Biscuits and Borders: Do real migrants make their own luck?

I write to you today from the departures’ lounge at Heathrow airport, with feelings of such surprise and contentment, they have forced me to abandon my usual black coffee, KitKat and people-watching routine and, er, write to you. This is a big deal for me. I never write in airports. There is far too much going on.

If I sound like a 1940s BBC broadcast, that’s because the longer I live in Colombia, the more I buy into a picture-postcard, Queen-of-England, London-Olympics view of my country. I am charmed by red letter boxes and London buses, blue skies and cornfields. I cannot pass a country manor without thinking of Manderley or Pemberley. I am a tourist and tourists are nice, happy people because they are on holiday. The first time I went into London, on this three-week trip, the man in Pret-a-Manger gave me my coffee for free because, as he said, “no-one is ever that nice”.

That ‘niceness’ is my Colombian side, by the way, saying “Good morning” and then asking shop assistants and coffee vendors “How are you?” before I order. Simple customs that can be out-of-place in a hurried, efficient London because reserve and economies of time don’t always allow for pleasantries. In Bogotá, of course, there is always time. Clocks in Colombia are elastic. That nano-second saved by skipping a “Como está?” won’t make a blind bit of difference.

Last time I came back to this island, I rushed around like a travelling circus. I answered questions about drugs and Latin men, explained how “See you in six months,” turned into accidental emigration, gave lists of things I missed. I pretended I was ‘just the same’. Of course I wasn’t. Everyone changes.

This time it was different. I spent more time at home, saw the people closest to me, both geographically and philosophically and, for the first time, saw the same people more than once. That’s enough to get the courtesies out of the way and feel dangerously close to belonging again. By the third meeting, you say things like “If I lived here…” When it is time to finally leave, everyone is confused. Will I really not be popping round for tea and biscuits at the same time next week?

But let’s not pretend. In three weeks I went to Salsa in Charing Cross Road three times. I danced a lot. I gossiped with Cubans and Peruvians, Paisas and Caleños. I met an Argentine who barely spoke a word of English. He reminded me so much of me, arriving in Latin America for the first time, that we decided to spend the day sight-seeing. I wanted to say hello to the Queen and he wanted to take a proper look at the landmarks he had only seen “from the bus”. Besides, he hadn’t met many English people. He thought we seemed “a bit cold”. Sounded like a challenge to me.

I asked him if he thought he would change, living in England. “I already have,” he said. “I even sound different when I call home.” He wouldn’t go back, if he could help it. Work hard in England and you can be anything, he said. Achieve far beyond what you can at home, far beyond what people expect. That made me happy. It was nice to meet a counter-balance, to know England can do for others what Colombia has done for me.

There are those in England who are not fond of immigration. Those migrants who “steal our jobs” and “claim our benefits” (Make up your mind, a friend said recently, surely it’s one or the other) But now even chef Jamie Oliver (Great Briton that he is) is telling the world that it’s British chefs who can’t hack the pace, that those migrant workers, probably all those lazy Latinos, are the ones you really need. I am hardly surprised. No-one ever sat down, vowed to improve their life and began with a pledge to do nothing.

You’ll never change the luck, nor lack of it, that lead to your birthright, but most of us soon discover that nothing ticks a “dream achieved” box quite like it being the result of your own hard work. Personally I like it when people say: “I know they are only trying to make a better life for themselves but…” How is there a but? We get one life each. It will be what you make it.

But that’s not why I write to you, here at Heathrow airport. I don’t write because I believe in dreams and fighting for them. Nor because I would rather reward sweat and tears than accidents of birth. I write because I think I might stay. Not in England. Oh no. I’ve just said goodbye to family and friends I won’t see for a year and I feel perfectly content with that. But not in Colombia either. I don’t feel awash with homesickness nor that familiar craving for Bogotá yet.

It seems I am completely and utterly content. Right here. In Terminal 5, surrounded by travellers who have no idea my yin has just hit my yan. That my British sense of justice, honesty, sarcasm and love of tea has just collided with my Colombian street sense, determination, warmth and love of coffee. Everything, for once, is exactly in balance. I hardly dare to move.

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors

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30 Comments

  1. Harry S.

    I think youve balanced a lead pencil on its pointy sharp end. Youre right, dont move or it will tip over. I have these thoughts often as I travel from culture to culture thinking the grass is always greener on the other side. Thanks again, you posts always leave me thinking.

  2. Anna

    Liked this post! Everytime I go back to Europe (whether it’s from South America, Asia or Africa) it hits me how basic friendliness and smiles can be such a scarce currency!

  3. Nohra

    wow! As a Colombian living in Canada, I have to say you just perfectly described how I have felt more than once. I guess you and I are citizens of the same country, the one we have created in our heads/hearts.

  4. Tigre

    “Should I stay or should I go…” Vicki, you have the wanderlust in you and that, I believe, is your contentment. But, please stay a while in your (and our) beloved Bogota. You can soon pop over to ours for a bunuelo, chocolate, coffee and wine. Abrazotes mi amiga!

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Hahaha, I think I am just getting better at balancing my identities these days, at moving between being an English girl and an adopted Colombian. I am not going anywhere, but the fact I dance salsa in London and eat at the English pub in Bogotá says it all. Still I will definitely take you up on those tasty treats my dear friend 🙂

  5. Barry

    When we lived in Paris it was the same. On entering a shop it was always “Bonjour madame, comment ca va’ etc. and everyone was perfectly friendly and helpful. When the Brits came in however, they just said something like “I’d like 3 slices of … etc, ignoring the pleasantries, and then complain the French are unfriendly and unhelpful.

    Granted the French, well Parisians anyway, are nowhere near as friendly to foreigners as Colombians, but then I don’t think anybody is. But politeness goes a long way to making life more pleasant for everyone.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      I think it has been lost somehow. I still say “Good morning” because I don’t give a damn about being seen as a ‘fancy pants’ or ‘pretentious’. The standard greeting in my town is “Alright love?” I use that with friends but I don’t see why we have to lose the formal greetings.

      1. bananaskinflipflops

        Ha yes and sometimes it isn’t even affectionate (“Excuse me love, I’m trying to get past here…”) I use it all the time in English and, unfortunately, it does come out in Spanish too because I still speak as I would in English. I have called countless taxi drivers, arepa venders etc. “mi amor” when I am in a hurry or I need something… but I guess I do always get good service 🙂

  6. nano

    C’est la vie, Bogotá, Londres, el mundo entero…., la vida esta en el corazón!, en el palpitar, ojala con fuerza y decisión!, y que ese sentimiento estalle en pasión o feliz y armonizante situación…, es de lo que se trata…, de preferir una sincera sonrisa a la cuestión de haberla podido tener…

  7. David

    “Those migrants who “steal our jobs” and “claim our benefits” (Make up your mind, a friend said recently, surely it’s one or the other) ”
    Actually that is possible if you work and get a council house!

    There are of course lots of immigrants who work and make a useful contribution. There are some who are parasites, the same is true of English people. I would like to send all parasites English or immigrant to another country but I can’t see how we can justify sending the English ones to another country – the foreign ones of course we can and should.

  8. Angela

    Hola me gustó mucho este, de verdad que todos los días sós un poquito más colombiana, vení a Medellín para que te veás otras maneras de ser y de sentir, en cada región somos un poquito distintos y te enamorés de nuestras hermosas montañas, cuando querás, aquí todo el mundo es bienvenido, y de verdad que nuestra ciudad es hermosa. hasta luego.

  9. Marcela Lucia

    Vicky, this post is beautiful!! I love everything you write but I rarely take time to comment. This post is just kind of perfect. Having been a consummate traveler for most of my adult life and having spent the last 5 years living half of the year documenting some new country and the other half back ‘home’ in Colombia I fully understand the sentiment. Love how Colombian and how British you are. 🙂 beso. (next time we’ll really have to meet for coffee)

  10. Maria Fernanda O.

    Hi Vicky, I’ve just listened your interview on the radio of Richard McColl and you have touched my feelings, I’m really sensitive right now, being in another country and remembering Colombia makes me think in my situation and how much I would love to work in London and when I listen to you or I read your posts make me feel confused because it’s like something is “jalandome a casa”. I wish I could write you other things but I wouldn’t like to make it that public. Thank you for the words that you share to the world 🙂

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Hey, thank you! If you would like to write to me in a non-public way, people often send messages through the facebook page – http://www.facebook.com/bananaskinflipflops – and those are private. It is hard making decisions about where to live and work etc. but I work on the “happy now” philosophy. If I am “happy now”, I stay. If a day comes when I am not happy, for a decent stretch of time (rather than just a bad day/week) I make a change. I think it is very hard to think about your “whole life” or “in five years time” – it is like trying to take in that the universe is infinite… too much for my tiny mind! 🙂

  11. Mauricio Torres Madrid

    Thank’s you have a way to put things that make you see the great things of Colombia and in this blog I feels you found a great balance. Maybe a will consider visiting London in the near future.

  12. alberto valenzuela-rocha

    Beatiful piece!Years ago,when I was happy and had no documents,I was strolling somewhere in London.A beatiful old english lady approached and said,”Are you a tourist”. “Yes,ma’am”. “Are you fond of theatre?” “Yes,ma’am”. “Would you like a ticket for tonight’s show in the Royal Albert Hall?” “Of course,ma’am”.And she gave me the ticket.That’s the London I remember.I liked it so much that just to strecth my stay a cuople of weeks,I worked as a dishwasher at outdoor cafe in Saint James Park.Welcome back to Bogota.

  13. livvymarketing

    You are absolutely right! It’s like you were reading my thoughts as I have often thought the same sort of things while at airports! I was living in London and on my way travelling home through Latin America I found myself having to remember to make conversations when buying things, as you really don’t while living in London!

  14. tammyonthemove

    Having migrated from Germany to England I know too well how some English people regard immigrants. Sometimes people started talking badly about immigrants when I was present and when I reminded them that I was an immigrant too, they always said that they don’t mean people like me. The majority of English people were really lovely though, otherwise I wouldn’t have married a Brit or lived in England for 7 years. I now live in Cambodia, but love going back every now and then. Only in the summer though. Far to cold in the winter. 🙂

  15. Ceri

    I love this post. I know for sure that while I love my family and close friends who still live in the UK, being here for the summer has taught me that I wouldn’t want to live here permanently. I’m so ready to get up and go and try and find my settled place somewhere else again.

  16. Juan

    Great post! The bit about the elasticity of time in Colombia is so true! In Colombia even the most stringent contract schedules can bent and extended sort of effortlessly. Totally different from Tokyo (my home now) where everybody rushes to meet appointments, trains, etc. Yes, japanese can be efficient, but always stressed. Living in Bogota has cured me from such stress, I just enjoy seeing the mostly futile rush of people here.

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