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Posts tagged ‘expat’

Lily Mae: Language Barriers, History, and Distance

Editor’s note: I’m delighted to introduce you to Lily Mae Martin, a wildly talented artist, mother, and prolific blogger living in Berlin. Please join me in offering Lily Mae a warm Studio Mothers welcome! You can “like” Lily’s facebook fan page, too.

My name is Lily Mae Martin, I am an artist and writer from Melbourne. I’ve been living overseas for almost four years now. I had a long, lonely pregnancy and birth experience in Wales, and I’ve been in Berlin since my daughter was just six months old. I exhibit my art internationally and began my blog, Berlin Domestic, as a way of bringing my passion for art and writing together, as well as having a space to explore the complexities of being a parent and living as an expat.

Raising a child abroad is not something I had planned for; it presents many challenges I have to take into account in my day to day life. It’s one of my biggest learning curves. Being a mum changes you, but this lifestyle has given me perspective on life that I find invaluable. I am part minority and I am part of the gentrification of this city, and therefore I experience a combination of mockery, scorn, and curiosity from the people here. I’ve been yelled at by old people, as well as questioned. I’ve been shoved by young men as well as been flirted with. I’m ignored in most social situations, as well as forming strong, intellectual relationships.

Being in a country where I do not speak the language limits me greatly. It hinders my ability to socialize, my confidence as a woman and a mum. I struggle to communicate what I need. Everywhere I go there is a wall of sound that I do not understand. It’s a familiar mumble now, but a mumble all the same. I can’t get little insights into peoples lives and conversations. I have to observe and understand people by their body language, tones, and facial expressions. The other day I had messages on my home phone and couldn’t check them because I didn’t understand the prompts. Simple things like that, which I would never given a second thought to, are now big challenges in my day. A letter from the hospital in regard to my payment is something that will take Gene and I two weeks to understand and sort out, as opposed to a glance and a phone call.

Berlin, like Melbourne, is multicultural, so I get by.

The physicality of living in Europe, in Berlin, makes me understand the people here better. The winter is long and harsh. This place is, for 7 to 8 months of the year, freezing. To explain the European cold to someone from Australia is almost impossible. I had to speak firmly to my mum to bring her big warm coat with her. In Melbourne winter you may get by without a coat, but here, you will freeze. There is no negotiation. So having been through the winter, I now understand why people are almost, if not completely, naked as soon as the sun comes out. I now do it too.

We all live in apartments here. All living above, beneath, and side by side one another. We do not have lawns, backyards, or hills hoists for men and women to propose to their girlfriends and boyfriends under (as Gene did with me). The recycling is a huge chore; often being left for weeks, resulting in five trips up and down eight flights of stairs, dividing things up: glass, paper, bio, packaging, rubbish. When I go to the toilet I can see straight into two kitchens, and they can see me. This feeling of always being heard and seen is inescapable. I can hear people partying, cooking, sexing, talking, playing video games, making music, I can hear their washing machines. I know there is apartment living in Australia, but this is it here. It shapes the city and the people and makes the physicality of a city different in big and little ways.

History is another big thing. It sounds obvious but I think it is an important one. History does shape a country, a city, people. When I go to shops and a store owner goes through the motions of you don’t speak German, oh you speak English *suspicious eye* are you English? No. American? No. South African? No. Canadian?? No. I’m Australian. Oh, OK then have nice day. This doesn’t happen everywhere but it does happen regularly enough for me to notice the release in the conversation, when it is worked out that I come from that place far, far away — where we have no cities and we all live in the bush. (Doesn’t sound too bad to me!)

I even notice terms that I once used in Australia, but I wouldn’t use here: “Nazi,” for example. The word “Nazi” has been adopted into our slang, used to describe people who are strict or militant about something — e.g., feme-Nazi, vegan-Nazi, cyclist-Nazi. Here, I don’t use it at all; it’s flippant and it really means something. I can’t help but cringe when I hear friends say it or write it on their facebook pages, but they are not here having my experience. I relate it to my friends’ collections of religious iconography — it’s cool and kitsch in Australia. When visiting Italy earlier this year, that imagery was everywhere and it really struck me how different the meaning was. It’s also imagery that is a great cause of pain to people. So again, I wonder if this is to do with distance and history. If my friends had their religious iconography on display here, people visiting would perceive them quite differently and some people might be deeply offended by it.*

I think in regard to these things when I say I am an Australian in Europe and I am raising my daughter here. She speaks a different language than I do and stairs are just apart of everyday life, as is the enormity of this city. Sometimes this scares me. What if we have nothing in common? But I calm myself, take it day by day. Perhaps her experience of living in different countries and knowing all different kinds of people will give her insights to mine, or perhaps she won’t remember a thing about this place and it’s just me, over-thinking everything.

*These are observations, I’m not passing judgement.

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Debra: Open here

French packages never have helpful instructions on them, like “open here.” I might be reading too much into this, but I just spent several minutes trying to decide where a package of frozen string beans should be opened in order to be able to close it afterwards, and I found myself reminiscing about the good old days, when I lived in the U.S. and I could count on my packaged food having a nice little dotted line and a picture of scissors. I don’t know whether the French people think it’s obvious, or whether they think that deciding where to cut open your bag of string beans is a question of free will. Me, well, sometimes I just want to be told what to do.

Sometimes I wonder how much creative energy goes into simply surviving life in a foreign country. I always thought I would live in a foreign country, and France is not exactly exotic. After all, we share the same cultural heritage, at least to some extent. Yet I am constantly surprised by little things I didn’t know — anyone who has lived in a foreign language knows the strange experience of learning a new word and wondering how it was you survived that long without knowing it. I had lived in France for over a year before I knew the word for “kitchen sink.” It had just never come up.

I realized recently that I have been in denial about the challenges of life in France for a long time — I read dozens of other people’s memoirs about life in France somewhat dismissively. I thought people were too obsessive about little things, like the French fixation on preserving their language or their bureaucratic ways. But hey, I’ve discovered surprising things in France too (for one thing, I’d never seen frozen string beans before). And adapting to surprises requires a lot of creativity. It’s a lot like raising a child, really — it’s an endless process, and you can never be an expert at it. You just have to keep learning, keep adapting, and keep wondering if you’re doing the right thing. And sometimes I can’t help but wonder just how much of my creative energy is being used up figuring out things like how to open packages, whether I need to weigh my vegetables before I get to the checkout line, or what waiting lists I need to be on for daycare.

The beauty of it, of course, is that in the end it doesn’t matter where you cut open the package. However you do it, you’ll still get the string beans, and maybe that’s all that matters.

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