Life on a Mars
Last year, after living in Latin America for eight years, I packed my bags and moved back to the United Kingdom. This experience proved that if migrating to another country can create culture shock, then coming back to the metropolis can be just as traumatic.
I arrived in the middle of summer. England was weird. The place was all bright plastic surfaces and post world-cup disappointment. I marvelled at the cleanliness of the train I rode into Woking, and made a quick mental comparison between the train services available in Chile and Britain. It was a very quick comparison because there aren’t many rail services left in Chile at all. (E.F.E. the Chilean national rail service runs to eleven, count ‘em, eleven stations.)
The South Western rolling stock was shiny and new, and the train slid along with barely a murmur. It was sleek and solid and synthetic, just like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. This must be what Blair’s Britain is like, I thought to myself.
I left the train at ten o’clock and did a tour of the town centre. At six minutes past ten I had seen it all. So I sat down by a picturesque kebab shop that overlooked a pedestrian underpass and an antique multi-story car-park. The early morning song of car-alarms and hooded-yoof mugging pensioners blended with the meaty throb of S.U.Vs on the underpass. Ah. I get it I thought Britain is a foreign country too now.
Being an ex-pat who lived in South America and who was paid in Sterling I was accustomed to a certain amount of space in my living arrangements. Okay. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was used to living like a minor member of the Al Saud family and paying bugger-all for the privilege. (Yes, I – like many ex-pats – am a tosser of Cameron-esque proportions.)
In Woking, the bed and breakfast that I stayed in cost eighty pounds a night. My room was little more than a wardrobe with a toilet. No windows opened in my wardrobe and I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had recently died in there. (Perhaps they were still in there, rolled up in the cylinder of old carpet that leant against one corner.) Next to the bed was an ancient digital alarm clock. It flashed frantically and resisted all of my attempts to reset it. Beside this sat an ancient lime-scaled kettle and some soggy and depressed looking shortbread fingers. I ate them. But they wanted to die.
When I lived in Santiago I would chuckle in my superior British way about the poor content of Chilean television channels. Localised versions of comedy “classics” like The Nanny jostled for position with event soaps like Los Capo which detailed the ins and outs of late nineteenth century Italian immigrant families; think The Sopranos but with llamas and pisco sours.
Ensconced in my wardrobe, I turned on the television late one afternoon, only to be greeted by the earnest beard and sinister twinkle of Noel Edmonds. Time passed. Then there was a game show that featured people who were famous for being well known falling off of – but regrettably failing to be trampled by – horses. I endured about ten minutes of this before I found the lack of severe spinal injuries depressing. The only programme that made any sense to me was Armando Ianucci’s Time Trumpet. A satirical show compiled of fictitious clips beamed back from the near future.In Chile, Pinochet had chucked people out of helicopters for less.
After I had been in Britain for a month or two, I re-established my social circle. I went to dinner parties and met old friends at cafes. As we chatted, sometimes my friends’ eyes would glaze over. Simultaneously, my voice would begin to sound as though it was coming from the end of a long cardboard tube. Bugger, I’ve done the bore thing again, I would think.
As an ex-ex-pat, sometimes it is hard not feel like Rutger Hauer at the end of Bladerunner. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” says he, before expiring poetically. At least in the film though, Hauer has the good grace to expire rapidly, and doesn’t bore Harrison Ford for twenty minutes about the nature of the Atacama desert or the socio-economic causes of the South American Pacific War. I now limit myself to three Latin American related comments a day, which keeps me focused on what’s going on around me, and makes people less inclined to flinch when I sit next to them at dinner parties. I’m hoping to reduce this to one reference a day by August.
In Santiago, being a non-native spanish Spanish forced me into an semi-isolated state. I was able to wander around markets, hike in the mountains and drink cortados without understanding the conversations I overheard. The sound of people talking simply became a background noise, something akin to insects buzzing or bird song. (I should point out that it’s nothing like as melodic though, since overhearing a Chilean speak Spanish is like listening to an adenoidal castrato choke on a bowl of soup.)
Once I was back in England, being able to understand every overhead word was like being able to see into the mind – and I use the term loosely – of every English speaker within a five metre radius.
I am getting better at disengaging my chav telepathy but until I can do it one hundred percent of the time I will continue to send a Christmas card to Apple every year for inventing the iPod.
I joined a gym so that I could be in a social space but not have to hear anyone’s thoughts. While I was there my ever-cheerful Australian gym instructor Deb, told me of the phenomenon known as the “Heathrow fat injection”. Apparently as Australians disembark their planes they are herded into a small booth where a syringe wielding inspector injects five kilos of body fat directly on to all incoming antipodean hips. I’d like to believe that as a new arrival in Britain this might have explained the extra ring of blubber that has materialised around my midriff. The truth is much simpler and somewhat sadder. Since Britain is a foreign country to me now, and television, public places and dinner parties are all sources of alienation, the best way for me to feel at home is to stay in my wardrobe, sit in a corner and eat lots of chocolate.
Noel Edmonds has such kind eyes.
(c) Guardian Unlimited 2008