Category Archives: Languages

Matters Medical

First up I confess it – I’m a dreadful nurse.  My sympathy lasts all of 5 minutes, 10 maximum, after which I think we should all just move on and pretend nothing untoward is happening.  Given this insight into my empathy skills,  you may have some sympathy for my husband who has been suffering from tooth ache for the best part of three weeks now. For the first couple of visits to the clinica dental, armed only with his 3-months worth of Spanish lessons and a few specific phrases translated via Google Translate and our impressively large Oxford Spanish Dictionary, he bravely set off alone and returned with a numb mouth and prescriptions for medication he wasn’t entirely sure how/when to take.

Showing a remarkable degree of pity I suggested going with him last week.  Whilst no expert, my Spanish is marginally better than hubby’s and anyway, I figured two beginners are probably better than one.

Sure enough, we did seem to make a little progress in understanding the problem and likely healing time.  I’m pleased to report that he is, slowly but surely, on the mend.  Yes, yes, I know, tooth ache is horrid and you can’t ignore it and, and … But come on, if you can eat chocolate, it’s not that bad!!!

Where else this week are you going to read about teeth and babies in the same post?  And not even the teeth of babies.  I’m talking newborns.  And more precisely the little girl born prematurely in Spain a few weeks ago to an English mother who was then separated from her daughter for 3 weeks whilst DNA tests were carried out.  This story is still all over the media and it’s driving me crazy.  The lady in question had her baby in Spain, not in a hospital but at ‘home’.  She went to hospital the next day – to a place where she was completely unknown with a newborn baby and presumably no medical records, paperwork etc.  In Spain the law (I believe) dictates that her and the baby should remain in hospital while tests are carried out to make sure a) they are both in good health and b) that the baby does indeed belong to the ‘mother’.

Had she abducted this baby – yes, I know she didn’t but bear with me.  Had the baby been abducted and the media picked up the story and the hospital had to admit that yes some completely random woman had walked in with a newborn claiming it as her own and they had done nothing to check the validity of her claim – they would be being crucified in the media by now and everyone would be screaming about how this could happen.

My gripe is that, in my personal opinion, the media is making a big deal out of a non story.  The lady in question was in a foreign country – she was not in England where she speaks the language and could presumably have explained her situation better.  Don’t we have enough issues in Europe at the moment without creating divisions and demonising another country’s professionals for acting in perfect accord with their own laws?    Silly season or not, watching a new mum saying she’s so traumatised she might never come back to Spain is just plain trouble making.  Come on media – I for one expect better from you.

Viva las diferencias

One reason for living abroad, or indeed just travelling, is to experience first-hand the differences in life, even in seemingly shared experiences.

Having lived in Vejer de la Frontera for just 4 weeks we were a little perturbed to discover two speeding tickets in our postbox one morning.  Dating from our first week in Spain our concern was with how many more might arrive over the coming days!

Anyway, the 200 euro fine would be halved if paid within 20 consecutive days.  No one seemed sure when those days started but everyone agreed that one would be quashed as, at 109 kms in a 100 zone we were within the 10% margin of error.  Wrong – that has been stopped, at least in the Jerez area, as vehicle equipment is apparently now so sophisticated that there is no error – and therefore no margin. Nothing, nada, zip.  100 kms means 100 kms!

Having tried to pay online and almost lost the will to live we decided to head to our local Santander bank, with the promise of desayuno (breakfast) in our favourite bar on the way back.  As an incredibly rusty lower intermediate Spanish speaker my automatic assumption when confronted with speech I don’t understand is just that – that I don’t understand it.  Sometimes though reality is a little more complex and, in fact, my understanding has been spot on linguistically, it’s the concept I don’t understand.

The very friendly lady in Banco Santander explained that we could only pay there for free on a Tuesday or a Thursday; between 8.30 and 10.30 and between the 10th and 20th of each month.  All other times, there is a 3 euro fee per ticket.

As I said, actually I understood her words but still didn’t appreciate the concept, until she showed me the sign pinned up on the wall where, sure enough it confirmed the 3 requirements for fee-free fine payment.  She advised us to come back the follow week when we could ‘save’ ourselves 6 euros.  All well and good until I asked her when the 20 days started from and she confirmed that it would take us to either the 9th or 10th March, she wasn’t sure.

By now exhausted and in need of my cafe manchado with tostados con tomato y aceite (milky coffee with toast, tomatoes and olive oil) we decided not to take the risk, paid 106 euros for the two fines and left the bank heads spinning.

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On one hand this seeming bureaucracy could drive you crazy, but on the other hand – it’s why we aren’t living back home.  Viva las diferencias!

Paying Our Respects

“Today madam we should pay our respects to the landlord’s mother” announced Chi. Great I thought, having been bitterly disappointed that we missed out on the actual funeral a few days earlier. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not somebody who delights in death or bearing witness to another’s sorrow. In fact I have probably caused more harm along the way with my complete horror of causing pain to another person – with the things not said and the actions not taken – than any mischief I might have carried out intentionally.
No, my delight is because I am intrigued by how others do things. How they conduct the rituals of life and how we learn what is expected of us simply by ‘being there’. And what better way to observe, at least a small part of, the rituals surrounding death here in Vietnam than by going along to pay my respects to a lady I have never met, for a man I never knew?

Despite being acutely aware of how little I know about Vietnamese societal norms, one thing is for sure – I can recognise a mother’s pain in any language and can think of nothing worse than the raw agony of losing your child, no matter how old they are.

Chi explained that we should take fruit and an envelope each on which we must write some words of condolence. It was agreed that I should write what I would in the UK to someone I didn’t know and so, conscious of the need to translate it too, I opted for a rather bland:

We are very sorry for your loss.
Warm wishes, Kevin and Karen

Into the envelope we were to put 100,000 Vnd per person (i.e. 200,000 in my envelope and 100,000 in Chi’s – which she refused to let me pay)
At 2p.m., which Chi considered to be the right time to visit, she called our landlord and landlady and, getting no reply, set off next door to find out what time would be convenient.
The mother was there but about to go back to her own house along the alley. A few minutes later and Chi’s ‘phone rang to signal that we should set off. Walking Sally through all the inter-connecting lanes on a daily basis, I already knew the house to which we should make our way but the landlord’s 23-year old son was waiting at our gate to escort us.

On arriving Chi pushed me forward saying: “You are older than me, you must go first”. So there I was, straight into the front room as is typical in Vietnamese houses. The grieving mother looked to be in her 80s but I find local people incredibly difficult to age accurately.
We were handed a plate on which Chi arranged our envelopes and the fruit (grapes the size of golf balls because as Chi said: “They will be offered to other visitors and everyone will know that they were brought by the ‘tay’ – the foreigners”) This she then placed on the altar where we stood side by side with hands raised, flat together in a symbol of respect and prayer. We dipped our hands three times before the photo of the deceased, made a small bow and sat on the hard wooden chairs beloved of Hanoians, to chat about the deceased take tea and eat fruit. (I learned that the Vietnamese way to eat a banana is to snap it in the middle and delicately unpeel one half at a time eating it as you unpeel. My rather ungainly and faintly obscene ‘Western’ way had me cursing the previous visitors for not having had the foresight to have taken grapes too)
The mother, my landlady and the deceased’s sister all sat with us chatting, with Chi translating, bridging the divide and asking all the questions I longed to ask but would have felt to be impolite even if I could speak Vietnamese. (They have no such qualms and to say that they ‘call a spade a spade’ would be under-emphasising just how blunt they truly are). The old lady started to cry and kept saying “Cam On” (thank you) over and over. Chi explained that she was so moved that I had taken the time to visit and that the whole family are most grateful to Kevin and me for caring about them. I confess I felt slightly guilty at just how fascinating a pleasure this visit was for me and muttered the obligatory platitudes, you’re welcome, it’s nothing …..

And so to the deceased. He was the youngest of her children born in 1969, making him 42 at the time of death, which everyone agreed was far too young. He was diagnosed with throat cancer 6 months ago and had whatever treatment could be offered here. Towards the end he was ‘so sick he could not eat rice’ Chi confirmed solemnly. Anyone who has been to Vietnam will immediately discern just how truly dreadful was his condition as, for most of the population rice is eaten and enjoyed three times a day, every day. He was conscious when he died but very weak having existed on just water, yogurt and milk for several weeks. His illness did not unfortunately take away his appetite and he begged for food right up to the end, knowing as he did so that he could not possibly swallow anything with any substance. Surrounded by his entire family; mother, brother, sister, nephews, nieces and the collective spouses, he passed away peacefully on Monday.
We all agreed that this was a blessing, that he was a very handsome man and that he had a lovely smile.

Chi explained that the family must continue to feed him for 49 days which was slightly disconcerting until I realised that this is done by leaving his meals on the altar for him to enjoy, along with his favourite brand of Hanoi vodka, soft drinks and cigarettes. Prior to his illness, he had been a heavy smoker so his relatives must ensure that during this mourning period he enjoy a continuous supply of cigarettes, lit for him and placed between the incense sticks in a manner that seemed sickeningly close to a replica graveyard with its burnt out stubs sticking into the air almost mockingly.
During this 49 day period the daughter and daughter-in-law will take turns on alternate days to feed the mother before she moves in next door permanently on the 50th day.

With the niceties over we took our leave to more ‘cam on’ing and squeezing of hands and, once outside the door the sister invited Kevin and I to her restaurant, just near where we all live and my landlady begged me to teach her English in exchange for Vietnamese classes from her.
The son escorted us on the return trip with Chi confessing that she had not been that way along the alley before (despite admitting to me earlier in the day that she had lived not 5 minutes walk from my house for 10 years during her marriage!) and the son laughed and said that everyone knows me because I walk through there every day with my dog. As she opened our gate Chi said how lucky it was that the deceased had no children of his own. Thinking how difficult it would be for them to lose a father I agreed with a sympathetic nod only to be brought up short when she said “The landlord must now look after his mother and if there were children he should pay everything for them too, at his own expense. Yes it is very good, I think so, that he had no children. Very luckeeee.”

Well now I would never think of not having children as being lucky, although I can see her point. Even in death, life must go on.

Overwhelm

Having been here for three weeks now I fully intended to write once or twice a week but this has been wildly unrealistic.  Why?  Because there is so much to see and take in as a newbie that just living it is enough without re-living it by writing about it all!!!

I have one of my son’s with me for a couple of weeks so, in addition to acclimatising and finding us a house, supporting my husband when he comes home totally exhausted and trying to get to grips with having a dog in a city that neither of us knows and she hates the constant stream of scooters whenever we set foot outside the apartment – I just don’t seem to have the energy to write.  I don’t want to write when I’m too tired because I don’t want a negative or low-key blog – I’m loving it here and want that to be reflected in what I write.

I have been keeping a list of things I want to write about and I hope to get around to them all at some point but for now I’m going to share with you one note I made that seems to make perfect sense but I can’t for the life of me remember exactly what I intended to say about it!!!  The note reads:  Often messages misleading.

When I work out what I meant by that I’ll share it with you  For now though I’ll just make a couple of comments.  My son and I have just come back from a fabulous street foods tour with Tu from Hanoi Street Food Tours – check out his blog at vietnamesegod.blogspot.com and had an amazing time.  What I felt really strongly though is that I need to start learning Vietnamese ASAP because I’m going to miss so much of what’s happening around me if I can’t converse properly.  Food is a passion and I really want to buy locally and eat seasonally – for that I need at least some words and phrases.  So, top of my To Do list is to get some lessons!!!

The second thing I wanted to share is how tough it is when you first arrive if you have family ‘back home’ because I find myself living in two time zones.  Everything gets translated back into UK time so that I don’t miss speaking to the kids or my parents because I’ve got the time wrong.  Also, I’ve kept a client in the UK so have to make sure that I keep to the deadlines – in UK not Vietnamese time.  This so far has involved me living a full day here in Hanoi and sitting down to ‘work’ at about 7p.m. knowing that I’m still well on target for the UK working day.  That’s not sustainable long term as I’ll be exhausted but for now well, ….

So, all good, more tiring than I expected and things move at their own pace which is as it should be but takes some getting used to for a controller like me!

Have an ace week end everyone and I’m off to sit on the sofa and stroke the dog’s tummy and we can reassure each other that all’s well with our world 🙂

Busyness, Priorities, Focus

What is they say about if you want a job doing giving it to be a busy person?  How on earth am I meant to fit everything into what was already a busy life?  The short answer I guess is to prioritise and focus.

No more rooms cleared yet but Kevin is threatening (well, that what it sounds like!) to start on the loft at the week end.  Yeuch, my heart has sunk to the bottom of my stomach.  On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most, how much don’t I want to clear the loft this week end?  Yep, no question, a 10.  Asking me to clear ‘clutter’ is a bit like a trip to the dentist with no hope of an anaesthetic 😦

However, before I even get to the week end there’s the small matter of a third evening of CELTA classes at Manchester Academy of English.  Last night we did a demonstration lesson observation and met the students we’ll be teaching over the coming weeks.

The demo observation flew past – an hour, I couldn’t believe it.  And then, much to my surprise, chatting to the students devoured another hour in no time at all (well 60 minutes if you want to be pedantic but it didn’t seem like it is my point!).

Anyway, much as I love writing here it isn’t really a priority today – writing up class notes, editing a client’s newsletter and taking the dog out before college – oops, forgot a client meeting – are priorities however so I’d better get going …

CELTA 1 Survived

That’s the first class done!  It’s always the trickiest because you don’t know any of your classmates, the tutors, or your way around the college.  You don’t know how long your journey will actually take at that time of day, whether you should have already bought the books on the Reading List and if so, do you need to bring them in with you?  And did you really need to do all 50 of the Pre-Course Tasks?

But, you’ll be pleased to hear that I survived all of it.  I arrived on time (which my friends will tell you is something of an achievement), participated without taking over (yep, there’s always one and ours is a young man who hasn’t yet learnt that you don’t need an entire back story with every single question you ask.  The question alone will usually suffice), found the coffee machine and even made a friend at break time.  Success!

Next week lessons begin in earnest and my next hurdle will be the very first teaching practice I undertake.  After that – it’s plain sailing.  Isn’t it?!

CELTA

I start my CELTA training this evening; 3 evenings a week for 4 months.  I confess to being a little bit nervous, partly because, even having taken a taster day, I don’t really know what to expect this evening.  The class is from 17.30 to 21.30 but does that include a break?  Long enough to grab  a coffee or eat a sandwich?  What’s actually going to happen?

This reminds me that whenever organising something it’s really important to make sure that the participants/guests/pupils or whoever is attending are comfortable with what is going to take place.  I feel slightly on the back foot before I’ve even started which is probably unnecessary.

So, I’m about to find out just how difficult it is to learn English as a foreign language.  Good luck to me, hope I can a) stay awake and b) concentrate for that long when I’m usually relaxing, reading or watching television!