8 September 2013

Expat Embarrassments

One of the main character traits all expats need is a sense of humour about the situations you find yourself in.  Life has a way of letting us all make fools of ourselves from time to time and these opportunities are only ever magnified when daily life is lived in another culture; another language.  

One of the joys of expat life is to be parachuted in to a new home, with strange appliances whose instruction manuals (if present) are in a language completely alien to you.  Inevitably you will need to use them before your internet is set up to allow you to search for a version you can understand.  Even something as simple as a stop-cock for mains water can be hard to find if you do not know where to look.  Most British expats would expect it to be under the kitchen sink, many other people would automatically look in the basement or utility.  Ours is on the landing just outside the front door – not the most obvious place.  One of the first things I do is locate this valve and the circuit panel so that I do not have to hunt for them in an emergency while trying to communicate with a plumber or electrician with whom I share no common fluent language. 

Landlords also often forget to explain conventions of the host country that everyone grows up knowing because it is done as a matter of course.  It simply does not occur to people that expats might not know that they need to do something.  Our first winter here in Astana our pipes froze, our neighbour very kindly thawed them out for us and explained that because, our building is poorly insulated we have to keep a tap running when the temperature falls below -30.  It never occurred to us that we would need to take special care as we are in a large apartment building (although we would have asked had we been renting a house or were in the countryside) and so we did not ask the landlord if it was necessary, a local probably would have. 

It helps to be prepared for bizarre surprises, in Nigeria we called for someone to come and help clear and service our blocked air conditioner.  We assumed that the service engineer would bring a vacuum device, we did not realise what form this took and were surprised to see him suck the blockage clear with his mouth.  We felt rather bad as we could have performed that rather unpleasant task for ourselves.

We were reminded of the penchant for expat embarrassment when we noticed a slow puncture this week.  We drove to the petrol station and looked about for an air pump to keep us going long enough to have the time to change the tyre.  In Europe every station has air and water available, usually for free.  The attendant came up to ask why we were exploring (poking about) and looked rather surprised when we asked where the air was; they did not have any - we had to go to a specialist shop.  We called a friend to ask where she checked her tyre pressure and she explained that this is not a self service service and is not available at all stations.  She directed us to a supplier near her home; we were not hopeful as it was about 10pm at this stage but she said they worked late.  The man came out, took one look and removed the wheel for us to give it a thorough inspection.  It turned out we had picked up a nail and he patched and replaced the tyre in a matter of moments.  Far less time than it would have taken us to jack up the car on our emergency kit and swap over to the spare.

Because there is little time to get to know their idiosyncrasies hire cars have a wealth of embarrassment potential.  Most people will know how awful it is to pull up to the petrol station  only to remember that the hire company forgot to tell you whether the car takes petrol or diesel, you forgot to check which side the tank is on and you have no idea where the tank release is.  The first (and thankfully only) time I ever had to drive an automatic car I thought that I had to put the thing in park and move through neutral, D1 and D2 at every stop or traffic light.  I spent the whole time wondering why anyone would ever want to drive such an invention of the devil instead of a simple manual car.  People who drive automatics assume that those who drive manuals understand the differences but while my driving instructor taught me how to drive a manual and how to handle a 4x4, he never touched on an automatic.  My mother, laughed for a solid 10 minutes when I complained to her when home at last.  

The worst of it all is that we are pretty competent and reasonably practical.  I know we are not the only people to ever feel like fools in situations like this,  a sense of humour certainly helps and at least I know that, if nothing else I have learned how to keep an AC running.  It is easy to laugh about stupid situations after the event but they are resolved so much more easily if you can laugh at the time, much more constructive than standing on pride.   

Click the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat


  1. Situations in which local people know the score when you do not:
    Ghana, West Africa:
    I was delighted to find our security guards feeding a street cat and her kittens after they appeared one day in our garden. This went on for several weeks, with myself also feeding the felines, who became plump and healthy. Little had I realised that we were, in fact, jointly feeding them up for a stew pot.

    1. Poor kitties! But at least the guards were happy. We had a similar incident in Nigeria where we tried to prevent the builders working on our extension cooking and eating a giant bush rabbit (the biggest rat I have ever seen). We called the doctor to convince them it was a bad idea only to have him declare that bush rabbit was very tasty and very good for you. I still remember how thick and scaly the tail was. Ugh.

  2. Hi! Fun to read your blog:-) It is great! We are Greek-Norwegian expats now living in India:-) I saw you also lived in my home country Norway - and so many more - some adjustments I guess?! All the best

    1. Dear Eli Z

      I grew up in Stavanger/Sandness, I spent 6 years there as a young child. I remember the very beautiful scenery with great fondness. Each country is a joy to live in in its own way, India must be fascinating, very different from both Greece and Norway.