Confessions of an expat – A transatlantic bum

plane snow

It was a long time ago. 1983 perhaps, and my first adventure outside the British Isles. My girlfriend’s father had moved from South London to New York. Long Island, to be precise. Her mother had gone to Toronto, although the public message was that there was nothing wrong with their marriage. They had both chosen to cross the Atlantic, but had settled in cities 500 miles apart.

I wasn’t privy to the real story, because they didn’t like me. I was a bum, a semi-professional musician working for a chain of wine shops while doing whatever gigs my band could find in south west London. I’d better give the girl a name (but not her real one): Mandy.  Her father was a journalist, successful to the extent of having been the editor of a national newspaper. Now he wanted to be a novelist, and had opted for the relative solitude of a house way out on the island in a quiet town.

Then his beloved daughter had announced that she wanted to move there too, to try a career in the film business, which she had been doing in England. And she wanted to bring the bum with her, because he was her first love and he wanted to try being a rock star in the US. Fathers of daughters being the suckers they are, he went along with it, and so it was that I arrived with his precious offspring in freezing January. It was snowing in London when I left (Mandy had gone there for Christmas), but nothing like it was doing on Long Island. The little town was on the coast, and the water in the harbour was frozen.

The reception at JFK was pretty icy too: my first experience of US immigration officers. I had chosen a line with a female officer at the end of it, banking on my youthful charm to smooth my passage, but my smile and friendly words bounced off her like acorns off an ice sculpture. She let me in, though. There was no reason why she shouldn’t. British, no criminal record, fit and healthy: who wouldn’t have wanted me in their country?

Mandy had use of her mother’s car, so I was spared a trip with a snarling Cyril (not his real name either) as I discovered that Long Island was not one big affluent, beach-oriented idyll, but had real people with little money living there too.

The snarling didn’t start when we reached the house, even. The old man and I were civil to each other.

To be honest, the present me wouldn’t have liked the then me either. I wasn’t cocky exactly, but nor was I humble. They could take me or leave me, and it didn’t really occur to me that I was in Cyril’s house because he allowed me to be there and had no obligation to let me stay. Notice all the personal pronouns in that sentence? Me me me.  Ah well, Mandy was happy and she was the buffer between me and reality.

At that time, a British passport included mention of one’s occupation, and mine said songwriter. It was true, in that I wrote songs and took it seriously. I didn’t earn money from them as such, but they provided the material the band gave people at our pub gigs. I wasn’t going to put “shop assistant” on my passport – that was just temporary.

The first thing I had to do was buy an acoustic guitar, so one day we headed into the city and I found a guitar shop in Times Square. That still sounds good, the Times Square part. The guitar was okay, a Yamaha, but I put electric guitar strings on it, because they are thinner and easier to bend, and I was used to playing an electric. As a result, the tone wasn’t exactly rich, but it sounded like a guitar and was comfortable to play.

The days went by in a pleasant haze. I would sometimes go jogging in the snow in perfect peace until I rounded the corner by the harbour and the locals observed my leaden footsteps. “Run!” they used to quip – well, they thought that was a quip.

sag harbor

We would go for trips in the car and I remember the first time I saw a football pitch in America. A soccer field, they would probably call it, and in those days football was a real minority sport. It wasn’t on TV and I decided that if I stayed, I would have to get into baseball, because a sports fan has to have a sport to follow, and American football seemed like such a numbskull’s game, while ice hockey had no charm. It was indoors, for a start, as was basketball, and at least baseball took place under the sun and you could improvise a game with a few friends and a minimum of equipment.

In the evenings I would work my way through a big plastic bottle of something called Hearty Burgundy, which was cheap red wine and if anything brought out the snarl that was waiting behind Cyril’s blank exterior, that was it. But I couldn’t afford to drink what he did: good imported stuff from France.

It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. The money ran out and  we lifted the burden from Cyril and took it north to his wife.


Next Tuesday: a Greyhound bus, Niagara Falls and Toronto.



Confessions of an expat – Caracas and queues

Even before the economic crash which brought shortages of everyday items, one rather surprising feature of Venezuelan life was their willingness to queue. British people always think we’re the only people on the planet who do this, but out there they form orderly queues for buses, underground trains and banks.

Even when you eventually get on a bus there’s no guarantee you’re going anywhere

That is where the orderliness finishes with buses, though. There don’t seem to be timetables or signs indicating bus stops – people just know that if you stand in a certain place a certain bus will pick you up. At the start of the journey they don’t leave at a particular time, just when they are full. I must admit that at peak times in Caracas, when the lines of people go back 200 yards, I was known to lurk near the front of the queues for two routes, both of which would get me home, and drift between the two so that I became a familiar figure and then shuffle onto whichever arrived first. In the evenings they make up the prices as they go along, but I found that if you called their bluff and hand over the usual fare without showing them up they would usually accept it.

The vehicles themselves are often old and dilapidated, but they get you there and your expectations change out here anyway – the smell of burning engine oil might be slightly alarming, but it’s not the smell of a burning bus.

The queuing business is similar in the Metro – they have lines painted on the platform that encourage you to form snakes, but the thing is so busy much of the time that I would either breeze into a gap and casually peer up the tunnel as if looking for a train, then hang around there, or make a late run into space. It’s dog eat dog when the train arrives, anyway, with the women among the worst offenders, barging with unnecessary force into crowded carriages, safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to punch them because they are just defenceless females. The UK still has a few overcompensating women, punishing today’s men for the sins of their fathers, but out there it seems like they’ve only just finished burning their bras.

That, in fact, will never happen there, because the women like to flaunt what they’ve got. They are very proud of the fact that Venezuela has produced more Miss Worlds than any other country, and they still do well in the competition’s successor, Miss Universe. Incidentally, they call a winner of one of these competitions ‘a Miss’.

miss v
Top export: Venezuela has produced more ‘Misses’ than any other country

Rumour has it that many of the spectacular cleavages are surgically-enhanced, but be that as it may, the feminine scenery is tremendous. It doesn’t stop some of them behaving like graduates of the Holloway Prison School of Charm, but maybe it’s better to be assaulted by psychopathic sisters rather than psychopathic brothers.

There is even a Miss who not long ago was a mayor of part of Caracas and is tipped to be a future president. However, the country will first have to bring to an end the Chavez/Maduro years, and although a million telescopes are trained on the horizon, there is no real sign of that particular ship coming in yet.

As for the banks, it’s all a matter of incompetence. You can be in there for literally hours waiting to accomplish a simple task such as paying in a cheque.

caracas 2
Boys will be boys, but this is real life, not a film

And speaking of incompetence, after six months I was still hopeless at Spanish. I could read the newspaper and understand most of it, write in Spanish and even speak it a bit in a halting, laboured way, but when they started talking I got hardly a word. In a strange way this helped me as an English teacher, because I now recognise that blank look in some of my students’ eyes when I ask them a simple question. I was routinely humiliated by bus drivers and shop assistants who felt superior to this clever-dick gringo because they could speak the language and I couldn’t.

Phrase books and elementary Spanish courses? Forget it. In their world when you walk into a cafe the waiter says ‘What would you like?’ and you say ‘A white coffee, please. ‘ In reality he says ‘Gorblimey guvnor I’ve got a bleeding sesame seed stuck between me teeth wotcha want then?’ and you stand there with your mouth open.

In my defence, I must point out that many Venezuelans speak Spanish as if they never went to school. It’s all sloppy pronunciation and slang, and they are particularly reluctant to use consonants, so that when you’re listening for the underground train driver to announce the next station as Parque Carabobo, he gabbles something like Ar-eh Ara o-o and everyone but the foreigner understands. I’ll get it in the end.

They tell me Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world and that you’re safer in Afghanistan than walking the streets as I did. Everybody seems to know someone who was robbed at knifepoint or even kidnapped. Well, all I can say is that I never saw any trouble. I tried to steer clear of the areas people say are best avoided, but as one of them was the place where my bus left from, it was a question of keeping a low profile. Don’t advertise the fact that you have a laptop in your bag, and don’t bring your wallet out and flash the cash – sound advice anywhere.



Have faith, will travel – in the Caribbean

gt church

During the cold, damp British winter four or five years ago came an opportunity out of the blue to live in the Caribbean – Grand Turk, capital of the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI), just south of the Bahamas. The island is only a couple of miles long and the population is less than 4,000. It was boosted at that time by a number of mainly British people brought in to run the country after serious corruption had destroyed the credibility of the local government.

TCI is a British Overseas Territory, independent but ultimately the responsibility of the UK. With a largely British history, the language is English and they drive on the left side of the road.

On Sunday mornings the place goes  even quieter than usual and all the locals get dressed up smartly and flock to the churches, of which there is a bewildering variety for such a small place. There are Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist and Anglican and in addition, churches of prophecy, churches of healing, churches of Christ-knows-what.

The one I find myself in, right by the beach, is old-fashioned, or perhaps high church. A junior official in a cassock and surplice has the job of walking in front of the little procession of priest and choir as it enters the church, swinging a silver ball on a chain, from which belches the smoke of incense. The boy’s head swivels front and back to ensure he isn’t setting fire to anybody. The priest chants lines that I can’t help thinking should be simply spoken, not eked out in a tone that falls and rises again at the end of each section. Back home they have been taking the mickey out of this sort of thing since the 1960s.

Whereas now in the UK people turn up at churches wearing whatever they like – shorts and a T-shirt for a summer funeral (‘well, he wouldn’t have minded’) – here some of the men  wear suits, the others smart shirts and trousers. And as for the women, while the older ones wear hats of a style you only see nowadays in charity shops, both they and the younger ones model colourful, fitted, in some cases sexy dresses.

The walk from my beachfront home is 20 minutes down a blissfully shady street and along the sea wall. The church is full and I am one of only two white faces.

Following the order of service in a new church is usually a challenge but I am lucky enough to be sitting next to two young women who see me struggling and refer me to pages in the book or what is up on the TV screens.

The minister is a tall, thick-set man who looks tired, as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Halfway through the service he comes to what is clearly a regular item: spot the visitor. And of course I am very easy to spot.

I stand up and say my name and what I’m doing there and he welcomes me, but my two pew buddies have already done that in deed, not just word.

As the months pass, I miss the occasional week and several times the priest picks me out again in the visitor slot. Perhaps, as an English friend sitting next to me one day says, he thinks all white men look the same.

It is a tight-knit community and there is not much mixing between the locals (who call themselves Belongers) and the expats. I spend some evenings at a bar built on stilts over the beach, and 99% of the customers are expats. One notable exception is a pretty but careworn middle-aged woman with the darkest skin I’ve ever seen. She seems to have a relationship with an English alcoholic accountant who props up the bar most nights.

After a few months I play a gig, just me and my guitar, and it becomes a regular thing.

At church I am looking for a way of contributing, so I offer my services as sound engineer, helping the priest to master his screeching PA system.

The other Anglican church is next to the cemetery, a dusty, sandy, uneven, derelict-looking place the size of a football pitch. I decide I would be happy enough to be under there when my time comes. Not all of the Caribbean merits the ‘paradise’ tag that people bandy about so readily, but this place does. Sadly, work moves us on, but is nice for a while to be part of the community, albeit an arm’s-length part.

Have faith, will travel – in Caracas

Santa Capilla
Santa Capilla, my oasis in a hot, noisy city

Finding a church to attend in a foreign country can be difficult, because for a start there may be a language barrier. When I married a Venezuelan woman and moved to her town on the coast, an hour’s drive from Caracas, I found it surprisingly short on places of worship, and the few there were were Roman Catholic.

As a Church of England sort of guy, even though I have sampled the styles and habits of other denominations, I have always found Catholicism strangely daunting. The thought of learning how they do things with the Spanish language issue complicating things further was more than I felt I could handle, so that was Sunday services temporarily abandoned.

But that didn’t mean staying out of churches altogether. I spent every weekday wandering around Caracas, teaching English as a Foreign Language to young adults in their offices. One of my hotspots was the Ministry of Finance, and there were two big churches and a cathedral in the area, so I made a point of spending time in those.

In many parts of the UK you can’t do that because the churches are locked when not in use to keep vandals and thieves out, but although Caracas is a violent city with a lot of gun crime, the churches are open.

My favourite was called Santa Capilla, which is on a traffic-choked street but reached, for me, up a quiet alley from a beautiful square, Plaza Bolivar. There, or in the other church or the cathedral, I would spend a few minutes in quiet contemplation, giving thanks and asking God for help, as you do.

The other good thing about all three buildings was that they are cool inside, especially Santa Capilla, where I would sit just off the central aisle near the back, with a breeze coming through like free air conditioning.

Refreshed in body and soul, I would then head off to impart the secrets of the English language to students who seemed to enjoy it more than most, because for them it was a break during the working day.

Caracas cathedral
The cathedral seen from Plaza Bolivar

Another area where I spent a fair bit of time was five or six metro stops away in a newer and much more salubrious part of the city.

But no churches. Not one. Just big, smart office blocks and hotels and a mall. I used to ask people if there was a church nearby until one day someone explained that everything there was new, and when areas are redeveloped, one thing they don’t include is places of worship. Because people don’t go to church so much anymore.

Confessions of an expat – buskers and beggars

fire guy
This is Fire Guy. He is a professional street entertainer and he does it because he’s a showman, not because he’s desperate

Street entertainers and their poor relation, beggars, are a feature of cities all over the world. Glasgow, as we’ve seen, might just be the king of the busking cities because it is so pedestrianized, but wherever you go, there are down-and-outs and chancers doing what they can to get the money for a meal and a drink.

In Caracas, Venezuela, they have quite a traffic problem, with junctions jammed at all hours of the day and traffic lights that count down the seconds until it’s your turn to go.

For the entertainers, this shows that they’ve got , say, 25 seconds to impress you and accept your generous donation, but with engine noise and honking of horns, giving you a few bars of American Pie isn’t going to have much effect.

What does work is juggling, and perhaps the early exponents of this on the streets of the city just did it with ordinary juggling clubs, but now you’re more likely to find people doing it with burning sticks. It certainly grabs the attention, especially at twilight, and even if some exponents are not particularly good at it – you see them drop one occasionally – it is something most of us would never attempt, so it is tempting to give them a few of the almost-worthless local coins just for having the enterprise to do it.

At least it gives the observer something to enjoy, whereas with the humble beggar all we experience is pity, guilt and embarrassment.

For many of us, I think it’s not that we don’t want to give money to someone less fortunate. It’s just that we may not have the right amount of cash, or we are more than happy to give to charity but don’t like to be pressured. There is also the school of thought that if you give one day, you will be seen as a soft touch for the rest of your stay. And there are also those who say don’t give, they’ll only spend it on drugs (a terribly sweeping judgement in my opinion).

No fun. This is real life on the streets

Can one person give equally to everyone who asks him? In Vancouver once, in the middle of winter I gave money to a man who looked quite respectable and perhaps was new to the life. It was so cold in that area, down by the water, that you really did want to help him to get off the street into somewhere warm. I gave once but ran into him again on the way back from the restaurant, whereupon he tried his luck again. Then he recognized me, apologized and only sheepishly accepted my second instalment.

Holiday destinations don’t have the same tearjerking effect. During one short break in a small town on the Algarve in Portugal, to my shame I avoided eye contact with the local beggar for five days and on my last day, I actually altered my route to the beach to avoid him altogether. But guess what – he had changed his routine that very day too and there he was in the middle of the alley. The game was up and I handed him all my change.

The path to becoming a vagrant is a tragic one to behold, as I have done twice. First there was a quite well-known figure, a school dentist, who deteriorated from happy drinker to heavy drinker and on down the staircase to unemployed, unemployable and a life hanging around the bus terminus.

Then there was a man I didn’t know at all, in London, who just degenerated from apparent stability and normality to being dirty, unwashed and clearly sleeping rough.

Usually we meet them after the fall from grace and don’t know the story behind the smell. Such was the case with a middle-aged woman I befriended in a pleasant part of Caracas.

Past glories: Plaza Bolivar, Caracas

Having caught the early bus into the city to go about my business teaching English, I often had half an hour to spare before my first class with employees at the Ministry of Finance. Ten minutes’ walk away was Plaza Bolivar, a partially shaded area of smooth stone benches around the edges with lawns and flower beds and a big statue of the national hero, Simon Bolivar, on a rearing horse.

A porridge vendor would cycle through, loudly proclaiming that what he was selling (they like it thin like a drink in those parts) was nice and hot.

A gardener would appear and lift up a grassy flap in the lawn, disappear below ground, and a fountain would stop or start at his instigation. Men would sit around, reading newspapers and chatting.

Village of the damned: a shanty town clinging to a hill outside Caracas

And there was this woman, always wearing the same drab dress and tatty sandals. She spoke no English and I spoke little Spanish, but she seemed to feel comfortable with me and would sit and mutter through her toothless mouth while I prepared my theme for the day. She didn’t ask for money, although she was apparently destitute, and eventually she would wander off.

She could have been a rich eccentric for all I know. Or perhaps she was just hanging on to some shred of self-respect.