Thursday, 30 July 2009

exploration and clinging to the familiar

I am writing this from Cyprus. We have a small villa in the town of Kato Paphos. This seems to be the maritime area of the larger town of paphos, conurbated by higgledy-piggledy developments of houses, kiosks and seemingly waste ground populated by old dead trucks (with not a spot of rust despite their obviously hard working life).
Mostly, it seems the people are local. But also one sees the odd leathery retired British ex-pat couple in their white hats, ill-fitting shorts, shoes and socks. Attesting to the presence of a sizeable population of British ex-pats, there is a Bingo hall where one can play every night if one so chooses.
Delightedly, we found 200m along seemingly the longest road without traffic lights (as indicated by the souped up corsas and clios that are finally freed to enjoy their whole range of revs, despite the pedestrians who amble across the road without a care), a supermarket which in upper case greek letters is a “Eurofruitaria” (I failed to find the Greek font here on this new laptop.). Within its delicious air-conditioned confines, locals crowd to buy the best quality and variety of fruit and vegetables I have ever seen: Even better than those provincial markets one finds in France.
It was whilst contemplating a water melon bigger than any human head I have ever seen, indeed, the size perhaps of a horse’s head, that I was approached by a verging-on-obese ex-midlands pensioner, who said in her staunchly retained black country accent “You should go to the the OTHER supermarket, the one by Debenhams on the sea front!” (yes, there is a Debenhams, selling standard middle-of-the-road British fashions for those who want to maintain their suburban look in the mediterranean sun.) with eyes closed as she volunteered her monologue, whe continued:
“Yeah, down there they are MUCH cheaper and you can buy all the proper food like Iceland frozen meals.” And on she went, following me doggedly around the shop explaining the cornucopia of crap that she found so comfortingly available in the town.
Given her rotund physique, this was obviously her chosen diet.
I was frozen into complete speechlessness (rare, I know) by the unfolding tale of utter lack of life of the imagination. I found myself only able to grin in what must have seemed like vague agreement, though since she continued to harangue me with her eyes closed (why do people do that??), she would not have assumed such.

Finally escaping her uninvited monologue, the way one shakes an amourous terrier from one’s ankle, I fled behind a stand of local oranges and tomatoes. This abundance of beautiful food seemed to have escaped her attention, or rather, was perhaps too troublesome and unappetising to contemplate.
In my smug middle class way, I bought olives, garlic, fresh dates, aubergines and all manner of vegetables, and some fresh whole fish, the name of which I shall proably never know. This made a fine dinner that evening as the air cooled to a temperature my northern European metabolism could now cope with.
But a question had formed in my mind: Here in this sunshine near-paradise (though a bit barren in places due to the low rainfall), people come to live. They accept the climate, and who wouldn’t when considering the grey, cold British summers of later years. They have enough adventure to leave and come here, but then that seems to be the extent of it. Sunshine and warmth is enough of a draw.
And yet, that seems to be where the acceptance ends. So, whereas some see novel foods, vegetables and fruits as something to explore and experience, others seem mildly intimidated and shun such foreign muck in favour of Sunday roast, full English breakfast and steak and chips. Why? And to what other aspects of the culture does it apply?

It is not class: My father was brought up in a very poor family where nobody had ever owned a car or even books. There was almost no education, even at primary level as his parents didn’t really care.
He remained working class to the end, working as a truck driver and later in a rubbish dump. And yet when I persuaded him to overcome his fear of the actual organisation of a foreign holiday, and we got him to Brittany, he absolutely came alive. He enthusiastically wandered markets marvelling at the quality of the shallots, bought armfulls of veg by bartering wordlessly but animatedly with toothless farmers in the fields and cooked up the most gorgeous meals in the back of his van every night, washing it down with rather more local wine than was healthy.
So, if a rubbish-tip attendant from Bristol can embrace foreign culture, why not retired site managers from Solihull?

Perhaps there is a divergence in people. Maybe there are explorers and settlers; people who seek new and interesting experiences and then there are those who cling to the familiar. Perhaps this is genetic as it would appear not to be cultural. Walking along the sea front promenade, the stereotypes are sadly fulfilled: The lobster coloured Brits with beer bellies, shaven heads and tattoos, the lithe Cypriot youths and their rather more portly elders, the pale haired Dutch, long of limb and seemingly healthier than the anglo-saxons who left to settle in England 1400 years ago to ultimately invent chips.
All of this might sound a little judgmental and snobby and I guess to some extent it is. But at the heart of it is the earnest question of what makes people approach experience differently.
We had a cat once called Possum. Possum was a very intelligent silver tabby and inevitably got impregnated whilst our vigilance faltered one Summer’s evening in the late 80s. She had three kittens that after some observation we tentatively named “Ugly”, “Explorer” and “Wimp”.
From birth, wimp, hid and would not wander far from his mother, mewling pitifully if he found himself alone and separated from the familiar. Ugly was just a bit of a blob really and though large and affable, didn’t really seem to care much at all as long as he was fed. But Explorer was always wandering off and getting into things. (She was taken off secretly by Possum for extra feeds by Possum who knew where her genetic investment was best placed).
These character traits persisted into adulthood, indeed, Explorer, renamed “Poppy” once hitched a lift in a stranger’s car to a town ten miles away, but found her way back.
And maybe people are the same. Some will be Wimps and some will be Explorers. And so the market for Iceland frozen bubble and squeak will always exist alongside that for magnificent vegetables.
And now all this typing in the hot Cypriot sun has exhausted me, time for a cold Carling, straight from the fridge!


Librarian said...

Without us being curious explorers by nature (well... most of us, that is), we'd still be at an evolutionary stage that we have left behind a long, long, really long (insert more "longs" here if you like) time ago.
But somehow, "life" (which part of it?) has done away with the curiosity and the drive to explore in some people.
I wonder, is it something that happens during childhood? Or later?
This really intrigues me now.
Thank you for giving me something to think about!

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