What we can learn from visiting other cultures

Tuesday, July 29, 2014 Permalink

My niece is currently spending two weeks in the south of France at a ballet summer school.

It’s been ages since I travelled and I really have no desire to do so – except when I see others’ photographs and a vague yearning inside of me is awakened.

My SIL & niece's home for the next couple of weeks - Carcassone.  Thanks for the pic Marg :-)

My SIL & niece’s home for the next couple of weeks – Carcassone.
Thanks for the pic Marg 🙂

Having said that – if I’m honest – although I’ve not visited many of your typical countries / locales (UK, USA etc) – I really only want to travel to Italy. I’m not sure why but the whole clichéd Tuscan thing has long been a drawcard.

However, my niece and SIL’s photographs and the fact that this will be one of my well-travelled niece’s first forays into a non-English speaking environment has reminded me of my first time overseas. In fact, a few days ago I mentioned I’d been re-reading a journal I kept at the time.

I was spending a couple of months in Portugal for a six-week language training course before heading to a Portuguese-language speaking country in Africa; and in addition to obsessing about the food I was eating at the time, I did – fortunately – share ‘some’ other information in the journal.

train to Sintra 1995.pngI read that journal now and cringe at my naivety and ignorance when it came to travel and other cultures and communities. But… I guess it was a starting point for me and – although Portugal offered the obvious language issues – it could have been worse!

The language school I attended was one which was centred around the ‘development’ community, so they worked with a lot of foreigners heading to developing countries – Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau (for example). By the time I left I could say ‘That woman is carrying firewood on her head,’ but didn’t really know how to describe a toothache. A dilemma I had to overcome the hard way!

I’d not come across a lot of people from non-English speaking backgrounds before I travelled, despite years at University and working in the social sector at the time.

In the journal I bitch and moan about my ‘grammar’ teacher. I hated her. We didn’t gel. At all. I much preferred my lecherous conversational instructor with whom I hung out at cafes drinking wine in the middle of the afternoon.

There was another Australian woman at the language school – a returnee – and we became friends. Sometime in my second week there she confided in me that her instructor mentioned that mine couldn’t understand anything that came out of my mouth. “You talk very quickly,” my friend said.

It was true. I spoke quickly. (I still do.) Like… very quickly. My mouth struggles to keep up with my ADD mind.

But once I realised what the problem was – things changed. English was the third language of my instructor (she spoke Portuguese obviously and Swedish). I became conscious of slowing down my speech (which I should have tried years before!) and not using colloquialisms or slang.

We can be very egocentric – only seeing things as they relate to us. Annoyed we can’t understand others, annoyed visitors to our country don’t speak our language. It doesn’t occur to us that ‘we’ could be the ones who need to change or be more accommodating.

On that first overseas trip, the Portuguese people I met (who spoke English to varying degrees of skill) asked me what other languages I spoke – presumably hoping to converse with me in French or German, rather than English. I know we’re more isolated from other cultures and languages in Australia, but I did eventually wonder why it wasn’t more of a ‘thing’. (And possibly that’s changing!)

My own travel helped me realise that visiting other countries and cultures can affect how we see the world and those who are different. It’s not all about us! There’s an entire world beyond ours (metaphorically, although…)!

I was one of those people who thought I’d rarely use English or hang out with other expats when I travelled and lived overseas. And yet… at the first opportunity I latched onto the nearest English speaker. And I was NEVER more Australian and patriotic than when I lived overseas.

Can anyone else relate?

I’m blogging on Tuesdays with Essentially Jess today.

23 Comments
  • Jess
    July 29, 2014

    I always felt way more Aussie and patriotic living abroad too. You have lived in some interesting places! I am surprised you don’t still have the travel bug, but maybe you got it out of your system!

    • Debbish
      July 29, 2014

      I think I did Jess. I hate even going to another city nowadays! Most of my holidays since returning to Oz in 2002 have actually been spent at home (not working). Even when I worked (and could afford to travel) I was happiest just having a break!

  • JodiGibson (@JFGibsonWriter)
    July 29, 2014

    I had no desire to travel overseas… until I did. And then my whole world opened up. Travelling and seeing the world is one of my favourite things to do. In my perfect world I would travel and write, write and travel!
    And I agree, travelling really opens our eyes to other cultures and makes us look at ourselves. I know it made me appreciate Australia even more, but also appreciate the beauty, history, challenges, turmoil and world of other cultures.

    • Debbish
      July 29, 2014

      I still remember Jodi, my realisation of how ‘young’ Australia is when I went to Portugal (and even more so Cambodia etc). And yes, more than anything I remember appreciating our open spaces!

  • Kathy
    July 29, 2014

    We lived in Canada for a year in 2011 and of course the language was the same (well sort of) but I always made an effort to explain my colloquialisms (they called hubby dingo and sometimes could hardly understand him). I remember staying on the French/German border, also in 1995 (we of similar vintage) and piping up with ‘Sprecken ze Deutcsch’ – well the French speaking lady (who also spoke German) latched on the invitation and started yabbering away in German – I spoke German barely better than French (that is to say, not much at all). You are right about travel and how small the world is if we allow ourselves to see beyond our shores.

    • Debbish
      July 29, 2014

      Yes, I still remember the shock of others I met in Portugal in finding out I didn’t speak other languages. I tried to explain it wasn’t THAT common (in those days) but was increasingly so… but, in reality (given our location) it really made sense for Australians to learn Asian languages. (They thought that was hilarious!)

  • Emily @ Have A Laugh On Me
    July 29, 2014

    Gosh it sounds like me when I travelled at a young age, I want to kick myself in the butt and tell my old self to go and be in these awesome countries!!!!!!!! Bloody hindsight! You look so cute and shy in that photo x

    • Debbish
      July 29, 2014

      My dad loved that photo and used to say I looked like his mother in it (depressing as I don’t think she was very attractive – didn’t meet her she died before I was born!). I suspect I was a bit embarrassed doing the whole ‘photo on a train’ thing!

  • Annaleis
    July 29, 2014

    My daughter speaks very fast and she told me that when she goes to bali the only way anyone understands her is if she speaks very slowly – which is probably normal speed to us. I have barely travelled and really wished I had’ve when I was young.

  • Janet aka Middle Aged Mama
    July 29, 2014

    I haven’t really done much travel overseas so have yet to experience all this – a cruise to Vanuatu / New Caledonia doesn’t really count! Though I was excited to find I could actually understand some of what the shop assistant said in New Caledonia, seems I haven’t totally forgotten my schoolgirl French 🙂

    • Debbish
      July 30, 2014

      That is good Janet! I think making in effort in any language / place is a great thing!

  • Susan Lattwein
    July 29, 2014

    That is so true about being patriotic Deb, and how much we take our culture and way of doing things for granted. I’d like to expand my little mind with more travel but am getting fussier where I want to go!

    • Debbish
      July 30, 2014

      Oh yes… I haven’t travelled to many (normal) countries but there’s no way (IN HELL!) I’d do the backpacking ‘cheap’ thing now. I’d want to do it comfortably (or not at all).

  • Renee Wilson
    July 29, 2014

    Yes I do relate. When we travelled and lived overseas I definitely felt more patriotic. I drank out of a G’day mate mug at work and had an Australian flag hung up in our flat. God only knows why. That’s just what you did. When we went to non-English speaking countries we definitely tried to make an effort with the language and respect the people who lived there. How lucky for your niece to be at a ballet summer school in France! Tres romantic! Visiting via #teamIBOT

    • Debbish
      July 30, 2014

      Oh yes Renee, I remember dining ‘occasionally’ at the ettamogah pub when I lived in Phnom Penh (though only once from memory) cos I expected some Aussie fare!

  • Neen
    July 29, 2014

    What a beautiful photo! I’ve always wanted to go to Carcassone!

    • Debbish
      July 30, 2014

      I’d actually never heard of it. France hasn’t been on my ‘to-do’ list though my SIL says it’s stunning and she’s loving it. I suspect it’s a bit like Tuscany – my dream destination.

  • Mark @ fullhalfglass.com
    July 30, 2014

    A few years ago I took the family to Thailand. We spent several days living in a village with the locals, eating what they did, bathing, etc all the time helping to care for orphaned elephants. It was cultural immersion in it’s finest. Then we spent 8 days in a resort in Phuket. Might as well have stayed in Australia. Moral of the story and what we do whenever we travel now… don’t be a tourist but be a respectful integrator.

    • Debbish
      July 30, 2014

      Oh yes I’ve never travelled to a lot of touristy destinations for that specific reason – a great experience for kids as well!

  • Grace
    July 31, 2014

    I lived in Japan for almost 10 years and hung out with lots of Aussies during my time in Tokyo. Things can get lonely in such a big, fast paced city and sometimes you just want to be with people who instantly get you. We used to go to a nightclub and request “Down Under” and do the whole, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – Oi, Oi, Oi!” Patriotic, much? 🙂

    • Debbish
      July 31, 2014

      Ha! Yes I know. The first two other places I lived were very different for Australians – in Africa (Mozambique – pre 2000 Olympics) no one had heard of Australia. They assumed I was from Austria. Then I moved to Cambodia and there were more Aussies around. I still remember after I got there meeting an Australian guy and getting really excited. I think he thought I was crazy cos he couldn’t get away fast enough. I later discovered we were relatively common among the expat community there!

  • Deb @ home life simplified
    July 31, 2014

    I hope they are having a great time. My in laws live in France and we visited carcassone when there in 2010. I vote for Italy though. Been twice and would live there if an opportunity arose – food, great people, energy and I just love the language.

    • Debbish
      July 31, 2014

      Oh yes, like I said – it’s on my wish list!

      PS. They’re having a great time. My SIL just posted a pic on FB of Moet etc at the local supermarket. She’s in wine and cheese eating heaven I think.

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