A Spanish friend, newly arrived in the UK, recently pulled my leg about the bizarre habits and sensibilities of his London work colleagues. He told me that at lunchtime fellow workers often stayed at their desks furtively munching sandwiches, crisps and chocolate bars while he set off for pastures new, enjoying a salad, omelette, olives and occasional glass of red wine with lively conversation in a nearby bar. Although he hadn’t seen too much evidence of egg and bacon fry ups being consumed at breakfast time, he confirmed that practically everybody in his office arrived with steaming cups of coffee from Starbucks normally accompanied by sugary treats.
Apparently when he jokingly told his immediate boss that he wasn’t surprised that there was an obesity problem in the UK, he got short shrift and his witty observations about the British inability to function without saying ‘sorry’, ‘cheers’ and ‘thanks’ was also met with a frown. He told me that he’d now come up with a ‘no go’ topic list when in conversation with sensitive Britons. These included foxhunting, pub culture, the British diet, criticising the Queen, her corgis or certain football teams and managers, discussing Britain’s class system, accidentally referring to Britain (and more specifically Scotland) as England and asking people what salaries they earned.
In his opinion nostalgic BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers offered a great many insights into the repressed British character summed up in the hilarious episode when hotel owner Basil Fawlty in a concussed state desperately attempts to avoid the tricky subject of World War II with some German guests only to end up mentioning it constantly.
I argued that it could be just as difficult for Britons to adapt to Spanish sensibilities. For example it was wise to tread with extreme caution when discussing bullfighting, Catholicism, Gibraltar or the Spanish Civil War, whether mayonnaise really came from Mahón and the merits of Iberico jamón over Italian prosciutto. Much as he concurred, he maintained that his countrymen were far more robust and able to deal with awkward subject matter than their British counterparts who silently fumed or often seemed to take everything personally.
The matter of patiently queuing for buses or standing on the right-hand side of escalators on the underground in order to let fast walkers pass, baffled him. He also found the nation’s love of punctuality rather obsessive and wondered why everyone dined so early. All the same he conceded that it was hard to beat the subtleties of English humour which seemed to infuse every day life.
Given his misgivings, I suggested that he must surely be rueing the day that he ever decided to move to the country. To my surprise he looked appalled, informing me that I was quite wrong and that he wouldn’t change his job – or the British character for that matter – for all the world.
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