National stereotypes: The age-old battle of bums against towels

17/03/2020 09:52

Written by John Carter

Some while back I mentioned that we’d be returning to the Hotel Les Orangers, in the Tunisian resort of Hammamet. And here we are. Well, almost. Bear with me a moment, as I set the scene. You can’t spend well over half a century travelling the world without realising that everybody has fixed ideas about how the citizens of different nations are likely to behave.

We all fall prey to preconceptions, no matter what our nationality happens to be, though I have a feeling that the British in general, and the English in particular, are more prone to this than most. Though maybe that’s a national stereotype in itself… It could be a throwback to the time when we ruled an awful lot of the world and knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that an awful lot of the world was all the better for it.

hammamet tunisiaHammamet, Tunisia

We had picked up what Rudyard Kipling called ‘the white man’s burden’, and borne it to those far corners of the globe where people did not appreciate the importance of playing the game, dressing for dinner and passing the port to the left. And in my opinion, an awful lot of the world did benefit from our presence.

Those scallywags in the United States of America who rose up against us in 1775 would be far better off now if they hadn’t won their War of Independence. For starters, they’d be playing a decent game like cricket — and quite likely being very good at it — instead of wasting their time on rounders. And they’d be driving on the proper side of the road. So there.

Anyway, for better or for worse we do tend to pigeonhole people according to their nationality, and, in that context, travel often narrows rather than broadens the mind, as people set out to reinforce the prejudices they have brought from home. I can’t recall who described Switzerland as an open-air branch of Barclays Bank, populated by head waiters, or that the personality of the aforementioned Swiss was exactly like their watches — precise but anti-magnetic.

But, with apologies to the Swiss whom I have found to be generally decent types, those are examples of the prejudice I have in mind. As, of course, is the classic description of Heaven being a place where the police are British, the chefs Italian, the mechanics German, the lovers French. And everything is organised by the Swiss. Hell, however, has German policemen, British chefs, French mechanics and Swiss lovers. And is organised by the Italians. The tendency towards a default attitude of suspicion when encountering foreigners is nothing new.

Back in 1143 a monk named Aimery Picaud wrote probably the world’s first guidebook, for pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostela. In it, he warned his readers to beware of innkeepers who might drug their drinks in order to rob or even murder them.

Six centuries later a chap named Philip Thicknesse wrote A Year’s Journey Through France and Part of Spain for the benefit of his fellow Englishmen making the same journey. He advised them to include in their luggage a wedge or similar device for securing the door of their bedchamber, ‘… for visitors cannot take too much caution in a country where murder and robbery are synonymous terms…’ But back to this tendency towards stereotyping: assuming that every member of a particular nation will behave in a certain, ‘typical’ way.

Several years ago a press release from American Express crossed my desk. To gain publicity for their travellers’ cheques, they had carried out a Europe-wide survey, asking people what most annoyed them when they were on holiday. Top of the hate list as far as Italians were concerned were people making too much noise.

This, from probably the noisiest people in Europe, was, I thought, a bit much. However, the Germans took the proverbial biscuit by citing as their pet holiday hate — wait for it — people who reserved sun beds by putting towels on them! Which, fortunately for both of us, brings me at last to the hotel in Hammamet.

It was a good many years ago, and most of the hotel’s guests were there on package holidays organised by a British firm named Clarksons and its German counterpart, Neckermann. The majority were of an age to have taken part in the Second World War. So I guess I don’t have to spell out the general atmosphere around the place, or the air of tension that prevailed. Each morning the Germans would rise early, place towels on the sun beds, then go in to breakfast. The English, on the other hand, would take their breakfasts first, then amble out to the sun beds ranged around the swimming pool, throwing off the towels and reclining on the sun beds, as to the manner born.

When German guests turned up, arguing that this, that or the other sun bed was reserved, the reclining English lads and lasses would reply to the effect that bums, not towels, reserved sun beds. Grumbling, the Germans would retreat and occupy other recliners. But it was not an auspicious start to the day. The ridiculous thing was that there were more than enough sun beds to go round, ranks and ranks of them, all around the pool on a wide, sun-drenched area.

No one was in a more favourable position than any other. To reserve a particular sun bed was pointless. The hotel staff watched the morning confrontations with a mixture of disbelief and amusement. They probably thought it was all part of some strange, northern European ritual. Which it was. Lunch was a buffet affair. Guests of both nations plunged in recklessly. There was no attempt at forming orderly lines, and an awful lot of shoving and sharp elbow work went on. The afternoons were spent in simmering resentment — and simmering in the sunshine, of course. One had the distinct feeling that both sides were preparing for the evening’s hostilities. Or, at best, a hostile evening.

Dinner was a tense affair. And, as people were now drinking a lot of alcohol, I feared the worst, especially when guests retired to the bar to top up their restaurant consumption. To my astonishment, however, the alcohol had a mollifying effect. English and German guests would actually start talking to each other (in English, of course, because every Englishman knows that his is the only language spoken wherever he chooses to go, and people of other nations are sensible enough to learn it).

Charlie would buy drinks for his new friends Hans and Greta, and Hans would buy drinks for Charlie and Doris. The men would reminisce about the battles they had fought and the friends they had lost. The women would sigh and even shed a few tears. Then, arms round each other’s shoulders, a wine-mellowed Hans would say: ‘I tell you, Charlie, my son will never grow up to fight your son.’ And Charlie, just as mellowed, would reply: ‘Bloody right, Hans. It’s always us working blokes who get the worst of it.’ Doris and Greta would exchange understanding looks.

Then everybody would sing ‘Lili Marlene’ and stagger off to bed. Next morning, the Germans would rise early, put towels on the sun beds, and go into breakfast. And the English… Well, you know the rest.

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