Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Expat Focus guide to kissing!

Yes, I thought this title would catch your attention - hopefully just in time for the mistletoe.

It's incredible how sometimes when expats are talking about things that worry them, instead of hearing stories of money troubles, children's education or mortgages, one sees furtive glances around followed by the apologetic whisper "I don't know when to kiss the locals!"

For many Anglophones, kissing as a greeting is still comparatively rare. Certainly it's OK between partners, children and parents, and perhaps between close family members, but pecking casual acquaintances on both cheeks remains something that's seen as a slightly suspect continental habit.

That's a little inaccurate though because not all non-English speaking countries accept hugging and kissing as part of polite social greeting. Even in continental Europe it tends to be less common in northern European countries where trying to kiss someone you hardly know by way of a casual 'hello' on the street is likely to get you a rapid elbow in the ribs!

This is of course a well-trodden path of discussion and many others have pointed out that even in reserved countries such as the UK, fashions are changing and kissing of casual acquaintances is becoming more acceptable. That maybe so, but social etiquette here remains a mystery to many Brits, Aussies and Yanks arriving in continental Europe. Clearly the message isn't getting through.

Here are a few tips which I hope will come in handy but I should also say - I'm no expert! Do also remember that customs vary country by country so check with a friendly local first!

1. In the vast majority of countries, a first meeting or two between people is always moderately formal and it is unusual for people to kiss each other the first time they meet. It is usually on subsequent meetings when people start to become acquaintances or casual friends that greetings make the move to kissing.

2. If you're a man and it's a new-ish female acquaintance, transitioning from a handshake greeting to a kiss normally means leaving the decision to the woman. If she offers a cheek and inclines towards you then offer a peck. Just walking up to women you hardly know and 'puckering up' can be seen as lecherous in some societies. Women tend to have more freedom in that respect!

3. In some countries kissing in public between men as a greeting is also acceptable though it tends to be reserved for family members or very good friends. As an expat it is advisable here to be guided by local practice and to avoid taking the initiative.

4. Don't try and plant big wet smackers on the person's lips! Kissing, as a greeting, is in most countries only a light touch on the cheek. Lip-to-lip contact is reserved for romantic encounters, partners or sometimes between very close family members - just as it is in the Anglophone world. Trying to 'plant one' on say your second ever meeting with a neighbour is likely to cause confusion and offence at best and at worst could get you a black eye.

5. In general, the cheeks only lightly touch or perhaps there is the lightest glance of lip-on-cheek. Try to avoid fixing limpet-like onto the side of someone's face!

6. The number of kisses exchanged is impossible to generalise on - just follow the local person's lead and don't chase them for "just one more" as they move away!

7. NEVER try to kiss someone in a formal business or a social situation. Your bank manager won't thank you for trying to grab him across his desk as you walk in. Equally people such as teachers tend to have a certain 'social role' in local societies that means they don't expect parents to kiss them at the school gates each evening etc.

8. Finally, body contact. Remember that personal space is personal space. As a general rule kissing when greeting or parting from people is restricted to cheeks-lips without any other body contact. You will fairly often see this accompanied by a hug, a hand on shoulder or more rarely a full embrace but this is almost always restricted to very close friends or family members. Don't slip you arm around a casual friend's waist when giving them a greeting kiss as it'll be misconstrued - unless that's your intention of course!

9. Finally, be careful with that mistletoe at the Christmas party. Not everyone is familiar with that particular custom and whipping out a bunch of twigs before chasing your colleagues around the room may come back to haunt you!


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Winter's coming

I saw some snow in the air the other day and started thinking about the approaching ‘season to be jolly’.

It’s funny how many expats comment about how ‘seasonal’ things are outside of the Anglophone world.

To an extent I know what they mean.

In the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, we became used to 365 days per year availability of just about everything. Want a peach in December? No problem – your local supermarket has just had a consignment in from Venezuela. Fancy some green beans in March? No problem – help yourself to some over there fresh in from Mexico.

This may sound great and it certainly is convenient, but against that it is part of the same syndrome that means Christmas now is starting in October if you believe the TV and shops, Easter bunnies appear in February, and Halloween costumes appear on the shelves in early September.

Many continental Europeans though find this distinctly odd. They are much more calendar aware than their Anglophone cousins and this affects shopping and lifestyles here. To them there are seasons and life is to some extent built around those seasons.

Now of course if you go into a big supermarket anywhere the chances are you’ll be able to find some out-of-season foodstuffs, particularly in the frozen sections, but you’re likely to see much more seasonal local produce than you will in, say, the UK or USA.

What this means is that in winter you’ll see mainly winter vegetables plus a few exotics perhaps, and in the summer the reverse is true. The natural result of that is you’ll also find some stuff hard to find at certain times of the year if it is out-of-season.

At this stage you may be thinking that the vegetable stocking policies of the major supermarkets don’t exactly make for exciting reading and you’re probably right, but there’s a point to this.

This ‘seasonal mentality’ can be a surprise to expats in a much wider sense also. Take clothing for an example.

In Milan the winter traditionally begins on a certain day. That’s the day that the furs (real or synthetic) and winter clothes come out by convention for public display. It’s not unknown for unseasonably warm weather to mean that people out for their evening promenade will sweat away profusely as they wear their new winter togs but that’s not important. What is important is that winter is here and this demands the public display of winter clothing. So take your choice – sweat and be ‘in tune’ or dress sensibly and get sniggered at!

This seasonality doesn’t only affect clothes and foodstuffs but even household products.

Now, living in town and with no garden, I’m not too bothered about garden materials but I know someone who is and he said he’s pulled his hair out several times over this ‘seasonal madness’ as he calls it.

Being slightly ‘green’ he dutifully went out in April to buy a leaf and branch grinder used in gardens to make compost and mulch. In all his local garden centres he received looks of surprise.

“Why do you want one of those at this time of year?”

Apparently someone somewhere has decided that this sort of task is a winter one so nobody could understand why he wanted one at any other time of the year. Predictably none were in stock and he had to wait until November to get one when magically overnight they appeared in all the shops simultaneously.

When he was called to say one was in stock, he popped down to buy it. He told me that his attempts to convince the shop after loading it into his car that it wasn’t the season for paying bills weren’t too well received.

The moral of this tale for new expats is that if you need something and see it, then assuming you can afford it you should probably buy it then and there. It may well vanish next week and you won’t see one again for another 12 months!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Motoring abroad can drive you mad!

I'm not talking about road signs or even which side of the road one drives on, and I'm certainly avoiding the big subject of motoring politics as passions can run high once people start to debate government spending, pollution, the environment, the wider economy and our 21st century mobile society.

What I'm talking about is just the basic insanity of the way things are done on the roads in every country.

Take Spain for example. There is a new road section that was designated as a motorway. This was hyped as a way of speeding HGVs between two major cities. Predictably enough, the new motorway was immediately turned into a 'payable section' presumably to recover the cost and generate some profit. At face value this makes sense and seems fair - why shouldn't HGV's and other drivers pay a small amount in Euros to save them a lot of time?

The trouble is of course that many HGV drivers, or their companies, now don't use the motorway just to save those few Euros. What has happened is that all the HGVs now use a relatively small rural road that runs parallel to the new motorway and that goes through several villages and small towns. While the motorway sits largely empty, apart from some tourist traffic in season, the local road by contrast is a veritable death trap with 55 tonne, 15-metre long HGVs bumper-to-bumper in convoys that can sometimes stretch half a kilometre or more.

No prizes for guessing that this doesn't stop many drivers from attempting to overtake these vast long chains of HGVs with the all-too-often result that their cars end up reduced to a pile of dust. That's saying nothing about the near impossibility for pedestrians to cross some town centre roads now, as they've become a veritable continuous moving wall of HGVs.

It's hard to see a continuation of this situation as anything other than madness.

Such crazy situations are not the exclusive property of any single country. Take France as another example.

France has some of the best roads in Europe and some of the strictest driving rules including some of the lowest alcohol limits in the EU. Yet it also has one of the highest accident and fatality rates. The number killed on French roads each year is roughly double that of the UK.

Why is this? Well, for many decades people have claimed that driving standards in France, Spain and Italy were much lower than those in Northern Europe. Highly controversial stuff and I make no judgement, but it is interesting to see that the French government is now openly questioning the 'macho' and low-driving skill culture that accompanies much road use in France. They have even decided for the first time to introduce eyesight tests as part of the driving test following a case where someone almost totally blind was found to have passed.

Yet in all countries by focusing on the absurd the authorities continue to alienate the vast majority of road users of all types; including expats, who welcome sensible laws and restrictions. I know of one police random vehicle roadside check recently that fined a British expat because the screws that secured his number plate were plastic. Apparently they should have been metal. In another case an expat was fined because his wing mirror had a small crack in it and another got off with a stern warning because his licence plate on a towed trailer was not displayed at the correct minimum height.

In the case of the plastic screws the driver was told "if you live in our country you need to respect our laws". Nobody I hope would question that statement but in view of the totality of the challenge faced by global societies in the domain of transport policy and road safety, does this sort of action help anyone?

All over Europe these major road transport issues are of concern to people. I don't have the answers any more than anyone else but I am sure that cracking down hard on things such as plastic screws on number plates will play no part in the solution. What do you think? Do you have any experiences to share?

Monday, December 08, 2008

We’re Not Expats – We’re American!

I’ve heard that said. In a shop once somebody asked an American couple if they were expats and they replied, “No, we’re American.”

I’ve also had a similar experience with a British couple who, when I asked if they were expats also replied “No, we’re British just living here”.

This is thought-provoking stuff in its way. Ok, in both cases they may just not have been familiar with the term ‘expat’ but it also begs some questions such as - where is this country called Expatria? Who is in charge? What flag does it have? Is it in NATO? I think we should be told!

Joking apart, does any tangible ‘thing’ called an expat exist? Does a foreigner living in Spain have much in common with one living in Australia or Belgium? Are the issues and interests of a US expat living in the Middle East on a lucrative 2-year corporate relocation deal even remotely connected with those of the British family that has just purchased a tiny sardine fishing business on one of the wilder parts of the Portuguese coast?

It would be easy to say ‘no’. Clearly walking into a social services department in Norway to seek help and then demonstrating to them your encyclopaedic knowledge of how the system works in Greece is, well, not likely to get you much other than a warm handshake as they show you quickly to the door marked ‘exit’. Trying to get a will made out in Sydney isn’t going to be made easier by the fact a fellow expat has just briefed you extensively by phone on how things work in Croatia.

There’s no substitute for local expertise and local help. Your special Expatrian salute (a blank, wide-eyed and terrified expression with hands held aloft in the universal gesture of “I haven’t a clue what’s going on”) won’t in itself achieve much locally – other than laughter.

Yet expats do have many themes in common, and there is real value in sharing experiences even across national boundaries. Few expats have made the transition entirely without the odd trauma or two and recognising that the odd problem is not the same thing as ‘game over’ can be useful. Some lessons are also universal, such as the need to integrate with the local society you’ve joined and the perils of becoming subsumed into, and dependent upon, a local expat micro-society and culture.

Not only that, but we can all be inspired by the stories of expats elsewhere who have made a success of their new lives in foreign lands, sometimes overcoming huge obstacles en-route. OK perhaps we’re not planning to start that cricket farm in the middle of Amazonia, but reading that someone has and has been successful can be inspirational. It’s easy to forget that the majority of expats have success stories as to how they have transformed their lives for the better. If they can be persuaded to share these stories, then new or potential expats would do well to listen.

So, maybe Expatria does exist after all and is the world’s first cyber-country. I’m off now to draft up a constitution and whistle up a quick national anthem. By teatime we should be ready for our first revolution followed by civil war.

Long live Expatria!