Tales from the Frontier - No. 10


What a strange thing man is; and what a stranger thing woman - Lord Byron


One thing Byron did know a lot about was ‘strangeness’. He was wildly unconventional for his time. He behaved as he wanted. If there had been a Georgian #metoo campaign he would have topped the poll for the number of accusers. Men and women. Not that he didn’t have a lot of satisfied customers as well. He would have slotted in here better than he apparently did in England – what is usual in this place is the unusual. Border towns encourage a variety of people and plenty of odd behaviours.

 Obviously the three main nationalities predominate: the orderly Germans, the stylish French and the acquisitive Swiss. But currently there are also any number of immigrants who have made the journey from various lands south of the Mediterranean. What do they find ‘strange’?

 ‘Strangeness’ is difficult to define because it depends upon your standpoint. For example, what could be more strange for someone coming from the windswept desert-like land of the South Sudan than a grown man in funny coloured trousers chasing a small white ball merely to bash it often enough to drive it into a small hole in the ground? And these comically clad people purposely build large pockets of sand in a green fertile land.

I guess the funny coloured clothes wouldn’t alarm African and Indian ladies, who celebrate a wide assortment of gay patterns in their dress. Coats of many colours don’t signify for haute-couture conscious French damsels who strive to find exactly the correct shade of accessory to match their costume. Many of the lady members of our golf club have matching grips, gloves, bags, wooden tees, and head covers which blend nicely with their slacks and polo shirts. Their object seems to be to look enchanting and to navigate the course with a minimum of creasing and wrinkling to their natty outfits. Most Arabic ladies have no such problem: black goes with everything, they don’t play golf, and a non-ironed burka doesn’t look out of place anywhere.

 What must seem odd to many foreigners from male dominated societies is that it is the men not the local women shoppers who lug the heavy carrier bags and struggle with the laden wire trolleys. In the Middle East I have seen a woman with a five gallon jar on her head, leading a goat and several children, a jumble of kindling stuffed under her arm, following her husband who was trying to look important whilst managing to multitask waggling a camel stick and simultaneously chewing qat. A local man’s place on the border is not so clear cut or so easy.

 The Swiss lady, if accompanied by a husband taking a break from bank duties, carries the important purse and doles out the franken. The male’s job is to shepherd the purchases. You can understand why a Chelsea tractor is necessary to accommodate the contents of several crammed supermarket trolleys.

 The French ladies don’t carry anything in case it chips their nail varnish. All right, maybe a pigskin Gucci or suede Chanel handbag. Their chaps scurry around like sheepdogs manoeuvring a flock whilst juggling packages from the better shops. Their ornamental partners stand about posing and looking good. These lasses must really hate it when they have to climb into a tinny Citroen or Renault when others have the pleasure of sliding onto the soft leather seat of a classy BMW or Mercedes.

 The Germans seem good at sharing tasks, which is not surprising since many of their womenfolk are as powerfully built as the men and sometimes more aggressive. Beer and würst puts hair on the chest. The independent frau is a good example for the newcomers.

Immigrant women are beginning to find their feet, which are increasingly less hidden by floor-length shapeless black. Jobs are hard to come by but more and more supermarket checkouts bleep at the hands of a lady whose customers have never heard of the foreign currency she was familiar with at school. It was rather odd the other day coming out of a shop where seven of the nine women shoppers or staff were wearing headscarves and yet within sight were three different hairdressing salons – all busy. You wonder if the ladies are sad that so few get to admire their neat new coiffures.

 Odder perhaps are the many examples of Thai massage parlours in the area. Or perhaps not so odd since the average male border dweller’s body has an abundance of flesh that would benefit greatly from being pounded into shape by an expert masseur or masseuse. Paying to get beaten up is probably a status symbol for the Swiss who admire anyone with currency to spend. Money promotes strange habits.