Shiny Happy Person
Alex Horne – 25th January 2007
After yet another Breakfast Club breakfast (just a sausage and onion sandwich this morning – the healthy option) we set out for the second time on our Oxford Street English Language School Trail, determined to ask a lot of foreign flyerers the same awkward question on a dry but chillier morning (see Iran, our No. 25).
We started at the Tottenham Court Road tube station, heading West past the tacky tourist shops towards some more tacky tourist shops and soon came across a girl just visible inside coat, scarf and hat, shivering and handing out leaflets for the Oxford International College at No.s 19-23.
She seemed happy to chat, probably hoping it might warm her up or at least take her mind off the freak sub-zero temperature, and we soon found out that she was from Mauritius. An excellent start. We didn’t yet have a Mauritian. Milco, our Macedonian, had promised us one back in December but he’d had to return home to sort out some family business so we metaphorically grabbed this one with both hands.
Mauritius, like Cape Verde, is an island off the coast of Africa, this one floating in the southwest Indian Ocean, about 560 miles east of Madagascar and just 2,450 miles southwest of India. It boasts one of our favourite flags – four broad horizontal stripes of bright red, blue, yellow and green – that somehow seems to suggest a colourful confident country that laughs in the face of usual flag convention (only the elaborate Central African Republic pennant has more multihued strips).
“What’s it like in Mauritius at the moment?” we asked, perhaps a little insensitively. Nalini’s only 19 years old. She’s been in London for just three weeks and spends most of her time either in the college improving her English or outside the college distributing their promotional material. She’s hoping to eventually get a job as a carer.
“Oh, it’s nice and hot there”, she said, smiling bravely in the cold before saying one of our favourite sentences so far; “the weather in Mauritius is very shiny”. I know I’ve used ‘favourite’ twice now for one country but it was a lovely moment and I’m sure it’s a lovely, shiny place to live.
We didn’t want to keep Nalini from her flyering for too long so soon scampered unselfishly inside and rode the tiny (but warm) lift up to the fifth floor where she’d told us the college itself was located. Amazingly Angela, the wonderfully welcoming receptionist, listened with patience and then definite interest to our story and soon set up an instantaneous meeting with three of Nalini’s teachers.
Within seconds we were sitting in a typical school staffroom eating biscuits, attempting to convince an Englishman, Irishman and American* to let us use their students for our own gain.
And convince them we did. After some slight scepticism on the part, mainly, of the Englishman, they agreed that it sounded fun, we looked harmless, and any interaction in English might just help them do their job too. We therefore organised a return visit on an allocated breaktime in the next couple of weeks, and even pencilled in a possible ‘Friday night in the pub with the teachers – and two strange men who say they’re writers’ for later in the month.
This was great. We still hadn’t got anywhere near completing our Oxford Street English Language School Trail but maybe this was better. As soon as I got home I emailed Milena, our outgoing Bulgarian, and asked if she could sketch out a poster for us. The very next day later she obliged with a fantastic design that would have taken Owen at least a year to create. Two days later I handed three copies to a still-smiling Angela. We’ll be back at 11am on Thursday 8th February to harvest our crop.
*We still hadn’t actually found our American at this point but knew we had the Superbowl on the horizon and also felt that if they knew we hadn’t even found someone from across the pond yet they might just wonder how we could even start to call ourselves journalists or writers, let alone Professional Intercity Nationality Collectors.
Part IISnowy Happy Person
Alex Horne – 8th February 2007
I was genuinely excited when I woke up on the 8th of February, looking forward to our first truly enormous yield of as yet undiscovered lands. Instead, however, I immediately discovered an enormous yield of unexpected snow. There was loads of it. On the roads, in the sky, all over the place. I felt uneasy. When I was little I could never understand why my Dad got grumpy when it snowed. Today I got it. Snow made things awkward.
Still, things started off ok when I wiped a few inches of the stuff from my car with my hand wrapped in a plastic bag (which kept it dry but not warm) then dropped my wife at work and the car at the carwash. I tend to get it cleaned once every two or three years because I'm disorganised and lazy and having marked today down as The Day I wasn't going to let a bit of snow get in my way.
I was therefore not only excited but relieved when the overall-clad man with a hose in his hand said, "of course we're open!' in a thick probably Eastern European accent when questioned as to the current status of his vehicle cleansing facility. We didn't get to talk much (cars get particularly dirty in the snow, apparently) but I did find out that he was from Kosovo and there hadn't been any snow there this year. After that he was off to the next filthy car owner so I resolved to return in the near future and officially tick him off. My car may get two washes in the shortest period of its so far rather stressful life.
Unfortunately, all things transport-wise went downhill (in a bad way) from that point on. Everyone knows London grinds to a halt when there's even a rumour of a hint of a shadow of a snowflake and I didn't want to use this as a forum to moan about our capital's shoddy infrastructure, so I'll try to be brief:
First (and I admit I'm more to blame for this than that arch-enemy of the Americans, Ken Livingstone) I couldn't make up my mind whether to walk to the station with an umbrella or without. I knew snow was wet but I didn't know how wet and you don't see umbrellas on Christmas cards. I left my brolly at home and arrived at the station sodden.
Second, there wasn't a train for ages. Lots of other soaking wet people arrived before one eventually turned up. And when it finally did, we all squeezed in and were immediately told that the journey may well take a lot longer than usual. Because 'it's snowing'.
In the end the train didn't even make it beyond Marylebone so I had to jump out, change lines another two times before turning up half an hour late at Tottenham Court Road, getting wet again on the way to the Breakfast Club and then, not having enough time to eat my sausage sandwich inside, slurping down a cold soggy sarnie on the way to the Oxford Language School.
Which was shut. No sign of Nalini outside – an ominous absence – then another 'it's snowing' from Nishan, the only person inside, a friendly but frustratingly Mauritian guy who was in the process of shutting up the college. Frustratingly, because he soon imparted more fascinating nuggets about life in London in a a matter of seconds than we'd been able to squeeze out of a frozen Nalini the week before (again, our fault, not hers, it was very very cold). Gems like, "to be honest, I was very disappointed when I arrived in London, because there were so many foreigners"; "even if they speak good English, they're still foreigners'; "only when I moved to East Grinstead did I think, at last, real England!"; "come to Mauritius, my friend has a nice house, you can stay there for free", and; "do you have a nice flat in London where I can stay for free?" – that sort of thing. He was extremely entertaining and we'll hopefully bump into him again next Tuesday.
Because next Tuesday is the next The Day. Nishan helped us update Milena's posters with the change of plan, we left a note for Angela then went on our way. For about ten metres. Until we got talking to two Hare Krishan chugger types who we'd surprised by approaching and engaging in conversation before they could do the same to us. One was Irish, the other Russian, so both useless (in a personally practical not fundamental way) but they did recommend a quick trip to the temple on Soho Street.
And so we retraced our steps and entered a well disguised sanctuary next to Govinda's restaurant round the corner from the FA headquarters. Where we were told that there was no-one in really, because they're all in India (at least a more imaginative excuse than the snow-based one we were expecting). The 'receptionist' did, however, say we'd definitely meet someone if we attended a lecture/service the following meet so, despite feeling a little like victims of a bribe, we vowed to return next Tuesday. At 1pm. After finally collecting our huge yield of nations at the school…