23 February 2011

Potayto potahto part 2

We had a Turkish-Spanish family over two Sundays ago. The son plays soccer with Soren. We had a great time with them. We talked about some Belgian culture things that are strange to all four of us. I love talking about cultural differences, especially with people who are frank enough to say "isn't this strange" about their own culture or mine or our shared second culture and are receptive to questions. This is absolutely one of my most favorite aspects of living here.

The timing and format of the social engagement was an exercise in cultural flexibility for us: we invited them over for coffee and cake at 3.30 on a Sunday. It has taken me about three and a half years to get my head around the idea of eating cake at this time -- a European phenomenon for sure. Our earlier dinner and kids' bedtimes makes this strange to us. The few times we've done it, we've concluded our cake/coffee time and moved immediately into feeding the kids a (light!) dinner and getting them off to bed.

Also interesting was that when they arrived, they presented a bakery box with a beautiful chocolate mousse cake. It was delicious, and we had more than enough food with that and the scones I made, and grapes and cheese. In America, we'd never bring a cake when invited to cake at someone's house. In their cultures, I wondered, would they expect the host not to have the dessert? Or just expect that there would be more than one dessert? I wasn't comfortable broaching this cultural difference in our conversation because I didn't want to seem like I was looking a gift horse(cake) in the mouth. And I have no problem accepting an unexpected gift of dessert.

Back to pronunciation, and how I struggle with it (as I wrote about last week here): I've heard them say their daughter's name over ten or so weekend soccer games; Ayla or Isla ("eye-la"), I thought. Yesterday I asked how they spelled it, and she said, "A-I-D-A." Oh! Eye-dah. I was dismayed at my obliviousness. Matthew and I talked later about how the Spanish pronunciation of the "d" (i.e., the way Aida's mom says her name) is softer than the American one. I think American pronunciation is harder and less subtle than other country's. I screwed up another friend's daughter's name, too. It's Lea, and I hear "lee-ah" when my German friend says the name. So I said "lee-ah" forever until one day we talked about it, and I learned that if I say "lay-ah" it sounds right to her. Still, though, when I hear her say it, I hear "lee-ah," and when I hear myself say "lee-ah" back, I think I'm mirroring it. The best I can figure is that it's halfway between how we say Leah and Leia, and that the vowel sound is not as drawn out as when we say either of those names, that it's more an "eh" than an "ee" or an "ay."

I had a substitute Spanish teacher in junior high who was a native speaker, from Central America, I think. "You have to take the potato out of your mouth to speak Spanish," he told us. He did a John Wayne accent mimicking how Americans over-enunciate everything. I think the potato has to come out with French, too -- maybe lots of languages.

14 February 2011

Potayto potahto part 1

We had dinner a few weeks ago with two other couples. We were two Americans (hi!), three Germans, and one Brit. We had raclette, which is sort of like fondue in that it's collective, slow eating of small pieces of food (therefore difficult to ascertain just how much one has eaten); it's heavy on the cheese; and you need a fairly sizable special appliance for it (thus it's a unitasker). There's a good photo of it here (underneath an unappetizing photo of a cheese waterfall that makes me never want to eat dairy again). You boil a bunch of potatoes ahead of time, get some meat and veggies to grill on top, put a slice of cheese (raclette is also the name of the cheese used) in a little wedge-shaped tray that you slide under a little broiler. On top you grill the meat and veggies. You dump the cheese over the potatoes, and then eat the other stuff on or around it.

The tray for the cheese is quite small. I put some mushrooms with it, but that's about all there's room for. Matthew tried to pile so much onto his tray that the host had to ask him to stop and tell him that if the cheese melts onto the underside of the grill it's a mess to clean up. That's when I made fun of him for being an American. We're Americans, and we like to supersize things. When I do this I use an accent that's somewhere between Gomer Pyle and a poor imitation of Texans. Gawwwwwllee!

Our hostess served a lovely cheesecake sort of item at the end. Cheesecake is quite popular here, but it's not as creamy or as thick and heavy as in the U.S. I'm not sure they even call it cheesecake, really. Our hostess said it was made from a German product called "kwahk." That's what I heard. Here's a situation that has played out time and again here. Someone (not American) uses a new-to-me non-English word; I attempt to repeat it, but fail; the person says it again to clarify; it sounds to me exactly like what I said, but I can tell from his or her face that I've not said it properly; and finally I ask how it's spelled.

"Oh! QUARK!" I finally got it. And they chuckled at my pronunciation. In America we like to say our consonants with authority. Give that "r" the emphasis it deserves!

In the U.S. we'd make something like this with Philadelphia, I explained. (I call it "Philadelphia" now, not cream cheese, to be clearer and distinguish it from fromage blanc (white cheese) or just creamy cheese. This is just one of many language tics I have picked up that will surely irritate people upon return. More on this in another post.) Is it like Philadelphia? I asked.

No! our German friends protested. Quark is special and different. It is lighter than cream cheese, not as thick. Is it sour cream? I wondered. No! Hmm. I was dubious, and they could tell. Just how many distinct soft neutral dairy items can there be? Our hostess finally fetched a taste test: a bit of quark in a bowl. "Sour cream," I said. "It's just like sour cream." But it's lighter, they protested. They were right, but I found their passion for this dairy item so sweet that I was moved to be slightly teasing about it. I can't get light sour cream here, but I think that's the closest thing.

More on pronunciation and my cultural smoothness in the next post.

07 February 2011


Perhaps my last post piqued your curiosity. What are all these topics I am dying to write about? Let's start with a real thriller: Plastic bags, and the purchasing thereof.

I wrote before about my struggles ordering groceries properly online, but this time, three out of four of these purchases were made when I was in the store, physically able to examine the packages, and reasonably competent in French so that I can only blame the errors on hurry and Clara, my faithful co-shopper (faithfully with me, not so faithfully dedicated to grocery shopping and its efficiency).

I can't seem to buy the proper plastic bag. I do rely mostly on reusable plastic or glass containers (I like to repurpose! I purpose them for soup, and then I repurpose them for cookies. One purpose, two purpose, three purpose, four!), but these come in handy now and then. The first three examples below were purchased in the quest for a gallon (er, liter) sized zip-top bag.

First: Right size, but oops, no zip.

Second, right size, plus zip, but also plus freshness holes. Good for lettuce, not so good for freezing soup.

Third, zip top! Fully sealed sides! But oh, so big. Twice what I wanted. This was the best of the bunch, though.

Until today, when I tried to buy zip-top sandwich style bags.

This box promised just that! But oh golly, the Belgians eat some big sandwiches. (Not the best shot. The bag is about twice as tall as Soren's head is.)

So I find myself unwittingly in possession, finally, of a proper liter-ish sized zip-top bag.

Look what else I found: Another Speculoos product!

Speculoos cereal! How ridiculous and wonderful!

03 February 2011

Money can't buy you love, and also love can't buy you information about your loved one's money

There is so much I want to blog about but it's hard to make time for it, and then it becomes overwhelming.

Oh, WOE.

I just finished reading As Always, Julia, a collection of letters between Julia Child and her editor and friend Avis DeVoto. It was quite a fun, interesting read. They used "woe" a lot, as a sort of tongue-in-cheek exclamation. They'd use it about the hassles of life, not real tragedies: The air conditioning went out. WOE.

I'll get back on the horse with a small anecdote I've been meaning to journal here for a long time. Our beloved French teacher told us that the topic of money is so taboo here that even spouses do not know each other's salaries. She does not know her husband's! But how do you make decisions on what kind of vacation you can take, or what home you can afford? I asked. She said she has a general idea but doesn't know the specific number. She explained that they had just bought a new mattress, and when the delivery man brought it to the door, he took down both their separate account details, and will bill each of them fifty percent. She also explained that when their children were quite young and she worked less, they would split bills 30/70.

"C'est different," as we say at the end of nearly every American/Belgian culture discussion. "Oui, c'est different. Intéressant."