Wednesday, 3 October 2007
James Bond and a Baby
Alex Horne - 3rd October 2007
This morning, for the first time, I felt a tiny bit pessimistic about our task. Three weeks to go and thirty five countries to find is not a great equation. We do have leads for about twenty of those nationalities but several of them seem to be going cold and we’ve got no clue at all how to find someone from Palau, the Marshall Islands or Haiti.
So what I’m saying is, if you’re reading this and you think you can help, please get in touch. Soon. And if you’re living in Palau, the Marshall Islands or Haiti and you’re thinking about moving to London, go for it.
My spirits were lifted, however, by a coffee with two people from Madagascar (now, I know they’re called Malagasy people but I still don’t know whether they’re called Madagascans or Malagasians – I’ll stick to ‘people from Madagascar’ for now) who reminded me that even if we don’t find someone from every country in the world, we’ve certainly had an awful lot of fun trying.
I met Vaonarivo (a traditional Malagasy name) and Eric (a traditional French name – ish; it definitely came from the French colonisers anyway ) in one of the Starbuckses on Fleet Street. As usual I went to the wrong one first but they eventually found me, I accidentally bought three enormous hot drinks and we got down to business, starting, as so often, with a faux pas from me:
‘So you two are married, aren’t you?’
They shook their heads and giggled at my mistake.
‘Oh no’, explained Eric, ‘we’re neighbours!’
‘Yes. Good’, I said, recovering well. ‘Neighbours here in London?’
‘Oh no’, Eric repeated. ‘We were neighbours back in Madagascar, in the capital, Antananarivo, (would anyone have got that?) but we didn’t come here together. We didn’t even know the other one was here. I’d been here for six months, went into the consulate where Vao was working and thought, ‘hang on, I know you!’ After being on my own for so long it was great!’
I like stories like that (see Azerbaijan for another). And if you’re thinking, ‘She works in a consulate! She’s ineligible!’ well done for paying attention, but don’t worry, the consulate shut six months ago and we didn’t set foot anywhere near it. Everything’s ok.
While Eric came to the UK to study (he’s on the verge of completing an MBA funded by relentless 6am shifts at one of those EAT cafes) Vao came to be with her English husband. ‘We met in Madagascar’, she told me a little shyly. ‘We came here for six months to see if I liked living in London, went back to get married in Madagascar then came back to stay here in December 2000. And now I’m pregnant!’ She patted her modest bump as she said this last sentence. I’m a bloke so hadn’t noticed. But I’m a broody bloke so got quite excited.
‘Brilliant!’ I said, a little too loudly, ‘and how pregnant are you?’ (not quite the right terminology but a good effort). ‘Twenty two weeks’, replied Vao, smiling broadly now. We all agreed it was an exciting time. And I decided that after eleven months of searching I was now meeting two and a quarter people from Madagascar in one go and that this was also exciting news.
Eric is actually planning to go back home fairly soon. He’s been away from home since 1999, spending two weeks in Kenya, two months in Ethiopia and two years in Tunisia before finally arriving in London. ‘It’s tough living in here as a foreigner’, he told me. ‘It’s difficult to get the papers to work legally now. There’s a sort of employment hierarchy with British people first, Europe second, the Commonwealth third then people like us at the bottom. And it costs us £500 to renew our visas every year. It used to be free. But that’s a lot of money’.
I agreed and asked if most people he’d met here knew where Madagascar was. He smiled. ‘Not really. People often say, ‘Madagascar, wow! I didn’t know there were people there!’ (there are, in fact 18 million people there). But they’ve heard of it now, thanks to the cartoon*’. He kept smiling. ‘That was great actually. We got to go to the premiere, it was a lot of fun’.
‘And we went to the premiere of the new James Bond as well’, chimed in Vao enthusiastically. ‘Really?’ I said, genuinely jealous. ‘Yes, well I helped with the film. There was a scene that was meant to be set in Madagascar but they filmed it in the Bahamas so my job was to go back home and take pictures of the buildings and people which they could use to make it more realistic. Then when they’d filmed it we went into the studio and recorded Malagasy voices so that they could use them instead of the Bahamian ones...’
‘So you were in James Bond?’ I asked incredulously. ‘I must have heard you in James Bond!’
‘Yes!’ they both replied. ‘There are some advantages to being part of a small community in another country’.
I wondered if they could recognize other Malagasy on looks alone. ‘Oh no’, said Eric. ‘We all look quite different. People have said I look Brazilian, Ethiopian, Malaysian and Arabic. We’re quite a mix ethnically.’ (Eric, by the way, is 29 years old, just nine days older than myself, but looks enviably youthful. Just last week, in fact, he was turned down twice, first trying to buy cigarettes in a shop then beer in a pub. Vao and I were both quite jealous about this).
‘But we could recognise each other by whistling’, Eric continued. ‘By whistling?’ I asked. ‘Yes, whistling’, he replied, patient and amused. ‘I don’t know why but we all know a certain whistle, ever since we were little’. I asked him to demonstrate. ‘I can’t whistle while I’m laughing!’ he said, before composing himself. He then did the whistle. It was a good whistle. Much better than our unofficial national whistle of the wolf variety.
Vao too was full of surprises. Not only had she bagged herself a speaking part in an iconic British film, she was also the producer of a soap opera back in Madagascar (‘it was called Sarivolana – it was a bit like The Archers’) and is now one of the main organisers behind ‘Madagascar on Thames’ a group dedicated to celebrating Madagascar’s culture in London. I was gutted to have missed their inaugural event just ten days earlier (an enormous party on an enormous boat with an enormous barbecue) but will keep my eyes on www.mada-on-thames.co.uk for future get-togethers (do have a look at the site for some great pictures and cracking facts. Madagascar, for example, is the world’s fourth biggest island. Good fact. Can you name the three bigger?).
Vao was keen and proud to promote her homeland. ‘It’s a hidden paradise’, she said. ‘There aren’t many tourists and you don’t hear much about it over here. Except for vanilla. The best vanilla is from Madagascar.’ ‘And the prawns’, added Eric. ‘The jumbo prawns’. ‘That’s right’, laughed Vao. ‘In the Marks and Spencers’ adverts they always say, ‘these aren’t just prawns, they’re Madagascan Jumbo prawns’ or ‘this isn’t just ice cream, it’s ice cream made with vanilla from Madagascar!’ She did the voice too. It was very funny. Eric and I laughed a lot. It was a lovely encounter. And I can’t wait for the next thirty four.
* A 2005 Dreamworks film which, according to wikipedia, ‘tells the story of four Central Park Zoo animals who have spent their lives in blissful captivity and are unexpectedly shipped back to Africa, getting shipwrecked on the island of Madagascar. The voices of Ben Stiller, Jada Pinkett Smith, Chris Rock and David Schwimmer are featured.’