Anywhere I go, I long for someone
This piece first appeared in the New Statesman.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Welcome to Easyjet flight 5156 from Mykonos to London Gatwick. My name is…” I zone out. Meaningless information I have heard five dozen times before, about the flight duration, the cabin crew and the weather back home.
The weather back home is what it is. Knowing about it after boarding is pretty pointless. It’s not as if I could magically produce an umbrella, a cagoule and a pair of galoshes from the matchbox hand luggage, which their rules allow as a carry-on. What are the current rules, anyway? Smaller and lighter than the average adult Madagascar marmoset, after a light meal, I think. The inexorable journey towards a dystopian future in which, if you choose a budget airline, all you will be allowed is a G-string made out of your passport – everything else attracts a small charge.
The weather back home… Is London now officially “back home”? Or is Greece, still? I am suddenly steeped in the duality of existence that plagues all immigrants. “Every time we say goodbye, I die a little”, muses Ella in my mind’s iPod. I have been dying a little, regularly, for twenty-three years now. Every time I leave each place I call home, the excitement of seeing family is marred by the anticipation of missing friends and vice-versa. I am never truly fully present in either place. Anywhere I go, I long for someone.
A woman who looks like Sue Pollard is showing me how to fasten a seatbelt. The illusion is helped by the bright uniform and the Nottingham accent. You pull the strap to tighten it, do you, Sue? Thanks. I flash back to that first flight to London Gatwick, in 1990. A continent of possibilities stretched before me. Granted, some of the possibilities were terrifying, but you don’t think about those when you’re nineteen. A neat little, multilingual, cocky bundle produced by the European Project. A proud European citizen, who travelled around and chose the UK to study and make a life for himself.
Why did I choose the UK? London seemed to me so supremely civilised; so fabulously cosmopolitan. You could wear and do whatever you wanted and nobody batted an eyelid. Later, I discovered this also meant you could get mugged in the street and nobody batted an eyelid. As my English improved it allowed me to strip away veneers of civility and recognise they occasionally hid thoughts that were ugly, imperial, patronising, racist, snobbish; it allowed me to know the difference between politeness and politesse. But you take the rough with the smooth and, on the whole, I remain convinced that the UK is, at least to me, the best country in the world. Although, lately, I find myself adding “just about” to that statement.
I remember that first night in the tiny, squalid bedsit on the Seven Sisters road. I remember how astonishingly bold I felt. I was the imperialist now. I would conquer this city. But I also remember my instant shock at the price of food, accommodation and transport. The realisation that the money I had believed would last three months, would stretch to maybe four weeks. If I was really careful, which I wasn’t. I remember the predictive ache of how much I would miss Greece – condemned, as I was, to stay away for nine cruel years, by a brutal army service that did not recognise objectors. What would I do without the sand, the rock, the fig and prickly pear, the way the sunlight turned the sea to blood at sunset, my mother’s cooking?
I do the cooking for my mother these days. That gift was one of the first things Alzheimer’s stole from her. All she has left now is the love she put into every meal, but none of the knowledge. The knowledge survives in me. Every grain of salt and cumin, every clove of garlic, every sliver of octopus, every silly superstition that will prevent a bèchamel from curdling; they live on like squatters of my soul. My mother’s condition has complicated things considerably. It has added to every trip the feeling that I am abandoning her, vulnerable and confused.
“Please stow away your emotional baggage in the overhead compartment”, says Sue. Soon, Easyjet will be charging for that, too.
The plane is rattling down the runway now; the fillings in my teeth are shaking loose, it feels like. As a “seasoned flyer”, I consider it my duty to play cool, in order to counterbalance the adrenaline of fellow, infrequent passengers freaking out. I put on an air of calm, maybe even yawn a little – that’s how blasé I am about all this. Inside me, meanwhile, a little child is screaming: “PLEASE GOD MAKE IT FLY”. The adult in me (it is crowded in my head) silently responds: “stop dithering, you prat; you’re an atheist”. This is what it means to be a seasoned flyer. You’re still just as petrified, but you are vastly more experienced at covering it.
The little child, I should explain, is me on my first flight, at the age of six. Mykonos to Athens on a little 30-seater with massive propellers – was it a Cessna or a Saab? – terrified but also excited. Why are my ears hurting? Free orange juice? And a boiled sweet? Wow. Then, from Athens to Patra by car and on to the ferry to Ancona. A two-week family Christmas road trip through Italy and France beckoned. My first taste of travel. My first taste of Europe. My first realisation that a border is just a line – you cross it and nothing changes. No, everything changes. You are in another world, which is both exactly the same and entirely different.
And I find that “terrified but also excited” is still the mingle I experience, each time I leave home to go home. Only, each time for different reasons. Will I get that West End part I’m up for? Yes. It was a good audition. Will my father still be alive the next time I return? No. Pancreatic cancer is swift like a scythe. I won’t even make the funeral. Will people think I gained weight or lost weight, during my absence? Probably both. Will this feeling of duality ever subside? Never.
The only certainty which remains inside me, unshakeable like a granite monolith, is that I am a product of both countries now and I am a richer man for it. And, if I may eschew my British humility and embrace my Greek boldness for a moment, both my countries are richer for it, too.
Sue interrupts my daze. “Do you require a landing card, Sir?” I don’t know. Do I? I recently read that a Home Office spokesman said: “We are focusing on cutting out the abuse of free movement between EU member states”. I wonder what that means. How can I abuse my legal right? I wonder where that leaves me. Whether in six months, or a year, or five, I will be asked to pack a life’s worth of belongings and leave the country in which I have lived and worked and fallen in love and watched cricket and gone on marches and got drunk and cooked my mother’s recipes and helped make what it is, for twenty-three years.
I wonder if those who delight in dehumanising immigrants realise how much more of a conscious choice it is for someone like me to love this country and see it as my home. And at what personal cost.
Sweet heaven, I think it is Sue Pollard!