One lifelong journalist says that expats are interesting just because they live in someone else’s country. THEO PANAYIDES meets him
It’s strange being an expat, says Albion Land, an American who’s lived more than half of his 64 years outside America. One’s friends also tend to be expats, forming “a group of people constantly being renovated”. One gets close, despite – or because of – the knowledge that the friendship is transitory, then they leave and new ones appear. But there’s something else too. “If you’re a foreigner living in somebody else’s country,” he muses, pausing to find the exact words and take a sip of whisky, “then – by virtue of that and nothing else – you’re an interesting commodity. Simply by virtue of that. Not because you, necessarily, are an interesting person… And there’s a certain appeal to being an expat, because of that. I mean, for years I’ve been attacked for being an American: ‘You’re CIA, aren’t you?’. And my stock response is: ‘Yeah, would you like a job?’. That shuts ’em up real fast!”.
Is he, in fact, an interesting person, as well as being an expat? On the surface, not necessarily. He hasn’t done anything especially exciting; he hasn’t sailed around the world, or spent a year in a leper colony. He isn’t even in the CIA (or is he?). He’s been a journalist virtually all his life, mostly a financial journalist then – for the past 15 years – a writer and editor at the Middle East desk of a well-known news agency. “I had an upbringing that established a framework by which to live your life,” he tells me. “One of being responsible, making your own way in the world, not living off other people. You go to school, you get a job, you work. If things work out and you have a family, you raise your family”.
He has indeed raised a family – he and his ex-wife have two children, now in their 20s – and more or less stuck to that framework, “probably too much so. I could probably have done with a bit more adventure in my life. But I’m not interested,” he adds airily, then gives me what might be his personal maxim, Albion Land in a nutshell: “I’m interested in tranquility on the one hand, and raising hell on the other hand”.
Now we’re getting more interesting – especially when it transpires that his search for tranquility has drawn him down some unexpected paths, notably two serious attempts to join the priesthood. The first was at 21, back in the States, when he was gently informed that his sense of vocation wasn’t in doubt but he should test it in the real world for a couple of years, then try again (“It was very immature stuff,” he recalls now, trying to pinpoint what attracted him to the life of the pulpit; “I just liked doing church”). The second time was three decades later, in his early 50s, when his ecclesiastical views – he suspects – must’ve proved too old-fashioned for the new ‘inclusive’ Church of England. It’s hard to know why he wanted to become a priest, but “tranquility” is as good a word as any for the serene well-being that comes with spiritual vocation. As for raising hell … well, he admits, “I’m a very, very fiery personality. I lose my temper easily – but it blows over like that, too.”
Really? You seem fine to me.
“You haven’t pissed me off,” he ripostes, and laughs as if to say ‘Wait till you do’. He shrugs noncommittally: “I’m not a bad guy. But I do have a temper. I would like to think that my temper is based on a sense of justice – but it isn’t always. Quite often, it’s a sense of feeling I’m not getting what I want. Which is what most temper tantrums are about.”
That he’s combustible is obvious. We meet at Finbarr’s Pub in Nicosia, where he storms in with a face like thunder and informs the bar staff that he got a ticket for illegal parking (the usual €85, a sum that could only seem reasonable on a civil servant’s salary) without realising he’d been parked illegally – and he only had the car in the first place because someone blindsided him on his motorbike two days before, wrecking the bike and nearly killing him; in short, he’s not having a very good week. The waitresses fuss over him and get his drink as he snarls self-consciously, playing the professional grouch. (Later, I ask what makes him happy and he replies, almost sheepish: “Well, I’m not known as a happy person. I’m known as a grumpy person.”) He and the waitress have a little game where he tries to order a whisky and she pretends to misunderstand, making him furious: “Single. Sin-gle! One, not two!”. He watches her go, and smiles affectionately: “I’ve known this girl for years”.
Finbarr’s is his watering-hole, always has been. Andreas Socratous, who founded the pub and sold it last summer, is his best friend in Cyprus, he says with feeling. This is where he had his first beer in Nicosia, the same day he arrived in 2000. Before that he’d been in Washington DC for over a year (one of his rare sojourns back in the US), before that London for three years, before that Madrid for 11 years (his ex-wife is Spanish) – and of course it all started in Mt Dora, a small town in Central Florida where the editor of the local paper asked 14-year-old Albion if he’d like to cover football games on Friday nights, his first experience of the journalistic life that’s consumed him ever since.
It’s not clear why the editor approached him. After all, “I wasn’t remotely interested in football, much less have a clue how to write about it”. It may have been because the tall, skinny boy was bookish, a reader, a bit of a nerd: “I wouldn’t say I was an introvert, but I was very – self-contained”. It may also have been because Albion’s father, Henry William Land, was one of the most prominent politicians in Florida, having served three terms in the Florida House of Representatives; a useful contact for a newspaper editor.
His dad, presumably, is where Albion got his “framework” for a virtuous life – and some may imagine that being in the shadow of a powerful father contributed to his leaving the States, but in fact that’s untrue because he never left the States, at least in the sense of abandoning it. When he left in 1980, he had every intention of coming back (“I just wanted to do Europe”) – but that’s how it goes with long-term expats, one year stretches into two, then 10, then 35. Nowadays, he seldom thinks of Florida. “When I go, I enjoy it. But I don’t miss it. I have no desire to go. I mean, basically I only go for funerals now”. If any one country is his home, that would be Spain (it’s “where my heart is”), though he’s also “extremely fond” of Cyprus – the land of his middle years, and his Middle East years.
His beloved “tranquility” has been hard to find at the Middle East desk, his time in the job coinciding with the years when our part of the world has become unequivocally the most hellish corner of the globe – though not Cyprus itself, which is why it used to be a hub (all gone now, alas) for journos covering the region. Albion came here in 2000, “had a few months of relaxation, then the intifada began in Palestine” – and it hasn’t let up since, the slaughter in Israel followed by Iraq, “then all the lovely things we’ve had in the past five years”. He’s saddest of all about the Arab Spring, having shared in the excitement then watched the whole thing turn sour. Libya (“an absolute fiasco”) is especially embarrassing, “because I sort of got caught up in the hype about getting rid of Gaddafi – and Gaddafi kept saying ‘If I go, it’s gonna be chaos in this country’. He wasn’t half-right.”
So why does the West create these power vacuums?
“First of all, I don’t think the so-called West is speaking with a single voice,” he cautions – but, in terms of the US in particular, there’s “this naïve idea that the whole world is just desperately waiting for liberal Western democracy and all the benefits it can provide, when there are cultures where it doesn’t work, it doesn’t fit. It’s not welcome.”
So it’s all just an honest mistake, so to speak?
He sighs heavily. “I’ve been in the Middle East for too long, everything is conspiracy theories. I’ve gotten to the point where I just don’t believe anything anymore”. Talk of ulterior motives – oil, most obviously – is par for the course; when you see what happened post-Saddam, “all the American businesses that went in and just cleaned up,” it does make you wonder. But he doesn’t have the energy to argue the point anymore; dealing with this stuff, day in day out for 15 years, has weighed him down. “[When] I meet somebody and they say ‘What do you do for a living?’, I say ‘I count bodies’,” says Albion grimly. “That’s my job. Because, what else is really happening in the Middle East? It’s at war, of some sort or another. As I say, it’s Arabs killing Arabs killing Jews killing Arabs, and occasionally Persians, and Americans occasionally killing somebody – but basically Arabs killing Arabs. That’s it. And I’m sick to death of it.”
No surprise that he’s fallen back on spirituality in the past decade (Finbarr’s may also have offered some respite, in its way). He’d been interested in Orthodoxy for decades, long before Cyprus – his very first girlfriend was Greek-American – but being in an Orthodox country “helped to bring it all together”. He’s recently been baptised into the faith, though converting was never the point per se; what attracts him, he explains, is the compassion. Catholicism, or even the Protestantism he grew up with, makes it seem “like life is a courtroom, and you’re on trial, and you’re probably going to be convicted. Whereas, to me, Orthodoxy – and Orthodoxy says it very openly – is a hospital for sinners. They’re here to fix people, cure people. Their brokenness, their ills, whatever it is”.
It’s a worldview that speaks very strongly to a flawed, tempestuous man like himself. “I’m a very, very devout Christian,” is how Albion puts it, “but I’m a shite Christian. And you can publish that – I’m a shite Christian!”. He blows his top, doesn’t always turn the other cheek. He raises hell, though hopes he can avoid ending up there when his time comes. “Yeah, I don’t think I will,” he smiles, taking a sip of whisky, when I ask if he worries about spending the afterlife in the Other Place. “But it’ll be close. It’ll be very close.”
Albion Land is a bit of an outsider – an outsider through being an expat, a foreigner in someone else’s country, and an outsider through being religious in a secular age. “I’m worried about the future of Western civilisation,” he explains. “Or, as I sarcastically put it, what’s left of it. Because I really am deeply troubled by the degree to which people have ceased to have any – any anchor, any sense of what’s right and wrong. Everything is relative. As my kids used to say” – he makes a ‘W’ shape with his fingers – “‘Whateverrrr’. This is Western society, it’s consume, consume, consume. Keep them entertained, string them out on entertainment while you’re developing new products that they don’t need”. Atomisation and secular materialism are among the biggest threats we face, he believes (jihadist Islam is another) – and meanwhile he seeks his tranquility, this man of strong passions and occasional explosions, whether in God or the free-floating community of expats, wilful outsiders like himself.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come and go,” he sighs, taking us back to our main subject as the pub starts to empty. There are far fewer expats than before (maybe it’s the crisis), “it doesn’t regenerate the way it used to” – but in fact it was always in flux, that’s the point. One Scottish guy was here for three years, sinking his pints in Finbarr’s almost every night. “He was one of the gang”. Then he moved on, “and he’s not a social-network type person, so we just sort of lost contact with him. He’s disappeared, basically, from our lives – when he was a daily part of our lives”.
There’s a sting in the tail – because Albion too is moving on, in a few months when he turns 65 and retires. He can’t afford to retire completely (“my nest egg,” he jokes, “comes from a quail, not a goose”) but he’s moving back to Spain, where he has a house in the mountains near Granada – and he too will disappear from the lives of his friends, at least as a daily fixture. What kind of memory will he leave behind? How will the others describe him, when they try to explain who he was to the new arrivals? As an interesting person, one hopes.