A Comedy of Manners
26 August 2016 | Or 'England Expects'
George Bernard Shaw reckoned that England and America were two nations divided by a common language; I reckon the divisions go much deeper than that.
In terms of ethnic distribution and social intercourse, the inland waterways (well, the bits we've done), stand in stark contrast to the experiences of the salt water cruising lifestyle. Around Biscay and in the Med, the Brits are by far the most numerous. OK, this may change with the possible results of Brexit, but don't get me started on that.
As a result we, along with all the other Brits, have had it easy. Almost all communication is done in our native tongue and in terms of social decision making we're usually in the majority and so, as a rule, tend to get our own way. One can get used to this, and it comes as a nasty shock when these totally undeserved privileges are peremptorily withdrawn.
Since setting off from Arnhem last year we have usually found ourselves, as a Brit boat, in a minority of one. Fortunately, the Dutch very kindly take pity on us by speaking better English than did most of the kids I used to teach, but we still mourn the loss of our divinely ordained right to have everyone else speak to us in our own language and to generally get our own way. It's even worse the further south we've gone. Many Belgians can't speak English and the French won't on principle.
Imagine our delight and excitement then, when we pulled into the Sedan moorings to find two Anglophone boats. OK, one of them was American but we let that count as Anglophone - we were getting desperate.
The skipper of the American boat kindly took our lines as we came in and we engaged in small talk. He professed a liking for champagne, which immediately endeared him to us. He also mentioned en passant that he was having the crew of the other English boat round that evening to sample his extensive selection of vintage champagnes. "Perhaps you'd like to come round another night", he said as an aside; "Tomorrow maybe".
This endeared him to us even further. There was, however, a slight problem on the cultural interpretation front. It was that one little word 'maybe' that resonated with subtext to sensitive English ears. It made his aside a little too vague to be a definite invitation, but it appeared to be more than meaningless chit chat. This left us in a frightfully English quandary. How were we to determine whether this was an actual invitation or not?
This dilemma is absolutely incomprehensible to an American. They are brought up in a culture that is admirably straightforward and to-the-point. Faced with this uncertainty, they would simply ask a direct question - something along the lines of "Is that an invitation? If so we'd love to". This response would solve the problem immediately but no Brit would make so bold as to ask such a question. Far too forward for British etiquette. I mean - Good Lord - it makes one sound as if one's angling for an invitation. How absolutely infra dig. No, the only option in British etiquette for such a position is to ignore it and hope that the other party will clarify matters in due course.
Which, of course, is what we did.
And what he didn't.
On its own, this verbal pas de deux can work perfectly well, albeit somewhat inefficiently. The problem, though, is hinted at in the words de deux. It only works if both parties are aware of, and complicit in, the subtle and irrational rules of English social engagement. The English are brought up with this from a young age; it is second nature to them. Direct questions are rude. Don't make a scene. Don't trumpet your successes. Keep yourself to yourself. Privacy is paramount.
The deep-seated cultural differences between English and American social mores is exemplified in the matter of personal privacy. Meet an American for the first time and within three minutes you'll know his name, address, occupation, marital status, family circumstances, sexual preferences and recent medical history:
"Hi - pleased to meet you. Mah name's Hiram T. Finkelberger III. Ah hail from LaFayette, Georgia an' Ah work in advertahzin. This is my lovely wahfe Charlene-Daisybelle who has kahndly borne me four lovely children, only one of which has a problem with crystal meth. Ah've felt a new man ever since mah recent prostate op. Who are you?"
Confronted with this social onslaught, the average Englishman wishes he were a tortoise and could shrink into his carapace. To him, even his name is an intensely private matter. It is only divulged to a new acquaintance once extremely close intimacy has been established, say after the aforementioned acquaintance and our Englishman's eldest daughter have just had their third child together. Even then, it is usually given in an offhand way, along the lines of "Congratulations to you and Elspeth old man. Oh, I'm Lionel, by the way." It's hardly surprising that there is no equivalent of the French 'tu' or the German 'du' in modern English.
Embarrassment and social unease hold the greatest horrors imaginable for the average Englishman, far worse than slow dismemberment by the Spanish Inquisition or having his wife and daughters abducted into white slavery by a gang of Albanian people traffickers. So beyond the pale are these sensations, that placing one's self, or anyone else for that matter, in such a frightful position is just not done.
So we engineered opportunities for our potential host to give the required clarification. If he got off his boat to help someone else in, I was alongside taking ropes and making polite comments about the weather. When the two of them went to visit the fortress, there we were - just by chance happened to visit at the same time, don't y'know. "Oh hello - fancy bumping into you at the supermarket two miles out of town! - Must be the fourth time we've bumped into you today. Oh, fifth - is it really?"
They must have thought we were stalking them. Despite all our efforts, clarification came there none.
The aforementioned 'tomorrow' dawned and our discomfort intensified. We still had no idea whether we were expected on his boat at 6:30 or not. Not turning up would leave them sitting twiddling their thumbs looking at a meticulously prepared display of champagne glasses and canapés while we skulked aboard Birvidik II feeling guilty and embarrassed.
Turning up unexpectedly would be even worse. An Englishman confronted with such an unnerving arrival would instantly feel obliged to carry out the charade that he had in fact issued the invitation but that preparations had been delayed by a surprise visit from the Aga Khan and would you mind awfully if he delayed the gathering by half an hour? During that time, he would scrabble round flash-chilling champagne and knocking up a hundredweight of mushroom vol-au-vents and Cheesy Wotsits. We meanwhile would sit in our boat mortified with shame and embarrassment, but unable to dig ourselves out of the hole into which we had dug ourselves. The ensuing two hours sitting round his saloon table would be a purgatory of aimless, mumbled small talk, excruciating longeurs and squirming embarrassment.
As 6:30 approached, tensions aboard Birvidik II reached crisis levels. The only course of action left was to engineer one last chance to establish the situation. We couldn't, however, just go over to his boat and ask a direct question. That risked provoking exactly the same reaction as turning up unexpected. We needed an excuse.
We got one, but at a great cost. We sacrificed one of Liz's magazines. Women's magazines are jealously guarded currency on the cruising circuit, performing a role similar to that of tobacco in a high security prison. At 6:25 I went round to their boat with a mint condition 'Woman & Home' and knocked on the hull. Stan came out. He looked neither surprised nor expectant. Which didn't help.
"Hi Stan" I lied glibly. "Liz has just had a clear-out and wondered if Sharon would like this." I handed him the magazine. He looked at me as if I'd suddenly sprouted a second head. I surreptitiously glanced into his saloon, to see if there were any give-away bowls of nibbles or champagne flutes in evidence. None that I could see.
There was an awkward silence.
"Well - er, I'll be off then." I rambled. "Early start in the morning. Have a good trip." Stan continued to look at me in astonished incomprehension. If he had invited us he would be wondering (a) what the Hell I was blathering on about and (b) why we hadn't just brought the magazine with us to the soirée. If he hadn't he would still be wondering what the Hell I was blathering on about, but in addition why I was talking to him while squinting slyly through the windows into his saloon. Was I some kind of boss-eyed Peeping Tom with a furniture fetish?
After what seemed like an eternity of these halting, incoherent non-sequiturs I retreated down the pontoon back to Birvidik. I still don't know whether we had actually been invited or not
Stan and Sharon - if you're reading this, it should all now be slotting into place. It's a cultural thing.