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Friday April 18, 2014

How character traits can give expats away

Walking in the sunny port with a Majorcan friend I allowed myself a wonderfully touristy indulgence and bought an ice cream. A minute later as we pottered along the shoreline, the waves caressing our toes, my ice fell off the cone and plopped into the water. I shrugged, tittered and walked on but my chum was having none of it.

She flapped her own cone in the air and stood over the offending spot lamenting loudly like a heroine from a Greek tragedy and insisted – while other beach-goers gawped in amusement – that we return to the ice cream parlour post haste. Of course I just wanted minimum fuss and to carry on as though nothing had happened. ‘Oh you’re so British!’ she scolded and how right she was. I’m not a great one for scenes of any kind and I do think that’s a peculiarly British trait. Naturally she won her corner and after a lively re-enactment of my incompetence at the ice cream stall – deftly jumping the queue of tourists while she was at it – the giggling salesgirl kindly offered me another ice free of charge. I made sure the second didn’t meet the same fate.

All the same, while I might, in true British style, shy away from awkward scenarios, I’ve developed a few bullish native habits since living as an expat in Majorca. When I first arrived in my mountain town I’d dutifully queue behind a large throng of tourists in the supermarket or newspaper shop. Now I often copy the locals and just head straight for the counter, leave the exact money for my purchases, smile and leave. And then there’s the Spanish habit of flashing headlights when driving behind a dawdling holidaymaker on a narrow mountain road – a blatant hint for the offending driver to pull over. On scenic routes in precarious zones I marvel at how many tourists actually stop dead on the road to take pictures of the vistas, seemingly immune to the dangers. Now I think nothing of flashing my lights and indicating that I’d like to overtake, both for their safety and mine.
I remember when I used to invite Majorcan friends to lunch or dinner and fret when they didn’t arrive at the appointed hour. Soon I learnt that time is fluid when it comes to dining. Most Majorcans won’t begin Sunday lunch until 2pm or later so guests rarely pitch up more than half an hour beforehand and at dinner no earlier than 8.30pm especially in the hotter months. I’ve therefore adopted a similar attitude and enjoy the freedom that this affords. Of course, as the hostess it’s essential that whatever dishes are prepared can be easily kept warm or won’t spoil if guests are very tardy.

In Spain too it’s essential to become more robust when dealing with bureaucrats. I’m much better at remonstrating with civil servants and voicing my frustration than when I first arrived. It’s not about being discourteous, rather being upfront and honest, qualities that are employed quite startlingly in Majorca. If I say to a Majorcan friend that I’ve put on weight, she’ll not remonstrate politely as a Briton might, but will in all probability agree, albeit with a giggle. I like the no nonsense approach of locals and at times wish I employed it more. Rather than take a neighbour to task who’s caused offence – as many a Majorcan would – I’m still inclined to pussyfoot around the issue, discussing the matter cautiously with friends and other neighbours before taking action.

And despite best efforts to curtail my constant use of the words sorry, excuse me and thank you in any given situation, they stubbornly trip off the tongue showing that for all my attempts at assimilation into Majorcan rural life, some old British habits die hard.

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