expat questionnaire

Expat Questionnaire: Peter Atkinson

Why do some people settle close to their childhood home and others wander and roam, perhaps to set down roots far, far away? How do we even define “home?” How does place, staying in one or leaving it, affect our dreams, memories, senses, and sense of self? Here at Tidings of Magpies we’ve developed an ExPat questionnaire to address some of these questions. Here’s the first of the series.

Hi, I’m Peter Atkinson. I was born in Newcastle on Tyne in the UK. I currently live permanently in Belgrade, Serbia. I first left the UK to travel in August 1980. Since then, I have only spent two full years there (1983-4 and 1986-7) studying for teaching qualifications. Following seven months of travelling through the USA and Central America in 1980-1, I’ve lived and worked in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Yugoslavia (as was), Italy, Kuwait and 20 years in the UAE. My late Serbian wife and I came to Belgrade to settle in 2016. My wife was terminally ill when we returned here and has since passed away, but in the meantime, I took Serbian citizenship and plan to spend the rest of my days here.

I believe I started to think about leaving the UK and travelling from a very early age. Junior school projects like collecting tin can food labels from around the world (mainly the Commonwealth at the time) and pinning them onto a world map. As time passed, collecting stamps from countries with strange names (I distinctly remember being fascinated by ЈУГОСЛАВИЈА/JUGOSLAVIJA – YUGOSLAVIA), having a Swiss pen-pal, going on a Mediterranean educational cruise on the  SS Uganda at 15 years old, through to going to the local Chinese restaurant for lunch and even making Vesta Chinese/Indian meals ( dried contents, add water and heat) at home after finishing my shift in the pub where I worked before I left Morpeth for London to study humanities at polytechnic. 

I graduated and worked for a few years before deciding, in August 1980, to chuck it all in and travel around the world. A year of living in Thatcher’s Britain, coming into a little bit of money, cashing in my pension payments and being encouraged by a friend with similar aspirations, I was persuaded to actually do something I had dreamt of doing for so many years and I bought a cheap one-way ticket to New York, courtesy of Freddie Laker. And that was that. My employer was shocked, but not as much as my parents were. Still, my mum and dad eventually accepted my choice and off I went on good terms. 

However, of all the things I took away from these travels was that being a traveller was little more than being a tourist but with the aim of doing everything as cheaply as possible, and in poor countries where the people needed as much income as they could get from the nascent tourism industry. I wanted to go on ‘travelling’ but I also wanted to work and live somewhere, not just be constantly transient.

I spent the next seven months travelling around the States and down through Central America. My friend and I travelled from New York to Scarsdale Arizona via drive-away car, up to LA by Greyhound bus, down to Dallas by sharing costs in a student’s pickup, and then hitching down to Florida and back into Texas before crossing into Mexico at Piedras Negras. From there, we travelled by bus to Mexico City and then on to Mayan centres in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. By the time I arrived in Panama City, I was penniless other than having a return flight ticket via Miami. The plan had been to work my way around the world but that failed to materialise as I had no employable skills. However, of all the things I took away from these travels was that being a traveller was little more than being a tourist but with the aim of doing everything as cheaply as possible, and in poor countries where the people needed as much income as they could get from the nascent tourism industry. I wanted to go on ‘travelling’ but I also wanted to work and live somewhere, not just be constantly transient.

Me in 1983 teaching in Zalingei, South Darfur in the west of Sudan. There were four of us living together in a brick-built house – half the town had such dwellings while the other half comprised compounds with mud-built places with thatched rooves. There was no electricity in the town, nor was there running water. We had water delivered daily having been drawn from the wadi and brought by a boy and a donkey with leather water bags on its back. There were no paved roads across Sudan at the time, so it took me 6 days sitting on top of a lorry to get back to Khartoum at the end of the academic year.

On returning to the UK, I found myself penniless, jobless and homeless. As chance would have it, one of my college friends had just gone off to Sudan to work as an English teacher on the local secondary school teaching plan. To qualify, you only needed a degree from an English-medium university. I was lucky enough to get into the last batch of teachers to fly out to Khartoum for that academic year. Following a year living on the banks of the Nile in the Northern Province, I was on the first flight back for the following year and off I went to teach in South Darfur, near the border with Chad. That year in Zalingei was one of the most magical in my life. 

As sharia law was on the verge of being imposed in Sudan, I decided to take my dad’s advice and get a teaching qualification which would open up more, and possibly more lucrative, job opportunities. In Sudan, I had worked for a local salary and returned home rich in memories but poor in terms of finance. I studied at Newcastle Uni for a year and got a post-grad teaching qualification and then turned to VSO (a kind of UK Peace Corps)  to find a job somewhere ‘exotic’. I was late for the more adventurous posts, but I managed to get a two-year posting in Sri Lanka, living an hour and a half south of the capital, Colombo. This was a huge change from Sudan, and it presented many different but equally challenging experiences. Again, I was living as the local teachers did but I was better off in terms that I was alone, and my colleagues all had families to support. Being invited to all kinds of social events by my colleagues and neighbours opened a world of Sri Lanka that the tourists visiting the big hotels would never see.

At the end of my two years in Sri Lanka, there was a huge ESL conference organised by the British Council and the Fullbright Commission and held in Colombo. There I met some lecturers from Lancaster Uni. When I finally left Sri Lanka, I went straight there to do my master’s. With that tucked under my arm a year later, I managed to get a job through the British Council to work in the then Yugoslavia. I was sent down to Pristina in Kosovo. I was there from ’87-’89 when I married my Serbian wife. We went to try our luck in Italy for a year, but it didn’t work out, so we returned to Pristina. As the situation worsened, I left to work in the Gulf. After a year, my wife left Pristina and joined me in Kuwait. A year later, I got a job at UAE university, and we lived in Al Ain for 20 years. 

We lived in Al Ain in the UAE, the third city of the country, in the middle of the desert. We were surrounded by monumental sand dunes which we could drive out to in 20 minutes from home. We would go out especially in late spring and early autumn in the late afternoon when there was great light and shadows. The texture of the sand was incredible and something of constant fascination. This is just one of so many shots I took over the years.

My late wife developed Alzheimer’s disease, so I retired, and we moved back to her home city of Belgrade so that she could be close to family and friends. Here, I took Serbian citizenship, bought a flat and looked after my wife until she passed away 18 months later. I decided to stay on as I love living here. I love the people and the culture, the access to inexpensive concerts, the food and the drink. 

When my mum was alive, we would go to the UK every year for 10 days or so. Since she passed away, I regularly – but not annually – go back to meet up with old college friends. In the two weeks I’m there, I get my fill of fish and chips, real ale and full English breakfasts. But two weeks is enough. There really isn’t that much I miss, although deep-down, I still consider the UK my home country, and I hold great affection for my home county of Northumberland and the city of Newcastle. What has happened to the UK over the past 12 years, and especially since 2019, I find heartbreaking and it makes me livid to see how far it has fallen since I was young. When I do go back, I don’t like spending time in London, preferring the West Country and Manchester.

Answers to some questions.

Where are your parents from? Are they expats?

My parents were Northumbrian born and lived there all their lives, enjoying summer holidays in Spain for a spell in the 70s. My brother still lives in the same town we grew up in and travels no more than on regular holidays to Florida.

How do you define home? I realize the word can have many different definitions, and we’re glad to hear any or all that you would like to explain to us.

Not sure I can define ‘home’. In this context, I suppose my home now is Belgrade as my life is almost wholly lived here, most of my friends are here and I’ve been adopted by my late wife’s family.

Did you know the language when you first arrived? Do you remember a time when the new language became part or your thoughts and dreams?

The only language I’ve learned on my travels is Serbian, which currently constantly improves as time passes. It has been in my thoughts and dreams for quite some while now, but this only happened after I moved here permanently. Some of the people I spend a lot of time with don’t (or didn’t want to) speak English. That helps.

Were there any embarrassing or frightening lost-in-translation moments in your new home?

I have experienced cultural mishaps throughout my travels. I sometimes don’t realise that my sense of humour doesn’t always translate well. It can still catch me out despite my sensitivity to it.

What did you unexpectedly miss or not-miss about your COB? Is there anything (being a fan of a football team, for instance) that continues to tie you to your COB?

My continuing correspondence and meetings with people I met at college in 1972 are the closest ties I have with the UK. I follow the news – local and global – by reading the Guardian online. I follow music (as far is possible) by listening to BBC Radio 6. I follow the Premier League and Championship (Sunderland being my team) on BBC sport or on the local TV if I have access to it. I also follow the rugby at a local pub where they are kind enough to open early if international matches start in the morning here.

What food/drink did you most miss? What food did you most come to love in your new home?

I occasionally host dinner parties for friends who are interested in sampling cottage pie, fish pie or apple crumble or gingerbread. These are invariably successful, even though I say so myself. The food in Serbia is largely meat-based (pork and lamb) and I consume all there is to offer here with delight. I have a group of Serbian and Russian friends and we go to local kafanas and eat old-style Serbian dishes like tripe and sweetbreads. This can be challenging but it’s great fun and it helps me improve my Serbian. As does going to my local pub which serves only craft beer and is hidden away, meaning the clientele is largely Serbian.

What smell did you most miss? What smell did you most come to love?

I don’t miss any smells or relish any local ones. 

What music did you discover in your new home? What music reminded you of your COB?

I love Balkan folk music and play it regularly at home; when I get a chance, I go to concerts. I also enjoy local ‘indie’ music. Last night, I went to see a Russian (St Petersburg) surf/rock band a la Dale Hawkins in a punk club. Entry costs about 10 euros. We get some bigger bands here and if I like them I go see them. It’s relatively cheap and easy to get tickets.

On coming to live in Belgrade, I fell in love with the extensive graffiti and street art that can be found across the city. The city race-course has been abandoned and artists have taken to decorating the outer walls of the place. The wall is now called the Wall of Fame and has examples of all the leading street artists of Belgrade displaying both murals and tags. Here is a picture by a young artist I met in my local one afternoon. Normally, the artists are reluctant to let on who they are but while I was chatting with him and I mentioned a mutual friend, he told me who he was. I considered it quite an honour to have met him.

What sounds were surprisingly different?

One of my favourite sounds here is that of trams. And the Serbian language. People speak relatively loudly here – in cafes, bars, restaurants – and seem oblivious to the fact that anyone can overhear their conversations. But I don’t do that!

What customs (everyday/holiday) did you miss/come to love?

I don’t really miss any customs. I can celebrate my holidays here and they are very similar to the Orthodox holidays, only on different dates. I enjoy marking the 8th of March – International Women’s Day – and the May Day holidays. They have a family celebration called a slava which marks a family’s connection to a particular saint. Plenty of celebrations and plenty of time to celebrate them.

If you had to define one thing that made life better in your new home, what would it be?

People here are very genuine. If you meet someone and they say they will call you the next week to arrange to go for coffee or a drink, then they do just that. And it happens often and quite spontaneously. Going for coffee is a social occasion – if you go, you can expect to spend one to two hours and it will involve a lot of conversation. Going for a drink will last longer.

Did you find yourself defined by your new compatriots as a person from your COB, and judged by preconceptions about what that means? Did this make you feel differently about your COB?

My attempts to integrate have meant that people’s perception of me has changed. Having said that, they still expect me to behave like an ‘English gentleman’ and to be polite and honest. Serbs have a definitive, if maybe a little old-fashioned, idea of how I am expected to behave (and I pretty much live up to expectations). This has been shaken, however, by the NATO bombing in 1999. It was a severe shock that the UK would ‘betray’ its old ally in the First and Second World Wars. 

How does it feel to return to your COB? Has that feeling changed over the years? If you’ve returned permanently (whatever that means) to your COB, how does that feel? Have you ever felt that you couldn’t/wouldn’t move back to your COB for any reason?

I have no intention of going back to live in the UK. I don’t like the country it has become. I have only lived two full years there since 1980 and although I don’t feel like a stranger, I have lost any residual passion I might have had in the past. The internet and social media offer me all the connection I want to have with the country.

I’ve always taken advantage wherever I’ve lived of the possibility of visiting other countries for holidays. In the past year, I’ve been to Ljubljana, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Podgorica, and Tbilisi via Istanbul. I have Sapin and Portugal in my sights this year.

I think that’s about it. I hope you find this interesting, and that it is of help in some way. I’ve been very lucky to have lived an exciting,  varied and fulfilling life. And it still goes on, on a daily basis. I’m only sorry my late wife is no longer here to enjoy it with me.

Are you an ExPat (or would you like to pretend to be one as a fictional character)? If you’d like to answer our ExPat questionnaire, email us at magpiesmagazine@gmail.com.

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