Confessions of an Expat – in a Venezuelan bog

Foreign country, language barrier, someone else’s house. What could possibly go wrong?

A visit to a friend’s home for lunch. With other commitments, we get there about 3.30 and I am feeling very rough after the previous evening’s quiet night in turned into a party. So when we arrive at Antonio’s place I am not the most scintillating company. And since I still can’t speak Spanish there is a danger of sinking into an incommunicative stupor.

After half an hour I feel a visit to the sanitary facilities might make me feel better. Locate the little room and venture in with a strange feeling of impending doom. Sit down and check for traps.

The old no-paper ploy. Nothing on the toilet roll holder, but loads in the cupboard under the basin. Okay, cracked it – and then find the real stash balanced on the towel rail.

Physical symptoms alleviated, attempt to flush the thing. No response, not even a gurgle. Take the lid off the cistern and find it’s bone dry. Lift ballcock and still nothing happens. Must be turned off at the stopcock for some reason.

One could, of course, sit here all afternoon and say nothing. Smile and suffer. That’s the English way.

Grope around the pipes and find a tap, which mercifully is not jammed like every other stopcock in the world. Turn it on, hoping it’s not turned off because it floods the place when open. It fills the cistern in a flash, I pull the handle (like the cord arrangement on an outboard engine) and it does the trick.

Turn off the stopcock, realising that this passes the problem on to the next visitor, but with my grasp of the language what am I going to do? Beg them for a dictionary? Demonstrate like you would in charades? No, it’s every man for himself.

Wash hands and re-enter the living room, where Antonio has produced a sort of electric griddle and plonked a 12-inch joint of beef on it. Surely he’s not going to try to cook it on this.

But he is. Browns it down one flank, then turns it over. Have a bit of common sense, mate: this is only going to cook the edges.

The elegant young lady of the room, a friend of one of the nephews, heads for the bathroom and I wrestle momentarily with a gallant urge to help her, before deciding against it for the reasons listed above.

While I watch Antonio do his stuff she disappears, then comes back five minutes later, unflustered.

Antonio takes a carving knife and makes slices thinner than steaks but thicker than for a roast dinner, cooks them quickly and cuts them into the sort of fingers the Chinese go in for. It seems I underestimated you, Mr Bond.

Other family members appear unbidden and grill sausages, make salads and do something with what looks eventually like dry, overcooked potatoes but is in fact cassava. The salad is iceberg lettuce, beefsteak tomatoes, onion and palmitos (palm hearts in brine, tasting a bit like asparagus – very refreshing and go down a treat). More beer? No th… okay then, very kind of you.

Chichiriviche (1)
Faint, disorientated smile, pink eyes, leaning back in chair. It’s the weather: too hot.

And so to evening, fending off the beers, accepting a lemon-flavoured rum in a shot glass. To paraphrase Percy Garriss, the mine-owner in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, ‘You’ve got to relax, got to get used to Venezuelan ways.’ Mind you, he got shot by Bolivian bandits shortly afterwards, perhaps dreaming of halcyon days spent in potentially embarrassing bathroom incidents.

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