Wednesday, 7 March 2007
Alex Horne – 7th March 2007
When we tell friends and family about this project we usually encounter one of three reactions. First, we get the ‘oh, that sounds interesting. What countries do you still need?’ to which we sheepishly list the 132 countries we haven’t yet found. Second, the businesslike, ‘ok, well, I’ve got Australia – have you got Australia? You have. America? Oh. That’s it really for me. I did meet this Polish guy…’ to which we nod and smile and change the subject. And third, the ‘oh right, well good luck’, which is probably the most helpful of them all.
When we actually chat to people from countries outside the UK, however, they’ve tended to be much more excited about the idea as a whole, keen to share their experiences and tell their side of the London story.
And just occasionally we meet someone from this country who shares that enthusiasm and is eager and, more importantly, able to help us with our quest.
I met up with Debbie at the flagship YHA centre in Rotherhithe. I’d got there early, something of a relief seeing as spring had suddenly arrived, catching me unawares and making me sweat even more profusely than usual under my unnecessary layers. I was pleased to have fifteen extra minutes to cool down inside the enormous and very shiny building. The biggest hostel in the UK, YHA Rotherhithe can easily house over 350 people whose international breadth was reflected by the multitudinous flags that adorned the wall and which I took as a sign of good things to come as I sat as still as possible with arms outstretched.
Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable and aerated again, Debbie arrived with her sister Becky (who used to work for the YHA) and Becky’s one year old son A.J. (whose birth interrupted Becky’s employment at the YHA) and we spent several minutes saying our hellos. Debbie had actually been to a show that Owen and I had put together the year before and she’d recently happened upon our project by chance. A performer herself, she’d offered to lend a hand and after several emails we’d fixed today as the day. Before too long our table was transformed into some sort of international meeting point as Becky brought her diverse friends and colleagues to meet me and discuss their lives.
Unfortunately, Orietta, the hostel’s chef and my first candidate, was from France. Just five days earlier I’d met David. Like I’ve always said, they’re like buses the French. You wait for ages then two come along at once (I can’t think any other ways in which people from France are like buses).
But then in strolled Edvardas, Becky’s replacement on reception and a lively Lithuanian. He’s lived in London for three and half years now and has no plans to return for longer than the two week holiday he’s got coming up next week. His father, brother and sister all live in Lewisham and he’s enjoying London life, even if it is more stressful than the countryside he’s used to back home.
He told me about Teppelina, the main food he misses at the moment. It’s a layered dumpling featuring mashed green potato, meat and more potato which is boiled and eaten at the start of the day. If you manage to consume two you won’t want anything else until the following morning.
Edvardas is one of at least 100,000 Lithuanians who are said to live in London, although that number, he says, is made up mainly of the Russians who buy their Lithuanian passports cheaply and illegally. He’s comfortable working in the hotel industry for now and wants to stay in London where all his friends are also now based. ‘I don’t like to move from one place to another’, he explained. I pointed out that he had moved from Lithuania to London. He said, yes, but he wouldn’t want to make a move like that again any time soon.
‘My first few months here were hell’, he continued. He didn’t know anyone, he found the language difficult. ‘A gardener was once working at my dad’s house and asked me for a coffee, but I couldn’t even get that! He must have repeated it three or four times but I just stood there – I didn’t know what he was on about!’
As he went back to work in the hostel, however, he bantered with Mo, my next interviewee, in word-perfect English and confirmed that he’s now perfectly settled in his new home.