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Chris Slatter

My Blog


Stranger Beware


Stranger Beware
Rune of the Day: Algiz  reversed, protection
English speakers, in general, don’t have much idea of what it’s like to be a foreigner.
In fact, they have such a strong sense of self that most would not acknowledge that they are foreigners even when trekking in Nepal. It’s the others who are foreign.
But if you can’t raise some empathy, then at least find some understanding for those who are foreigners. That is, those who are not native speakers of the local language. Let me give you some small insights into what it’s like.
A few years ago, I lived in Rome and while I diligently took daily classes in Italian,
engaged a private tutor and took copious notes. I never really grasped the language,
but I had sufficient Italian to shop twice a week at the Trionfale Market in Via Andrea Doria. I was loyal to several of the stall holders, always buying my fruit and vegetables and meat from the same ones. This compact would last for about four weeks until the day I brought home my bags of goods only to discover one or two of them had been switched under the counter. Instead of the crisp spinaci and firm pomodori I’d selected I would discover rotting lettuce and potatoes. Would the stall holders have done this to an Italian? I doubt it. I didn’t have the vocabulary to complain and in any case the response would have been a shrug.
I moved on to other stalls, knowing that in three or four weeks time I would have to move again. In fact, foreigners in Rome are often treated with contempt, even those who have lived there for years.and speak the language well. Why is this?
When I moved to Lyon I’d hoped that the land of liberty, equality and fraternity would be more supportive and in general it was and is, but not entirely. The market traders still try to stiff you, but it’s not so blatant, and I have the French to complain. It’s not the same for my partner. Her Italian is extremely good, but in France it’s obvious she’s not French. She’s regularly scammed in hairdressers who seem to have a special premium price list for foreigners like her. And mistakes are often made by assistants at the till; one salon tried to charge her twice for the same goods, until she pointed out their mistake.
Banks, too, are not above taking advantage of strangers. Our own bank has recently removed all of its tellers. You pay in money now by putting cheques and cash into an envelope and posting it in a letterbox in the branch, no human contact required. If you want to do anything else such as transferring money you must go to the island help desks in the main concourse. There, lying in wait, are members of the bank’s sales team. Of course, they don’t call them that, they’re designated helpers, but their agenda is clear: to sell goods and services such as magazines, enhanced credit cards, insurance, anything that will extract a little more money from their customers. Of course, it’s a perfect place to ambush foreigners.
And ambush them, they do. My own partner was asked during a recent transaction whether she’d like to receive the bank’s magazine which costs 8 euros a month. She declined only to receive the magazine a few days later with a letter that began, “As you have agreed to subscribe to this magazine…” Once again we ask whether this would have happened if my partner had been a native French speaker? Again, I doubt it.
These transgressions are trivial, of course, but every time you are cheated or treated with contempt because you are foreign, it adds to the feeling of being an outsider,
of being unworthy of the locals respect; being a victim.
My partner and I are both well-educated and well-paid, but what if we were not? What if we were newly arrived from Bangladesh, or Sudan, or Poland, or Peru
with only a smattering of the local language and little money? Then I suspect that
these small transgressions would increase and begin to assume huge proportions. Self-respect, self-belief and self-confidence are the three cornerstones of personal survival. Remove them and anyone is vulnerable. Small wonder then, that migrant populations show a disproportionately high incidence of mental illness. Spare a thought, next time you are tempted to dismiss a foreigner as unworthy. One day, it might be you.

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About Me

I have been an advertising copywriter, film director, teacher of screenwriting and a television producer. I have worked for some of the world's largest advertising agencies in Australia and the UK before attending the London Film School for two years.

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