(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz., December 26.)
A friend and I were discussing our travel experiences. I’m reasonably well-travelled, he a lot more so.
He’s one of those adventurous New Zealanders who ends up in odd places. There’s no spot on the planet so remote that you won’t hear someone speaking with a New Zulland accent.
In my friend’s case, working on offshore oil rigs took him to places most people probably didn’t realise existed. I, on the other hand, have mainly confined myself to mainstream destinations. I don’t like to venture too far out of my comfort zone.
The most offbeat place I can boast of visiting is a country that doesn’t officially exist: the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It was created after Turkish forces invaded the northern part of Cyprus in 1974 to protect the minority Turkish population from what Turkey feared was an imminent takeover by Greek nationalists.
The island was split in two, with a United Nations buffer zone, the Green Line, separating the Turkish sector from the “official”, overwhelmingly Greek Cyprus in the southern part of the island. But the TRNC is effectively a subsidiary state of Turkey and was never recognised by any other country.
The UN considers it to be part of the official Cyprus and deals with a long-standing diplomatic impasse by enforcing sanctions and policing the Green Line but otherwise behaving essentially as if the TRNC simply doesn’t exist.
All this has given the country a slightly surreal, anachronistic ambience. When I was there 20 years ago, the faded waterfront hotels and 1960s-era British cars made it feel a bit like a Mediterranean version of Cuba.
But I digress. My well-travelled friend and I were talking about national stereotypes, which was the subject of a previous column of mine in which I had criticised the commonly held view of Americans as loud, brash and unsubtle.
I thought this stereotype was inaccurate and unfair, but my friend challenged me on this point. He reckoned it accurately described many of the Americans he had encountered in New Zealand.
This led me to expound on Du Fresne’s Law of Unattractive National Traits, which I formulated after exhaustive international study. This law states that the worst characteristics of any nationality tend to become much more pronounced when they’re on foreign ground.
American loudness, Australian crassness, Kiwi gaucheness, the English tendency to complain – all are greatly magnified when they’re away from home. Or perhaps they just become a lot more noticeable.
I’ll always remember sailing into Milford Sound long ago on a cruise ship whose passengers were mostly Australian. A spectacular storm was raging. Great torrents of water cascaded down from sheer cliffs and were dispersed in clouds of spume by violent, swirling winds before they could reach the bottom.
I and a few others went out on deck to enjoy this elemental thrill, but where were most of the Australians? Inside, playing pokie machines.
There’s a negative national stereotype, right there. They might as well have been in the Manly RSL.
The English at home are mostly likeable people, but there’s a certain type of Englishman abroad who seems determined to live up to the worst stereotypes – for example, by refusing to make even a token attempt to communicate in the local language. If he can’t make himself understood, his solution is to speak more loudly – in English.
We New Zealanders are not exempt from du Fresne’s Law. Observe a group of New Zealand tourists in a foreign place and you can’t help but notice that we sometimes look a bit awkward, unsophisticated and provincial: jovial and good-hearted, but a bit wide-eyed and unworldly in our jandals and shorts.
We also tend to be clannish when abroad, clustering together for mutual support and reassurance.
My well-travelled friend was impressed with my theory but then presented me with his own First Law of International Travel. This was that women from other countries are always more appealing than the men.
Of course you’d expect a heterosexual male to say that, but what he meant was that the good looks of foreign women are rarely matched by their menfolk. He gave the example of some young Germans he once socialised with in the Greek Islands: the women sexy, witty and charming, the men - in his words - fat, loud and boorish.
“Almost like two different races,” my friend said. “Since then I’ve tested it in many other countries and it works every time, to a greater or lesser degree.”
I pondered this and had to concede that he might be right. I immediately thought of Poland, where the women are tall, well-groomed and elegant and the men are anything but.
Does my mate's First Law also hold true in New Zealand? That's something on which I'm not prepared to speculate.