TEA WITH THE JOHNSONS

by Richard Cherry*

Brits are homing in on Bulgaria, but do the Bulgars really like them?

Going back a few months now, I was in TsUM. You know the place. Bulgarian Harrods.

I don't hang out there or anything. No, honestly. I was looking for a reassuringly expensive trinket for a lady friend's birthday, or something. Anyway there I was, rotating a plastic Swatch display cabinet and looking dubiously at the cheaper models, when I witnessed an unusual exchange in a nearby cafe.

There was a family there. Mum and Dad, and two kids. Pale and podgy they were, with father and son sporting matching ginger nut spiky hairstyles and Manchester United T-shirts.

The whole family was dressed in sports gear, in fact, but looked like they'd be out of breath climbing a flight of stairs.

I pegged them for Brits even before I heard them complaining loud and long in a broad northern English accent.

There was an altercation going on between this family and a weary looking Bulgarian waitress. I gathered that an ashtray had gone missing, and the waitress wanted to know what they'd done with it. The family made a big show of moving their chairs and table to look for it. There was much eye-rolling, cheek puffing and raising of voices in righteous indignation.

Finally the huffy English puddings left. The waitress turned to one of her colleagues and said "Friggin' Americans!"

Some countries just have better PR than others, don't they? The Americans get a hard time, rightly or wrongly. Many Bulgarians, for example, take a more favourable view of the Brits. How do the British get away with it?

An American friend suggested to me that his countrymen offend others because of their naive expectation that the rest of the world is just like them. "Americans are Book-Smart and Life-Dumb. They lack a sense of irony," my American friend told me. He described a time he had seen a pair of Americans admiring a sculpture of a nude woman near the Ivan Vazov theatre, telephoto lenses at the ready. "Look, honey! You can really see her musculature," my American friend mimicked, affecting crossed eyes and a vacuous, nasal Florida accent.

At least the Americans are better than Australians, who (thankfully) are pretty thin on the ground here in Bulgaria. Australians always attempt to compensate for a cultural inferiority complex by going on and on about poisonous spiders and snakes, capitalising on the myth that all Aussies are rough-and-ready frontiersmen and therefore worthy of respect.

But arguably it's the British who are rapidly becoming the most ubiquitous foreigners on Bulgaria's streets these days, even founding beachhead communities on the Black Sea coast, revelling in how much their puffed-up pounds will buy them in Bulgaria's developing real estate market. But what does "British" mean, anyway? Bulgarians don't distinguish. Scotland, Wales, maybe even Ireland. Different countries? Nah. They're all English. OK?

So how do you spot your average Briton in the street? Well, it's quite easy to spot their women. We're in Bulgaria: A country with one of the highest ratios of lithe, exquisitely groomed, fine-featured goddesses per square metre in the world. Here, British women stick out like dogs' tails.

The difference was thrown into sharp relief for me when, after a year of having lived in Sofia, I visited Glasgow. As I walked down the street looking at the gnomish Glaswegians, both sexes dressed identically in T-shirts, track-suit bottoms and trainers, I swear I sometimes had difficulty in distinguishing the lads from the lasses. OK: when they got close enough, it was usually possible to recognise which lumps of protruding podge in those overfilled T-shirts might actually be breasts, and make a tentative identification: That one's a female.

A man can only imagine the agonies of envy experienced by the poor old jelly necked British girls visiting this country and encountering their sexier Bulgarian counterparts for the first time.

The same isn't necessarily true for the British man. But he can be identified just as readily as his sister. For one thing, Brits don't dress like Bulgarians. Just as a British woman doesn't wear animal prints, sexy knee-high boots or skin-tight jeans (having neither the figure nor commitment to self-starvation necessary to carry them off), so the British man eschews his Bulgarian cousin's uniform of a skin-tight long-sleeved t-shirt with an abstract 1980s design (including lots of text that says nothing, but screams: "Made in Turkey").

And here's another dead giveaway, clothing wise: If you see someone wearing pastels in this country, they are a foreigner. It's that simple.

The British just look different. They look like they are, or are about to become, sick. They're pale. Pasty. They have a tendency to get blotchy, red, or sweaty as a result of physical exertion, mood, or alcohol consumption.

The more bronze, glossy-haired Bulgarians don't have this problem (which is why Bulgarians are always complaining about feeling sick... if they didn't point it out, you wouldn't be able to tell).

Then, there are British behavioural quirks to consider. They make a big deal of surface shows of politeness. They're scandalised when a waitress doesn't smile enthusiastically enough. In daily transactions, they find the omission of the words "please" and "thank you" (and their Bulgarian equivalents) indicative of a lack of civility - or civilisation.

Bulgarians will tell you, however, that this preoccupation with politeness is only superficial, and it's actually the foreigners who lack real warmth. Let's face it. When Bulgarians invite you into their homes, you know that when you get there you'll be offered four different salads, a selection of meat dishes, and your choice of beer, wine, or rakiya. On the rare occasions that a Briton allows you into his private sanctum, you're lucky to get a bowl of crisps and a glass of water.

This meanness is characterised in other ways, too. Bulgarians have a charming custom, whereby on their birthdays, they take friends out and wine and dine them at their own expense. It's quite the opposite for the tight-fisted Brit, for whom a birthday forms a welcome annual justification to avoid the acutely painful act of reaching for his wallet.

The British, famously, tend not to distinguish themselves in a social context either. Did I say "social context"? I meant, "Getting pissed".

You'll spot the British guys in the restaurant easily enough. They're the ones causing a fuss by trying to negotiate something approximating fish and chips from the waitress, even though (outrageously!) it doesn't appear on the menu.

In the pub, too, they're the guys talking loud, believing their exotic Birmingham accents will act as a sexual lubricant for the local ladies, who are clearly starved of any real, sophisticated male companionship. They'll be enhancing their social skills by drinking beer. Lots of beer. Beer, beer, beer, beer; stopping only when the place closes, or when they get kicked out for being mouthy about how backward Bulgaria is.

Cringe!

All of which takes me back to my original question. The British enjoy a generally favourable perception in the eyes of Bulgarians, as in many other places. How do they do it?

The stereotype of the British (in fact, English) gentleman, the umbrella-wielding, privately schooled tea-with-milk-drinking chap, a man with a name like Simon or Roger, the suave, genteel "007" type, is enduring. I've never actually seen anyone like that. But it would seem that just the idea that he exists is enough to reassure most people of an inherent British graciousness, from which the lucky Brits can squeeze a lot of mileage.

And anyway, perhaps we're being too critical. They could be worse, after all, couldn't they? They could be Australians.

* The author is an Australian living in Bulgaria

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