George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Thursday 10 May 2007
Telenovela: “an essentially melodramatic narrative mode, with roots that can be traced back to prior (Latin American and international) melodramatic forms”
Alex Horne – 10th May 2007
I’ve often wondered whether the people we meet in the course of this project tell their friends and colleagues what they’ve just done when they return to their normal lives. It’s such a strange and brief thing to do – telling two earnest but dishevelled strangers where they’ve come from and why they came here – I expect that most just carry on with things barely registering the blip.
So I was pleasantly surprised and extremely grateful when Kenny, our Honduran representative, put me in touch with her Paraguayan friend and colleague Carlos. Back in her bank on Gresham Street they’d discussed her meeting with us, decided it was more of a nice chat than a horrific interrogation, and Carlos was persuaded to have a go too. Within hours of Kenny’s emailed introduction, I was heading off to meet another banker in the City, well aware that this wasn’t what I usually do with my Thursday afternoons.
Picking me out in the same Starbucks as I’d heard Kenny and Miriam’s respective stories in the week before, Carlos looked around and suggested we go somewhere with a bit more atmosphere. I was happy not to have another slightly sickly Moccachino and then to find myself being guided through the business end of London by a South American in a suit. We chatted as we walked and Carlos told me that the ‘financial capital of the world’ was a great place to learn not just about economics, but life itself; ‘I’ve had to adapt to the British way of doing things – like drinking’, he laughs. ‘I mean, we drink at home. But not like that! They start so early. I don’t know how they do it’. Do you try to keep up, or just let them get on with it, I ask. ‘Oh, I try to keep up!’ he says, before guiding me into a smartish pub off Coleman Street where everyone but me is suited and pinted. Carlos bought me a beer, himself a glass of wine and we sat ourselves down at the one remaining free table.
I have to say first of all that Carlos was exceptionally well prepared for our casual chat. Having been primed for the interview by Kenny, and familiar with the blogs we’ve written before, he’d made extensive notes about his own story and other areas that we might like to cover during the hour. Of course, coming from Gresham Street stock, it was no surprise that this was another ridiculously well qualified representative; Carlos had secured his undergraduate degree whilst working at PricewaterhouseCoopers, then got an MBA in finance law before becoming only the second Paraguayan ever to land a job in Lloyds’ London-based head office. He’s now 31 years old and has been living here for the past four years.
‘I always wanted to live and work abroad’ he told me. ‘So when I was seventeen I spent my senior year in California and that was the first time I got to explore the world. Paraguay wasn’t really the world. It’s a small and lovely country with great people, but it’s not the world’. Nicknamed El Corazon De Sur America, or The Heart of South America, Paraguay is a land-locked and apparently well-hidden land. ‘People always think we’re Uruguay’, he told me.
Ironically and, perhaps, unwittingly, it was Carlos’ mother who inspired him to leave a home that truly embodies the heart/home/location idiom. ‘She didn’t travel much herself – maybe she always wanted to but couldn’t afford it. Twenty years ago it was much harder – but she encouraged me, my twin sister and my brother to see the world.’ And considering he’s just back from a weekend away in Venice with his partner, that encouragement is currently paying dividends.
Carlos now lives in Richmond, by the park. He used to live in Holland Park, near the park. ‘I always have to live near open space, a lake or a river. I need somewhere to read or think or just walk.’ In fact, Carlos and his partner are thinking of buying a property in Spain or Italy as a compromise to what could be a life in London. ‘I hope to stay here forever’, he told me. ‘But my family are all still in Paraguay. I go back once a year. I’m not too homesick any more’.
Back home, however, the motivational mother is pining for her son’s return. ‘She’s extremely Latin American’, he told me. ‘Every time I call she cries.’ My word, I say. How often do you call? ‘Every week. She’ll say ‘I miss you so much’, and burst into tears. She’s straight out of a telenovela.’ As you can see from the title, a telenovela is a certain sort of soap opera – a thousand times more melodramatic than the likes of Eastenders, featuring characters very much like Carlos’ mum for whom a son’s decision to emigrate could take a good month’s worth of episodes to be digested.
‘That’s the next step’, he said quietly. ‘For my family to get used to the idea. That’s the difficult thing. Obviously I do feel guilty – not being with them as they get older, but I’ve got to live my life and I’m able to do so many new things here.’
I find it interesting how the people we come across have such different impressions of the same city. Yesterday Laureen was clearly shocked by the poverty so prevalent in many areas of London. Today, Carlos is almost overwhelmed by the opportunities it offers; ‘there’s so much freedom to do everything here. Through Lloyds, London has given me the chance to change my life and I’m very grateful. I think to myself, ‘how can I help this country?’ – by being hard working, paying taxes, being clean and tidy; basically being a good citizen and doing something for the people. I want to say thank you.’ In fact this outpouring of genuine gratitude caught me a little by surprise. Do I feel that way about London? Probably not. But a lot of the people we’ve met seem to. I wonder why this side of the story so rarely appears in the Daily Mail.
At this point Carlos checks his notes again. ‘I’m very organised!’ he laughs and I blush at the sight of my own tiny notepad, a tenth of the size of his beautiful A4 folder, whose cover is emblazoned with the motto Be Bold. ‘I’ve become much more methodical since coming here. I know what I’m going to do every day in August. Everything is planned over here. Life’s so busy so my partner and I have to schedule everything. I now have to plan to be spontaneous!’ At this, he held his head in his hands and I made a mental note to do the opposite. I really should try to schedule everything. My current diary says things like ‘maybe meet Congo at Chancery Lane this week’. That’s not helpful.
Like a lot of Paraguayans, Carlos lived with his family and a maid until he left for the UK. ‘Living on my own over here was a shock’, he told me seriously. ‘Cooking and cleaning. You should have seen my hands after the first few weeks. Completely burnt! I didn’t know to do anything.’
His childhood sounds idyllic and he was keen to praise his motherland as generously as his new home; ‘South America is a fantastic place, it has everything; culture, history, mountains, rivers, cities and exceptionally fun people. Everything starts late and there’s always a party. I couldn’t believe that here people meet for a dinner party at 6.30pm. Back home people would never get together before 9. The clubs don’t open till midnight.’ I started to think that it wasn’t actually the amount of alcohol British people drink that shocked Carlos, but the time of day at which they do it – just one of the customs he struggled at first to get used to.
‘One of the biggest challenges for me at the beginning’, he said, ‘was learning to understand my British colleagues. People are very competitive in the city, but they’re also very polite which means sometimes you don’t know where you stand.’ They’re inscrutable? ‘Exactly. Whereas South Americas are much more direct. Everything is black and white. People will tell you if they’re happy or sad. I think I’ve got the hang of it now though.’ He flicks through his notes once more. ‘What else?’
‘Oh yes’, he laughs, looking up. ‘I’m extremely clean! I need to take at least three showers a day. I think I’m a little bit obsessed. It’s just that after taking the tube or the bus…’ Yes, London might well be a place of opportunities. But it’s also very dirty. ‘My colleagues think that I’m crazy. My draws are full of soap and aftershave’. I’m sure his mother would be pleased. She’s clearly a larger than life character and nearly everything we discuss somehow ends up involving her. ‘Oh, please call me Carlos Jorge – my mother would love that. All telenovela stars have two names and my mother used to tell all my schoolfriends and teachers to call me that….’
He told me that he was on a holiday in Brazil with two of his best friends when he found out he’d got the job in London. ‘I was happy but all I wanted to do was go home’. When he finally did he then waited two weeks before sitting his parents down and breaking the big news. ‘How long will you be gone for?’ they asked him, ‘two months, six months?’ ‘No', I had to tell them. 'For a long time.’ They couldn’t understand it.'
Not working in the city or having many friends that do I also don’t really understand things like banks or mortgages or cheques or overdrafts or sterling or money. But for Carlos, Lloyds means everything; ‘it’s changed my life, given me so many opportunities.’ On May 1st this year, after a hundred years of trading, the Paraguayan branch of Lloyds was taken over by HSBC. ‘It’s really a shame – my friends at home are very upset. Lloyds is part of history. And part of my life. Of course, HSBC is big and important but Lloyds was the first major international bank.’
Carlos suddenly looks really quite depressed by this turn of events. Like he says, South Americans will always let you know if they’re happy or sad. Luckily, it doesn’t last long and before our time is up we talk about the HSBC adverts and discuss how ‘The World’s Local Bank’ might compare Carlos’ inscrutable colleagues over here with his altogether more scrutable friends back home. We both laugh once more. Well, you never can underestimate the importance of local knowledge.