Being British about being rubbish

I found in my letterbox this week an advert for a language institute, with upbeat promises of imminent proficiency and the slogan A hablar se aprende hablando! Granted, but there’s a very British obstacle to learning to speak by speaking which was particularly evident during my course.


This is my third year of the Casa de Cultura course. Although there are – officially – four levels, students of any level are free to join the class at any point over the year. Despite the lack of structure and the fact that it’s only three hours a week, it has actually been an invaluable course which got me through the DELE exams (B1 and B2), along with websites like and my trusty exam guide El Cronómetro.


Apart from it being cheap and very close to my home, two major pull factors for me, the other big selling point is that all nationalities are mixed together so the course is entirely in Spanish. Spanish taught through Spanish, not through your native tongue.


Murderous identities, or, In the Name of Identity

Murderous identities, or, In the Name of Identity


I noticed, however, in the lower levels where there are many Brits, lots of them group together and chat through class in English or murmur the English translation to each other at the first hesitation. They are choosing to learn through English. They would rather a quick translation than a Spanish explanation of a word, learning through context.


They also spend a lot of time insisting on how rubbish they are, in fact each one is adamant that they are more rubbish than the other. It’s all very self-deprecating, which breeds good feeling. Speaking well, you fear, would have the opposite effect, generating suspicion, mistrust. Someone who can pull it off, instead of inspiring admiration, would have broken ranks. In fact, in the face of class participation, the atmosphere is very much what it was when I was 14 and sitting in French class with Mrs Prowse. When called upon to talk, surrounded by their compatriots, the British say a few words in Spanish and then tail off in English. The teacher repeats what they were trying to say in Spanish, and they answer, “Yep, that’s what I meant”. Needless to say, the Finns in the class don’t talk to the teacher in Finnish, nor the Russians in Russian.


The embarrassment of attempting to speak or even passively learn a foreign language while among one’s compatriots is fearfully strong. Students seem both intimidated and discouraged by their self-applied label of “Rubbish at Languages.” Yet something in us fights against openly trying to improve. Somehow our skin crawls at the mere idea of pretending to talk Spanish, because after all it does feel like a pretence. Pretending to be foreign. Putting on an accent. Putting ourselves out there. Like trying to do improv in a crowded metro. Except this is a language course, attended by people who have all paid to learn a language.


The ubiquitousness of English has become a shield for these British who get out of bed for a class twice a week but revert to their own language as soon as possible. Not because of laziness but because of embarrassment.


Why is that? Are we just afraid of getting it wrong? If so it would apply to all subjects. I don’t know any other topic where the students go to learn but seem bent on failing. Is it altogether too earnest for us Brits (cf “earnestness” in Katie Fox’s Watching the English)? Do we fear we look like we are trying to be clever, to be posh, to …heaven forbid… better ourselves?


Although I have always liked languages, I do know this fear. I can’t separate it clearly from other forms of self-consciousness that clutter the landscape. But I remember when I threw it off for French, when I was 15 and visited my sister in France. I spent a lot of time on my own visiting Paris and somehow the walls dropped. French wasn’t “foreign” in Paris, it was natural, necessary. I didn’t think I would suffer from it again, not in a serious ability-cramping way, but I did. When I lived in Beirut and had made local friends using English, I found it really hard to begin using my very limited but improving Arabic in conversations. I felt like it meant saying Look at me! I’m speaking Arabic! I also wanted to have proper conversations, not ones that were dumbed down to my language level – that is, small talk! But I could have mixed languages. I should have mixed. After all, the real Lebanese always do.


Lebanese pastries

Lebanese pastries


I’m still angry at myself for living in Beirut for nearly four years and not coming away fluent. The upside is that this regret goads me on in Spanish. I refuse to leave Spain without learning the language. I refuse to be prevented from learning by the fact that I don’t know everything. And the words of Amin Maalouf ring true: ‘Linguistic diversity is the pivot of all diversity.’ If you can learn a man’s language, you can walk in his shoes.


The less sweet side of Beirut

The less sweet side of Beirut


To my relief, I found that in the class for the higher language levels, this gregarious linguistic suicide doesn’t happen. People are openly - dare I say earnestly – trying to learn. Even those with a sense of humour. I wonder why. Is it just chance that there are too few Brits in the higher classes to trigger any kind of herd behaviour?  Is it because those who are too crippled by the embarrassment just can’t progress any further? Does their self-assigned failure become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Do socially “normal” Brits keep themselves back to be socially acceptable? Is moving forward uncomeradely, disloyal? The British are the biggest foreign community in this town, yet in my class they are decidedly underrepresented. There are three Finns, two Russians, two Ukrainians, a Persian, two Italians, a Dane, a Belgian, a Bulgarian, a Chinese and a Moroccan.


I’m the lone Brit. With no-one to whisper the answers to me. No one to murmur jokes to. No one to make me embarrassed about trying to talk “foreign”.

City edges

rugs at Borj Hamoud slum

better than a 'welcome' doormat

These were taken where Borj Hamoud meets the coastal highway just as you leave Beirut heading north. It’s a Christian area. A trail of battered Persian rugs makes for some kind of entrance to the cluster of low buildings, small enough to walk around in a few minutes.







unanswered questions

unanswered questions


Most are partly destroyed houses, with walls and roofs replaced by aluminium sheets or tarpaulin. Red question marks are painted on the walls. Elsewhere there are black crosses. I don’t know the history of this slum and why or how these people ended up here.






at home

at home


The washing lines are full of kids clothes and there’s a large paddling pool in a clearing which looks like a communal area.







Mayella's geraniums?

Mayella's geraniums?


A splash of colour in all the concrete.








summertime partitions

summertime partitions


The living space of these homes will be drastically reduced when the rains come. Pegged up sheets won’t cut it and few of the roofs look even remotely watertight.







one man's junk is another man's livelihood

one man's junk is another man's livelihood


This looks like the main bartering yard for the neighbourhood. In an alley a man and a women were carefully sorting through a plastic bowl of lighters and other small finds from the dump. Necessity is the mother of recycling.

What do you dress a six-month old in for a funeral?

funeral in Lebanon

wardrobe worries

What do you dress a six-month old in for a funeral? Sadly, several friends have lost family members in the time we have been here in Lebanon. Since we did not know the people personally we stayed away at first. In our culture mourning is something done in private with close family and we had no intention of imposing ourselves at such a difficult time. But in the Levant the custom is for those mourning to surround themselves with as many people as possible in the days directly after the death. The bigger the turnout, the more supported they feel.

So recently, when we learnt of more sad news, we immediately changed our plans to be able to pass by and pay our respects. I knew by now that head to toe black was de rigueur, and I was eager to take my blue coat off once in out of the rain.

The dilemma was the baby. Unlike some baby girls her wardrobe isn’t all pink, and she does have some more solemn bits and pieces. I briefly wondered if I should dress her in dark clothes, but then feared the opposite reaction: that people would say, Haram, a baby in black, that’s bad luck. Though superstition means nothing to me I did want to avoid making a faux pas at a delicate time. So instead I dressed her in neutral colours, replacing the red cardigan with a white one in the hope that would be the most suitable option.

Once we arrived we went, as is the custom, to express our condolences to the bereaved, who were seated all together. Before we reached them, more than one set of arms reached out for the baby. I gladly left her with a friend and returned to pick her up later. I did notice there were no children present, but I was expecting that. In the East like in the West, people do not always want to laden their children with sadness too early, and without them they can make themselves more available to support the family in mourning. And no doubt everybody but us had relatives nearby who could babysit.

But I remembered when an acquaintance dropped off a package at the home, but refused to come up to the flat. She said she wouldn’t because of the baby, as she was on her way back from funeral and was dressed in black. And I suppose that is why, although the family-friendly Lebanese always do offer to carry the baby, there was a note of duty in those arms that relieved me of her before I approached the bereaved family. A baby shouldn’t go that close to death, they seemed to say.

So what do you dress a six-month old in for a funeral? It’s a trick question. You leave her with someone else, and they’ll find another time to visit the family over the three days of public mourning.

When one prejudice hides another

Racism in Lebanon

Syrian labourer saying prayers on the job

Yet again Lebanon is split by pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian feeling. Which reminds me of a joke I was told here.

A Lebanese, a Syrian, and a black man are in a hospital waiting room. All of their wives are in labour. The men are talking anxiously to one another trying to stay calm. Then the doctor walks in and announces that all of their wives have given birth to healthy baby boys all within minutes of each other. The men start celebrating and congratulating each other, but then the doctor says, “But I have a bit of bad news”. The men fall silent. He continues, “The nurse got confused and we don’t know which boy belongs to whom”. At that the Lebanese man runs into the maternity ward and grabs the black baby, yelling, “This one is mine!” The doctor runs after him and objects, “But sir, both you and your wife are white.” The Lebanese man looks at him and replies, “Listen, one of the other two is Syrian, I am NOT taking any chances!”

Is this a racist joke or is it a joke on racism, a joke ridiculing the stupidity of racism? I tend to think people here use it as the latter.

I’d say it’s a joke on “next-door neighbour” prejudice, the type where the French poke fun at their Belgian neighbours, and the English try to put down the Scots. Most of those kind of jokes have more in common with sibling rivalry than racism.

It hints at the bitterness the Lebanese still feel against Syria which withdrew from Lebanon relatively recently (2005). And it highlights the lasting prejudice against the many Syrian labourers currently earning their living in the country.

Racism in Lebanon

domestic worker takes a rare break

But I have a feeling the punchline relies not just on the genetic impossibility of the black baby belonging to the white couple, but on the understanding that in Lebanon, associating with blacks is a much bigger deal than associating with Syrians. Jokes like this hang on that click of recognition, that ring of truth. These attitudes still ring true in Lebanese society today.

Ironically, the setting is unrealistic – the Lebanese, Syrian and black man all chatting in the same hospital waiting room, even under such stress.

My husband visited a Nigerian friend in hospital a while back. He’d just had an operation. At the reception, no-one could find his name. After having it spelt out, the receptionist realised she was not dealing with a Lebanese patient but rather an immigrant. This explained everything. Immigrant workers were not listed along with all the other patients. They were stashed away at the other end of the hospital on their own.

After the Ethiopian Airlines plane crash off the coast of Lebanon in January 2010, it was rumoured that those who died were put in separate morgues according to race – Lebanese and European in one, Ethiopian maids in another, so grieving families and friends need not mix. This wouldn’t even be surprising to people who know Lebanon, let alone shocking.

People are tickled by the “extremes” the Lebanese joke character is willing to go to because of his next-door neighbour prejudice. Is this because they view interracial association as “extreme” (and are therefore racist)? Or do they just recognise how rare it is in their own racist society (and are therefore alert to social issues)?

Although Lebanese may tell this joke to ridicule themselves and their own next-door neighbour prejudice, I feel that in telling it they overlook a deeper racism, a racism without which they wouldn’t find the joke funny.  I think it’s a joke on racism towards their neighbours of the same gene pool. But it’s a racist joke regarding blacks. It only works if you share the basic assumption that ending up with a black baby would be not just scientifically impossible, but also socially inconceivable.

Social graces in Lebanon

dogs in Lebanon

eat nicely, kids

As a newcomer in a foreign culture, the last thing you want is to make some major gaffe that shocks the social sensibilities of your host country.

In France I soon learnt to keep my hands on the table rather than my lap at dinner and to wait for the hostess to start for each course before tucking in. However, it’s not unheard of to rest one’s elbows on the table with good friends in a French brasserie, something which would have some English hosts raising eyebrows.

Social etiquette and class distinctions differ from one place to another, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in subtle ways which sneak up on you and pull the rug out from under your feet just when you thought you had perfected the book-on-your-head walk or local equivalent. I mean, who knew that one was always supposed to put an uneven number of cheeses on the cheeseboard?

So what are the rules for the gentlefolk of Lebanon? And what are considered indications of true class? They’re quite different from anywhere I’ve lived before, it seems, since eating with your fingers out of communal dishes is a perfectly normal custom, and talking about the digestive process with company is not unusual – or is that just the company I keep?

Such things are hard to define, the very essence of a class system being exclusive by nature. Otherwise it would be too easy to play the game. And it is getting even harder to define as certain pleasures and privileges become accessible to new groups of society.

In Britain, ever since plumbers began earning more than professors, the deeply entrenched class system has taken some serious knocks. Still it has refused a graceful decline, and any Brit worth his salt can find a million minor reasons why someone living in the same row as theirs might have the same income level, but not the same social standing.

In France, so much social protocol is associated to food and eating. If one has an education, one does not drink Coke at mealtimes – or any other carbonated drinks for that matter, save Perrier. French guests wait to be seated or served, and never think of mopping up sauce with bread, using their fork with the right hand or raising knife to mouth.

In Britain, however, judgements will fly over the way one speaks, especially the accent, and the way one greets others. As a result, the French find the English uncouth because they have fewer table manners, while the English find the French rude because waiters, shop assistants and basically the entire service sector fails to reach British standards of civility.

Here in Lebanon I have also heard many remarks about “backcountry” accents – because in a country half the size of Wales there’s still room for regional accents. Of course there’s the added complexity of multiple languages to play with too, and this can certainly be a snob factor – proficiency in the intricacies of literary Arabic for Muslims and impeccable French for Christians. Even the Achrafiens catch themselves from time to time with a self-deprecatory chuckle, remembering that “in Paris, even the dustbin men speak French.”

So perhaps for the Lebanese class is judged more by how people talk than how they eat. But hospitality and gifting are also etiquette minefields. So far the only golden standard I have found is: always exceed expectations. It is a difficult rule to apply and one that seems more linked to income bracket than to traditional class distinctions. The Lebanese speak of a proliferation of nouveaux riches, as the customary Levantine lavishness climbs to new heights.

So is it still important to avoid appearing brash, a trait which would mean the undoing of any social-climber in the French perception of refinement? Or does that not matter so long as you serve up three types of meat and five side dishes, sandwiched between soup and dessert, and insist your guests stay at least two hours longer than you wanted them to?

How do the Lebanese really view class? What are the perceived offences of the lower classes? Are they happy to dismiss such old-fashioned elitist concepts in favour of a more American meritocratic ideal? Or is that a joke in a country of corruption and wasta?

In the meantime, what terrible faux-pas am I making as a foreigner here? What is making my hosts wince and my guests squirm? I don’t yet know. They are too polite to tell me. I no doubt have plenty of cringing to do when I find out.