Monday, September 13, 2010

Almost heaven

It's a little bit of a sad realization after only a month living here, but D.C.? A little pretentious.

At least it is in comparison to little Frederick, Maryland, where I went with friends this weekend in honor of their annual "In the street" festival.

Frederick - like many other small towns in this neck of the woods - is the kind of place where you expect townsfolk to dress up like Civil War* soldiers and fight mock battles in their spare time. As a matter of fact, the Battle of Monocacy Junction** was fought just outside of town, and Frederick is on the Civil War Trail - meaning busloads of elderly tourists in matching T-shirts roll through to visit all the numerous war museums and historic markers.

Sounds like a pretty frumpy crowd, but luckily just as we arrived the early-bird-special set was already getting back on the bus to go back to their hotel, and the rowdy locals had taken over. It was clear to us that they had been in the street since breakfast.

Something about the Frederickians put me at ease. It wasn't just the lower ratio of government-issue ID cards - who other than a cop has an ID card in a place like Frederick? It had something to do with the fact that when the band played "Country Roads" the entire bar burst into song. And maybe the preponderance of very, very good local breweries that hold their own Oktoberfest every year.

Guess I just have a little hillbilly in my blood, but I think I'll be back in Frederick sometime soon - corn maze, anyone? Pumpkin patch? Oktoberfest?

* Or the War of Northern Aggression, if you're Southern
**For the record, the Confederates won

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hand over the keys

I was so excited to get my car back upon coming to the US again that I forgot one important thing: I haven't driven regularly in two years. And now every time I get behind the wheel I think it's going to end up like the picture.

I thought I would be reasonably prepared after dealing with insane, elderly and foreign drivers in Orlando, who tend to cut you off randomly, go 45 in the left hand lane, or accidentally drive on the left. I thought wrong.

For one, the DC area is known for its legendary long commute times because of near-constant heavy traffic - a friend of mine drives an hour to cover a distance that should take less than 20 minutes. Not to mention, this is a place where there have been, I kid you not, road rage induced gunfights.

The other day, I was lost on the way to a job interview and was on the phone getting directions, and a middle aged woman gestured wildly at me and flicked me off because I was too slow in pulling out of a parking spot. There were plenty of other parking spots around, but she had to have mine, dammit! It's funny because in all other circumstances people around here are really friendly; apparently they turn into demons once they get behind the wheel.

Why not just take public transportation, you may ask? Call me crazy but I just feel less safe on public transportation here than I do in Europe. DC's metro is crummy looking - it is gray concrete block, no artwork anywhere, dirty and stained trains, and rather than a recorded voice announcing the stop clearly, it's the driver, whom you can hardly hear muffled over the loudspeaker. There is a also sort of stigma about public transport in America - as in, why would you ever take it if you can drive?

Anyway, if you need me, I'll be walking to Whole Foods - a whole 15 minute walk uphill... let's see how long my car protest lasts.

Monday, August 16, 2010

the prodigal daughter returns

So for those of you who don't already know, the girl on the road has found herself a new home base. At least through 2012.

It's hard having to describe to people that my plans changed so quickly, from a permanent job in Prague to moving to Washington, DC. As much as I hated to leave Europe, I ain't the type of gal to pass up such a good opportunity, nor am I afraid of a little risk in doing so.

Needless to say, or at least until my reverse culture shock has worn off, I'll try to keep this blog going.

While I'm here, I'll be attending Bill Clinton's alma mater. I can't think of Slick Willy without thinking of John Travolta's amazing impersonation of him in Primary Colors. The political circus in DC was a lot more fun circa 1998.

Check it out, if you haven't seen it already - and let's hear it for the Mommas!

Friday, June 25, 2010


Why is it soooo surprising that Americans can get excited by the sport everyone else calls football? Every time any news source mentions the US team, it's always qualified by, "But, you know, Americans will never love it the way Europeans/South Americans/anyone else does."

Judging by what I have seen in Prague in the games against the UK and Slovenia, it's simply not true. Of course - it seems to make more sense to be rowdy if you're in a bar in Europe versus one in say, Buloxi, Mississippi - because you are much more likely to encounter people who actually support the opponent.

The UK game was played on a Saturday night, which I spent in a beer garden in the neighborhood park, Riegrovy Sady. There the benches were full with guys draped in American flags like Rocky, others with Uncle Sam hats, getting in chanting wars with the inebriated Brits and even holding their own against them.

As soon as the UK fans started with, "You're not singing anymore" their goalkeeper let by an embarrassment of a ball into the net. And everyone was excited! I shouldn't have to explain that - of course we were.

One thing I liked about the American crowd is that even the sorority girls in sundresses get into it. There seems to be a stigma in Europe about girls who play, or who are interested in, soccer. From what I'm told it runs along the same lines of the stereotype about girls who play softball in the US. Anyway, as someone who started playing the game at the age of six at the insistence of my high school soccer coach of a dad, I thoroughly reject this idea.

I saw the last minutes of the game against Slovenia in the main square of Prague, where study abroad students, English teachers, and whoever else had turned into a red, white and blue mob. I heard the anger when the ref took away Maurice Edu's perfectly good goal in the 86th minute and prevented the US from getting the win. Beer cups were thrown down, slurs were yelled.

I would say that the one thing that's really missing from the US soccer team is a star. A star who is so famous that he could get first name status like Pele or Ronaldo and little kids would put up posters of him on their walls. The only player who I think even comes close to that is a female player - Mia Hamm. When I was playing as a kid, all the girls would fight over who got to have her number (9) on their jersey. Who can do that for the US men?

Right now - nobody. But that won't stop me from screaming for blood when I go watch tomorrow's game against Ghana - who booted us out of the 2006 world cup. Vengeance is ours -- USA!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

This mother has claws!

In my first few weeks here, Prague confounds me. It's not that I don't like it - after all there is the weird coincidence that there is a PKP (Polish rail) office right in my apartment building. No, it's just too full of things that make you go, "huh?" Here are a few so far...

- Next to the royal botanic gardens, overlooking the river and with a beautiful view of the city, sits a giant metronome. It is bright orange, rusty and creaking, and the ground beneath it is littered with glass from beer bottles. What is it counting time for? Why orange? Why did it have to sully that view?

- If you take a metro and bus for 30 minutes outside of Prague, you arrive in the hills of Northern Vietnam. There is a whole village called Sapa complete with shops, restaurants, a school, hairdressers and God knows what else. Good luck communicating unless you speak Czech or Vietnamese*.

- Dutch coffee shops attract a bizarre crowd: hippies drinking huge steins of beer while jamming to Hank Williams Jr.

- Speaking of substances, on Saturday, there was a "Million Marijuana March" that went past my house, people yelling, Jamaican and pirate flags flying, music blaring. It's not only strange that high people would get so excited - it's strange that they are marching because marijuana is legal here.

- Today I happened to watch the very last place competitor in the Prague marathon finish as I was walking around town. The guy wasn't feeble, elderly or out of shape. He was running backward. He had been doing that for at least seven hours.

Living the surreal life in Prague must have inspired Kafka - as for me, I'll stick to the inspiration from the best margaritas I've had on this continent - from Las Adelitas down the street.

* In the '80s when it was easy to move between Communist countries a bunch of Vietnamese people came to Prague. Nowadays there is a 2nd and 3rd generation, which is becoming more and more successful. Their parents own the night shops; they are becoming real estate dealers and other professionals. It's interesting because there are very few immigrants in other places in central Europe (although some people count gypsies).

Friday, April 9, 2010

Trying really hard to be positive. Take that, EU!

As I'm now applying to live in my third EU country, it's just too easy to whine about the bureaucratic nonsense, feeling like a puny worthless peon against the wily, impenetrable forces that yell at you on the phone while simultaneously losing your paperwork. In practice, it doesn't make you feel existential angst - although if France is anything like Belgium it sure explains a lot. No; it makes you very, very, angry. So in lieu of adding more fuel to the already brightly burning fire, I want to think about some nice things that happened as I worked on paperwork so far throughout my life.

My favorite story comes from when I was applying for my Belgian visa in Warsaw. I had to get my fingerprints done for an FBI background check. After getting hilariously lost on my taxi ride to the wrong address that I found on the criminal bureau's (apparently never updated) website, I finally arrived. I was greeted by a little old man who was 80 if he was a day. He was wearing a suit that he had clearly had to dust off after not wearing it for years, and greeted me enthusiastically in Polish. I explained in a bizarre mix of Polish and English that I needed the fingerprints to send to the FBI, and I could see the man's eyes widen in excitement. Somehow I had made this guy's day - the G-Men would see his work! He was so happy that he even accompanied me on the tram to the train station to see me off.

Honestly I have no such happy stories about my current struggle. Maybe I'll just think about how much easier taxes are over here...

Being with you and not being with you is the only way I have to measure time. -Borges

Monday, March 15, 2010

Here's a dance you should know

Last weekend, I had the privilege to attend a real falutin', hootin', hollerin,' countryside Flemish birthday BBQ. Not firing your gun into the air in celebration? But surely Europeans aren't country the way Southerners are!, you might say. So I thought, too, until the country music started twanging from the speakers and people actually started line dancing to In Zaire by Johnny Wakelin. There was even a song about Indians where at one point enthusiastic revelers clapped their hand over their mouth and made the "woo woo woo!" Indian noise. I was mystified. I was jealous, even. They never taught me these songs in redneck public school. "But this comes from America!" everyone told me - the lyrics had just been changed into Dutch!

Not again, I thought.

Case in point: International Women's Day, which people were shocked I had never heard of because it came from America. As I discovered, Women's Day is celebrated on March 8th and consists of all women workers getting flowers at the office. It's kind of an unofficial second Valentine's Day where men are guilt tripped into buying more stuff for the ladies. Because it's targeted specifically toward women workers, my first impression was that it had socialist or communist roots (which it did). After that it kind of made sense that people from South America, China and Central and Eastern Europe were the ones who had kept celebrating it. But I'm not so surprised it was dropped in the US: "Socialist" is a bad word these days, plus to be politically correct we'd have to have a men's day too. And a transgender day. Oh, the politically correct possibilities are endless.

In the end, of course I was completely wrong about the songs heard at the Flemish hoedown. They were totally American. Just check out the Hucklebuck and I dare you to stay in your chair and not dance along with Norton and Ralph.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

How the Saulpaugh girl lost her accent

I feel like a Garcia girl...recently a friend of mine told me that I have "significantly lost my American accent after coming to Belgium." Never mind that I was in Poland for a year before that. Even at work, the Canadians I hear on the phone confuse me with an Austrian girl on our team (she's a far cry from the Governator of California, but still!).

Is it a good thing or bad thing that I now seem to be fluent in "International European English"? It's already become second nature to avoid obscure idioms and slang, mostly out of sheer laziness, but does that have the effect of making me a lazier thinker overall? And as a former coworker once told me, does living as an English speaking expat strip you of your personality until you fluently speak the local language? As someone who will soon make making a living as an in-house writer, I've gotta think about it.

When I first went to Poland, I made myself a list of common mistakes that, no matter how long I stayed abroad, I would not make. This mission has already failed, but nonetheless, here they are, in all their grammar Nazi glory:

1. Saying "Make the picture" instead of "take the picture". Once, I even said I was going to "make the bus tickets" in front of my translator friend. Man that was embarrassing.

2. Forgetting articles such as "the" "and" & "a". This one only happened in Poland, where they don't use articles. Flemish has articles, so they seem to do better with it here.

3. Saying "How it is in English?" instead of "How do you say it in English?" or "What it is in English?"

4. One for Belgium: directly translating the word abonnement to "subscription." If you go to the gym, it's a membership. If it's an event for work or a class, you sign up. If it's a yearly train or bus ticket, it's a pass.

5. Incorrect use of "does": "What he does?" instead of "What does he do?"

6. Answering "fine" to "What's up?" or "Nothing" to "How's it going?". Actually, I was guilty of this one in the US, too... mostly based on being an overall awkward person.

7. Saying prepositions like "on" at the wrong times, like "I was on the party" instead of "at". Prepositions are so hard to learn in a language that's not your own, so I will cut everyone some slack. In other words, please don't ask me the correct ones in French...

8. Saying "kitchen" instead of "cuisine", and other borrowed words. In English, it sounds fancy to say cuisine in terms of type of food. Kitchen is the room in your house.

9. Confusing "funny" and "fun" and "bored" and "boring"

10. Saying "take" a beer or meal instead of "have" a beer. This one is my all time favorite since it suggests that my friends are asking me to go around stealing beer from the tap at pubs.

So, who wants to go take a beer tonight?
No, not from my fridge.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Kamiel Spiessens says that it's easy!

Flemish culture is a tricky beast. Unlike my experience in Poland, it remains mostly hidden to those who don't yet speak Dutch. Case in point: a friend of mine was in a gym, and was invited to a drink. "Do you speak Dutch?" he was asked. Upon giving a negative answer, he was told, "Oh, that's too bad, you can't go out with us then!"

I think it's a symptom of some of the strong regional pride that's been around for most of history in this area. I can't blame them, but still find it frustrating - and most expats I've spoken to agree. I haven't stopped trying, though.

Although I'm completely guilty of spreading myself too thin with languages, never becoming really fluent in any of them, I am still enamored of Dutch, and one boy in particular who speaks it. The other day, he taught me the following song, sung by a comedic farmer character named Kamiel Spiessens. That's him on the left.

Now the fun part: I'll translate the song for you now, to show you how easy it is!

Mijn naam is Kamiel Spiessens My name is Kamiel Spiessens
En ik droom niet van actrices
And I don't dream of actresses
Ik hang nooit aan de toog
I never hang out at the bar
Ben amateur-archeoloog
I'm an amateur archaeologist
De natuur dat is een wonder
Nature is a wonder
Met de wespen de gedonder
With its wasps of thunder*
In mijnen hoofd is 't goed
It's good in my head
Wanneer ik spit en delf en wroet When I dig and dig and dig**

Het isj nie moeilijk
It isn't hard
Het isj gemakkelijk
It's easy!
Het isj nie moeilijk
It isn't hard

Elk terrein heeft zijn geheim
The terrain has its secret
En dat zit 'm in de grond
And it sits in the ground
Als ge staat onder uw voeten
If you stand under your feet
Als ge zit onder uw kont
If you sit under your ass
Wat erin zit haal ik eruit
What lies therein I get it out
Wat ik eruit haal zet ik terug
What I get out I put it back
Zo'n tijd snel loopt het zweet
Soon after quickly runs the sweat
Helegans van mijnen rug
Whole down my back


Een doos biscuit, een treinticket
A box of cookies, a train ticket
Een tijgerslip en een raket
A pair of tiger underwear and a rocket
Een vals gebit, een perenpit, een jas van bont
A pair of false teeth, a pear pit, a fur coat
't Is niet te doen wat dat ge vindt onder de grond
There's no telling what you can find under the ground

Ik ben UV-bestendig en ik word dus nooit niet bruin
I am UV resistant and I never get brown
Al graaf ik ganse dagen in mijn grote groene tuin
I spend all days in my big green yard
Naar dingen onder 't gras
For things under the grass
Onder de grond, onder 't gewas
Under the ground, under the sod
Ik ben niet echt begaafd
I'm not gifted
Maar wel op zijn minst verslaafd
But at the least addicted


Ze zeggen mij "Kamiel,
They say to me, "Kamiel,
Doe niet zo imbeciel.
Don't be an imbecile.
Dat is toch genen stiel?
Are those steelmakers' genes?
Zeg, vind gij dat nu veel wiel?" Say, do you find that many wheels?*
Dan zeg ik "Luister Bobbie,
Then I say, "Listen, Bobbie,
Laat mij gerust, het is een hobbie.
Leave me alone, it's a hobby.
Zowaar, ik ben Kamiel
Behold, I am Kamiel
En ik spit met hart en ziel."
And I dig with heart and soul."


*note: this makes no sense in Dutch either
** these are different words in Dutch but all are synonyms of dig

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Where should I go next?

You know, my gig here in Antwerp is almost up. In fact, I have only three measly months to get my act together! So I'll ask you out in cyberland for a little help: do you think there is any place that fits my needs, as outlined below?

1. After living a stone's throw from Wawel Castle for a year, I think I need to reenact my princess fantasies.

2. Out of the Beatles, my favorite is John Lennon. This is mostly because I love telling one person in particular that I "will never be the Yoko".

3. I have not lost my fascination with impossible languages. Especially Dutch!

4. I like good beer.

Hmm, this might be tough. Any ideas?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


A few days after I posted that goshdarn tropical picture of my backyard, God decided to have a laugh at my impudence.

That's right. Better put on ski socks with those flip flops, because it snowed in Florida.

By the time I saw it, it was only cold rain, since I was too busy packing to come back to Europe. But see this car, (which is stolen from the WESH Orlando local news website)?

That sure ain't no powdered sugar from a Krispy Kreme donut.

Also, this video accurately describes me when I first saw snow at the age of 19: