Monday, 21 May 2007

A Lawyer in Paradise


Cat and Eros, Piccadilly Circus, London (except it's dark and you can't actually see Eros).


Having the so-called skills of an English lawyer doesn’t help me very much in Thailand. This isn’t a rule-based society and power’s derived from status and hierarchy as much as from the law. The Thais just have to respect authority and do as they’re told. To question is to confront, to cause loss of face.

If the police think they’ve found a coven of drug dealers, they don’t apply for a warrant; they mow them down in a hail of bullets. Nobody likes drug dealers, so this has to be a good thing, doesn’t it.

For me in Thailand, I can’t access the law anyway as I’ve become illiterate and might as well be deaf and dumb. I can’t read or write Thai and I’m incompetent in all but the basics of the oral language.

When an official form or legal document is put in front me, I can’t read it and, contrary to all my instincts, I just have to sign it and be damned. When they say I can’t register my car in my own name though I know I probably can, when the visa rules make an ass of me or the traffic policeman tells me to slip a few baht into his back pocket, I’m as helpless as a baby. And sometimes I find it truly, madly, deeply, mega frustrating!

This loss of control over almost everything in my life is one downside that every farang suffers by living in Thailand. In my own country it’s my language, my system, but here I find I’m subject to the arbitrary whim of every bureaucrat or petty tyrant who seeks to assert an ounce of authority over me. No, I’m not getting paranoid! Am I?

Back home in England, my legal training can be a real advantage in many different ways. First, despite the Bard’s exhortation to kill all the lawyers, solicitors always score well in Cosmo polls of the professions women find most attractive. Is it because of our money or our verbal wit… or do women just like obnoxious men?

Next advantage is this… though I admit to apoplexy when faced with a video timer or computer manual, I’m never at a loss with an insurance policy, consumer guarantee or title deed. For we lawyers are blessed with an amazing facility construing the precise meaning of words, a great benefit in life’s perilous journey. Let me give you a recent example.

When last in London with Cat, giving up on finding any decent Thai noodles in Gerrard Street, we decide to head for those truly awful Umbro and Donnay sports shops on Oxford Street. One of the Chinese merchants in Sangkha has asked Cat to bring him back an Arsenal tee shirt. You can get perfectly good copies in Bangkok, but he wants us to buy him the genuine article. Costing a bomb and made in China, it’s a priceless artifact nonetheless, bought near hallowed ground.

As we fight through the Oxford Street crowds, playing ‘spot the Englishman’ with little success, it begins to rain; not real rain but the half-hearted, drizzly British sort of rain that soaks you insidiously. It’s time to get under cover. We’re hardly mid-way on one of Cat’s retail half-marathons, so I’m in need of a break anyway. Footsore and weary, I dream of the comfort of my favorite Starbucks on Soi Langsuan in Bangkok.

Sure enough, as always there’s a Starbucks within spitting distance but the one we find ourselves in is crowded and dirty, the walls chipped and peeling, the carpets worn and ingrained with food. After interminable queueing, they interrogate me about the sort of coffee I want.

‘No, I don’t want a Larty or a Mocker or whatever. Just an ordinary coffee for God’s sake… white with one sugar!’

Finally I get it and Cat has some funny sort of Italian bread with tuna in it, though the bill would feed a Thai family for a week. Then there’s nowhere to sit as the place is packed with steaming people. We find a corner and eat miserably.

I’d like to complain but the counter staff were all perfectly pleasant and I daren’t confront them with Cat watching. None of them’s English of course, just minimum wage fodder in a down-at-heel dive that’s far too busy raking in the cash to close for a refit.

Any thought of complaining is soon displaced, however, as my bowels begin to surge and grind angrily. I can’t blame the Starbucks food as I’ve only just eaten it, but an immediate evacuation is now as urgent as Dunkirk. I leg it for the loo, but in its dank confines am confronted by a dire notice.

“Only paper may be put down the toilet.”

Only paper?? No shit, Sherlock?! I’ll just have to hang onto this first increment of excrement and find somewhere else… and fast! At least being a lawyer, I understand Starbucks’ clear injunction.

Buttocks clenched, I make it with Cat to the nearest department store, but as usual the customer loos are on the top floor. Things are getting critical now and, to my dismay, next to the lift there’s another sign.

“Do not use the lift in case of fire.”

The reason’s again quite clear and for some good reason, we mustn’t use the lift in case a fire breaks out. It’d be different if it said, “Do not use the lift in the event of fire”. But thank goodness… we’d have been in hideous danger if we’d used the lift like everyone else.

I walk stiffly to the escalator, but to my horror see another wretched notice.

“Dogs must be carried on the escalator.”

But I don’t have a dog!

Glancing round for a branch of Rent-A-Dog, I analyse the wording. If they’d meant otherwise they’d surely have said, “Any person in possession of a dog shall carry it on the escalator”.

So now I’m totally shafted! I could carry Cat of course, but no, being dogless, the escalator’s out of bounds to both of us.

Then, as I stagger to the stairs, I spot yet another notice.

“Customers may use the toilets on the top floor. In the event of emergency, please use the stairs.”

Once again, the wording’s crystal clear to my legal brain. Or is it this time? Either they or me, or everyone round here’s going stark staring mad!

Funny thing is, in Thailand where I can’t begin to read the signs and sometimes end up in the ladies loo, life’s much more pleasant and easy. I never bother about legal things and somehow can switch off like everyone else and go with the flow.

‘Hello Khun Farang,’ they’ll say. ‘You like holiday Thailand? Have Thai lady? Thailand sanuk, Thailand freestyle! Why you go England? England cold, ekpensive. Better you stay here Thailand, can enjoy, no probrem!’

And yes, I think they’re right. When I go for my next face lift at the Bumrungrad, I’ll have all the legal bits excised from what’s left of my brain. Life would be much easier without them.

2 comments:

Claire said...

I'm sure "only paper" means no female hygiene products. At least I hope it does, otherwise I've broken a lot of toilets.

mike said...

It is good to redress the balance and poke a little fun at signs in England - we all have a laugh sometimes at signs in other countries (including Thailand) written in English, but how many signs in England are written in foreign languages?

One which would amuse the lawyer in you appears on Singapore's MRT trains: "No eating and drinking". But officer, I am only eating a hamburger, I was not drinking too.