Three Short Expat Portraits
This letter, the last in the “Crossing Paths” series, is a bit unusual in both its form and content. Rather than the standard single portrait, I present the short portraits of three atypical expats that I met early in my travels. Although these characters are unrelated, I feel that there is an element of common weirdness and even humor that runs through them. Unlike my previous portraits, these ones mainly concentrate on a single feature of each character that stood out during our brief encounter.
The English Tongan
Tongatapu, Kingdom of Tonga – 2006
Timothy is an Englishman from Lancashire. Now he considers himself to be a Tongan. Twenty years ago, he read an article in the Reader’s Digest about Tonga and was so impressed by it that in a flash of inspiration he decided to sell everything and move there! He soon married a local woman, they had a few kids, and he decided to stay at the other end of the world for the rest of his life.
Since he arrived in Tonga, he has never visited any other country apart from England, which he visits every few years. He has never been to any other European country, never visited nearby Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand or Australia.
Timothy was my guide for a day when I decided to join a small group to tour Tonga’s big island, Tongatapu. During our tour, I had the opportunity to verify my initial suspicion that the island was uninteresting, with a modicum of beautiful landscapes, beaches, or other attractions. The greatest part of the tour revolved around driving past boring coconut plantations and learning everything there is to know about their cultivation and commerce. The two biggest highlights were some blowholes on the coast and the famous “trilithon,” a miserable construction of three boulders in the form of pi (π) that was supposedly constructed by the ancient Tongans – although some experts as well as Timothy and I disagree. Being an excellent guide, and feeling the lack of attractions, Timothy decided to invent one more himself, so when we passed by a lone tall coconut tree, he stopped the car and asked us to take a photo. He pointed to the fact that the tree bifurcated at the top into a V (two branches) and claimed that this was the only two-headed coconut tree in the world. The proof? Not a single one of his thousands of visitors had ever told him they saw another one, and although he challenged everybody – and now he was also challenging us – to send him a photo if they saw one later on in life, in twenty years nobody had.
England is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It also happens to be one of the best to live in: lawful, orderly, clean, organized, with beautiful countryside, parks, towns and cities, with a very advanced democratic system of government, and much more. Tonga happens to be the worst country of the South Pacific, and its main island one of the most bland and least interesting places I have ever visited. Worst of all, during my visit, there was even a fierce persecution of the Chinese merchants on the island, which led to the expulsion of 95 percent of the 4,000 Chinese who had been living there for decades! As it turns out, many Tongans are nationalists and have an unwarranted sense of self-importance that makes them look down on all other nations of the Pacific as well as all visitors or workers in their country. They think that because they have a king and are therefore a “kingdom,” this somehow entitles them to some form of royalty or aristocracy. Or that because Tonga lies directly on the 180th meridian line from Greenwich (the ultimate final connection between England and Tonga – apart from Timothy, of course) and is therefore “the first country on Earth to greet the rays of the rising sun” (a silly global convention) that they are, in some sense, privileged or … en-lightened! If I were to choose the last place on earth to make my new home, Tonga would be among the most likely candidates.
Yet Timothy chose Tonga over England! And since he has never visited any other country in his life and knows no better, he has convinced himself that he lives on the best and most exotic island of the Pacific on permanent vacation. Throughout the tour and thereafter, he could not stop repeating – as if to convince himself rather than us! – how happy he was to have emigrated to this “exotic island paradise.” The truth, of course, apart from the obvious one concerning Tonga itself, is that he is actually working much harder than most Tongans to make a living, and he has no time to really enjoy his paradise – not that there would be much to truly enjoy had he the time. The tragic irony is that although Timothy works himself to death, the indigenous Tongans are quite lazy! The proof? They are the most obese people in the world because they sit all day long … eating New Zealand lamb! Timothy will never, of course, become aware of this unfortunate reality of his life because he consciously or unconsciously chose to limit his universe within two small circles: England and Tonga. When I asked him why has he never visited nearby Fiji or New Zealand (two of the most beautiful places on the planet), his answer was “Because Tonga is the best!”
The American of Morelia
Morelia, Mexico – 2005
Reginald is a 72-year-old Texan. When he retired seven years ago, he moved to the beautiful colonial town of Morelia in Central Mexico. He did not rent an apartment, he did not buy a house, he did not move in with a friend. He chose to live permanently in a hotel! The three-star hotel I ended up staying in, where I met him.
He was sitting in the courtyard and invited me for a drink. Prodded by my many questions, he soon opened up and shared with me all the details of his recent life. He said that he was fed up with the US and also that he wanted to live a much simpler life. Most importantly, after researching the financials of retirement, he came to the conclusion that he would live much more comfortably in Mexico than he would in Texas. He decided to live in a hotel rather than rent a house because it entailed less worries, since he basically “had the whole hotel staff taking care of him”: They cleaned his room every day, they washed his clothes, they prepared his breakfast, and more. “Being the only permanent guest here, they treat me like a king,” he said, his face glowing with self-satisfaction.
“Isn’t it expensive, though?” I asked.
“Expensive?! How much do you think I pay per year to stay in one of their largest rooms?”
“Well, it’s a good hotel,” I said. “Nothing fancy, but if you pay even half the daily rate I pay, it still adds up. Since they cook you some meals and provide you with so many other services, my rough guess is that you pay $8,000 a year.”
“Ha, ha,” he said with a sarcastic giggle. “You got it wrong, my friend! After negotiating, I got a very special deal: I only pay … $2,600.”
I could not believe my ears! He was paying this meager amount to live for a year in a good hotel in the heart of the old town of Morelia and have “his own private staff” to cater to all of his needs.
“And now let me tell you the most shocking of all,” he continued. “For one month every year, I visit my friends and relatives in Texas. Well, during this month I spend more in Texas than I spend in a whole year here!”
I was dumbfounded. It was the first time in my life that I realized with how little money a Westerner could live most comfortably if he only decided to emigrate to another country, and if he thought outside of the box. At that moment I saw in my mind’s eye all those people living in small claustrophobic apartments in London and New York, Amsterdam and Moscow, paying twenty or thirty times more than Reginald did, and hoping to see the face of the sun a few days every month. Reginald was enjoying a carefree and easy-going life, 300 days of sunshine a year, a slow stressless Mexican-paced life, and, as it seemed, was still saving most of his pension! He lived a life that all others dream of having only once a year when they “go on vacation.”
“Let me show you my neighborhood,” he said, and off we went to explore Morelia.
Reginald proved to be the best guide I could possibly have had. He knew the history of the town, all the big and hidden attractions, the local mentality and customs, and as it soon turned out, he knew by name every shopkeeper in the area, every restaurateur, policeman, street cleaner … Wherever we passed, everybody would greet him. With his broken Spanish, he would engage in friendly conversation with the locals he knew and would then tell me all the important aspects of each person’s life.
“Hey, are you running for mayor?” I asked him.
“Well, I could,” he said playfully. “But I need to get a Mexican passport first. Thinking about it.”
“Actually, you already are the mayor, my friend,” I said. “It’s amazing how everybody seems to like you.”
“Well, there aren’t many gringos in town, or at least not many who have nothing to do, like me, and who walk around every day and chat with the locals,” he said with some pride.
“You are like a VIP,” I said, and he nodded his head approvingly.
The Orthodox Priest of Quito
Quito, Ecuador – 2006
I was eating prickly pears in the street in the center of Quito when from the corner of my eye, I spotted the rarest sight in this part of the world: an Orthodox priest with his typical long black cassock, walking alone without any sense of purpose or urgency.
As our paths crossed, I asked him, “What are you doing here? You look like a fish out of water, or rather like a … lost sheep!”
“Oh my God, you sound like a Greek!” the priest replied with astonishment, his face beaming with joy. “Don’t tell me – it’s my lucky day.”
“It seems it is a lucky day for both of us,” I said. “Yes, I’m a Greek. Are you a Greek too?”
“Yes, and my name is Yiannis,” he replied.
“Is there some religious convention in town?” I asked
“No, not at all,” he said, “I actually live here.”
“Here? In Quito?!” I exclaimed. “Well, it seems we need to have a drink together as you tell me your story,” I said, pointing to an open-air café in the nearby plaza.
Father Yiannis, a thirty-five-year old Orthodox priest, with a rather short and untypical beard, wearing round, John Lennon spectacles from the ’70s, was loud and effusive, which was quite unorthodox for the usually stern-looking Orthodox priests. His life’s path, taking into account his young age, was very unusual. He was born in Greece to Greek parents, who then moved to the US when Yiannis was about eight. I do not recall his father’s profession, but the defining part of his early youth was that his family lived in many countries, never staying too long in any one. At about the age of twenty, Yiannis had a “religious calling” and decided to become a priest. He was attracted to the monastic life and soon ended up in Mt. Athos. The Holy Mountain, as it is otherwise known, is a mountainous peninsula in the north of Greece that has been the center of Eastern Orthodox monasticism since 800 AD. The monasteries had a “small Renaissance” in the mid-90s, part of which was creating new parishes in the Americas and Europe in what we may lightly call a belated Orthodox missionary work. To materialize this global vision, Father Yiannis’s abbot sent him to the US and then to Central and South America to set up new Orthodox communities in the Americas … 500 years after the Catholic missions had (violently) conquered the continent!
We had started conversing in English, but then Father Yiannis abruptly switched to Greek, providing me with the opportunity to notice that neither his English nor his Greek were perfect. So I asked him which language he preferred – which was his mother tongue.
“That’s a very interesting point you have raised,” he replied. “Actually, I don’t have a mother tongue!”
“What do you mean you don’t have a mother tongue?! How’s that possible?” I asked.
“Well, it is possible – here I am, the living specimen! Because my parents left Greece when I was very young, my everyday Greek vocabulary is quite poor. My grammar is not perfect either. I can read the Ancient Greek of the Bible quite well, but that’s not a truly spoken language, and I’m not sure I can ever order a meal in a restaurant in … Ancient Greek. Then, as soon as I started learning English in the US, we moved again, so I never learned English properly either. I then stayed in Brazil for a few years, where I learned Portuguese, but this feels like a foreign language to me. Then, because of my missionary work in Latin America, I learned Spanish, which is an easy language, but yet again, I have not truly mastered it. So, I guess I cannot speak properly a single language!”
“Wow, this is truly unbelievable,” I replied. “So you speak five-six different languages but none truly good enough, so you still make basic mistakes in all?”
“Yes, but which one do you prefer to speak?”
“Maybe Greek, I’m not really sure. Now that I speak it after many months, I’m struggling to express myself and can’t easily find the right words.”
“Well, you are the first person I have ever encountered who does not have a mother tongue! Have you ever met anybody else like you?”
“No; I guess I’m unique in my … disability,” he said with a perplexed smile.
Father Yiannis was a truly modern Orthodox priest, with many original ideas about the future of the Orthodox Church. Although he had lived in the ultra-conservative, almost Byzantine Mt. Athos, he had a very contemporary outlook regarding the function of Orthodoxy in the twenty-first century. When we met, he had already been living for a few years in Ecuador, which he liked very much, and therefore had decided to halt his missionary activity for a while, maybe in an effort to finally acquire, if not a native tongue, at least a country he could call “home.”
After our brief encounter, I kept thinking about how we acquire language, and I realized that we never truly finish acquiring any language. There is a spectrum of competence of language skill that is practically infinite: even for those who supposedly speak their mother tongue well, upon closer scrutiny, their mastery will be found wanting. Everybody makes mistakes in his mother tongue, in both the spoken and written word, throughout his life. So, Father Yiannis is an extreme example on an otherwise normal spectrum.
Meditating on my own language skills, I also sometimes feel like Father Yiannis. My “mother tongue” is the Greek-Cypriot dialect. The hyphen in the middle says it all: I can speak my “mother tongue,” but I cannot write it; when Greek-Cypriots write, they use the Common Greek, not their dialect. Yet again, I may write well in Greek, but I cannot speak it properly. When I’m in Greece, I have to concentrate and be mindful not to throw in an incomprehensible Cypriot word and betray my provincial origins! So, for me, speaking Greek sometimes feels as arduous and awkward as when Father Yiannis speaks it. As for my lifelong struggle with English, after decades of learning, I have managed some competence in writing it, but I am yet to master all the nuances of conversation – the idioms, the slang, the weird prepositions that go with various verbs, the rules that govern the sequence of tenses, not to mention my utterly failed struggle to get my pronunciation right. When I speak English, I sound like any recently arrived foreign immigrant in the US! Finally, concerning my attempts at learning a few more languages (such as German, Russian, and Spanish), just like Father Yiannis’s efforts, they are all at best a “permanently unfinished business.” Every now and then I take up a refresher course in one of them, but I am still in that liminal space of speaking-and-not-speaking-