Heidelberg

I’m pleased to announce that I can now check another European country off my list – Germany! Recently, I had to attend a work conference in Heidelberg (at Heidelberg University) and so although this was not a voluntary instance of travel, I do feel very strongly that Heidelberg is just the sort of place I would visit if I was the kind of person who voluntarily visited places. It is a beautiful, classically European city, complete with cobbled streets and a ruined castle atop one of the nearby mountains. Its main centerpiece is the Neckar River, which passes underneath several scenic bridges. Unfortunately, due to the nature of my visit I was not able to do much sightseeing, but I did snap a few shaky photos to share (see gallery below). One of the conference events took us to the ruined castle, which was a highlight of the trip. It was nighttime during the visit so good iPhone photographs were out of the question, but it was an awesome experience (in the sense that it inspired a great deal of awe). It was a real castle, complete with gargoyles and turrets and a winding mountain path to its entrance. Throughout my visit, I was repeatedly struck with the thought that I really do need to learn at least a little German. I already live in a country where the vast majority of the population speaks it, but I had not really been surrounded by it for an extended period of time until now. I had to take a couple of taxis by myself, and found myself at a loss to communicate without any German basics except for Danke and Bitte and Gutentag. My brain obviously now associates feeling socially awkward with speaking French, so I also embarrassed myself by stuttering a few French words in my attempts to communicate. What a strange feeling it was to be back on the Swiss train home, feeling grateful that I could once again understand the conductor’s announcements in French! Of course, most Germans can speak English perfectly well – I just feel guilty if I start right in with that assumption and no attempt to speak the native language, however poor the attempt may be. On the train to Heidelberg, I sat in one of those closed-in cars with one other gentleman, who was working away on his laptop. He leaned over and explained that he had heard me conversing earlier with one of my colleagues, and asked if I would mind proofreading a job application letter that he was writing in English. I was of course happy to help, and he was so eager for feedback on his English grammar that I felt bad pointing out his few minor errors. He left me genuinely hoping he gets the job. This little interaction again left me impressed with the linguistic talent of Europeans in general. Time and time again they will aver that they ‘do not speak English’ or ‘barely speak English’ or speak ‘terrible English.’ This is true exactly 0% of the time: when a European tells you that they do not speak English, what they really mean is that they were not born speaking English! Having to work so hard just to make myself understood in another language is something I will always lament, but seeing how Europeans are able to interact in such a wide variety of circumstances and social situations will always encourage me to keep trying.

Guest Post: Stranger in a Strange Land (Part 3 of 3)

One of the best things about sharing my scrappy travel experiences is that it invites others to do the same. As an expat, there is nothing more wonderful than hearing about other people’s similar challenges and adventures and how they handled them.

My aunt has been a respected oncologist in the northeastern U.S. for many years, and she recently shared with me her experience attending the Welsh National School of Medicine for six weeks in 1971. She has kindly allowed me to share her experience on this blog…though I fear that next to my daily worries about parking and peanut butter, her brief experience abroad seems much more profound! She notes that her account is a reflection of Wales as it was over 40 years ago, and that cultural attitudes toward nationalism and language may have relaxed since then.

Read Part 1 and Part 2.


As my mother had always wanted to visit her family in the North of England, I suggested that my parents join me at the end of my time in Cardiff to go to Barrow-in-Furness. My mother had never been out of the US, and my father had been all the way to Toronto a couple of times. I remember asking a colleague at the Royal Marsden when I was spending a summer in London, “What is the best way to go to Barrow-in-Furness?” He replied, “People don’t go to Barrow-in-Furness, people come from Barrow-in Furness.”

However, I could not communicate with Mom or Dad as there was still no post or telephone. It turned out that they would be arriving on Saturday of the four-day weekend for Decimalization (D-Day). My popularity among the locals improved when it turned out that I was quite facile with decimal currency. I would have thought it would be easy but apparently, for those raised on “2&6 and 2&6=5″ and 21 shillings makes a pound, it was not.

I did, however, realize what a mess a four-day bank holiday would make. I cashed as much currency as I dared carry around and booked the best room in the local hotel, the only one with a bathroom and central heat. I didn’t know for sure that Mom and Dad were going to arrive, but I couldn’t take any chances. I took the Airport bus to Cardiff Airport at the appointed time, and there they were, mighty glad to see me!

Guest Post: Stranger in a Strange Land (Part 2 of 3)

One of the best things about sharing my scrappy travel experiences is that it invites others to do the same. As an expat, there is nothing more wonderful than hearing about other people’s similar challenges and adventures and how they handled them.

My aunt has been a respected oncologist in the northeastern U.S. for many years, and she recently shared with me her experience attending the Welsh National School of Medicine for six weeks in 1971. She has kindly allowed me to share her experience on this blog…though I fear that next to my daily worries about parking and peanut butter, her brief experience abroad seems much more profound! She notes that her account is a reflection of Wales as it was over 40 years ago, and that cultural attitudes toward nationalism and language may have relaxed since then.

Read Part 1 here.


Once I arrived at the Welsh National School of Medicine, I had many lessons to learn, both social and medical. First, it was essential that I learn (thoroughly) that not only could I not speak Welsh, but that I was not Welsh. The school recognized the issue and my roommate was selected accordingly. She was Rita Ohri of London and Delhi, and she graciously took me in. I can’t say that her greeting was warm, because in the old row houses of Cardiff in February, nothing was warm and there never seemed to be enough shillings to keep our gas fire going. Since the bath with hot water was two houses away, I quickly learned how long one could persuade oneself that you didn’t really need a bath, and we made do with the sink and toilet in our house.

I also quickly made friends with other non-Welsh students, Hifzeya, a Turkish Cypriot refugee with whom I remain in touch and a dentist from Yorkshire who had wandered across the border to do his surgical rotations to be a maxillo-facial surgeon. They taught me what food to eat (not liver faggots) etc., and kept me company until the waiting period for acceptance by the locals passed.

220px-Faggots-and-gravy

Editor’s note: I had no idea what a liver faggot was until I Googled it. Wikipedia notes that it is “a traditional dish in the UK…traditionally made from pig’s heart, liver and fatty belly meat or bacon minced together, with herbs added for flavouring and sometimes bread crumbs.”

Medical rounds were much more formal than in Albany, and although they were conducted in English, I still had some trouble. The students were brilliant at physical examination and were required to tell what the chest x-ray would show before it was ordered. I tried to get to know who was who, but since everyone was named Thomas, Davies, Evans, or Jones, it took me a while to catch on to the custom of having three or four first names to keep things straight. Iaian Rodrigue Gwyneth Jones turned out to be John Jones!

Since most American medical texts followed British examples, most differential diagnoses included Acute Intermittent Porphyria (the great masquerader). When I commented that no one really had AIP, it turned out that of the 12 people on rounds, five either had AIP or were related to someone who did. Oops. The shortage of names probably reflects a small gene pool as well.

After a few weeks, my chilly reception warmed up. There was great interest in the International Rugby League, as Wales was thought to have a good chance to get to the finals. When I was invited to go along with a group that was going to Edinburgh for the Scotland/Wales matchI was tempted but skittish. Besides, by then I was hanging out with the Yorkshire dentist. I was feeling pretty much at home as my six weeks sped by.  

To be continued…

Guest Post: Stranger in a Strange Land (Part 1 of 3)

One of the best things about sharing my scrappy travel experiences is that it invites others to do the same. As an expat, there is nothing more wonderful than hearing about other people’s similar challenges and adventures and how they handled them.

My aunt has been a respected oncologist in the northeastern U.S. for many years, and she recently shared with me her experience attending the Welsh National School of Medicine for six weeks in 1971. She has kindly allowed me to share her experience on this blog…though I fear that next to my daily worries about parking and peanut butter, her brief experience abroad seems much more profound! She notes that her account is a reflection of Wales as it was over 40 years ago, and that cultural attitudes toward nationalism and language may have relaxed since then.


When I arrived in Wales in the winter of 1971, little did I know when the rotation was set up, that 1) winter is not the best time to visit Wales; 2) the dates of my stay coincided with the run up to “decimalization” when the thousands of years of a 12/21-based currency were to be scrapped for 10 p = 1 shilling; and 3) that a large scale strike would be called involving the postal system (which also ran the telephone system) so that communication within Great Britain and with the rest of the world was not possible for several months.

I was scheduled to fly in mid-January from LaGuardia to Shannon, and change to a Welsh Airline for the hop to Cardiff. It snowed like crazy and I was lucky to get to Shannon and find a cheap, freezing hotel room for the night. Of course, I could not tell them in Cardiff that I would not be arriving on Saturday when they were expecting me, or when I might actually get there.

A more immediate worry was that I was going to freeze to death overnight. Any heating the hotel had was not central, and was completely ineffective. I tried my best to keep my fingers moving and to remember the old ER adage for dealing with hypothermia,”You are not dead until you are warm and dead.”

Watching the difficulties of my fellow travelers who did not speak English, I was duly grateful that I did! I rebooked to Cardiff and arrived mid-afternoon of Sunday, slightly more than 24 hours late. In those days, both the town and the University observed the Sabbath, so the place was pretty lonely.

I got an airport bus to take me into Cardiff–but then what? An apparently local bus arrived, and I explained my predicament to the driver. He spoke and pointed in an effort to help, but I was lost.

I explained apologetically that I only spoke English. He looked perplexed and said slowly and distinctly: “That was English.”

What was it that made me think I wanted to spend 6-weeks in the Welsh National School of Medicine?  It turned out much better than I thought at that moment.

To be continued…

Pas de Racines

I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) lately to make time to speak French with my husband, who is perfectly bilingual. Unfortunately, learning a language is much more effective when it is forced, so these voluntary conversation sessions are usually doomed to either end before they begin (sorry, I don’t have time now – I’m filling out forms for the Swiss government!) or fizzle out after I slip back into English for the fifth time (can you slow down a little? I don’t know that word. Can we watch Breaking Bad tonight?) You get the idea.

Recently, we discovered that going for a walk while trying to speak French works better…it’s still hard to make time to do, but once we’re on a roll it’s easier to stay on track. Sights and sounds of the city provide basic-vocabulary conversation fodder, and arriving back home provides a formal end to the session.

The last time we were on one of these strolls, we came across an unusual sight, as shown in the photos below:

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At first I thought it was just an overrun green space in the center of a city square, but then my husband remarked, “il n’y a pas de racines.”

“What?” I said.

Il n’y a pas de racines – there are no roots. The living plants and soil have been bundled up together on top of the pavement.”

I looked closer and saw that he was right…none of the plants were actually growing out of the ground. They had just been plopped there–all messy and tangled and searching for the sun with their upturned faces–in the middle of Lausanne.

I looked at those plants and I thought to myself, “I know just how you feel.”

 

A Little Swiss Humor

This should give a chuckle to all the cat-people out there.

The bus advertisement below is for Les Services Industriels de Lausanne, a local utility company. The ad reads:

“With gas, we provide heat and comfort. It’s up to you to manage the rest.”

I am willing to bet anyone with cats has experienced this dilemma! I hope we can get a cat soon. As a side note, it turns out that ads are a really great way to strengthen language skills, because they’re usually illustrated, simple, and often use puns or plays on words. Nothing makes me happier these days than being able to ‘get’ a joke in French!

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The 13 Stages of Understanding Foreign Plugs

Step 1. Bring out your antique sewing machine to hem the curtains you just bought for your new Swiss apartment, all of which are roughly 3 feet too long for the windows.

Step 2. Realize that the sewing machine plug, having been manufactured in the U.S. along with the rest of the machine, won’t fit the Swiss electrical socket in the wall. Briefly consider hemming the curtains with Scotch tape.

Step 3. Remember that you have a spare U.S.-to-Swiss plug adapter lying around somewhere. Locate it and affix it to the plug end of your sewing machine cord.

Step 4. Plug into wall. Hold breath, and then switch machine on.

Step 5. Watch as sewing machine light comes on, and motor whirs happily when pedal is pressed. Voilà!

Step 6. Proceed to sew. Notice that the bobbin winder spins much more efficiently than usual and that the sewing machine light seems more intense than usual.

Step 7. Chalk it up to your wild imagination.

Step 8. Think that maybe you smell burning, and might be able to see wisps of smoke coming from the sewing machine light.

Step 9. Chalk it up to your wild imagination.

Step 10. With a sharp popping sound, simultaneously fry your sewing machine and blow a fuse in the dining room.

Step 11. Sit in the semi-darkness and Google international power plug standards.

Step 12. Realize that U.S. plugs have a 120-volt electrical potential, while Swiss plugs have a 230-volt electrical potential, and that therefore, a transformer is needed to safely use the handy-dandy plug adapter.

Step 13. Sew the rest of your curtains by hand, and begin saving up for a new sewing machine.