Friday, 3 November 2006
Happy Birthday Milco
Alex Horne - 3rd November 2006
Within minutes of our meeting, Milco and I agreed that he's one of those people who looks older than he is. I certainly thought he was older than me. And I was wrong. He'll be 26 on Sunday.
We'd decided to meet at three in the afternoon at an appropriately cosmopolitan bar called Funky Munky in Camberwell. I bought him a coffee to say thanks for helping me. He's working nights at the moment so hadn't had breakfast yet. As soon as our drinks arrived he got talking.
In April 2000, when he was just 19 years old, Milco got off a train at Victoria Station with no money, possessions or friends. He'd come to live in London. Apparently he's not unique in turning up unannounced like this as a large American Rastafarian gentleman soon approached and persuaded him to stay in a hostel on the Harrow Road in Kensal Green, just 200 yards from my front door. I pass the building almost every day and often lose my patience with large groups of young international students who emerge from its doors before taking ages to get through the barriers at the tube station looking far too happy to be using public transport in London. The boarding house itself is covered with welcoming hand-painted flags from around the world but looks like it would probably collapse in a stiff breeze. It used to be called the Millennium Lodge but once that best-before-date passed it became the much less inspiring 'Hotel 639'.
There, according to Milco, "all sorts of things" went on. Soon after arriving he was approached by a Polish gentleman who offered him a day's work. Not knowing what to expect but being much braver than me, Milco said yes and was taken to a different, more structurally sound hotel room where he was given a smart suit. They then took him out shopping. This has never happened to me when I've been offered 'a day's work'.
He was subsequently instructed to go around all of London's Louis Vuitton shops buying as many handbags as possible. Each time he made a purchase, the Pole's Malaysian colleagues would pay him 7% of the bag's price. Bearing in mind that each bag costs around £420, Milco could therefore make a couple of hundred pounds per day by looking smart and shopping. The Malaysian Men, meanwhile, got a load of bags they could sell at a higher price back home where genuine Vuitton bags are otherwise almost impossible to purchase. They wanted to employ someone from a country like Macedonia because people from within the EU not only have to pay VAT but are also only able to buy one bag every three months in order to keep the range as exclusive as possible. It's an odd system but one that kept Milco employed for a good few months. In fact, he was soon offered the job of 'Introducer' – which meant he had to find up to five non-EU people per day (sounds familiar), take them to the hotel room (their office) in Knightsbridge, explain the plan (not easy) and take them out shopping. Amazingly, the system worked perfectly until shops like Harrods finally became suspicious and stopped accepting cash from people with accents like his.
Clearly, The Malaysians had a very different reason for finding Eastern Europeans in London than me but for both of us the search proved a simple one. They're everywhere. And whilst it seems incredibly daring to me to leave home whilst still a teenager and start working for, let's face it, dodgy men in a foreign country, it was a simple logical move for Milco. Halfway through a psychology degree in Macedonia he realised that in all likelihood there would be no job awaiting his graduation. In England, on the other hand, his employment possibilities were endless, degree or no degree. He decided to cut his losses and came here.
It's not easy to say why employment is so low in Macedonia. Well, it's not easy for me to say. Milco explained the situation carefully and comprehensively but as an ignorant Englishman, there was a lot to take in. I always wonder why there is such a greater emphasis on 'history' at school, rather than the 'present'. Surely if people understood what's going on in other countries they would have a less narrow, less negative view of immigration. Or perhaps that's being naïve and idealistic. I'm just another ignorant Englishman.
As far as I think I now understand it, the People's Republic Macedonia was one of the six republics gathered together to make the Yugoslav Federation after World War II. Following the federation's renaming as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963, Macedonia was likewise renamed, becoming the Socialist Republic of Macedonia. Tito, the overall president, was apparently that rare oxymoron, a friendly dictator. Immensely popular, he led the country with remarkable stability until his death in May 1980. (Now, as I've stressed once too often before, I'm politically ignorant so do ignore the contents of these brackets but this seems to me to have been a good way to run things. If there's only one bloke in charge and that bloke is a really good bloke I imagine everyone else must have been able to then relax and things would generally have been fine. That can't be right, can it? Someone tell me I'm an idiot and why please.)
Without Tito holding things together the republics started to drift and Macedonia became independent fairly peacefully in 1991, dropping the 'Socialist' from its name in the process. As the result of a naming dispute with Greece in 1993 it was then admitted to the United Nations under the provisional and backward-looking name, 'The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia' (FYROM). I was fifteen years old at that momentous time - at the peak of my capital-naming-GCSE-geography powers - but I'm ashamed to say that up until meeting Milco I'd never even heard of the capital. It's called Skopje. Ring any bells with anyone else?
Isolated, Macedonia started to lose its way. Previously government-run companies became privatised and were soon abused by greedy opportunists. Many people lost their jobs and a huge gulf opened up between the rich minority and the poor remainder. Thirty percent of the two million population are now unemployed. Many, like Milco's sister, have at least two degrees but still can't get a job.
He casually mentions a war in 2001 when the Kosovan Liberation Army sought more rights for the Albanians that make up a quarter of the populace. "It was not much of a war. They just got on a hill and started shooting. The US and UN then got involved and told them to stop and what else could they do? They had to agree. Otherwise they'd do to them the same as they did to Serbia".
So things aren't great in Macedonia right now, although Milco insists that the people are happy despite their average income of around £150 per month. Things may one day change, but not any time soon. In 2005, Macedonia was officially recognized as a European Union candidate state but it won't be allowed to join until having undergone several awkward and expensive social reforms. Even if this does eventually happen, Milco predicts yet more gloom when the many over-qualified people finally have the chance to head out in search of better jobs and lives, leaving behind a disjointed society struggling to find its place in an unbalanced club. And they'd have to pay VAT on Louis Vuitton handbags.
For now though, most Macedonians simply don't have emigration as an option, lacking money and/or the connections necessary to obtain a visa. Luckily for Milco, the absence of the first was compensated by the acquisition of a rare au pair visa which allowed him to make his solitary way to the UK.
Six years later, he now thinks of London as his home. He's grown up here. We first crossed paths in a Soho comedy club, a place where baffled expressions usually reveal the faces of visitors but where Milco blended right in, betrayed only by his decidedly un-British first name. He proudly explains that while French, German or Spanish people can never understand British humour, he fully 'gets' the jokes because he has lived here so long, and because Macedonian wit is similarly dry. "Would I like Macedonian comedians?" I ask. "No", he says. "You wouldn't understand the political references". Fair enough.
Milco clearly knows a lot more about Britain than I do about Macedonia. But I can't help thinking he also knows more about Britain than I do about Britain. From his distinct point of view he sees a country propped up by foreign helpers. It's immigrants like him who are keeping the country running. While British young men fight and drink on the streets, get arrested for fun and then complain about "where the country is going", other hungrier and less spoilt young men are arriving, working hard and respectfully enjoying the security these louts take for granted.
Milco himself is currently working nights as a waiter in a top-class casino in Kensington, where the gamblers come from a different social stratum altogether. Members of the Kuwaiti Royal Family rub shoulders with Chinese mafiosi and barely flinch when they lose (or win) a million with one bet. He won't be working there for long. He's ambitious, keen to grab the opportunities he's found for himself.
Inspired, I try to follow suit. Does he have any foreign friends that I could, perhaps, have a chat with over coffee? "Of course", he smiles. Milco now knows lots of people in London - not many of them British and even less Macedonian - but all making the most of our capital. He promises me a man from Mauritius. We say goodbye and head off for our respective breakfast/dinner. I'm confident we'll stay in touch.
It seems that Milco is a particularly approachable man. With this character, the hostel's agent at Victoria station and myself, much of his life in London seems to revolve around strangers walking up to him and using his nationality as a reason to start some sort of association.
Louis Vuitton is the most counterfeited brand in fashion history: just over 1% of all "Louis Vuitton" branded items are not counterfeit.
One of my new year's ambitions next time round will be to have a naming dispute with Greece.