The story so far

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Pees and Peas

I’ve already noted that the Australians are different to the British in their nature and attitudes. Ultimately, I'd like to understand this culture and learn to appreciate it.

As part of the preparations I have been trying to be more observant about the world around me, I want to appreciate and remember what I love about England but also to understand how other countiries differ.  A recent trip around France and Switzerland gave me the chance to observe the Europeans.  If I could learn to appreciate and even enjoy some aspects of their culture, I thought it would make me more receptive to the Australian way of life.

Some might say that I’m taking it a bit seriously. In fact, reading this if I did not know my own mind, I would concur. However, I do find enjoyment in trying to understand what makes people tick. It’s not a chore, more something that I do for pleasure without effort.
My first opportunity to envelope myself in European culture came at Euro-Disney. My initial observations were tempered by a feeling that no-one really behaves normally at Euro-Disney. Disney has a kind of culture of its own which is built on the need to create a magical experience for kids and perpetuated by the plethora of suited characters skipping nonchalantly around the Disney village.
I know this culture is not based entirely on reality because a colleague at work showed me a wiki site dedicated to the misdemeanours of frustrated fur-clad Disney employees. One article linked to a couple of videos, one of which showed Mini being mounted by Pluto in simulated dog-on-mouse action. A second video, my favourite, showed Tigger lashing out at a child. This is my favourite in so many ways.
The notion that kids can treat the Disney characters like animals and get away with it exasperates me. If it were a real Tiger, the kid would have been eaten alive and the commentators would have said that it is in the nature of a tiger to eat children. But since the tiger is a cuddly man in a suit, it is not allowed to display any base animal instincts. Interestingly, the man in the tiger suit also appeared to have some confusion over his true identity. When asked by police why he hit out, he insisted that the chid was “pulling his tail”.
In any case, I sympathise more with the Disney characters. Tormented by the schizophrenic nature of their existences; having to switch between man and beast on a daily basis, perhaps it is no surprise that their only release is in violence and unadulterated sex acts.
In this environment it is not surprising that I didn’t learn much about Eurpoean culture, but there is a story worth a mention.
In the hotel pool there was a huge Jacuzzi. Hannah and I arrived to find what can only be described as a horde of Spaniards. I guess this was normal behaviour for the Spanish, but it was about 9 pm, way past bed-time and their kids were in the pool despite the “no children” notice on the wall.
I think the British are programmed in general not to break the rules whereas, if I can generalise from this simple example, the Spaniards had no such concerns. What’s more the French lifeguards appeared to have no problem. Zoe and Esme were keen to join the fun, so I took them in. After having told me that I shouldn’t be letting the kids in the pool, Hannah retired to a safe distance and disassociated herself.
In the interest of a cultural experiment, I swallowed my misgivings and entered the bubbling waters. Zoe and Esme soon started to jump around, splashing other bathers and diving in and out from between their legs. I followed the Spanish example and ignored it.
I’ve always had a negative opinion of this sort of behaviour, it seems selfish and arrogant. Having had the chance to be a Spaniard for half an hour or so, I began to gain some insight. It seemed to me that they are just more laid-back. No-one was getting annoyed by the behaviour, no-one was getting stressed and everyone seemed to be enjoying the social family time they were having together.
The British are more considerate, definitely but maybe some of this consideration is over-the-top and causes unnecessary angst. While the Spanish kill bulls and shoot sparrows for fun, they do seem to have got some things right. I got out of the pool, passed the kids back to Hannah and went and got changed, a very relaxed man.
Later in the holiday we drove through France and Switzerland. Having two small kids, we had to stop a few times, so got a good perspective on European toilets. Using the loo in the services in the UK is not pleasant. For the girls, it is particularly bad; at least I get to stand up.
Walking into the services in France was a pleasant surprise. It was clean and they had high technology urinals with all sorts of sensors for deciding when to apply the disinfectant. They even had a good coffee machine in the hall and this was only a petrol station.
Hannah was not so impressed. She of course had been in need of seating. Apparently there were many toilets but none had a seat. This puzzled me. If they can afford high tech light sensitive disinfectant dispensers, surely they could shell out for a few toilet seats. This mystery would stay with me for a few days to come.
As we passed through France, we stopped in a variety of toilets and both Zoe and Esme enjoyed the experience immensely. Especially the “hole in the floor” toilets of which the French appear so proud. For those who have not seen them, they consist of two “Foot Pads” standing proud of a porcelain basin with a hole in the middle. To use them, the assumption is that you assume the Ski-Sunday position, ensure your bottom is hanging well out away from your trouser clad ankles and try not to lose your balance.
By the end of the holiday, Zoe and Esme had perfected the art of standing and weeing “forwards like daddy”. My understanding is that this becomes increasing less possible as the female body develops, otherwise I’m sure they would all be doing it.
The last week of the holiday was spent with Jenny and Jacques in Narbonne. Jenny is an old friend of Hannah’s mum who went to France and married Jacques, a Frenchman. One of the first things I discussed with Jenny was the toilets. They had toilet seats on theirs in their house, but her explanation was quite interesting.
Apparently, toilet seats are unhygienic. Yes, it is bad to pee all over your own crocs, which Zoe was most unhappy about on more than one occasion, but once you have mastered the "French Squat”, not only does it do wonders for your thigh muscles, it also requires no contact with the toilet at all.
We’ve been to stay with Jenny and Jacques before, so the experience came as no surprise but it demonstrated how people can get it right where the culture allows it.
Jacques does work hard as the owner of a garage and car wash. He leaves the house at 7 am and is not back until 7 pm. That is apart from quick trip back for lunch, where he sits down with Jenny and they spend perhaps an hour and a half eating a proper meal, drinking some wine and talking. The same thing happens in the evening. The whole family sits around the table, eats and talks and perhaps spends a couple of hours over it.
One evening, Jenny’s daughter Alix, offered to show us all how to do Sushi. It was great fun, especially watching Jacques making a pig’s ear of it on purpose. Anyway, the point is that where Hannah and I try to make “family time” it is always quite tortuous. In France, they seem to have made an art out of making it a pleasure. Jenny does seem to have to do a lot of hard work though.
Going back to the Sushi, it was my first experience of French Sushi. Normally, I can cope with small amounts of raw fish, especially if heavily disguised in rice and wasabi, however, the French twist on Japanese cooking saw us presented with raw scallops.
I had been on holiday with a friend in Scotland six months before and had refused to eat his “rare scallops”, quite possibly causing irreparable offence. So being presented with raw ones did not bode well. The French contingent ate them though and with national honour at stake, I popped one in. Not a pleasant experience and although I ate several, this was met with slightly derided concern from Jenny. Clearly with the grimace I displayed had not preserved national honour. I had learned one thing however; Gary’s rare scallops are not so bad.
When I write these blogs, I always like to find the message in my observations. In this case, there are several. Looking at the behaviour of other cultures may cause horror or appreciation. But by gaining more diverse experiences, we gain more choice. We get to chose how we behave and we can take the best from all cultures and apply it to our own lives.
Esme demonstrated this perfectly, with Gallic culinary adventurousness; she popped a handful of Japanese wasabi peas into her mouth. She immediately pulled a horrified face and reached for the beer and took a swig. She’s definitely got some English girl in her.
The more I think about it, the more I’m sure we’ll all fit in well in Australia and it’s less than a month to go now…….

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