George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Wednesday 13 June 2007
‘Why doesn’t your country shake?’
Owen Powell - 13th June 2007
Ian (we’ll come to Patty in a minute) spent a lot of the 1980s travelling around Latin America. In 1989 he wound up in LA to stay a while with an American friend, David, and his Guatemalan wife, Lily. (Ian is English, I should have made that clear at the start). Also staying with David and Lily was Lily’s cousin, Patty, who was in the States to learn English. Fortunately for Ian (and for me and Alex), Ian spoke virtually fluent Spanish, so they started chatting. They clicked. One thing led to another.
Ian had to go to Boston for a while to see another friend, but while he was away from LA, Patty’s parents got wind of this new English man in her life, and weren’t very happy. So unhappy, in fact, that Patty’s dad couriered a plane ticket back to Guatemala to her, and she had to fly home. “Guatemalan society is quite traditional,” explains Patty. “It’s customary for couples to come from families who know each other very well, and mum hated the idea of me in a relationship with a foreigner.”
“At the time,” continues Ian, “Europeans had a reputation as being hippies. It was probably fair – I had long hair then, and I’d been travelling for seven years.” He runs his hand through his hair. “I had much longer hair then.”
David and Lily vouched for Ian, there were phone calls, and Patty’s parents were gradually won round. Ian went to visit them in Guatemala, and by the end of the year, they were married. “The night before the wedding, Patty’s mum came to see me. She sat me down and said, ‘You know, Ian, it’s not to late to pull out now. You don’t have to marry my daughter.’ But straight away, after the ceremony, she accepted me into the family. It’s a happy ending.”
The newly-weds had a brief honeymoon in the UK, and another wedding over here, but then planned to live indefinitely in Guatemala. Just over a year later, however, Ian’s father died, and so they moved back to support his mother. This seems to have been a tough decision.
“The first six months in London were the worst in my whole life,” Patty says, quite definitively. “I had fallen in love with England, I thought, when we came for our honeymoon and I saw all these chequerboard fields out of the window of the plane, but actually living here was horrible. I had six months of intensive language learning, and really felt like I didn’t belong. But then spring came.”
“Guatemala is known as the land of eternal spring,” Ian notes. “They only really have one season.”
“When I saw the flowers come up, I fell in love with England all over again. That is something I’ll treasure forever.”
Ian’s brother-in-law got Patty a job as a waitress, and Patty religiously learnt the names and sounds of every item on the menu. “But every customer had a different accent, and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I was a computer programmer in Guatemala, but there was a downturn in computer jobs. It was before the internet, so staying in touch with home was also quite hard. I felt distant from my family.”
Patty went to the Guatemalan embassy to ask for advice. Instead, they offered her a job as receptionist, where she stayed for five years. “I’ve been told that there are only 20-25 Guatemalans in the whole country. From the ones I know, it seems like they’re all women who have married British or German men.”
Patty didn’t feel that she had fully settled into London until after she had left the embassy, and had her first child twelve years ago. “When the children arrived – we have a daughter and a son now – I got into childminding work, then child care, and more community work. I’m quite involved now.”
Ian splutters. “Quite involved! When it was the Queen’s golden jubilee in 2002, she came to Walthamstow and Patty was invited to meet her as a pillar of the local community!”
Patty blushes and smiles. “Well, I suppose. I work for the local authority now, developing child care across the whole borough. It’s good work, I enjoy it.”
But does she miss Guatemala? “We go back a lot. My parents have been to London three or four times, but we make a point of seeing them in their home every year.”
“It’s expensive,” Ian says, “as we have the whole family now. But, as I always say to Patty, it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity. I feel like I dragged her over here, so once a year is the least we can do. The kids go to a Latin American school on Saturdays, and we brought them up in the house speaking both languages, so they fit right in when we’re all over there.”
“But of course, I miss certain things,” Patty continues. “In England, the houses are dull. Where I grew up, everyone paints their house in bright colours. I miss my people, my family. But then when I’m in Guatemala, I miss my London people. You won’t see any black or Asian people in Guatemala, so I miss my London friends too. One thing I do miss? I miss the earthquakes and volcanoes. When I first arrived here, I remember asking Ian, ‘Why doesn’t your country shake?’ This earthquake in Folkestone recently ... Ha! That’s not an earthquake.”
“In 1976, there was an earthquake in Guatemala that still makes it onto lists of the ten worst ever,” Ian points out.
Patty’s eyes light up. “When an earthquake is about to happen, you know it’s near. The dogs go crazy. Even the ants come out of the ground, they can feel it. Then it hits.”