It’s the eternal question that confronts Brits abroad. Today though, I didn’t even know how to pose it in the native language (Turkish). Employing the same technique that we all utilise when speaking to the non-Anglophone – that is, speaking slow-er, LOUD-er and inexplicably omitting the indefinite article – I attempted to make a restaurant reservation.
The neo-imperialist theory upon which this rests is that all foreigners must speak English, deep down; you just have to tease it out of them. Oddly it didn’t work. Contorting my jaw into improbable shapes to try different tones – frantically exhausting my vocabulary of pigeon-English – proceeded to no avail. (On the other end of the spectrum I recall complimenting a waiter on his excellent diction. ‘Very impressive English’ I remarked. ‘Yeh, I know mate, I’m from Slough’. ‘Ah’.)
It was I, of course, at fault. Now on my third visit to Turkey, I have made no attempt to understand, never mind speak, the local tongue. I know one word of Turkish, Dur, though readers should not laud me for this linguistic immersion any more than they should credit themselves for understanding the Welsh word Araf.
But when my ignorance is challenged, a form of incivility my critics charge, I tend to revel in it. ‘English is the global language. We’re the consumers, it’s their job to speak to us’. Implicitly it’s the attitude most of us share.
Yet has anyone ever noticed the bizarre double-think, and double-speak, of the English abroad? We like the comfort of their countrymen. For otherwise the locals wouldn’t understand us, the supermarkets wouldn’t sell ketchup and the hotel wouldn’t have Sky Sports. But we don’t like to actually see other Brits. For some reason we only feel like we’ve got our money’s worth if we’re surrounded by natives. I suppose it’s the part of the British psyche that remains wedded to Robinson Crusoe, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Livingstone. Bumping into fellow adventures diminishes the whole experience, even whilst clinging onto those homely comforts. Odd