By John Keeble
Soon after the last ice age, when I was a young reporter on the London Evening News, some impertinent chap suggested subverting the stiff upper lips of commuters by wearing badges declaring – my apologies for using such language – their willingness to talk on trains and buses.
Handsome Hollers, my news editor at the time, dispatched me post-haste to find out if the blighter had succeeded in poisoning our culture.
I rode the commuter trains and talked to commuters. No one talked back, thankfully, until I revealed I was an investigative journalist fearlessly examining the cold underbelly of our society. Then they broke their silence, put aside their copies of The Times, and gave their views. In short, they did their painful duty: they talked to me. Eventually, with the evidence in my notebook, I tracked down the originator of … well, you know. He had seen the error of his ways, repented, and he had the decency to refuse to talk to me.
Recently, half a century later, I was sitting in a village pub in Cambridgeshire, England, drinking my BrewDog vegan IPA beer when Handsome Hollers, long dead, and the idea that shocked London came back to haunt me as I compared local life with Cuenca.
I had offered a few remarks to a fellow drinker and had been repelled politely, a conversation akin to running into knee-deep cold mud. Others along the bar were chatting, fellow villagers no doubt, and several actually glanced in my direction. So I relaxed amid the old wood and cosy decor, and enjoyed my thoughts privately.
A person has time to think while drinking a solitary pint perched by the bar. I reflected on a stay last year in Savannah, Georgia, where I popped into an “English Pub”, more in curiosity than need. There, I fell easily into conversation with three visitors from a red state who were strong supporters of President Trump. We had a great chatty time, three very right-wing Republicans and me, a lifelong unreformed lefty foreigner. I still cannot recall how that conversation started – it was so natural.
And natural seems to be the right word. Communicating is fundamental to human primates … though there must be exceptions. Cambridge and its villages, for example, have long been known for their reluctance to engage with strangers of less than 25 years acquaintance.
Not so, expat Cuenca. Our community here is not only the friendliest I have ever known but also the most interesting in its diversity and the specialist knowledge and experience of individuals. All that comes out in most people’s willingness to talk.
Thanks to the internet and a warm welcome online, I met some Cuenca expats before even setting foot on Ecuadorian soil – each had enjoyed a very successful pre-Cuenca professional life but I came to know them as writers Mike Herron and Wayne Materi, and photographer David Fagerlie.
When I flew to Cuenca for the first time, I just had time to dump my bags in my booked apartment before rushing off to lunch with Mike and his wife Susan. On the way, I turned into the wrong restaurant. A voice called my name. It was David Fagerlie and his wife Yao. He had recognised me from our internet link and was happy to talk.
Now, after three years and scores of new friends, I look forward to the impromptu chats that are such a feature of expat life here. Sadly, Mike and Susan will not be among us. Mike died recently after an illness.
Others, in the ebb and flow of expat life, will be enjoying our favourite places. Ready for a chat – even without badges – and dear old Handsome Hollers and the silent City gents will fade back into another world and another time.