlery and plates there, when we learnt that this is not a thing most South Africans worry about. Bringing a small gift for the host is not common, neither is sharing one’s meat and wine – probably because they do it every night.
In general I feel that a Swiss braai would involve less spontaneity, less social openness and more “controlled organization” – at least this holds (more) true for Swiss Germans.
Reflecting on the university culture in Aix-en-Provence, France
When I read the task of, writing about a particular aspect of life in my host country, my first thought was writing about the university. The reason for this is because I am spending a lot of time preparing, attending and reviewing the contents of my courses.
My courses started two weeks ago on Septemå©ber 26. The structure of the semester and also the courses are very different to the structure at the University of Bern. My schedule changes every week. For example this week I only have courses on two afternoons, but next week I’ll have courses every day. There is an online platform similar to ILIAS where you can check the schedule, so you can plan ahead but I still have to get used to it. I think the lack of the same schedule also has to do with the structure of the courses. The courses are less frequent, only six times per semester, in comparison to thirteen lectures per semester in Bern. But they last longer. The courses last three hours with one little break in the middle. So it is not possible to have the courses every week at the same time, otherwise the semester would only last six weeks.
Another aspect concerning the construction of the courses is the presentation style of the professors. I have a course where the professor holds a piece of paper in his hands and the only thing he is doing is dictating what is written on his paper and the students write word for word what he is saying. This is really difficult for me because it is very hard for me to listen, understand and write at the same time. So I simply listen and try to understand and ask other students for their notes. I also don’t see the point in writing word for word what the professor is saying. I think there would be more output if the professor would hand out the information written on his paper and give further details and information to the topics he is talking about. In my experience so far, there is no interaction between the professor and the students, and it is not because of the size of the classes. In my class there are approximately thirty students. So from my experience here I can say that the university here is a lot more hierarchical than the one in Bern. No one ask questions or for further details or interrogate what the professor is talking about.
I just think that there is another form of university and academic culture at the university in Aix than in Bern. I have to accept and get used to this academic culture while I am doing my studies abroad. It is not worse, it’s just different. Some aspects I don’t like right now are just a matter of getting used to another academic culture and right now I am used to a more structured and at the same time more interactional approach. I think that in the course of the semester my French language skills will develop, so it will hopefully become easier to follow the courses. And I will also get used to the Aixois university culture.
Thinking about new lifestyles in Valencia, Spain
During the past month of my stay in Spain I was able to observe many new things that I hadn’t thought about before. There are several interesting particularities about everyday Spanish life that are completely new to me. If I had to focus on the most striking one then it would be surely be on their lifestyle. They have extremely different times for their daily activities, at least compared to other cultures that I know.
I first learnt about this when I read some book guides, before coming to Valencia.
Then, in the first week of September, a few workshops for exchange students took place. There, we got to know more about the culture, people and language of the city. Thanks to the host person it became clear to us how everyday habits of Spanish people look like. A normal day looks like this: people get up later than me and my new friends from Central and North Europe we would expect, drink their coffee and go to work. Then at about 9.30 to 10 am it is common to grab some snacks or sweets and drink coffee, beer or wine. At 12 o’clock it is time for bocadillo – a special type of a sandwich. Between 2 pm and 5 pm it is siesta time, when the shops are closed and people go home to eat lunch together with their families. At that time parents take their children home from school for a lunch break. This is a very important element of a day – eating lunch together means much more than just eating. It is a kind of social event where everybody enjoys being with their family and sharing experiences from work and school. Then at about 7 pm it is time to drink horchata – a traditional drink made of tiger nuts – and grab some snacks. Almost every evening people meet with their friends to eat dinner at cafes, bars or cervecerias (pubs). They begin at about 10 to 11 pm and spend the next few hours together. So it is normal here to eat big dishes at about midnight, or even drink coffees that late at night (I saw it!).
This kind of social behaviour is also expressed in nightlife and party style. People usually do not plan or organise in advance where to go out. They meet at one’s home for botellon – just like before the party – at about 11-12 pm, drink together and then decide spontaneously where to go to party. As it is a big city that offers many and varied parties every day, it is no problem to find a good club. Because of the fact that nobody is in a hurry, clubs fill up only at about 2 to 3 am. Then the party lasts till the early morning hours. There is even a famous saying: “ En España, volver antes de las 3 no es salir. Es ir a cenar” which means: “Coming back home before 3 am in Spain is not even going out, it is going to eat a dinner.”
Students are not affected by this daily routine, since lectures often begin just before midday or even in the afternoon, and last until the evening, which can be also shocking for people from other cultures. For me it was difficult in the first weeks to get used to the Spanish “timetable”. When I wanted to order a menu of the day just short after midday, it turned out that the chef hadn’t prepared it yet, because it was very early for local people. I also got some astonished looks because my eating habits didn’t correspond with the local ones. After some time, however, I was able to start living according to the new plan of my studies and to adapt my eating times. I have to say that it was a crucial change in my everyday life that I hadn’t thought about before. In both countries where I used to live – Poland and Switzerland – it is rather normal to go early to bed and pay attention to a healthy lifestyle, which I also prefer. I mean that not paying much attention to a sufficient quantity of sleep as well as eating junk food and drinking that much alcohol at local bars shortly before going to sleep are not necessarily indications of a healthy lifestyle.
To conclude- there is no place for stress here. Everything has its own time and has to be enjoyed properly. It results in having a good mood most of the time and not letting small things to distract. It is just a matter of time and goodwill to get used to prevailing habits concerning eating and outgoing.
As stated before I was able to adapt to a new ‘timetable’ after a few weeks. Now I find it even better than my old habits, because I have more time in the morning and can go home during a lunch time. To be honest I think it would be challenging to adapt when my new semester in Bern starts with lectures in the early morning.
I have to say that I really enjoy this different social life here. It became normal to meet others a couple of times a week for a lunch or a flat party, where it was again possible to get to know fellow students- friends of my friends. For me it means a change of a previous attitude toward both outgoing and openness in relations with international peers. I really like that new lifestyle and cannot imagine not to continue hanging out with friends or meeting new interesting people once I have returned to Bern.
Reflection on the term cultural practice in Lisbon, Portugal
The most striking cultural practice in Portugal is “never be on time”. It is the most common thing to settle a certain time only to spend hours waiting for the Portuguese counterpart to appear.
That is not my opinion. The statement made in these first two sentences is bluntly ignorant. However, it is a good point to start with when thinking about what a “cultural practice” is. That was the original idea of this text: to give an example of a “cultural practice”. However, due to some conceptual weirdness of the term “cultural practice”, the real example will not appear.
Right now I am sitting in a “Pasteleria” (bakery/ café) in Intendente. This is a neighbourhood in Lisbon which is multicultural in a very interesting way. The Kebab shop, Nepalese Cuisine, former red light district and gentrified styler-tourist restaurants are all next to each other. Moreover, many streets are dominated by inhabitants with Chinese, Bangladeshi or Indian origins – and consequently with their way of living.
It seems as if the cultures of countries were geographically detached. They spread with the people who migrate. Eventually the things (objects, habits, ideas etc.) that people bring into a country become part of the things that have been there already. It just depends on how people value such immigrated novelties. Stunning things diffuse over time into the everyday life of a country, in the extreme case they spread all over the world. That happened with so many different things, such as maths, potatoes and cars.
In case something diffuses “just” in one country or region and is given a lot of value, the former novelty might transform into an object of identification. To be proud of a national heritage has more to do with the fact that others do not possess it, and less with its actual origin.
Many people would probably regard a “cultural practice” of a country as something that is widely spread within the country for a major period of time. It’s something absolutely common. Still, there has to be a certain singularity about it, meaning that in other countries it would not be common at all.
This being said, my immediate environment (of multicultural Intendente) would be the worst setting to write a text about “cultural practices in my host country”: What happens here is for sure not common all over Portugal, nor has it been like that for decades. Yet, it is part of my reality.
Reality however, is often disguised by our way of thinking. When trying to talk about “cultural practices in a host country” we are biased in many ways. We have our conscious or unconscious stereotypes of a country and its culture before even being there. Once we arrive we have individual experiences. Some may correspond to the stereotypes, others may not. What we consider as typical for a country depends a lot on the tag other people put on these things before us, at least if we haven’t lived there for years. Our perception works selectively. If on the one hand we notice something that corresponds to a stereotype we might think of it as being representative for a specific culture, some might even name it “cultural practice”. If on the other hand the opposite happens we might think of it as an individual attribute of someone.
Of course one can say that it is possible to search for patterns in behaviour without caring or knowing about stereotypes. This is true. Still, it takes certainly more than a month, if not years, to do so. Claiming that some singular observations are representing something general is nothing more but silly.
Indeed, the real example did not appear. There is none that I could find. Firstly, because our world is too globalized and tracking the origin of things is hard. Secondly, because I have a worm’s perspective on the behaviour of the masses and not the one of a bird. Last but not least, because there is nothing more boring than repeating stereotypes.
Reflecting on Finns and their attitude towards the environment
One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in my apartment in Helsinki was that there are many little garbage bins in the kitchen. I asked myself why is there not just one big one. I realized very early that those little garbage bins were meant for waste separation. I always thought that Switzerland is leading in recycling but Finland is way more into it. Finns are very aware and concerned about environmental problems and separating and recycling waste material is an easy practical way you can do something that will benefit the environment.
They do not only separate plastic, glass, metal, carton and paper but also biowaste - waste that is biodegradable. This waste separation is not only meant to be done in households but for example also in the canteen of the university. Every student has to first separate the waste before giving back the tray.
My apartment block and similar housing cooperatives have their own handy shared collection points for different kinds of waste, which makes recycling easy. So the first time when I went to this collection point I was a bit overchallenged with all the different containers in different colours. But then I remembered that we the person responsible for our apartment had given us an information sheet with the guidelines on how to handle the garbage separation. On this sheet there were pictures of the different containers in different colours and it was well explained what was supposed to be in the specific container.
But I couldn’t find the container for cans and drinking bottles made out of glass and plastic. I then realized that all the cans and the drinking bottles of glass and plastic have a deposit and that you have to bring them back to the shops to get a refund. The machines in which you have to put the empty cans and bottles are called “the reverse vending machine”. I love the name given to this recycling stations found in most supermarkets and groceries here. Instead of putting in money and receiving a bottle, you put in bottles and receive money. Some machines also provide the option of donating your refund to charity.
First I thought that the whole refund system is a little bit annoying but I also recognized the benefit of this system. Once we were drinking in a park before going to a party. I started to notice that there’s a community of people who make their way around collecting used cans and bottles to earn a bit of cash from recycling. In fact people deliberately leave bottles and cans out for those who collect them, to save them having to sort through the city’s bins. The benefit here is that they not only get money from collecting the cans but also there is so much less waste on the streets or in parks (if you think about how the “Grosse Schanze” sometimes looks like in the morning…).
However the return rate of recyclable plastic bottles, glass bottles and drink cans in Finland is over 90%! The scheme works so well, with the return on containers set at 0,10€ for glass bottles, 0,15€ on cans and up to 0,40€ on plastics.
In Finland companies bear the main responsibility for recycling, but individuals can also make a big difference. I, too, can minimise the burden on the environment that is caused by waste by sorting my packaging waste and bringing it to a recycling point. I realized that every little act helps – even by one individual – so that recycling as a whole works efficiently and reasonably. The more people sort their packaging waste correctly, the more good material can be recovered. This is good for the environment since recycling helps to reduce the amount of new material required for the creation of new products. Recycling saves energy and natural resources. It also reduces carbon dioxide emissions, which are harmful for the environment, and the amount of waste taken to landfill.
For Finnish households, sorting, returning and recycling waste has long been a matter of everyday routine and I think it is becoming one for me too.
The "ruidos" in Mexico City
In Mexico City, there is a lot of “ruido” which means noise in Spanish. However, the people here understand “ruidos” not just as the regular noise of a city one might imagine it coming from a metropolis of 18 million people. Here “ruidos” are a special kind of sound; the sound of the Mexican salesmen bellowing throughout the streets. A sound so distinct and loud that you can hear it from a great distance, so that you already know what it is these salesmen are selling before they even arrive in your neighbourhood. For me, hearing this unique noise is something that I have never before experienced in my life.
The first time I heard a “ruido” I didn’t know what was happening in the street outside. I was in my room, very confused and listening to this noise that seemed to come closer and closer. Someone was yelling at the top of his lungs: “AAAAAAA, AAAAAA, AAAA!!”. I thought it was a lunatic wandering around outside. Then after a while the noise stopped and I heard the person dragging a metallic object over the concrete pavement. I didn’t understand what was going on. As soon as the dragging stopped, the person began shouting: “AAAA, AAA, AAA”, again. A few days later, when I was sitting inside with my Venezuelan roommate, we heard the exact same yelling again. So, I asked him who this crazy guy was and why he was shouting “AAAA, AAA, AAA”? Favio (that’s the name of my roommate) explained to me that this was a salesman who was selling gas. But instead of shouting: “GAS, GAS”, somehow he had lost the letter “G” from the beginning of the word “gas” and the “S” from the end. The result, he shouted repeatedly “A” instead of “GAS”. Yet, everyone (except me) knew and understood that this salesman was shouting so that people would buy gas from him. As soon as someone gave him a gas tank, he dragged this tank along the street to his truck and brought another new tank full of gas.
As I later realized there are many more of these “ruidos”. What they all have in common is that they are all salesmen and they all make their own distinct sound. They start their working day around 6am and carry on till around 12am.
I think this method of selling products is quite effective. Because these days when I hear a “ruido”, even from far away I know exactly what this person is selling and I know where to find it. Furthermore, I think it is important that these salesmen work consistently because if they stop working and making their special “ruido” even for a little while, people may forget their particular sound and then no longer recognise it when they eventually return to sell their products in the neighbourhood. Also, this way of selling, walking around in a neighbourhood, bellowing out a unique noise, creates a lot of work for them. So less people are unemployed. It is also beneficial to those of us who are lazy, who prefer to not walk to buy products but rather have them be delivered directly to our door. On the other hand, this aggressive method of selling is definitely a disturbance of the peace during the day and at night. Not to mention that, all the walls here are paper-thin so you can hear them as if you were standing right next to them. Sometimes, when you are in your room relaxing, completely unaware that they are coming, it can really freak you out because it’s so sudden and loud.
There is one “ruido” by a seller for sweets for children. This guy works and shouts until around 12am. Are there really kids out in the street till this time who might want to buy sweets? Is this really necessary?
This producing of “ruidos” to sell things is really different than anything I have ever experienced in my own country. It’s really something that is specific to Mexican culture and adds a unique quality to the city streets. These “ruidos” are all part of experiencing Mexico City, but if I’m honest I prefer the quiet life.
'Kopje koffie' in Utrecht
One of the most striking things I find so far is Dutch sociality. Utrecht as a student city is full of young, energetic and easygoing people. This contributes to a relaxed and open atmosphere to be found everywhere you go, especially cafés and bars.
In this blog I would like to focus on cafés.
Holland is a coffee-drinking nation and therefore has lots of cute cafés on every corner. Dutch people love to drink their "kopje koffie" and chat for hours. People do not only chat when being at a café but also do their work for university there. Whether it is to work on a group assignment, read a your papers or write this blog, everything is possible and seen. Usually people sit at big tables, with their stuff spread out and have agitated conversations. What must not be missing is coffee and if you are hungry a “broodje” (in our understanding a sandwich with any filling you desire).
The staff tries to make you feel comfortable and is not intrusive by trying to sell you as many drinks as possible. Therefore it does not matter if you just stay for 5 min or 2h and drink one cup of coffee in the whole time.
This kind of setting is really inviting for the 30’000 students Utrecht hosts through out the year and combines the Dutch coffee culture with the needs of any student. It’s a place for group work, free Wi-Fi, drinks and food.
These kinds of cafés are rarely seen in Switzerland (besides Starbucks). Most cafés do not like to see students using the tables for several hours but have a different target group of customers.
As for myself, I started to like coffee and now drink it at a café on a daily basis when I am doing my homework with some friends. The combination of doing homework and socializing at the same time makes my days fuller and more interesting. Homework becomes fun and I like the feeling of being in the same boat as my study friends.
At home I tend to do my homework and study by myself and meet up with my friends for the breaks throughout the day. In my mindset at home I feel like that I might "loose" time when doing my homework at a café, as I might be talking to my friends the whole time instead of working. My experience here is that you get as much work done while drinking coffee as you would when being at the library as the atmosphere at the cafés is study friendly.
In general I think that, compared to Holland, Switzerland does not have such a prominent coffee culture. Maybe Swiss students are generally more stressed and do not combine the social aspect of drinking coffee with getting their homework done. Whether this has to do with being more focused on our career due to social expectations, not liking coffee in general, going out for a coffee on a daily basis being too expensive or no need to socialize this much is up to the individual person. But it would definitely be worth trying it once in a while.
Reflection on language
How English is not just English
I actually didn’t know which language experience I should write about, as you encounter several languages here in South Africa, so this might be more a general account than anything else.
As Stellenbosch and the Western Cape are very Afrikaans, I signed up for a language course at the university. Afrikaans being a mix between English, Dutch and German (also Portuguese, Bantu languages and Malay, but to a lesser extent), I thought it would be quite quick to learn. The beginning was indeed pretty easy, as you understand a lot of the words because of their similarity to German and the grammar is rather simple. However, I felt that exactly its similarity to Dutch and German made it then difficult to pronounce it correctly, as I always seemed to sound German, no matter how hard I tried. At the end of the semester I can now read and understand most of the things, however, I would not be able to have a long conversation, let alone sound Afrikaans.
As I did an exchange year in an English-speaking country before, and am immersed in an English-speaking environment in my private life as well, I was never really challenged by the fact that I am going to study in English in Stellenbosch. Hence, the courses and also the social interactions went fine. However, although I am used to it, I still find that my greatest struggle during studying abroad is writing papers. The research and reading take much more time in English than in German, and the production of a coherent academic text even more, as I need to find fancy synonyms and pay more attention to the grammar and orthography than I would at my home university. I think an important lesson here is that you simply have to accept the fact that you need more time than a native speaker, and to then time it appropriately.
To me, the greatest struggle in my social life is that I cannot express myself with the same little nuances as I would back home in my native language. So an opinion might seem softer because of the vocabulary used; an ironic statement might be mistaken as a “true” one, a reply might sound too friendly, not expressing the frustration you actually feel; and so on. I believe these small nuances somewhat change your personality, as the way you express yourself is a very large part of your character.
Interestingly, you can tell right away if someone is Afrikaans, English, or Xhosa when you hear them talk English. They all have their own version of English, even with their own words and pronunciation rules. So you can imagine that in the beginning it was often for me hard to understand the full conversation between South Africans, if they were all using their “Englishes”. In addition, the rainbow nation has a variety of immigrants from many parts in the world, which adds to the mix of different “Englishes”. So, although it is not necessary to the main understanding of the conversation, I still wanted to learn the local expressions, as it is part of their culture and daily life communication. I and all my international friends unconsciously adapted little words and fixed expressions South Africans (at least in the Western Cape) use daily. I wonder how long these will stay with us once we are all back in our home countries?
How to Learn French and German
The most difficult thing when communicating in a foreign language is talking (listening to a native speaker can also be hard, but even if you don’t understand every word, you will catch what is important). You are making mistakes and you have an accent. When I’m supposed to talk to someone in French, I often feel very uncomfortable. The reason why I feel uncomfortable is not just that I know that I make mistakes, but also that I don’t know how many and what kind of mistakes (did I just use a wrong preposition or did I conjugate a verb incorrectly?). One easy way to cope with this is to stop talking when I don’t know how to finish the sentence and instead to signal with my hands that the other person is supposed to tell me how I can finish the sentence. This sounds quite easy, but it’s not: I think the French don’t understand my waving and they seem to be confused about it. So I have to finish my sentence and I have to look for another strategy. The strategy I’m pursuing now is a bit problematic, because it’s prejudicial to learning French: I just let the other person talk, ask some questions, but try not to talk much.
An obvious strategy would be to talk in English. However, I think this is the worst thing I could do. It is not just a cliché that French people are not very good at speaking foreign languages, especially English. So it wouldn’t be easier to have a conversation – actually, probably we wouldn’t be able to talk at all (of course there are also French people who speak English really well). The second good reason for not talking in English is that I would exclude myself.
I have developed two different ways of reacting when I don’t understand what someone has said. Either I say that I didn’t understand and ask the speaker to repeat or I just give them a smile and hope that it wasn’t a question. Which strategy I chose depends on the other person and the importance of the information. Young people here often speak very quickly, so it often happens that I don’t understand them. It would be very embarrassing to ask them to repeat every time, moreover I sometimes don’t understand them sometimes even if they repeat what they said. I hope that the sentence wasn’t too important and that I get the general idea without understanding every word/sentence. Of course, this is not possible if you’re at the hairdressers and he explains to you what he could do and asks you if this is okay for you. If you didn’t understand, you have to ask. Luckily, I never had problems to get the important information. I was surprised that I was able to follow the courses at university without any problems. I always know what the professors are talking about, and I can even write down the most important information.
I’m convinced that – besides improving my French – I’ve learnt something that is, in my eyes, even more important than to being able to have a conversation in a foreign language: I’ve learnt to have a conversation in my native language with someone who has a different native language. I understand now how hard it can be to express your opinion of a specific theme in a foreign language. I found out that you need time to first think about what you want to say and secondly, to put ideas into words and sentences, something that can already be difficult in your native language, depending on the theme you are talking about. I think that after my experiences in France / I think that my experiences in France have taught me to help non-native speakers to learn German in a more comfortable way, by giving them time to form a sentence and by speaking slowly enough so that they can understand me.
Learning Spanish in Mexico
When I arrived I didn’t really understand what people were saying, but if I knew the context I imagined what they were trying to say to me. To learn a language in a course in Switzerland and to actually speak the language in the place where people speak it are two very different experiences. Especially due the fact that Mexicans speak really fast and that, they use very different words than the Spanish you learn in Europe (mostly because in Europe people learn Spanish as it is spoken in Spain) and they speak not as clearly as the teacher in a Spanish course.
The first people I started to talk to were the taxi drivers. However, these people speak very fast and not very clearly but still, it was a good start for speaking Spanish. Also, conversations with the taxi driver made the journey more interesting.
After a few days of listening to people talking with me I figured out that there are certain patterns and if you know these patterns then you` re able to have a basic conversation. These are certain words like: more or less, far, near, traffic etc. Also the verb forms of the me, first person singular, and third person plural are the most useful to know. Furthermore, if you are able to use one present, one past and one future tense (in Spanish there are many different tenses), you can speak to people with hardly any problems.
There are some words that only exist in Mexican Spanish. If you know these phrases and use them Mexicans are really impressed and they will enjoy talking with you.
There are a lot of non-verbal communication strategies to consider. Many of them are the same as in Switzerland. A very special non-verbal communication that only exists in Mexico is saying “yes” by bending the index finger up and down.
When I am in conversation and find myself confused with the language I just switch to English. Young people in Mexico City understand English (very slow spoken English) quite well, although they are not able to speak it. However, older people only understand Spanish and this is great for me to practice.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have that much time to sit down and learn Spanish grammar because the university was very time consuming. I did a Spanish course in the beginning of my stay in Mexico but with my full university schedule it was difficult for me to attend all the classes. In addition, I could not spend as much time learning new grammar because of my university workload. But the things I did learn I found very useful when I conversed with others. I learnt more Spanish speaking to people and writing messages on social media than in this course.
From what I have experiences so far, I think I can predict that learning Spanish will be very useful for my future adventures, especially for my planned travels in Latin America where most people speak only one language, Spanish. I have already learnt a lot of Spanish here and when I return to Switzerland, I plan to carry on studying Spanish. I hope I will be able to live in a Spanish speaking country again so that I will be able to use the Spanish skills I have acquired. Although in biology, and science in general, English is far more important to know, learning another language will always be an asset for any career path you chose. I am really happy that I took the initiative to learn Spanish and I am now able to understand and speak another language.
Learning culture through language - Spanish in Valencia
When I arrived in Valencia, my level of Spanish was low. I had to organize myself by speaking English or by using the few words of Spanish I knew. The missing vocabulary proved difficult in the beginning. I used the few words I knew and also some English and nonverbal communication to express my concerns. After a week, I knew quite well how to use the present tense, so I began to speak a little more but I still had to prepare the sentences in my mind before I said something when I didn’t want to stop in the middle and think again. But I wasn’t too shy to speak and sometimes used words I formed with my knowledge of French, for example. In this way, people could more or less understand me. A few times I had to look up a word in the dictionary or I tried to describe it with other words. But actually, I didn’t use a lot of nonverbal communication, excepting maybe the facial expressions that helped me to make myself understood.
Actually, I was able to understand the Spanish language quite quickly. It was enough to understand most of the words to get the message and like this I learned a lot of new words. Speaking to a lot of local people and finding an apartment with Spanish-speaking students really helped me to develop my language skills. Gradually I developed my Spanish skills with learning more tenses and acquiring a bigger vocabulary.
Because I started relatively late with the different past and future tenses I at first used just one past tense and one future tense and now that I know the other tenses it’s sometimes difficult to get rid of my habit of using just one tense.
Now, speaking in my daily routine isn’t a problem anymore. I only tend to get overstrained in situations when I should react quickly. I’m quite happy with my skills, because I didn’t believe that I would learn so much in this little time. But I still want to improve my Spanish so I like to talk to Spanish-speaking people and always tell them to correct me.
I think this experience of arriving in another country with another language you don’t know is very useful for the future. I know now how it’s possible to express yourself and also how important it is to learn the language and that you shouldn’t be scared of making mistakes but just speak. In Spain it’s the case that people like you more if you try to speak their language. Normally you are accepted very quickly when they see that you are interested in their culture and language.
These experiences for sure will have and already have had some influence on me. For example, I realized that language is much more than we usually think. It’s connected deeply with culture. Here in Valencia you can feel and see that very well in the Catalan language, which is an important part of the people coming from the villages which surround the city. For these people, language provides an identity which makes many of them proud. Like some traditions we associate with a certain region, language is the thing the Valencian people like to show and share with others who are visiting the province. Catalan courses for example are for free here at the University and the information signs in the faculties or the emails with the announcement of an occasion are only written in this language, despite that fact that a lot of people in the city of Valencia aren’t used to speaking it.
Learning Spanish in Valencia
I have always wanted to learn Spanish as my third foreign language. It seemed to be quite easy and its sound is so tuneful that it made me get in a good mood every time I heard someone speaking it. That’s why for several years already I have been trying to begin learning Spanish by doing language exchanges with Spanish native speakers, reading websites for Spanish learners and the like. I once started with Spanish on Duolingo - an app for smartphones with interactive lessons designed for dozens of languages. Although I liked it very much and felt like I was making progress with the language, I was not that conscientious about it and didn’t continue because of lack of time.
I had taken the decision of doing an exchange semester in Spain at the beginning of my time at university, so I had nothing to worry about in terms of Spanish. I was sure that while staying in Spain I would have time to catch up with the language. I enrolled for a language course, organized especially for Erasmus students of the University of Valencia who have a discounted price for this course. Before starting their classes, everyone had to write a test of acquaintance with Spanish. Thanks to my previous knowledge from Duolingo and to paying attention to every word that I came across during the first month, I could attend a course with a group of people who also already had a basic knowledge of the language, instead of starting from “0”. I assumed it would be better for me and give me more motivation to study than if I had to repeat some things I had already known.
In fact, the level of our classes is quite high and in the beginning I had many difficulties to understand what the teacher was saying, particularly about homework... To my astonishment it turned out that everybody had studied Spanish before at school or at some extracurricular activity. With the time it got better and I found out that it is a great method for teaching a language when the teacher speaks only Spanish. Now, over one month of language classes has passed and I can understand almost everything said or written in Spanish. Of course you also have to distinguish between Spanish and the dialect spoken here that is an variant of Catalan. For me it is impossible to understand anything in the local Catalan dialect, because the words are completely different and sometime very similar in spelling and pronunciation to French. Inscriptions at the university and in public institutions usually are in both versions, for example above the exit door it says “Salida, Eixida”. The first word is Spanish, whereas the second word is Valencian Catalan. Another example would be a word "with"- "con" in Spanish and "amb" in Valencian. Therefore it is sort of subconscious way to get familiar with Catalan words.
As my Spanish is getting more and more advanced I find it really motivating and encouraging to practice my language skills with locals in restaurants or shops or even fellow Spanish students, who are always willing to give me a helping hand when I am trying to lead a conversation in their language. What is more, reading newspapers and watching Spanish TV are great methods of recording new words and remembering the use of complicated expressions. I am aware of the fact that my exchange semester will come to an end one day and I will not have that possibility of immersing myself in the language anymore. This thought gives me additional energy for studying Spanish outside the class. That experience helps me to stay focused and not to give up on my goals, even though it may sometimes be hard to motivate myself for working. The key is to remember the reason why I decided to start learning Spanish and which perspectives I associate with that valuable skill.
Familiarizing the unfamiliar
Trying to make a living: mini jobs in South Africa
Besides the braai-addiction and other, smaller cultural practices, what struck me most was the abundance of mini jobs that exists in South Africa. The first time I entered a supermarket – and it doesn’t matter if it is a brand or a no-name store – I was surprised to see so many people working in one single store. There was someone at the bread corner, handing you the bread you desire (although it would be perfectly possible to just grab it yourself); there is a person working at the hot food corner, weighing the box of food you picked out; another person is only there to weigh the fresh fruits and vegetables, on a normal scale accessible to everyone like we have it in Switzerland as well. Furthermore, several employees are constantly walking around doing inventory or assisting you with directions; at the check-out there is the cashier but also another person packing your groceries into your own bags or plastic bags (at every single check-out!); and when leaving the store there is someone else putting away the baskets or charts.
Another, very widespread job is the one of the parking guard. Street-parking is free in South Africa (in all the places I’ve been to, at least), meaning there is no parking meter. However, the way it works is that there will be a parking guard – sometimes they show you a free spot, guide you in, watch your car while you’re out, and/or guide you out. For this service you are supposed to give the guard a few Rand (SA currency). Very often, the guard only shows up when you are leaving the parking spot, to collect the money (especially when parking early morning and leaving around noon only). The whole parking guard story is quite a big thing in South Africa, as mostly, these guards are not officially employed by anyone, but are self-proclaimed guards wearing official-looking, bright yellow or orange vests. Sometimes, in bigger cities especially, there are official parking guards – you know that when they give you a receipt when parking that you pay when leaving. In parking lots there are always many parking guards, who literally fight over you, yelling at each other when someone for example tries to walk up to you claiming your car and tip (“Remember me, I guided you in”), although it was not him/her.
At first glance, these little jobs seemed very useless to me, as I don’t need assistance while getting my groceries and it seems rather strange to let strangers weigh my food although I am a grown, independent woman. I also do not necessarily need a parking guard, especially when that person only shows up in the end to collect the money, or waves me in while I am already driving in anyways. But knowing South Africa’s history and current economic situation for the different groups of people living there makes me then appreciate the various opportunities for people to earn a salary, however small it might be. At home, these jobs do not exist because yes, there is no need whatsoever for a packing-my-bag-person at the check-out, but also because there is no need for unemployed people to rely on such jobs, as a developed, non-corrupt social aid structure is existent, unlike in South Africa. In addition, with the race issue in mind (which you cannot ever escape in South Africa, in no aspect of life), I value the effort every person makes to go to work (almost) every day, in an attempt to break out of the cycle of poverty, unemployment and inequality, avoiding to live solely off the system. Personally, it does not have any big nor negative effect in my daily life, so I will gladly have a little chat at the check-out or the parking lot and give them a few Rand (which really isn’t any amount in CHF). I would rather do that than supporting beggars or someone approaching me in a very audacious manner.
The Metro in Mexico City
The first time I used the metro in Mexico City I had already spent more than 3 hours in taxis because as usual there was a lot of traffic in the city. So, when I needed to go back to the city centre my friend convinced me to take the metro as it is much cheaper. The metro costs five pesos, no matter how far you go. If you spend one hour in a metro it’s five pesos, if you spend one hour in a taxi it can be up to 140 pesos (if you get a cheap taxi). So we took the metro. For my friend this is very normal because he is from China and has lived in many cities where there are metros.
But for me, this was a completely new experience. I had used an underground perhaps four times in total throughout my life.
So during the next two days I had to get used to the metro. However, the metro in Mexico City can be daunting for a foreigner, as there is no announcement advising which stop is next, you need to know exactly where you are and how many stations you have to take to get to your destination. Because I am 188 cm tall, standing in the metro means nearly touching the ceiling of the train and not being able to see through the windows as they are too low for me so that every time the metro stops I need to bend right down to look through the window and check what stop I am at.
There are millions of people who take the metro every day, you can imagine that during rush hour the metro is a battle-field. It is extremely crowded and you have to fight your way through the throngs of people. All this is worth it because compared to the taxis the metro is insanely cheap.
On my fourth day, I was moving to a new house. As it’s cheap and fast I took the metro. When I got closer to the city centre the crowds of people got bigger and denser. When I entered the metro there were people pushing me from all sides. At the moment when I was changing from metro lines and stepping into the train I felt myself being pushed again but this time, when the metro door closed, I realized my phone and my wallet were gone. Of course there is nothing at all you can do. Nobody saw anything and even if they had seen something the thieves were professionals and no doubt were now long gone.
After this I didn’t felt that secure in the metro anymore. Of course I still used the metro but it took me a while to feel safe again.
Nine days later I moved to an apartment that was closer to the university. To begin with I took the metro for just one stop to my university but then I found out that there were free buses in the university so I didn’t have to take the metro anymore. As a result of this I only used the metro a few times a week. In this time, I got used to the metro and began to feel more or less safe again on it. Right up to the end of my time in Mexico I became so familiar with the metro that I began to feel like a local.
So many of my friends in Mexico City (nearly all of them), have been robbed in the metro. Unfortunately, this is quite a common occurrence in the underground and one that you must accept if you are going to live here.
I began to be able to make references that only inhabitants of the city would understand, for example, when a place was really crowded or when I had to fight my way through people I would say things like, “Metro style” or “this is like metro station Hidalgo during rush hour” and people understood instantly what I meant.
The metro in Mexico City is something you must experience, especially if you are living in the city. I highly recommend you use the metro, as it is efficient, cheap and fast but it can be dangerous and you need to be aware of your belongings. Most of all, however, it is an institution of Mexico City and to avoid it would be to miss out on a big part of this city’s culture.
Academic life in Aix-en-Provence
I started my semester here in Aix en Provence in September. I hadn’t really used my French language skills since my time in High School, besides from some encounters in Switzerland and abroad with the French language. I was able to understand the most and have simple conversations. But I never encountered the French language in an academic environment at a university. So when I came here it was a bit challenging for me. In the beginning of my semester abroad in Aix en Provence I had a lot of issues about university. I was thinking: How can I do this? Will I be able to get used to all of this?
I had difficulties with the ever changing schedule. Difficulties with the lecturing style because I felt it was too hierarchical: I couldn’t understand everything during my courses, let alone was able to take notes at the same time. Something that was especially hard was also the duration of my courses. They lasted three hours with only one little pause in the middle. From the University of Berne, I was used to having shorter lectures and more pauses. So, in the beginning of my stay, I had concentration difficulties in the second half of the course. I couldn’t wait until the course was over. It was so tiring to live a life in the French language. As the semester went on, I noticed that I didn’t feel as tired as in the beginning after my lectures. I noticed that I was more capable of taking my own notes, that I could follow the course even when there was no PowerPoint Presentation as support. I had to write and submit essays and multiple little texts about texts I had to read. The first one was a nightmare, but I familiarized. I had to hold group presentations about current academic issues in my field of studies. And finally revise all the subject matters, something I hadn’t thought I would be able to do. But I got used to all of this. I became familiar with the behaviour and the way things work in an unknown, you could say unfamiliar, institution, the Aix-Marseille Université.
Time also showed me that I was able to get used to the French lecturing style I beefed about in the first blog contribution. I beefed that the only thing the professor did was reading out loud a text and all the students had to write it down just as in a dictation. That he might as well have handed out a sheet with the text and left. That that would have had the same learning effect. A few weeks into the semester, going I I noticed that I was able understand more during the course without a presentation as a support. Now, at the end of my semester abroad, I still don’t believe that this is a good lecturing style. I still prefer the lecturing style they use at the University of Bern. But I was able to follow, to understand and to take notes. Something that was totally unfamiliar to me became in some parts familiar.
But my time here in Aix en Provence showed me that you can get used to almost everything. The one thing that bothers me the most is that from my experience in Switzerland, I thought that I knew how things work at university. I knew that it would be different, but I did not think that it would be so different, so unfamiliar. And the other thing I did not think is how you can familiarize yourself with things really quickly if you allow yourself to cope with the new situation. To become familiar with what is unfamiliar means unlearning your usual behaviour. You have to try to get into something new.
Biking culture as something unfamiliar
When you think about Holland you might have Gouda cheese, Heineken beer, bitterballen, windmills, dams and the colour orange in mind. I’m sure sooner or later the bikes come into the picture. Growing up in a suburb of Bern bikes were never an unfamiliar picture to me. I used to bike to school or work, my bike being a means of transportation but not more.
Biking in Holland is on a whole new level. Everyone bikes everywhere with anything on their bikes. In the morning the streets are full with kids on the way to school, parents with the “bakfiets” (a bike with a big box in front of the bike, in which 4 little children can sit) or kids standing on the back rack of their parent’s bikes enjoying the view and ride. Around 9am it’s the students’ time, lectures begin or the library is calling for some studying. What you can encounter now are bikes packed with young people, backpacks in the basket, phone in one hand and coffee in the other. Usually it’s really hard to overtake a slow biker as everyone is biking in a group and chatting together, plus there are just too many bikes. Riding with the flow is less stressful and safer. It’s like rush hour but in “bikecity”. During the day the strangest things can be seen on bikes. People transporting dogs, furniture or around Christmas a Christmas tree. The later the evening, the more young people find themselves on their bikes again, some of them training for the next slalom bike competition trying not to fall or hurt themselves. Following this description it can be said that Holland has an extremely broad and diverse bike culture. The bike as a mean of transportation encompasses way more than what I was used to from home. A bike does not only get you from A to B but is your best friend in any situation. It’s a life style that is so simple but yet exceptional enriching. Pretty much anything can be achieved with a bike and the freedom that comes with it.
At the beginning of my stay I bought myself a second hand bike. The thought of buying a good bike, as it will be your main transportation vehicle, is not very common. The chance of getting your shiny and expensive bike stolen is too high. Anything more than 100€ spent is too much and will attract unwanted attention. Being used to biking, the whole act of it was familiar to me. Not so the cultural practice of doing pretty much everything and going everywhere with your bike. Over time I got more accustomed to the biking culture, including drinking my morning coffee on the way to the lecture in the city center, packing my groceries on my front and back rack (looking like I was feeding a family of 8 people), dinking people on the back of my bike, practicing my slalom skills on the weekends and chatting along with my friends while biking to our next adventure. Yesterday I finally found someone who agreed to buy my bike as I will be leaving Utrecht soon. Oddly enough, I felt sad giving away my old and loyal friend who carried me through this semester. It was like saying goodbye to a life style of freedom, carelessness and the possibility to explore the world on just two wheels. Also the independence of time and society as you never relied on cars or buses.
This cultural practice showed me that things appearing to be familiar or known at first sight might turn out to hold more than you would expect. If you encounter such an alleged familiarity and really dive into it you might find unfamiliar aspects and differences. This unfamiliarity again can become something familiar over time and you implement it in your own daily life. It taught me that even in familiar situations unexpected things may arise that show you a different or better way of doing things.
Becoming familiar with Finish necessities
Before going to Finland, I had been to saunas in Switzerland, maybe once or twice a year in combination with a spa day. It was okay to be in a sauna for twenty minutes and then to go outside and take a cold shower but it was nothing I was super excited about.
When I moved into my student accommodation in Helsinki I knew there was a sauna in our building but I had no desire to go there. I could not understand why the Finnish people were into saunas so much and why it was so important to them to have one in almost every household. A sauna is a standard element in swimming baths and sports centers, hotels, holiday centers and camping sites. We even found a sauna at a motorway service! When I started to get to know Finnish culture better, there was no way to avoid the sauna, because it is a substantial part of it. For Finnish people the sauna is a place to relax with family and friends and also a place for physical and mental cleansing.
Once my friends and I rented a cabin in the North of Finland just next to a lake. The cabin had – of course – a sauna and we decided to try it. We made fire in the wood stove and waited until it was properly heated. Then we all took a beer or cider with us and just sat down and relaxed. Bathing in a sauna with people is somewhat of a bonding process – when you’re bare in all senses of the word, you’re sure not to hide anything. I really felt that in the sauna we had some very deep conversations. It is said that in Finland, more important decisions are made in the saunas than in meetings.
After some time and a lot of sweat pouring off of us, we ran out of the sauna and jumped into the cold lake. To say it was exhilarating is an understatement. Once you get out of the water you feel your blood pumping through your veins like never before and you have a great adrenaline rush. From the moment we jumped into the lake I couldn’t imagine having a Finnish sauna any other way! Not only is it refreshing but you also do something you would have never expected you would do with such pleasure and courage.
Finns know very well what they do if they build saunas near lakes. There is nothing better than jumping into cool water after using a hot room. You do not jump to swim in the cold water for minutes. It is enough to stay in the water until you feel refreshed, which might take only 30 seconds to a minute. Moreover, the more times you repeat this cooling-off procedure in the same day, the less cold you will feel.
During our cabin trip we went to the sauna every day and after this trip I could not imagine not going to saunas anymore.
A Finn explained to me that for him saunas are not a luxury but a necessity like having a coffee every morning. It just becomes part of your daily life and you need it to make your day complete.
Since going on this cabin trip I have been to saunas as often as I could go. We even organized some sauna parties and it became a place to be, to meet friends, have a beer and a nice conversation. I am very happy that I have tried this important part of Finnish culture, I wouldn’t want to miss this experience!
Getting familiar with my flatmates
Moving to a different city means looking for a flat with new people to share one’s life with. It is usually a long procedure full of stress and ongoing analysis of possible variants regarding location, interior and fellow inhabitants of a flat. From my point of view it is also very important to have friendly and easygoing colleagues at home, as we are going to spend every day under the same roof. I believe that people living together need to share values and beliefs as well as interests to be able to get along well with one another in the long run. Toward the end of my stay abroad I can reflect on my flatmates who became familiar to me in a quite unexpectedly long process during the last few months.
In my case, having Spanish flatmates in Valencia was a condition for renting a flat, because I wanted to make friends with Spanish students and, what is more important, have the possibility to practice my Spanish language skills on a daily basis. As soon as I reserved a room in a shared flat with two Spanish students I was relieved and really happy. I could imagine immersing in Spanish culture by observing and learning some typical habits from them. According to a certain stereotype, Spanish people are open-minded and always willing to make new friends with strangers, so I assumed it would not be a big problem to become close with my new flatmates.
Unfortunately, I was wrong, as it turned out later on. In the first days of my stay in Valencia I didn’t get the chance to know my flatmates better, because they were supposed to arrive later towards the beginning of the new semester. This delay resulted in an even greater excitement to finally meet the Spanish boys. When we eventually got to know each other it became clear to me that we were not going to be good friends in any way. I felt disappointment and a bit of unhappiness, because Pablo and Hector were not as friendly as I had expected. What is more they didn’t want to integrate and preferred to spend time in their separate rooms after returning home from the university, rather than sitting in a living room and creating an opportunity for an intercultural exchange with me and our Austrian flatmate. As a result our contacts were limited to only small talks when occasionally bumping into each other in the kitchen or floor. After many weeks it became obvious that every time, I was the only one to start a conversation with them. I can’t say they were unfriendly or rude, but in fact and to my astonishment they didn’t want to integrate or to become closer with me nor with the Austrian girl who was also living in the flat.
It was even more sad when I heard of the wonderful friendships my fellow exchange students had with their international flatmates. They told me that they were hanging out together on a regular basis and spending nice time together on various cultural and sport activities outside home.
After 2.5 months of a peaceful but not commonly engaged coexistence, Pablo and Hector became more open and willing to talk to us and listen to our stories. In addition to that Pablo surprised the rest of us by letting us taste some traditional dishes several times. He became more talkative and expressive in our presence. Also, Hector started to spend more time in our living room on a common TV watching or discussing recent sport events.
I am not sure what caused the mentioned difference in their behaviour toward us foreign flatmates. I can only assume that they needed more time to become comfortable with the new situation and realised the big chance of making friends with us and practice their knowledge of English and German. To conclude I could finally become familiar and find common ground with my Spanish ‘unfamiliar’ flatmates. It also helped me to develop my patience and understanding for others who may need more commitment and a helping hand to overcome their obstacles in a socializing process.