Why We Hate The Foreigner by Jerome K Jerome

Story type: Essay

The advantage that the foreigner possesses over the Englishman is that he is born good. He does not have to try to be good, as we do. He does not have to start the New Year with the resolution to be good, and succeed, bar accidents, in being so till the middle of January. He is just good all the year round. When a foreigner is told to mount or descend from a tram on the near side, it does not occur to him that it would be humanly possible to secure egress from or ingress to that tram from the off side.

In Brussels once I witnessed a daring attempt by a lawless foreigner to enter a tram from the wrong side. The gate was open: he was standing close beside it. A line of traffic was in his way: to have got round to the right side of that tram would have meant missing it. He entered when the conductor was not looking, and took his seat. The astonishment of the conductor on finding him there was immense. How did he get there? The conductor had been watching the proper entrance, and the man had not passed him. Later, the true explanation suggested itself to the conductor, but for a while he hesitated to accuse a fellow human being of such crime.

He appealed to the passenger himself. Was his presence to be accounted for by miracle or by sin? The passenger confessed. It was more in sorrow than in anger that the conductor requested him at once to leave. This tram was going to be kept respectable. The passenger proved refractory, a halt was called, and the gendarmerie appealed to. After the manner of policemen, they sprang, as it were, from the ground, and formed up behind an imposing officer, whom I took to be the sergeant. At first the sergeant could hardly believe the conductor’s statement. Even then, had the passenger asserted that he had entered by the proper entrance, his word would have been taken. Much easier to the foreign official mind would it have been to believe that the conductor had been stricken with temporary blindness, than that man born of woman would have deliberately done anything expressly forbidden by a printed notice.

Myself, in his case, I should have lied and got the trouble over. But he was a proud man, or had not much sense–one of the two, and so held fast to the truth. It was pointed out to him that he must descend immediately and wait for the next tram. Other gendarmes were arriving from every quarter: resistance in the circumstances seemed hopeless. He said he would get down. He made to descend this time by the proper gate, but that was not justice. He had mounted the wrong side, he must alight on the wrong side. Accordingly, he was put out amongst the traffic, after which the conductor preached a sermon from the centre of the tram on the danger of ascents and descents conducted from the wrong quarter.

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There is a law throughout Germany–an excellent law it is: I would we had it in England–that nobody may scatter paper about the street. An English military friend told me that, one day in Dresden, unacquainted with this rule, he tore a long letter he had been reading into some fifty fragments and threw them behind him. A policeman stopped him and explained to him quite politely the law upon the subject. My military friend agreed that it was a very good law, thanked the man for his information, and said that for the future he would bear it in mind. That, as the policeman pointed out, would make things right enough for the future, but meanwhile it was necessary to deal with the past–with the fifty or so pieces of paper lying scattered about the road and pavement.

My military friend, with a pleasant laugh, confessed he did not see what was to be done. The policeman, more imaginative, saw a way out. It was that my military friend should set to work and pick up those fifty scraps of paper. He is an English General on the Retired List, and of imposing appearance: his manner on occasion is haughty. He did not see himself on his hands and knees in the chief street of Dresden, in the middle of the afternoon, picking up paper.

The German policeman himself admitted that the situation was awkward. If the English General could not accept it there happened to be an alternative. It was that the English General should accompany the policeman through the streets, followed by the usual crowd, to the nearest prison, some three miles off. It being now four o’clock in the afternoon, they would probably find the judge departed. But the most comfortable thing possible in prison cells should be allotted to him, and the policeman had little doubt that the General, having paid his fine of forty marks, would find himself a free man again in time for lunch the following day. The general suggested hiring a boy to pick up the paper. The policeman referred to the wording of the law, and found that this would not be permitted.

“I thought the matter out,” my friend told me, “imagining all the possible alternatives, including that of knocking the fellow down and making a bolt, and came to the conclusion that his first suggestion would, on the whole, result in the least discomfort. But I had no idea that picking up small scraps of thin paper off greasy stones was the business that I found it! It took me nearly ten minutes, and afforded amusement, I calculate, to over a thousand people. But it is a good law, mind you: all I wish is that I had known it beforehand.”

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On one occasion I accompanied an American lady to a German Opera House. The taking-off of hats in the German Schausspielhaus is obligatory, and again I would it were so in England. But the American lady is accustomed to disregard rules made by mere man. She explained to the doorkeeper that she was going to wear her hat. He, on his side, explained to her that she was not: they were both a bit short with one another. I took the opportunity to turn aside and buy a programme: the fewer people there are mixed up in an argument, I always think, the better.

My companion explained quite frankly to the doorkeeper that it did not matter what he said, she was not going to take any notice of him. He did not look a talkative man at any time, and, maybe, this announcement further discouraged him. In any case, he made no attempt to answer. All he did was to stand in the centre of the doorway with a far-away look in his eyes. The doorway was some four feet wide: he was about three feet six across, and weighed about twenty stone. As I explained, I was busy buying a programme, and when I returned my friend had her hat in her hand, and was digging pins into it: I think she was trying to make believe it was the heart of the doorkeeper. She did not want to listen to the opera, she wanted to talk all the time about that doorkeeper, but the people round us would not even let her do that.

She has spent three winters in Germany since then. Now when she feels like passing through a door that is standing wide open just in front of her, and which leads to just the place she wants to get to, and an official shakes his head at her, and explains that she must not, but must go up two flights of stairs and along a corridor and down another flight of stairs, and so get to her place that way, she apologises for her error and trots off looking ashamed of herself.

Continental Governments have trained their citizens to perfection. Obedience is the Continent’s first law. The story that is told of a Spanish king who was nearly drowned because the particular official whose duty it was to dive in after Spanish kings when they tumbled out of boats happened to be dead, and his successor had not yet been appointed, I can quite believe. On the Continental railways if you ride second class with a first-class ticket you render yourself liable to imprisonment. What the penalty is for riding first with a second-class ticket I cannot say–probably death, though a friend of mine came very near on one occasion to finding out.

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All would have gone well with him if he had not been so darned honest. He is one of those men who pride themselves on being honest. I believe he takes a positive pleasure in being honest. He had purchased a second-class ticket for a station up a mountain, but meeting, by chance on the platform, a lady acquaintance, had gone with her into a first-class apartment. On arriving at the journey’s end he explained to the collector what he had done, and, with his purse in his hand, demanded to know the difference. They took him into a room and locked the door. They wrote out his confession and read it over to him, and made him sign it, and then they sent for a policeman.

The policeman cross-examined him for about a quarter of an hour. They did not believe the story about the lady. Where was the lady? He did not know. They searched the neighbourhood for her, but could not find her. He suggested–what turned out to be the truth–that, tired of loitering about the station, she had gone up the mountain. An Anarchist outrage had occurred in the neighbouring town some months before. The policeman suggested searching for bombs. Fortunately, a Cook’s agent, returning with a party of tourists, arrived upon the scene, and took it upon himself to explain in delicate language that my friend was a bit of an ass and could not tell first class from second. It was the red cushions that had deceived my friend: he thought it was first class, as a matter of fact it was second class.

Everybody breathed again. The confession was torn up amid universal joy: and then the fool of a ticket collector wanted to know about the lady–who must have travelled in a second-class compartment with a first-class ticket. It looked as if a bad time were in store for her on her return to the station.

But the admirable representative of Cook was again equal to the occasion. He explained that my friend was also a bit of a liar. When he said he had travelled with this lady he was merely boasting. He would like to have travelled with her, that was all he meant, only his German was shaky. Joy once more entered upon the scene. My friend’s character appeared to be re-established. He was not the abandoned wretch for whom they had taken him–only, apparently, a wandering idiot. Such an one the German official could respect. At the expense of such an one the German official even consented to drink beer.

Not only the foreign man, woman and child, but the foreign dog is born good. In England, if you happen to be the possessor of a dog, much of your time is taken up dragging him out of fights, quarrelling with the possessor of the other dog as to which began it, explaining to irate elderly ladies that he did not kill the cat, that the cat must have died of heart disease while running across the road, assuring disbelieving game-keepers that he is not your dog, that you have not the faintest notion whose dog he is. With the foreign dog, life is a peaceful proceeding. When the foreign dog sees a row, tears spring to his eyes: he hastens on and tries to find a policeman. When the foreign dog sees a cat in a hurry, he stands aside to allow her to pass. They dress the foreign dog–some of them–in a little coat, with a pocket for his handkerchief, and put shoes on his feet. They have not given him a hat–not yet. When they do, he will contrive by some means or another to raise it politely when he meets a cat he thinks he knows.

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One morning, in a Continental city, I came across a disturbance–it might be more correct to say the disturbance came across me: it swept down upon me, enveloped me before I knew that I was in it. A fox-terrier it was, belonging to a very young lady–it was when the disturbance was to a certain extent over that we discovered he belonged to this young lady. She arrived towards the end of the disturbance, very much out of breath: she had been running for a mile, poor girl, and shouting most of the way. When she looked round and saw all the things that had happened, and had had other things that she had missed explained to her, she burst into tears. An English owner of that fox-terrier would have given one look round and then have jumped upon the nearest tram going anywhere. But, as I have said, the foreigner is born good. I left her giving her name and address to seven different people.

But it was about the dog I wished to speak more particularly. He had commenced innocently enough, trying to catch a sparrow. Nothing delights a sparrow more than being chased by a dog. A dozen times he thought he had the sparrow. Then another dog had got in his way. I don’t know what they call this breed of dog, but abroad it is popular: it has no tail and looks like a pig–when things are going well with it. This particular specimen, when I saw him, looked more like part of a doormat. The fox-terrier had seized it by the scruff of the neck and had rolled it over into the gutter just in front of a motor cycle. Its owner, a large lady, had darted out to save it, and had collided with the motor cyclist. The large lady had been thrown some half a dozen yards against an Italian boy carrying a tray load of plaster images.

I have seen a good deal of trouble in my life, but never one yet that did not have an Italian image-vendor somehow or other mixed up in it. Where these boys hide in times of peace is a mystery. The chance of being upset brings them out as sunshine brings out flies. The motor cycle had dashed into a little milk-cart and had spread it out neatly in the middle of the tram lines. The tram traffic looked like being stopped for a quarter of an hour; but the idea of every approaching tram driver appeared to be that if he rang his bell with sufficient vigor this seeming obstruction would fade away and disappear.

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In an English town all this would not have attracted much attention. Somebody would have explained that a dog was the original cause, and the whole series of events would have appeared ordinary and natural. Upon these foreigners the fear descended that the Almighty, for some reason, was angry with them. A policeman ran to catch the dog.

The delighted dog rushed backwards, barking furiously, and tried to throw up paving stones with its hind legs. That frightened a nursemaid who was wheeling a perambulator, and then it was that I entered into the proceedings. Seated on the edge of the pavement, with a perambulator on one side of me and a howling baby on the other, I told that dog what I thought of him.

Forgetful that I was in a foreign land–that he might not understand me–I told it him in English, I told it him at length, I told it very loud and clear. He stood a yard in front of me, listening to me with an expression of ecstatic joy I have never before or since seen equalled on any face, human or canine. He drank it in as though it had been music from Paradise.

“Where have I heard that song before?” he seemed to be saying to himself, “the old familiar language they used to talk to me when I was young?”

He approached nearer to me; there were almost tears in his eyes when I had finished.

“Say it again!” he seemed to be asking of me. “Oh! say it all over again, the dear old English oaths and curses that in this God- forsaken land I never hoped to hear again.”

I learnt from the young lady that he was an English-born fox-terrier. That explained everything. The foreign dog does not do this sort of thing. The foreigner is born good: that is why we hate him.

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