Confessions of an Expat – Home is where you can afford to be

An old friend from Guernsey who has lived in Florida for many years recently went back to visit her family and while she was there she came to the conclusion that Guernsey wasn’t home anymore. She has now decided she is American.

Meanwhile, as the US considers what it actually means to be American, many countries in the world at large are asking themselves similar questions.

By coincidence, the vote for a new Mayor of London came up and a Muslim was elected. That, of course, is a religion rather han a nationality, but to many people it adds up to the same thing. Somebody different. Interestingly, two of the candidates (but not him) spoke in their manifestos of building more houses in London “for Londoners”. So it seems that it’s not just countries that want to keep the rest of the world out, but cities who don’t want anybody who isn’t from there in the first place.

But what is a Londoner? How long do you have to live there before you qualify? Surely they can’t be saying if you weren’t born in the city you’re not eligible.

Little old Guernsey, which now has a population of just over 60,000, has seen immigration by various nationalities for centuries. It started out as a French-speaking island, or rather with its own version of French. As British people moved in during the 19th century, the prevailing language shifted to English, even though the French also came over in dribs and drabs, including my own family, my 19th century ancestors being potato workers who left northern France after a poor harvest, looking to better themselves.

This Guernsey cottage would once have been a modest family home. Now it’s out of many people’s financial reach

In much the same way, horticulture workers from the Portuguese island of Madeira came pouring into Guernsey in the 1960s to earn money working in the greenhouses and send some home to their families. They were followed by people from eastern Europe, notably Latvia, who escaped their country’s poor economic situation to do the jobs the Guernsey people didn’t want to do anymore: working in the greenhouses and shops and restaurants.

And why didn’t the locals want to do those jobs? Because the late 20th century brought a flood of British bankers and accountants, taking advantage of Guernsey’s low tax rates and, finance being a highly-paid industry, some of the people who would have been in the manual and service industries managed to get themselves aboard the gravy train with a position in an office. House prices went through the roof to the point where youngsters who didn’t happen to find a  job with a huge salary were unable to get a foot on the property ladder.

There are two housing markets in Guernsey: local and open. The open market is more expensive, but the local market is eye-watering too nowadays.

The old Guernsey families, those who had been in the island for four or five centuries, used to tease the more recent arrivals such as me (born there, as were my parents) about not really being “Guernsey”, but they probably don’t think it quite so funny anymore, as they find themselves in the minority, with BMW-driving neighbours buying, upgrading and knocking the history out of houses where their friends used to live.

This is good if you look at it from an estate agent’s point of view: high prices means high fees, but the term “affordable housing” now means a small place in an area your parents wouldn’t entertained the thought of living in.

Across the Atlantic to the Caribbean I went, and were the locals pleased to see me? They were pleased to part me from my cash. In the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British Overseas Territory just south of the Bahamas, the people who were born there call themselves Belongers. By implication, then, everyone else doesn’t belong there, which is a pretty mean-spirited attitude, but it is one that has spread around the globe. With honorable exceptions such as Canada, which seems to like diversity and, perhaps, still has enough room to absorb foreigners without the natives feeling squeezed, the world doesn’t want you and your sort muscling in on its territory.

“Go back where you came from” is the message. “Sorry to hear about your trouble, but there’s no room for you here.”


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