Thursday, January 08, 2009
Port of Spain, Trinidad, West Indies.
Recently I have been thinking a lot about Trinidad, the place where I was born and where I lived with my mum and dad until I was 11.
We had a happy life there with lots of friends and family; then without warning and without any explanation, in fact they never told me we were moving for good, we left for England.
When we got there we found that it was not just colder in temperature but we also encountered racist attitudes, for me this was a huge shock as Trinidad is a wonderful multiracial island.
Where people get on with each other, there are many festivals these include Carnival, Hosay, Pagwah or Holi, Divali, Eid-Ul-Fitr, Hanukkah, Corpus Christi and Easter and many more.
As my dad was Trinidadian and my mum German everyday there was a different insult one day I was the German woman’s daughter and the next I was the daughter of the Pakistani.
In England in 1964 even though the 2nd World War had ended nineteen years before, the anti German sentiment was still very strong.
And the anti West Indian sentiment was pretty high too due to the rise in immigration of thousands of people from the Caribbean, who came in answer to a call for people to come over and do the work no one else wanted to do.
Dad did everything he could do to assimilate as quickly as possible, he began to wear cardigans with patches on the elbows and cavalry twill trousers and eat steak and kidney pie with HP sauce and vote for the Tories.
He tried to become in all ways more English than the English, however he fooled only himself.
So there we were in England living in a house that had no visitors, no friends and family popping in as they did everyday in Port of Spain.
We were very isolated and the isolation was only made worse by the silence in the house and the depression that we were all experiencing.
Sadly we did not talk to each other; there was no conversation or discussion as I had seen in other peoples houses, my parents did not even really talk to each other.
They never talked to me about anything and certainly never ever asked me how I was doing, was I coping with the move.
We never talked about the future and they never encouraged me to make plans, never praised me or told me that they thought I was clever.
Often during mealtimes any talk went via me, mum would say ‘ask your father if he wants some more noodles’ and I would ask him and he would say ‘tell your mother ‘no thanks’.
Or he would say ´ask your mother if I can have some more cauliflower cheese and she would tell me ´tell your father to pass me his plate´ and he would give me his plate and she would give him a portion of cauliflower cheese and I would give the plate back to dad who might say ´thank your mother for me´.
Often these mealtimes could erupt into huge arguments about nothing much
Sometimes dad would get very angry if he thought I was given a bigger piece of meat than him.
Mealtimes like that were usually a sign that an argument was brewing and it was time to run away and hide, which was not an option for me as I had to at all times be with them.
They always told me that they were the only friends that I needed and did not encourage me to make new friends. In fact they discouraged it.
We were all isolated in our own problems and by not talking about how the move had affected us we were left stuck there each in their own private misery.
The result was my father took out his frustrations and his disappointment at the failure of the move and his crappy job and lack of any chance of a better job on us and was hitting us.
My mother was home all day and became seriously depressed and was secretly drinking added to that the doctor put her on valium for too long.
I was very miserable because I had no friends and worse a rotten school where the teachers were not interested in the pupils and their education and welfare.
On my first day we were all told by our class teacher that we would never amount to much and that at the best we might get jobs at Sutton Seeds or Courage’s Brewery or Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory.
What a shock considering that I was told we had moved just so I could get a good English education, but not at that school, later on I was told that it was my fault that I had not done well at school.
Nothing to do with the fact that I was taken out of school at a bad moment without there being a worked out plan, my future had been totally ruined but not by me but by my parents deciding to leave just before the important exam that would decide everything
Despite the story about crossing oceans for a good English education, which made it sound like my parents did everything they could to get me that, they decided we would leave a matter of a few weeks before the 11 plus exam.
Without that exam it meant that as we did not have money the doors to the good schools were closed to me.
The big shame of it all was that I was far from stupid as I was reading fluently by the time I was four and by the age of seven one of my favourite authors was Jane Austin.
At age eight I read the Odyssey and the Iliad and at age eleven I had read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.
Often wonder whether going to four schools within the first two years, one in Germany and then another four in the next four years helped me any.
Plus my mum left my dad twice once in 1965 for three months and in 1966 for a year, this was extremely traumatic for all of us especially for me as she took me out of school and to Germany, it finished off any chance that I had of getting any sort of consistent education.
In 1997 I went back to Trinidad for a visit that turned out to be very important for me as it answered a lot of questions that I had since we left in 1962.
Importantly my auntie Jo told me that I was a very bright child and that my parent’s story about the good English education was just a story.
That they had left for their own reasons based on whims and pretensions but not planned, somehow they thought that they would be able to live the good life in England without money and connections.
There was no good life only a Wimpy house in Emmer Green and a large mortgage and lots of regrets and memories of better times.
Childhood memories can be sweet and even sweeter as time goes by and mine have become very sweet indeed.
Shame we did not stay in Trinidad, would have been better for me and perhaps for them too, maybe later on I would have moved but then it would have been my own choice.
I was amazed when I was in Trinidad that my memories were so accurate, just got the size wrong.
In my memory the roads were big roads, realised when I saw then again that was because I was a kid then and now as an adult I could see that they were quite small roads.
I was very pleased that I had found the correct road from the Savannah to my old home and directed my cousin straight there without any hesitation.
It was an emotional moment sitting in the car with Aileen looking up at the house that I never had expected to see again; despite the plaster being chipped it was still my dream house.
She was handing me lots of paper hankies and saying ‘well I see you are enjoying yourself’ which was a nicer approach than my mother’s who made me feel that crying was a sign that I was somehow emotionally unstable.
Aileen drove me around Port of Spain and took me to all the places I used to go it was sweet to see it all again, saw the lovely poui tree where I used to watch the beautiful stripy caterpillars.
We went to Shorelands and looked at the pool and to my old school and past where friends lived, we walked around the Savannah where we went everyday to walk our dog and ate a roti filled with alu curry.
And we drove to Maracas beach where we used to go every Sunday taking a large lunch with us, I remembered that we left early so we would get a good place to spend the day as the whole of Port of Spain seemed to be there which was very nice as we met up with friends.
The visit really clarified for me who I was and where I was from; no longer did I have all those unanswered questions as to my identity.
Felt my Trinidad roots strongly as soon as we landed and it did not take long for them to become visible to others around me as I reacted in true Trini style to the customs officer like I did.
After landing I had to queue for ages for my suitcase after about an hour or so of being sent to various counters I was informed that my suitcase was still in Barbados.
Despite this I had to queue up for a long time at the customs desk.
Finally after what seemed like centuries it was my turn, I explained that my suitcase was still at Barbados airport and would be sent on the next day.
The customs officer looked at me over his glasses and then asked me nevertheless to declare what was in my invisible suitcase at which I lost my composure.
And I let rip telling him my suitcase was in Barbados and I am here so how the hell can I declare the contents of a missing suitcase.
’I am back for the first time in thirty-five years on an important family visit and have waited hours for my case only to find that it’s lost!
I am very upset and tired and hot and really need to get out of here so that I can finally meet my family.
I am also desperately in need of a shower and change of clothes and food but no you need me to declare the contents of my missing case'!!!
Just when I started to think that I had gone to far the custom’s officer adjusted his glasses and looking over them at me again asked me ‘ why it had taken me so long to come home, darling’ !
Then he smiled at me and made a chalk mark on my invisible case and said have a good visit.
What a way to arrive back.
During my visit I started to find out more about myself and found that I am indeed emotional just like all my extended family there and all Trinidadians.
Felt totally at home there which was a glorious feeling and one that I had not had since 1962.