When you live abroad the past keeps coming back to haunt you. The old country – the place where you were born and grew up – is brushed with a sentimental tint. Sometimes you miss home so badly it hurts. When I lived in Brazil in the 1990s, I was so desperate to go back to England that I made a list of things I felt I couldn’t live without. Now I’m back living in Brazil, I wonder if they have the same magnetic pull they once had? Let me see…
Pubs: there is nothing quite like an English pub – that dark, bitter ale served by a freckled gawky barmaid, the quaint atmosphere, the smell of vinegar, the bonhomie, the English language being shouted and mumbled and, up in the corner, cricket on the telly.
Libraries: those quiet, cosy caves filled to the ceiling with books begging to be taken out for free, the shy grey assistants with their dowdy clothes and packed lunches, the sofa by the window where you can plonk down and drift into a delicious snooze.
Fish and Chips: the haddock, the cod, the batter, the salt and vinegar, the sticky-sweet mushy peas, the hot glass counter…But hang on, it’s not just fish and chips I miss, it’s British bangers and English cheeses, lamb chops, marmite, mint sauce and poppadoms…the list is endless.
Newspapers: English newspapers are utterly compelling and irresistible. Thoughtful journalism with a good measure of English irony is the perfect fodder for those like me who want to be enlightened but don’t always have time for a weighty tome. It would be so easy to waste one’s life trawling through them every day while London burns – or while the landlord tries to break the door down in a fruitless search for all that back rent you owe him.
Charity shops: Those Pandora’s boxes of broken toys, grubby clothes, thrice-read paperbacks and Phil Collins records litter the high streets of every town; the wealthier the area, the better quality of junk you find within. It would be no exaggeration to say that my cultural identity was formed by the dog-eared LPs and discarded books I discovered at Oxfam and Cancer Research.
Yes it hurts to remember all these things and makes me want to pack up and go home. But surely there must be a few things I don’t miss. Erm, well, yes…
The weather: Oh dear, what a shower! The weather in England is, well, diabolical mostly. As I write, the UK is enjoying a steaming heatwave, but it won’t last; come late September, the old grey army blanket will descend once again to cover the country for another eight months. Nice.
Yob culture: England suffers from an acute disease called anti-intellectualism. It begins in school where anyone who actually studies is instantly labelled a “swot” and bullied mercilessly. This “proud to be thick” attitude permeates the whole of society, but is most pernicious in the underclass, where young vandals form gangs with the sole purpose of kicking senseless anyone who crosses their path. Delightful.
Town centres: the town centres of England have had all their character bulldozed away to be replaced by soulless shopping centres and baffling traffic systems. It’s as if they have been specially designed by, and for, morons. Lovely.
You see, England isn’t London. England is Swindon and Scunthorpe: dull and decaying provincial towns where the pubs are boarded up and the people walk around like zombies with cheese-and-onion breath. The British have become cultureless and cynical after years of cheap consumerism. Forget Shakespeare – think Coronation Street.
My adopted home – Porto Alegre – is no paradise, mind you. But I have my compensations. Sometimes I have to remind myself what they are. Let me see…
The people: Brazilians are easy to get to know. It’s a cliché, but the people here are warm and friendly and everything is done with a smile. Unless you get mugged, of course.
Sunshine: When the sun shines the smiles widen and everything seems more bearable. Humans were never meant to live in cold climates. In England bodies are funny white things that stay covered up until it gets dark and you are under a blanket. In Brazil they are bronzed sensuous things that strut about in the open without anyone giggling.
Respect: As an Englishman I am treated like royalty, a superior being, a prince among the hoi polloi. And in Brazil, learning is respected – everyone seems to be doing a course or studying for a qualification.
Buzz: At 5.30 on a wet Tuesday when the shops close England is as lifeless as a tramp’s vest. On Sundays the gloom stays all day. In Brazil when you go out and about you feel a buzz. It’s partly the sunshine and the happy disposition of the people. Brazilians are noisy and demonstrative and don’t want to go to bed, so everything stays open.
And yet, no matter how much my heart beats for Brazil, my soul lies somewhere at the bottom of a quarry in Yorkshire. So, should I stay in Brazil or boomerang back to England? If I was a millionaire I would split my time between the two, but for now I will have to remain a split personality.