Friday, September 02, 2005


There seem to me to be two types of ex-pat. One has never really left home and gravitates towards others of like origin the better to air one's petty grievances that here is all the worse for not being there.

They do not all fit the stereotype to an exactity but one is never in any doubt that for them, home is that which, for whatever reason, they have left behind. Usually, but not always, they are not ex-pat by choice but have been sent abroad by their employer and there is as a result, an undercurrent of resentment which will always prevent them from ever being more than minimally satisfied with their situation and will certainly feed their feelings of isolation almost to the point of paranoia. You can find them congregated in ex-pat bars, usually (at least here in Hungary) with a faux-Irish theme and wide screen Sky TV.

The other type are harder to find, have burrowed deep, sometimes in country, have learnt the language, maybe taken themselves a spouse and have absorbed and more importantly, accepted the culture. Almost all are wherever they are through choice and most have what may best be described as a past. They may enjoy their uniqueness but will not try and make a virtue of it but will be self-deprecating and have a rare ability to laugh at themselves. There is a self-sufficiency about this latter type, an understated confidence that has its origins in difficulties faced, obstacles overcome and the knowledge that they have, metaphorically, survived. They may not all be totally in control, after all who is, but all have taken control of and responsibility for, their own lives. It also goes without saying, but fuck it, I'll say it anyway, that these latter make far more interesting drinking companions than the former.

And it is in these lubricated conversations that the talk sometimes turns to home.

There is an inevitable duality and a certain disconnectedness involved in being an ex-pat of this second type. The duality is a natural consequence of being a foreigner in a place you call home. Read that sentence again. Do you grasp its import? You may, in an instant, assume I refer to being an ex-pat abroad but how many of you realised that the same is true of an ex-pat in one's native country?

I do not ascribe to myself all of the wonderful attributes I assigned to ex-pat Mk II but I am assuredly of their number and share the same problem of defining exactly what it is we mean by the word 'home'.

On my many and varied travels, I return to England at least once every year to catch up on family, watch the Blades, put faces to internet names and replenish my stocks of Islay. It should feel like coming home and yet...

I know that all of you have brains and are therefore possessant of a critical faculty but I lack your familiarity with whatever it is that is current in the culture and tend to take whatever irks me as being representative of the national psyche. I need only give one example;

Altogether now!

"You only love me for my debit card."

I mean, Jesus fucking H Christ! Is it me that is or the marketing men and women that are so out of touch with the intelligence and sensibilities of the average Brit that this advertisement was commissioned, accepted and paid for by one of our largest financial institutions?

Okay, it's a piss poor and rather pathetic example, I know but here's another. I took my daughter to Playtowers in Boston while we were home, one of those indoor activity/adventure playgrounds where kids can climb, slide and explore to their hearts' content on five levels of rope bridges etc etc etc. You should have seen her eyes light up when she saw it for the first time. We were there for three hours. She loved it.

And then, the very next day, I happened to be reading the Independent when I came upon a piece written by some snide tart including the phrase, "I'd rather take my kids to some pikey soft play centre than..." and it occurred to me that there was absolutely no chance whatsoever of reading that sentence in any language other than English and I realised that I had become, truly, an innocent abroad.

And I think that is the key. Innocence. Moving abroad helped me to regain mine to some extent. To be able to see at least some things without the filters of class, snobbery and prejudice getting in the way of my enjoyment.

These however, are but fripperies. There are things going on at a much more fundamental level which increase my feeling of not at home at home and this is where the disconnectedness comes in.

Small talk. I can't do it. Fourteen years of neglect has worn away at my capacity to hold reflex conversations. I can't do phatic communication in English anymore. Walking into a country I greet everybody? Shop assistants making polite noises at me are replied to earnestly, not always a problem...had I not been with Idris, this would no doubt have got me a few dates but I cannot blend in anymore. I confused a check-out lady in Tesco by laughing at the information on my receipt that I had saved four pounds 50 by spending nigh on 80 quid. She even tried to explain, bless her.

And language at a more global level. One of the reasons I write this blog, apart from opening a direct line to Jess that is, is that I love my language and where else can I write at a non-learner level but on here? And yet English has been my second language for at least ten years now, in terms of time spent actually speaking it and one forgets. The right word refuses to come. Even during this entry I find myself writing such bobbins as, "whatever irks me as being commensurate of the national psyche" and I have to edit frequently as I go.

So do I have a 'home' in England? I don't know. I was born in Sheffield and yet my parents upped and moved to West Keal in Lincolnshire where I return now. Is it my home? Well, I own 25% of it but I have never lived there. My solo 2 day sojourn in Sheffield was a revelation however. It truly is the most beautiful city in the world. Forget your monuments, buildings and other such edifices, this city has trees. More fucking trees than any other city I have thus far visited. I stayed in Nether Edge within walking distance of Beautiful Downtown Bramall Lane and on the Sunday after the match (I was in a good mood - we'd won) I just drove around all of my old haunts, Greystones, Ecclesall, Bents Green, Ringinglow, Fulwood, stopping on Greystones Road opposite the Highcliffe Hotel where I engaged the shop assistant in earnest conversation as to why I was buying a dozen bottles of Henderson's Relish (a kind of Sheffield balsamic vinegar for the uninitiated) and revelled in the sheer beauty of one of the biggest cities in the country. And yet, I don't live there anymore. I have no base there. My childhood home is now occupied by strangers and is the tree I dared not climb, here is the pub in the tap room of which I experienced oral sex for the first time, here is...

Okay, so we all fly the coop, leave the nest and some of us experience the shock of our parents selling what we thought of as ours and moving elsewhere but for us ex-pats, the wrench is greater...we do not share your history anymore. We are of you and yet removed and if our home is not with you, then where is it?

Well, I guess it is where we have made it and matter how well you learn the language it is still not yours. Your software is still geared towards another interpretation of the world and your expression may not find voice in the language of your chosen country. And how do you define yourself, portray yourself to others? Through language. A conversation at the Nelson, with Raul, post match in Sheffield.

"Simon, you're an educated man..."

How did he know? Through language is how. And just how can I, as a foreign speaker, hope to be able to convey the same information in a language the majority of the vocabulary and register of which will forever remain a mystery to me? How can I show people who I am? I have post graduate qualifications and yet my Hungarian is not of the same standard as a post graduate Hungarian student...what?

Oh fuck. At least my friends know roughly who I am. We're all going on a week's holiday to Croatia on the 17th. And none of us can speak the language. Wahey! Equality at last.

Oh well, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel...home, however...well, that's easy.

Home is where the malt is.


Oh, almost forgot...home is whatever country that is currently thrashing the Aussies at cricket. Thank fuck it's mine!


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