My Unbearable Lightness of Being in Guatemala

I had no specific plans to emigrate from my country and if I did, in my daydreams, it was to my neighbouring countries of France or Spain that I pictured myself setting up home.   I had lived or spent enough time in these countries already, enough to feel comfortable with their culture and lifestyle and more importantly, comfortable with the fact that they knew my culture the good and the bad.  I always imagined that I would stay close enough to my country so that phonecalls and quick trips home for family occasions and weddings and laughs would never be a problem.  But following my philosophy of serendipity I always had a sneaky suspicion that I would not be living in suburban England. And also, maybe more importantly my biggest fear was boredom, of ending up like Lucy Jordan of Marianne Faithful´s famous song.  That awful feeling that you would just get to a certain age and realise that you hadn´t lived and done all the things you wanted.  I had already achieved many of Lucy´s missed dreams including driving through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in my hair . (see note 1)

When I set off for Antigua Guatemala for a 6 month break I had no idea that I was making such a huge step into a completely new life on a new continent.  (check out the archives on this site and you can see how I arrived).  For me the geographical isolation was also a huge physical and cultural barrier in this part of the world.  Two huge oceans separate this continent from the rest of the world.    On my other travels I always felt that I was connected by land and small sea hops from London to Beijing, Paris to Cape Town, Yorkshire to Afghanistan.  Here on this continent it is easy to forget that other continents exist, especially with the empirical mass culture exporters who live right above us.  In Guatemala, such a small country, you can swim in both the Atlantic and the Pacific in the same day, if you set your mind to it or own a helicopter!

Now after nearly 8 years here, who am I?  I gave birth to 3 children, learnt the language and the cultural issues, tried to make sense of the society whilst recognising the history, stopped being Jo (at times) and became Josefina or Doña Jose, my Spanish speaking alter ego!

I know that I will never know how it feels to be Guatemalan but my affection and acceptance of the country that gave me my husband and my children and the last 8 years of my life has been part of a long and interesting journey.

It has not been easy and I missed my country and my continent so much it hurt at the beginning, like a physical pain.  I missed the OLD WORLD, the British sense of humour, the great music that enters your psyche like osmosis, cricket, pubs, Sunday newspapers, delicious apples, the best cheese (700 of them!), from the gritty working classes to the eccentric aristocrat I missed them all.  I got tired of people talking to me every day of dollars, estados and gringos.  I was frustrated that people knew very little or nothing about my culture even the ones that should.  Generally people here view us as all the same.  We are all gringos, white people from the North.  I rarely get any acknowledgement of my own culture.  A poor muslim peasant knows more about Britain than a rich Latina.  How could I explain that this gringa felt more comfortable with an educated Iranian or Bosnian than someone from Idaho who looks just like her.

But I am who I am ……. a foreign mother who does not know if she will ever live in her home country again.  What does that mean?  How do I instill my children with the Britishness that made me who I am?  These days the two older ones speak less and less English to each other as they always used to (mother tongue), their apron strings are now more elastic and Spanish is the language.  Last year I only managed a trip home with my baby girl and left my two boys for two weeks.  They missed out on their little month of immersion in all things British.  Which can be anything from Bagpuss (note 4) to the use of the word bollocks!

I did not flee into exile from my country like my husband and his family but I live in serendipity exile never-the-less and the feeling is similar.  I have never been a mother anywhere else and I will always be grateful for the kindness and acceptance that I have received from the ordinary people of Guatemala.  Will I find it  difficult to be a mother anywhere else now?  Or does the emigre mother live in a different bubble of multi-culturalism which at times feels as though I don´t belong anywhere anymore ……….. just the unbearable lightness of being. (see Note 2)

As the last weeks of my adventure here in Guate are dwindling I wonder how I will live without the volcanoes, the sweet kind humble people, radiant colours of the flowers, the fun of market day and our nanny who symbolically represents to me and my family the best of everything this beautiful and troubled country has to offer. (see note 3)

So Cuba here we come, I hope now I have learnt how to move as an emigre to see the best in the cultures that I immerse myself in.  As my husband said all those years ago (in a wise and reassuring moment) when I shared by deepest fears about leaving Europe.

You are not losing your world you are gaining another.

My family and I will be enjoying a few weeks in my old world this summer with family and friends before heading to a fast-changing Cuba for four years.

Note 1 The Ballard of Lucy Jordan was one of my mother´s favourite Marianne Faithful songs and I listened to it with her as a teenager and the lyrics never left me.  A surburban housewife full of regrets for the things she never did.  I don´t think my mother felt like Lucy Jordan but maybe all of us mothers have Lucy Jordan days!   I was determined to never feel as trapped as she did.

Note 2 I read Milan Kundera´s book The Unbearable Lightness of Being at an early age and at the time I felt the power of his writing and began to understand the importance of identity for people forced to change their lives due to ideological or geographical issues.  One of the characters ends up in California looking out to the Pacific and feeling not the freedom but the unbearable lightness of being as she thinks about her old world and the people that inhabited it.

Note 3 I will be writing more about Juju ………..

Note 4 Bagpuss is classic BBC children´s TV from the 70s


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13 Responses to My Unbearable Lightness of Being in Guatemala

  1. Bass Pryce says:

    My foreign travels have been more accidental, survival of the fittest bank account.

    I share your opinion on missing British banter, although an Irish pub or two have helped overcome this burden occasionally

    The ex-pat years had its up and its down.

    Pero yo puedo hablar un poco espanol, problamemte no tan bueno de ti. Pero por un hombre de la isla creo que esta un triunfo.

    Good luck.

    • admin says:

      my spoken SPanish is pretty good these days but very Guatemalan, my written is pretty bad so I am planning to study in Cuba when I get there. I wrote a post about speaking Spanish to my husband that is in the archives not so long ago, 2010 I think. Language is all about motivation and you have the right attitude!

    • Josephine says:

      Hey there
      I have now set up a subscribe option on my blog so you can receive my posts directly when I write them.

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  3. says:

    Nice topic – respect !

    • Josephine says:

      Hey now I have set up the subscribe option on my page so you can receive my posts automatically

  4. Yahwe says:

    How much is a link to your site? My site

    • Josephine says:

      no cost! you just sign up. I am very new to this so just learning about blogging. My writing is from 2003 but I am still a novice blogger especially with all things technical!

    • Josephine says:

      now i have set it up so you can subscribe and receive my posts automatically.

  5. You write beautifully, Josephine,
    I have totally the opposite experience of life to yours: I left Guatemala 27yrs ago, due to exile, and after 1 yr living in the USA, landed in the UK at the end of 1985. My culture shock has been equally as lonely and cruel as yours: missing my mother, my sisters, my family and all that Guatemala meant for me til I was 24….nearly killed me, to be honest. But the UK doesn’t know anything about Guatemala nor my culture either. In a very swift simplification, foreigners are not liked and some accept us but mostly treat us as ‘ethnic’ collection pieces… Each of us on either side of the Atlantic, with roots on the opposite side…but going thru similar experience of ‘being a foreinger’.
    Yet, like you, I am deeply grateful: for being alive, for having 4 beautiful children and for having opportunities to be a mother, a wife, a divorcee, a worker, a UK British Citizen and all that that conveys an individual. And…the biggest joke: I am an adoptive Scouser! ‘Errmmmm….ye know wot I mean?’ ….lol From super-chapinisima, to an adoptive-scouser? Not in my wildest most obscure dreams…!
    Anyways, this is just a brief note not an article, but I feel that it would be a very long chat if we ever meet! lol
    Thanks again for writing.

    • Josephine says:

      HI Lucia
      I have to tell you that you know an England that I do not. I have never been to Liverpool! I come from a socialist family from the North East and enjoyed living in multicultural London where I had friends from all over the world. Also my educated friends generally can´t hear enough about Guatemala. They find it fascinating.
      However I think it is always hard to integrate and when you are a mother you feel that you should as your children do. I am thinking of starting some research into being an immigrant mum. I would like to collect stories of women like us and compile them somehow as we and our children are an important part of the future and the more people know about how we feel the better. Stay posted! Maybe one day we will meet in UK or Guate or Cuba ………..


  6. Niki says:

    I was on holiday in Guatemala this August for 2 weeks. I travel to far away places looking to enjoy and explore new cultures and the people, and have found the world wonderful. Guatemala and its people have touched me as few other places – a friend i met there asked me if anything would make me stay away from London and i said no. “i am not impulsive, i love london, it’s close to family and friends, it’s where my life is”. but the honest answer is there were things i found in Guatemala, in the warmth and openness of the people (and my friend), in the way they enjoy life, music and dance, that i have forgotten about in my own life and really miss since i’ve been back. i envy you having that in your life…but i also love living in london. life is about choices, and no choice is fully what we want…enjoy your life!

    • Josephine says:

      Hey Niki

      I am glad you had such a good time in Guatemala. It is true the people are sweet and kind despite all that gets thrown their way. I have to say that after 8 years there I am enjoying Cuba so much. The fact that everywhere is safe and more equal brings me more peace. Also it is much easier to make friends here and the dancing and the music is obviously a lot of fun. It sounds as though your time in Guatemala was just what a holiday should be. Something to make you step back and think about your life.

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