traditions

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Before departure, I had written down a simple list of things I wanted to do during my holidays. I wanted to rent a bike, swim in turquoise water, get an envious golden tan, maybe even rent a boat for a day to discover other beaches… I’m proud to say, I went through almost all of it. Ok, I didn’t rent a bike – but on my defence, it was around 35ºC during the day and roads hardly ever were lit at night.

We did swam in turquoise water, visited a different beach almost every day and even rode a zodiac along the island’s coastline (as an alternative of renting a boat). However, no matter where we had spent the day, we always did our best to be back to our beach at latest 8:30pm.

Why?

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Not more than 30 meters from our apartment in Dunas Playa, was Pirata Bus – a cozy beach bar with good music, delicious mojitos and a unique view of the sunset. This bar has been in Platja Mitjorn for over 30 years, welcoming tourists and locals of all ages. Parents sipped their mojitos, while their children run around and play with the sand. A group of people played petanque. Groups of friends got together to plan the next day’s trip…

…and at 9:15pm, it felt as if time stopped. Everyone glazed towards the hills, counting the seconds for the sun to hide. In the background, tunes of Andrea Boccelli’s Por ti Volare. Each time the sun set behind the land, people clapped and cheered to the beauty of the evening.

After my first night on Formentera, I already knew this was going to be my favorite place on the island.

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I’ve been an expat for one and a half years now, and had never before sat down to clear my thoughts and feelings on living in Switzerland. It’s not my first time abroad. However, it’s the first time that I left my country without knowing when I’d be going back. I didn’t care about not knowing one single soul in the whole country, nor did I care about my lack of french knowledge. I hardly blinked when it came to leave the comfortable familiarity behind and dive into the unknown. I was going to conquer the World (or at least, Switzerland).

The truth is – culture shock hit me deeper than I thought. It’s not only about learning how to copy with different social norms – i.e. learning where to park my bike and where not to (something I unfortunately learned the hard way). Culture shock continues long after becoming familiar with my new life.

Honeymoon

Lavaux, Switzerland

The Honeymoon phase is full of excitement and euphoria. You feel you can grab the World in your hands and do whatever you want. Every day is a new adventure – new faces, a different restaurant, a hidden shop, a cute small side street with boulangeries selling the best baguette you have ever tried. The public transport is reliable, the city is peaceful, clean and safe and people are kind and respectful.

You smile while you walk. Life is good. Actually, scratch that – life is amazing. You are so glad you chose to move and can’t imagine life any other way.

Frustration

Vevey, Switzerland

The shine starts to fade away. You realize that there are actually less than 5 bars where you can go to – either because of the crowds or because of the prices. It’s the fourth time you try asking for a glass of water with your coffee and you receive an arrogant look from the waiter. Maybe even a clueless arrogant look. You’re grammatical mistakes bothers them, and having to repeat the same word 10 times upsets you, too. You go to a hairdresser and come out with a messy cut (that doesn’t resemble a tiny bit what you initially had in mind) and realize that this trend disaster has left you completely broke.

At this point, you start to get familiar with the disadvantages of living abroad. You feel alone and misunderstood, disillusioned, frustrated and angry. Why did you ever even think this move would be a good idea?

Understanding

Water Fountain, Lausanne (Switzerland)

After a while, things start to look brighter – you are adjusting to your new home country. Those things that used to annoy you, are now small and insignificant. You start to see the advantages of having an early start on Saturdays and venture into new activities you never thought you enjoy before. You have set a routine and feel comfortable with it.

You understand the cultural differences with your home country and are learning how to deal with them.

Biculturalism

Sunset in Lausanne (Switzerland)

Although I have adopted some local habits and am adjusting to the new culture, I still don’t feel that I belong here – I feel like a foreigner. I guess the main reason for this is my ridiculous lack of french skills. I truly need to work on that! I envy those that have become bicultural – they are aware of where they came from but have fully embraced swiss culture. They never feel out-of-place.

This phase that takes a lot of understanding and an open mind.

Note: At the point of writing this post, I was in living in Switzerland experiencing the third phase – Understanding. Five months later, I was transferred to London. I have fond memories of living in Switzerland and hope to move back again in the future. Maybe this means that I finally did reach biculturalism – despite my french!

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

You might ask yourself what these bises are and why I’m so concerned about them, anyways. In France, as well as in the Suisse Romande fair la bise is a synonym for cheek-kissing, a mainly European custom that gets very complicated when someone french is involved.

To fair la bise generally involves touching cheeks while kissing the air with an audible smack of the lips. That’s the easy part. Now the real question is: Who to kiss and who not to kiss? And then again, how many of these bises shall you give? There are no written rules – which will lead to many awkward situations. While in Paris people give 2 bises, in some suburbs it’s 4 and in other areas in France 3 (the same as in Switzerland). This can already lead to a lot of confusion – if a swiss and a Parisian meet: how much kissing would there be involved? I often see myself in this kind of complication – the last time being just a few days ago. I flew to Paris for a bank meeting with someone I had been on the phone with for months but had never met before face to face. Since I felt as if I knew him forever, I leaned up to faire la bise, and noticed his confusion, but awkwardly followed my spontaneity (probably to avoid by total embarrassment).

Commonly, women can kiss each other in almost any circumstance (it get’s tricky if you greet elderly people for the first time or if it’s a business meeting). Men, otherwise, only will kiss other men if they are related or are two best friends who haven’t seen each other in a very long time. An exception to this is New Year’s Eve – where everybody seems to get loose (probably a consequence of the all the vin).

So what do you do?

Probably the best guideline is – go for it if you feel like it. In my experience, fair la bise (and specially getting it wrong) break the ice and will more often pull out a smile than a frown.

Have you ever gotten yourself into an awkward bise situation abroad?

La Habana, Cuba
  1. They’ve got the moves. Cubans can dance salsa (also called “casino”). If you get the chance to go to a local Cuban party, you’ll probably get to see a Rueda de Casino – a particular type of round dancing developed in La Habana in the late 50s. Pairs of dancers create a circle, in which each dance move is called out by one person in the circle. Many of these moves involve swapping partners!
  2. The Soviet Union. In 1960, Cuba signed a trade agreement (sugar / oil) with the Soviet Union – which provided the island with many Russian cars (you’ll recognise them for having a rectangular shape), as well as TVs and cameras. When driving through La Habana, it’s also easy to spot the remaining Stalinist architecture.
  3. Cuban cigars. I recently read that Cuban cigars can’t be sold in the US. There are rumours of Kennedy requesting his press secretary to get thousands of his favourite cigars to stock them up in the White House right before he signed the embargo.
  4. Cuba time. Whenever I was told “dinner is at 8” I could be sure that I would not be anywhere before 9 PM. It’s not a surprise for me, having grown up in Spain – but it is something other cultures might have difficulties adapting to.
  5. They are proud of their Rum. Cuba distills different types of rum. First, you can find white rums – which are primarily used as mixers (mostly mojitos and daiquiris). Golden or Amber rums will have spent several years ageing in oak casts and have a stronger taste, which makes them less suitable for cocktails but ideal for Cuba Libres or Rum on the rocks. And lastly, dark rums have a characteristic sweet caramel-dominated taste due to its long ageing and are mostly recommended to drink neat or on the rocks.
La Habana, Cuba

  1. One country with two currencies – The Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible (CUC). Exchange is about 25 CUP = 1 CUC = 0.78 EIR. Cubans generally get paid in CUP, and salaries average around 400-500 CUP per month (which equals 12-16 EUR). This is obviously really low, given that many consumer items now sell at international prices. As a tourist, you’ll only trade in CUCs and, unless you go off the beaten track, will never come across a CUP.
  2. The tourism industry. The education system in Cuba is enviable: school is free for everyone and it focusses on students to understand rather than memorise. Professors demand a high level of participation and students have to do a lot of research at home (mostly without internet!). In bars, restaurants and hotels, you’ll find engineers, biologists and historians, who, after graduating, realised that they’ll earn more working in tourism because of the tips in CUC.
  3. The right to buy or rent a home. When you drive across La Habana, you probably wonder who lives in all these beautiful colonial villas. Well, it could be anyone. Cubans can’t buy or rent homes – they only get their own home by inheriting it. In the case that someone leaves the country and doesn’t come back after a year, te home will fall into the hands of the Government – who will donate it to someone else.
  4. A sip of rum for the Saints. Every time a new bottle of Rum is opened, a sip is dropped to the ground and said to be offered to the Saints.
  5. What a car plate can tell about yourself. The old-timers circulating around La Habana are certainty one of many tourist attractions. However, the car plates reveal so much more about who is driving it than you may think at first. There are seven colours: the black ones (starting with TUR) are rental cars for tourists, the rend ones are rented by companies, the yellow plates indicate private cars (most of which are the classic pre-revolution cars from the 40s and 50s), green plates are for militaries, blue ones belong to the State and if you see one with a white number plate, it will probably be a government minister or another important state person.

Want to know more about Cuba? Click here to read Part II of the list.