Mad dogs and Englishmen

Mad dogs and Englishmen

Heaven is where the cooks are French, the police are British, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian and everything is organised by the Swiss.
Hell is where the cooks are British, the police are German, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and everything is organised by the Italians.
Another summer has come and gone and we are well on our way towards winter. Maybe it is just a personal feeling, but this year’s holiday season seemed to arrive very late and peter out all too quickly. Temperatures remained below average throughout August, not helping matters, while the normally most agreeable month of September turned into a wet squib – our last remaining hope is a golden October!
Nonetheless, this casual and, admittedly at times, overly critical observer of the comings and goings in the Algarve was treated to his by now customary Pandora’s box of horrors – there’s nowt queerer than folk, especially when freed of the social shackles imposed by their normal everyday lives.
Let me start on our unloved neighbours. The Baedeker guides, compulsory reading for any late 19th and early 20th century traveller, were authoritative, well-researched and brutally honest to the point of rudeness. The 1914 Iberian edition describes Spaniards as indolent while advising that “the towns are wreathed in tobacco smoke and the cafés very deficient in comfort and cleanliness. Service from waiters is slack and the customer should always count his change. In the countryside there is great danger of highway robbery while in the cities the police will arrest anyone they can lay their hands on. As for the national sport of bullfighting, it is the most inhumane and cowardly spectacle a civilised man will ever see.”
While I wonder who would have the inclination or opportunity to spend time abroad during World War One other than in uniform, and we have to bear in mind that the author, Karl Baedeker, was German – I will deal with them in a minute! – it must be said that much of the above still rings true today.
During my last trip to Seville, the two-year-old smoking ban was largely being ignored in bars and restaurants, my dinner took hours to arrive and a friendly smile proved hard to come by.
Unfortunately, our numerous Spanish summer visitors do little to dispel their perhaps unjustified reputations. Generally refusing to communicate in any other form than staccato machine-gun Spanish, while appearing blissfully ignorant of the historic animosity between the two countries still not forgotten hereabouts, they crowd across the border in pursuit of anything that involves keeping their money firmly in their pockets.
These qualities obviously do not endear them to their already exasperated hosts, and more often than not I have overheard an innocent request for directions from a passing car being met with the following response from a local: “Keep going straight ahead until you reach Vila Real de Santo Antonio, then cross the bridge!”
Happily also lambasting virtually every other nationality, deeming Greeks filthy, Italians dishonest and Orientals stupid, while telling travellers to ward off stray dogs in Syria with an umbrella and that it is acceptable to hit an Egyptian cab driver with your walking stick, Baedeker does not comment on his own countrymen and women.
The Germans have been making a bit of a comeback in the Algarve in recent times – perhaps because they are not best-loved in Greece anymore where – I’m told – many restaurants have removed the German language section of their menus in defiance of Mrs Merkel.
Whereas no longer easily identified by the lack of beach towels at the breakfast table – the Brits have wised up and are threatening to win that particular deckchair war – a German couple taking an evening stroll around the resort is always instantly recognisable by their carefully ironed clothes and sensible leather footwear.
They also refuse any unsolicited approaches and would rather run around in circles for hours glued to their GPS device rather than ask for help.
Germans can be nice if you get to know them – unfortunately they can also be their own worst enemies, an inability to relax coupled with deep-harboured suspicions of anything new often preventing closer social contact. The frustration mounts as they are observed blindly following rules and regulations, waiting hours at a zebra crossing for ‘the little green man’ to appear even if there is no car in sight.
I also cringe as the older generation attempts to make up for its lack of linguistic ability by repeating demands in a shop or restaurant at ever increasing decibel levels.
That said, I still need to turn my attention to the Brits and Portuguese. The ‘oldest alliance in the world’ between the two former seafaring superpowers was recently soured by the comments of a certain Professor João Magueijo, an eminent physicist at London’s Imperial College. In his recently published book entitled ‘Bifes Mal Passados’, he describes his erstwhile hosts as “filthy, promiscuous and drunken”. English culture is “pathologically violent”; the English are “unrestrained wild beasts … totally out of control”, and Britain’s drinking culture makes it “one of the most rotten societies in the world”.
Harsh words indeed – they make me curious as to how exactly the good Professor has been able to survive in such a hellish environment since his arrival at Cambridge University in 1989!
Over here the British – and Irish – propensity to consume alcohol is revered by bar owners and is probably partly responsible for sustaining the local economy.
In return, we natives (as Baedeker would put it) are expected to tolerate certain less savoury aspects of the annual British pilgrimage south.
The skilful navigation around random puddles of vomit on the way to work in the morning, having drowned out rowdy crescendos rising from the street below with earplugs during the small hours apart, an abundance of scantily clad and partially sunburned bingo wings, muffin tops and proudly displayed tattoos on bare male chests can prove testing for the most hardened connoisseur of the finer things in life.
Most of the British August holiday crowd are oblivious to this lack of proper attire away from the beach during their evening outings, creating a crass contrast next to the overdressed Germans or black-garmented Portuguese grannies on their way to evening mass.
Visits to restaurants and bars, more often than not too desperate for business in the prevailing economic climate to turn the “unrestrained, wild beasts” away, highlight these alien apparitions even further leaving little or nothing left to the imagination of fellow diners – bon appetite!
In closing, a word or two about everyone’s favourites: the emigrants. During the 1960s and 1970s, over a million Portuguese fled dictatorship and colonial war conscription to seek a better life in France. There they are the second largest minority and are well regarded as hard-working, ‘invisible and silent’.
Maybe that is one of the reasons why the many thousands who return ‘home’ during the summer feel the need to make up for 11 months of ‘good behaviour’ by being as obnoxious as possible!
They do their best to be as loud as possible, almost exclusively conversing in French while demonstrating their relative wealth via impossibly parked four-wheel people carriers. The latter are not only status symbols but also necessities as large groups with countless children in tow are prone to invading already busy restaurants.
The ensuing terror created by the invasion of unruly kids is then made worse by the parents who will dwell hours over a couple of ‘bicas’ accompanied by still waters while taking up anything between two and four tables.
As stated at the beginning, summer is over, and maybe its short duration wasn’t so bad after all, although I am sure, given a few weeks of peace and quiet, boredom will set in with a vengeance once more. See you next time!
By Skip Bandele
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Skip Bandele moved to the Algarve 15 years ago and has been with the Algarve Resident since 2003. His writing reflects views and opinions formed while living in Africa, Germany and England as well as Portugal.