Confessions of an Expat – Weather: you like it or not

palm trees
Arr, there be a storm a-brewin’ and no mistake

Science has produced some wonderful things, from space travel to swing-lid kitchen bins. But let’s not forget the natural things that add atmosphere – extremes of weather.

It depends where you’re living, of course. As a British expat living in the relentless heat of the tropics (currently Suriname), I look at the BBC world news and see that back in the UK they’re having storms and in the USA they’ve got a band of snow so severe that they’ve given it a nickname – Snowmageddon.

I belong to an expat group that meets once a month to have a few drinks and swap stories. Common topics are bureaucracy and the cost of living, but everyone likes to talk about where they come from too.

Once I talked to a couple who were from the south of Canada, and so sick were they of the heat in Paramaribo that when they went home for a holiday, they found Vancouver too mild and went up north because they wanted to be really cold for a while.

There’s an expression in the UK, often prefaced by something like: ‘my Dad used to tell me…’: ‘You’ve got to have a winter to have a summer,’ and while it would take a bit of research and interpretation to prove or disprove that, the thought is a pleasant enough one. How about a couple of feet of snow – the steady, thick, peaceful, Disney type – that lasts for weeks and forces us all to re-evaluate our need to leave the house (and certainly our need to use a car). Put another log on the fire, or turn the heating up a notch, and read the whole of the weekend papers, rather than wasting half a tree by only looking at one section. Perhaps for some people life really is like a Christmas card scene, a winter idyll spent cracking walnuts in their elbows, roasting chestnuts for loved ones and peeling satsumas (make that clementines – satsumas sound too modern and foreign).

Blizzard? Pull yourselves together, humans

In an ideal world there would be a seamless transition from the snowdrifts into a balmy spring and a blazing summer. No slush or clearing up and certainly no March winds.

It may be futile to wonder why we should put up with coldish, damp days in exchange for warmish, overcast ones later on – but there is nothing wrong with a bit of December daydreaming.

Bring on the blizzard if it comes with a free heatwave next year. Let’s have the monsoon that heralds a hot, dry spell from May to September.

We’re all very wise these days, if the expressions we use are any guide. A popular choice is the carousel-inspired ‘What goes around comes around’, i.e. if you do something (usually bad), the same will happen to you later.

We love a natural light show: just as long as it’s not too close

By extension, if we have an electrical storm of tropical proportions including – and some people swear they have seen this – balls of lightning coming in through the window and rolling over to the TV, while torrents of water sweep the streets without actually cleaning them (why does clean rain just make them dirtier?), are we not due for a long period of blue skies with the occasional harmless little white cloud like they have on The Simpsons?

Perhaps the only saving grace of bad weather is the sound of rain on the roof and windows when we’re not out in it. It’s a strange feeling to analyse, though, and I’m not entirely sure it is all about being grateful for the invention of slates and tiles. It is more to do with the sound and possibly the vibrations.

Nature’s sedative: there’s nothing like the sound of rain

While ‘white noise’ is not generally regarded as a good thing, except for screening out noises we don’t want to hear, ‘wet noise’ could be prescribed instead of sleeping pills and sedatives – in fact it probably has already been introduced in Japan, where their adoption of weird ideas that turn out to be brainwaves is higher than most.

The sound of strong wind could have much the same effect, were it not often accompanied by the noise of flying garden furniture and dustbins barrelling down the road, never to be seen again.

As for thunder and lightning, the world seems to be split into those who love it and those who are terrified. Even normally logical people who know that sleet and hail were not sent to chastise us for eating chocolate will be quite happy to credit the sudden occurrence of a loud storm as being significant if they have just made a particularly weighty decision. It’s the incidental music of nature, the equivalent of the excited piece of orchestration that tells us during a film that something especially dramatic is happening.

Incidentally, has there ever been a thunderstorm on Christmas Day? And if not, why not? Imagine the effect it would have. We would all be sitting there with our mouths open and forks of turkey and stuffing frozen in mid air.

There is probably a meteorological explanation for the lack of natural fireworks at such a time of year, but if not it can be used to bolster the ever-decreasing list of life’s great mysteries – as eroded by well-meaning but unromantic science. Storm-related answers on an email, please, to



Confessions of an Expat – Downsized by circumstances

Four years of living in the Caribbean were interrupted recently by a trip to Canada. First things first: it dawned on us that we didn’t have any cold weather clothes. I had ditched a perfectly good warm, waterproof jacket at Glasgow airport just before getting on the plane, because I wasn’t going to be needing it where I was going.


Since my wife had travelled out before me and I had been left to do the packing – bad mistake – I had also taken the liberty of getting rid of coats, jackets, sweaters and scarves that were only going to be taking up wardrobe space while the sun beat relentlessly on a house in the tropics, and anyway, there was no room in the suitcases.

Books went to a charity shop, wedding presents in the form of fancy champagne glasses and so on prompted emotional decisions. We didn’t have enough stuff to justify shipping it separately, with all the attendant hassle, but it wouldn’t go in the cases, so it had to go somewhere. It had to… go.

These battered memories, these timeworn artefacts, they are but my stuff

You hear the expression, “It’s only material things, possessions, stuff.” I drew the line at my precious CD collection, but I did buy a 1ft square, four inches thick CD wallet which enables you to throw away the plastic cases  and slide the discs into little pouches (although regrettably, sometimes the cover art and information wouldn’t fit.)

I cast my mind back to the days when everyone had 12-inch LPs, which I had lugged around to university and back and between dingy flats with the benefit of youthful strength and the lack of any other possessions apart from two pairs of jeans. One old suitcase of the type apparently made of nothing more than tough cardboard had parted company with the handle as I heaved it through a barrier at a railway station, such was the weight of Neil Young and James Taylor it contained – and cases didn’t even have wheels at that time.

Back in the almost present day, as one Caribbean island gave way to another (necessity of work, not island-hopping for pleasure) some separate shipping was involved because I had by then acquired a PA system, which cannot be stripped or condensed in any way. It was piled onto a pallet along with other bits and pieces and shipped via Miami (no direct option) to arrive in Trinidad a month later and be extricated from Customs at a grim and stuffy shed at a port with all the tropical charm of a Gdansk industrial estate. Onto the back of a truck, onto another cargo vessel and into the new house.

Barely a year later we were off again, and again I was in charge of packing. No money for shipping this time, so it was back to the suitcases and the culling.

Kitchen equipment, the PA, a dodgy old car – I had a house sale and gave things away for almost nothing. Got rid of the PA for a reasonable price and the buyer also found someone to take the car off my hands. But still the suitcases wouldn’t shut.

This time the CDs had to go. With the digital revolution I had most things copied into iTunes anyway, so I ripped out from the wallet a few pages of CDs I just couldn’t bear to part with and stashed them in the case. I would like to think the abandoned ones found a good home, but they’re probably being used as coasters to keep water stains off wooden tables or dangled like scarecrows to keep birds away. Anyway, I’ve still got the music, albeit invisibly, and you can look up the information online. It’s not just the pictures, it’s who wrote what and who played bass on a particular track – these things are important to the music-trivia lover.

Survivors: that’s Neil Young’s On The Beach, top left

As for the rest of it, well, you become less sentimental about it once one batch has gone.

Three scruffy plastic bags follow me around: one containing a collection of notebooks I wrote song lyrics in decades ago, another full of childhood memories collated by my parents (newspaper cuttings of this goofy boy in school sports events, educational certificates etc.) and the third a load of miscellaneous photographs which are somehow more treasurable than the ones on my laptop. But I suppose the laptop is a version of the scruffy plastic bags. Must back everything up before something happens.

Confessions of an Expat – Return of the Unwanted

This is a true story, or at least a small part of it. It's about Grand Turk, the struggling capital of the Turks and Caicos Islands, just south of the Bahamas. Scandal and corruption led to an interim government being imposed - and the locals didn't like it one bit. The neighbouring island, Providenciales, is where the action is now.
Governor's Beach
Governor’s Beach, Grand Turk. It’s deserted because the island is virtually deserted. It is struggling but doesn’t know how to help itself.

The atmosphere at the Parade Ground is like a special Saturday in a public park in south London. But here the green they walk on is not fat, overnourished British grass struggling to keep its head above water, but artificial turf, because around here grass is only periodically drowned: it hardly gets started in the barren, sandy soil that rarely sees rain.

The green mesh fencing around the perimeter is there to keep cricket balls and footballs in. Along the western edge of the ground are two plastic gazebos, sheltering the crowd from a sun that is heading for the sea, but with bloody-minded sloth, blazing still because it is now June and what had seemed like a hot but bearable climate only a few weeks earlier has now been turned up a notch. Children, their bodies but not their heads shielded from the rays by a four-foot wall, jostle for position in the shade of telegraph poles and speaker cabinets to protect the top of their head. This is what they have grown up with, what their African heritage says their ancestors grew up with, yet they are not immune. An older boy uses his PC tablet alternately as a fan and to shield his face. In the gazebos, groups of 20-30 black women huddle on white plastic garden chairs, some smartly attired in shiny dresses, others squeezed into American jeans and t-shirts.

There used to be life here, but no customers means no need for a gym

Between the two huddles is a more elaborate shaded area with tiered seating, a makeshift grandstand, and here sits a group of largely middle-aged white men. In front of them, on a small daïs in front of the grandstand, a grey-suited white figure in a smart straw hat stands doggedly, arms at his sides. His Excellency the Governor. The crowd in the grandstand is composed largely of members of his interim government and advisors brought in on short-term contracts to oversee the process of establishing a functioning government for this British Overseas Territory, the UK government having stepped in to protect the interests of its far-flung citizens after a monumental scandal of corruption which had seen tens of millions of US dollars flying into the bank accounts of the disgraced premier and his cronies. The Governor can see from the corner of his eye a group of young men carrying placards bearing slogans such as “Bring back democracy” and “Corruption is still wrong, even when the British are doing it”.

GT horses
Homeless horses roam the island, along with cattle and donkeys. That’s not snow on the ground, but blindingly white sand

Out in the middle of the field, the spectacle revolves around the Police band, who, dressed in white uniforms and caps with bright red and green bands, have been playing Lean On Me for at least ten minutes. Somehow they now find their way out of the loop and embark on a tune which unfamiliar, although it sounds vaguely churchy and a bit military. Orders are barked and the leader, brandishing a long ceremonial baton, takes the parade on a slow march over towards the cricket scorers’ box, where long-limbed youths lounge up in the sky, and then, changing to quick march, the parade swings around towards the dignitaries.

GT sunset
A distant cruise ship heads into the sunset

The band is followed by the country’s second-finest quasi-military body, a group of prison staff and, judging by the un-Cellblock-H-ness of some of the young women, ancillary workers. Behind them come the Boy Scouts, then the Cubs, the Girl Guides and the Brownies. A chubby young Scout, regretting his failure to try it out in advance, is swinging his right arm with his right leg, his left with the left and wondering how people don’t fall over doing this, because he is sure he is going to. And behind the Brownies, whose little heads are dressed cutely in cornrows of black hair, scalps glistening, the placard-brandishing protestors sneak along, slouching beneath their dreadlocks. A ceremonially-attired police officer marches aggressively towards them but abandons his mission in the face of shrugs and smirks and the knowledge that the media are in attendance. The protestors, not blessed with an official to command ‘Eyeeeeees…. right!’, nevertheless flick a communal sneer at the Governor as they pass, before realizing they are now in front of the cameras and that their placards are facing the wrong way. There is a flurry of flailing cardboard as they get in each other’s way before they conclude that they have done enough and don’t so much ‘fall out’ as deflate and resume their loitering.

The legitimate parade goes back to its original position in the middle of the field while presentations are made to long-serving officers, the polite applause stirred up by whoops and heyys from the women, as the fathers of their children get the recognition they deserve for keeping the country together before the hooray henrys arrived.


Confessions of an expat – The Road to Guyana part 2

Friends in unexpected places

It’s a long life if you’re lucky and nothing can be taken for granted. That is particularly true if you leave the comfort and safety of your homeland and go to live somewhere else. That’s called being an expat and it means you’re among people you didn’t grow up with. You don’t know their culture, their traditions and their standard practices. You don’t know where the shops and restaurants are, or which taxi drivers you can trust not to rip you off.

As an expat you are therefore at the mercy of the population wherever you find yourself.

My return trip from Guyana is by plane, from a small airport just outside Georgetown. It’s called Ogle, this airport, and it’s also called International, because you can fly to other countries from it. The very word international makes it sound sophisticated, if you’ve forgotten what other ‘international’ airports can be like.

Georgetown, Guyana, has the largest wooden cathedral in the world.

The previous night I milked the ATM at the hotel for $6,000 and it’s all gone –the taxi was $1500 and the bill for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant (Japanese food) was mind-boggling. I’m not worried. There’s always an ATM at an international airport. It might even offer USD, and if the machine doesn’t, the cambio will.

But there is no ATM at Ogle International (there might be now, because it had been delivered, they told me, but it wasn’t operational yet) and there is certainly no cambio. Check my wallet and I find a $500 bill. In most countries this would be cause for celebration, but when it’s Guyanese dollars you can’t afford to go mad.

A young man in a white shirt with dark blue epaulettes appears to be in charge of the whole shebang. He’s very friendly, very polite and duly shows me where I can collect my ticket, which is reserved but not paid for. I’m so tired from the previous day’s cross-country taxi challenge that I walk out of the ticket office without my passport and the girls are highly amused when I return to claim it.

Outside, a middle aged man asks me where I’m going, because apparently I look like I don’t know.

“Suriname,” I say, and he too laughs. He meant which part of the airport, and he shows me a café that looks as though it has nothing but in fact sells everything. I am served by a very friendly, mumsy, 40-something black woman in a navy and white hooped jersey dress that makes the long, bumpy journey all the way down to her ankles.


The ethnic mix in Guyana is largely African and Indian, and being white is not a comfortable thing here. This morning’s taxi driver has already explained that he was hampered on our trip by other drivers who may have noticed I was in the car.

However, he, the hotel staff and this substantial woman couldn’t be nicer. She roots through a chaotic medicine cabinet and finds me some Ibuprofen.

Having knocked these back with some water and a cheese sandwich, I would like to stay and take on still more fluids, because check-in is not for another two hours, but all I’ve got left is $100.

I slope across to the departure shed – I mean lounge – and tell my tale of woe to a girl from another airline. She smiles and wordlessly goes into the back office. Returning with a fistful of Guyanese banknotes, she gives me $500, and even though it’s not as much as it automatically seems, it’s a kind gesture to a tired traveller.

The Immigration people let the side down, but that’s Immigration people for you. First the woman in the kiosk checking the paperwork literally throws mine back at me and barks “You haven’t signed it.” Then the man running the x-ray machine flicks his fingers to hurry me up. Where I come from this is not just the height of bad manners, but a request for a knuckle sandwich. Whether it’s how he was brought up or how he was trained, it’s just how he is.

The flight back to Suriname is Sparguyana postertan but painless.


Two weeks later I’m back in Guyana and back at the same office. Again I’m early and again the sweet, quiet security girl with the gold tooth is there. They let me in because it’s starting to rain and she walks with me up to a door with a canopy where I can shelter.

With 20 minutes to wait, I expect her to disappear, but she doesn’t. It’s a nice, shady courtyard and I ask her about the other buildings. She tells me the complex is owned by Eddy Grant, the Guyanese-born musician who moved to the UK and had hits like Baby Come Back (with The Equals), Electric Avenue and Give me Hope, Jo’anna.

The girl (let’s call her Celine) is interested in who I am and what I’m doing here, because as usual I am clearly not from around these parts. In exchange she tells me that Eddy Grant is a nice guy, not at all affected by his fame and fortune, and he still has the dreadlocks.

Celine is not married, and I can’t help asking why. Not that getting married is the holy grail for women, but she is good-looking, pleasant, kind and helpful: how can she have avoided it? She seems to realize I’m not passing judgment or even being nosy. I’m interested because she is instantly my friend.

Celine leans against the wall, trim and smart in her sandy-coloured uniform with a matching tie. These Guyanese men have missed out here. My unspoken thoughts boom, as through Eddy Grant’s PA system.

A man did propose to her once, a long time ago, but she was young and irresponsible and she didn’t think it was a good idea, so she said no. She has two children, both around 20, and it sounds like she’s happy enough.

Celine has never left Guyana but would like to try somewhere else one day. “I’m still young,” she says. When I ask her direct later on, she says she is 40.

guyana note
Visitors to Guyana are going to need plenty of these

In a country where the economy is weak and wages are low, getting away and starting afresh is not easy. Guyana is not a place to run away from, anyway. There is no internal strife, and although it doesn’t feel safe for someone like me – white, middle-aged and presumed to have money – for this girl it is probably secure enough.

There is a new government and optimism is in the air. Several people tell me how the cricket World Cup in 2007  – hosted by the West Indies, of which Guyana is a part (as regards cricket) – brought money and visitors and how they’re trying to build on that. That was eight years ago, and the fact that it still means so much here is perhaps indicative of a lack of other landmarks.

The Caribbean region in general relies heavily on tourism, but Guyana, like Suriname, is not an island and doesn’t have the beach-centred vacation to offer. Both countries have lots of countryside, jungle and water, but mangrove swamps instead of miles of golden sand, so without a major industry to generate revenue, optimism seems to be the order of the day. Goodbye then, Celine. And good luck.

Confessions of an Expat – Dance of the goatherd bride

dancer 11

The folk dance is a kind of global tradition that aims to capture the flavour of a country and, when performed for foreigners, to convey the charm and beauty they can expect if they visit.

The following is an imaginary voiceover to explain what’s being represented in nothing more than rhythmic body movement.

The music starts up – a breezy instrumental played on flutes, whistles etc. with perhaps a mandolin, balalaika or four-string native equivalent to a guitar. And there’s a bit of bongo-type drumming.

dancer 10

Then the lovely young maiden in a traditional outfit stitched together from tablecloths tells us what it’s all about.

“I am but a humble goatherd, and yet I symbolize young women everywhere. I am hopping and swaying in this way to set the scene, and when I swing and twirl my skirt you may be surprised at how circular the hem becomes. That’s because it is weighted with small balls, so I wouldn’t come too close if I were you. You will see enough fleeting glimpses of leg anyway – and that is intentional in a natural, innocent way.

No, I haven’t got my toothbrush stuck sideways in my mouth; they just like you to smile all the time. Except this bit – watch me frown theatrically here. I’m bending and looking behind me first one way and then the other because that’s what I do. I’m a goatherd and goats scamper around all over the place, so you’ve got to keep an eye on them.

dancers 8

If this looks to you like a celebratory dance, you’re right, because tomorrow I am to be married, so I am radiating joyousness. My husband-to-be is a wonderful man and he will be the first to enjoy the fruits of my femininity. Many men have tried but none succeeded – well, when I say many, I’ve only ever met three men apart from my father and brothers, but all three of them tried it on. You would too if you were stuck out in these hills looking after animals seven days a week.

But I rebuffed them all because I wanted to remain pure for my husband.

So, tomorrow there will be singing and dancing and – yes, I worry about this hip-thrusting section too, but the woman who taught me the dance likes a drink, if you know what I mean, and she can be a bit erratic.

But now I’m going all dignified with my back straight and my nose in the air to show that I will be a bride, then a married woman, and I will be virtuous and make my family proud.

And now I’m doing the crouching and looking behind business again because, remember, I am but a humble goatherd.

Indian dancer

Then we’re into the joyful swinging again because my wedding will be a time of great happiness, and I’ll do another couple of twirls for the dirty sods who are only interested in looking up my skirt. How I would love to take out your eyes with the flying balls in my hem! Don’t tempt me, loser. You had a chance but you blew it and now it’s too late, for I am betrothed to another.

I bend and look behind again – where’s that frigging goat?

Thai dancer

Then up on my toes with the big smile again as the music reaches a climax and so, metaphorically, do I.

As Helen Reddy once said, I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman – even if I am but a humble goatherd.





Confessions of an Expat – Getting into the music

It is a well-known fact that English is the language of rock’n’roll.

Well known where I come from, that is. But what you find when you live somewhere non English speaking is that people don’t necessarily agree.

Sure, they think Stairway to Heaven and Hotel California are the twin peaks of pop music (not to me, they’re not) but they also want to play their own local hits by their own heroes.

And to the Brit, American, Aussie, Canadian and New Zealander, very often the foreign stuff sounds like nothing on earth.

Call that a guitar? It’s got funny shoulders and a pattern where the hole should be. You can’t play Motorhead on that.

For want of a better term, because listening to other countries’ productions is a relatively recent phenomenon, it is known as ‘world music’, presumably as distinct from martian or moon music.

The British comedians Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones did a sketch about it a few years ago, in which a profoundly unrock’n’roll sound drones on for a minute, before Smith stops and says, “Is it me, or is this crap?”

It depends, of course, on your definition of crap. We can’t dismiss something as not very good just because we don’t like it. Our parents probably did that with our teenage musical discoveries, and when we become parents ourselves, as hard as we may try, it is difficult to really get into our offspring’s stuff because it is part of the teenager’s nature to like things his or her parents won’t like. It’s part of growing up.

We may not like this stuff because it sounds avant-garde, screamy, morose, discordant and consciously ignoring or breaking rules that have never been laid down, or even discussed outside academic circles.

Is this what makes a good voice: hair, wacky shades, bit of Photoshop?

I once heard Eric Clapton complaining that someone wasn’t singing properly because he didn’t put any vibrato into it. Singers in punk bands didn’t go in for such niceties. You didn’t find Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer giving it a bit of croon.

But have rock singers ever really been conscious of the technical side of what they’re doing?

Probably not. Most of us just want to sound like our heroes. The man with the most-admired voice in 1970s and 80s rock music, Paul Rodgers, was blessed with a slight rasp in his throat, which is the key to much of what ‘soul’ in a voice is supposed to be. Rodgers grew up listening to the Beatles and sixties soul/pop and then got into the blues. He wasn’t at college studying singing; he was in his bedroom, listening to records. “I would hear Muddy Waters sing something and I would try to do that or Howlin’ Wolf, everybody. Then the soul stuff took it to a different place. Like Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, and the Temptations,” he told Glide magazine.

Rodgers had the raw material – that rasp – plus a decent range, and he just took it from there.

asian band
How do you say “A one two three four” in Mandarin?

What strikes me about a lot of world music is that the young musicians and singers seem to be ploughing the same furrow as their elders (not that most of us would know in the case of  African music – or indeed most of it). When a Latin band gets going, it’s probably got trumpets etc. like an old mid-sixties showband or the BBC Light Orchestra, and the average young musician of that time wouldn’t be seen dead with a brass section. They wanted guitar, bass and drums and, if you really insist, a keyboard. But even then, how did you swing a dirty great Wurlitzer or Hammond organ around and look sexy, which had become part of the act?

Wurlitzer one for the money, two for the show…

Perhaps it is ignorance on the part of a British rocker’s ears that we can’t see the difference between a 21st century Spanish band and the likes of Sergio Mendes (who is actually Brazilian and was big in the 60s, but that doesn’t stop our objections).

It’s a bit like thinking that all Chinese people look the same (and make no mistake about it, they think the same about us). We’re tuned into our own culture, our own appearance and our own sounds, and it takes time – perhaps years – to get used to, start to like and then understand other countries’ music.

African band
You got enough percussion there, guys?

In the meantime, we might struggle to pick up the national anthem in our adopted country, but you only have to go to a children’s party to see that they sing Happy Birthday To You all over the world. Same tune, different words. So at least that’s one thing we have in common, on which to build.





Confessions of an Expat – a table in the car park

La Guaira is a sprawling town which lends its name to a long area on the Caribbean coast of Venezuela.

It’s the closest port to the capital, Caracas. The local baseball team is called Los Tiburones – The Sharks – so it is obviously proud of being on the coast. But it is not a pretty sight, nor sound.

It may once have looked exotic, but it’s a port. What do you expect, palm trees?

We spend the morning at a bank, which is easy to do because they work at an unfathomably slow speed, then cross four lanes of growling, polluting, American-made trucks for lunch outside the fish market at an open-air cafe/restaurant. What’s the word I’m looking for – not quite doghole, but imagine putting tables in between the containers and lorries at Portsmouth docks.

Then the mood changes by courtesy of food. We have a red fish (could be snapper, but most of the fish around here seem to be red) simply fried on the bone and delicious, with a natural strength of flavour that doesn’t need any help from a fancy sauce – just a squeeze of lime if you like. The accompaniment is played by a kind of coleslaw without onion, supported by fried slices of plantain.

Do we enjoy these meals simply because we’re somewhere ‘exotic’, or is this fish really as good as I’m making it sound?

Well, for a start, you wouldn’t find it in an equivalent cheap and cheerful place in the UK – in fact all you would find in such a location in Grimsby is a burger van. There, fish for the masses is either deep-fried in batter or oven-baked in breadcrumbs. If you’re lucky, in a seaside town you might get a mackerel cooked by a chef who has confidence in his ability to bring out the best in the raw material, but it’s a rarity.

harbour car park
Stick a few plastic tables and chairs out there and bingo! An open-air restaurant

As a free starter, by the way, we have a thin, unhealthily grey-looking fish soup which harbours sly, slimy, layabout pieces of vegetables and tastes better than it looks, but don’t expect the fussier members of your party to have any truck with it at all.

There are back street garages in South London more hygienic than some South American fishmongers, and this soup gives the impression of having been prepared from the loot gleaned from the annual sweep-up, boiled and with the detritus strained out through the local good-time girl’s tights. And yet we survive unscathed and live to eat another day.

To visit such a place of preparation is to wonder how you will ever eat fresh fish again, as we find the following week in the remote, romantic seaside village of Chuspa. In the dark, grimy workshop that you can imagine the guy uses to work on his motorbike in the evenings, there is a guillotine-like contraption for making fillets of thick fish. Almost-vertical steel rods (almost clean and almost shiny) stand three feet tall and the snapper, grouper or whatever is placed at the bottom. The operator takes a machete and slams it down, guided by the rods, to separate the fish into one-inch steaks.

Raw materials sometimes look better than end results

We buy a bottle of Chilean merlot with a screw cap rather than a cork, because it stands less chance of being off that way. In a place like this, which is charming in a Second World War film way, reached by broken, mud-scarred roads and involving a tentative drive through a small river because the bridge is out of action, you feel lucky to find such luxuries as wine anyway.

Then it’s back up the hill to the posada – a sort of self-catering guest house where you share the kitchen – to do what you can with a sputtering gas stove and a cheap aluminium pan. Subtlety does not exist in such circumstances: the object is to get the fish cooked and any germs killed, and if it sticks to the pan, that is only to be expected. It becomes fuel, not food, and if there is any pleasure in the eating, that’s a bonus.


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.

Confessions of an expat: The Foreigner’s Fear of the Hairdresser

Getting a haircut is not a major consideration in most men’s lives. It gets too long, you have it cut: simple.

But when you have recently moved to a country with a different ethnic mix, different fashions etc, you have to be just a little bit cautious. Often a hairdresser will send you away looking how he or she thinks you should look, rather than how you want to look.

Suriname is a cultural melting pot of people of African heritage, Indians (they call them Hindustanis), Chinese, Indonesians and Brazilians. And because it is a former Dutch colony, there are a few white people too.

I’ve been barbered on Caribbean islands where they had never worked on a head of straightish European hair before; I’ve tried to explain what I wanted in Spanish; I’ve had it done in women’s salons – and all with varying degrees of success.

Haircut 1
Fifties slickback, 70s length. Timelessly tasteless

There have been instances where I came out shorn, slicked back and dripping with hair oil, looking like a Cuban drug lord. I don’t like wearing hats or caps, but sometimes you have to take refuge there for a few days while it grows a fraction and settles down. A new country is a new challenge and you have to be careful.

And so it is that I am roaming around the capital, Paramaribo, weighing up the options. There are kapsalons (I think that means hairdressing) all over the place, just like there are car washes and supermarkets where you would least expect to find them, with people working from home to save on rent and trying to maximize their profits in a country where no one seems to be able to charge much money for whatever it is they do.

I’m wary of some of these side-street places. I don’t know anything about the people running them. They might be skilful, respectable folk providing a professional service. But without recommendations, you don’t know, do you?

However, you’ve got to do something, you’ve got to trust someone. Finally I come across a place in a small group of shops, with a professional frontage and a proper sign above the door.

I feel guilty about choosing this operation just because it can afford to have its name painted by a professional signwriter, but I can’t keep looking forever, so that’s it. This will be the one.

Haircut 2
Something like this suit you? You’re a distinguished lookng gentleman…

There are four chairs and the place looks like it is for women only. A young Chinese girl greets me, her breath reeking of cigarettes. She would like to be helpful but doesn’t understand my question, “Do you do men’s hair?”

A slightly older Chinese young man appears and takes over – he’s been on the Marlboros too. He understands me and ushers me into one of the chairs. At this point communication becomes visual only. I would like the back and sides done with the electric clippers but the top with scissors. He doesn’t have anything as crude as scissors.

The girl puts the towel on the back of my neck but he doesn’t like the way she does it, so he takes it off and repositions it. She retreats to the back of the shop for a smoke. The young man is keen to get started.

Haircut 3
Something more flamboyant, perhaps. With your bone structure this could really work

It pays to disregard a hairdresser’s own haircut. This guy has it shaved at the back and sides, and the top is long, dyed blond and swept forward. As I try to describe what I want, I have to fight the urge to tell him that whatever he does, I don’t want my hair to look like his. If he wants to look like a plonker, that’s up to him.

When he starts, he is all action, whizzing the clippers up and down my neck, contours on the sides and a reassuringly light touch on top. He seems to know what he is doing, and if it is all going to go horribly wrong, it is going to go horribly wrong quickly.

Haircut 4
I’ll get you. I’ll be back and I’ll ****in’ have you, pal

It’s all over in five minutes and my hair looks okay at a glance. He can’t understand why I don’t want some ‘product’ in it – wax or gel or putty or something – but lets me off eventually, grinning and waving the internationally-accepted thumbs-up sign.

“Another satisfied customer,” he seems to be thinking. “I’m too good for this place. One day I’ll have a salon on Fifth Avenue in New York and when I tell my life story, I will very briefly refer to the little business where I started, next to a rice-packaging plant in the south of Paramaribo. You should have seen this English guy I did once. Got it done in five minutes and he couldn’t believe it. Feeling round the back with his fingers even though I had just shown it to him in the mirror. He didn’t trust me, thought I was going be an idiot.”

Well I’m sorry. Yes, I was apprehensive. But I was wrong. Five minutes, 25SRD – about £5. Everyone’s a winner.

Confessions of an expat: the language issue



Foreign? Moi?

There is a perception of the Englishman abroad in which he is dressed in baggy trousers and a hat, and doesn’t speak the language because, of course, everyone should speak English. So in order to communicate with the locals he talks slowly and loudly and thinks that they understand really, but are too bloody-minded to admit it.

While I don’t subscribe to that viewpoint, I do worry that if English and Spanish don’t assert themselves, we’re all going to have to learn Mandarin, which is all very well if you do it as a schoolkid, but once you get past a certain age it becomes more difficult.

The expat has an unwritten obligation to learn the language of his adopted country. It’s only polite, after all, and not to do so can appear arrogant.

It might be a minority language that you secretly feel should be allowed to disappear quietly, but while it exists and is the chief tool of communication, you have to make an effort.

In Suriname that means getting to grips with Dutch (the local language Sranan tongo (AKA taki taki) might be fun, but it can wait). First, find your Dutch teacher. My wife and I did. We took taxis to the other side of the city twice a week to take part in mixed-level classes. Now, when you and your classmates are all absolute beginners, the term mixed-level might seem inappropriate, but in this case it is accurate.

thumbs up
Internationally understood. If only the answer to every question was “Yes”.

The classes are given in English – in other words the teacher teaches in English. That presents a problem if, for instance, your classmates are an Indian man from India, rather than a local Hindustani, and a girl from French Guiana, who speaks, yes, French.

The teacher can’t keep everyone happy. Either she’s crawling along in first gear for the benefit of those who don’t really understand what she’s saying, or she’s racing along and leaving them trailing in the distance, to accommodate those who do understand her and are capable of progressing quite quickly.

The teacher can’t win, although to her credit she discreetly switches between gears during each class so that both of the sub-groups have it their way for a while.

Progress is made and after a couple of months and a test, I am the proud owner of a certificate announcing that I know a little more than someone who knows nothing at all.

I can tell people my name, age and country of origin. I can tell the time (in a hesitant, not-really-sure way) and can ask someone how they are.

It pays to remember, though, that this is classroom stuff. In real life people don’t stick to the script, they have different accents, they use slang terms, throw in bits of taki taki or Chinese, Hindi, Javanese etc. and you lose track and confidence almost immediately.

A classic example comes in a Chinese restaurant. We arrive just after 5:30, not deliberately, but because we’ve been out all day and it feels like dinner time. Although the doors are open, the lights are on and the staff are there, they’re not open yet. Through sign language it is explained to us that the chef is asleep. This is clearly a problem.

They give us a glass of wine each to pass the time, and agree to turn on the airconditioning.

In due course the chef arrives (apparently) and we move on to the issue of ordering food from a menu written in Dutch. The young Chinese waitress attempts to help us for a minute or two before giving up and going away.

We eventually secure the services of a Chinese boy who speaks a bit of English but is unaccustomed to human contact because he spends all day and night playing games on a computer. Nice kid, though, and his parents must be very proud of him, if they remember him after all that time hiding in his bedroom.

The food is fantastic. The restaurant only recently opened, and it seems they have a hotshot chef, brought over from China to get the place off to a flying start. His only problem is that he doesn’t speak Dutch, either, so the local waitresses can’t get things across to him any better than they can to us.

The gawky waiter brings a bottle of red wine that is dark and murky and tastes muddy. In the UK I would send it back, but here I get the feeling that even if I could explain to them, they wouldn’t understand why I was refusing to accept what I asked for and they have brought.

Perhaps just around the corner in technologyland, or possibly Technologielaan, there is a solution to international language differences. Esperanto was developed 125 years ago but didn’t catch on – and it sounded too Italian for my liking, anyway.

Ah well. Ik heet Chris. Ik kom uit England . Hoe gaat het? Tot ziens. That’s “My name is Chris. I’m English (not exactly, but it’s too complicated to explain.) How are you? Bye.”