There are workmen in the cork forest; they’re renovating a small farm building which has lain derelict since we moved here. The other day, as we passed, their radio was blasting out Aha singing Take On Me. Even after four years here that struck me as being unusual. Fourteen years of living in the Canary Islands still has me expecting to hear Spanish pop music or reggaeton whenever someone plays music in Portugal. Because that’s the way it was on Tenerife.
Whilst the tourist bars in the south of Tenerife would play the sort of Brit/American music that went down a storm on a holiday in the sun, most of the music heard outside of the resorts was distinctively Latino. I tell a story in Camel Spit & Cork Trees about the time we interviewed the newly-crowned Carnival Queen in Santa Cruz. I asked the nineteen-year-old what her favourite non-Latino singer/group was. She couldn’t name one. The only one she could think of was Supertramp, and that was only because her father had one of their albums.
Sometimes we craved familiar music. On one occasion, the DJ at the New Year celebrations in Puerto de la Cruz broke from reggaeton to play Insomnia by Faithless, which had us pumping our arms on the open-air dance floor whilst the far younger locals around us simply stopped dancing. Maxi Jazz didn’t even get to tear off tights with his teeth before Faithless were dumped in favour of reggaeton again.
Little cultural differences pop up in all sorts of situations. Back in 2004, whilst watching a Spain v England football match on Spanish TV, we were shocked by racist chants from the crowd directed at England’s black players. What was even more surprising was the Spanish commentators didn’t make any reference to the chants. It came as a complete surprise to them when there was a media backlash in the British press. The Spanish manager even accused the British media of making a mountain out of a molehill. In this particular case it was a mountain. We mentioned the chanting to a local friend who’d watched the game; he hadn’t even registered it.
Then there’s the attitude to paying taxes. We often have to collect receipts for work when we travel. This isn’t a problem in most places we visit in Europe, but there was one destination where it proved extremely difficult – Crete. Asking for a receipt from taxi drivers, small supermarkets, and restaurants ended up in minor arguments because a significant amount of businesses simply didn’t want to hand any out. A number of times in restaurants we were told their card readers didn’t start working till May, coincidentally the beginning of the main tourist season, so it had to be cash only. I can only assume anything before the official start of the season was considered fair game. It was a cash society where much of the cash that parted hands clearly wasn’t going through any books.
Portugal and Germany are also cash societies, but they are above board ones. Portugal has cash incentives to encourage people to keep it all legal, so declaring your fiscal number at the supermarket may result in a tax refund. At times in Germany we found it difficult to pay by anything other than cash; some restaurants simply don’t accept cards. We caused a cashier in a supermarket in Bavaria to nearly have a breakdown just because we tried to pay by debit card. She didn’t know how to operate the card reader as nobody used it. In Provence in 2013, we watched spellbound as customer after customer in the queue in front of us painstakingly wrote out cheques to pay for their goods. Until then, I hadn’t seen anyone write a cheque for years. It was a reminder what a slow and clunky business cheque-writing had been – still was in that part of France at least.
One of the areas where it’s easiest to spot cultural differences is food & drink. Living abroad, and travelling for work, has taught us that British palates aren’t any fussier than any other European nationalities. In fact, it’s easier to sample a greater range of world cuisines in most British towns than it is in many other countries where, outside the cities, the choice is traditional food of that country or traditional food of that country … or maybe Italian; everyone loves Italian nosh. On the other hand, the attitude to sociable, leisurely dining in countries like Spain and Italy leaves British eating habits for dead. One of the reasons we especially like the area around Lisbon is that multiculturalism and the influence of the former colonies means the gastronomy is far more diverse and interesting than in some other parts.
Out of all the wine-growing areas of Europe we’ve visited, the only ones where we’ve noticed it would be easy to buy a decent bottle of wine from another country has been Germany and Austria. Most places only sell their own country’s wine. That’s not an issue when we’re only visiting as we love to sample the food and wine of any location we’re exploring. But when you spend a significant amount of time in the one location it’s nice to vary now and again.
What prompted these snapshots of cultural differences was a comment by renowned Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli on the TV show The Big Family Cooking Showdown. Referring to the dishes prepared by one particularly family, he remarked that only in British kitchens would you find families attempting such a diverse range of world cuisines.
At this moment in time it was good to hear something like that, it was a reminder that many Brits are still outward looking and are open to other cultures, despite what the media, mainstream and social, may have us believe.
Vive la différence … most of the time.