Beware the ‘Don’t bother with the locals’ mentality

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Chris Marshall from The Expat Hub wrote an article here about Beware Expat Friendships.  I couldn’t agree more.  They say ‘Birds of a feather stick together’—well, nothing is a truer representation of that than the expat abroad.  I’m being slightly unfair, I can’t lump everybody into the same category, but the old soap opera “Eldorado” didn’t do much for the image of British expats in the Spanish Costas.

I’ve been travelling since a young age.  I always felt more at home in foreign cultures than my own—one of the main reasons I think is due to the fact I’m not, and never have been, a big drinker.   The British ‘norm’ of heading to the pub to socialize and plan on a Wednesday to get ‘bladdered’ at the weekend made me feel uncomfortable.  And because I was invariably the only one not wanting to go this route, people often mistook this for snobbery.  I didn’t feel better than others, just left out. I found my niche, eventually, in Southern Europe.  People don’t drink to get drunk on the continent.

My mother could often be seen casting worrying glances around taverns in Greece, restaurants in Spain, searching for her youngest when on family holidays.  She learnt over time to go first to the waiter’s station as that’s where I’d invariably be; learning smatterings of the language from them, being tickled under the chin: “’Yasu’—now you try: ‘yasu.’”

“Yaaaaaaaaasuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu” I gave it a shot.  This would, for some reason, make them laugh and earn me a free dessert, my parents a free ouzo shot (no, they weren’t heavy drinkers, just enjoyed the moment.).  I think I was a useful tool to have around.

This trait morphed into my ability to adapt with ease into foreign surrounds.  Sri Lanka: the only foreigner in the mountainous village during my four month volunteer teaching placement, so I had to adjust.  I even learnt to wear a sari and can now appreciate the heaviness of this material as the women sashay effortlessly through the streets, making it look so easy and sophisticated.

Greece was my favourite destination.  It was relatively easy to find Greek coffee buddies, and once they got to know me, to be invited into their extended family home for dinner where I was welcomed with open arms, like a long lost family member.

Cairo, Egypt.  I found it harder to make friends with the local people and felt increasingly isolated within the expat community.  It was either mix with expats, or be lonely, stuck in the compound, watching T.V.   So I tried a visit to the expat club.  It looked like any pub you’d find in the U.K.  I settled myself into a corner with my coca-cola and cringed as I tuned into a conversation:

“If only the locals weren’t so dirty.

“Yes I know—and that racket at 6am every morning from the mosque speakers.  I mean really, how un-civilized.”  I made my decision: I can’t stay here for any great length of time, it’ll drive me mad.

And so back to Greece where I continue to have a good mix of expat and Greek friends.  Advice?  If you’re going to another country, be it for a few months or years, be prepared and open to friendships outside of your own community.  Don’t unwittingly enforce the colonial mentality that we British are so good at doing…‘The Locals’ – they aren’t all that bad you know.

Rebecca Hall
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Bex is an independent writer, EFL teacher and lover of foreign cultures. When she’s not off experiencing local culture or teaching people about the nicer aspects of British culture, she can be found writing about it here: www.leavingcairo.com. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.