Heaven and Hell Redefined, a Sinking Cruise Ship, and a Tipsy Fly

September 21, 2010

There’s an old joke of sorts that compares heaven and hell, using representatives from a number of European countries as both the heroes and the villains of the piece, depending upon your point of view. Five nationalities are represented: the English; the French; the Germans; the Italians; and the Swiss. In heaven, so the story goes, the cooks are French, the police are English, the carmakers are German, the money guys are Swiss and the lovers are Italian. In hell, the cooks are English, the police are German, the carmakers are French, the money guys are Italian, and the lovers are Swiss. I happened to mention this in passing to a Japanese friend, and she said that such stories were legendary in Japan as well, albeit with a different group of subjects.

Case in point: the cruise ship is sinking, and the captain has only a limited number of spaces on the lifeboat, which in all good conscience should go first to the women and children. His passengers are a diverse mix of American, Canadian, English, Japanese. German, and Chinese; he must use a different tactic for each nationality in an effort to stop them from crowding ahead in the queue for the few available seats. To the American he says, “Please let the women and children on first; you will be a hero.” To the Canadian, he says, “Please be polite and let the women and children on first.” To the Englishman, he says, “A gentleman would let the women and children on first.” To the Japanese, he says, “Please let the women and children on first; that is what everyone else is doing.” To the German, he says, “Let the women and children on first. It is the rule.” And to the Chinese, he says “Jump in; there are fish in the water.”

These tales play upon our stereotypes of one another’s cultures, to be sure, but each has more than a grain of truth, as anyone who has ever suffered through an English meal (or presumably a Swiss lover) can surely attest. Not only that, but folks are remarkably willing, even eager, to regale others with these stories about their own peccadilloes and those of their countrymen.

The most recent one I heard was set in a hotel bar; the bar could be anywhere, and the story would still work, but let’s say it is set in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, a location with which I have some acquaintance. It is quite the uncommon bar, possibly the one in the Delta Hotel, in that it has an unusual number of international customers, in this case an American, an Englishman, a Frenchman, a German and a Chinese (a veritable cornucopia for the advanced student of global sociology). In each case, the patron of the moment orders a Molson Canadian Ale, and when it arrives there is a fly buzzing about in the foam. How to deal with this delicate situation?

The American way: summons the waiter, points out the fly in the glass, asks to have it spilled out and a replacement glass of ale brought to the table; when the bill arrives, he pays for only one beer.

The English way: says nothing about it to the bartender; doesn’t drink the ale, although he does pay for it; never returns to that bar again.

The French way: demands to speak to the owner; has the bartender pour out the ale in front of him; gets a replacement glass of ale, a larger one at that, and pays nothing whatsoever.

The German way: thinks about it for a few minutes, decides that the alcohol will have killed any germs brought to the party by the fly; flicks the fly out of the foam with the corner of his napkin and proceeds to drink the beer.

The Chinese way: studies the foam briefly; thinks “this is interesting…” and, shrugging his shoulders, dismisses it as an curious Canadian custom; downs the beer, fly and all.