Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Do people measure "value" differently abroad?

A local town hall administrative office has just been renovated.

Prior to renovation its décor was I suppose 1980/90(ish) in style and looking a little dated but actually everything was in very good condition and perfectly functional.

Then they announced plans to update it. It seemed logical enough although the allocated budget looked large to me. As the work progressed the reason for this became clearer. Fully automatic tinted glass doors have been installed, brand spanking new and very trendy floor tiles laid and hardwood service counters with solid marble (yes MARBLE) tops set up.

It is without doubt a great job, and if I have to go inside I sometimes wonder if I should put on slippers and white gloves.

Also by chance, I recently accompanied a friend to a local ‘child benefit’ government office. I’d never been in one here before and was shocked speechless upon entry. It was like walking onto the bridge of the starship Enterprise. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

State-of-the-art giant plasma screens showing names and positions in the queue to see someone, automated name paging, staff sitting on ‘Captain Kirk’ chairs behind banks of consoles using touch-sensitive screens, and some form of entertainment system to watch whilst waiting. When directed to go upstairs I couldn’t help thinking “should we take the lift or are they going to beam us up?”

I was discussing these two perceptions in a bar with some local friends who spoke with obvious pride of these developments. Whilst agreeing, I asked “yes, but what do we get for it?”

Stunned silence. After several seconds of looking at each other, my friends said, “what do you mean?” I realised I was potentially in trouble but decided to charge the guns head-on.

“Well, the service in the town hall was excellent before and the décor fine. Now we’ve refurbished it at large cost, will our services improve or taxes come down? In the child benefit office, are people now getting served faster, their payments made more quickly or getting more child benefit paid?”

Once again I witnessed several faces looking at each other in bafflement. Clearly we were just not speaking the same language.

One of them, older and wiser than the others, scratched his chin knowingly and reached over to pat me on the hand.

“You’re British and a child of Thatcher. You think this way and ask these difficult questions”.

Now I didn’t for a second understand his explanation and I certainly don’t think of myself as Thatcherite (far from it!) Even so, everyone else nodded enthusiastically as if his few words of wisdom answered everything perfectly well.

Perhaps many people overseas are less cost-benefit conscious than those in the English-speaking world. Perhaps their civic pride is such that they just take pleasure in seeing their state buildings equipped to the latest standard and cost is not an issue for them. It certainly made me think…

Monday, February 23, 2009

Being polite in a foreign land - harder than it sounds!

Social conventions and customs are wonderful things. For the green expat, getting it wrong can be humiliating though fortunately rarely serious. I’ve commented before about how etiquette blunders can cause red faces, but sometimes over-eager advice can also be misleading.

Take someone I know who went to live in Australia. Somebody ‘helpful’ told him that to spare his blushes, when invited to a barbecue he should ‘take his own plate’. Thinking that there was clearly a national shortage of crockery in Australia, he duly did so. Upon arrival his shiningly empty plate presented at the food counter was greeted with looks of blank incomprehension. Apparently ‘the plate’ referred to here, was meat or other food contribution for the Barbie not a physical plate in itself.

He said he would have preferred to arrive with nothing rather than present an empty plate and he was less than appreciative of the imprecise advice he’d received!

Another expat I know in France was told by an equally well intentioned cultural expert that in France one never took wine as a dinner gift for the hosts because this insulted their own cellars and wine collection. That evening the expat visitor proudly announced to the dinner party how his research had saved his blushes, only to be shocked to find that none of the French people present had a clue what he was talking about. They had never heard of any such convention. They welcomed gifts of wine and emptied them without any sense of ‘offence’ at all!

Advice on language use can also be wrong. Some language guides for those languages that have a formal and familiar structure for ‘YOU’ offer a good example. Many insist from page-1 that the formal version of the language is now virtually obsolete and “of course” everyone younger than about 125 automatically uses the familiar.

Armed with this advice the expat rampages around firing off their newly learned ‘familiar’ vocabulary and grammar in all directions.

Suddenly the realisation hits home! They’re causing confusion and possibly offence because, against all advice to the contrary, the formal form of the language is not only alive and kicking but also in fact de-rigueur in many situations.

So, why are all these experts so full of good advice that is, sadly, sometimes so wrong?

Quite simply, the world is a complex and diverse place. The social customs in one area may be different to those in another. It’s not unusual to find customs and practices in one village that are significantly different to those in another only a few kilometres away.

Age can also be a factor as what someone of 20 thinks of as ‘acceptable’ may well not be what people of 45 think polite.

It is a brave person who offers advice on everything to do with the social customs in a country and however good they are, they’re going to be wrong from time to time!

If you really want to do some background research you can try searching the web for your destination country and ‘etiquette’ or ‘customs’. Some of these sites are excellent mines of information and you’ll have fun browsing. Just remember to keep a sense of proportion and don’t try and comply with every single subtle nuance from day-1 in your new country or you’ll never leave home without a pile of inhibitions.

Almost everyone enjoys talking about the customs and conventions of their country, area or town, so don’t be afraid to ask locally as well. You’ll learn a lot and local people will appreciate your interest!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Location, location, location

I had to smile recently when reading an article on the energy crisis and global warming – not normally two subjects likely to generate sidesplitting laughter I know.

The article was discussing many options including nuclear, and pointed out that France gets about 80% of its electricity from nuclear power stations. This means that although it is not exactly ‘green’ in that respect, it is in fact relatively unaffected in power supply terms by global price increases and shortages of things such as coal, gas and oil.

One indignant person had appended a comment to the effect that they were glad they lived in England on the beautiful southern coast and not close to any horrible nuclear plants that must be a constant worry to French people and Britons living in France.

This is why I smiled because in reality, based on geography the writer was probably a lot closer to some of those French nuclear stations than many French people or British expats are! Perhaps in the event of a disaster the wind will obligingly refuse to blow northwards.

At the same time, the article and its responses got me thinking a little bit about attitudes to the environment and how one can get used to almost anything.

In many European countries for example, it has always seemed to me as if people care less about living close to roads and traffic than they do in the USA or UK. I have sometimes spoken to people living on busy roads who seem surprised if asked about the noise or dirt etc. Now, in the USA or UK there are of course millions living close to roads or railway tracks but almost invariably they are not happy about it and wish things were different.

This also applies to things such as nuclear power. I am always surprised when speaking to French people how apparently indifferent most are to the subject – even those living close to one of the many nuclear stations. “Power Station?” seems to be the sort of puzzled response one gets when talking to folk living in the shadow of the cooling towers.

Smell is another good if controversial example. In Scotland I know of a town (my self-preservation instinct prevents me from naming it!) that has on its outskirts a large chicken-processing factory. If the wind is in a certain direction, outsiders in the town tend to try and find a gas mask PDQ. Yet the locals don’t notice a thing.

Similarly if you’ve ever passed close to a village or town with pig farms around then you’ll also have found your nose violently assaulted by the smells as the local people go about their business seemingly with no obvious effects.

In the end it probably boils down to a combination of beauty being in the eye (or nose!) of the beholder and what one gets used to.

So, should you buy that expat property that is perfect apart from the fact that it sits directly outside of the main gate of the local concrete factory and just opposite the main reactor for the area’s nuclear power station? I couldn’t possibly comment!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Laws, forms and freedoms

Having spent a lot of time recently watching the political broadcasts from the USA, I thought I’d put a toe in the dangerous sea of politics for a change - though not involving the USA.

Many Anglophone expats find other countries to be full of laws, rules, regulations, and to make sure all this ‘works’, piles of administration in daily life.

This is a big subject and I’m not sure anyone has ever performed a truly objective study that proves that number of laws and administration in say many continental European countries is necessarily greater than that in the UK or USA etc. Even so, the perception is widespread and even many Spaniards, Germans, French and Italians with experience of living in the UK or USA, will say that they believe that they have more laws and rules etc in their countries than in the Anglophone world.

So if we start to think there may be something in this, and of course I know many will not, what is the explanation?

Well, there are dozens offered by people who have extensively studied this possibly non-existent phenomenon. I don’t know, but I’ll offer up two that struck me as interesting.

1. The state as a job creator.
2. The differences between the origins of different legal systems.

The first one above is fairly easy. Many countries have a deep-rooted socialist inclination that suggests the state is responsible directly for job creation. Therefore vast numbers of petty laws are passed that need to be administered by equally vast numbers of civil servants. To justify their existence more laws are therefore created and in turn administered and so on as it becomes a self-perpetuating machine. I read recently that almost one third of all French working people work directly or indirectly for the state!

The second explanation is interesting for different reasons. This looks at the different bases of the law between the so-called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and continental worlds.

This theory argues that much continental European law is based upon Church or religious law modified by the Napoleonic codes etc. In these societies the law is seen as providing and guaranteeing freedoms. So, if you need to be free to do something, then a just law is written and subsequently administered to guarantee your freedom to do what you need to.

The implication of this is that technically you are NOT free to do something ‘new’ until the law and administration is in place to give you your freedom.

In the Anglo-Saxon world of course it’s a bit different (in theory). Here one is ‘born free’ and nobody has the authority to write laws to give you your freedom because you have it already. The government does not have the power or right to give you freedom through the law, governments only have the power to pass laws to effectively limit or restrict freedoms in the wider interests of the greater good of society.

In theory one does not need permission by law to do something new – by definition it is legal unless the law states otherwise. So the argument goes that in this scenario it is actually ‘harder’ for governments in the English-speaking world to pass laws as they’re perceived to be restrictive.

It’s all pretty heavy stuff as an explanation for why I seem to spend a lot of time form-filling - but interesting nonetheless!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Expats and identity cards abroad

Few expats ever come into contact with local law enforcement agencies and, of course, want to keep it that way.

Life's never predictable though, and there is always the chance that one will get pulled over in that random roadside check of vehicles, or even in these security conscious days, when walking along a street.

It doesn't matter very much what colour uniform the policeman is wearing, one of the first questions s/he's likely to ask is to see your identity card and/or driving licence.

This is an important point to note for some expats - particularly those from the UK. In the UK the subject of compulsory identity cards remains highly controversial and, as far as I know, it is not mandatory to carry one's driving licence when driving.

By contrast, in many countries it is obligatory to carry an id card and, if driving, to have on your person your driving licence.

For many British expats this means they are particularly prone to having to say the equivalent of "sorry officer, I don't have it on me" as it isn't their natural instinct to think about such things when leaving home.

Now, in most countries of the world this does not mean you're automatically shot the following dawn, but it can cause you serious difficulties in some trouble spots. Even in EU countries some police officers view it as suspicious and then you have two things going against you - firstly you're a foreigner and secondly a foreigner without identity!

The position sometimes can even be absurd. In some countries for example, local citizens must by law carry an identity card at all times although paradoxically there is no such requirement for foreigners - much to the chagrin of the locals who perhaps understandably can't quite see the logic!

The upshot is, it's best if you try and keep some form of identity on you at all times. Avoid carrying a passport though, they're bulky and also valuable, making them a prime target for thieves.

It's also best to avoid the response I once heard from a Briton who'd been stopped by a policeman: "I don't need an identity card, I'm British and I already know who I am".

Funny and true, perhaps, but sadly the policeman didn't appreciate the humour!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Embarrassing expat moments

Some years ago in the pre-Euro world an English expat was buying me lunch in France.

She’d ordered a bottle of bottle of wine. As I wasn’t paying I hadn’t taken too much notice of the price but when the bill arrived she visibly paled and called the waiter over.

“You’ve charged 200francs for this wine and it was priced at ninety-something on the menu”

The waiter said that such a low price for that wine was impossible, but at her instance he went to check the menu. He gave her a menu that she examined, at which point she triumphantly exclaimed –

“Yes, there it is – 91francs!”

The waiter looked at her with that pitying expression the French reserve for Anglophones speaking of cuisine related issues

“Madame, that is the vintage – it is a [19]91”

‘Beetroot red’ doesn’t fully describe the colour of her face!

The faux pas is inevitable for expats. Sooner or later you can be sure you’re going to transgress some local custom you didn’t even know existed or shoot yourself in the foot with some ham-fisted handling of the local language etc.

Even speaking English in an English-speaking country doesn’t guarantee safety.

A friend told me of an experience he had in Melbourne having been there only 3 days. After working late he’d gone into a local Indonesian restaurant at about 10pm to order a take-away. Whilst waiting at a table he’d asked the waitress for a beer to which she’d smiled and said

“Yes, that’ll be fine thanks”
“Sir, we are a BYO restaurant”
“OK fine, I’ll have a bottle of BYO”

At this point he realised several diners at tables were laughing. One said

“Nah, you don’t understand Pommie, there’s no alcohol licence here – this is a ‘Bring Your Own’ place”.

Humiliated, exit stage left to mass public guffaws.

These are amusing tales in the re-telling though at the time they’re maybe less funny for those caught in them.

So can you do much to prepare for them? Nope!

The life of an expat is new and exciting and there’s no way you’re going to become an overnight expert in the culture you’re joining, so prepare for the odd humiliation. On the plus side though, although humour isn’t universal, laughter is.

Nothing breaks down barriers faster than a good laugh. If your error is the cause of it, well, turn it into something positive by sharing the laugh.

Not all faux pas, though, are quite so trivial and the embarrassment can be more severe.

In several countries, aperitifs are an established social custom. The timings and implications vary by country and region, but in general an invitation for an aperitif means an early evening drink and a few little snacks pre-dinner and, critically, the departure of the guests BEFORE dinner.

This is where many Anglophones become confused, because in the UK an invitation to have aperitifs at, say, 7 means that dinner will follow at roughly 8.

One family I know were invited to aperitifs at 7 and smelled delicious cooking. Having enjoyed snacks, drinks and pleasant chitchat to about 8.30, they noticed that conversation was flagging rather. To kick-start things again they innocently asked what time they were eating. Cue many red faces and the hosts’ disappearance into the kitchen. Entering to offer help, the British visitors found their hosts frantically defrosting beef burgers to try and supplement the food they had prepared just for themselves. Cue even more red faces!

Such things are part and parcel of settling into a new life and culture. Have fun!

Monday, February 02, 2009

Dumbing down

I once saw a programme about ‘dumbing down’ in our society. This particular programme happened to be British but I suspect there are similar shows in most countries.

In this one, a group of 15/16-year-old British students were heading for France on exchange visits. In spite of studying the French language, nobody in the group could name a single famous French person either alive or dead. One then had a flash of inspiration and shouted out “Plastic Bertrand”, who in fact is Belgian and I think an entertainer/ex pop star.

Whether People such as Voltaire, Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie Curie, Charles de Gaulle and even Zinedine Zidane for that matter, would be happy to know that their fame would be less long lasting than that of Plastic Bertrand I don’t know.

The same group equally struggled to identify a single German they’d heard of apart from, with sad predictability, a short man with a moustache – and even he was Austrian.

This isn’t just restricted to British teenagers. Many adults from the UK who become expats actually have a poor understanding of the geography, history and politics of the country they’re moving to. I’ve met British people in The Netherlands that could not name the capital city and others in France who had no idea at all who was President or what the French national anthem is called. One expat I spoke to in Spain didn’t know which city was the Spanish capital and had also never heard of General Franco.

This isn’t one sided either. I’ve met Europeans living in the UK who have little knowledge of the UK outside of London and a few limited parts of the South-East of England. Many have had some truly bizarre ideas about the role of the royal family in British daily affairs.

I guess one needs to ask whether or not all this ignorance matters? If I’m sitting in a café in Amsterdam, completely content and minding my own business, does the world stop if I can’t bring to mind immediately the name of the Polish Prime Minister, the name of the second largest city in Slovenia, or the names of all the constituent peoples of Spain?

No, I guess not, but I’d like to think that if I was living in Poland, Slovenia or Spain, then I’d be able to have a pretty good go at getting the answers right!

Yet one could even question that. If you’re sitting in that café this time in Sydney where you now live, does it matter if you mistakenly believe you’re in the capital city of Australia? After all, surely all these things are only important in a quiz show?

This really is at the crux of the issue and relates to how expats of any nationality in any country integrate into their new society. How good is your knowledge of your new home?