Sunday, 8 February 2009

Reflections on the English abroad

There is a holiday apartment complex in Margate where all the staff, although English, are required under the terms of their employment to speak fluent Portuguese.

All the guests at the complex, and I mean all of them, are Portuguese. No Spaniards, no French, no Germans. All the entertainment is in Portuguese, and for those for whom the stage act holds no appeal a wide-screen TV at the rear of the bar beams out Benfica versus Sporting Lisbon and other offerings from the Super Liga.

Along the Margate seafront every other retail outlet is a restaurant offering Chicken Piri-Piri "just like home" and, during Happy Hour, dois canecas can be purchased for the price of um.

Actually I made that up. Margate, like any other English resort, speaks only one language. Almost all the visitors are themselves English, and cockle and jellied eel stalls abound.

And yet at the Clube Praia da Oura in Portugal, where I am away on a (very heavy) working holiday, everybody is trying their hardest to make me feel at home, even though I flew hundreds of miles for the express purpose of getting away from the place for a week.

On a short stroll into town this morning I must have counted twenty outlets (out of no more than a hundred shops) offering a "Full English Breakfast". One proudly advertised its own ethnic speciality "Chip Butti" whilst another tried to tempt me with a "Cheese & Ham Sandwich and Chips" (I promise I am not making this up). Worryingly, at one stage I found myself pining for the Civic Centre canteen, where at least one can sometimes get a half-decent curry.

Last night’s entertainment was Johnny Cochrane, an admittedly classy fifty-something singer and guitar player who belted out a succession of ‘50s and ‘60s (English language) rock’n’roll songs. When I went to the bar and asked for a caneca the Portuguese barman looked at me a little strangely (it could have been my pronunciation) before responding with a knowing smile: "Oh, you mean a pint!"

Every time I walk into a shop, and before I even venture to speak, I am greeted instantly by the proprietor with a "Hello". I don’t wear a knotted hankie on my head, roll up my trousers to the knee or carry a can of John Smith’s, and yet instinctively my Englishness is recognised within a split second. Either those Portuguese who are not shopkeepers have all moved out of this place, or else they just boycott the shops. I can’t think of any other explanation.

I don’t know whether I’m the only person here who feels slightly guilty walking into a bar or a shop and expecting everybody there to speak my native tongue. My sorry efforts to converse in Portuguese are usually greeted with either hilarity or impatience. The last time I came here I stopped off at a well-known bar along The Strip. There the barman listened attentively as I tried to order a beer then, thinking I was a local, went off to fetch a Portuguese colleague because he couldn’t speak the lingo himself!

What really strikes home is, by comparison, how intolerant we English are with others who speak our language with anything short of total fluency. Only an Englishman could, without any hint of irony, contemplate emigrating to Spain to get away from the foreigners.

I refuse to eat a Full English Breakfast, far less a Cheese & Ham Sandwich and Chips, for the remainder of my time here. And now I must away, as there seems to be something going on down at the bar. Does anyone know the words to "Here We Go"?

In English, of course.

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