Sunday 31 August 2008

Can anecdotes cross borders?

On a summer break in Dubrovnic I picked up at the airport the local ex-pat newspaper, The Dubrovnik Times, which ran to about 8 pages and had ads for the tourists as well as general articles by ex-pats such as one by a man from America who came for a holiday eight years ago and decided to stay. I am familiar with ex-pat living after spending some years living in Asia, and many of my travel destinations are determined by where a friend may have a posting, or a love affair with a local that never ended, or an English teaching job where the perks are worth more than the pay or conversely the pay is worth the pain of separation from family and friends. The ex-pat straddles two cultures – some pretty comfortably some not.

Ex-pats are often a jaded mob who hang out at foreigners’ bars to whinge about the locals; yet when they go back home they can only talk about their foreign experiences until they are avoided in their local as a bore. Soon enough they realize they can’t handle normal life in their native country and so they pack up and go back to their adopted country to resume their old place at the foreign bar, greet their cronies and give each other knowing looks when a newbie rolls up, a reflection of themselves long ago.

There are many flavours of ex-pat. There are the regular business travellers (who are honorary ex-pats); there are the diplomats and businessmen on postings and their spouses (upper class ex-pats); there are the ones who marry a local and can’t speak a word of the language (parasite ex-pats); there are the geeky more-native-than-the-natives types (gone troppo ex-pats); there are lots of ones on one or two year deals (only just ex-pats) and shady characters on the make (tax-dodge ex-pats). These guys (and they are usually guys) hang out in ex-pat bars the world over, talking complete crap to each other about what they understand or don’t understand about the country before trying to pick up a local girl.

At the same time the ex-pat bars are host to locals who like to hang out with the ex-pats, who are either curious about foreigners or more usually wanting to practice their English language skills. These girls (and they are usually girls) hang out in ex-pat bars the world over trying to comprehend the difficult pattern of conversation not covered in their usual English language text books while trying to either fend off or encourage the attention of the know-it-all ex-pats.

Almost all ex-pats will have a large part of their identity defined by being in that foreign culture and having to cope with the adjustments of living there. They try explaining to friends back home what it is like, about not having comforts they are used to and dealing with bureaucracy, taxes and service, cultural misunderstandings, language difficulties, climate and comfort differences, and so on, but no one understands – unless they are an ex-pat too.

Every traveller can appreciate the surface differences, such as funny looking money, alternative hygiene practices, differences in the cost of living and how some things are so much easier back home. However, it is the more nuanced aspects of different cultures that characterises the ex-pat experience above and beyond the travellers’. You don’t really know a country until you have worked in a foreign office, shopped locally, and most of all tried to crack a joke in a second tongue.

My friend Australian friend met her German husband in Bali at a swim-up bar in a hotel pool. After chalking up expensive phone bills she decided to visit him in Hamburg and that was that, she is now married and bringing up a half German half Australian little boy. She told me that her German language skills were quite rough when she first arrived. She had studied some German at school and even lived in Germany for a while on exchange, but it is a very different thing when you live and work there.

Moving there was the hardest thing she has ever done. The emotional strain of being far from her family was hard enough on its own, but she has had to set herself up financially and emotionally with a partner from a very different culture – she hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be just to fit in.

Her husband has a close circle of friends with a 20-year store house in-jokes and assumed knowledge between them. Her German was improving in leaps and bounds, but joking in a foreign language is a skill that takes years to develop.

English people like to say Germans have no sense of humour. Whilst it’s true that Germans are fond of a straight answer, keeping their word and firmly committing to a plan of action, they are also fond of beery conversation – much of it humorous.

My friend found that conversation between friends in Germany has a different pattern to conversations in Australia. Her husband says English language chat is like ping pong – the conversation leaping from one end of the table to another, everyone constantly interjecting, with jokes and put-downs, asking questions, diverting the topic, coming back to it again and so on.

In Germany, she says, at least in her husband’s circle of friends, it’s different. The participants as if by design seem to come to the table with ready-made stories to tell. The stories can be long or short, significant or trivial, on a personal or a topical event. The story might be a serious political story from the newspaper or more often about something that happened to them at the petrol station on their way to the BBQ.

When the person tells their story there is a neat set-up, complication and punch line. Anyone can interject to clarify a point, but it is not done to divert them from their story and it is expected that the speaker will reward the listeners with a rounded narrative so that on queue at the end they can laugh or be shocked or express disbelief. Her most terrifying time at the table is when the turn comes around to her, she can just about follow the fluent German tales in full flow, but she has not mastered the rhetorical skills necessary to take the floor.

I noticed in the Dubrovnik newspaper an article where two tourists – a German man from Freiberg and an English woman from Inverness – were. The questions asked how long were they staying in Dubrovnik (both for about a week), what did they enjoy (the fortified walls, the crystal clear water) what did they buy (the English woman not much, the German man said he bought beer) and so on.

The last question asked of them was if they had any stories to tell or unusual experiences in Dubrovnik. The Scottish woman said the first person she had met in Dubrovnik happened to be from Aberdeen! Imagine that! The German man said he had brought his dog on holidays with him and when he arrived there was another dog on the pier and it had scared him so much he had run into a shop, much to the amusement of the locals.

Reading these two little stories you know they are the ones the two tourists will tell friends, neighbours and work colleagues when they get back to their home towns. It comes back to me how the strangest thing about travelling is how much you take where you are from with you on the plane. And when you come back again, you automatically shape the exotic background around a tale that could be understood and appreciated by your audience. They could easily say when it is their turn, you know, something similar happened to me when I travelled abroad.


At 16 November 2009 at 08:56 , Blogger Martin B said...

Brings to mind the quote from Chesterton "The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land."

BTW did you get my email? :-)


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