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Some years ago, I gave a talk on the future of the English language at an institute south of Munich. Afterwards, I walked to the local station to take the train back to the city. No trains were moving. People were milling about.
Some of my audience, Germans who taught English in local schools, joined me on the platform. A tree had fallen on a power line, knocking out train services for miles around. “What must you think of us?” the teachers asked me. I was relieved, I told them, to see this sort of thing happened to them too.
As we made our way back to Munich, shuffling from replacement buses to other rail services, I realised my reference to British train delays hadn’t resonated. The teachers, many of whom had lived in the UK, had their own impressions of the country. They were anglophiles but a few recalled one horror: British hospital wards — not their hygiene standards but their size. So many beds in one room! In German hospitals you would never have so many patients in a ward.
Travel is about forming impressions of other people’s countries. But you also glean the world’s impressions of yours. If they have any impressions. In my years of travelling I have found few know much about my birthplace, South Africa. They have read about the Nelson Mandela-led transition, they sense things haven’t gone as well since he stepped down and they’ve heard the country is beautiful.
About the UK, my home for most of my adult life and whose passport I hold, they know more. Many of the people I deal with have visited Britain; quite a few graduated from UK universities. During the past year, their interest has been the one preoccupying the country itself. They view Brexit with puzzlement, but also with the terrified, glad-it’s-not-me buzz of an audience awaiting a daredevil stunt: someone is poised to somersault from a great height into a tiny pool below. Will the diver crash on to the surrounding rocks?
Of course, the people I gather my views from are self-selecting. I usually meet them when they attend the courses I run for the FT’s executive education business. The courses are in English, so the participants are accomplished in the language. Because they are involved in international business, they respect the objectivity of English law, which governs many of their contracts. They are not fully representative of their countries, so the impressions I get from them probably aren’t representative either.
Others have tried a more systematic approach to what people make of us. The British Council last week published its biennial survey of what young people — 18 to 34-year-olds in the G20 nations think of each other’s countries.
The Council asked which country the respondents thought was the most attractive, which countries’ institutions they trusted most, and which country they would like to study in or visit. Young G20 people felt most attracted to Canada, followed by Australia and Italy. The only country to name the UK as most attractive was South Africa, although Britain came fourth overall. The US won none of the G20 contests, except in India, where the respondents split the most attractive country title between the US and Canada. The UK’s institutions were generally trusted by most respondents, and the US and Britain were seen as good places to study.
Does it matter what people think of a country? Yes, it affects receipts from tourism, trade and foreign students. But what we learn as we travel also helps us to place where we live in context. Our home country seems smaller when we’re away. We may discover we’re not everyone’s favourite. That measured view of ourselves is what we gain from going elsewhere.
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