PC 35 An Englishman Abroad

I sit on the little chair, up against the old wooden table, with the Olivetti typewriter in front of me. Through the window I can glimpse palm trees and the deep turquoise of the sea in the distance; the view over Flamingo Bay towards Sugar Loaf Mountain is breath-taking. On the coat stand hangs my Panama hat and linen jacket, essential items of one’s wardrobe. Overhead the lazy fan stirs the air like a reluctant Indian punkawallah, its circular motion somewhat erratic. “God! It’s hot!” As I struggle to keep cool, feeling the sweat forming in the small of my back, I hope that my iced tea is going to cool me down.

Dateline Monday 21st June 1932. Rio de Janeiro . ……” I stare at the paper in the typewriter, praying my weekly ‘copy’ for the Times of London is going to flow ….. although I know from experience it never does! My battered notebook, full of scribbles, lies open; I take a drag of my cigarette and look out of the window!

‘An Englishman abroad’. Nice expression, isn’t it? Conjures up soft images such as the one described above. And these days it’s still possible to ‘feel’ like an Englishman abroad. I even look like one, and here in Brazil stand out if only by the colour of my skin, which even after a few weeks of tropical sun is nothing more than tanned pink! We were meeting two girls on their Gap year, one the daughter of a chum, on Saturday for lunch; having never met before, we helped them by saying that I look English. They immediately saw us across the crowded café without a problem!

The European scramble for colonies in the C19th often determined spoken languages across the world. For example, in India the lingua franca is English, whereas parts of the Caribbean speak French. Here in Brazil they speak a sort of Portuguese, as they do in Angola and Mozambique. I learned French at school (mais je ai oublié la plupart de celui-ci), some German when stationed there (nur ein bisschen), Italian at evening class for some holidays (troppo tempo fa!) ….. but Portuguese? Not uma palavra! Staying in an English-speaking house here makes life easy for me, but I am trying! Not speaking the local language reinforces the ‘Englishman abroad’ label. What did the archetypal Englishman do (and some still do!)? Too lazy to learn the language, if the native didn’t understand they simply spoke louder! With a combination of online courses (DuoLingo and MemRise) and after many visits, I now know lots of words but haven’t yet got the confidence to join them together, in an appropriate order that makes sense, and pronounce them in such a way as to be understandable. I’ll get there sometime! Até amanha!

As Englishmen, did we really look down on those in Southern Europe and elsewhere who had a siesta during the heat of the day? Those lazy Latins? Do we still? When you live in the tropics, if you can be indoors during the heat of midday, with that fan or air conditioning on, why wouldn’t you be so? Noel Coward’s 1932 observation was right: “But (only) mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun!” He also observed that when it came to clothing, “The English garb of the English sahib merely gets a bit more creased.” How the hell did they manage? When I first came to Brazil, I packet my linen jacket; it’s still in the cupboard, unused! But the Panama hat, ah! Yes! Essential in … er … the midday sun!! Well, I am English!

Wow! How the world has changed since those interwar years …… when they shrugged off the ghastly memories of the ‘Great War’ and tried to enjoy life. And the change never more apparent than in the attitude of our societies towards dress. I grew up in what I sense was quite a strict environment. My stepfather was not a Victorian by birth but by upbringing certainly. His was a childhood of “children are seen but not heard” and of always dressing for the occasion. This manifested itself in what he expected at home, what I had to wear for dinner during the school holidays. Once I was 14 I could join my parents and brother for dinner, providing I wore a jacket and tie! I tried a sweater once … with a tie! And of course one wore shoes and socks; not wearing socks was not an option. If it was warm, you simply bought a pair of thin cotton ones. It seemed rather Italian not to wear socks with shoes; maybe we were rather jealous of their ability to carry it off, even if we branded them rather louche for doing so.

I hope I’m not alone in admitting that one of my pet hates is men wearing socks and sandals. Such a nightmare! In my mind, just so so wrong! Men’s feet, often not their best attribute, are normally covered with socks, so when it’s possible to give them an airing, what do we do (well! Not me! Of course!)? It’s a curious sight and style – ‘milk bottle’ white legs with white (at best) socks and heavy sandals. Looks silly on women, even sillier on men. “Now, where’s that podiatrist?” Here the standard footwear is the ubiquitous ‘flip-flop’ made by Havaianas of Brazil, or a moccasin-type slip-on.

As well as defining the local language, the European colonies adopted the mother country’s driving norm; here in Brazil they drive on the right. One learns the local idiosyncrasies quickly; motorcycles everywhere, everyone on their mobile phone, … and drivers on the third lane on the left suddenly realising they want to turn off to the … right. And they do, completely oblivious of the other traffic, cutting across everyone. And no one cares!! No horns, no hoots, no shouts ….. for this is Brazil!

I am lucky in having had a good education. Values were taught, and reinforced; certain standards became the norm; codes of behaviour and dress defined one’s life. But gradually, even reluctantly, some of these slip as society’s mores change and develop. Once upon a time my shirt collars were stiffened by starch, but by a process akin to osmosis the stiffness leaves the collar and me, the starch damp and eventually useless …. and rightly so. Even for a relaxed Englishman abroad!

Some jumbled thoughts to amuse – or not!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

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