There is an old Gaúcho proverb down in the south of Brazil that goes something like this: ‘Don’t jump over the fence when there are plenty of cows in your own field.’ Well, folks, that sounds a little like the story of my life – always heading for the greener grass only to find a field full of manure. In fact, fence-jumping, although glorious in its gay abandon, always seems to leave me with a deep sense of sadness. No sooner have I landed in a new field than I start to feel empty, scared, nostalgic. What madness have I just committed? Where are all those people that filled my life just weeks ago, those smiling faces, those warm human beings I once hugged on the other side of the world? Where did all those summers go? What the hell am I doing in Scarborough?
So, I ask myself, what exactly did I learn during my last escapade, from upping sticks in leafy Surrey 7 years ago, soaking up that Brazilian sunshine in “lively port” Porto Alegre and landing back with a dull thud in gritty Yorkshire? Well, for starters, I still believe wholeheartedly that Travel with a capital T is priceless, and nothing in this life comes near it for enriching your spirit. But moving countries is an emotional roller-coaster that leaves your heart with a few missing pieces. And the worst thing about living abroad is not knowing how long it’s going to last and when the people and places right in front of you are going to become misty memories.
My barber in Brazil was a realistic sort of a chap. When I told him I was thinking of coming back to England he said something which could be roughly translated as, “too right, mate!” He continued: “Ask yourself what you are going to miss, exactly. I’ll tell you the only two things you’ll miss about Brazil: the weather and the people.” And in a way, of course, he was right. Yet even the weather and the people on their own amount to a sizeable chunk missing from your life, especially when you are shivering in a dark, damp Bradford bedroom. All of a sudden, Brazil’s many charms begin to replay in your mind, like a Thomson’s holiday promo video with your mates waving in the background.
Brazil is a beast of a place, a big busy sweltering ‘bagunça’ going backwards. Brazilians are always moaning that nothing works, but that is the charm of the place. In Brazil you don’t throw anything away and you don’t take anything for granted: on Friday you celebrate getting through the week in one piece. But despite the wild-west lawlessness and chaos, the people are easy to get to know and easy to love: they have learned to suffer the fools in charge and make the best of the warm days and barbecue nights. What I remember of Brazil are fleeting moments of joy, of feeling like a hero, a traveller who has been knocked about by a herd of bulls but is still standing and managing a smile. In Brazil the night is a child who only wants to play.
Moments of joy in dingy England are as rare as clockwork teacakes, especially if you live in a provincial outpost where the people look and sound like farm labourers with issues. In my little town, they think Europe is a place beyond the Urals full of foreign spies with garlic breath. But there are a few consolations: catching the Leeds to London express and fantasising about not going back; finding a booth in a light, airy Wetherspoons pub and working through the ale list; reading the Guardian horizontally on Saturday pretending to be the intelligentsia; singing daft songs in the Spion Kop at Valley Parade after a pub crawl; wading through the £1 racks at Vinyl Tap in Huddersfield with an oscillating heart-rate and a toothy grin; eating battered haddock steaming with malt vinegar; and watching the sun and the empire go down at the end of the pier after another long summer night.
My biggest problem in England, according to social commentator David Goodhart, is that I am an Anywhere and not a Somewhere type. Somewheres grow up and stay put in their communities; they can’t wait to leave school, have conventional ideas and tend to become hostile to outside influences and stray souls invading their territory. Anywheres are rootless, university-educated drifters who move where the work is and tend to be liberal and egalitarian in outlook, identifying themselves within a larger, global image of citizenship. In other words, to the curtain-twitching nutters of this world, I am always an alien intruder who appears self-satisfied and smarmy; a suspicious bloke who doesn’t understand why the locals gang together and grunt like something in a field.
Many of the blues and folk singers I listen to always seem to be “moving on” in their songs, leaving town and heading over the hills, looking for adventure, new friendships, new loves. But life on the move is a long, sad song that gets sadder by the year and eventually leaves you with little else but memories. I may be proud to be an Anywhere drifter, but the Somewheres of this world, and there are many, have one big advantage over me – they don’t have much to miss because their lives and their friends are right in front of them and always have been. They certainly don’t envy me. In fact, they probably feel a bit sorry for a guy who was born in Bradford, ran away to see the world, and now has to face the fact that his beloved home town is only an hour away down the motorway (in a clapped out old banger). I mean, come on – who would be me?!
Besides, I am getting a little too old for this adventure lark. Brazil was a blast, and sometimes I crave my old life back – my lovely students, those naughty buffet lunches, the warm nights, freezing beer and the distant sounds of gunshot. But I have to face the fact that Brazil wasn’t really me, if I am honest. Train robber Ronald Biggs eventually got fed up with Rio and craved his old life back, supping bitter down the pub and then popping home for dinner and puddings served with his beloved Bird’s custard. But even if his fantasy of slipping back into England had become a reality, which it didn’t, his new life would soon have become just as stale as the old one.
As I get older, I may even have to settle down somewhere and grow old gracefully, whatever that means. At least I can take comfort from the advice a pal of mine gave me recently: ‘Don’t worry your head about old age’, he said. ‘It doesn’t last.’