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Monday, December 15, 2008

Stereotyping For Dummies

Stereotyping For Dummies

Over dinner last week we were trying to define what constitutes the essence of the cooking of various nations. I said that, for me, Mexican cooking is cilantro and lime. Mediterranean cooking is olive oil, onion, garlic, and tomato. One of my friends mentioned that, because it has so many regional cuisines, Spain does not really have any one thing that defines its national cooking. He read somewhere that patatas bravas, roughly-cut fried potatoes, are the national dish because they are the one thing that you find everywhere in Spain. The next day another friend told me that they don't eat patatas bravas in Murcia. So much for that discussion.

From this failed attempt to define the cuisine of the countries of the world, I have been thinking about what constitutes the character or a nation. Some people would probably call this national stereotyping of generalizing. This is probably true but only if you apply it on a person-to-person basis.

Before the football match (Valencia-Brugge) last week I was sitting at a table with a group of Belgians. They were all speaking Spanish. Some of them were Flemish and a couple others were of the French-speaking variety of Belgian so I suppose Spanish was the best lingua franca since neither side had to give in and speak the other Belgian language. It certainly was the best language for me because Flemish sounds to me like English spoken backwards. I actually used that joke at the table and it got a big laugh—although maybe only with the French Belgians. In Belgium, The Netherlands, and Scandinavia it seems part of the national character is to be conversant in several languages. Even if this thing about learning languages is almost a requirement, it's very admirable.

I think that native English (and Spanish) speakers are at a sharp disadvantage when learning another language because so much of the world's business is conducted in English (and Spanish). I am not making any excuses. I will put my Spanish up against anyone who has spent a similar amount of time in a Spanish-speaking country. This doesn't include other Romance language speakers as they are at a huge advantage. I watched a movie in Italian the other day and I understood at least about 30%, if not more. My French is quite a bit better these days even though I haven't done anything much to improve it other than learn Spanish. I notice than Belgians, Dutch, and Scandinavians who move to Spain all speak Spanish rather well. What other choice do they have? No one here speaks Dutch or Flemish so if that's all you speak you've got a tough row to hoe, as we say in English.

I'll move on to sum up the Spanish character. I have talked before about the Spanish penchant for only speaking their own language, so I don't need to cover that here. Along with the other Mediterranean countries, I would say that the Spanish are defined by their food and their almost neurotic obsession with cooking, eating, and buying food. I would guess than when you get arrested in Spain you have the right to remain silent, and the right to a sandwich with a beer or a glass of wine. Just about any activity you can think of has some association with food in Spain. They have even had to amend the warning not to go swimming for 20 minutes after eating to ten minutes—they can't go 20 minutes without eating something. I would lump Italians, Greeks, and the French into this stereotype.

I think that Australians, Americans, Irish, and Brits are much more alike than we are different. We are much more homogeneous than the people who make up the 22 some countries of the Spanish world. If I had to name one thing that we all have in common it would be a tendency to drink too much. I went to a party this past weekend that had quite a few native English speakers in attendance. It was at a rather expensive place which may have stifled the usual amount of beer consumption of this crowd, but another common trait reared up. When you get a bunch of English speakers together—drunk or otherwise but mostly on the drunk side—chances are rock music will break out. This particular party had a musical theme, mind you, with instruments, amplifiers, and microphones. It's just that rock music has made up such a huge part of our shared culture that it is never very far beneath the surface in almost any situation.

After a few beers it didn't take much encouraging to get the entire bar to break out with a rendition of Wonderwall by Oasis. This was followed by songs from The Beatles, The Clash, The Stranglers, and others. Just about all the Spanish people in attendance were singing along as well. Come to think of it, I have never been to a party at a Spanish home that didn't have some sort of live music. I also have lots of non-Belgian friends who speak other languages. I certainly like food as much as any person native to the Mediterranean. It looks like I have deconstructed my own little theory on nationalities in a matter of a few paragraphs.

I will stand behind my earlier statement that native English speakers drink too much.

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