22 October 2011

Twitches and traits

Teufelsbruck, Großer Hamburg

One of the first things you’ll notice if working or spending time with German people on their home turf is their near-obsession with opening windows “to get some fresh air”.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. And the same terrifying thought crossed my mind too: “perhaps I may have BO and perhaps that’s what’s driving them all to that!”. At the end of the day, how many non-fresh-smelling people that you know are aware of the biggest cardinal sin of all (i.e. inflicting BO upon innocent victims)?

However, relief came when I heard other non-Germans also remarking about it (not the BO, but the serial window-opening).

In other words, no matter if it’s pissing it down, or the temperature is minus, or there’s gale force ten outside, within five minutes any of your fellow workmates will race to fling open the window “to get some fresh air”. Often they even do it as they walk into an empty room or environment that smells completely neutral or clean - which is why such behaviour reeks of compulsion to me...

You’ll also notice that on trains and metros. It may be cold and miserable out there, but on hops a sour-faced dickhead and, guaranteed, a window or two will be flung open in no time at all, meaning that everybody else sitting in the line of fire will enjoy a pleasantly freezing journey as well as a windswept hairdo.

But that aside, another interesting trait you find across Germany is the staggering number of people carrying “Thermos flasks” (known as Thermoskanne or Thermosflasche) around. Whether spring, summer or winter, you’ll witness lots of Germans of all ages and genders producing plastic or metal containers and helping themselves to a hot drink on public transport as well as in the workplace.

Also, in common with the English (see below), the Germans share a penchant for weather-related small talk. You’ll find it’s the perfect ice breaker in virtually all situations.

On to language traits, a newcomer to Germany will marvel at the sheer amount of times he or she will hear two expressions in particular. One is Ach so! which, given the spectacular frequency your average German will say it, must mean a concoction of “oh right”, “well”, “so”, “I see”, “I understand now”, “ok”, “ah…” and much more.

The second is “genau”. Everything, for a German, will be “genau”. You hear it or overhear it everywhere. It translates as “exactly”, but its meaning ranges from simple approval to the equivalent of a silent nod. Interestingly, even the most fluent English-speaking German will often let “genau” slip untranslated, which is a sign of a very endearing and quite harmless twitch.

San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque)

As for many other aspects, it is absolutely crucial here to distinguish between Catalonia and Spain.

And I’m afraid the Catalans come off worst here. In particular, I’m referring to the concept of “personal space”, which really seems almost totally alien to your average Catalan.

Cue what seems like an innate need to almost snog you as they’re telling you anything as mundane as last night’s Champions League results or how windy it is. And do watch out for extra discomfort in the event you find yourself cornered against a wall, in which case you may need to come up with something that will allow you to wriggle out.

As already touched upon in the chapter ‘manners’, many Catalans will also find it totally and honestly normal to barge past you. I remember a particularly amusing (but telling) vignette in a supermarket called Mercadona, a kind of Spanish cross between Tesco and Lidl - no frills without being officially a discount chain.

There was a bloke with his shopping trolley hogging the aisle without giving the faintest shit about whether anybody needed to walk past him. Sure enough, it was seconds before a queue built up except that nobody said anything. Nothing. Not a single “perdona”, “lo siento” or even a “tut” to draw the zombie’s attention to the fact that he needed to get out of the way. What happened was that the woman behind him literally squeezed past him and his trolley, displaying remarkably acrobatic skills like you’ll never see in any supermarket around the world.

This is a truly typical trait of Catalonia. No-one will get out of the way and nobody will ask you to either. It’s your problem if you want to get past me and that is that - so you’d better start sharpening your elbows.

Nothing however, is so amazingly gobsmacking as the fact that at least 90 per cent of Catalan women over the age of 60 look so miserable and pissed off. They really do.

This is something I noticed especially when I got back to Catalonia after time spent in the rest of Spain or in other countries altogether. Why do they do that? They look like a pongy sock had been permanently pegged under their nostrils, a combination of fed-up ("tips", in Catalan) and wretched that I have only witnessed with the same virulence amongst women in southern Italy (for which there exists the wonderful expression “ingrugnita, a cross between sulky and sour-faced).

Perhaps, I concluded when my life there came to an end, it’s the result of decades spent fighting their way past each other on their route to the corner shop.

For clarity, let me repeat once again that you don’t find the same behaviour, or at least not to the same extent, in the rest of Spain. Anywhere but Catalonia, people are more likely to move out of the way or utter a “sorry” as they try to walk past you.

Common to the whole of Spain, however, is the notion of fixed staring, especially from older people, and especially if they hear you speak a language that isn’t Spanish. Note that it’s not a hostile look we’re talking about. They just stare at you, until you stare back and smile, in which case they’ll instantly look down to the floor as if someone had scraped their arsehole with a sharp twig.

On to linguistic traits, there are also geographical differences, but most Spaniards will invariably begin a sentence with “Es que” (the thing is), “Pues” (which after so many years I still wouldn’t know how to translate exactly) and, especially in Catalonia, “Bueno”, which is the direct equivalent of “well”. As for northern Spain, the Asturians love to throw in a “Osea” (“that is to say”) or two whenever they can.

Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex

We already discussed at length the Brits’ dysfunctional relationship with drinks. But it’s not just alcoholic beverages that deserve a mention, you’ll find that most British people will have to constantly fiddle with a drink, whether it’s their world-famous cup of tea or a bottle of (flavoured) water we’re talking about.

Let’s begin with tea. Like you may clock if you watch any English soap, during the time of the day when booze is not allowed, cups of tea will be churned out at industrial frequency.

Has your boyfriend dumped you? Let me make you a cuppa and you’ll tell me all about it. Was your dog runover? Oh, sorry love, have a cup of tea and you’ll feel better. Is your boss acting like a right cunt? Gowon, have a nice “cuppatea” and get it off your chest.

For reference, get hold of Mike Leigh’s film Vera Drake and see if you can keep track of how many cups of tea are dispensed (see here), a remarkably faithful depiction of the central role they play in British life. There is basically no conversation or exchange taking place without the hot brew being dispensed.

A precious tip. Don’t forget that if you’re standing in the same room as other people and you fancy a cup of tea yourself, the ritual goes that you will be absolutely expected to make tea (or coffee, just in case "tea isn’t everyone’s cup-of-tea", see what I’m doing here?) for each and everyone. Make a cup of tea just for yourself without asking the others first and you’ll be looked at like the equivalent of a convicted rapist.

This may explain the extreme popularity of the kettle. While virtually unknown in most other countries (for instance, most Americans won’t even know what it is), no flat, house, workplace, office or rehearsal room will be complete without Britain’s most treasured electrical appliance.

Incidentally, yes, British tea is indeed the best you’ll ever try and, yes, PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea or Tetleys won’t find any rival anywhere.

Tea (and obviously booze) aside, like we were saying above, most Brits seem to have a compulsion to fiddle with a drink.

For starters, you’ll find that very few drink plain water (whether from the tap or bottled). If they can’t get hold of a cup of tea, many British people will nurse a bottle of blackcurrent or peach or whatever-flavoured water they can grab (for the record, I’m absolutely convinced that the UK must account for at least 80 per cent of the global flavoured water market).

Most puzzlingly, however, this aversion to natural mineral water ends the moment Brits step into airports.

Now, please try this the next time you fly. Join any queue for a UK-bound flight, whether at the check-in or at departures and tell me if close to 100 per cent of British-sounding travellers aren’t holding a bottle of water.

Seriously. The Brits will have the concept of keeping well-hydrated down to a T. Nevermind the temperature out there and nevermind if they’re likely to piss like racehorses while on board, most British tourists will be grabbing a bottle of Vittel, Highland Spring, Volvic or whatever as if world desertification was only a quarter of an hour away.

Moving away from liquids, other distinctive traits to stem from Britain include the relentless quest for look-alikes while socialising. A typical mates’ conversation in a pub is likely to be centred around things like “that bloke over there looks like John from work” or, “the barman is the spitting image of Phil Mitchell from Eastenders” or, “shit mate, I never realised you look like Steve Gerrard’s twin brother”, and so on.

On to linguistic twitches, though there are loads of regional variations, you find that newer generations are quite partial to sticking the word "like" anywhere within a sentence, possibly even outdoing so called blank-words such as "you know", "umm", "right" and "well".

Finally, of course, there’s the nation’s favourite topic for small talk, the weather, but nowhere near as much as the supremely distinctive trait of having people munching on snacks as they walk down the street (try between 11am and 3pm on any high street in England and count the amount of crisps, chocolate bars, wraps from Boots and sausage rolls from Greggs that people will manage to guzzle while walking). No wonder it’s statistically proven that the Brits are the biggest snack-eaters in Europe.

Trani, Puglia

At the risk of sounding clichéd, when discussing Italian traits and twitches you cannot get away from the mind-bogglingly high level of gesticulation (see this excellent link).

This reaches spectacular levels in the South of the country. Interestingly, most Northern Italians (who would already make it to the podium at the European Championships of Unnecessary Hand Signals) would remark at how much people in the south gesticulate.

And it’s true. Anywhere south of Florence you’ll notice people that would never drown even if they tried if only they started talking while under water.

It really beggars belief. From wobbling preying hands (think Italian football players moaning at the referee), to pressing the tips of their fingers together while waggling the hands about, to waving arms around, to doing a chicken impression which is a cross between nodding, looking disgusted and performing half a shrug (think of Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents), extreme gesticulation in Italy is un-bel-iev-able.

Most puzzling is the fact that each of those gestures has rarely got anything to do with the subject that is being discussed. As in, it’s not as if all the signalling was aimed at helping comprehension. You may be having a row, complaining or discussing the merits of the local cuisine: it wouldn’t matter one bit, you still have to wave your arms about.

Italians are also known around the world for doing a Bono and wearing their treasured sunglasses no matter the weather conditions or time of the day. Reveal to an Italian that you don’t own a pair of sunglasses (especially if designer ones) and they’ll look at you as if you were mental (and probably mime it too).

More, as already mentioned in the fashion chapter, even though they hail from one of the warmest countries in Europe, most Italian people will wear clothes that would be better suited to Siberia for at least eight months a year.

Seriously, unless there’s 30 degrees, many Italians will always wrap up and don coats, jackets, thick jumpers, scarves and gloves while also complaining that “it’s freezing”. It leaves you wondering what they would wear in Germany or the UK.

Particularly interesting is the fact that the further south (and the warmer in the country) you go, the more you notice this phenomenon.

Also remarkable is the Italians’ capacity to digest six trillion cups of espresso a day. Now, the Germans drink a lot of coffee. The Spaniards certainly do too, but your average Italian guzzles it at least as much as the Brits imbibe tea.

Now, bear in mind that, while excellent, Italian espresso is also stronger than any non-alcoholic drink known to man. Try more than three cups in a day and tell me if you don’t get palpitations well into the night (unless you’re well rehearsed of course).

Many Italians will also be very generous with their coffee and you’re likely to find an espresso before your eyes, at work or in a social situation, even if you haven’t asked for one. For the record, unlike the drinks marketed as espresso that you find in the rest of the world, a typical cup in Italy contains about one millilitre of the drink. Which is why it’s superstrong and thirst-inducing - it’s totally undiluted.

Finally, even though we’re going to cover food in a specific chapter, it must be said now that at least 90% of all Italian people will utter “eurgh” or express automatic disapproval the moment you mention any foreign food. Of course, it goes without saying that most won’t even have tried any - ever - which is why their theatrical (and frankly extremely irritating) expression of revulsion is better filed under the category of “twitches”.

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