Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Johannesburg: Perceptions about the Netherlands

When I came home after living in Europe for 3 months, I had expected many questions and interrogations by my fellow South Africans regarding everyday life in the Netherlands.
I had expected questions about the food, the weather, the people.
I had anticipated telling funny stories about communication mishaps and missed trains.
But I had not foreseen this.

South Africans have an incredibly distorted view of life in the Netherlands!
The questions I have been asked have left me speechless and quite frankly, immensely amused. Who would have thought these would be just as more entertaining than questions being asked about South Africa!

It was very difficult to pick my favourites, but I have managed to identify the top 5 incredulous questions asked by South Africans about life in the Netherlands:

Question 1:
What's it like living in Amsterdam?

I wouldn't know. Why don't you ask someone who actually lived there?

I lived in Maastricht, people!
A city with 120 000 inhabitants in the province of Limburg, in the Southern part of Netherlands, 200 km from Amsterdam.

Maastricht (South) and Amsterdam (North)

I realise that not everyone has had the amazing opportunity to travel to the Netherlands, but South Africans very much believe that Amsterdam = the Netherlands. This could not be further from the truth.

Although Amsterdam is an incredible city, there is so much more to see and do in the Netherlands, especially in the South: Wonderful cities and towns with castles, caves, green meadows and rivers. Beautiful Maastricht with it's picturesque river and lively music flowing into the streets.

Question 2:
Are the Dutch very tall?

For some strange reason no one wanted to stand still whenever I had smartly cornered them and stealthily approached, measuring tape and height chart clutched in hand.

You do see more tall people in the Netherlands. And refreshingly, not a single random stranger in the Netherlands had asked me how tall I was, as opposed to in South Africa where I was greeted by customs with: "Eish! How tall are you?" and only as a vague afterthought "Oh yes... passport please."

According to this article, the Netherlands has the tallest average height for males above the age of twenty (1.81 m on average). South Africa is 52th on the list with an average height of 1.70 m. 
So yes, the Dutch are tall, and clearly less obsessed about it.

Question 3:
Have you joined a spinning class?

Why would I pay money to pretend that I'm doing something, when I can actually do it? Outside. For free!

In South Africa we get into our cars and drive to the gym to go and sit on a stationary bicycle while someone plays upbeat music and shouts military-style insults at us. We do this because it is the only place were the crazy drivers of Johannesburg won't flatten us like pancakes without batting an eye. Johannesburg is sadly not a cycling-friendly, pedestrian-friendly and, at times, motorist-friendly city.

In contrast, everyone in Maastricht owns a bicycle and very few people a car. Maastricht has cycle lanes, traffic lights specially dedicated to bicycles, and bridges with little ridges so that you can push your bicycle up the incline.
Besides, what could be more fun, exciting and challenging than cycling in a skirt and high heels, while balancing an umbrella in one hand and your weekly groceries in the other?

Cycle-Friendly Maastricht

Question 4:
Does everyone smoke weed all day long?

... Mmm... Umm... Sorry... What was the question?

It is widely known that drugs can be legally bought in the Netherlands, and in cities like Amsterdam you will find around 700 coffee shops where drugs are sold to foreigners due to the economic boost these sales provide.
In Maastricht though, even though coffee shops exist, cannabis cannot be sold to foreigners.

Amsterdam Coffee Shops

Question 5:
Are you fluent in Dutch yet?

Are you fluent in Zulu yet?

This might come to a shock to many Afrikaans-speaking and most English-speaking South Africans (especially those who fondly refer to Afrikaners as Dutchmen): Afrikaans and Dutch is not the same language.

Let's take a very basic sentence to describe a nice weekend:
Afrikaans: "Ek het 'n baie lekker naweek gehad."
Dutch: "Ik had een fijn weekend."
Can you identify one resembling word in the two sentences?
No? Because it is two different languages!

Hearing Dutch for the first time is like trying to catch raindrops with a sieve. The words come pouring down on you so fast that, while trying to catch a single word, you're missing the entire sentence. The words seem frustratingly familiar, but you have no idea what is being said and while you are contemplating this, you're standing there in silence with a bemused frown on your face looking like an idiot. 
Just to top it all, words like "verskoon my?" and "ekskuus?" don't exist. You have to use "wat zeg jij / u?" instead to have the sentence repeated.

The good news for Afrikaans-speakers, is that after a month you can hear the rain clouds rolling in and you start catching every 10th raindrop, which quickly becomes every 5th one - enough to be able to fill in the blanks. You realise that reading is easier than listening, but it can still be very confusing at times and misreading a word can completely change the meaning of a sentence. If the "nu" in "kom nu binne" is interpreted as "nie" (not) as opposed to "nou" (now), you might find yourself left out in the cold. Literally.

So, no, I do not speak Dutch fluently (yet). I try to communicate in short, straightforward Dutch (or rather Afri-Dutch) sentences. Sometimes it works, but often I am met with a frown and an "excuse me?" in English. 

Over time my Afri-Dutch will hopefully turn into proper Dutch. But for now, in South Africa, I'll be speaking as much Afrikaans and English as I can fit into a day.

Even if it means I will have to answer hilarious and ridiculous questions.
Because at least I can understand them.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Johannesburg: Perceptions about South Africa

I have not disappeared off the face of the earth.
I am, however, back in South Africa.

And it had taken longer than expected to source electronic parts with which I could construct a workable computer. I then had to brave the wild, ferocious African animals to reach a mountain high enough to transmit this message from. I have trekked over vast deserts and dry grasslands, running from hippos and hiding from hyenas. Luckily my pet lion, Simba, stayed close to my side to fend off dangerous animals and keep me company during the long solitary days.

If you are South African, you are probably reading this from your iPhone, chuckling to yourself while sipping on a cup of Nespresso. Because chances are that you have told, or at the very least had the urge to tell, a similar story to a foreigner you've encountered on another continent. It is not that us South Africans want to purposefully mislead foreigners when they ask about our country; the general perception about South Africa is just so skewed that we almost cannot help it.

One of my fellow (American) passengers on the 11 hour flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg was a case in point. 
The gentlemen wore a proper safari pakkie for the whole duration of the flight: Khaki pants, hiking boots with knee-high khaki socks, a wide-brimmed sun hat, sunglasses and even a bandanna tied around his neck (because you never know when the sun can sneak through those tiny aeroplane windows and burn your neck to a crisp). If security had not confiscated his hunters knife at the checkpoint, he would have probably had that strapped to his chest to fend off the lions on the runway.

I assume he was slightly disappointed to step out into the lights, traffic, and high-rise buildings of modern Johannesburg and discover that his lion fight sighting might have to wait until later.

Sandton, Johannesburg

The incident, like so many others I have encountered during travels to both America and Europe, has inspired me to write down the top five hilarious questions that foreigners have asked me about South Africa. And also the answers I might have given, or at least wish I had. Just to be fair, I'll also include the truth so that all non-South Africans can learn a little more about our country. (Yes, South African is a country in, and not a state of, Africa).

Question 1:
Do you have a lion as a pet?

No. I have two cheetahs though.

We do not have lions, cheetahs, or any other wild animals as pets. We tend to stick to pets that won't attack you from behind and chew off a limb just for the fun of it.
If you want to see wild animals, you can find them in, well, the wild. In the Kruger National Park and other game reserves you can gaze at them from the safety of your car and in Johannesburg you can visit the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve or the Lion Park to see lions up close and even touch the cubs. Don't forget that they are and will always be wild animals - you might very well leave with a torn shirt after they have clawed at you playfully...

Question 2:
Do you have celebrities in South Africa?

You mean you've never heard of Kurt Darren?!

Like any country we have local South African artists, actors, musicians, sport stars and comedians. We have local TV shows, soap operas, music, magazines, and movies
We have many celebritiesWe have Nelson Mandela.

Question 3:
Can you say something in African / Africanese / Zuid-Afrikaans?

No. I cannot say anything in a language that doesn't exist. 
Ek kan wel iets in Afrikaans se, want dit is wat my moedertaal genoem word.

Afrikaans, my first language, is the youngest language spoken in the world today. It became an official language in 1925 and has 6.9 million native speakers (most of them based in South Africa) and around 20 million speakers in total. 
Everything can be described with the Afrikaans word "lekker": The weather, the weekend, the food, your mood. 
Afrikaans is a lekker expressive language.

Question 4:
I've met someone from Africa once. Do you know Liezl?

Of course! She lives five huts down from mine. We go berry-picking every day and braid each other's hair around the fire at night.

There are 50 million people in South Africa. There were five Liezl's (or rather Liezl, Liesl, Liezel, Liesel, and Lizel) in my high school year group alone. So no, I do not know your Liezl. And chances are I never will.

Question 5:
Why are you white?

Because God made me that way.

Because God made me that way.
There are 4.5 million white people in South Africa (9% of the population). Other ethnic groups include African, Coloured, Indian, and Asian.
We might be different but we are all South African.

And that, my friends, is the truth about South Africa.
I might not have a pet lion waiting for me at home, but I do have friends, family, amazing weather (even in winter), and many braais and kuiers with loved ones.
Here's to time spent in South Africa!

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