Monday, March 09, 2009

The (expatriate) outdoor life

Recently I was ‘doing the expat thing’ and comparing cultures.

While strolling around Paris during a brief trip, I was struck by the numbers of people sitting outside the café’s taking their coffees in the open air.

It was mid-morning and there was a fairly stiff and chilly wind. It wasn’t actually raining but there was a grey dampness in the air and overall my first thought was a hot chocolate by a fire was more in order rather than watching the world go by on a pavement café.

Still, in my experience many continental cities take the ‘outdoors’ rather more seriously than many in the English speaking world.

Now this is normally attributed to weather and there’s some truth in that. Clearly a tearoom in, say, Aberdeen is going to have rather fewer opportunities to get out the tables and parasols than one in Marseille or Rome.

Yet this isn’t really the only explanation. The weather in Calais, Dieppe or Zeebrugge isn’t really any different to that just across a short distance of water in England in places such as Dover, Newhaven or Felixstowe, yet even on a nice day you’ll have trouble finding an outside café in those English towns, whereas they’re common in their partner ports on the continent.

Many people have pontificated on this and never reached a satisfactory conclusion, so I’m not going to try! What I will say is that it seems obvious that getting that ‘fresh air’ when eating or drinking is somehow a more central part of many cultures that it is in the English-speaking world. In many overseas cities it doesn’t even have to be sunny – just the absence of rain will be enough to get the tables and chairs springing up on the pavements.

I re-convinced myself of this basic truth by admiring the determination of the local Parisians to experience the open air and happened to mention this later in the day to someone I was talking to.

“What do you mean?” they responded.

So I ran through my observations and wise conclusions about the differences between Parisians and Londoners in this respect.

“You’d never get Londoners sitting outside in this weather” I sagely commented.

My companion sighed.

“It is nothing to do with determination to get outside. The weather is too miserable for that. It is just that the law now forbids smoking inside public premises like cafés so people have to sit outside to smoke. No French person would be stupid enough to sit outside in this weather unless they had to.”

Embarrassed at my dismal failure to think laterally for reasons people could all be sitting outside, I changed the subject quickly.

It just goes to show – don’t be too quick to attribute explanations to things because they happen to fit your own prejudices and opinions!

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