Do you love your own country, warts and all? Do you actually know your own country’s warts?  As a traveler or an expat you discover the idiosyncrasies of other cultures and countries, but you also learn to see your own homeland with new eyes. (A shocking experience this can be, not?) It’s interesting as well to learn how foreigners see your culture and your people.

There are 195 countries in the world, more or less, depending on your definition of country and the odd successful war of independence here and there. Lots of fun out there to dig up, wouldn’t you say? Prejudices, clichés, generalizations, etc. So, for your possible elucidation and/or edification I’ve gathered up several quotations by wise and learned souls describing the personality and characteristics of various countries, their own, or others.  May I assure you that these views are not necessarily mine?

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Eating in Sweden is really just a series of heartbreaks.  — Bill Bryson

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Many people are surprised to hear that we have comedians in Russia, but they are there. They are dead, but they are there.  — Yakov Smirnoff

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Italy is the paradise of the flesh, the hell of the soul, the purgatory of the pocketbook.  — German saying

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New Zealanders?

New Zealand is a country of thirty thousand million sheep, three million of whom think they are human.  — Barry Humphries.  (Now that’s just plain mean!)

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Every country gets the circus it deserves. Spain gets bullfights. Italy gets the Catholic Church. America gets Hollywood.  — Erica Jong

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English bed buddy: hot water bottle to keep you warm

Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot-water bottles. – George Mikes

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Canada has never been a melting pot; more like a tossed salad.  —  Arnold Edonborough

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France is the only place where you can make love in the afternoon without people hammering on your door.  — Barabara Cartland.  (You’re wrong, Barbara)

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Apart from cheese and tulips, the main product of Holland is advocaat, a drink made from lawyers.   — Alan Coren, British humorist

If you’ve been a loyal reader of this blog, you will know I hail from the land of cheese and tulips. Advocaat is one of my favorite desserts. Advocaat is a distant but more refined relative of English and American eggnog.  It is a liqueur made of egg yolks, brandewijn (a type of brandy), sugar and vanilla. Depending on the brand, it has an alcohol content of 14-18%. The original, traditional version is very thick, like pudding, and you eat it with a spoon, preferably with a dollop of whipped cream on top (sadly lacking on the photo because I didn’t have any handy).  If you happen to pass through Schiphol, Amsterdam Airport, you’ll find it in the duty free shops. There is an inferior tourist version that is more liquid, but forget that. Get the real deal and eat it with a spoon, or put it on ice cream, or make lovely desserts and mixed drinks with it. If  you cannot lay your hands on a bottle and you’re really desperate you can make it yourself. Here’s a recipe for advocaat.  I’ve never made it myself, so don’t give me grief if it doesn’t work out.

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I like Ireland because it means I’m near France. – Harry Harrison

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Rioting is a Kenyan thing.  If they didn’t do it, they’d be Tanzanian.   — Dr. Mavura from Tanzania

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A tiny portion of all the cheeses in France

France: How can you expect to govern a country that has two hundred and forty-six kinds of cheese?  — Charles de Gaulle

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In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.  — Orson Welles

Note: This is a repost from years ago, but I’m thinking you enjoyed reading it anyway (again).

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Now, dear reader, do you have some other gems and warts tucked away? I’d love to find some pearly quotations or warty words about other countries. All in good fun, of course.

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Tell me, what do you think of Gypsies? Or should we even say Gypsies? Roma people is the more pc name I’ve heard. I live in France right now and a recent discussion about the Roma people made me think of my own experience a few years ago, and the story I wrote about it.

Growing up in Holland I heard a rumor that there was Gypsy blood in my family, on my mother’s side. Apparently this expressed itself in my grandfather’s behavior since he was of a roving sort. Is it true? I have no idea, but it rather appealed to my childish sense of the adventurous as in my mind I saw beautiful exotic horse-drawn houses on wheels. Of course in due time I became familiar with the infamously negative stereotypes, stories and prejudices that I won’t need to elaborate on. Sadly, the only Roma people I ever encountered were the tragic beggar women with their babies sitting in the streets of Naples, Belgrade and other big cities.

Well, until a few years ago when I was in Transylvania, Romania and had the opportunity to learn more and to meet a lovely Roma family.

As I was writing the piece below, I could hear your collective groans about how I was sucked into a tacky tourist trap, so let me tell you, I am no innocent when it comes to tacky tourist traps, but this one stole my heart, so shoot me.

Tzigania Tours is a project started by an American journalist from New York who fell in love with the Roma people he was studying in Transylvania. He stayed on with the hope of creating some understanding and respect for their culture and life style. It was fascinating to hear him talk with passion and thoughtfulness about the people he is now living with. It’s easy to be a cynic here, but I refuse. I’d rather be a sucker idealist.

Our Roma host on the left, journalist on the right

I’m not in any way qualified to tell you about the difficult and complex history of the Roma people. You can find it all on the Internet. Just let me say that Europe’s largest Roma population lives in Romania. Although many still trek around in their wagons and are not assimilated into Romanian society, the majority of the Roma people here are settled and live in villages, have jobs, live respectful lives and send their children to school. It’s one such family I visited with my eight travel mates when in Romania.

The family consists of a father and mother, a young daughter of nine or ten, a small son of about five and a grandmother.

A little shy, but he loosened up a while later

The father has his own metal workshop and car repair place. They live in a normal house that has been furnished and decorated Roma style with lots of color everywhere – on rugs, wall hangings, pillows, blankets and curtains. Several rooms sport china cabinets filled with large collections of dishes, teapots and cooking pots, none of which are used. These are a show of wealth and status. No, this is not trendy Western décor, but where does it say it has to be? I thought it was fabulous and cheerful and fun. Go for it if that’s your bliss, that’s my philosophy.

Roma kitchen, lots of colorful pans and dishes

We were told that the family is considered “middle class.” Some families live in much bigger houses and have more elaborate possessions. The poor Gypsies are the only ones most of us “outsiders” are familiar with: The beggars in the streets of big cities.

After the presentation and questions, meeting the family, and a tour of the house, we moved to the courtyard where appetizers were served along with shots of a homemade hootch so strong I worried it would make my hair fall out (so far so good). The nibbles included chunks of roasted pork fat we were instructed to impale on sticks and roast over an open wood fire. Delicious! The best bacon I ever had!

Extreme bacon, homemade. Behind the house we found a few more pigs being raised.

In the dining room we were given a plate heaped with the traditional fare of pork and cabbage stew along with a helping of polenta with local white cheese melting into it. Cake finished off the meal, served by the sweet young daughter, who had fun helping out (not in school because it was Saturday).

Let’s eat. Grandmother on right, always smiling. Note the china cabinet on the far left.

Afterward, and here comes the cheesy stuff, the women were given Gypsy skirts and music was put on in the courtyard so we could dance. Tell me, what’s wrong with a little fun?

Gypsy Skirts: I want one!

The young daughter enjoyed showing us how to do it

The Roma people are a very diverse group of people, spread out all over the world. I’m happy to have met this hospitable family in Transylvania, to get a peek into their lives and to learn something positive.

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Have you ever met a Roma family? Have you ever learned something that did not fit the stereotypes so many of us have of them? Or have you met other people in the world who surprised you?

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