Wednesday, 11 July 2007
No.s 108, 109, 110 & 112: Albania, Finland, Uganda and Senegal
A Typical London Day
Alex Horne - 11th July 2007
Actually, this isn’t really a typical day. Most Londoner’s days aren’t really like this. And most of my days aren’t really like this either. But today has been typically unpredictable - which is, I suppose, quite typical of London and really quite typical of our year so far.
So here’s what happened:
6.15am: Wake up and impulsively/sleepily decide to catch a lift with Rachel into London (from Chesham. I live in Chesham now).
8.00am: Arrive at White City, where Rachel works, and spend two hours in a café; the first properly waking up, the second writing up my Antiguan story. Not entirely, obviously, that won’t be done for another few weeks, but I make a start.
10.30am: Head down to Whitehall for an interview with the Daily Politics on BBC2 (I occasionally get asked to do these things and genuinely have no real idea why me. It’s fun though, so I’m happy to say yes and go along with it. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m boasting). Mention the project to the Politics Team, none of whom can think of anyone from any of our Wanted Countries.
1pm: Comment on Gordon Brown’s first and second Prime Minister’s Questions on the bit of green in front of Big Ben, live to the nation (well, I think they get about 500,000 viewers – still a terrifying herd of people if you could actually see them).
1.30pm: Wander back to the tube across Parliament Square. Notice a six-foot (king-size?) inflatable puffin. Wander over and bump into an (or ‘a’?) RSPB spokesperson whom I also happened to bump into the previous week at a Birdwatching preview. Lembit Opik is posing with the Puffin in a bid to highlight the plight of British sea birds. I was watching him ask Gordon Brown a question just half an hour ago. The RSPB lady gives me a puffin pin-badge so I can highlight the plight too. I’m wearing a smartish suit with a yellow t-shirt and yellow shoes. I think the puffin complements my outfit nicely.
2pm: Notice a mid-size protest on the far side of the square, near that gnarled peace protester whom I childishly idolise a little. Don’t recognize the flags that these other protesters are holding so sidle over to investigate.
2.30pm: Sidle away again after chatting to a man called Mustaf for ten minutes. He and his fellow campaigners are from a place called Ogaden in Somalia. I haven’t heard of Ogaden. I guess that’s why they’re holding banners explaining the situation there. The situation being, according to Mustaf, Ethiopian troops carrying out ethnic cleansing against the Somali civilian population for the last month. Mustaf understandably wants the world to at least take notice and, ideally, intervene. ‘The world cannot afford another Rwanda and Darfur’, reads a slogan. He’s very glad to tell me the story. I promise to at least mention it here but, as so often in these situations, felt slightly pathetic and useless.
3pm: Take the tube to High Street Kensington and walk an incomplete but enormous circle via Shepherds Bush and Kensington Park, ending up at Queensway having knocked on the doors of three different churches which Philippe (our French fellow nationality collector) thought may contain traces of Kiribati. In the first I meet a Lithuanian who says there are at least twenty different nations represented in their congregration but nobody from a Pacific island. In the second, the Parish Church of John the Baptist on Holland Road, I'm greeted by a Priest who says, ‘oh yes, I saw you two on the telly!’ when I tell him what we we're doing, which is nice if slightly odd. He also tells me that followers of the Eritrean Church (the oldest in Christianity) worship there from 6.30am to 12.30pm every Sunday and might just attract a Kiribatian. I say I might return. He understands. The third is shut.
3.15pm: During the walk I come across an enormous map of the world, still in it’s cylindrical casing, that someone has discarded in a skip. I pick it up. I don’t know if that’s theft and I’m not sure that my wife will completely approve but it seems like a good omen. I’ve found the world in the city. Over the past four weeks I’ve also bought one light-up globe, three different sized inflatable globes, one hug-me globe cushion, two pocket atlases and one map of the world shower curtain.
3.30pm: Arrive at The Cow on Westbourne Park Road (a pub, not a particularly well-known animal) and ask for Ousmane, a Senegalese chef whom Philippe said had worked there three years previously. Am amazed to discover he still works there now. Although not today. Today’s his day off. I say I might return. This time I mean it.
4pm: Drink a beer. I don’t often have a beer at 4pm but I feel like I’ve earnt it. Also call Jeyhun, a guy from Azerbaijan who’d contacted us that week. We arrange to meet the following week. Then, Ilia, a guy from Albania who’d been recommended by Owen’s Hungarian. I was excited because she’d mentioned in passing that he had quite a life story that possibly involved the mafia somewhere along the line. We arrange to meet the following hour.
5pm: Arrive at Piccadilly Circus Tube station and manage to find Ilia by calling each other and saying things like ‘Are you there? Yes, I can see you… no, behind you, there… I’m the guy with the yellow shoes… yes, there you are! Should I say goodbye?! Hello?’
5.05pm: Enter a Starbucks. Ilia sits down at the only spare table.
5.20pm: I finally sit down at the table with our coffees after a very awkward quarter of an hour during which I keep glancing back at Ilia, rolling my eyes and shrugging as charmingly as I could at how slow the staff are being. Ilia does his best to do the same gesture back.
5.25pm: After a tiny bit of small talk (that really is little), he starts to tell me his story. It’s a strange one. I’ll try to keep it simple.
Ilia is twenty five years old. He’s got long hair and is the youngest of nine siblings. The rest of his family all live in Greece now. But Ilia lives in London. And he’s currently writing the script for the movie of his life.
I tell him a movie of my life would be a pretty dull movie. He smiles: ‘some people have easy lives, some have it tough.’
Ilia left home when he was eleven years old. He remembers going out of his front door and seeing his mother wash his clothes in rainwater. She was sick and weak with rheumatism. He told her that he was going to leave to work so he could buy her a washing machine. She said ‘no, you’re too young’. He said, ‘one day, I will’. Later that day he ran away. He’s only been back once, seven years ago.
Ilia started working on the mountains, looking after the sheep. He worked seven days and seven nights a week. He told me he saw bodies of people who’d died from hunger or cold.
At the age of thirteen he got a job as a butcher.
At the age of sixteen he came to London.
He’s now the manager of a bar in Green Park.
Unfortunately he’s not willing to share the rest of his tale at this stage. It seems that various people have approached him recently with the idea of writing it up, filming it or some how using it to make money for themselves. He’s therefore wary of giving too much away just yet. He says we should meet up in a week and he’ll tell me some more. I say that'd be great. I’m engrossed.
We still have half our coffees left so chat more generally about Albania. I learn that Ilia’s father was the highest ranking general in the army and tried desperately to protect his family from the violence that was spreading rapidly across the country. ‘Everyone had guns’, he tells me. ‘Everyone was in the army. If you said ‘fuck you’ to someone they would shoot you dead’.
6pm: Say goodbye to Ilia, shake his hand with as much strength as I can muster and tell him I’m looking forward to seeing him again soon, desperate to win his trust. Take the tube up and along to Old Street.
7pm: Finally meet our Fin. This was quite a different chat. We’d actually crossed paths some weeks previously at a gig by a band called Seeing Scarlet whom my friend Tom plays guitar for (have I said before that I’m in awe and envy of all musically talented people? If I haven’t, well, I am. And he’s one of those people. Very very nice but annoyingly gifted). Paivi is a friend of the band and we drunkenly agreed that she would be our Finnish Find as the evening came to a close. Now she takes me to the Foundry, an indescribably cool bar on Old Street, outside which we sit on two rickety chairs and talk. I’m glad to discuss slightly more trivial matters. Like tattoos.
Paivi has quite a collection of tattoos. Whenever she goes to the tattoo parlour, she will always get two done at the same time. She’s now developed a friendship with her tattoo artist. ‘I used to be into piercings’, she says, ‘but now I’m a bit too old for that’. I shyly tell her about my one tattoo – a tiny lizard on my right arm that I got in New Zealand when I was eighteen. I’ve always secretly been quite proud of it. But one’s enough for me.
I ask what her mum thinks of all hers. ‘She’s cute’, she says. ‘She sometimes says things like ‘don’t you think that’s enough?’ and ‘but what if you change your mind?’ but she reckons they’re beautiful. She’s always been supportive. She told us ‘as long as you do your A-levels, after that you can do what you want’.'
Paivi’s favourite tattoo is of an actual-size jar of marmite on the nape of her neck. ‘I love marmite. And I love tattoos’, she tells me. I say that makes sense. She tells me she likes symmetrical designs and was inspired by the Henna Night held for the bride before an Indian wedding. She has a sari of her own that she treasures. ‘It’s six metres of fabric – amazing - that’s all you need!’
Paivi is a creative type. She took a course in tailoring a couple of years ago and now buys her fabric from Green Street in Walthamstow. She makes her living playing music with her brother (they’re called the Dirty Fingernails and are great – www.myspace.com/yourfavouriteband) but also prints t-shirts and makes backdrops for other bands.
She’s 27 years old and very close to her brother. They live together and started the band eighteen months ago, initially looking for a drummer and bass player to join them but then deciding to do it all themselves. ‘It’d be difficult for a stranger to fit in’, she tells me. ‘Instead we’ve got an octave pedal on the guitar and drum machine I bought on ebay for a tenner. And now no one’s ever going to say they can’t make it to a rehearsal because they’ve got a date or something. We’re both in it together’.
Paivi goes back to see the rest of her family once a year. ‘Home is up north, near Lapland. That’s where we lived the longest. We’ve moved around a lot, in different cities and villages but I’ve never lived in Helsinki.’ Her mum works in a school teaching Russian and sport.
Will she stay in London, I ask. ‘Oh yeah!’ she replies with certainty. ‘I don’t want to go back to Finland. There are eight million people in London and only six million in Finland! I like English people and different cultures. In Finland there isn’t that mix. Also, I’ve been a vegan for ten years. Here I can get all the food I need in supermarkets. I don’t like fake meat – I live off salads and soups. But in Finland there was nothing.’
By now the temperature is beginning to drop at the close of what’s been a rare sunny summer’s day (this really isn’t a typical day). We’ve been talking for an hour and I’m late for my next appointment. I rush awkwardly off.
8.30pm: Arrive out of breath at Little Venice where I meet up with four of my old (British, unfortunately) school friends on a barge owned by the parents of one of them. The five of us sail (chug?) to Camden and back, swigging beer and reminiscing as we pass London Zoo and the West Way.
11.30pm. By now I’m fairly tired and drunk and can’t really get back to Chesham without incurring a £50 taxi fare. I phone my friend Tom and ask to stay in his flat in Kentish Town.
11.45pm. Get off the tube at Willesden Green expecting to get the overland train to Kentish Town West. Am told that the last one left half an hour ago. Ah. Stumble out of the station and into the street, eventually gaining my bearings and aiming for Harlesden – not one of London’s more innocent corners, especially this close to midnight, and especially when you’re wearing quite a bizarre combination of clothes.
11.55pm. Manage, eventually, to locate the only minicab firm on the High Street and settle, relieved, in the front seat. The combination of exhaustion, alcohol and not being mugged makes me unable to stop talking so I quickly learn that my driver is from Uganda. I get out my file, persuade him to join our project and scribble down some notes. As far as I can tell, David’s story goes something like this:
He’s been in London for the last twelve years and is now thirty seven years old. There was a civil war in Uganda when he was eleven or twelve and the memories are still fresh in his mind today. Idi Amin assumed power in 1971 after Uganda had become an independent nation (as opposed to a UK protectorate) in 1962. ‘According to Amin, if you wanted to be Ugandan you had to paint yourself black every morning’, says David drily. ‘He’s been dead now for three years, thank God’.
I’m scrawling my notes in our World In One City Panini Sticker Album style folder and as we stop at some traffic lights near Kilburn David’s eyes fall upon the flag. ‘Yes, that’s it’, he says. It’s a memorable flag: six horizontal stripes; red, yellow, black, red, yellow, black, with a picture of a crane (the bird, not the mechanical device for lifting) in the middle. ‘The black is for the black country’, he tells me, ‘the yellow for sunshine and the red for brotherhood’. ‘And the crane?’ I ask. ‘Oh well that’s our national bird. If you kill it you go to prison’, he said. ‘Oh yes’, I say. ‘I think we have the same system with swans here. But they didn’t get the nod on the flag’.
He tells me he loves London. ‘The colonial era doesn’t matter to me. But the policy of divide and rule still affects my country. We still have a huge tribalism problem’. He misses the UK when he returns to Uganda. He goes back every year to see a girl there. He says he’s also got girlfriends in Arizona and Cranleigh. At least I think that’s what I’ve writen. And then I notice we’re outside my friend’s house. I say goodbye and thank you to David.
12.30am: Try to sleep on a leather sofa and realise why most people don’t have leather sheets.
The next day I meet up with Owen and walk for miles around East London to find someone from Viet Nam and no one from Laos or Cambodia. I’m sure he’ll tell you about that soon. I then head back to The Cow and successfully hook up with Ousmane, the chef from Senegal.
He’s cooking lunch at the time – it’s a terrific pub, with an open kitchen at the end of the bar and trays of oysters and crabs piled high on the side. He’s conconcting some sort of seafood pasta while chatting to me and in between seasoning and stirring the sauce in the way that only chefs can he tells me he’s been in London since 1991. He’s forty two now and has always been a cook. He came to the UK in the hope of getting a job and developing more skills and it’s worked. He now not only cooks in a well-respected London gastro-pub but is a master of French cuisine. It’s amazing what different people get out of London.