Born: Hong Kong
Profession: Director of International House
Education: English and American literature at the University of Kent
Currently reading: Pulse by Julian Barnes
Last film: The King’s Speech
Gadget: I’d love to have a Kindle
Where are you from?
It’s a good question. I was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Malawi, Ethiopia, Tanzania and also Pakistan. My dad worked for the British government, then the United Nations, so we never lived in England much.
When I was seven, I was packed off to school as everyone was in those days because the government paid for everything, so I guess I’m doing what I’ve always been doing, which is living somewhere else. Home, if there is a home, is in Somerset which is where my parents live.
Moving sounds like your destiny.
A sort of exile! When people ask where I’m from in England, I really don’t know. The south, south-west.
Do you consider yourself British?
Oh yes, very much so. But there comes a change. When you’re here in Buenos Aires for two, three, four years, you think you have to travel as much as you can to see as much as possible. But then you realize “I’m here, this could be the rest of my life.” Then you think, “I have to go to England as much as possible,” which is what I’ve started doing. But there are still loads of places I haven’t yet seen in Argentina.
How did you find yourself in Argentina?
I work for International House and there are about 150 such language institutes around the world. Teaching English as a foreign language is a typical job which many people do when they finish university for a few years before getting a proper job.
And that’s what I did. I trained at International House in London and they had a list of countries and schools with vacancies at the recruitment office. My first job was in Santander in Spain for a year, and I had great fun. I then thought I should get out of Europe so I went to the office and picked my top-three places — Japan, Jakarta and Buenos Aires.
Japan didn’t want me as I wasn’t experienced enough, Jakarta closed down in mid-application so I came to Buenos Aires by complete accident. It was third on my list!
Were you pleased with that move?
I was! I just wanted to get out of Europe and head east or west. Latin America did appeal to me, partly because I’d learnt a bit of Spanish. Although when I got here, I realized that I didn’t actually know any… But why Buenos Aires? I wanted to stay in this organization and there weren’t many schools in Latin America at the time — one in Brazil and another in Bogotá which closed down.
I knew very little about Buenos Aires. It very much came out of a hat.
When did you come here?
It was in 1988, when Alfonsín was president, and I came here on a two-year contract. At the time, International House was a tiny little school on Larrea street and I started this (Belgrano) branch in 1992. Three years ago, I started another school around the corner which is a teacher-training institute.
What do you recall of those early days?
Alfonsín left power early and they let Menem take over. My memories are a bit hazy as I had practically no Spanish, and it was a very different city then, but it was quite exciting because as a teacher you have few responsibilities and it’s fun. All the teachers shared flats together.
I lived on Larrea and French at that time, in a poky, disgusting little flat in Barrio Norte. When I got married in 1998, I bought a little house in Belgrano with my wife.
Are any of those teachers from the flat-share days still here?
Two of them are although I didn’t actually live with them. We were a group of eight who came over on a KLM flight together with a bunch of Argentine schoolgirls. Of those eight, my flatmate lives in the US and I might bump into the other two occasionally.
What happened at the two-year mark, when you should have been planning a new move?
Maqui, my wife, happened. We met in my second year, although it took us seven years to get married. She was a student at the school, not mine but my flatmate’s, and we met at a dinner hosted by some other teachers who, I think, had the view of getting the two of them together. I remember not being invited and feeling a bit miffed, then I was asked at the last minute.
Do you speak to your daughters in English?
I do, and they reply in whatever they feel like. They speak to their mum in Spanish because it would be unnatural otherwise. When we are all together, there’s an unholy mixture of languages, although we try to make it English. They aren’t fluent although they understand everything, and will speak English immediately if they know the person speaking to them doesn’t speak Spanish. As soon as they know the other person is Argentine, they will speak in Spanish. They aren’t fools!
Name a lost-in-translation moment.
My Spanish is quite good, as it should be. In the 1990s, I used to take taxis everywhere, as everyone was fabulously wealthy, completely artificially, but we all had money coming out of our ears. For the first few years, taxi drivers would ask me how long I’d been here, what I was doing, whether I was American, then I started to notice after about 12 years that they had stopped complimenting me on my Spanish. “How long have you been here?” “Oh, 12 years.” “You don’t speak Spanish very well, do you?”
However, it isn’t spontaneous, and I still find myself rehearsing things. If I’m in a bank queue, I mentally rehearse what I’m going to say. It’s a difficult habit to get out of.
In the late 1980s, when it was compulsory for everyone to smoke, I remember, after rehearsing for hours, going to a kiosco, and asking for “a packet of cigarettes and an ashtray, please.” I wanted a box of matches.
And name a torturous trámite.
We used to have to pay all bills at banks, and there were two-hour queues everywhere. It was like a Kafka novel, all these people staring hopelessly at bills, because you never knew if it was the right bank or not until you got to the counter.
What do you do at the weekend?
It’s kid-dominated but I do have a secret life: I sing in two bands, with mainly Anglo-Argentines, in a jazz band and an Irish male group. I also play tennis, very badly, and have a group of over-40s, useless-at-tennis friends who are all Argentine and we always have a beer together after.
What are some obvious changes over the past 23 years?
I’ve seen two complete cycles. I arrived in a period of utter collapse as Alfonsín’s government was on its way out, hyper inflation was rampant and reached 4,000 percent a month, I think, and pay day was a matter of life or death. Getting your salary down to San Martín in time to change into dollars — 30 minutes would make a difference to your monthly worth. It was awful, but quite exciting.
Then there was the eight-year Menem party, economy minister Cavallo introduced convertibility and it was like magic, everyone thought “hey, there isn’t any more inflation and we’re all rich.” At that point, everyone from the International House organization wanted to work here as they’d heard things were good here. Then that went, as it was bound to, horribly wrong.
Now we’re in the Kirchner period and I can see this period not ending very well now, unless a miracle happens. Inflation is creeping in again… I’ve noticed these cyclical changes and the country is more or less the same. For a while it looked glitzy and clean but it’s beginning to look tired again. I love it here, but I get terribly frustrated and feel powerless to do anything. You just have to go along with whatever is happening.
‘But do I qualify as an expat?’
When I originally contacted Bruce Thompson about doing an expat interview with him, he questioned whether he really qualified, given that he has been living in Argentina since 1988, has a wife and two children, and considers himself to be an immigrant.
The director of International House, who teaches literature classes to advanced TEFL pupils, set out the boundaries as he sees them.
“The idea of an expat tends to be someone who works for a foreign company and is here on a short contract, perhaps for an embassy or a multinational. Teachers often don’t consider themselves expats, particularly when you marry and settle, and think ‘this is it’.
“In Argentina, certainly in Capital Federal, everybody was an immigrant at some point. Everyone starts somewhere. Perhaps I’m the first in a long line of generations of Thompsons!”
But his instinct toward feeling like an immigrant is relevant. So many 20-, 30-, and 40-somethings have upped roots to move here, albeit for six months, a year, or an undefined time, for various reasons — unexpected redundancy at an early age given the turbulent economic times — and easily tag themselves with the expatriate label without thinking about it. “Expat” certainly sounds a lot more glamorous than “immigrant”.
But this is a regular discussion I have with friends, and after five years in Argentina, I’ll admit a certain amount of snobbery now comes into it. What kind of contract do you have on your apartment? Oh, it’s for six months? That shows you don’t have the paperwork to prove you’re a property owner here, or have the contacts to help you get a two-year deal.
Got DNI? With one of those babies in your wallet, and better still if it’s the old-school burgundy-hued booklet variety, you’re in a completely different class of foreigner to those who head straight to Palermo Hollywood to rent a swanky pad complete with gym and swimming pool.
Can’t believe the amount of dog pooh on the streets? The answers to these simple questions show what kind of foreigner you’re talking to. And if I deign to put myself into a separate category, who knows what embassy employees think of wannabe expats, or even those who choose to live here!
Snobby? Totally. Ridiculous? Of course. But it can make or break a friendship. I can safely say I won’t be going for coffee with the six-monther. Because knowing they will be long gone soon, the investment, as it is in my mind, is better placed with long-termers and Argentine friends.
Expatrigrant. Perhaps that could be an option on the new DNI identity cards, instead of just plain old “foreigner”.