Culture Shock

Culture ShockHaving spent more than half of my life living in a foreign country, I have almost forgotten which of the differences between my native Holland and my adoptive Ireland struck me most when I first arrived on these shores. Of course we can’t really speak of “Culture Shock” when moving between two Western European countries (so much for the title). On the other hand, sometimes it’s the subtle distinctions between largely similar cultures that can cause more frustration and misunderstanding than one would expect. Most of the time however, we just feel that the other nationality displays some odd but harmless behaviour.

I’ll forget about the obvious oddities of driving on the wrong side of the road and speaking an inferior language — and I’m not telling which nationality’s hat I’m wearing when I say that. I’m also ignoring the fact that some of the anomalies I have come across over the years are not necessarily typically Irish – they may just as well apply to nationalities closely affiliated with the Irish (you know who you are).

In Ireland, you may see women walking down the road with their arms folded across their chest. I had never seen anyone walk like that in Holland. You swing your arms by your side, or you carry a bag, or whatever – but folding your arms is something you do when you’re standing still, not when you’re walking. Even stranger is that the behaviour is displayed only by women.

In Holland, many homes have toilets where the bowl is of a design that will freak out Irish people. Instead of being funnel shaped with a puddle of water at the bottom, they have a flat surface some distance below the rim with a drain to the front – so whatever is deposited here will stare back at you until you flush the toilet when the water pushes the lot off the surface and into the drain from back to front. As one of my Irish friends puts it, the Dutch “shit on a plate”.

In Ireland, another toilet experience may freak out Dutch men – but this time it concerns urinals in public toilets. The nice semi-private Dutch variety has little partitions between separate wall mounted bowls. The Irish style may involve just a wall. OK, it has a sprinkler tube running across the top and a shore at the bottom, but on a busy night you’re guaranteed an intimately shared experience when splashing your boots.

In Holland, if you have a mug of tea or coffee and stir it with a teaspoon, you leave the spoon in it, since taking it out will leave you with nowhere to put it without dripping some of the liquid onto the table. An Irishman will take the spoon out because you could stab yourself in the eye with it.

In Ireland, people go to someone’s birthday party and then hand that person a birthday card. “What’s the point?” asks the Dutchman, “Can’t you just wish them a happy birthday since you’re there?” – Dutch people will only send birthday cards if they can’t be there in person.

In Holland, you start a tab when you’re having a few drinks in the pub. At the end of the night you then split the bill between the members of the party. In Ireland, no self-respecting barman will trust you to actually pay the bill at the end of the night, and no self-respecting punter will trust himself to remember to pay it – so they work a rounds system. This gets interesting when there’s a mixed company of Dutch and Irish having a few drinks together. Regardless of who bought the first round, an Irishman is likely to say “I’ll get this”. A Dutchman’s reaction to this is invariably “OK” – but that’s like failing to haggle in an Arab market. The correct response to the Irish statement is “No, I’ll get this”. This should then be returned with “No, no, you got the last one”, followed by “No it’s OK I have it here” and so on, until the end result is that everyone pays at least one round. “Going Dutch” is obviously not an option here.

In Ireland, you have to strain to hear the music in a pub (if there is any to begin with) because there is so much talking going on. In a Dutch pub you have to shout to make yourself heard over the blaring music.

In Holland, many people don’t know the difference between the North and the South of Ireland and may assume it’s only a geographical denominator. In the days of the Troubles, the Dutch knew to avoid Ireland because of bombs (ignoring the fact that this applied mainly to the North), nowadays they know its economy is in shreds. In Ireland, people know about the Zuiderzee and the IJsselmeer, the dykes and the Randstad, the industry and agriculture and enough other things to put the Dutch knowledge of Ireland to shame.

In Ireland, they are very fond of salt in their diet. So much so, that I often see people grab the salt shaker and liberally apply the stuff to their dinner before they have even tasted it. Interestingly enough, Irish salt shakers have a single hole in the top, and the shaker with multiple holes is reserved for pepper. In Holland – you’ve guessed it – it’s the other way around.

In Holland and most of the rest of the world, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May. In Ireland it’s on the fourth Sunday in Lent, and you’ll need a degree in astronomy to work out which date that will be in any given year. A mother however, will just know. You have been warned.

In Ireland, you may still experience an outburst of patriotic fervour at the end of a night out. As the bar closes, the band will play the national anthem and everybody will stand up and sing along. Many will have parents or grandparents with a living memory of gaining independence. It’s easy to forget that the Republic of Ireland is still only a young nation.

In Holland, whipped cream is sweet because they add lots of sugar by default. In Ireland, the idea of putting sugar in cream is revolting.

In Ireland, the first time I went to get a bag of chips, I was surprised by the now familiar question, “salt ‘n’ vinegar?”. Even after 20-odd years, I will not accept that chips could or should be served with something that belongs in a salad. In Holland, chips (patat, not to be confused with the Dutch chips, which are crisps, and in Ireland come in the horrid salt ‘n’ vinegar flavour also) are either served plain or “met” (with) — which is short for “met mayonnaise”. Proper order.

In Holland, when arranging to meet someone for the first time, this is likely to take place in the home. Only when you get to know someone better might you venture out and go for a drink. In Ireland, first (and subsequent) meetings are on neutral ground and involve going out somewhere, usually a pub — visiting someone at home is usually reserved for family.

In Ireland, people use clocks to find out what time it is, which is then rounded to the nearest half hour. “I wonder what time the train is due?” In Holland, people use clocks to find out what they or someone else are or should be doing and how long it is overdue or will take — rounded to the nearest minute. “The train is 3 minutes late”.

In Holland, when they invite someone to drop by sometime, they are surprised when that person never shows up. In Ireland, they are when he does.

In Ireland, when people become more familiar or at ease with the company they’re in (usually after about 20 minutes), they may engage in some good-natured teasing, making fun of a person’s background, beliefs, or anything associated with that person. The practise is known as “slagging” and the Dutch don’t really get it at all.

In Ireland, the hot tap is indicated by the colour red. In Holland, the cold tap is identified by the colour blue.

Media Archeology

In his excellent post “The Great CCTV Camera of History” on First Advertising’s blog, Jamie Stanton writes eloquently about the ever increasing mountain of digital data that follows and records our every move. Most of us will be painfully aware of how the roll of 36 snaps that was sufficient to record an entire 2 weeks holidays 15 years ago, has today been replaced by umpteen hours of digital video and hundreds of pictures taken on a variety of mobile phones and digital cameras.

Roll of Film

Found this. Now what?

In spite of this enormous increase in visual mementoes of our annual trip, it seems that the handful of snaps from yesteryear had a better chance of survival than their multitudinous digital counterparts of today. At least the old fashioned photographs were awarded the ritual of an unveiling, some time after the holidays were over, when the local chemist had worked his magic on the roll of film. After having been handed around to share the memories one more time, they more than likely ended up in a shoebox in the attic — some of the lucky ones may even have brought it as far as a scrapbook. There they remain to this day, with the potential to be rediscovered at any time.

My brother in law has been carrying around the same digital camera for the last five years. When the memory card fills up, he deletes some of the older pictures to make room for new ones. I don’t remember ever seeing any of the images outside of their little screen on the back of the camera. No shoebox in the attic for these memories. Although there are those who will diligently select, print, archive, backup and sync their digital collections, I get the feeling that my brother in law is far more representative of today’s happy snapper.

That doesn’t mean that I disagree with the point that Jamie makes — there is without a doubt an enormous amount of information available on today’s individual compared to the sparse details we have on those of our parents’ generation. In fact, our friends at Google have already gone as far as working on ways to use information gathering to predict the future (yes, really). But in the meantime, the long term survival of all this data depends largely on the availability of the technology required to view, read or hear what’s hidden on the different types of media.

I challenge anyone to tell me what to do with a tape reel — assuming they’re old enough to recognise what it is and that it’s a reel-to-reel tape machine they should be looking for. Cassette tapes and VHS are also fast becoming extinct, not helped by the fact that magnetic media apparently have a lifespan of no more than 30 years. Those of us who have children will be aware of their astounding unfamiliarity with seemingly timeless objects such as the vinyl record. Similarly, Jason Huck writes on Facebook that his daughter “is playing with My First Camera, which is a real (film) camera, but I just told her it was pretend because it was easier than explaining why there’s no screen on the back that shows you the picture you just took”.

When a worker on an Irish bog discovers something unusual in July of 2006, he quickly realizes that it’s a book, and probably a very old one. Archaeologists later confirm that the book is a collection of psalms, dated between 800 and 1000 A.D. On hearing the news, I wondered what would happen if a distant descendent of the same worker were digging the bog 1000 years from now and came across a VHS tape. The bog itself would first have to have re-formed after its disappearance in the 21st century of course, but I digress. The point is, that our future digger would need the help of an archaeologist to establish what type of artefact he has just found. Even if they are then able to tell that they are looking at an object that was used to store images or sounds, they will sadly be unable to find out what exactly those images or sounds were. Compare that to the bog psalter of 1000 A.D. and the preservation of our recorded history for future generations is beginning to look bleak in comparison.

At 87, my mother has embraced modern technology, keeping in touch with friends and family via email. However, she still insists on printing off a copy of every email so that she can store them away for posterity, in a –physical– folder alongside letters from a bygone era — such as the one quoted in my first blog post. She may have a point. Letters and postcards have been replaced by emails and text messages, in the same way that vinyl was first replaced by CD and now download, thereby losing all of its tangibility (even though there appears to be a vinyl revival of sorts).

I wonder if archaeologists a thousand years from now will draw the conclusion that our civilization came to an end sometime around the start of the 21st century, based on the evidence that written and visual documentation all but disappears around this time. Interestingly enough, my sister-in-law tells me that “Media Archaeology” is a course subject at the University of Amsterdam. Isn’t it intriguing that technology has begun to develop so fast that what was cutting-edge only half a generation ago is now considered archaic?

Maybe if I print out this blog and bury it in the back garden, it will survive the test of time. For now, it will remain in this uncertain space where no turf cutter’s spade is likely to disturb it.

The Colours of the Alphabet

Hear the ColoursSome time ago, my older brother Mans was working as editor of a Dutch magazine for university graduates. He pointed out one of the articles he had been working on, which dealt with the somewhat obscure subject of “cross-sensory experiences” known as Synesthesia.

At first glance, synesthesia appears to fall into the same category as telepathy, clairvoyancy and what not. Let’s face it: people who can hear colours or taste numbers are the kind of thing we hear about on late night radio chat shows, purely for entertainment – but not to be taken seriously.

As it turns out, there’s far more to synesthesia that meets the eye – or the ear, for that matter. It was a popular topic of research in the late 1800s, but then again, so was the idea of creating life through electricity. Largely abandoned in the 20th century, synesthesia has only recently returned to the radar of scientific research, which is how the article in my brother’s magazine came about.

Everyone is familiar with metaphors such as “loud colours”, “colourful language” or “bitter cold”. Appropriate as these descriptions may appear, for some people this mixup – or maybe enhancement – of the senses is an actual reality. The most widely experienced and researched form of this phenomenon appears to be grapheme-colour synesthesia, where the person perceives letters or numbers as having different colours. This is also a form which can easily be tested independently – unlike, say, lexical-gustatory synesthesia, where one associates different tastes with different words.

Synesthesia Test

Synesthesia Test - as seen by a typical person (left) vs a synesthete’s perception (right)

The tests for grapheme-colour synesthesia are very similar to those for colour blindness. The person is shown an image made up randomly arranged different letters or numbers. Certain identical numbers however, have been arranged in a recognisable pattern – which can only be easily perceived by someone who is a synesthete. In the simplified example shown here, a synthesist may see the black and white pattern shown on the left as something like that shown on the right.

If you think that is strange or maybe even impossible, then consider the substantial proportion of the male population who, like myself, are partially or wholly colour blind. When we are presented with the familiar circular images that have a number or letter displayed by means of a differently coloured pattern, chances are that we simply see a bunch of dots, and nothing else – which is exactly what I see in the circle displayed here. Nothing. Somebody who does see the pattern that makes up the number 45 (apparently), is seeing something that does not exist, as far as I’m concerned. Only, in the case of us – the colour blind – we constitute a minority and  the people who can see the hidden pattern are not considered strange. To suggest that colour blindness has anything to do with intelligence (as the ad for wixawin.com below does) is of course a completely different matter – but I digress.

Like the colour blind, people who have synesthesia do no consider themselves to “suffer” from a condition. It does not interfere with the person’s ability to function and it appears that synesthetes are born “that way” and only find out over time that their experience of the world around them differs from that of other people.

Once you start considering synesthesia as a reality, it seems to be a part of many people’s lives to a much greater extent that one would have thought. Just think about all those people who cannot bear the sound of fingernails scraping over a blackboard, for example. Why on earth would a simple sound make somebody feel physically uncomfortable? Goose bumps at the sound of beautiful music, the power of smell to evoke memories… Maybe these more familiar “cross-sensory” experiences are pointers to the more dramatic synesthesia experienced by only some of us.

There’s quite an extensive article on WikiPedia on this subject – for those who want to know more about what the days of the week taste like or what the colour red sounds like.

Letter from my Grandparents to my Mother

Ids Haagsma GraveToday is Liberation Day in the Netherlands, when the Dutch celebrate the end of the occupation by Nazi Germany, 66 years ago. At the time, my mother was living and working in Waagenberg, in the southern part of the country, which had already been liberated by Polish troops in early November 1944. While she lived among the ruins of the orphanage which had been destroyed during the fighting and bombing raids, she was unable to make contact with her family, who lived just 50km away in Rotterdam – still in occupied territory.

After six months of being cut off from each other, my grandfather finally managed to get a letter across to my mother. A translated extract follows here. Note that my uncle Ids mentioned in this letter was executed by the Germans the day after his arrest.


Rotterdam, 10th May 1945

Dear Rins,

Just now mr. Numan told us that someone is going to Breda tomorrow and there may be an opportunity to get a letter over to Braband. Therefore we hurry to briefly tell you a few things in the hope and expectation that you will soon be in our midst. Presently a few things in telegram style.

8th Nov. Ids and I were picked up by the S.D. Ids was detained for possession of Trouw en Vrije Pers. I was allowed to go home. Since that day we have heard nothing whatsoever from Ids. We have absolutely no idea where he is.

10th November Jacob was taken away with the raid. Went to Osnabrück. 16th Feb saw him safely back home. They are doing really well, Annelien too.

10th Nov. Douwe managed to go into hiding. No work this winter, at the moment he is with de Waard, Groene Hilledijk, and now gets 10 Kg potatoes per week. 3rd/5th January I brought Meinte on a bicycle without tyres to Friesland. He is doing really well there at uncle Bouke’s. Last news from him was 4th April. Uncle Bouke has pleurisy, so does Piet Busink, he’s in the Zuiderziekenhuis. Jitske’s Sake from Weidum has passed away. Tine – Jantje have lost their little one after only a few days. Uncle Ate had an accident while cutting trees en aunt Treintje is expecting. We think later this month. Uncle Jan and Jacob were in hiding with uncle Inne and made clogs there.

In spite of the hunger we are doing well here. We are still healthy, but very weak the same as everyone. Today we received our first margarine from the aeroplanes. Mother had not had coffee with milk since November. Because I had been to Friesland and Beekbergen I had gotten milk and some fat.

This week the food supplies were critical. There is absolutely nothing left. Our canned reserves had been finished for 14 days. Still we continued to get help in wondrous ways. On Mother’s birthday Mrs. van de Feijst gave her 100 gr oil, 2 kg barley flakes, Mrs. Amoureus gave her 1 tin of milk, Mrs Kuipers half a loaf of bread. I managed to get 1.5 litres of milk from Mrs Verschoor across the road, so that we managed to have a nice cup of coffee substitute last Sunday.

Mrs de Leeuw gave Mother 1 pound of flour. Because Douwe was working at the greengrocer’s we managed to get something now and then. Also from his friends, who are with the merchant navy. They slept here this week. We didn’t have any bread, but that day they brought some kidney beans.

When you get home, we would love you to bring something home with you. It doesn’t really matter what. We lack everything, or rather we have nothing left. Douwe got 2 Kg. barley and last night Jacob brought home 1 kg oatmeal. That’s somewhat bitter, but when we mix it we can bake a good sized pancake with it.

But don’t overload yourself just because we have nothing. It might be best if you manage to pick up some food stuffs, to leave some behind in Wagenberg if you have to, because it’s quite a journey by bicycle. Soap, washing powder is something that especially Mother is looking forward to.

Henny Kuipers is still based in the Hague. But Monday she came home and now today she wasn’t allowed to return to the Hague. She’ll have to stay here for the moment.
Old Mr. Founon has died. A large number of people are suffering from hunger edema. There also appears to be an outbreak of typhus here, which is why the Zuiderziekenhuis is no longer taking in any patients.

There’s been a party since last Friday night. Sunday night during the thanksgiving services (2 at six thirty and eight) there was heavy fighting, between the underground en German marines and infantry against the Dutch S.S. Monday there was a party on the Dreef. This has been beautifully decorated. There was lots of singing. Mr de Greef’s piano had been placed at Aurora.

Even now it is busy everywhere. Monday and Tuesday the girls who were going out with Germans had their heads shaved. At the moment members of the NSB are rounded up and detained and are getting a treatment just like the Germans used to do. Van de Kraan from the Restaurant was ordered to eat sugar beet in public, from a nicely garnished dish served with grass.

At last we are now getting milk, margarine and biscuits and thus our nutrition is much improved, so that we are gaining strength.

Now that we are free again, a weight has been lifted from us. This year I once again have an allotment at de Enk. The civil servants give us vegetables once a week. Douwe is still with de Waard (Groene Hilledijk) and has 10Kg potatoes extra per week and perhaps this week he’ll go to van de Vorm, so he is also supplementing our food supplies.

You therefore do not need to worry about us and our immediate future. On Ids’ birthday we would love to be able to at least report that he is doing well, and for all of us to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary together here on June 26th next. Of course we don’t know if you are going to stay there, but if that were the case, we count on you being able to come home on that date if God provides the opportunity. Mother put the clothes together. I picked out something to read. I would have liked to include a good book for you, but there is almost nothing available in the shops. On my birthday all the books I got were second hand, which were much to my liking even if they didn’t look the best.

[My Grandmother takes over and finishes the letter]

Well Rinske, we have written you about a few things, take good care of yourself, en we hope to meet each other soon and in good health. Should we hear from our Ids, then we hope to let you know as soon as possible. The very best regards from Father, Mother and Douwe and may God give that you get well soon!