Culture Shock

When I read Janet’s comment on Megan’s Calgon, Take Me Away post about how the English behaved when out of their familiar milieu, it reminded me of some episodes I’d read about in my favorite go-to book on army life, LIFE IN WELLINGTON’S ARMY by Antony Brett-James. For many in the British Army, the Peninsular War was their first exposure to new countries, languages and customs and all sorts of fun ensued.

(Note: The picture is from THE WHEATLEY DIARY captioned ‘There is a national peculiarity in their manner of dressing.’)

Some conscientious officers studied Portuguese and Spanish en route to the Peninsula and some hired local teachers but some never did acquire any fluency. Consider this tale:

One commissary, perplexed to know how to convey his meaning to a party of muleteers, eventually turned to some British officers standing nearby and asked if anyone could help. One officer immediately stepped forward. ‘I think, sir, that I can explain to them anything you need.’ The commissary was delighted. ‘Then, sir, be so kind as to tell them that they must be here early in the morning with their mules.’

The interpreter addressed the puzzled muleteers as follows: ‘Portuguesios, the commissario – wants the mulos – tomorrowo – presto – la, al,’ and pointed to the village of Vimeiro. ‘Oh, sir!’ cried the commissary, who was very disappointed by this ludicrous performance, ‘I feel much obliged to you, but I can go as far as that myself.’ For months after this episode the self-styled linguist bore the nickname of ‘Jack the Interpreter’.

Food could be a problem, especially since the British were not accustomed to garlic.

Major Berkeley Paget had his breath taken away near Corunna in 1808 when ‘a sausage as large as a line-of-battleship’s mainyard, cram full of garlic, a dish of macaroni poisoned with saffron, and a salad mixed with lamp-oil’ were placed on the dining table. As Paget was a guest, he felt obliged to eat it all out of politeness, and to lie through thick and thin by saying he found it delightful.

“Poisoned” with saffron? Garlicky? This meal sounds yummy to me, with the possible exception of the lamp-oil. Maybe it was actually olive oil?

And then they had to adjust to local customs and manners. Some, like Captain Pocock of the Highland Light Infantry, had the following observation on seeing the fandango danced.

‘This dance had a great effect upon us, but the Spaniards saw it without being moved, and laughed at the quick breathing and amorous looks of our men.’

Or how about this anecdote?

“Woodberry, writing in Olite during August 1813, noted another custom of Spanish women that struck an Englishman as indecent. If you had your back to a woman and she wanted to attract your attention, she would not tap you on the shoulder; instead she was likely to give you several hefty smacks on the bottom. Woodberry himself was greeted in this fashion one morning in the market place and everybody roared with laughter at his embarrassment.”

I must find a way to put that in a story! 🙂

I have been to Norway, France and Italy myself, but I had my most embarrassing culture shock moments while living in England, maybe because I expected things to be more similar. My first day at work there, I ordered zucchini and got the most blank look from the server. Finally, I pointed and she said, “Oh, courgettes.”

And then there was the first trip to a movie theatre, ordering popcorn and discovering that it was sprinkled with sugar, not salt. It’s not unpleasant but a big surprise when you’re not expecting it!

And a hint to anyone traveling to England: do NOT call those little pouches people wear on belts fanny packs! 🙂

Have you had any awkward culture shock moments? Are you like me in enjoying stories that pull characters out of their usual element?


P.S. Don’t forget to send your LOLRegencies to RISKIES@YAHOO.COM by midnight EST tonight, for the chance to win a copy of Janet’s THE RULES OF GENTILITY!

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Megan Frampton
14 years ago

You know, I am watching the Forsyte Saga, and one of the characters hies off to Buenos Aires, and when he returns, he expresses his total shock and dismay at seeing the tango danced in the streets. No bending in his thinking in terms of what was ‘proper,’ just like the anecdotes you describe.

Not sure what culture shock I’ve had, I’ve traveled very little. But this British attitude explains a lot about their imperialistic tendencies.

14 years ago

Not sure what culture shock I’ve had, I’ve traveled very little. But this British attitude explains a lot about their imperialistic tendencies.

Encapsulating perfectly both the English and the Americans.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Omigosh, Elena, you’ve made me remember an episode from my childhood, which was…..a very long time ago.
We were living in Japan. I was 7 years old and it was summer. The family went on a trip to a beautiful park and people kept staring at us. My aunt (who lived with us) figured out that it was because my sister and I were wearing “bloomers” – Short with an elastic waist and elastic around the legs- which the Japanese thought was underwear. I was humiliated!!!! I never wore them again and it still humiliates me when I remember this!

Fast forward to adulthood and a trip to Italy, my first European trip. I noticed right away that the Italians all wore leather shoes. The ladies wore some version of pumps, even old ladies who could hardly walk. Only the tourists wore athletic shoes. I would never pack athletic shoes for a trip to England or Europe and never wore mine thereafter in Italy!

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

That should read “shorts with an elastic waist”

14 years ago

Those are great!

Poor Diane! It reminds me of what I think was my biggest gaff in England. I was invited to an afternoon play, and I whether I should wear a dress or ‘pants’ (underwear) and I should have said ‘slacks.’ Embarrassing for a moment, but my friends teased me gently.

The worst culture shock was actually coming home to the US, after living in Thailand for 16 months as a missionary. I expected things to be different there, so it wasn’t overwhelming. I also worked hard not to compare and simply enjoy the uniqueness.

During that time, about the only male hand I shook was my mission president, maybe once a month on average. The day I returned home, it was a nasty shock when some guy in the airport made a pass at me, laying his hand on my back. I almost slugged him.

Then there is how wide our streets are, the spaces between homes, huge homes for only one family, cars staying in their own lanes. I almost cried when I watched traffic make way for an ambulance. It’s been over 20 years, and I still feel a sense of gratitude seeing traffic move for emergency vehicles.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Oh, wow, Judy! There must be a book in that experience! You made me choke up just reading that little bit.

Megan Frampton
14 years ago

Hey, Anonymous, what are you implying? I am happy to explain, if I had offended you.

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

“Only the tourists wore athletic shoes. I would never pack athletic shoes for a trip to England or Europe and never wore mine thereafter in Italy!”

Diane, I am soooo with you there! I refuse to wear athletic shoes for anything except jogging here at home. I was especially adamant about this when I went to France last month. Comfortable but cute shoes were needed. 🙂

Speaking of France, after I got back I was raving about how wonderful it was to someone at work, and she had to launch into a story about how some friend of hers went to Paris and everyone was horrible and rude and terrible. I told her I had no trouble of that sort with anyone, in fact almost everyone I encountered was entirely polite and even helpful (especially when I had some trouble with my Eurostar tickets to London).

It may be that I speak a little (not very good) French and read up about what to expect and how to behave before I left, but isn’t that what everyone should do before traveling? It’s silly to expect things to be the same as they are at home, and then get upset when they aren’t. That kinda defeats the purpose of travel. 🙂

Great post, Elena! Now I’m going back to trying to bake some pies.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Cool stories, everyone. Judy, what amazing experiences and ues, sometimes they make one appreciate what we have in the US.

Amanda, my husband and I were planning a trip to Paris and were warned that the French would be rude. But we prepared for our trip, much as you did, tried to speak the language as well as we could and smiled a lot. Everyone was lovely.

One cute young waiter at a bistro tried out his English on us as we were trying out our French on him. We ordered “tarte aux pommes” for dessert and when he brought it, proudly announced it as “apple pie.” I wonder if he looked it up somehow while he was in the kitchen!

And then there were some boyscouts at a bake sale near a church, who insisted on telling us the prices in English. I hope the scoutmasters were proud of them; we bought lots of cake. 🙂

14 years ago

This one didn’t actually happen to me, but it’s sort of amusing: in Italy, ordering “pizza marinara” on the assumption that it would be a pizza with marinara sauce, and getting a pizza covered with shellfish and bits of squid. 🙂

I must say that if tourists want to wear athletic shoes, I don’t really see the problem. After all, there’s no point in pretending to be a local when you’re not; and since touring often involves lots of walking, why not be comfortable? I can understand when locals get annoyed by tourists who talk loudly, don’t bother to learn anything about the country before they go, and violate local rules of politeness; but if one can’t tolerate a different choice of footwear, it’s a sadly parochial world. 🙂


14 years ago

I’ve got a lot of stories of linguistic confusion. The most recent was asking for a “cornichon” (pickle) of ice cream in a little town in Quebec. The woman behind the counter didn’t even blink.

(I was trying for “cornet,” but it turns out they use “cone,” too.)

Elena Greene
14 years ago

LOL, Greta! A pickle of ice cream? Reminds me of the cliche regarding pregnancy cravings–though I’ve never actually known anyone to eat anything that weird.

14 years ago

Oh yeah, lots of times, mostly in Spanish. Moving from Mexico to Puerto Rico and then to Caracas, I learned a lot about the many different variations in our “common” language.

Sadly, most of them wouldn’t translate very well, but as an example… at one point, I let an insurance adjuster into my still-messy apartment in Caracas, to assess some damage done to my furniture by the moving company, and he blushed furiously. When pressed, he explained that I had just invited him into my brothel.

Fun times *cough*

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Azteclady, your story bears out my theory that it’s when you think things are going to be similar that you get into the most trouble!

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