Thursday, 13 September 2007
Rome goes down all roads ...
Owen Powell - 13th September 2007
“Whenever anyone asks me about where I live,” says Rome, “I tell them: London is overcrowded, London is expensive, London is dirty. I love it to death.” He flashes a big smile.
He certainly has a lot to compare it to. Rome has lived in more places than most of the people I’ve met, and has also seen more of London than most people who live here. Although he was born in Ghana, he is Beninese and grew up there, but also spent time in Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Cyprus, Senegal, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, most of Western Europe (including several months spent in Germany) and New York – where he was just prior to arriving in London nine years ago. Most famously (in terms of our project at least) he has spent a fair bit of time in Sweden, where Sarah, his wife, is from. (Sarah and Rome are, so far, the only married couple to represent different countries in 'The World In One City'). “Sweden is nice,” he says. “They have a good quality of life, it’s clean, but it’s a lot quieter. London may not look as nice, but it’s addictive.”
I express a slight worry that as Rome (short for ‘Romeo’, rather than being named after the city) was born in Ghana, we shouldn’t really count him as from Benin, but I’m quickly reassured. “My parents were from Benin, I grew up there. I’ve got a Beninese passport, as well as a Ghanaian one. Pretty soon I’m going to take British citizenship, and I’ll have to discard one of my old ones.” I lean forward. Which one will it be? “I’m keeping Benin! I suppose that’s where my roots are, although I’ve travelled so much I’m happier being in new places. I’m like a gypsy from Africa! When I came to London aged 26, I found it pretty easy – it was just another move. I feel like I could live anywhere – I could live here, I could live in Africa, I could live up a tree.”
We talk a bit about the citizenship ceremony, and I’m probably a bit sniffy about it, saying that it’s hardly fair to make foreigners learn the ins and outs of British culture and politics, when many British people make their ignorance on such matters quite clear, and swear allegiance to the Queen, something that many British-born people would have a problem with. But Rome sets me straight, saying that people who arrive here should be expected to learn the culture, the language, about the government and legislature. “You should do as the Romans do, you know? It’s foolish to expect London to change for someone who has come here – you need to be prepared to change so you can fit in.” That’s not to say that London has an exclusively ‘British’ culture – fitting in means learning about the mixture of people and cultures you’ll find here already. “Living in London gives you an open mind,” says Rome. “You become able to socialise with anyone, interact with anyone.”
One of the first people Rome met in London was Sarah. Three years later, they were married, with three different ceremonies. The first was at a Swedish church in London, followed by an Islamic ceremony in London, then (most fun of all, it seems) a big celebration in Accra, with Sarah in full African dress and all of Rome’s family there. London is their home now, although not one particular part of it – “I must have moved house 25 times since I came here”, say Rome – and he feels that he knows the city as well as anywhere he has lived. “You know what the sign of a real Londoner is?” asks Rome. “If you can drive everywhere, but don’t use a TomTom. Me, I know my way around. I don’t need Sat Nav.”
Rome has to drive everywhere largely because of his job. When he was younger, he studied administration, but arriving in London in his mid-twenties he realised he wasn’t an office person, and wanted to get his hands dirty. He started working in engineering. “Now,” he says, laughing, “I have to do some admin as I’m a boss, so I spend half my time in the office. I usually get there about nine o’clock at night, and start to plan what work we’re going to be doing.” If that sounds like a topsy-turvy day, it’s because Rome works for a subcontractor who maintain London’s tube lines. It’s tough work, and strange hours. “If you think that the tube runs most nights until 12.30, 12.45, and sometimes starts up again just after four in the morning, that doesn’t give us long to get the work done. We have so many checks to do before the line can re-open again that we’ve really only got three hours to work in. That’s where the planning comes in. In my office I’ve got a big bunch of files, drawings, plans – lots of emails to check – then I have to arrange all the equipment we’re going to need, how many workers it will take, what each worker needs to do and how long it will take.” It’s a big responsibility, I suggest. Doesn’t he worry that if things go wrong, he’ll be first in line for the blame? “Of course. If we make one tiny mistake, it could be dangerous. The Met police might come round and knock on my door ... But I trust myself and my workers to get it right. We’re like a family. Also, I’m a workaholic. I make sure I get everything right.”
It becomes clear why Rome only had a diet coke when I offered him a drink at the bar earlier. “Oh yes,” he says. “At a minimum, I’m tested twice a week for drugs and alcohol, so I don’t drink or smoke. It’s not a big sacrifice – it’s a good job, it’s pretty good money, and if I can stick at it for another ten years or so, my ambition is to retire at 45 and start working for myself. I’d like to move to Ghana, where I’ve already got a house, and be at the centre of the African boom. That’s where it’s going to happen next – they’ve discovered crude oil, the economy is stable, I could take my engineering skills there and help develop the railways. But I’m not narrow minded – I could do anything. I might start to develop properties for tourism.” Rome is nothing if not ambitious, and explains that he’s inspired to do well because of his childhood. “It was tough, we were very poor – some days there wasn’t much food,” he says. “But I don’t let it make me miserable – I reckon that I’ve seen the worst now, and this is my opportunity to do well. Make hay while the sun shines, you know? If you’ve had an easy time growing up, you don’t really know the value of things, so maybe you’re not as committed to things like your job or your family. But I want to be successful. And I want to enjoy it while I can. There’s no point finally getting wealthy at 55, you know? I can’t drive a Ferrari when I’m 55, I’ll probably want a Bentley then. Right now, what I want is a bright yellow Ferrari."
After an hour or so, I put my pen and notepad down and we start chatting about our lives in London, places we’ve been, people we’ve met. Rome hints at some forthcoming spectacular changes to the tube system (“It’s a whole world underground – people don’t realise what’s down there”) including the introduction of mobile phone reception everywhere, and some others too secret to even be discussed. He’s a very wise man, and I feel like I’m learning a lot about why I’m doing this project, about what London is. In fact, something he says that I’ve jotted down could stand as a pretty good description of the London that Alex and I are discovering. (I think Rome says it in relation to Arabic – that a different dialect is spoken in every different region of the Arab world, but in the West we assume it’s all one thing. In, fact I think it might be an Arabic proverb). It goes: “From afar, a forest looks like a single thing, but when you get there, you see that there are gaps between the trees.” I like it. It’s like a better, more thought-provoking, version of “You can’t see the wood for the trees”.