There I was in the town of Saint Nazaire on the west coast of France—a cute seven-year-old with locks of auburn hair. Days earlier I had arrived for a two week stay with a host family as part of a student exchange that had been organized through my school. We had traveled down from the Loire valley city of Angers to visit the grandparents who lived in a beautiful coastal home. And lunch was waiting for us on the table—tomates du jardin, les rillettes, and a tender cut of beef from the local charcuterie. The setting would have made the perfect advertisement for a French holiday had it not been for a little nuisance that lay in my way. Before I could savor these delights of French cuisine, I had to attend to my bladder’s incessant demands for relief. That’s right, I had to go to the bathroom. I made my intentions known in my best French “Je vais au WC” and dashed down the corridor to where I knew I would find that all-important room called the ‘Water Closet’.
Up until then, the WC acronym had been a source of amusement for my French hosts. It epitomized the liberal exchange of French and English words between our two cultures—one that would later spur on the Franglais revolution. And being an English school boy, I should have understood what this particular combination of two simple words meant, right? Wrong. As I caught a glimpse of a bath tub through an opening in one of the doors, I rushed in expecting to find a fully-fitted bathroom. I slammed the door shut and readied myself for the moment that had held me in captive shock during the three hour car ride from my adopted home. But alas I had gone too far in my self-preparations (little boys will know exactly what this means) and my bladder had reached its point of no return. To my utmost horror, I saw nothing in the room I was standing in except for the empty bath tub and a wash basin. Where was the toilet?
Through my distress I had to think fast. I turned towards the bath and aimed as well as I could at the plug hole. And given that I had not benefited in my early years from boyhood lessons in archery and BB gun shooting, I hit a pretty good bulls-eye. After a brief clean up I returned to my plate of garden-grown tomatoes and tender meat none the worse for wear. Or at least I thought so at the time. I had learned a hard lesson though. In French homes the toilet is often housed in a room called the WC that is entirely separate from the rest of the bathroom. Now I know!
Such retrospectively-amusing instances of situational displacement can, if encountered often enough, leave one feeling that life has conspired to bring about nothing but discomfort. As an English boarding school pupil there was no end to my displacement niggles. Standing outside a classroom one winter morning waiting for my first lesson on medieval history a friend pulled out a pack of Jaffa cakes from his blazer pocket. Several boys descended on the ‘grub’, guns ablaze and with mouths chomping at the bit. Not having grown up with any of the children’s treats that most kids my age were already familiar with- gobstoppers, aniseed balls, Bassett’s Sherbert Fountains, Terry’s chocolate oranges or for that matter Jaffa cakes- I stood there silent and clueless wondering what all the fuss was about. Looking back I had obviously missed out on a non-negotiable part of English culture.
And I vividly recall a similarly humbling moment at the end of that same year when my science teacher handed back my experiment lab book. Repeatedly circled in bright red ink was the word ‘bica’ (Latinized mis-spelling of the word ‘beaker’). Drawing from my experience of Portuguese phonetics after years of living in Brazil and Portugal, this had seemed at the time like the most obvious combination of letters for this most common of science words. But the expression on my teacher’s face that day said it all: What was I thinking?
As I grew older I developed a habit of cowering behind any protection I could find when confronted with outlandish misapprehensions. Like the time a girl turned to me as I walked down a school corridor on my way to computer class, and waxed lyrical about how much she liked my pants. So began a six month long stint as foreign high school exchange student in the United States. Seconds after rushing into the boys’ restroom to examine my zipper (in British English, pants means ‘underwear’) I regained a collected mind and realized that the passing comments could not have been anything more than admiring affirmations of my new Levis 501s.
Infinitely more exasperating however was my fist clenching exchange with a service attendant at a local department store over postage stamps. Somehow my request for stamps, said in my normal English accent, had thrown her seriously off course. And after each of us spent several minutes trying to reason with each others, I requested assistance from the store manager. The answer I got was unnervingly simple: “Those sticky things that you lick and slap onto the back of an envelope? No we don’t sell those unfortunately!”. I walked out of that store hoping that I would never again have to speak to those same two people.
A church gathering of American Christian friends ended with fits of hysteria over the way I had described a quaint little pancake house on the east side of Madison where we were living at the time. As I described it as “the restaurant with the blue cathedral roof” it dawned on my listeners that I was talking about the all-famous International House Of Pancakes (IHOP for short). I should have known better. Then there was the time I got stuck in a French public bathroom because I had not put a coin into the payment slot of my cubicle. Worse still I have uncomfortable flashbacks of asking for a baguette at a French boulangerie and not understanding the garbled response I got back.
Rumor has it that before coming to visit us in Portugal for the first time in 1978, my Grandmother asked whether she would be able to get fresh eggs for breakfast. Fearful of the unknown, she seriously believed she would not be able to savor the same habitual delights in a land detached from her southern English home. The best way to handle such unsettling feelings of situational displacement is to try to find the funny side in the oddities of cultural difference. “Life is too short” is an adage that we often hear but rarely apply to our deepest anxieties. As foreigners we develop expectations and hopes of how things will turn out during our attempts at integration. And when those expectations are thwarted and those hopes are not met, our self-confidence takes a beating. We begin to question our identities. Or worse still, we wonder whether we have identities at all.
But we possess the power to get up, brush off the dust and walk on. As the venerable Mr. Keating pronounced in the Hollywood blockbuster Dead Poets’ Society “Carpe Diem! Seize the day; Make your lives extraordinary” (1). Dwelling over our sense of alienation can break our souls. We need to live with an energizing assurance that, in the midst of our struggles, we are still at home on our wonderful planet of rich cultural diversity.
- Carpe Diem! Movie clip from the Dead Poets’ Society Hollywood blockbuster, featuring Robin Williams as Mr Keating; see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVXKz0j9fvs