Adventurers and lotus-eaters in the land of the expatriate

World View: Cyprus's foreign residents are only the latest to watch their dreams of a better life turn sour

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I lived in Cyprus a year after the Turkish invasion of 1974 and shared a flat in Nicosia with a retired Greek Cypriot teacher. He turned out to be a fervent supporter of the underground nationalist group Eoka B, once led by General Grivas, which sought unity between Cyprus and Greece.

The schoolteacher was a benign man aside from his ferocious and combative Greek nationalism. Once he said to me that "every night, Mr Patrick, I pray for war between Greece and Turkey". I pointed out to him that this was a thoroughly bad idea from the point of view of our personal survival, since our flat, located just beyond the Venetian fortifications of the old city of Nicosia, was only a few hundred yards from the Turkish front line. In any military conflict we were likely to be among the first casualties.

Greek Cypriots were at their best just after the Turkish invasion, which had driven them from 40 per cent of the island. They were busily trying to reconstruct their lives and their economy, while conscious that they were still at the mercy of the Turkish army. Expatriate foreigners such as me were thin on the ground in the aftermath of war. I went to stay at the Paphos Beach Hotel so I could look at the famous mosaics. I was the only customer at the hotel and it was very cheap, but even so I was served breakfast and dinner by half a dozen waiters. This was a bit overwhelming, but the manager explained that he was training staff in expectation of better times, and at the moment I was the only guest they could practise on.

He was right about the tourists who did return to the island in their millions, submerging many of the pleasanter aspects of Cypriot life. I lost touch with the teacher but, 20 years after I had shared a flat with him, I went to look at a memorial to his hero Grivas in Limassol on the south coast. He had died of cancer just before the Turkish invasion, which the military junta in Athens, for whom he acted as a proxy, had provoked by launching a coup on the island. Grivas would have been surprised by changes in the neighbourhood in Limassol where he had his last secret hideout. Russian expatriates had moved in and the signs on the shops were all in Cyrillic.

Expatriates seldom get a good press anywhere, particularly if they are seen as having moved to a new country in search of a soft life and lower taxes. In recent weeks, television interviews with distraught Russians and Britons in Cyprus have dripped with ill-concealed pleasure on the part of the interviewer that they have got their comeuppance.

Generally expatriates belong to two basic categories of unequal size: the adventurers and the lotus-eaters. Joseph Conrad, writing in Lord Jim of some Far Eastern port in the late 19th century, acutely distinguishes between these two kinds: "Some … led mysterious lives, had preserved an undefaced energy with the temper of buccaneers and the eyes of dreamers." Conrad contrasted them with the majority of expatriates, who "shuddered at the thought of hard work, and led precariously easy lives". He added that they showed "determination to lounge safely through existence".

I stayed for a short time in Rio de Janeiro where Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber, had shown the sort of enterprise Conrad admired. A British diplomat told me that when he was a junior official, he was working a British facility in Rio with a room where the public could read British newspapers. He noticed that a regular visitor was a middle-aged Englishman who would collect the tabloids, take out a ruler and measure something in each paper. He would then write a figure in a notebook, occasionally making a grunt of annoyance as he did so.

Eventually, my friend went up to him and asked: "Aren't you Ronnie Biggs?" Biggs said that this was indeed the case, and the diplomat expressed interest in what he was doing. Biggs explained that at the time his whereabouts were revealed he had a good job as a carpenter at a Rio yacht club. But the club became embarrassed by the notoriety of their employee and he was sacked.

Biggs then had an ingenious idea about how to make a living. He wrote to the editors of newspapers in London, noting that they spent a great deal of money flying journalists to Rio and putting them up in five-star hotels to report on his activities. It would be cheaper for them if these reporters stayed at home and he became the paper's stringer in Rio, since he was peculiarly well placed to write about the only story that interested them in Brazil – himself.

For a time all went well while he wrote up his largely mythical adventures. But he was paid only by the line so his earnings were small. He also became convinced that his employers were not paying the full amount for the column inches that he was contributing. Hence his visits to the British reading room.

Conrad was a little over-censorious about expatriates who may have good reasons to live where they do. I lived in Moscow as a correspondent in the mid-1980s, when it as difficult for any foreigner to get a long-term visa. One way to obtain one for a woman was to sign on as a nanny to the family of a foreign diplomat, journalist or businessman. Young women who had learned Russian at university and were writing their PhDs on Chekhov would sign up as nannies.

Their interest in childcare was often minimal, and there was frequent friction. Some of the nannies formed a group united by hostility to their employers and enthusiastic Christian belief. I remember my friend Chris Walker, then correspondent of The Times, complaining to me that his nanny would leave notes of a critical and religious nature. He said he had found it particularly dispiriting one morning to find a note in his slippers reading: "Lord Jesus protect me for Satan is in this house."

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