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.