The Expat: Marita Carballo
From: Buenos Aires
Profession: President of Kantar Latin America
Education: Sociologist from UCA
Currently reading: Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard
Last film: Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Gadget: The best laptop is a Mac
Had you visited the UK before you were transferred to London?
Yes, I’d been there for business and pleasure but mostly business. I used to work for Gallup International and their secretariat was based in London. Although we had meetings all over the world, we frequently went to the UK for that reason.
Do you remember your first visit?
My mother had given me the opportunity to spend a month or two in Europe as a present, so I did a tour in 1970 and stayed mostly in France and the UK. I briefly passed through Spain and Italy as well.
I was really looking forward to going to the UK as I went to an English school, a convent, in Buenos Aires and I had studied literature and history. Actually, the nuns were Irish but we studied mostly British subjects.
What did you do on that trip?
I stayed at a bed and breakfast, and they gave me these huge breakfasts which I just wasn’t used to. I found the people to be very friendly, and from a horticultural point of view, I loved the London gardens. I also really liked the culture, art, literature.
I went to see Evita and also Phantom of the Opera. I liked it but I went with a Brazilian boy and he got very angry as he said they weren’t respecting history. But I took it as a beautiful musical.
Did Britain break any stereotypes?
It shocked me quite a lot to see the Houses of Parliament. I’m very interested in politics and there was an atmosphere of beauty in them but it was also a place where a lot of important decisions for the world are taken. I was impressed by it.
When did you move to the UK?
I headed Gallup Argentina for around 20 years, which was then sold to another company based in the UK, called TNS. I took a sabbatical and TNS asked me to choose between Washington, Paris or London to globally head the political and social sector as they had bought several public opinion companies around the world.
I struggled to choose Paris or London but some friends told me it would be easier to live in the UK. It was a good decision to go there. Working there was very easy, even though I had a lot more responsibility as I was looking after 87 companies based all over the world.
You moved from Buenos Aires to London. What were the differences in your working environments?
They were different in the sense that I worked with lots of professional people in Argentina, but as I had always worked here, I wasn’t aware that what one does naturally can in fact be difficult and done much more easily if we were better organized. I found out it wasn’t necessary for me to solve problems all the time, as there were systems in place which made things function in a more systematic way! That was an interesting learning curve for me!
Two months after I started working there, a few of my colleagues asked to speak to me. They told me they were sorry in the sense that I worried a lot, and that I took a lot of care in my work, but they wanted to tell me that if they said they would do something, that they would do it. And if not, they would let me know for whatever reason. I learnt that very quickly and it was something I experienced in a very positive way.
However, what I could offer was important because if something needed to be sorted out very quickly, then I had the skills!
How did your standard of living change?
I was in Knightsbridge, a very nice place, near the Royal Court Theatre which I love — I used to go there a lot as I’d get off the Tube at Sloane Square and just jump in. I had a lovely view of the park opposite, it was very nice to walk around that area. Harrod’s and Hyde Park were near and I’d spend a lot of time there, having picnics, which was something I wasn’t used to doing.
I started to use public transport, something I didn’t do given my role in Argentina. I used to take taxis everywhere as they were cheaper and public transport wasn’t very good. So I started to use the Tube. It made a difference and I enjoyed it as I could see so many culturally different people, from different parts of the world, eating different food and wearing different clothes. That opened my mind a lot.
I started to develop new tastes, I tried Indian food, so the way I ate changed. Now I go to Mexico and I want spicy food, and I want lots of wasabi in my sushi!
I also learned that you never ask someone personal questions in the UK. We Argentines ask about age, how many children you have, but people in the UK think it’s invasive. I enjoyed that a lot as no one asked many questions and I loved that!
Did you have any problems adapting?
Coming from a culture where you get help for almost everything, or did things with other people. I found when I arrived that it’s a do-it-yourself country. I liked it much more than I expected. I knew I’d like it, but I wasn‘t aware I would suit being in an Anglo-Saxon culture.
What was your favourite bus route?
I’d specifically stay late at the office in winter so I could go straight to the theatre, a concert, or a contemporary dance show. People could always ask me what was going on in London as I knew everything! I’d then take the number 19 all the way home to see everything all lit up.
Where would you take friends visiting you?
The Tate Modern, without a doubt, and try to take them to places they can walk. I’d tell my family or friends to leave my house then walk to a certain point. It’s quite easy to go around London as it’s not that big and in a week you can see quite a lot of the city and see almost everything.
I’d also take people to the bookshops and spend time in Foyles on Charing Cross Road, reading there, then always buying books.
Is there a large Argentine expat community in London?
I decided to try not to see too many Argentines as I wanted to interact with British people. It was fairly easy for me as one of my best friends of 30 years lived in the UK, and at that time I had four very close friends there at the time. Through them and my work, the possibility of meeting Londoners opened up for me.
On the other hand, I used to invite the Argentine ambassador to events. He would also invite me to the embassy and I’d go to art or dance shows with his wife, Cecilia Duhau, which we loved a lot.
What other parts of Britain did you manage to visit?
I used to say at a friend’s house in Bath, I went to Ireland once and I also hired a car and returned to Scotland. But I also enjoyed staying at home as I travelled a lot to Brussels and other places in Europe. I also went to Paris a lot as the Eurostar was very easy to take.
Name a lost-in-translation moment.
What I did find was that as I had to deal with journalists, and needed to understand everything, I’d end up with these big headaches, which I found hard to explain.
But after so many years of working in English, it’s got to the point that I prefer to do presentations in it. But when I came back to Argentina, I had one prepared for an American colleague, who then didn’t come so they said I could do it in Spanish, but I froze!
Did you embrace the pub culture?
Yes, although I didn’t know what to do at first. My colleagues would email every day saying “we’re going to the pub at 5.30pm, see you there.” I never knew if I should go or not. Then I went and I learnt a few things, such as people would only talk at the bar, but never when they were sitting down. I picked up the codes.
But the first time I went I did something that was completely wrong and ordered a white wine. But then I learned to drink the same as everyone else!
When you returned to Argentina what did you miss about London?
Although Buenos Aires offers a lot in terms of culture, what I had access to in London was incredible. In my line of work, I have to use my head a lot and London gave me the opportunity to be involved with emotion and beauty and art like nowhere else.
There is a point where you belong to one place or the other. I realized I was reaching that point so I came back as I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life with my people. So I returned to Argentina two and a half years ago.
Fascinated by politics from a young age
In a twist on ‘The Expat’, in which an Argentine recounts their time living in a foreign country, Marita Carballo first visited the UK as an excited teenager eager to bring history and literature to real life after graduating from secondary school and many years later, she was sent to head TNS consultancy’s political and social sector in London.
Involved in various large-scale surveys including overall responsibility for the Standard Eurobarometer, Carballo lived in London during the Blair years, which she calls a boom period, economically speaking.
“But at the same time, one could see that the world wasn’t going in the right direction and that something would happen but the problematic issue is to predict when,” she says.
“I’m very sorry about what is happening in Europe right now, as I could see via my job what a great effort Europe has been putting in all these years, to integrate and make the European Union work.”
The sociologist watched the outcome of Britain’s last general election with interest.
“I was also living in the UK during Brown’s leadership and what really surprised me, yes, surprised me, was how the Conservative Cameron and the Liberal Democrats have got together to solve the country’s problems. I didn’t think it would work as well as it is doing, so it is a very good example of how synergies can come together, even if it seems controversial at the start.”
A keen reader of the International Herald Tribune, The Economist, The Times and The Guardian among other international media, discussing the recent closure of tabloid newspaper News of the World over the phone-tapping scandal, Carballo says: “(What they did) was very shocking. What I found was the people are very respectful and although you could see when someone crossed the line, or if an MP or someone in the media did something wrong, those things, compared with what happens in other countries isn’t as serious. But this has completely trespassed what I believed could ever happen in the UK, with regard to the media.”
As a businesswoman who was first captivated by politics at a young age, and who had access to the corridors of British power, even holding conferences at the Houses of Parliament, in her role as TNS global sector head, it has likely crossed her mind various times to question who exactly has been running the UK.
Carballo has published several books, including Cultural Values at the Turn of the Millennium in 2005.
First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on July 31, 2011.
Photo by Diego Kovacic.