Half a century is a long time in one country. For Dione and Paul Gervis, Colombia has been a commitment to a lifestyle and keeping friends in the tropics.
1. Why Colombia?
I was working in a London advertising agency – Coleman Prentice & Varley (CPV) – where we managed the Shell account all over the world. It was 1959 and “a rush job.” I had five weeks notice to pack some trunks and my piano.
2. How was your crossing in 1959?
My wife, Dione, was put in a separate cabin and we sat at different tables. When the Captain heard what was happening on his ship he insisted we move in together. There were some good things about the Italian ships. The boat “broke down” in Naples because the Captain had a lover there. Then it “broke down” in Barcelona because the Captain had a lover there, as well. When we finally reached the Canary Islands, the Captain decided not to break down as he had fallen out with his lover. We finally made it to La Guajira and Cartagena. Thanks to the Captain’s love affairs, we got to see some cities along the coast.
3. What was your first job like?
Although I was already bald, I was handling hair products. It was a small closed market and Bogotá reached as far north as the Calle 90. Where the TransMilenio now runs, cows grazed on the grass in the middle of the Ave. Caracas with peasants in black hats and black shawls squatting beside them. It was a very different place.
4. What is one of the earliest memories you have of Bogotá?
Within a few months we had brought our first car – a young Volkswagen Beetle. An English old-timer here had warned us of the perils of driving in the countryside. “Never stop! Even if a peasant is standing in the road blocking your way and waving you down, never stop. Drive right over him. Otherwise you will have been knifed and robbed before you’ve had time to say ‘Buenos Días.’
5. What happened next?
We drove off. We were the only car on the Autopista Norte. We made it to the small village of Briceño. With mountains on both sides of us, long lines of eucalyptus trees, it was an extraordinary first drive.
6. How was Bogotá in the early sixties?
Shops sold textiles by the yard and there was no wine available. The country had these “wine import rights” which meant that if you were a diplomat you had the right to import your car and wine! It was good to have friends as diplomats. If not, the only wine that was available was “Vino de Misa.” Totally undrinkable. In 1964 when we moved to Medellín, I had one bottle of wine left over. It was seized by the Antioquia customs department. The police did say that I could reclaim it after paying the customs duties. When I went to reclaim my bottle a smiling policeman handed me over an empty bottle saying “all the contents had been consumed for analysis.” It was all done in good humour.
7. What else do you remember of those early days in this country?
We had fantastic holidays in the Chocó and running through frailejón in Nariño.
8. Then came more career changes.
Yes. In 1964, I went to work with Yardley. I knew more about Colombia than any candidate in England. There were some Cubans who were good candidates for jobs. But the trouble with them was that they weren’t a long-term investment. They kept waiting for Castro to fall so that they could return to the island and take over their family businesses. I opened Yardley here and it was immensely successful. London was fashionable with Twiggy, the Beatles and the swinging Sixties.
9. Did the years in Antioquia draw you to the land?
Yes. The area around Medellín is incredibly beautiful. Dione and I became very connected to the idea of having a finca. We have loved life on the land ever since.
10. You had several years back in UK before returning back to Colombia. How did that happen?
I was running South America from London and crossing the Atlantic Ocean twice a month. It was exhausting. When Yardley decided to open a regional office I pushed for Bogotá, as I detest Miami. The years in London weren’t that fun. So we were happy to return as a family.
11. When did it occur for you and Dione to open your own business?
We were on holiday in Bahia Solano, where they have the best-dressed frogs in the world. We were walking along the beaches and came to a crucial point of deciding to start our own business. A good friend of ours, David Hughes, said “that in life the important thing is to do what really interests you.” We like pottery, so we opened Pottery.
12. Was it tough to start out as an entrepreneur?
We were completely ‘tropicalizados’. We felt we could make an important contribution to art pottery in Colombia. There was this mistaken idea that anything made by hand had to be cheaper than goods made by machine. If it was made by campesinos it had to be cheap. So we decided to put our prices twice as high as those of Corona. We worked our own special glazes and crafted beautiful stoneware pottery. People were fascinated by this.
13. The Pottery became an important reference in the city for craftsmanship.
Yes. We had many students learning the trade with us. But when President Gaviria opened the doors of the economy there was huge competition. So we decided to sell the business. Dione and I are still potters.
14. You continue to work with artisans?
We work very much with the artisans of La Chamba, Tolima, to help them create more efficient production and environmental standards. I helped one family last year export over US $100,000 in pottery to the States.
15. As members of the British expat community here, both you and Dione are very committed to Colombia. What are some of the projects?
I was very involved in the theatre through the Community Players. I actually wrote five full light musical comedies. Something that could not be done back in the UK. Dione was president of the children’s charity, Fundación Colombo-Britanica.
16. You both have a passion for orchids.
Yes. The Orchid Association used to have a small office in the Botanical Gardens José Celestino Mutis. But we couldn’t have an orchid exhibition last year because with Samuel Moreno as Mayor, nobody could make a decision. Cali, Medellín, Popayán all have orchid shows, but the scientific and investigative side of the Bogotá Botanical Gardens doesn’t seem to be important anymore.
17. You seem somewhat critical of past administrations.
Too many worthwhile initiatives end up becoming political posts. One needs to have consistent leadership. The corruption here has been tremendous.
18. The pros of living in Colombia?
It’s tremendously exciting. The landscapes. The variety. That’s number one for both of us. The beauty of the country: you can choose your weather for the weekend.
19. And Colombian humour?
The English sense of humor and the Colombian relate to each other. Colombians laugh at themselves, which certain nations can’t. We’ve had very interesting lives here, but you also need a reasonable level of luck to pull through.
20. And the negatives?
The negatives have been so outweighed by everything else. We do not have a house in Hamptons, but we have a finca in San Antonio!