Posted in Culture

200 countries, 200 years

Heartbreaking and encouraging all at the same time.

Encouraging, because overall, people are living longer and healthier lives.  In most places across the globe.

Heartbreaking, because there is and was so much that’s wrong.  The wars that caused so much death.  The selfishness that leaves others behind, across borders and within countries.

Encouraging because there is a lot of good that has come out of medical and technological advances that people have poured their hearts and energy into.

Heartbreaking because there also is a lot of bad.

Beyond all the numbers, there is so much that can never be measured, never be put into statistics – even snazzy ones like this.  All the stories, all the individual lives.  So much smaller and yet so much bigger than the whole.


Posted in cross-cultural, Culture

Onions, backpacks and glass domes

Red_onions_(cross-sections)What do an onion, a backpack and glass domes have in common?  And a kaleidoscope?  A shadow?

They are all metaphors of cultures, believe it or not!  In a course on Cross-Cultural Communication I am taking, this week we were asked to comment on different metaphors of cultures, as well as come up with some of our own.

A metaphor I have often used in talking about culture is that of an onion.

There are several reasons for that.   One of them being that as we engage with cultures, as we peel away layer after layer, there are bound to be tears. Unless we study culture in a purely academic context, being confronted with another culture (and in the process, our own), is guaranteed to lead to a few emotions!

More importantly, though, I like the metaphor of an onion precisely because it expresses something of the complexity of culture. Similar to the iceberg metaphor, initially we see only the outer layer, the behaviour. But it is so important not to get stuck there, but to dig deeper, to peel away layer after layer. Starting to understand attitudes, values, world view – those things that are below the surface – takes time and hard work (and probably a few tears!) but boy is it crucial if we’re ever going to make sense of a culture and truly engage with it.

Looking through what other people came up with, a couple of them caught my eye. A kaleidoscope – fluid, always changing. And together creating beautiful patterns. And a shadow. Not always visible but always with us. We can’t hide it or escape from it.

As I was reflecting on some of the metaphors mentioned, it struck me that (probably inevitably) each of them communicates some aspects of culture better than others. For example, the metaphors of “islands in the ocean” and “glass domes” are strong at showing the distinctiveness of cultures but weaker at showing interconnectedness. On the other hand, the “backpack” metaphor, while showing that it is entirely possible to surmount cultural barriers, seems to ignore the fact that cultural convictions run deep and that moving from one framework to another is not as easy as putting on a different backpack. Both the “iceberg” metaphor and my own “onion” one look at culture a bit more in isolation, i.e. not so much at how one culture relates to another.

Not easy to pin down, this culture thing!

This is the course I am taking:

Posted in Art, Culture


10310657_650801698303093_5095080523172767115_n(Sculpture by Bruno Catalano)


(Welsh, noun) A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

Sculptures don’t often “speak” to me.  I’m more of a words kind of girl…  Yet when I saw these pictures, they didn’t just speak, they struck a very deep chord. Suitcase in hand, off to new horizons.  Somehow I don’t think he is off on his summer holidays.  This looks more serious.  Maybe he is emigrating, all his possesions in one suitcase.  Unlike me, shipping boxes and boxes full of stuff from my old home to the new one.

Either way, the travelling, the good-byes have left their mark.  He leaves part of himself behind.  The people, the places, that made that season of his life special. He can take his memories with him but there will always be the aching, the longing, the hiraeth.

“A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return”.  These days, travel is easy. Many of us are able to return to the places we have left behind.  Those are special times. And yet…  It is never truly returning home. Places change, people leave or pass away, we ourselves change.  Relationships will never be the same again.

In the leaving, there is great excitement and hope. There is also the first inkling of hiraeth, of leaving behind a part of yourself that can never be retrieved. So often the joy and the richness of discovering a new place, new relationships, and the painful longing for the old, “for the lost places of your past”, go hand in hand.

Refugees, emigrants of old, people who know, who knew, that a physical return will be nigh on impossible – how much more deeply must they feel, have felt that “hiraeth”.

Hiraeth bears considerable similarities with the Portuguese concept of saudade (a key theme in Fado music), Galician morriña and Romanian dor (

For a beautiful piece on “saudade” look here:

Another post inpired by these scupltures (and a bit more information about the artist):

This is where I first came across the sculptures and the quote:


Posted in Culture


I am anything but a dedicated follower of fashion but this is a fun look at how tastes have changed over the last 100 years.  I bet those guys had a great time filming this!  Some decades do have a lot to answer for, though…

Doesn’t it just make you want to jump in and do a bit of time travel, to see what the life was like that went with the fashion?


Posted in cross-cultural, Culture, Uncategorized

What we see

“I wonder what different people see as they watch this?” That was the question in my mind as this Guiness advert was making the rounds on Facebook on St Patrick’s Day. Do we all see the same thing?

There is the obvious story.  Rather silly, but endearing and fun.  A dog herding a bunch of guys into a pub for a Guiness.

What about all the sub-plots, though?  How many outside the UK will have heard of “One Man and His Dog“? Already the plot is slightly less random.

And the Indian restaurant.  Not just any restaurant, but an Indian one.  Couldn’t really be anything else.  “Going for a curry“.  So much part of British life.  It implies a night out with friends.  Not really significant in the advert but still there.  But lost to many who lack the background.

Silly, I know.  What does it matter whether or not we get these things.  But.

How often does that happen in the stories we tell each other?  Stories about ourselves?  Phrases we use, little references – all are significant.  But the other likely will miss those.  And we feel misunderstood, not really known.

Even when we share a lot of the same frame of reference that happens.  How much more between different cultures!  It is so easy to think we understand and then to pass judgement.  Yet we only hear what’s on the surface and so easily miss what’s behind, the real meaning.

What we see, what we hear, can be so wrong, so far from what is meant.

Oh for the wisdom to hold my tongue, to listen, to seek understanding!

Posted in cross-cultural, Culture

In the land between languages


I live in many different lands.

There are the lands of English and German.  Mostly they live peacefully side by side, allowing me to meander from one to the other and back again.  Did I read that book in English or German?  I don’t even know.

Then there is the land of “every other language I’ve ever learned (even a little bit of)”.  Yes, they do seem to congregate in one place.  Which is rather unfortunate, as in this land, sentences will come out in a random mix of (mostly) French and Russian. They seem to be quite competitive in what they’re doing.  Either both hiding or both pushing to the front, with usually the one that is not needed coming out on top.

Occasionally, I find myself in the land between languages.  The land where the thoughts that are in my brain refuse to come out in any language.  I was just there a few days ago.  Feeling a bit like a deer caught in the headlights.  Knowing I should be able to say something sensible, to express what I wanted to say.  Yet somehow not being able to.

It’s quite an embarrassing land to be in.  “Why is she not able to express herself in her own language?”.  Most people don’t understand.  I’m glad I’m only a rare visitor in this land, the land between languages!


Posted in Culture, Weekend Chat

Weekend Chat 30 June 2013

215561_10150156966756445_7044587_nGrab a cup of coffee, find a comfy seat and discover some my favourite blog posts, films, etc from this past week.


Things to watch

THEAUDIENCE585x363If you get a chance to see The Audience with Helen Mirren – go!!!  It is phenomal!  I saw the live broadcast from London at a cinema in Berlin and was blown away!

Here is a short synopsis (from their website):”For sixty years Elizabeth II has met each of her twelve Prime Ministers in a weekly audience at Buckingham Palace – a meeting like no other in British public life – it is private. Both parties have an unspoken agreement never to repeat what is said. Not even to their spouses.

The Audience breaks this contract of silence – and imagines a series of pivotal meetings between the Downing Street incumbents and their Queen. From Churchill to Cameron, each Prime Minister has used these private conversations as a sounding board and a confessional – sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive.

From young mother to grandmother, these private audiences chart the arc of the second Elizabethan Age. Politicians come and go through the revolving door of electoral politics, while she remains constant, waiting to welcome her next Prime Minister.”

The play does not follow chronological order, meaning Mirren in one scene plays a 30 year old Queen and in the next scene a 70 year old.  The costume changes mostly happen on stage (and I have no idea how they do it) but even more impressive is how Helen Mirren adapts the way she moves and stands according the Quenn’s age.  Amazing!

Speaking of this wonderful actress, the BBC just had an interesting programme, charting her career: The Many Faces of … Dame Helen Mirren.

Things to read

6a00d8341d299153ef0168eba1b07a970c-800wiEssentially a fascinating and very well written (Greek) family saga.  Eugenides traces one family from what is now Turkey, through terrible persecution and on to the US.  In places, the writing is exceptional – his description of the monotony of working on a production line is phenomenal!  I also very much appreciated the way he develops the characters and particularly the relationships.  He is very compassionate and seems to like his characters, while also describing so well the subtle and undramatic changes in relationships that step by step lead to them being completely transformed.