When in Rome...Learning a foreign language offers a kaleidoscope of opportunities for embarrassing or comical linguistic mistakes but actually living abroad provides innumerable possibilities to make cultural faux pas. Generally, I aspire to the British ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans’ philosophy but as another proverb says, ‘hell is paved with good intentions’.
My first cultural dilemma came just hours after arriving in Poland: the circle/triangle toilet sign system. Before my visit to Poland I never associated myself with any geometric shape in particular so when given a choice between a circle and a triangle I was unable to crack this esoteric code and ended up in the ladies. The problem has continued to trouble me, particularly after several pints (sorry I mean litres) of beer. I can only conclude that whoever invented this system did so with the intention of humiliating foreigners. The British system–with a little picture of a woman and a man–seems far more universal to me (though not foolproof–go into any pub in Britain and you’ll find plenty of people too drunk to tell the difference between a man and a woman).
Cultural differences are often most noticeable during traditional celebrations. The first time I decided to spend Wigilia in Poland I had no idea how different it would be from a British Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve in Britain usually involves meeting up with a few friends and family for a meal (almost certainly with meat) and consuming copious amounts of alcohol. This is usually followed by a trip to the pub or, if you are feeling festive (or as is more often the case, drunk) you might sing a few Christmas carols. Then to bed early so Santa has time to fill your stocking for you to open on Christmas day–the most important day for us Brits. Not very traditional compared to all the ceremony of Polish Wigilia which I found both enchanting and moving. I really enjoyed the whole experience with one exception–fish in jelly! My apologies to those who adore it but, this dish is the product of a sick mind. I love fish–grilled, fried, even occasionally boiled. I also grew up loving jelly–strawberry jelly, lemon jelly–in fact, any sweet jelly, but fish in jelly?! When I heard that the next dish was Carp in jelly, I made it clear to my fiancee that this wasn’t something I would like. She insisted that I “just try a little bit”, that her mum would be upset if I didn’t and that anyway it was delicious. So against my better judgement I agreed to try it, emphasising to my fiancee that she cut me the smallest possible slice. Well, obviously my fiancee and I have a different idea of the meaning of small. I broke into a cold sweat when I saw a huge piece wobbling terrifyingly on my plate. I looked around at the expectant faces and knew there was no escape. I swallowed the piece I had cut without even chewing and washed it down with a full glass of water, my stomach churned but I managed a smile and asked my fiancee to explain as nicely as possible that it simply wasn’t a taste that the British are accustomed to.
The following year I decided to see how the same family would deal with a little British tradition: Christmas crackers. In comparison to the many Christmas traditions that unite families throughout Poland, the only three you can pretty much guarantee in Britain are drinking alcohol, turkey and Christmas crackers. The idea is that you pull the cracker with a friend or relative, it makes a ‘bang’ and the person who is left holding the largest piece wins the contents: a plastic ‘toy’ (‘toy’ is too grand a description for the piece of nondescript plastic junk most crackers contain), an oversize paper hat that will keep slipping over your eyes (I have no idea whose head they measured when designing these hats, maybe they’re made by giants on some remote island) and a ‘joke’ (despite being called ‘jokes’ they are very rarely funny, though this in itself is part of the tradition). Ridiculous as it may seem, the pulling of crackers probably constitutes one of the most important Christmas rituals in Britain. Anyway, the crackers were greeted with interest by my Polish hosts. I explained what to do, deliberately forgetting to mention the ‘bang’, and was pleased by the surprised ‘oohs’ people made as they pulled them. Some people put their hats on, others pretended to be impressed by whatever useless nick-nack they had won or figure out what was written on the ‘joke’. It was all going perfectly well until it became clear that the matriarchal and notoriously difficult grandmother hadn’t won anything. First of all, she contested the rules, why should the person with the biggest half win? Then went on to dismiss my nation’s core Christmas activity as absurd, unsuitable and point out that they were full of junk that nobody would possibly want anyway (all true of course). Other guests who had won more than once tried to appease her with a paper hat and a miniature plastic hairbrush in the shape of an elephant (or it could have been a cat, difficult to tell) but it was too late: she’d already made up her mind and spent the rest of the meal sulking.
Living abroad or just being in contact with another culture can bring a wealth of new experiences. With an open mind you can usually learn to enjoy the differences and those you can’t–well, at least you can have a laugh with your friends back home about them.
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When in Rome, do as the Romans odpowiednik przysłowia Kiedy wejdziesz między wrony, musisz krakać tak jak one
Hell is paved with good intentions odpowiednik przysłowia Dobrymi chęciami piekło brukowane
associate kojarzyć (coś z czymś)
crack a code złamać kod
pint angielska miara, ok. 0,47 litra
copious obfite (np. ilości)
festive uroczysty, świąteczny, tu: uroczyście
stocking pończocha, tu: specjalna skarpeta na prezenty
enchanting magiczny, uroczy
against my better judgement wbrew same-mu sobie
to wobble trząść się (o galarecie)
wash down zapić, popić
stomach churning an unpleasant feeling of worry, disgust or fear
appease udobruchać, uspokoić
to sulk obrażać się, gniewać