Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Cinnamon Chewing Gum
Owen Powell - 30th May 2007
Diana and her boyfriend Matt got in contact with us after our appearance in The London Paper, and asked if they could come along to our ‘half-way’ party. We said yes! Yes, please! (Diana is from Slovakia). On the night, it was quite hard to interview them as there was so much milling about to do, so we arranged to meet the week after for a proper chat. (Matt is from the States, but by this stage we’d already got our American. Shame, in a way. We’re still searching for an international couple to take part in the project).
Diana’s story is rather entwined with Matt’s – they met four years ago while she was working on a student visa in Ocean City, Maryland. She spent several summers in the US from the age of 17, but after she graduated last July and the student visa was no longer available, it was time for the two of them to decide where they would live.
“We always wanted to go somewhere else,” says Diana, “Not Slovakia, and not America. But we never thought of coming to London. We originally planned for Prague, but we couldn’t make that work, so on one day in September last year we both flew into to Stansted – Matt from America, and me from Bratislava. We arrived within half an hour of each other.”
Matt takes up the story. “We had no real plans – no jobs, and no accommodation beyond six nights we’d booked in a hotel in Crystal Palace.”
Diana again: “There were lots of reviews of the hotel on the internet, mostly they said it was shit.”
Matt nods. “It was shit. It had already taken us an hour and a half to get out of the train station with all our bags. 150 steps up over the tracks, then down again, then up the hill. Things have got better since then.”
Matt’s doing a Masters in International Business as he couldn’t get a working visa; he says, ruefully, “We can bomb together, but we can’t work together”. Diana managed to get a job within a few weeks of arriving, in a charitable organisation in the mental health field. “It’s a kind of half-way house,” she explains, “offering 24-hour community-based care for people who have come out of other institutions. Sometimes I have to stay overnight, which can be scary. I take a lot of DVDs to watch, and call Matt every half an hour to let him know I’m ok. During my degree – I graduated in Psychology from Bratislava University last summer – I didn’t see many people with schizophrenia, and I was expecting them to be rocking in the corner, but most of the people I see here are mostly fine.”
When they arrived, Diana and Matt didn’t know anyone in London, but on her way into the job interview she heard a woman on the phone speaking Slovakian – they are now colleagues, and close friends. In contrast to their experience in their first few weeks here, Diana and Matt feel settled in London, living in a flat above a pub in Camden. “I think we got pressured into taking it by the landlord,” Diana muses. “He told us there were lots of people interested, so we signed up straight away. Then we had to spend a week cleaning and painting it so it was actually nice to live in.”
Diana’s and Matt’s relationship feels like a real post-Cold War metaphor: a man who grew up in the States, and a woman who grew up under Communism now living together in Western Europe. It’s almost impossible that they could have met a generation ago. Diana’s memories of life in Communist Czechoslovakia (as it then was) are faint as independence happened when she was seven, but a few survive. “If we ever wanted to go to Austria, we had to write down every piece of jewellery we were wearing, the car got searched, and we weren’t allowed to take money out of the country. My Grandma once flew to the US and hid money in her bra. And then there were small things, like it was really hard to get cinnamon chewing gum.”
Before independence, everything from television programmes to road sign were in dual languages, Czech and Slovakian, and Diana also learnt English and German at school from a very young age. (By contrast, when I ask Matt how much Slovakian he knows, he says with admirable honesty, “Beer and chicken and cuss words”).
Diana and Matt are still adjusting to London life. When they were spending time together in the States in previous years, Diana describes it as “more like a holiday – we were both working and had lots of money. Here in London, we’ve had to scale down and it’s a bit more stressful. It’s got more serious.”
One thing they do love about London is the transport. “I miss driving,” says Diana, “as I used to drive all the time in Slovakia. But here, it’s on the wrong side of the road and you have all these little medieval streets. It’s really different to somewhere like New York – I really like the way Manhattan is because you can never get lost there. It’s a grid system, and easy to follow. But in London you have great public transport. It’s massive – you can get almost anywhere, although it should be open later at night.”
“But you don’t like buses, do you?” says Matt.
Diana rolls her eyes. “Buses. They are hard to get used to. How do you know when to ring the bell? I’m constantly looking out of the window trying to recognise places. And then suddenly the bus stops and you have to get off immediately. I don’t go on buses anymore. They are for real Londoners, people who have been here years. Eventually, maybe, I’ll start to use them.”
Thursday, 24 May 2007
Back to School
Alex Horne – 24th May 2007
One of the most Frequently Asked Questions so far has been; ‘Have you encountered much hostility to what you’re doing?’ implying, I think, that a lot of people aren’t particularly happy with immigration at the moment and wouldn’t be all that keen on celebrating the fact that the capital is indeed home to someone from every single country in the world.
The Frequently Given Answer to that is; ‘No. People have been almost entirely positive and encouraging. Yes, we had that man in a carpet shop in Kensal Green who was quite keen to stress that he was ‘the only one left’, but apart from that people have consistently expressed their excitement about the idea and encouraged us to press on with the project’ – or something along those lines. In fact, the only real negativity we’ve come across so far has been from Mrs Moores, of Guyana, whose feelings against immigration stem from a slightly different angle.
She arrived in the UK in 1963 at the age of 14. Her mother was already here; ‘she was summoned by Enoch Powell’, snapped Mrs Moores, contempt entirely undisguised. ‘I hated it when I came here. The kids weren’t nice, it was cold, our house was horrible. There were signs up everywhere saying ‘no coloureds, no Irish’, it was miserable.’
But things have changed, haven’t they? I ask tentatively. ‘To some extent, yes, but I don’t think we’ll ever be accepted completely. I mean, the banks wouldn’t even lend us money – we were second class citizens’.
This exchange took place in Mrs Moores’ office in Bellenden Primary School near Peckham. I’d been taken there by Becky, sister of Debbie and wife of Nathan from Ghana, who’d promised me a memorable encounter. She used to work there before A.J. came along. Mrs Moores is the school’s headmistress. Throughout our meeting she sat at her large and busy desk while I hovered like a soon-to-be-punished child in the doorway. She’s a formidable lady. And she was clearly still angry that her life had been turned upside down by the British forty years ago.
She did soften after a while, asking me more about the project and even offering to lend a hand. ‘We’ve got kids from all over at the school - Albania, Syria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, all over’, she volunteered. We’d actually popped in earlier that day and while Mrs Moores herself had been out, we’d seen these cosmopolitan classes first hand, meeting pupils from Afghanistan, Barbados, Ireland, Bangladesh and India in the space of about five minutes. I told her that I thought it was nice to see such integration amongst the kids nowadays. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘but it wasn’t like that when we were brought here’.
Perhaps it’s not surprising Mrs Moores is still so bitter about the empire. When still a child, she was snatched away to a cold, damp, racist island, a thousand miles from her own warm home. She says she’s going to move eventually. Back to Guyana? I ask. ‘Oh no – it’s too late for that’, she replies. ‘Atlanta, that’s where I want to go, the people are good there’. And then the familiar but incongruous theme tune of The Archers on Radio 4 pipes out of an old radio on Mrs Moores’ desk and I’m told it’s time to go. ‘She has to listen to it everyday’, explained Becky when we’re outside and I realise just how fundamentally Mrs Moores’ life has been changed by her move to England.
Lapin Kulta: The name of a beer which means Gold of Lapland (not a country, by the way; part of Finland)
Alex Horne - 24th May 2007
I spent last weekend in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, with my parents, parents-in-law, brother-in-law, brother-in-law’s wife (not sister-in-law but is there a word?) and my own wife, whose birthday it is today (it’s now Tuesday, and I really should be writing about Petra who I met almost three weeks ago. Sorry Petra. Soon, I promise. And Happy Birthday Rachel!).
On the Friday (the day after the day I’m meant to be writing about) I was asked if I’d been working the previous night. Working? I thought. No. No. ‘No, I had this thing. In a Scandinavian bar. That a Canadian guy had sorted. It was like a get-together. For people from all over the world who I’d met recently. I’ll show you the photos – this guy from Singapore took them, they’re great actually…’
I found it hard to say exactly what had happened. And it’ll probably be as hard to write it here. So instead I’ll just type manically, press ‘publish’ and maybe re-read it red-faced and nostalgic a few months down the line.
Owen and I were both a little nervous about the party we’d hastily organised for all the people we’d briefly met over the past seven months. It seemed like a good idea to stay in touch with them all and hopefully even cement the first few bricks of friendship but many would be near impossible to contact, many of those whom we were able to reach may understandably have plans for that night - or, like Becky and Nathan (Ghana) who I’d spent that very afternoon with, a small baby to look after - and many of the small remainder may even prefer to stay in and watch How Clean Is Your House? (Channel 4 Thursdays 8pm) than spend a potentially awkward evening with people they don’t know and may not even share a language with. To each other we didn’t even dare call it a ‘party’, in case we jinxed it further and be forced to convince the bar manager that yes, the two of us were the sole guests at the ‘event’ and yes, we were going to ‘party’. We called it an ‘evening’. That’s about as neutral and pessimistic as you can get.
We needn’t have got quite so worked up. Even before we arrived, Nicholas (our photographer from Singapore) was there, taking snaps of the Nordic décor and telling his own guests, Crystal (from Hong Kong) and Antonia (China), all about the project. Chris (Canada), who’d been unbelievably helpful and active when he heard about the plan, contacting over thirty bars and eventually securing us cheap beer (Lapin Kulta) and hot dogs in this appropriately international (and cool in both senses) setting (The Nordic Bar on Newman Street), arrived soon after to help scatter flags amongst the venue's perennial Christmas trees. Then, when seven O’clock arrived, so did a constant stream of familiar faces and we soon realised we had a proper international half-way party on our hands.
It was terrific. Owen and I stopped off for a Big Mac on the way home and were elated. Ecstatic, nearly. I might have been either jittery or a little drunk throughout the evening but I hope I’ll never forget Mairam (Kyrgyzstan) introducing her sister Baku and their friend Mark (Ireland) to my friends Mel and Mike (Eurofruit); Laureen (Zimbabwe) chatting away to my brother Mat (recently returned from a year in Africa); Ligia (Colombia) and Lisa (Trinidad and Tobago) getting to know Valeria (Argentina) and her Spanish friend while Nico (Germany), Hans (a BRAND NEW Swiss guy) and Herman (Namibia) happily guzzled their Finland-brewed ale; Andrew (Indonesia) and myself (UK) deciding we’d definitely meet up with Nicholas and his friends for an authentic Chinese meal as soon as possible; Irina (Kazakhstan) being regaled by Jamie (also UK and someone we’d never met before but who had found this blog, been to Kazakhstan the year before and who now had many a story of his own to tell) and still promising to find us more nationalities; Tom (the real Greek) hoping to meet Carlos (Paraguay) and Kenny (Honduras) and generally being very smiley; Milena (Bulgaria) hugging everyone and handing out CDs of Alejandro’s Mexican music; Angella from the Oxford Language College making friends with everyone as usual, and her student Shelbys (Venezuela) talking weddings with Chris (Canada) whose fiancée is also Venezuelan; Petra (Czech Republic), Jasminka (Bosnia) and her friend from Somalia enthusiastically marking their countries on our world map; or Gianina (Costa Rica) braving the occasion with her boyfriend Mike (the only true Londoner in the bar) despite not even having met us yet; so too another Matt (USA) and his girlfriend Diana (Slovakia), who were still chatting away to Owen and Chip (my other brother and surprisingly not American) long after the bar had closed, despite the fact that she had work and he an exam the very next day; and so on and so on. I know I’ve already only got a vague memory of who said they knew someone from Greenland and who was confident they’d get us an Andorran…
Phew. I was quite glad to be off to Ireland the next day as lying in my bed after what was definitely a party my head was spinning with nationalities, flags and future plans (and maybe just a bit of that high quality low priced Scandinavian beer). I needed to take stock.
During the course of the gathering we already starting planning the next one – a picnic, probably in Hyde Park in July, to which people can bring as many international friends/food/games as they like. But we’re also psyching ourselves up for the Big One – after we’ve finally met all 192 nations - when we try to get someone from every country in the world into one place at one time. We’re not sure quite when. Maybe this year. Maybe next. It may well not be possible. We found it incredibly hard to get even a small proportion of the world’s countries over to Newman Street for this ‘Nearly Half-Way Party’.
But it happened. And, in the words of Adidas, Impossible is Nothing (especially if you get a bit of sponsorship – hint, hint, etc).
Wednesday, 23 May 2007
The 'Nearly Half Way' Party!
Owen Powell - 23rd May 2007
As we now appear to have thousands of readers, or at least dozens of very keen readers, I'd like to extend an invitation to anyone who wants to see the project at close-hand to our 'Nearly Half Way' party, which we're having tomorrow night, on Thursday 24th May in central London. This is to celebrate the fact that we're exactly seven months in to the project, and exactly 13 people short of being half-way through meeting all 192 countries. So, being more than half-way through the time, and less than half-way through the numbers, it kind of averages out to the half-way point overall.
We've tried to contact all the people we've met so far, so hopefully lots of them will be there, and there should be a real multi-national flavour to the evening. If you want to come along, then email us on firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll tell you where it is! Check out the list on the left, if you're from a country that isn't down there, then definitely come along and Alex will buy you free drinks all night! (Hope this is ok, Alex).
Great! It should be a super night. To those of you who are coming, it's going to be great to see you all.
Tuesday, 22 May 2007
New Zealand, New Flatmate
Owen Powell – 22nd May 2007
My landlord Phil got engaged, so he moved out of the flat we had shared for about five years. I moved my brother in, we did some rent calculations, I moved to the tiny spare bedroom and we looked for someone else to put in my old room. We interviewed quite a few people, but as soon as Elisha arrived for a look around, we’d pretty much decided we’d offer it to her. She was great – funny, charming, relaxed and generally quite enthusiastic about life. It was only a few days after she’d moved in, and I was explaining to Alex about my new living circumstances and why my bedroom was so small, that I connected life-events with project-events, and realised that while we had been racing around trying to find people from overseas living in London, someone from overseas had moved into my flat.
Brilliant, I thought. While Alex is off scouting round restaurants and embarrassedly asking people in shops where they’re from, all I’ve got to do is put the kettle on, open a packet of biscuits, and ask Elisha what it’s like to be a New Zealander in London. I’ll get that done tomorrow. Or next week.
This was last November. I don’t think I actually told Elisha what we were up to until Christmas dinner. Not real Christmas dinner on Christmas Day, but that new kind of Christmas dinner you get to have in your mid-twenties in about the second week of December, when you and your friends get drunk and act a bit like your parents, wearing stupid jumpers and comparing techniques for carving turkey. I explained the idea behind the project, and asked if she wanted to be involved. Very enthusiastically, she said she did. We clinked glasses and pulled a cracker.
Weeks passed, then months. We discovered people from Guinea, from Kazakhstan and from Honduras. “Interviewed Elisha yet?” Alex would sometimes ask me. “Would be good to keep the numbers ticking over ...” (Alex couldn’t quite understand why, given the fact that I lived with someone from New Zealand, the words ‘New Zealand’ weren’t appearing on our little list on the website. It was almost like he was getting angry with me, but – here’s a little secret – Alex isn’t very good at getting angry. Or, rather, he’s brilliant at getting angry, because he can’t really do it. If everyone was as good at getting angry as Alex is, we’d live in a much more peaceful and laid-back world). I would murmur something about doing it next week.
One of the problems was that although we lived together, we hardly saw each other. I spent roughly half my time at Rachel’s house, Elisha roughly half her time at her boyfriend Matt’s. Some weeks, those house-swaps would coincide so precisely that I would put my key in the lock as Elisha turned the handle on the other side on her way out. Sometimes, though, there was just good stuff on the telly (Elisha introduced me to The Apprentice) or meals to be cooked (in particular, lots of burritos). Also, it felt a bit like taking work home.
It’s slightly embarrassing to admit that I didn’t get round to interviewing Elisha properly until after she had moved out. She came back round to the flat again for an evening to pick up some bags she’d left, and I grabbed my notebook and had a quick-fire ten minutes, filling in some of the gaps I didn’t already know from her story. Her interest in coming to London had been fired at the age of 18 when her older brother came to work here. Since his time here, however, the visa rules have changed, meaning that while you can still stay for two years, you can only work for one (unless your employer sponsors you for a further year). This means that (having arrived in April 2006) her time in London is nearly up, and she’s planning to fly back south in September, taking Matt with her to Sydney to see how he’ll get on in a foreign country.
Coming to London is quite a popular move for Kiwis of Elisha’s generation. “It’s known as the Big OE,” says Elisha, “The Big Overseas Experience. It’s different to a European’s gap year – you guys travel more, where we come to work. Having said that, it’s good to base yourself in London as you can see a lot of Europe while you’re here.” Ah, yes, I’m just remembering another reason why it was hard to interview Elisha while she was living in the flat – the long weekends away. She’s visited Italy, Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Cork, and is about to go on an extended trip with her parents through France to Spain and Portugal. “Christchurch will feel a bit small when I go back there now, a bit of a ghost town.”
Elisha acknowledges that being in London has changed her. “I’m much more confident now. Even just silly little things, like I sing when I’m in a shop now – I’d never do that in Christchurch, as I always thought that everyone else around knew me. Here, you can start to create a new character for yourself. Like when I met Matt – I was staying with a friend of an old college friend, another Kiwi, and Matt was her flatmate. When I moved out, I just stuck a note on his door with my phone number on it – I would never have done that back home!”
There were some dark days when she first arrived. “There’s such a sense of space in New Zealand, which I really miss. Wherever you are in London, there’s always someone else around. And it’s a bit of a concrete jungle. In my first few weeks here, I heard a scream and a car screeching outside on my street – a kid had nearly got hit. And my first job was a bit depressing as well. It was at Bulldog Communications, an internet company, and on my first day they stuck me in front of a computer and I had to start to deal with this backlog of 5000 complaint emails – calling people up who’d been ignored for a month. Some of them couldn’t really speak English, or I couldn’t pronounce their names. I only lasted seven days.”
She then moved to the Evans head office on Oxford Street – a job she has only just left when her visa ran out. She says she’s learnt loads, and enjoyed it at the start, but there were lots of crazy people in fashion that made it quite hard work. “It’s all good experience, though, and I’m hoping to keep working in fashion when I move to Sydney as well. I’m glad I didn’t just work in a bar, like lots of other people from New Zealand and Australia.”
There is also one hidden bonus to moving from the other side of the world, although it didn’t seem like a positive thing to start with. ‘When my brother was here, he told me stories of leaving the house to go to work in the dark, then leaving work at the end of the day and it was dark again – I thought he was exaggerating. I really hated winter here – and having Christmas when it was cold was just weird.” Elisha laughs. “But the best thing is, I’ve missed out on two whole winters by travelling at the right time. I came to London at the end of our summer, and the start of yours, and I’ll be going back at the end of yours, and the start of ours, in September this year. That’s not too bad.”
And so, her bags collected, Elisha left the flat again (hopefully not for the last time – we’re planning quite a few parties through the summer). And I picked up the phone. “Horne? Are you there? We can tick off New Zealand now ....”
No Shrinking Violeta
Alex Horne – 22nd May 2007
I never thought I’d be in a position to write this but I was just beginning to lose faith in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After our Starbucks misunderstanding on the first attempt, our D.O.C. contact had had to pull out of our second meeting at the very last minute, so I arrived at our third appointment not entirely confident that she would ever actually materialize.
I should never have doubted Violeta. She turned up on the dot of two (and yes, I was there already, thank you very much) and over yet another coffee she told me why she’s not exactly a typical Congolese young person living in London.
First, a quick warning – there will probably be a bit more gushing in this entry. I didn’t expect or want this to be a particularly sentimental blog but quite often I’ve come away from meeting people with the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention and a smile set fast on my face (i.e. moved, in a good way) – and it’s hard to express that without sounding a little bit soppy.
The only one of her siblings to have gone to university, Violeta has her finals looming next week. I tried to console her by saying that the feeling when you finish is one of the best of your life but mostly I think I just kept saying, ‘Oh my God, finals, they’re horrible, I hated them, so stressful, so glad I don’t have to do that any more’, which probably didn’t help. Luckily, I’m sure Violeta will be able to cope with my added pressure. She’s just about to finish a course in Hispanic Studies and Film at Kings College, a subject she became interested in whilst living in Argentina when she was little and she now exudes the sort of confidence we’ve come to expect from people who’ve spent large chunks of their lives living abroad.
Of course, one of the few basic self-imposed rules to this project is that we’re not allowed undergraduates spending a year of their course in London so at this point I was worried that having finally found our Democratic Republic of Congo Representative, I’d have to send her away on a technicality. Again, though, there was no need to worry. Violeta was born in the D.R.C. and grew up in the capital, Kinshasa. ‘It’s enormous (with a population fifty percent larger than London) and I was lucky. I lived in the small affluent area of Mbinza. Apart from that it’s mainly just shanty towns.’ But, after a spell living in South America, her family were forced to flee the ongoing conflict* and arrived in the UK in 1998. She hasn’t been back since and as far as I’m concerned there’s no doubt she warrants her place both in this project and this city.
She now lives in Barking (‘it’s very nice, very east London’) where, she’s proud to tell me, she definitely feels like a Londoner. ‘It took me three years to feel like this was home’, she says, ‘now it’s a dream come true.’ Right on cue, a police car wails past the café. ‘Ah’, she sighs wistfully, not missing a beat, ‘the soundtrack of London.’ We both laugh.
‘I love it here’, Violeta continues, smiling. ‘Even things like the TV. Back home when Mobutu was in charge, the telly just played songs praising him all day. Here you get Desperate Housewives!’ – and very few paeans to Blair or Brown, I say. We laugh again.
‘I mean, at first it was very tough – money, the political situation, everything. Absolutely everything was a shock. The culture, everything. It was so cold (Violeta saw snow for the first time during her second year here – ‘that was quite cool’, she said)… But we had to learn to embrace it. We had to go with the flow. And now it completely feels like home. I even get the sense of humour!’
‘Back in the Congo I’d read books about London (an odd concept, I think to myself) but it really is something else to be here. I thought everyone drank tea at 4pm and wore suits’, she giggles. Carlos from Paraguay had said exactly the same thing – ‘I was expecting twenty-four-hour smog, umbrellas and manners’ – he’d remembered. ‘But in reality there’s so much more than that’, says Violeta, not actually denying the stereotype. ‘It genuinely is an honour to live here. It’s such a tolerant place. That’s why I feel such comfort – it’s this mix of different people with one London identity.’ I scribble down these positive thoughts and try to reconcile them with the twenty-four-hour grimaces, grunts and bad manners that I normally encounter when traveling round the city.
‘There have been thirty two years of corruption in the Congo’, she says, sensing the need to show me the bigger picture, ‘and it’s still going on. It’s in the infrastructure of politics and it’ll take a very long time for anything to change. But the time to act is right now.’ Violeta may well be at that point of life where anything and everything seems possible, but her enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring. Perhaps everything is possible, I think. ‘I want to work for an NGO in Africa next’, she tells me. ‘I feel it’s my duty as an African. With things like climate change and poverty you have to do something to help when you’re so privileged to live here.’ It’s a good point. By ‘you’, I know she’s referring to herself, but I can’t help thinking it should perhaps be my duty too.
Thankfully, Violeta then told me she first wanted to have some fun after her exams, thus easing the feeling of guilt that was creeping up my spine (for me, the route guilt takes is: feet – knees – spine – head – eyes). ‘I’m going to have a bit of a break’, she said, ‘go to some festivals, hang around with my friends, relax – then get on with doing something constructive with my life like applying to work for charities or taking acting classes’. Acting classes? I say, slightly taken aback. ‘Yes’, she smiles, just a tiny bit shyly. ‘I’d love to be an actress – but my parents say it won’t put bread on the table on a regular basis’.
This is clearly a serious concern for Violeta. She takes her future seriously. Typical Congolese people her age, she told me, don’t go to university. ‘They rarely finish school. They chase after designer goods – clothes, houses, wives – and often get involved in crime. I think the problem stems from an identity crisis. After the regime change, Congolese people want to renounce. That’s why they want to flash around their new wealth’.
She told me that most young African males aspire to be footballers, her younger brother included. This worries her. ‘African mothers see these players earning thirty grand a week and think that’s a way out – but obviously that’s so rare – they can’t all play in the premiership’. But with Violeta’s evident grounding, I think it’s probably ok for her to have a couple of acting lessons. It can’t do too much harm, I say. She agrees.
But before long, the discussion comes back round to the D.R.C. and the corruption that is stifling the country. ‘It grows and grows – you can’t get rid of it’, she protests. I ask her if she thinks there are any honest politicians. She shakes her head. ‘It’s down to the young people - the artists and the musicians - to change things through words. It’s tough but anything’s possible.’
With people like her about to set forth into the world, I’m fairly sure she’s right.
But first, those finals. And it’s time for Violeta to return to the small matter of Don Quixote’s interpretations on screen. I really am so glad I don’t have to do that any more.
* “This I know – that I know nothing”, said Plato. And the more countries we meet, the more I’m realising just how much I don’t know either. I think I blame education – maybe. Or the media. Well, no, probably it’s my laziness and lack of curiosity. Perhaps it’s a combination of all these things. Either way I was embarrassed again by how little I knew about this horrendous war that grumbled to life in 1994 and is definitely not over yet.
Here are the basic facts:
Mobutu Sese Seko had established a one-party system in 1971 which was finally overthrown by Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s rebellion twenty six years later. The county’s name was changed back from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of The Congo-Kinshasa. A Rwandan and Ugandan-backed rebellion then challenged his rule the following year and troops from Sudan, Chad, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola were all sent to support the new regime.
Despite a cease-fire in 1999, Kabila was murdered in 2001 and his son, Joseph Kabila, became president. Since 2003, the country has ‘enjoyed’ relative peace but the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda are still active and dangerous and the Ituri Conflict has meant the east of the country is still particularly unstable.
About four million people have died as a result of the fighting in what amounts to the bloodiest conflict since World War II. The UN says that a thousand people are still dying every single day as a result.
Friday, 18 May 2007
Triple Cultured Sonia
Owen Powell – 18th May 2007
Sonia has what she calls a ‘double culture’ – she’s Tunisian, but grew up in France. Now, after two years in London, it’s become triple. Arriving with little English, she deliberately avoided French and Arabic speakers to immerse herself in the language, and is virtually fluent now. She works as an office manager near Paddington, used to live in Camden (“The police! The screams! The fights!”), but now shares a flat in Ealing with Trevor, “a gay guy who cooks a mean Thai green curry”.
In her childhood, she spent every summer in Tunisia, three long hot months when everyone has parties: for their weddings, their engagements, and “when the young boys have their –” here, Sonia does a scissoring mime that makes me wince. How old are they? I ask. “Four or five,” she says. “That’s why they have the party, to distract them.” One summer, walking near the beach, she interrupted a camel while he was with a lady camel, and got attacked. Years later, walking past the same camel pen, the same camel attacked her again. “Camels have long memories,” she sighs. “I never had much luck with animals. What are the camels with two humps? Dromedaries? I fell off one of those once – I was sitting between the humps and slipped out. And a cow attacked me on a farm. Oh, and then we had a tortoise that jumped out of his aquarium. I didn’t think tortoises could jump, which was why we kept the aquarium on the balcony, which was on the second floor, a long way down. There was a smaller one in the same tank, but he died of heartbreak soon after. And what are these things? You call them fishcats?” Catfish, I suggest. “Catfish. We had two of them in a bowl, and my brother wanted to change the water, but mum said he wasn’t to. Then, when she went out, he thought he’d do it anyway, put the bowl in the bath and tried to pour the water out, and one of the fish jumped out and went down the plug hole. He hoped mum wouldn’t notice, but when there were only two fish to start with ...” Sonia is right. She hasn’t had much luck with animals.
Growing up in Strasbourg was tough. Most of the French-Tunisian population is based in Lyon, and in Alsace they find it hard to welcome people they perceive as ‘strangers’. “They don’t even think of themselves as French, or German – they’re Alsatian. Even though there is such a turbulent history in the region, people there haven’t learnt any lessons. They saw everything, but they’re not open-minded. I once offered my seat on a tram to an old lady, but she said she wouldn’t sit on a seat where an Arab had sat. I said that an Arab had probably sat on every seat on the tram. And anyway, none of the ‘French’ people were offering their seat! It might need a generation to change.”
Sonia is pleased that London is more mixed, and more welcoming, than France. “In France most Muslims are Arabic or North African, but here they are from all over – across the Middle East and Asia as well. And they is no real disrespect here – if you work hard there are opportunities for you. In France, it is hard to get on if you are young.” I ask if Sonia herself is religious. “How shall I put it? I am not praying in London. The way I am living is not compatible with Islam, although I still fast during Ramadan, for example. I see this more as a way of connecting with the poor than following a god. If we all fast, we’re all equal – rich and poor. It helps us to understand hunger and thirst, and I will always give food to a beggar if I see one on the street.”
Food is also a fundamental part of family life in Tunisian culture. The houses her extended family lived in were arranged around a central courtyard, and eating was a communal affair. A typical meal was cooked for twenty people, and Sonia has found it hard adapting for a more solitary city life. “My mother always tells me to cut the amounts in half, and I do, but while I am cooking it doesn’t look enough so I add more in. Luckily, my housemate Trevor eats for three or four. Everyone in Tunisian eats a lot – even my brother, and he’s like you.” She holds up her finger as illustration. “He’s a stick.”
Sonia loves how London contains wildly different areas. She enjoys people-watching in Soho during Chinese New Year, and loves walking the Thames – taking her mum to the top of Greenwich park was one of the highlights of her time here. However, there are some things in British life that she will probably never quite get used to. When she first arrived in the UK, she spent a year in Eastbourne, studying English and working as a waitress. “One morning, a man had kippers for breakfast,” Sonia says, already wrinkling her nose. “I could not bear it. It stunk out the whole kitchen.” I protest, on behalf of kipper-lovers everywhere, but Sonia remains resolutely unconvinced.
Thursday, 17 May 2007
“Like Landing on the Moon”
Owen Powell – 17th May 2007
“So, one day, our home was searched by Serb soldiers,” says Jasminka. “They were carrying guns and butcher knives, and were throwing things around. My son, who was about three years old, pointed his toy gun at them and told them to go away - "Don’t shoot on my Sarajevo!" he told them … There was this awful, awful pause - eerie silence in the house.”
Jasminka leans forward to take a sip of coffee. I realise I am not breathing. She continues the story. “One soldier stepped forwards and reached out his hand towards my son. And then he ruffled his hair and told him to go to play in another room.” I start breathing again. “They were looking for my brother, but we had hidden him in our neighbor’s house, in their wardrobe – they were Serbs, so their house did not get searched.”
It’s probably at about this point in the conversation that I think back to last October, and how Alex and I had started this project in a fairly jokey frame of mind. It almost felt as if we were doing it for a bet, like one of Dave Gorman’s projects (and the comparison has been made a number of times since). We’d just collect 192 people, tick all the boxes, and that would be that. Rather fortunately, I think, we’ve come on a bit of a journey since then. (Not quite as impressive as Jasminka’s journey, but we’ll come to that soon). I’m now totally amazed to be living in a city that contains so many fascinating people and so many unexpected stories, and which represents hope, or stability, or escape. And Jasminka has certainly escaped. As she says, she was one of the very lucky ones.
“In Sarajevo, everything started on April 5th 1992 when we turned up for a peace rally in the central square in the city. I saw three soldiers with balaclavas and guns watching from the hillside, over the bridge. When the crowd approached the bridge, demanding these soldiers to leave, I saw them lowering their guns.” Jasminka mimes the soldiers training their guns on the crowd, and shivers, and suddenly I’m not in a café in Primrose Hill any more. “They opened fire. The firing went on for about thirty seconds. Thirty seconds is a long time. Many people were killed … This happened in Europe, fifteen years ago. A girl standing a few yards from me was hit and killed. She was the first person to be killed in Sarajevo. On that day the four year siege of Sarajevo began.”
Jasminka had grown up in a non-religious household. For her parents, the main doctrine in their life was Socialism. Tito ruled Yugoslavia, and the socialist outlook informed everything, including school text-books. (A typical problem would begin, “You have two loaves of bread. If you do not need the second one, then share it with someone else who does ...”). Unfortunately, during the war everyone got put into boxes based on their perceived religion or ethnicity. Jasminka’s father was labeled a Muslim, her mother a Serb. “Mixed marriage was common, especially in the big cities. It was said that the war divided many marriage beds in half. My parents have been married 45 years now, and they were only briefly separated in the war – my mother stayed behind to look after the house when the rest of the family moved out. Even though she is Serb, she was still taken hostage and exchanged for Serb soldiers later on.” A month after the shooting at the peace rally, it became clear that Sarajevo was in danger of being overrun. Women with young children were given a chance to leave, a chance that Jasminka took. “It was so hard to say goodbye to my family, but I felt I must save my kid. We had only 200 marks at home, banks were out of business – it’s about 60 pounds – which my father split with me when I left. Now he jokes about it, he says, “Oh, I sent you out into the world with a small kid and thirty pounds,” but it’s true. When I left Sarajevo, I had a plastic bag (with few photos of my family in it!) in one hand, and my son, who was three and a half, in another. I didn’t see my parents again for about eight years.”
Sarajevo was besieged and totally sealed off the day after Jasminka left. A friend of hers, also with a young child, had decided not to join Jasminka, so she was stuck in Sarajevo for nearly four years. Jasminka stayed in refugee camps in Bosnia and Croatia, traveling on buses that were periodically stopped and searched by soldiers with guns. "My son would call them 'ninjas' as they had balaclavas over their faces". After a few weeks, her parents’ phone was cut off and her only contact from them was through Red Cross messages, often three or four months out of date. Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t let her parents know how she and her son were getting on (or even if they were alive) for six months.
She gradually made her way to the UK, her temporary travel papers causing lots of problems at every border she crossed. The border guards at Dover, by comparison, “were used to this kind of thing. They immediately gave me the asylum seeker application to fill out, even though I protested that I wasn’t a political refugee. They looked at me, and looked at my papers, and told me that really, I was. They told me that I would probably have to stay in the UK for a while. Only then I realised that the war would not finish in few months time, as I hoped. Being in England was like landing on the moon. I was aged 22, but I had to learn from the beginning – like being a toddler learning to walk and talk - all over again.”
Jasminka was sent to the Lake District, where she stayed with a family for three months. “Now, if I was offered the chance to live in a country house in the Lake District, I would grab it, but at the time it was not ideal. There was no full time nursery for my son, nowhere for me to continue with my education, or improve my English, no work. I am still in contact with the family, and I am very grateful to them, but I had to move out to progress. I came to London and found a hostel for Yugoslavians where I stayed for a while. I began working – to start with, jobs like cleaning, waitressing and gardening – that was the most fun as at least it was outside. But these weren’t great jobs. I had studied in Sarajevo, so I thought I should continue with my studying.”
Here begins the next chapter of Jasminka’s life. After her early experiences, it’s difficult to say it’s the most remarkable but it’s certainly a testament to her hard work, and perhaps also to the opportunities afforded by London. She began studying in 1993, graduated in 1997 and got a job with a big travel company. “This was the early days of the internet. People and companies were still adapting to it. I was a part of their website team – in fact, even today, when you book a flight on this website, it may be a code I wrote that you are using.” Jasminka laughs. “I suppose I am quite proud of that.” She has now moved into the one of the top investment banks in the City and is in charge of a team of eight people. Interestingly, she has found more problems with sexism than racism in the (notoriously male) environment of a city bank, although it doesn’t seem to have affected her drive and ambition at all. “After my early twenties, nothing is difficult now. I’m never afraid of hard work ... but I have been helped by lots of people along the way. There was lots of understanding from social services and from council. In my experience, things are quite fair and equal here.”
She continues: “Nobody wishes to leave their homeland, and their families behind, to be a refugee in a foreign country, with the foreign people with a foreign language, and a foreign weather ... but if you happen to be one, then I think the best place for you is London. My brother lives in New York now, and it is quite a segregated society over there. I prefer London, and I have lots of international friends who live here now. ”
Since arriving in London in 1993, knowing nobody and hardly speaking English, Jasminka has moved a long way. She recently bought a flat for herself and her son, and he is about to start art college in Chelsea. “I think we are good friends,” she says of him. “We have been through a lot together. He was always a very curious child, asking questions – about his own past and what happened in Bosnia. I always thought that if he was old enough to ask the questions, he was old enough to know the answers.” I ask if he remembers being in Bosnia. “He does … when he was seven or eight, a friend of mine who knew he liked painting asked if he wanted to do something for an exhibition at the Riverside studios, something about Bosnia and how he remembers it. After few days he produced these two massive paintings. First one was of him and me before the war, where we look happy. Second one was of two of us during the war. They are very impressive paintings … He speaks fluent English and Bosnian, but he has not learnt yet to swear (on the rare occasions that he does) in the opposite language – so he is always being caught out.”
Jasminka is hopeful of a better future for Bosnia. For the first time you can now fly direct from London to Sarajevo with British Airways, and once the UN peace-keeping troops leave (possibly this year) it should appear more attractive to tourists. Skiing and winter sports are popular (Jasminka remembers watching Torville and Dean winning gold in Sarajevo in 1984) and the opportunities for tourism seem extensive, with mountains, historic cities and coastline all on offer.
I ask how she defines herself now, having spent most of her adult life in the UK. “I am trying to introduce a new phrase into English vocabulary…” she smiles. “I call myself ‘British Bosnian’, but I have not heard anyone else using it yet. I used to call myself Yugoslavian, and was proud of my country, but obviously some other people did not feel the same.” Jasminka took British citizenship in 2001, and feels fairly settled here.
“I always remember what I was told once. I used to work as a cleaner for this lovely, elderly Jewish couple in St John’s Wood. They gave me advice to travel around the world as much as I can, try living somewhere else if possible, but to remember to come back to London to grow old. I think that is a good advice.”
Wednesday, 16 May 2007
The International Incomprehensibility of Brad Pitt
Owen Powell - 16th May 2007
Valeria works for the BBC World Service. She’s in the Latin American department, researching, writing, presenting and editing documentary radio programmes and video for the web. Broadly speaking, she’s a journalist. She has a degree in journalism, two Masters, and is half-way through a PhD. I look down at my notebook, and can hardly read my handwriting from yesterday’s interview. I’m not a journalist. But for the next hour or so, I’m going to give it a go.
Valeria grew up in Buenos Aires, attending a bilingual ‘private’ school that taught English from the age of five. After school and University she then took a foundation course in Art, before seeming to settle down with a job and boyfriend. But the urge for new experiences was too strong, and so Valeria uprooted completely – after applying to do a Masters in Anthropology of Art at UCL, she received a scholarship, arrived in London and within two weeks was sitting in her first seminar. At the memory of it, she laughs. “I remember the title of it exactly. It was called ‘How would the internet de-fetishise the commodities?’ and I didn’t understand a word of it. It was traumatising, as I thought my English was quite good. The next day, I was in Leicester Square and it was raining like hell so I went into a cinema. It was this British film, Snatch? You know it?” I nod. “So, I’m sitting there all on my own in the dark, and Brad Pitt comes on the screen and everyone else in the cinema is laughing and laughing and again I couldn’t understand a word. The next day, I went to a travel agent to see how easy it would be to book a ticket home.”
Fortunately, Valeria decided against leaving so abruptly (and later discovered, of course, that Brad Pitt being deliberately incomprehensible was why everyone was laughing). Even the academic English became more understandable, and she began to enjoy herself, meeting a lot of other overseas students. In fact, only three out of the fifteen people on her course were English, and it was quite hard to get involved in their already-established London social life. Even now, working with other Latin Americans at the BBC, Valeria says it’s hard to meet English people.
It was while she was at UCL that an Argentinean friend working for the World Service told her about a part time position there, and convinced her to apply (even though she didn't want to). She got the job, and was soon doing it alongside her second Masters, this time in Theatre at Goldsmith’s. “Goldsmith’s was less ... solid than UCL, but more inspiring,” she says. “All my close friends in London, apart from work friends, are from my time at Goldsmith’s. Every time I study something new, I try to feed it into my work. I always try to make programmes about art and culture. For one and a half years, I made a music programme, going to gigs and interviewing musicians. I have done many interviews in bars at 3am.”
And now there is even more cultural study to feed into Valeria’s work, as she’s busy doing an Anthropology PhD on the Transnational Consumption of Argentine Film. I think it’s fair to say that by now, Valeria has a handle on academic English. As the staff at Caffe Nero make ‘we’re-closing-now’ movements with chairs and tables, she gives me a quick-fire history of Argentine Cinema. In the 60s and 70s, Argentinean directors worked from a leftist perspective, making strongly political films that reached beyond national boundaries. Then, with the 1976 coup and dictatorship until 1983, came the decline. Lots of artists ‘disappeared’, lots went into exile, and film went mainstream, aping Hollywood. Through the 80s and into the early 90s, all that got produced was, in Valeria’s phrase, “bad movies, naked women, really shitty stuff.” But then a new law was passed in the late 90s, allowing film makers to get subsidies, film schools were set up, and a new generation of directors emerged. The New Argentine Cinema, as it’s called, isn’t quite a return to the overly political films of the 70s as it concentrates on more personal, subtle and observational stories. However, as it can’t help dealing with issues of real life – jobs, families, the economy – it is seen by many as ‘intellectual’ film-making, so is only popular with a small section of the movie-going public. Many Argentineans, according to Valeria, make a deliberate decision NOT to see Argentinean film.
(We’re kicked out of the coffee-shop at 8pm – “one of the things I hate about London,” says Valeria, “that nowhere stays open until late, if you just want a chat”. We go to a bar down the road to carry on).
As part of the research for her PhD, Valeria spent a year on sabbatical from the BBC, travelling round Argentina with her (new, English) boyfriend, who was doing some research of his own into the environment and the privatisation of electricity in South America. Aside from this recent extended trip, she has tried to return to Argentina for at least five weeks every year. One of her earliest trips home came nine months after the big financial crisis that hit Argentina in late 2001. Valeria said it was strange to have experienced this from a distance, trying to follow the news from the other side of the world, and when she returned it was often the things she didn’t expect to have changed that had changed the most. But in some ways, the distance also gives her more perspective. On recent trips home, she was glad to see that the mood of the people was better, but she is concerned that without planning for the future the crises will become cyclical. “I’m more aware of the things I dislike about Argentinean culture, as well,” she notes. "It's a rather homogenous society, not very diverse, and some people are concerned only with appearances. There are also conservative expectations of family, of marriage and children. I always knew that I wanted more than that. When I was doing my BA, I knew that I wanted to spend at least one year studying abroad, and I have decided to stay here not so much because of my job, but because of the opportunities to continue studying. The UK is more stable, so you have more mental freedoms here – you can quit jobs to do other things, have gap years – this is all unheard of in Argentina where if you have a job, you hang onto it at all costs.”
It was while she was with her privatisation-researching boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend) that she got to experience “a bit of middle-class English life. It’s so different to Latin America. He lived one hour from his parents, and sometimes didn’t see them for three months. We did spend Christmas with them, though. It was very strange for me – wearing these absurd paper crowns, going for walks and eating turkey. In Argentina, we’re in the swimming pool until nine in the evening, although we do keep Spanish and Italian customs, so we eat winter foods like panatone.”
Like her fellow Latin Americans, Silvana and Paola, Valeria is on the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme, and is looking to apply for citizenship next year. “Until then, every time I move house I have to tell the police. They changed the name recently, but it used to be known as the Aliens’ Register.” When I ask her if she feels like a Londoner, she agrees that she does. “I feel connected to the city. I like to think that I use the city a lot, I go to the theatre, to exhibitions, to events. I will never say that the size of London is a reason not to see people, I am happy to sit on the tube for 90 minutes to visit a friend. I miss Buenos Aires, but I feel like I have two homes now.”
Tuesday, 15 May 2007
Owen Powell – 15th May 2007
“And did you give your gun a name?” I ask.
“Like in an American film?” Niko replies. “No. We didn’t.”
“But we did spend a whole day cleaning it and putting it back together,” says Stefan.
I order another round of Hoegarden.
I’m in the Prince of Wales near Covent Garden, becoming increasingly obsessed with asking about Niko’s German national service, and Stefan’s Austrian national service. I can see that they both want to talk about other things – about their experience of London, about their studies, about football – but I’m constantly drawn back to questions about guns. I’m not proud of myself.
And it’s not as if they don’t have a lot else to talk about. Although they’re both only 22, and have been in London for less than a year, they’ve packed in a lot of travelling and studying outside their home countries. Niko spent some time at boarding school in County Meath, Ireland, whereas Stefan studied in California for a couple of summers. They met in London when they both started a course at a French University on Finchley Road whose name is a seven-letter acronym – “Don’t ask us what it stands for,” says Stefan. Crucially for the project, however, their Masters in International Management also includes a three-month internship, so they’re officially “living and working in London”. Stefan is spending his three months in a consulting firm, while Niko is with a bank. He’s originally from Frankfurt, the banking capital of Europe – home of the European Central Bank and home (for a while, at least) to more Japanese banks than there were in Tokyo. (Home, also, I should point out, to Eintracht Frankfurt, Niko’s football team. He’s very proud that they weren’t relegated this year.)
However, in between studying in school, and studying at University, Niko and Stefan did their compulsory military service, as I might have already mentioned. Some form of national service for school leavers exists in at least 30 countries world-wide, and in 16 in Europe. For Niko in Germany, it lasted nine months, for Stefan in Austria it was eight (since reduced to six). There’s a fair amount of choice over what you do and where you go – including a civil (non-military) option. Niko applied to join the mountain infantry on the border with Austria, to experience a part of the country he hadn’t been to before.
While I’m asking dumb questions about weapons, Stefan and Niko are pointing out the great advantages of a non-discriminatory team activity that all young men go through at the same age. “You meet people from all different social backgrounds, which simply doesn’t happen in school,” explains Niko. “And everyone is equal, you are sharing a room with 20 people, sharing a shower, no-one has special treatment.”
Stefan agrees. “Of course, when you’re lying in the cold and wet, with people screaming at you, you’re fed up – but in retrospect, you learn so much about yourself, about discipline and teamwork.”
Before joining up, everyone has a psychological test, an intelligence test, and a full medical examination. “For some people, it’s the first proper medical they’ve had,” Niko points out. “Often people discover things in the medical that would have given them problems in later life.”
But what about the guns? Did they get to use live ammunition, I ask.
“Oh yes,” says Niko.
“And also, we got to use ... umm ...” Stefan searches for the correct word, and does a mime to jog his memory.
Niko watches and interprets. “Grenades. But it is all incredibly safe. Every bullet is counted out, and every empty shell is counted back in again. There are never any problems.”
Niko and Stefan have quite a bantering relationship. Niko teases Stefan, telling him that Austria is the 17th state of Germany, while Stefan points out that Austria has a very long and important history, even if it is a small state today. The national rivalry exists, to a degree, on the football pitch as well. The overall themes of their sporting relationship might be familiar to anyone who has followed Scotland or England over the years, where a ‘big’ country is occasionally bested by its ‘smaller’ neighbour (and then the smaller neighbour doesn’t stop going on about it for years and years). When I ask about the last time Austria beat Germany, Niko and Stefan reply, with one voice, “Cordoba”, as though it was seared onto their brain. It’s only when I get home that I realise this refers to a game in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, quite a few years before either of them was born.
“Football in Austria is in meltdown,” says Stefan, mournfully. “We’re hosting the European Championships next year, but all our clubs are falling apart. One team in Innsbruck were on the point of being sponsored by a brothel, with its name all over their chest. I suppose our true national sports are the winter sports. Everybody skis. People are almost born wearing skis.”
It’s not long before the Hoegarden leads us down the football path completely, and we have a good long reminisce about last year’s World Cup, held in Germany. Niko says there was a real sense of national pride, that there were people flying German flags and feeling very positive about their country – something that perhaps they haven’t felt “allowed” to do for a while. Even Stefan gets quite emotional talking about a famous documentary that followed the German team through the tournament, showing things like Jurgen Klinsmann’s inspirational half-time talks. Through the course of a whole pint, the conversation drifts across Europe, discussing players and tactics, with Niko frequently explaining just how good Eintracht Frankfurt are. Stefan notes how negative British sports journalism can be, compared to continental newspapers which would never be so intrusive or so personal in their attacks.
Niko and Stefan are enjoying London life, but say that it’s quite hard to meet English people. Most of their fellow students are German and French – in fact, the three-year course is split across three countries, with a year to come in each of Paris and Berlin. At the offices where they work, there appears to be a big age gap so socialising can be difficult. But I’ve had a great night out. Just as with Israel a few weeks ago, a shared interest in sports is a good starting point for a lively pub discussion about all sorts of matters – so lively, in fact, that I haven’t noticed my mobile ringing for hours. When I finally check, I have six missed calls from Rachel, and an evening meal is looking unlikely. Niko and Stefan send me on my unsteady way with apologies for ruining my dinner, and I start to wonder whether the next project should be to try to get drunk with someone from every country in the world ...
Girls are happier to travel
Owen Powell – 15th May 2007
In the emails we received as a result of our appearance in everyone’s favourite evening read, The London Paper, one stuck out as being particularly cosmopolitan. To paraphrase, it essentially said, “I’m Sarah, I’m from Sweden, my husband’s from Benin and his cousin runs a restaurant where the chef is from the Ivory Coast.” I simply had to find out more, and while planning long-term for a West African meal in New Cross, I met Sarah for an after-work drink in the Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell.
I wasn’t planning to properly drink, mindful of my bike parked outside and an evening ahead with Niko (Germany) and Stefan (Austria) in “any pub we find near Holborn”, as their email promised. But Sarah arrived and ordered a vodka and tonic, and I thought that a nice slow Guinness wouldn’t do any harm either. Sarah took a sip and began her story.
“I’ve lived outside Sweden for all of my adult life. When I finished school back in the summer of 1994, Sweden still hadn’t joined the EU so it was harder to travel to find work. I actually went to Dublin first, became an au pair, then came to London the year after to study English. I really didn’t plan to stay that long! Before I came, I thought that London would be a wonderful place – really modern and exciting, but it’s probably fair to say that the reality was a little worse. When my younger sister came over and saw my flat in Camden for the first time – well, she cried.”
We both take another sip. “When I first arrived, I knew of about twenty people from my home town of Uppsala who also lived here, but now there are only two of those still here. I've lived all over London - Bayswater, Haringey, Camden, Archway - for a while I shared a house in Wood Green with two other Swedish girls and two Danish girls. We used to have a lot of parties, used to invite a lot of English guys round. It’s funny, we always found it hard getting to know English girls – I suppose if you’re out in a pub, you wouldn’t go and speak to another group of girls, but you would approach the boys. For a while, a lot of the girls I knew all had boyfriends who were in bands. There are many rubbish bands in London, and I’ve been to most of their concerts.”
But what about this Beninian husband, I ask. “Ah! Rome! Yes, well – we met in a club in Brixton nine years ago. I used to go clubbing a lot at this time, I was working at Peter Jones and wanted to go out a lot and forget my job. It was pretty lucky – it was the only night he had ever been to that club, and I can’t think how we would have met otherwise. We got married in 2001. Until then, I think being in London felt quite temporary.”
By this time, Sarah was doing a degree in Arts Management at the University of the South Bank, and after graduating in 2002 took a job at the Tate for a couple of years. She then moved on to the National Gallery, where she stayed until late last year. “I really enjoyed it. My Mum runs a museum in Sweden, so she loved coming over here and doing all the cultural things in London – we’d often go and see four or five exhibitions and shows a day. I also got free Italian lessons at the National – lots of the paintings we had there were Italian, so we had to deal with curators and people from Italy quite regularly. There were no Swedish paintings there, which was a shame. But, I had to leave. It’s the usual reason – the money wasn’t enough. We’re thinking about the future, you know, buying a house. Lots of my Swedish friends who were here all turned thirty with me, and they all left, went back to Sweden to have their kids. So, I took a job with an architect’s firm a few months ago.”
I hardly need say it, but Sarah’s English was flawless. In Sweden it’s normal for English to be taught from the age of ten, then second and third foreign languages are introduced at 13 and 16. The culture in general also favours English being sublimated effortlessly. All television programmes from the UK or US are undubbed, and many Swedish bands sing in English as well (becoming massively popular in Japan and Asia, and helping Sweden to become the world’s third largest music exporter). As Sarah points out, having spent her childhood in Sweden and her adulthood in London, she finds it far easier to have formal conversations in English than in Swedish. “All my academic work has been done exclusively in English as well, so I’m much more confident. I really find it hard doing things like – it sounds silly – but ringing up the electricity company in Sweden, I don’t know how to speak to them. I still read a lot in Swedish, I can get newspapers online and I try to read a few Swedish novels a year. Having said that, I usually read a couple of English novels every week. If I’m reading a book, and someone asks me if I’m reading in English or Swedish, I really have to check the language carefully before I can work it out in my head.”
Cosmopolitanism and travel appear to be in Sarah’s blood. Uppsala, her home town, is a University city, and attracted a lot of political refugees fleeing South America and the Middle East in the 1970s, so she grew up in a mixed environment. In her own family, her older sister had an Italian husband, and her younger sister has now joined her in London and has an Australian boyfriend – “about as far apart, geographically, as you can get from Sweden,” Sarah points out. “I suppose you could say that Benin is about as far apart culturally as you can get from Sweden, so there are similarities there.” Sarah thinks this wanderlust may stem from the fact that her father was a sailor in his youth, travelling the globe in the 1950s, and living in Italy for a while. (Sarah’s brother, by comparison, felt no urge to travel at all, and has settled with his wife in Uppsala. “Maybe it’s a language thing,” she muses. “The girls are more confident, so they’re happier to travel. I don’t know.”)
Sarah has undergone a certain amount of stereotyping as a Swede in London. When people find out where she is from, they generally always mention the same things, as Sarah wearily lists: “Abba, H&M, Ikea …” That’s not to say that Ikea is a bad thing. In fact, it seems to be a one stop shop for Swedes missing food from home – chiefly meatballs and smoked fish. Sarah doesn’t miss the food that much, but does regret not seeing her family grow up, and missing out on her nieces’ childhoods. And the landscape. “Oh! I would walk in the forests every day! I miss the lakes, the sea, but often I have a longing for the forests.” Any stereotyping Sarah has suffered is immediately put into context when she mentions a friend who has trained for years to get a job in her chosen profession, but is always met with the same response. “Yes,” says Sarah, “It can be tough when you introduce yourself as a Swedish massage therapist. People get the wrong ideas …”
Monday, 14 May 2007
Points for Oscars and Gold Medals
Owen Powell – 14th May 2007
Just after leaving Jai, I find myself standing outside a full-looking Bar Italia with Paola and Silvana, and wondering whether we should find somewhere a little less busy. Bar Italia is rammed – not as full as I remember it being during the World Cup last summer, but still too noisy to do any kind of useful interviewing, or even basic Hello-ing. A few minutes later, we’re sitting around a table on the pavement outside ‘Nino’s Paninos’, and the Hello-ing can commence.
Paola and Silvana met at the University of Birmingham in 2002, while studying for a Masters. After living in the same hall of residence for a year, they became good friends and stayed in touch after graduation when Silvana went back to Peru, and Paola to the Dominican Republic. Thankfully, however, Birmingham hadn’t put them off the UK, because pretty soon they were coming back again, Silvana arriving in London in January 2005, and Paola following in May 2006 (after short stints in Milton Keynes and Northampton). Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair on Birmingham, as both had originally chosen it for positive reasons, as Silvana explains: “I had a campus experience, which you wouldn’t get in London. I met people from all over the world during my MBA studies, and I think it was good value for money." Paola adds that “Birmingham is good for travel – I went to Scotland and the north of England, which I probably wouldn’t have done if I’d been in London all the time. Even now, when friends come to visit, it’s hard to get them out of London.”
And getting out of London is – in Silvana and Paola’s eyes – one of its many benefits. Although we perhaps think that we’re a bit isolated, stuck on this wet island off the edge of Europe, for people that have come many thousands of miles to be here, we’re right in the thick of it. “London is a perfect base for travel,” raves Silvana. “It is very easy to travel to lots of different countries, as the flights are so cheap over here. Since I have been in London, I have been on so many European trips.”
“She’s just got back from Paris,” Paola says, with mock jealousy. “But it's not just Europe - for example, for us to get to Asia it’s now a twelve-hour flight, rather than twenty.”
Paola and Silvana are both on the Home Office's Highly Skilled Migrant Programme, and as this is the first time I have heard of the HSMP, they explain it to me. “Firstly, you are granted a one year work permit,” begins Silvana. “Then, if you can show economic activity, you can re-apply for a three year extension,” continues Paola. “Oh, but first we have to tell you about the points system!” Silvana chips in. “It is quite complicated. Before you arrive you must total up all your points. You get points for academic achievement, points for being a doctor, points for being under 28 years old …” Paola rolls her eyes at this point, and joins in the list: “You even get 20 points, or something like that, for winning an Oscar or a gold medal at the Olympics, but even that isn’t enough – I needed 75 points to get my initial one-year permit.” I must admit, I didn’t know that the immigration system at this level was quite so functional, and suggest that it must have been odd to have been categorised so ruthlessly. But Paola and Silvana are having none of it. “Oh no!” they cry, “It’s a great system! It’s completely transparent, and very fair – everyone is equal, and the more you have to offer, the better your chances of getting in.” Paola compares it favourably to other countries which have less welcoming policies to immigrants.
“I’m glad I came here,” says Silvana. “I’m happy in London, but of course there are still things that I miss from Peru. People here are less expressive, less warm, less touchy-feely, it’s all handshakes and they’re quite reserved.” I’m conscious that when I greeted them both, it was with a handshake, so I throw my English caution to the wind, look them both in the eye and say, “When we say goodbye after this, I’m going to kiss both of you.” (There’s a terrifying second where my brain replays this instantaneously, scanning it to see if it sounds like a perverted threat, but they’re both still smiling so it must have come out ok.)
Paola takes over. “I don’t miss the obvious things. For example, I don’t miss the heat. I’m not a typical Caribbean, I suppose. I’m happier in colder weather.”
Silvana shakes her head. “In Peru, we have a proper summer, where you can guarantee three or four months of consistent heat. It’s a lovely time of year. One summer, for our school prom trip, we went climbing in the mountains near Machu Picchu. There are really dramatic views and scenery, which you don't really get around London.”
“But the food,” says Paola, “I miss the food with all my guts. I still can’t understand how some people can eat cold sandwiches and crisps for lunch. It's the most important meal of the day - it should at least be hot.”
“The last time I was back in Peru, I cooked for my little nephew,” Silvana remembers, “And my mother couldn’t believe it! She said, ‘Oh, you’ve changed’. She’s right, I wouldn’t think twice about cooking now.” Seeing me look a little confused, Paola steps in to explain. “It’s common in our countries for most families, even normal middle class families, not particularly rich, to have lots of home help. When I was growing up, we had maids, cooks – it’s not considered odd to have house keepers.”
“Every time I visit Peru, my mother is sad when I return to London,” continues Silvana. “I think it’s a different culture – you stay with your family until you are married, like they do in Spain or Italy, so it’s hard for them when you’re this far away. We both have foreign boyfriends, as well. Mine is American, although he speaks good Spanish so we can talk in both languages. Paola’s is German, and speaks fluent Spanish.”
“Yes,” says Paola. “I have the German. You have a German already?” I explain that I’m meeting one tomorrow night. “Well, he’s not very German anyway. He doesn’t want to go back to live there, he wants to live in New York.” And what is her German like, I wonder. “Hmm. I have learnt a little German. ‘I’m hungry, I’m tired.’ Things like this. ‘You’re drunk, you’re ugly.’ Other phrases.”
The evening has worn on, and the cold London summer nights are drawing in, so we say our goodbyes. And, yes, it’s kisses all round. xx
The Smile of Africa
Owen Powell – 14th May 2007
Jainaea is the closest we’ve got yet to breaking the rules. Just to remind you, this project, whilst pretty shambolic in execution, is trying to prove something quite important under a self-imposed framework of dos and don’ts. One of our first decisions was that we only wanted to find people that were living and working in London broadly because they had planned to, not because they had been told to – so we ruled out (as the relevant page of our website says) “anyone who was an employee of a country's government (for example, no ambassadors, Kings or Queens)”. Jainaea herself is none of these things, but her first trip to London, at the age of two months, came about because her father was the Gambian ambassador here. A fairly cosmopolitan childhood followed – stints in Saudi Arabia and Belgium, with every summer spent back on the west coast of Africa. Finally, when a military coup in 1994 made things difficult for her father, the family settled permanently in the UK, and Jai, at the age of 14, ended up in a boarding school in Brighton.
When I ask her how she defines herself, after this fairly mobile and nomadic start to her life, she immediately replies that she “feels very Gambian. I have family there, I spent a part of every year of my life in the Gambia. For such a small country, we have quite big egos – we are a proud people. It’s never just ‘Gambia’, always ‘The Gambia’ – you must get that right. We call our country ‘The Smile of Africa’, if you look on a map, you’ll see why.”
I get my map book out. It’s true. The Gambia is a tiny, thin country, following the path of the river Gambia to the sea, but otherwise entirely surrounded by Senegal (which becomes, in the “Smile” analogy, the Cheeks and Jaws of Africa). “There were plans, a while ago,” Jai goes on, “to combine with Senegal into a new country called Senegambia, but we’re too proud of our history. It’s a bit like with the Welsh and English.”
With The Gambia being Wales, I suggest. “No! We are England!” Jai laughs, “Do you mind if I smoke? Oh! They’re playing my song!” We’re sitting in Coffee Republic on Soho Square, and the opening bars of ‘Mr Bojangles’ float over the early evening caffeine addicts. “Bojang is my surname,” Jai explains, lighting up. “I’m from a mixed background, my father is a Mandinka, my mother a Wolof. It’s not that unusual – The Gambia isn’t a massively traditional country. It was one of the earliest to get independence in West Africa – back in the early 60s – and until this recent coup it was doing quite well. I met a guy with the same surname while I was at University in Bournemouth, one of the professors there, and we formed a kind of Gambian support group.”
Jai studied Television Production at Bournemouth, which rang a bell for me. It turns out she was in the year below Nicky Horne – no relation to Alex – who I went on holiday with every summer between the ages of 5 and 15. (Our families were there as well, it wasn’t some precocious private arrangement.) In a week when I’m due to meet eight different nationalities, it’s nice to reminded that it literally is a small world.
Despite having plans in her late teens to be a lawyer, she decided that she wanted her working life to be a bit more fun, so the degree led on, appropriately enough, to a job in television production. She has been a Production Manager at Tiger Aspect for two and a half years, working mainly in the factual department. “I go on a few shoots, but I’m always the most hated person there as I’m in charge of the money, and everyone making the programmes always wants more. But I don’t like it when people complain about having stressful jobs in the media – a mine or a call centre are stressful places to work, not in a TV company.”
Jai says it’s difficult to get started in London. “I have two cousins who have stayed, but lots of other people I know have gone back now. Others get stuck – they can’t afford to go back, or to stay. Even once you’re in a job like mine, you can get trapped on the treadmill a bit. With my media experience, I could probably move on and get a job in the States, but actually that’s the last place I want to go. I can’t see myself working back in The Gambia either, but I would like to live in another country.”
Jai’s sister is working in International Development, and is currently based in Burundi. “There’s a real problem at the moment, and that’s the job drain on Africa. Nurses, teachers, IT staff – they’re all coming to the West for work, and there’s no-one left to do these jobs in Africa.” She smiles ruefully. “Of course, you could say I’m doing the same thing. It’s hard, it’s a real personal sacrifice to be the first person to go back.” It’s sort of a modern-day version of slavery, I suggest. “Exactly! The Gambia was at the centre of the British involvement in the slave trade – ok, now they’re not forcibly taking people, but still, the west is taking our resources – our oil, our cocoa. Fort James, on James Island where the slave trade was based, is now a museum, and people are very aware of the history. I think in some ways it’s easier for Africans, because we know that our ancestors weren’t traded. But people from the Caribbean, sometimes they feel almost ashamed, and angry, about their family history. But they shouldn’t! They should be proud their ancestors survived!”
I mention Alex Haley, the African-American whose massively popular book ‘Roots’ traced his family’s history back to the mid-eighteenth century, and a village in The Gambia. “Hmm,” Jai notes, unimpressed, “He is a bit of a hate figure in The Gambia. He did all these interviews, got all these stories off the people he found, made a lot of money and didn’t give any of it to the people who made his book!”
After this, my usual “Do you miss the food” question comes as a bit of a let-down, although Jai remembers her surprise at seeing a Gambian food stall at Glastonbury some years ago – surprised as it was being run by men, who don’t generally cook too much in Gambian culture. “I shouldn’t say too much, though,” she smiles, “After all, my father and brothers are Gambian men.” Gambian men seem rather popular in other contexts, though, as Jai gleefully explains. “Oh my god! We have loads of Dutch women, Scandinavian women, German women – all these tourists who look like sausage meat has been piped into them – and they come to the coast and the beaches and pay for sex with Gambian men!” Jai covers her mouth and her eyes widen – we both agree that it is a very funny thought, although if it was the opposite (rich middle-aged European men going on holiday for sex with young non-European girls) it would seem rather less funny. Still, with the sausage-meat image in our heads, we wander out into Soho Square, still giggling a bit – Jai heads off home, and I make my way to Bar Italia to meet Paola and Silvana ...
Saturday, 12 May 2007
Viking or Cornish?
Owen Powell - 12th May 2007
Ann is the youngest person in her household, the youngest at her work, and, at 20, one of the youngest national representatives we have found so far. She finished her Danish equivalent of A-Levels last summer, achieving an average score of 8.2 (“Out of ten?” I exclaimed. “No. Out of thirteen. It’s middling,” said Ann.) She took Danish, History, English and Chemistry – the science aspect is compulsory for all students, though perhaps not that helpful if you want to go on to study something else. Ann is keen to continue in a linguistic direction at University, “English perhaps, or even journalism”. I glance down at the hurriedly-scribbled notes in my falling-apart notebook, and not for the first time feel an impostor. She’s applying to start a course this autumn, as the strict entrance requirements of the Danish University system meant that her “middling” 8.2 wasn’t quite enough to gain her a place directly after her school career finished. “One good way to boost your application is to prove you have experience living and working overseas,” says Ann, “Which is one reason why am I here.”
She chose London out of a combination of practicality and attachment. Firstly, English was her most developed foreign language, having studied it since she was twelve (although her French and German aren’t bad either). That left a choice of the UK or the US, and as she wasn’t sure she would get on with American culture, and had also “fallen in love” with London on several family holidays in her teens, the choice was simple. Those holidays also allowed her to do all the touristy stuff, seeing all the sights, so by the time she arrived here in January this year, she was ready to become an inhabitant rather than a visitor. She also rather ruefully notes that most tourist attractions in London are ruinously expensive, despite the cost of living comparing quite favourably to Denmark.
Ann first stayed in a Danish hostel in Finchley Road, sharing a dormitory with five other girls. “I think it was good that my first experience of living in London was with other Danish people,” she explains, “as it allowed me to settle in better. The people at the hostel were very supportive and kind, quite Christian and quite pure – so there was no drinking and partying. I did find it difficult when I started my job, as I was working till late at night and wanted to sleep longer in the mornings, but the girls I shared with were getting up very early, and using hairdryers, waking me up – you know how girls can be.” I nod sagely, immediately hoping this isn’t misinterpreted as betraying intimate knowledge of sharing a bedroom with five Scandinavian teenagers.
“I was there three months, and to be honest it was a relief when I left – it’s nice to have my own room now. I looked at hundreds of places, and chose Bromley by Bow just because it was cheap, really, but I’m very happy in the house. I share with two English guys, a girl from Malaysia, and a girl from Korea.”
“North Korea?” I blurt out, excitedly. (These days, whenever anyone mentions Korea, Alex and I usually get very animated and say “North” a lot until someone calms us down.)
“No. But I work with lots of foreign people. In fact, there is no-one English there. I’m a waitress in a Mediterranean restaurant. The owner is Persian, and my colleagues are from Brazil, France, Italy, Turkey, Mauritius, India and Pakistan. Occasionally, we’ll get a Danish customer – it depends what mood I’m in, but sometimes I’ll speak to them in English for the whole meal, then at the end say something like, ‘Shall I take away these empty bottles?’ in Danish, and see how they respond. That can be quite funny. One customer, he couldn’t place my accent, until eventually he said, ‘Ah, got it. You’re from Cornwall.’” Ann laughs. “I suppose my accent has changed, even in the few months I’ve been here. I only call home twice a week, so now I’ve left the hostel I can go days without hearing Danish. It’s awful, but sometimes I’m on the phone to my mum, and I’ll get my grammar wrong. I think in English a lot, nowadays.”
I ask about Denmark, and how mixed it is there. “Not so much as London, of course. Here you can go down Brick Lane and you’re in India, into South London and you’re in Africa. In Copenhagen, in particular, we have a growing Muslim population, but nothing like London.” I mention the controversy that flared up last year when a Danish newspaper printed some cartoons purporting to show the Prophet Muhammad. “Ah, yes,” says Ann. “That was problematic. Perhaps we don’t quite have the experience of dealing with minorities that England has.” Maybe it’s because we had an Empire, I suggest, and Denmark didn’t. “Well, we did have one colony, I think, a small island in the Caribbean. And of course, we once had England as part of our Empire, in the time of the Vikings.” Well, that certainly puts my perhaps rather boastful earlier statement into its proper context.
Ann is enjoying being in London. One of the most amazing things she says – indeed, it’s one of the most amazing things anyone I’ve interviewed so far has said – is that “the people in London are so friendly and polite.” I boggle my eyes, but Ann goes on. “Oh, yes - compared to Denmark, certainly. Here, if you tread on someone’s toes, they will apologise to you.” (I have to admit, that is true. It’s what I’d do). “I’m going back in July, and I’ll be sad to be leaving. But it’s easy to come back. Denmark’s really close, and you can get flights for about thirty pounds, so it’s not like I’ll be gone forever.”
Like many of the people we had met, Ann wasn’t ruling out a future stay in London, maybe as part of her degree course. In the mean time, her evening shift at the restaurant was starting. We wander through Leicester Square, and go past the Haagen-Dazs café. “Oh!” I say, “We should have met there, rather than Starbucks.” (Just like Alex, I seem to be meeting people at Starbucks by default). “It is Danish, isn’t it?” Ann looks a bit quizzical. “I don’t think so. I think it’s an American company that decided to have a made-up European name.” (I check this when I get home – it’s true). “It’s quite funny,” Ann goes on. “Lots of Americans, when I meet them, think that Denmark is the capital of Sweden. Here, most Londoners know what Denmark is, lots of them have been there." Rachel, my girlfriend is one of them - she went a couple of years back and came home raving about the cycle lanes. “Yes,” says Ann, “It’s much friendlier there. Here, I don’t think I would like to cycle. One thing that is so exciting about London is that there is lots happening, but I think if you’re on a bike, that is perhaps a downside.” Hmm, I think, as I wave goodbye to Ann, and once again unlock my bike. Here’s hoping for a relatively unexciting ride home ...
Thursday, 10 May 2007
Alex Horne – 10th May 2006 and 23rd May 2006
Tara and Chris have both already been mentioned elsewhere on this blog; the former as the girlfriend of our Icelander, Thor, the latter as the saviour of our Nearly Halfway Party. Initial contact with both was made at almost exactly the same time and thanks to a combination of poor organisation, cowardice and diplomacy on my part, I failed to pick one as our outright Canadian Representative. Here then, is a brief two-way blog, hopefully summing up both of their stories.
Tara is twenty-eight years old and has been living in London (with Thor) for the past seven months. Chris is thirty-six, has been here six years and was relieved Tara was so much younger than him as it meant she couldn’t have been one of his ex-girlfriends. That would have been too freakily coincidental (although a great story for us). As described before, I met Tara in a pub in Notting Hill. Chris and I met in a charming florist-cum-café opposite Charing Cross Hospital where he works in the IT department and which is confusingly located in Hammersmith.
On both occasions I arrived late, frustratingly so in Chris’ case as he’d mentioned in an email that after reading some of the blogs he didn’t expect me to be on time. Ha! I thought. I’ll be on time alright! But, despite that determination the dastardly buses denied me again (perhaps I should just leave a bit earlier) and I was forced to apologise once more. Chris then told me off for apologising (‘it’s so British! It’s not your fault, it’s the transport system’s fault’) and I found myself saying sorry for saying sorry.
When we arrived in the pub Tara asked Thor to get her a glass of milk. Unfortunately they didn’t serve milk, so she had a pint of lager instead. Chris drank something called Blackcurrant and Redcurrant Firefly which seemed quite appropriate in our flowery eatery. I found Tara through a friend of mine who plays Ultimate Frisbee at the weekend. As you might expect, this newish sport (I don’t think there’s ever been a Penultimate Frisbee) attracts a lot of international and, in particular, North American participants, and I had hoped to make it down to a game at some point. Maybe I still will. Chris probably would. He’s very much a go-getter type person. He likes trying new things and having got in touch with us through The London Paper has quickly become an invaluable member of the World In One City team.
Tara and Thor don’t know how long they’ll stay here. They both like to travel around and certainly don’t want to settle down just yet. Chris is marrying a Venezualan lady called Pat (she’s the PA to the ambassador of Venezuela so unable to represent her country here) next month (on 7-7-7, in Venezuela; that’s classy) and says that London could be the perfect home for them. Just as it does for Petra and her Nigerian husband, living in London would mean that both Chris and Pat’s families were equally accessible. ‘There are also huge opportunities for work here’, he tells me. ‘It’s in Europe, people speak English and there’s a temperate climate’, ideal for an international couple; while Venezuela might be too hot for him and Ottawa too cold for her (see Iceland), London’s famously average weather could well be just right.
According to Tara, Ottawa has 850,000 inhabitants. It’s a small population befitting a country that boasts just seven people per square mile. ‘When I recommend places for people to visit’, she said, ‘I suddenly realise that you can find them all on one block. It’s like one borough of London. It’s great but very compact.’ Chris is doing his best to make sure the Canadians who have come over here can still find each other. As a founding member and current president of the voluntary organisation Network Canada (mission statement: connecting Canadians), he helps put on twenty events a year. ‘We try to make it easier for people to network socially and commercially’, he told me. ‘They can meet people from their home town and experience all the different things London has to offer. I think Canadians, like the British, need a structure, a society, something to help them get on with things.’ Unlike South Americans, I suggest. ‘Absolutely. We’re much more reserved as a nation.’ I think back to Ligia, our Colombian, and can only agree.
‘Our newsletter reaches over four thousand people,’ Chris explained. ‘A bunch of us started it nine years ago with the support of the High Commission and it’s grown and grown ever since.’ I’m not surprised. Chris clearly knows how to organise people and events. I decide to try and learn from him. At the end of both of our interviews I mention my own actual line of work, stand up comedy, and insist that they come to see one of my gigs some time. ‘It’s a great evening out and you don’t even have to talk to each other!’ I say, trying to sound efficient and funny at the same time. They say they’ll do their best and I promise to add their names to my mailing list. I haven’t yet, admittedly, but I promise I will. Soon.