Wednesday, 20 June 2007
Nos.96 & 97: Chile and Serbia
Owen Powell - 20th June 2007
As I chained my bike up to the railings outside Farringdon station, I was so excited that the lock rattled in my hands. This was it! Yesterday, I’d met Emi (our Zambian), the 95th person we’d found. The next person I met would be the 96th, and we’d be halfway through. I thought back to our first day in October, and all the faces I’d seen and stories I’d heard since then. It was slightly overwhelming. I can’t think of many six-month periods where I’d met nearly 100 new people – maybe the first term of secondary school, or after arriving at University. But at my school, everyone was English, 98% of them were white, and all of them lived in Hertfordshire. Even at University, there wasn’t much more diversity. And now, here I was, going to meet the person that would allow me to say that I’d met representatives of half the countries on earth.
Or, rather, I was about to meet two people. They would have to fight it out amongst themselves for the privilege of being either the last of the first half, or the first of the last half. If that makes sense.
Loreto and Marija (pronounced, more or less, like ‘Maria’) first met five years ago while studying English. Loreto had previously been in Ireland (“It was an Irishman who gave Chile its freedom,” she notes) but found the accents hard to follow. She also fell in love with an Englishman, so moved with him to Watford and continued studying in Harrow (although the relationship didn’t last). Marija had visited London as a tourist, then came over again for a short course in Business English after completing her Economics degree at Belgrade University. Marija also had (and still has) an English boyfriend, who she first met in 2000. Now, they work together, in a marketing company called Momentum in Farringdon.
Marija is still studying every morning, and working part-time in the afternoons. “Loreto is always available for drinks in the evening as well, so the days are even longer,” she says, mock-mournfully. Loreto laughs. “Loreto is my coach. She lends me books and helps me with my exams.” I ask how the studies are going. “Not so good. I have just taken an English test. I passed with the lowest possible score you could get. I hope to go on to further studies – maybe a Masters, or a professional qualification like becoming a chartered financial analyst.” (If I knew the Serbian for ‘chartered financial analyst’, and had just scraped through a Serbian test, I would wonder whether the examiners were setting their pass-rates a bit high.)
Loreto, by contrast, is working full-time. “I’m in a new department. It’s good, as I get to use my Spanish at work, but I’d really like to just work as a translator. For a while I did some translating work at City University, but I need more qualifications to get back into it.” I ask Marija if she gets to use her Serbian at work. “All the time,” she deadpans. “While I am working, I am on Skype with my sister.”
Marija’s sister has visited her a couple of times since she moved permanently to London last summer, and she also goes back to Belgrade a lot. Loreto tries to get back to South America yearly. “My niece and nephew are six and seven – my niece is my god-daughter, so I like to see her grow up. My family are mostly based in Venezuela now. We moved there when I was three, in 1977, after a couple of years of Pinochet. Lots of Chileans I meet in London are second generation – their parents moved here in the seventies for the same reason we moved to Caracas.” But does she feel based in London, now? “In July, I will have been married for two years, to an Englishman. He is from Basingstoke. He says, if you’ve never heard ‘Basingstoke’ said in a Chilean accent, you haven’t lived. So, yes, I feel that this is my home now.”
After two years married, Loreto could apply for British citizenship, but she isn’t planning to. “I am worried that if I become British, I will have to change my name. And I like my Chilean name.” Marija and I try to persuade her that she wouldn’t necessarily lose her original name, but Loreto stays unconvinced. “Chilean names are complicated,” she says, getting her passport out to prove it. “Look! I have four names!” (She does, it’s true). “These two are my two surnames, my father’s surname and my mother’s. I will pass my father’s on to my children, along with my husband’s surname. It causes problems at passport control, quite regularly.” Loreto’s husband is a big Latin American fan, and has visited Venezuela and Chile (“and he has never had an English girlfriend,” says Loreto) but he is currently tied to his job in London so for now they are planning on staying here.
That doesn’t mean that Loreto doesn’t find London life difficult at times. Like Silvana, Valeria and other of our Latin Americans, she complains that she can’t be as spontaneous as she was used to being. “Everyone plans their leisure time so far in advance. Life can be a bit lonely at times, and I miss my family and social life. But there are good sides too – I love Sunday roasts!”
“Of course, there are always things you miss from your home country,” says Marija. “But you have to explore the new place as well. When I arrived in London, I had a phone number of a friend of a friend, another Serbian, but I didn’t call. Just because you are from the same country, it doesn’t mean you have the same interests or experiences.”
“London is a good place to be between your early twenties and about forty,” says Loreto. For us, now, it’s great.” (Loreto and Marija are both 32). “But it’s not for kids.”
Marija chips in. “Ah, but when you’re a kid, you don’t care where you are. Everything’s great. I grew up in Belgrade, and I’m a city girl. It’s worse for the parents, who are always worried about bringing children up in a city.”
“But I think children need to be free,” says Loreto. “My husband has a twelve-year-old daughter, and she stays with us in Paddington one weekend a month. The whole time, she stays in her room – she’s constantly worried about going out.”
But, even so, Loreto would recommend London as a good place to live. “Oh, certainly! You know who it is great for? Single people, who are looking for someone. My parents are separated now, and my father has a new girlfriend, but my mother finds it hard in Latin American culture to find someone new. I want to bring her to London – I’m sure she will find someone here. There is someone for everyone in London.”
(Incidentally, Loreto took 96th place, at the bottom of the first half. “My surname – one of my surnames – begins with ‘Z’, so I am used to being at the bottom,” she shrugged. “Marija can be top of the second half.”)