Euro-exotica, or The Reason I Don’t Read Expat Lit

In the recent New Yorker article Northern Lights: Do Scandinavians Have It All Figured Out?, Nathan Heller describes Michael Booth’s book “The Almost Nearly Perfect People” (Picador) as


“essentially observational; it aspires to a comic genre that might be called Euro-exotica. The form was well established by the time Twain published “The Innocents Abroad,” in 1869, and it has been carried through the twentieth century by writers as varied as S. J. Perelman and Peter Mayle. It usually involves a witty, stumbling narrator simultaneously charmed and bemused by the foreign nation he encounters. He is a naïf but not a boor: he wants to do everything right, but he is hamstrung by his ignorance of etiquette, by his squeamishness around unwelcome foods, and—this being Europe—by the daily, soul-crushing throes of bureaucracy. Euro-exotica is generally poured in a confectionery mold, light and tart, but its core is an assertion of the narrator’s cultural power. Change the balance of the recipe slightly—make it, say, about the bumbling adventures of a Guatemalan farmer in Florence—and the cookie hardens. Can you believe how these people do things? the Euro-exoticist asks, with the courage of his own convictions. In this sense, Booth’s book is as much about Anglo-American power as it is about the Nordic way.”

(Bolds mine)

Ah yes, the bumbling adventures. Finally an explanation of why I don’t like perhaps 80% of expat blogs (from my own observations I’d say more like 90%, but I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to all those I haven’t yet read.)
I felt compelled to comment after yet another of those All The Ways Expat Life Will Change You articles turned up on social media. There may well be parallels in other cultures (there are German television shows about Germans living abroad, for instance) but I think that what Heller describes belongs to the citizens of privileged English-speaking countries. (In my opinion it stems from a larger genre of what I’ll call “lovable idiot” lit, where the narrators stumble through all sorts of cultural or societal faux pas and yet are loved in spite of their imperfections, or perhaps because of them. Think Bridget Jones’ Diary.) David Sedaris played with this genre, so did Bill Bryson. (I don’t mind when Sedaris does it, because his wit plays well in any location.)

In a discussion of this topic, someone said that assimilation is not a goal of expats. It was always a goal of mine, however, if not to be considered a local (impossible anyway*) then to be accepted as part of the local landscape. I realize that for some people this is not desirable, and they maintain their American culture out of dislike for the local one as well as a love of their own. But I imagine those people are not reading Euro-exotica either. They’re probably reading 50 Shades of Grey.



*In my college German course we read a short story by Jànos Bardi titled Der Hunne im Abendland or The Hun in the West. I cannot find it online but the story is about a man, a “Hun”, who leaves his eastern homeland for modern western civilization. He buys western clothes, trades his local wine for something like whiskey, starts smoking western cigarettes,  and when he is invited to a party he rails on about all the things the locals talk about — politics, some soulless entertainment gossip, the usual things. After he leaves the party, the host makes some remark about him being a nice guy. The hostess ends the story with “Yes, but he’s such a Hun!”

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2 Responses to Euro-exotica, or The Reason I Don’t Read Expat Lit

  1. paschberg says:

    I recommend:
    Dunkles Rätselhaftes Österreich

  2. Marcellina says:

    “The ethnologically trained eye supposes this seemingly meaningless shooting into the sky to be a ritual, perhaps even act of worship.” Garden gnomes as ancestor cult. The Chicken Dance as imitatio dei. “The strategy of bowing down before the conqueror.” Vacation in Tirol as a fertility pilgrimage. Excellent! Danke!

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