Thursday, 13 September 2007
No.135: San Marino
You Phoned My Wife!
Alex Horne – 13th September 2007
Whilst England were beating Russia 3-0 at Wembley last night, 600 people were in Cyprus’ national stadium watching their side beat San Marino by the same score-line. But their victory wasn’t greeted with quite as much hysteria over there as ours was over here, partly because the British press is, frankly, hysterical, but mainly because San Marino is the fourth smallest country in the world with a population of just 28,880 whose national team has only ever won one match; a 1-0 thrashing of Liechtenstein in a friendly in 2004. Andy Selva, San Marino’s top scorer and greatest ever player, got the crucial goal.
Apart from our football team’s performance, yesterday was a fairly unsuccessful day for us. Owen walked around most of London only to find himself thwarted at every turn while I failed to add to my, admittedly impressive, weekly score of four. I did, however, line up the target for today that, if hit, would easily be worth a day’s wandering.
I have to thank Philippe here again too, without whom our total would be even smaller and our deficit even bigger. He’d given us another fairly cryptic clue about a man, from San Marino, who used to run a café near London Bridge three years ago. ‘Be extremely diplomatic’, he warned, ‘Walter didn’t appreciate that the San Marino government gave me his details.’ And there you have the subtle difference between our project and Philippe’s. We’re not allowed to go through governments. But we are allowed to get hints from people who have.
And I have to say that I’m enjoying the treasure-trail element of our quest that Philippe’s pointers provide. Even though we’ve only actually attempted to find a handful of his own participants, it’s still interesting and telling to see how many of those have moved on in the few years since he tracked them down. Walter’s café by HMS Belfast, Owen and I discovered, was now no more, replaced, fairly recently, by an enormous café called ‘Over The Moon’ which I most certainly was not. Disheartened but hungry, we took the opportunity to buy a baked potato from a much cheaper vendor and plotted what we’d do next on this fruitless afternoon.
As well as the address, however, Philippe had also given a phone number which I rang, presuming it was the café’s old number and hoping to at least be told what had happened to the San Marino guy’s place. A lady answered. ‘Sorry’, I said. Not what you should say when you first pick up a phone. ‘You don’t happen to know what happened to Walter do you?’ I continued. It wasn’t getting any better as an opening to a phone conversation.
‘I’m his wife’, came the reply in a slightly shocked, slightly cross tone. ‘Oh!’ I said, trying to sound apologetic whilst I was actually thrilled to be one step closer to someone from San Marino. ‘I thought this was his café’s number. I’m near London Bridge. I’m trying to find his café. But it’s gone!’
‘Oh yes’, replied Mrs Walter, much calmer now. ‘It’s moved to Old Cavendish Street.’ ‘It has?’ I asked unnecessarily, ‘that’s great – thank you!’ and hung up before she said too much and Walter would be cross with her for giving away his details this time.
Later that afternoon, at around half past four, I located the café. I was sure it was the one. It had to be the one. But it was closed.
Luckily it was about 800 metres from my brothers’ flat where I was to watch the football match that night and sleep on a sofa. So, at half eight the next morning I set off, slightly stiffly, with my older brother Mat; him to work, me to finally meet a man from San Marino. And what a meeting it was!It was open this time, of course (and of course it was shut at half four, I should know how London cafes work by now). I started by ordering a generous breakfast for myself. Not because I was being greedy, you understand, but to ingratiate myself with Walter. I then introduced myself to the slightly surly man behind the counter who looked pretty much exactly how I’d expected.
‘No, I’m not Walter’, he said, in a distinctly English accent. ‘He’ll be back in a minute’. ‘Good, thank you!’ I said, almost unruffled, and sat down with my coffee.
Exactly a minute later, my sausage sandwich and San Marino man arrived – I didn’t know where to look. I was over-excited on both counts. I explained the situation as quickly as I could, he said, ‘Ah, did you phone my wife?’, I said, ‘Yes’, he grinned, thumped me on the back and said, ‘Come on, let’s sit outside, I can’t smoke in here’.
It wasn’t a busy morning at the café. Walter and I sat at one of the two tables outside on what was surely one of the last warm mornings of the year and he told me all about his life. I gobbled up my food and scribbled down the odd note, not wanting to ruin things by looking too much like a journalist.
He told me, with the glintiest of glints in his eye, that he’d been here for forty years. I told him how pleased I was to meet him. ‘There must be more of us in London!’ he cried. ‘Where?’ I cried back. ‘I dunno!’ he laughed.
He told me he’d moved to Rimini in his twenties and still has a little flat there that he rents out. ‘Come and see me’, he insisted, ‘we’ll do a deal!’ We’ve been tempted to visit many of the places we’ve found so far, but this was the first time I started thinking seriously about when I’d be free to make the trip.
Travel for him has never been easy thanks to his rare status as a San Marino citizen. ‘I went to New York, but they’d never heard of my country. I had to wait at the airport for an hour, then another hour, it was ridiculous. But I never want to lose my residency because it’s an amazing place. There’s no tax. When I eventually sell this café and move home, if I want a job and a flat the government will give it to me.’ I told him he’s a lucky man. ‘I know’, he replied. ‘Someone tried to get me to get him a property using my passport before, an Italian guy – but I wouldn’t do it. It’s too risky. But everyone wants to live there. It’s great. When it comes to voting, they pay for me to fly home and do it. They pay for my accommodation too – so I go and stay with my mum and spend the money!’
Even the Italians themselves love it, he told me, because petrol and alcohol are cheaper, and the whole surrounding area benefits from the tourism. The Most Serene Republic Of San Marino, to give it its full name, really does sound too good to be true. ‘And why isn’t it part of Italy?’ I asked. ‘Oh’, he sighed, ‘it’s a long story’.
Indeed it is. But a good one. It was officially founded as a republic on September 3 301, after a man called Marino fled to Mount Titano, site of the country today, having been persecuted in Rimini because of his Christian sermons. By the middle of the fifth century a community had formed on the mountain and continued to thrive autonomously until being recognized as an independent state by the Pope in 1631. Two centuries later, Napoleon declined to take over the country, commenting, ‘Why, it’s a model republic!’ During World War II San Marino was then protected by the Americans, who themselves had a distinct soft spot for the tiny republic; Abraham Lincoln, himself an honorary citizen of San Marino, once wrote that ‘the republic proves that government founded on republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring’. He was right.
When I got home I told Rachel about Walter’s proposition. To my delight she was as excited as me. It sounds like an extraordinary place to visit. And an even more incredible place in which to be born. So if Helder from Mozambique is right and we are all reincarnated, I'd be over the moon to be the one in every two hundred thousand people who happens to start their life there.