Posts Tagged ‘cultural misunderstandings’

There’s been a long gap since the last update of Where’s Matthew, but that is because my new role has kept me largely office-based over the past few months. 

We had an invitation this weekend to visit Troyes, outside Paris, to celebrate the 50th birthday of Aude’s godfather.  After weeks of 35C+ temperatures, the weather turned much cooler and wetter on Saturday – not the best conditions for a 350km drive.  But we made it, even finding some time to squeeze in a little shopping at the factory outlets on the way.

We had a great time at the party, hosted in a vintner’s warehouse dating back to the 12th century.  Located in Champage, the theme of the evening was wine – starting with a comparison of blanc de blancs vs. blanc de noirs for the aperitif, then moving onto a bit of wine trivia and guessing games with each of the following courses.  Throw in a fantastic magician and a superb band, and it really was a wonderful evening.

The next morning, we decided to do a little exploring of the town.  Around noon, we decided to stop for lunch and sat down at a cafe on the main square.  Since the place was empty, we sat down side-by-side at a table of four, facing the square in typical cafe fashion. 

That’s when we had a “French” moment.  The waitress came over and asked us to move to a table-of-two.  I pointed out that there were 200 empty seats in the place, but the waitress was insistent. We got up and left.

Cafe L'Odyssee in Troyes, completely empty

Good thing we did — an hour later, it looks like the place was overflowing with customers. *rolls eyes*

Our first night out in Istanbul was a bit of a mixed bag, as we clearly struggled with both language difficulties and cultural norms. Based on the recommendation of the concierge at the hotel, we headed down to the harbour to find a restaurant. We didn’t have a specific place in mind, but we were told that there were plenty of good places and that we’d find one if we simply walked around the area.

After a few minutes of walking around, found a place that looked okay. There was a rather formidable woman in the window rolling dough and cooking something, and the place looked busy enough, so we went in.

Enticing us into a restaurant, Turkish-style

Enticing us into a restaurant, Turkish-style

Our first struggle was ordering a few beers. We ordered beers, and they were brought out for us – but they were weak and warm. After using our best sign language to indicate that we’d prefer cold beer, we were presented with a bucket of ice cubes! At this point, we sort of gave up on the beer idea and decided to order some wine as well. After considerable misunderstanding, the guests at the next table kindly stepped in and explained that the restaurant was Muslim and therefore didn’t serve any alcohol – which explained why our (apparently non-alcoholic) beer tasted so terrible. We reverted to tea.

Matt and Swami tuck into a Turkish feast

Matt and Swami tuck into a Turkish feast

The second problem was trying to explain that our colleague, Swami, was a vegetarian. The concept of a vegetarian is apparently unheard of in Turkey. After explaining politely to the waiter that ‘chicken’ wasn’t really a vegetarian option, we finally ended up ordering something from the big woman in the window – as best we can tell, it was some sort of bread with cheese and spinach. It wasn’t entirely successful, and Swami supplemented his dinner with a few bowls of peanuts at the bar we found afterwards.

Swami in the bar, enjoying a vegetarian diet of peanuts and beer...

Swami in the bar, enjoying a vegetarian diet of peanuts and beer…

We were drawn into the bar by the live music – which seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, once you’ve heard the millionth song played on the lute with a dodgy Turkish singer, you’re about ready to shoot yourself. He kept turning to us and apparently asking for our requests, but as my Turkish is a little rusty, we weren’t able to comply. He seemed pretty disappointed that we weren’t singing along.

The taxi from hell...

The taxi from hell…

Our taxi ride back to the hotel was a little hair-raising, even by Turkish standards. I suspect we should have been tipped off by the sticker on the side of the cab. Hanging from the rear-view mirror was a shark’s tooth, which indicates slightly more risk-taking behaviour on the part of the taxi driver than, say, a crucifix. We made it back in one piece, but we were definitely more ‘shaken’ than ‘stirred’.

The hotel we’re staying at is brand new, but quality control doesn’t seem to have factored into the equation. Everything is falling apart despite its newness. The light switches are all wonky. The tap on the sink doesn’t work property. The tap on the shower came off the wall when I tried to turn it on. The air conditioning in the conference room doesn’t work. And the lights seem to go on and off at random intervals, plunging our conference room into darkness. At least it adds some excitement to the day.

Finally, a moment of light relief. Realise, of course, that I don’t normally use a bidet. And that I didn’t really intend to use a bidet. But curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to see how the combined toilet / bidet worked. Fast forward to a jet of water shooting out across the bathroom and out into the hallway and frantic mopping up with towels. I’ll stick to toilet paper, thanks.

It’s my last day in Singapore for a couple of weeks. I’m headed to Paris tomorrow to spend the weekend with Aude, then off to Istanbul for two weeks on business. The plan is that all of her friends will meet in Paris to celebrate her 30th birthday, but the party may turn out to be smaller than anticipated if her friends get held up in the transport strikes. The latest news was that very few long-distance trains are running, but that situation may clear up in time for the weekend. In any case, I’m flying in so it shouldn’t be a problem.

A tailor was recommended to me, so I’ve managed to have loads of clothes made this week – although that leaves me with the rather awkward problem of having to cart them around with me for the next three stops on my trip, which might be tricky as I think I’m considerably over the permitted baggage limit.

Shopping mall

Shopping in Singapore can be a little overwhelming. There’s lots of visual noise and bright colours vying for your attention!


Had to capture a picture of Spiderman, if only for the sake of completeness after the comments I got in Bangkok!

Korean dinner

You can eat very well at the food courts here. US$2 buys you all this…

I also had to go shopping for a winter coat last night – I packed for Singapore weather, and consequently have nothing warmer than a shirt. Weather forecasts for Paris are below freezing.

Buying a winter coat in Singapore presents its own problems – given the year-round warm weather here, they don’t keep many in stock. I finally managed to find one, but you’re not really spoiled for choice out here.

Christmas decorations along Orchard Road in Singapore

Christmas decorations along Orchard Road in Singapore

Christmas decorations along Orchard Road in Singapore

Christmas decorations along Orchard Road in Singapore

All against a very Asian backdrop...

All against a very Asian backdrop…

A pretty impressive tree at the Takashimaya shopping centre in Singapore

A pretty impressive tree at the Takashimaya shopping centre in Singapore

All the decorations are up for Christmas already, although the characters aren’t quite as I remember them. Christmas is clearly commercialised, so Jesus Christ has no part in the events whatsoever. And apparently, neither does that rather secular fellow called Santa Claus. Princess Noel, on the other hand, does make an appearance – whoever she is? It’s all a bit surreal seeing all the Christmas decorations (many of which have a “Winter Wonderland” theme to them) when the temperature outside is brushing 90 degrees.

My next challenge is deciding how I’m going to celebrate Thanksgiving. I’ve made some preliminary enquiries, but it turns out that it’s very difficult to find a turkey in Turkey.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever get my head around life in Singapore. News in this morning’s Straights Times described how a man was stopped by police for dropping a cigarette butt. Rather than face the shame of arrest, he ran away from the police and jumped 15m to his death.

Meanwhile, life has a more pleasant side in today’s Bouquets:


On Oct 31, I was travelling along Bukit Timah Road when I saw a lost puppy running along the right-most lane. I pulled over and tried to get the puppy to safety.

A group of Singapore Institute of Management students stopped to help, and tried to keep the puppy away from the road. Thank you, boys!

– Lynn Chau Li-Ming (Ms)


Is it any wonder I want to move to Thailand? Last time I was here, the receptionist at the dentist’s office was adamant that I looked like Tobey McGuire from Spiderman. Today, my client’s secretary was adamant that I looked like Superman.


We were clearly separated at birth. It’s no wonder the Thai women are so confused — I’ve obviously got Superhero DNA…

When I’m at home, I’m lucky to be mistaken for Loyd Grossman. In Thailand, I’m mistaken for a superhero. How good is that?

I’d love to think that it was my manly physique that had them all fooled, but I suspect they’re actually tricked by the glasses.

I’m slowing making inroads into the role of ‘global traveller’. I still find it slightly surreal being 15 hours ahead of the US (essentially knowing how the day’s going to end before my family and friends even know how it’s going to begin). I installed Skype for the first time today, and I find myself wondering how anyone ever managed frequent travel around the world before the internet.

I had an interesting experience at lunch today. My Indian colleague took me out to a place that he raved about – nominally, it was a French place – but one taste of the food told me that it had come straight from the packet and straight into the microwave. I wonder if my palate for Indian food is similarly underdeveloped, and I’ve been guiding people to the worst, least-authentic Indian restaurants in the UK all these years?

It’s all a trade-off, of course. If you want good, authentic food, you’ve got to risk a dodgy stomach (as I can attest after my visit to the steamboat place on Sunday night and my subsequent visits to the loo for the rest of the week — turns out I’d spoken too soon with my previous post). If you play it safe, you end up with microwaved crap at a mock-French bistro. Or sitting in your room ordering room service…

I’m looking forward to the weekend, when hopefully I won’t be so tired or under pressure to get something out the door, and can explore everything that Singapore has to offer properly.