Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Englishman Abroad

One of the things you find just about anywhere you go is the ex-pat. The Englishman abroad is embarrassing enough to his fellow man, but at least he has the excuse of being genuinely out of place. The ex-pat in his purest form displays a lack of self-awareness so complete as to inspire a kind of admiration. The type of person who can live for years in a country without learning a word of the language, without realizing that his clothes are ridiculous, without ever wondering what people around them are talking about, what the great issues of moment at the bar or café are, without trying to discover why they have the customs they have and what it means, without wanting to acquire some of the cultural background and references which are behind much of what they think and do, without ever being able to have a proper friendship (believe me, expecting people always to talk to you in a more or less forced second language in their own country does not lead to closeness and confidence), without any curiosity whatsoever, almost without knowing or caring where they are. To me it is inconceivable not to want to discover and understand what is happening around you.

I met one such in Malta. I was going to identify him (he has a bar there) but they were a pleasant and hospitable couple and it would not be kind. But he had lived there for years and not got past the, 'look at these funny people, aren't they funny, they talk funny and they do things that we didn't do in my street back home' stage of observation, all expressed with the effortless and complicit superiority that only the English ex-pat is able to feel.

He mentioned, inevitably, the driving. It is a bit unusual to the English eye, and hair-raising in its way, and my temporary acquaintance leapt from that observation to the conclusion that it must be very dangerous on the roads there. Well, it isn't, and despite all his years there he had never bothered to find out whether he might be wrong, or speculated as to why they have the fewest road deaths per head of any country in the EU.

These things are never directly comparable, naturally, and various other factors are relevant: about half the island is urbanized, for example, many times the proportion of all other EU countries, which means average speeds are lower and so fewer collisions result in fatalities. But the fact remains that a country with a very large number of cars per head has the lowest death rate on its roads.

I offer a form of explanation for this. In Britain there is a tendency to take the laws of the road as the principal reference point. If the light is green we go, if we see a zebra crossing we stop, if we brake we assume the chap behind us is well back, we explain a lot of accidents by saying that the other driver should not have been there. In some places, however, and Malta is one of them, the principal point of reference is the actual circumstances. This looks chaotic to the outsider, but if everyone is doing it it means that they are rather more attentive to the details of what is around them and what other drivers and pedestrians might be about to do than if you just assume they will do what the law says they should.

Just a thought, but as they don't have a death wish, it must be more rational than the Englishman imagines, and it seems to work.


Vincent said...

I've had the same thought about the English attitude to driving, after returning to this country from abroad. Most recently it was Jamaica, though the same would apply in relation to India and many other countries, where drivers keep their wits about them.

I note that there is a new scheme which has been adopted in Holland and some other places, in which traffic lights, lane markings etc have been removed from intersections, whether crossroads or roundabouts I am not quite sure. The idea is that you approach with great care and make no assumptions.

Where I live, in High Wycombe, there are two contrary tendencies. The County Council instals traffic lights wherever it can, some part time and quite pointless. I assume they get some grant from central government for putting up traffic lights and make a profit thereby.

But I live in a predominantly Asian-populated district and they generally adopt the circumstantial rather than rule-based approach to parking and driving. I find it makes more sense mostly. At any rate you have to get used to it, like anywhere in the world.

As to your opening point about expat Brits, we are not the only ones! The elders of this mainly Pakistani community have been here since the early Sixties (when they arrived to work in the furniture factories) and their women have never learned a word of English. The old men have learned a simple vocabulary based on need, for they were the breadwinners in their younger days. Since their British-educated sons and grandsons often import their wives from Pakistan, the tradition of permanent residents never learning English lives on. When they go to the doctor they take a school-age child along to translate. I live near the main mosque, around which the die-hards live. It's not just language, it's a cultural barrier too. The Brits like me who live in this street (because it's cheap!) are self-selected non-prejudiced types of course.

CIngram said...

It's my compatriots who embarrass me though, which is why I notice them more. Over he it tends to be the older Chinese who don't learn Spanish. They've come over to live with their children, who are working, and they don't connect much with the society around them The same thing, really, as the English retirees on the Costa del Sol.

But it's only one generation. Their children's children are just Spaniards with epicanthic folds.