Don’t judge a continent by a face…

I was recently privy to some entertainment at a student social, watching some European medical students (I don’t know if the fact that they are European or medical students is relevant to the story, but there you have it) trying to guess where a friend is from. She has a Chinese face like me, but she is from South Africa. For literally ages, these students could not guess.

We dropped heavy clues, eliminating continents at a time; no, not Asia, nor Europe, nor north or south America, nor the North Pole (which is not even a continent). Greenland? No, that’s in Europe (or America, but same difference in this case)… Tasmania? No, somewhere far from Australia…

Finally, someone said, almost as a side note, as if it were hardly conceivable, Africa? How, for nigh on ten minutes, did these kids manage to forget that somewhat large continent called Africa? We were literally saying, “it’s a really big continent, y’know…? Hint hint…”

Now either Africa passed them by in geography class, or they just couldn’t place an Asian face somewhere so unlikely. They kept guessing at Asian countries, even when we had categorically declared that all of Asia was out. Now admittedly Africa is not the first place you would think of when you see my friend. Still, isn’t it interesting how, for all the multi-culturalness of exchange student life, people can still draw a complete blank on imagining something a little different.

I always get the confused pause/stare when I first meet someone and they ask, “where you are from?” and I reply, “England”. Then often follows the, “Oh? You don’t look it!” To which I reply perplexedly, “Don’t I?” Most people then draw the (correct) conclusion that I am born of immigrants, and ask after my parents’ origins. Some tactfully ask, “yes but where are you really from?” Erm, England? I’m not pretending, you know… Some express surprise at my Spanish/Italian name; a charming bloke once commented, “I was expecting Ching-something!” One somewhat lecherous waiter in Milan absolutely could not get his head around the fact that I had an Italian girl’s name. Yes, yes, I know it’s very confusing for you all; try being me…


Christmas in my country…

Back in Blighty for Christmas, and immediately I am swamped in the Christmas spirit. I was surprised at how little I felt it during the last few days in Lausanne, despite the decorations in town and the snow, carpeting the landscape and artfully dusting the rooftops and trees. Perhaps it was the fact that, much as I love it over there, it’s not home home.

Or maybe there’s another reason. In London, Christmas feels very different. There is a frenetic quality to it; you feel it above all on the high street, and the closer to Christmas, the more frenzied it gets. I haven’t been on Oxford street yet but I don’t need to, I know exactly what it will be like: a perfect example of rampant capitalism, where acquisition of material goods is the overarching law; a nightmare of crowds, each person bent on one thing: consuming as much as possible.

This chaos is acted out before a festive backdrop of twinkling lights, festoons of glitter, and accompanied by the usual Christmas muzak. Supermarkets are suddenly snowed under with stacks of mince pies, Christmas puddings, miles of gift wrap and customers battling it out on Christmas eve for a decent turkey. The nation is divided into two camps: those who adore the holiday season and are filled with Christmas cheer and eggnog, and mutinous Scrooges who detest the holiday and all associated rituals. This is Christmas as I know it.

So there’s no wonder I wasn’t really feeling it in Lausanne. I was surprised, as I thought Switzerland, with all its snow and Christmas markets, would have me full to bursting with seasonal merriment. Instead, it felt pleasant, but calm. I didn’t feel hectic or harassed on the high street or at the markets. Things are too expensive in Switzerland to go on a Noël-fuelled splurge. As always, there is an emphasis on quality, not quantity. The general attitude of the Swiss is a cheerful anticipation for the season, with an absence of fuss or scorn. It might be Christmas, but people are chilled as ever.

In England it’s not Christmas if there’s no turkey on the table, along with potatoes, sprouts and mince pies. In Switzerland, there is no Christmas dinner dogma to abide by; lunch on the day is simply a big feast, with lots of yummy food and nothing specific required. Which works for me; most of the people I know (myself included) don’t even like turkey that much. The general consensus is that it’s sec (dry). It irritates me mildly that my mother feels obliged to slave over a turkey (when everyone would rather a chicken anyway), and serve Christmas pudding (which nobody actually likes) just because it’s Christmas.

At the end of the day though, however we celebrate it, Christmas (in case we’ve all forgotten) is about the birth of baby Jesus. It’s astounding how seldom this (now minor for most people) religious aspect crosses my mind, and how greatly Christmas features in the lives (not to mention bank accounts) of those not religious at all. If not, it’s about being with family. For many of us, it’s a rest and respite from the madness and demands of normal student/work life, and a chance to kick back and let mum do all the cooking and laundry. Whatever you’re doing, whether you take the attitude of Christmas lover or Scrooge, let’s take a moment to reflect on the past year and all the things we’re thankful for. If you really can’t think of anything, let’s be grateful that we, at least, have butter. Unlike those poor souls in Norway.

So, what’s Christmas like chez vous?

The Language Files 7: Un mélange étrange des langues! A strange language mélange

Have you ever felt your brain literally melt?

I have.

Over a year ago, a bilingual French and English friend of mine was very kindly helping me with my French presentation. I had written a rough draft in French, with a bit of English dotted in when I really couldn’t think of how to express something in French. He was reading the text aloud, when he sputtered to a halt at an English phrase, and closed his eyes in a mixture of pain, dismay and confusion. I found the franglais quite amusing, but he saw no humour in it. “Seriously,” he groaned, “when your French gets better you’ll understand how brain-melting it is to switch suddenly from one language to another.”

I didn’t know what he meant at the time. I had started French just over a year before, and I was pretty much constantly translating directly from English in my head. Now, I understand exactly how he felt.

The bewilderment comes when you start thinking in and getting into the flow of one language, and then you start to speak in another, but words creep in from the first. Saturday night was a perfect example. I was at a little party consisting of English-, French- and German-speakers (Swedish too, but they weren’t speaking it, they spoke perfect English as all Nordic people seem to). So there was quite a lot of language swapping going on; few of the people at the table spoke all three languages. Cue major brain-melting as I shifted from French to English and dipped a toe into German. I wasn’t alone either, as other people at the table were doing the same thing and suffering the same disorientation.

The moment I realise the mistake my mind grinds to a halt, as I am literally caught between two languages and not sure how to proceed. Often it is with a curse word (in either language) followed by some head-clutching.

As if two wasn’t enough, try getting caught between three languages. Franglais is one thing, Chinglish another, but whoever heard of François? Chinch? Chinçais? I.e. when I mix French and Chinese together. It’s amusing, don’t get me wrong, especially as I am not particularly proficient in either language, but it mushes my brain. Throw in English and it really does start to get ridiculous. One language needs to be decided upon in order to continue the conversation in a sane manner.

Linguists have a name for this: code-mixing. Apparently it happens alot in bilingual children who move between languages without discrimination as they are learning. So, though it might be making a fondue of my brain at the moment, I’ll choose to take it as a good sign, if I’m displaying the same traits as bilingual kids. It can only mean my French is getting better…right?


The title of this post is one of those handy words that is spelt exactly the same in English as it is in French. In French it’s a feminine noun, and this female is feeling a lot of it right now. What’s the cause? What else, but language? It is now less than two weeks before I leave Switzerland for almost a month, during which time I will be speaking French even less than I am right now. Even less. That’s a grim thought.

It’s a disgrace really, how little my French has come along in the last three months. Sure, I’ve made progress; I’d have problems if I hadn’t made any at all. But if, in my remaining time here, some drastic changes do not happen and I continue to “progress” at the same rate, by the end of my degree I’ll still be floundering in the shallows of intermediate-level French.

It’s my own fault, probably. I still spend the majority of my days speaking English. How did this happen? It’s very easy to get sucked into the international student world, where English is the default language. I wouldn’t have this problem if I was in a flat share with Swiss people. Living in halls has its pluses and minuses, and I am fortunate to have befriended a number of native French speakers, but that was sheer luck. All it takes is one person who doesn’t speak French for everyone in the room to revert to English. As expressed in a previous post, it can be highly frustrating being a native English speaker. Hell, if I wasn’t, I’d at least be getting in some useful English practice too, right?

What can I do? I am actually imploring you, dear reader, to give me some advice. The situation is feeling rather dire, and I’m far too proud to return to England in the summer still sounding like a spastic en français. People I know who have already been on exchange all pretty much concur on one solution: cut ties with English-speaking friends. Surround yourself only with French speakers. Guaranteed success. I don’t doubt it, but it’s a bit heartless, no?

I keep telling myself that it would be so much harder without English, that I wouldn’t have the same kind of friendships…but is that really true? There’s not doubt forming relationships is easier in English, but I have likewise made some very good friends with whom I speak only French (well, ok, with the occasional English word tossed in). Sure, I’m not quite as eloquent when we are talking about “deep” matters, but I’m not so far off as to not make my (I like to think) more complex thoughts understood. In fact, it’s a good exercise in being more concise, without flinging around unnecessary vocabulary and turns of phrases.

In addition I feel so silly and ungrateful stalking the streets of Switzerland speaking in English. What happened to immersion? It’s like I can’t be bothered with or am uninterested in this lovely country, which is the exact opposite of the truth. If there are two words combined which I revile the most in the English language, they are “wasted opportunity”. Don’t let this year be one. What do you guys think?

Santa Baby, hold off just a little longer…

As Noël speeds its way irrevocably toward us in a hail of tinsel, an avalanche of mince pies and a miasma of gratuitous consumerism, I find myself wanting to slow down time, and maybe even close a few already-opened advent calendar doors. Time is the most precious gift of all, and it’s slipping rapidly through our ERASMUS student fingers.

The first semester has whizzed by, and saddest of all is knowing that a large number of exchange students, including some of the best friends I have made here, will be leaving at the end of it. Even I, with the prospect of another (longer) semester ahead of me, feel like I don’t have enough time here.

We recently had the last “pubnight” of the year; that is, the weekly social for exchange students in Lausanne, which changes location and theme each week. This final party took place in what seemed to be a cosy barn hidden in a forest, to which everyone brought a dish from their country and shared in an international buffet. Though I didn’t quite make it to the club afterward, it was a spectacular evening, and summed up the diversity and sheer high jinks that encompass being on exchange.

Is Christmas really only two weeks away? It has crept up all too soon, before even the first falling of snow on the streets of Lausanne. Much as I love the holidays, I’d be quite happy to hold it off a little longer if it means I can have more time with the friends who are leaving, not to mention more time to revise for the copious exams looming ever-closer…

In the meantime, there is plenty on offer in Switzerland, Christmas-wise. So let’s all bundle up and do some outdoor ice-skating, huddle over mulled wine at the Christmas market and attempt to bake some traditional biscuits de Noël. Our time together is limited, so let’s profit of it while we still can.

Desirably discombobulated?

I write this comfortably ensconced in the university library. Apart from the stunning mountain view through the window to my right (it took a measure of self-control not to gasp aloud at the sight), I like this location because of its proximity to the English section on my left, from which I have unlimited access to Ian McEwan and Jane Austen should I wish it. And today, above all days, I do.

Why this sudden urge to feel closer to home? It may seem hard to believe but over the course of the first three hours of this morning, for the first time in the two and a half months I have spent here so far, I truly felt like a foreigner. In other words, since leaving my bedroom this morning, I haven’t spoken any English. For the first time. It’s a bit pathetic to be honest, but true; as I have mentioned before, my existence here is far too anglicized.

I felt rather lost, as if I was in a glass bowl, separate from much of what was going on around me. But in an odd way it kinda felt good. It is a new and acutely humbling experience, to be one step behind everyone else. I am gladdened by the patience and gentleness with which I am treated. I don’t really feel the same kind of compassion is shown to foreigners in England (I am probably guilty myself) which is what makes me appreciate it all the more.

Immersion, is what it’s called. It is something I was expecting, i.e. to feel bewildered and out-of-place most of the time, but haven’t experienced much of. It is something, I think, that falls rarely upon an English speaker, and of course I wouldn’t be happy feeling that way constantly. Yet, it’s a real challenge – precisely what I seek. Disorientating and oftentimes disheartening though it might be, it is a sign that you’re learning, therefore ultimately gratifying. Exchange students, my advice is to chase this lost feeling more often. One day you just might surprise yourself.

The “Feed Me!” Files 3: Homemade with love

What is it about homemade meals that never fails to warm the heart? Maybe it’s that thin but unshakeable strain of Asian in me, or maybe it’s just because I’m a foodophile, but the very act of preparing a meal with one’s own hands for someone else, of nourishing them, is for me the most basic, yet ultimate, form of hospitality.

It doesn’t even matter if the food doesn’t taste good. Naturally I don’t object to a delicious meal, but as long as it’s not actually burnt to a cinder, or poison, I will eat it with joy. If it’s made with love, how could I not like it?!

Living in halls provides abundant opportunities to cook for one another. In my kitchen every Sunday one of us would cook a meal from our respective countries for everyone else; that had a good run of a few weeks before everyone had their turn, but we still try to eat together on Sundays. There’s no greater way of bonding than breaking bread together. Except maybe getting hideously drunk together, but a homemade dinner is more dignified, more practical to do regularly, and better suited to the more moderate lifestyle that comes with age.

Recently a friend came over and made a gratin, which I had never tried before. When I think about what has been cooked for me by my friends and housemates, it really has been a grand culinary assortment. The selection runs from instant noodles to a full blown English roast, not to mention many, many variants on pasta dishes, with the most unforgettable (not to mention unhealthy) being penne pasta, boiled then slathered and fried in margarine (which I never eat, showing how appreciative I was of the meal!).

Equally, cooking together is a charming exercise in bonding. It’s a domestic, mellow and comfortably intimate act, to prepare food and to partake of it together. You wouldn’t do it with somebody you don’t like, or don’t want to spend time with. You’re working together on something that is gratifying, mutually beneficial, and (hopefully) yummy.

If someone has cooked for me, my way of showing thanks is to do the dishes. This has resulted in some literally physical wrangling with friends who (are often stronger than me and) won’t allow me. It might seem trivial, but simple things like this show a person’s hospitableness and kindness, and win me over every time.

As Christmas approaches, with all its associated fêtes, it is the prospect of cooking (whatever the results) Christmas dinner with my friends and all sitting down together and soaking up the Christmas spirit that I really look forward to. Food and friends: sweet manna of life! Une combinaison parfaite.