“All English people are like lords and ladies, no?” She wasn’t joking. Perhaps she’s been lucky in the English people she has met, but she is convinced that all of us live in castles and have butlers. She may have been watching the wrong TV programmes.
“There was a mansion in Torremolinos near where I lived as a child” explained Maite in thick Spanish. “Every afternoon when I walked home from school, at exactly 3.15 he would sit at his table in the shade of a tree, and the maid would bring him a tray of tea. I loved to see it, because I know that’s what all English people do.” From this strong childhood memory she had learned three things – that time-keeping is very important to English people, that we all have maids, and that we all drink tea at 3.15. “You drink tea at 3.15, don’t you?” she asked. “Sometimes” I replied. She looked a bit shocked at my slap-dash failure to adhere to my national norms. “But ALWAYS at 8am, without fail” I added, reassuringly. “At EXACTLY 8am?” she asked. “Oh yes, on the dot.” It seemed to comfort her.
Jose, my intercambio partner, would perhaps be equally disappointed were he to visit England. He speaks excellent English, partly due to watching the film of “Pride and Prejudice” about a hundred times. He politely greets my friends with “I am delighted to make your acquaintance”, imperceptibly clicking his heels, and proffering a handshake, the other hand behind his back in pure Mr Darcy fashion. He has learned a beautiful, almost forgotten, very refined version of English, of which I rather regret the passing. “It looks very well” he says about a friend’s outfit, or a new car. Instinctively I jump to correct him but stop myself. It’s not wrong, not at all. It’s just that nobody says it any more. Not since the early 1800s.
Some time before his C1 English exam Jose will get to visit London. The range of accents will confuse him, but most of the time he will be wrong-footed by being surrounded by a lack of care for the language he loves, a sloppiness, and a slurring into indistinguishable grunts. And, of course, a complete absence of subjunctives. Before his last exam, I hosted an “English tea-party” with cucumber sandwiches (without crusts, of course), and scones and clotted cream, using a borrowed bone china tea-set. It fitted right into his preconceptions of English people (though the addition of English poetry-readings may have made it an event not TOO frequently replicated in modern-day England).
Walking in the Alpujarras recently with a mixed group of English and Spanish friends, one Catalan man couldn’t help expressing his surprise at finding a dozen Brits with reasonable Spanish. “But the English don’t speak more than ‘dos cervezas’ and only shop at their own shops” he kept repeating. Walking along a mountain track, he turned round to stare at us, chatting away with the Spanish contingent, and scratched his head in confusion and delight. It reminded me of the radio interviewer who grabbed me on Kings’ Day at the soup kitchen where I volunteer, to ask why I wasn’t volunteering at a dog rescue “like all the other English”. It’s all prejudice, assumptions, misconceptions, a constructed view of the world that usually gets enough reinforcement to enable people to continue with that view. None of the perspectives are particularly critical, just not wholly accurate. And to me it is fascinating to see the mirror held up to us, to see ourselves as some parts of our host country see us.
As immigrants, inevitably there are times when one turns to online information groups, providing information about our areas, in our native language. At times it is simply easier than searching the Spanish press or internet for an answer. Similarly, in the UK, Spanish temporary or permanent visitors and workers create Spanish-language information groups, to explain the bizarre British bureaucracy to new arrivals from Spain, and to share moans about the impenetrability of the English culture, language, and people. “Learn English!” they scream at Spaniards seeking work in the UK. People turn to the forums in exasperation, having gone to the town hall to renew their car tax, and having been told to “Go to Swansea” by a town hall secretary “who doesn’t even speak Spanish!” they complain. If nobody else does first, I jump in to explain that they don’t actually have to “go to Swansea”, it can all be done online or at the Post Office. “How odd” they mutter. “Why do the British make everything so complicated and bureaucratic?”
On a forum of Bristol-based Spaniards, the discussions were getting heated. “It’s impossible to make friends with the English, they are such a closed society.” “Well how good is your English?” “I can’t improve my English till I have more English friends, and I can’t find work without English either.” “So share a house with English.” “No I don’t want to live with them, they have strange habits.” “Yes that’s true, and housing is SOOOooo expensive here.” “Everything is expensive here!” “And the language is impossible, they talk WAY too fast, and they don’t sound like my teacher did.”
Frequently I read sweeping statements about the English, how ALL English people are setting out to rip off the Spanish, how all English landlords are crooks, how the police let the English break the law but jump on the Spanish …. I don’t get involved, I know they are just frustrated. I have read almost identical comments (often much ruder) from British people in Spain, berating the entire nation of Spaniards. In Bristol the argument usually ended with a Spanish person shouting “Well why don’t you just go back to Spain then, if you hate it so much here?”
So we are all aristocrats, we all drink tea at 3.15, and we all speak beautifully. On the other hand we don’t learn foreign languages, we only ever volunteer in animal charities, we have stupid bureaucratic laws designed to oppress incomers, and we hate Spanish people!
Generalisations. Easy to make. Easy to write in a forum of largely like-minded people, and without thinking condemn an entire nation as if they all share personal characteristics. Reading it and hearing it from the other side is an interesting exercise in how we ourselves are seen. And a useful reminder NOT to criticise or lump everyone together. The internet can, at times, be an excellent mirror on ourselves.
© Tamara Essex 2015 http://www.twocampos.com