Thursday, November 18, 2010

Top Ten Lists for Ex-Pats That Really Mean Something

I am dedicating this post to those of you who are ex-pats and read this blog for stress relief or to have an “ah ha!” moment every now and then when you recognize yourself in one of my many foibles.  Dear friends and family who read this just to catch up with me, you can probably skip this one!

I am well into the “acclimatization” stage of our transplantation.  There comes a point, for ex-pats, where one has to decide if one is going to acclimate or if one is going to just fake it for the duration.  Basically, from my experience and in talking to other transplants, it boils down to how long one anticipates being “in country”.  If you think your assignment will be between 1 and 3 years, I’m sorry to break it to you, but, unless you are an EXTREMELY fast adapter, you are probably still going to consider yourself whatever-it-was-before-you-came even as you are packing your stuff for your return “back home”.   You will look, I hope fondly, back at your experience as a really, really long vacation involving multiple mishaps.

If, however, you anticipate a longer stay, say 3-10 years, there is a better-than-even chance that you will come to see yourself as quasi-Swiss or quasi-Ugandan or quasi-Whatever.  These are the people who fall off the ex-pat radar on the internet because they have actually made  a REAL life in their new country and no longer rely on ONLY other ex-pats or countrymen for support.  I promise not to become one of THOSE people!  (Don’t worry, I’m nowhere near that stage, yet.)

To help you better acclimate, I’m going to give you the low-down, the nitty-gritty, the skinny, on some of the bigger hurdles you must learn to jump.  For those of you who are reading this who have just found this blog and are only in the beginning stages of your overseas adventure, STOP READING RIGHT NOW, or you will never do it!  Go back to the beginning of the blog and read from there.  Please.  OK, I warned you.

Top Ten Scariest Things To Overcome

10.          Ordering food in a restaurant from a menu that you can only decipher every 5th word.
9.            Shopping for clothes, shoes, etc. in completely different sizes than what you are used to when the sales person does not speak your native language.
8.            Buying a bus/train/tram/metro ticket from a machine or person that does not offer your native language.
7.            Buying fruit, veg, meat, cheese, etc. from a vendor in an outdoor market in metric quantities
6.            Going in a teeny, tiny shop where the salesperson is intimidating as opposed to shopping in big stores where the salesperson is nonexistent.
5.            Answering someone on the street or in the bus or wherever who directs a question at you in your “new” language.
4.            Making an appointment with a doctor/dentist/dermatologist, hair dresser/dog groomer, etc.  in another language.
3.            Conducting any banking or monetary business in a foreign language.
2.            Making friends outside your comfortable ex-pat circle with people who don’t speak your native language.

And, the #1 scariest thing:  Getting into a conflict, i.e. an accident, anything involving the police, an irate landlord, etc. in your new language.  TERRIFYING!!!

Did you notice a theme here?  Unfortunately, if you do not learn your new language beyond “hello, goodbye, thank you, I would like a beer, etc.” you are never going to get past #6.  Learning the language, including verbs!, separates the men from the boys.  There’s no other way around it.  Sorry.

Well, don’t you know, that Mr. Big, who is in no way, shape or form, ready to encounter Scary List Item #1, did just that.  Yes.  He nailed some poor guy in another car and it involved police and the whole nine yards and it was completely his fault.  Later, when he got home and told me of his Swiss Encounter of the Worst Kind, I was in shock.

ME:  Mr. Big!  What did you do?

MR. BIG:  I stood around and looked stupid.

ME:  Did you go to the police station?

MR. BIG:  No, it all took place right there in the middle of the street.

ME:  What do you have to do now?

MR. BIG:  I have absolutely no idea.  I don’t think I have to do anything.  I just signed some papers and they let me go.

ME:  What papers did you sign?

MR. BIG:  I have no idea.

So, dear Mr. Big may or may not be going to jail.  He may or may not owe somebody some money.  We just don’t know.  These are the kind of things that happen on an ex-pat assignment.  One must just accept that these curveballs will be thrown from time to time and then one must either learn to duck or get hit in the head.

Top Ten Signs That You Are Adapting to Your New Country  (I admit that these are skewed from an American adapting to a European point of view.  Sorry!)

10.  When you open your closet, it’s like being sucked into a Black Hole.  All colored items have slowly been weaned out and only black is allowed to come in.  You do not find this depressing.
9.    You stop drinking mixed drinks and abandon the idea of ice in a beverage all together.  Ice just becomes something you scrape off your windshield or avoid on the roadway.
8.    You automatically check that you have at least 50 dollars/francs in your wallet before going out to lunch with your girlfriends.  You are not surprised when your bill is 48 dollars/francs for a salad and a glass of wine.
7.    You stop worrying that your grown children are going to become homeless beggars without you living near them.  You begin worrying that they don’t need you at all.  But then, they call and ask for money so you chide  yourself for being so ridiculous.
6.    Gypsy beggars with one leg and a baby no longer merit a second glance but a fat person does.
5.    People think you look like a local and ask YOU for directions on the street.  You are able to answer them.
4.    Loud conversation in public causes you to turn your head to see what all the fuss is about.
3.    You come to accept that dressing appropriately for even the most horrendous weather renders it a nonissue and you must now find something else to complain about.
2.    You stop practicing anticipated dialogue in your head hours in advance of leaving the house.

And the number 1 sign that you have adapted?  You initiate a conversation with a total stranger without a second thought.  (I have never done this.  Just thinking about it gives me an anxiety attack.)

Now, I am off to America for the Thanksgiving holidays.  While I am there I will be attending my 30th High School Reunion and probably gathering material for a new blog entry about people who still act 18 but are actually 48.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Back to Tuscany

Sorry, I got sidetracked there with my French class.  I was going to give you some more scoopage about Tuscany, since approximately 95% of you will, some day, want to visit there.  After we woke up in Granny’s hotel there in Castelfiorentina, with aching backs from the concrete bed and being diligent not to flush too vigorously lest we violate the plumbing protocol, we crept downstairs and snuck out without breakfast.  We were convinced that if La Familia had seen us, we would have been forced to consume vast quantities of oatmeal and unidentified pork products.

So, we run to the car, complaining all across the plaza about our stupid backs and how it sucks getting old, scoop the map up off the floor and zoom out of Castelfiorentina in a very stealthy and sneaky manner.  Did you miss the part where I scooped up the PAPER map?

The men who are reading this are saying, “what, is Mr. Big some sort of Neanderthal?  Has he never heard of GPS?”  In Europe, never, ever, ever trust a GPS.  Yes, it is correct about 80% of the time, but it is that other 20% of the time which causes divorce proceedings to begin.  I cannot tell you how many times the woman on the GPS, with whom I am convinced that my husband is secretly in love,  says “take the second exit in the roundabout and continue 8 kilometers”.

Dutifully, like the robotic GPS follower that he is, Mr. Big takes the second exit on the roundabout and trundles on down the road, never stopping to wonder why THE ACTUAL ROAD SIGNS in the roundabout did not correspond to his desired course.  

Eight kilometers later, down the wrong road, (which I knew was the wrong road 8 km ago but have been biting my tongue),  we are invited by Mr. Big’s secret GPS lover to “please make a U-turn as soon as possible”.  THIS is when I subtly shake out the REAL map and find an alternate route.  Ladies, pay attention.  This is never a good time to pour salt in the wound.  No “I told you so”, no “well, if you had only listened to your wife instead of blindly following that godforsaken GPS”, etc.   I have learned through many a screaming match that it is just not worth the lung expansion.  Here are some key phrases you must master when trying to get a tried-and-true GPS follower to abandon his beloved device and take direction from you and your (correct) Michelin paper map:

*Oh, honey, the GPS must just be out of sync/confused.  (Never say the GPS is wrong.  To men, the GPS is never wrong.  Ever.)

*Well, honey, you might try this little road here.  I’m not sure if it is right, but it is going in the right direction.  (Of course, you know that it is right.)

*Gosh, sweetie, I get confused too when your GPS girl says “haaalf left” or “haaalf right”.  Who wouldn’t, snookums?  Let’s just try taking that little road right there, shall we?

***All of the above must be delivered in HONEST TO GOD sincere tones with big, big eyes.  Y’all know what I’m talking about, don’t you?

Trust me, girls.  If you are going to Europe, get yourself a Michelin map and spot check everything your man’s GPS is telling you to do.  Follow the actual, real road signs, not the Garmins.  Europe, (well, except for Ireland, but that is another story) is well marked with directional signs.  Trust the signs!  They have been correct for 1,000 years!    The villages have not moved since William the Conqueror came and conquered!  If you are in a roundabout and trying to get to Small Village A, follow the signs to Small Village A, not the Garmin which is trying to get you to take the exit for Big Town.  GPS’s are programmed to always try to get you out to a big freeway, even if it means travelling many, many kilometers out of your way.  OK, enough.  Back to Tuscany.

Oh, wait.  My favorite Europe—Garmin story.  Some couple, NOT US, were driving to the island of Capri in Italy.  Hubby types “Carpi” into the Garmin by mistake.  Of course, they wind up in Carpi, Italy, which is about 500 kilometers away from their destination.  They go to the tourist information office in CARPI and ask where they might find their hotel.  Well.  You know the rest of the story.  The dude in the CARPI information center asks them why THEY DID NOT NOTICE that they never crossed A LARGE BODY OF WATER en route because CAPRI is an island.  They made the BBC news, the idiots.  Would have never happened if that wife had had a Michelin map.  I’m just sayin’.  True story, swear to God.

The area in Tuscany where they make Chianti wine is beautiful.  The villages like Castellina in Chianti, Panzano, and Radda in Chianti are all very picturesque.  The vineyards are open for tastings, but you really don’t even need to drive out to the vineyards.  Each village has local wine stores where you can taste and sample to your heart’s content.  (It’s all pretty much all red wine all the time, though, I’m just warning you!) 

We learned that REAL Chianti Classico from the region will always have a paper band around the top of the bottle with a rooster on it.  Who knew?

But the cutest town of all was Greve in Chianti.  And, the best hotel location in the village is the Albergo Del Chianti.    Here is the website:

Stay there.  You won’t regret it.  It’s right in the main plaza and it has a pool and a fabulous backyard bar/outdoor space.  Really nice.  We, of course, did not arrive in Greve in Chianti at an opportune hour to stay the night there.  We arrived at lunchtime where we enjoyed a delicious Italian 2-hour meal at the Ristorante Verrazzano.  For you history buffs, the man who discovered the Hudson Bay area in the 1500’s and after whom the famous NYC Verrazano-Narrows bridge is named after, was born in Greve.  Cool, huh?  Although, the Americans apparently screwed up the true spelling of his actual name because the MAN has two z’s, but the bridge only has one.  Sorry, dude!  Sorry, Italy!  Here is the website to the restaurant/hotel where we had lunch:

On we proceeded, using the paper map all the while, over hill and dale, on tiny dirt roads, through glorious scenery and impossibly quaint small villages, to Siena.  I would consider Siena the crown jewel of the places that we went in Tuscany.  This is rather a large city, but the quaint part is all happening perched up on the top of the hill in the really old part of the village located within the medieval walls.  I’m warning you right now, there are only 2 or 3 hotels up in this historic, quaint part.  Book early if you want to stay up the hill in the cool part!  Luckily, the NH Excelsior, right in the center had a room left and we took it, gladly.  NH hotels are a dime-a-dozen all over Europe.  Some are just OK, some are really nice, (comparable to Radissons or Sheratons).  Here’s the link:

Folks, Siena has great shopping, especially for leather products like shoes or bags.  (It also has fabulous old churches and buildings, etc., but I live in Europe and I’m getting used to that stuff!)  I bought a beautiful pair of leather riding boots for (compared to Switzerland) a good price, even though the only riding I do is on the number 9 bus.  But still.  Nice boots.

So, all around, a great weekend in Tuscany, if one doesn’t count the concrete bed.  On the way home we did stop in Parma (home of the famous Italian ham) for lunch and it, also, is a happening, upscale town.  Some of the others, out there in the “flatlands”, uh, not so much.  And, incredibly, we did drive through Carpi.  It’s no Capri, I can tell you that much.  Poor saps.