George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Friday 8 December 2006
Alex Horne – 8th December 2006
If you're a regular reader of 'Eurofruit' – "The International Marketing Magazine for Fresh Produce Buyers in Europe" you'll probably be wondering who's responsible for the inspired front covers on the three most recent editions. This month (Issue 391 - also featuring "Apples, Grapes, Southern Hemisphere Berries and Airfreight"), for instance, the headline "Green light for red kiwifruit"* was brilliantly brought to life by a simple line drawing of traffic lights, complete with various shades of the famous traditionally green fruit.
Well, one of the people responsible is Ligia Duran, the newest member of the design and production department who's come all the way from Colombia and whose surname is just one letter away from the name of another, less popular, fruit. And while sometimes hard not to tease the trade magazine in a manner similar to the 'Missing Words' round on Have I Got News For You, it should still be said that Eurofruit is lucky to have her.
I met Ligia thanks to a friend of mine called Mike who edits the fruit-based publication and therefore has to put up with the occasional bit of fruit-based banter. I joined the two of them for their traditional Friday lunch at Madeira, a fantastic Portuguese café just round the corner from Fruit Towers in Vauxhall (see the Portugual entry for more mouth-watering information).
So far I've tried to shape these entries in a way that cleverly combines individual stories with important and intriguing issues about the countries themselves. I occasionally even try to be funny. On this occasion, however, I'm pretty much going to jot down exactly what Ligia said in the order that she said it because it was a very entertaining and enlightening lunch hour and that's probably more than I can hope for with my own pretentious stylings. It might come out a bit rambling and unstructured but it was that sort of a chat so it's going to be that sort of an account. Good.
Before that, however, I should mention that on the day before our lunch, Kensal Rise was struck by a tornado in what was an extremely un-British minute of winter weather. One street half a mile away from us was utterly devastated and the BBC's helicopters are still circling above my (unaffected) house. People say it's been over-hyped because it's London and a lot of journalists live in or near the area but I was strangely proud to hear Ligia say on the way to the cafe that her family would probably have seen the pictures back home in Colombia.
Apparently, the Colombian news normally opens with some fairly strong coverage of whatever war is currently waging nearby followed by a serious look at the most recent political scandal. This barrage of gloom is then counterbalanced by a handful of scantily clad girls who tell the country about much more light-hearted stories, many of which seem to feature London. Last year's River Thames Whale was particularly popular. With a bit of luck our very own Kensal Twister may well be being given the South American treatment as I write this.
But that's enough about me and my hurricane-blasted home. This is about Ligia, Colombia and how she ended up drawing pictures of fruit-based travel signals for my mate Mike.
Despite her official title of 'Junior Designer', Ligia is an experienced professional. She trained in the country's capital Bogotá for five years and then worked for a well-respected company for another four. She could quite easily have continued to live in Colombia, or moved to somewhere like Spain or Chile, where she could speak her native Spanish and eat much better food in a much nicer (and less windy) climate. But she decided to move to England and, ultimately, London for three reasons.
First, Ligia is ambitious. In Colombia there are few opportunities for designers and she'd already reached the peak of her profession. To stay would have meant remaining at that plateau for the rest of her career, with only the slight annual pay increase to look forward to.
Second, she knew that the more challenging opportunities lay abroad. Whilst in Bogotá she spend most of her time and money attending weekly English classes but knew that she would never really become fluent without living in an English-speaking country.
Third, she didn't like Colombian men. Because, and this is music to the weedy ears of people like me and Owen, they're far too macho. Colombia has a particularly high female to male ratio and those males know the odds are in their favour. At any party a man can virtually pick and choose one of the many single women. They therefore cheat a lot and people like Ligia get pissed off and want to leave. I know that looks odd written down but that's what Ligia said and any place where less manly men have even a slight advantage over masculine hunks is alright by me.
And so a few years ago she made her way to the UK and, initially, Brighton, where she worked in hotels and bars whilst improving her English and meeting the man whom she would eventually marry and move to London to be with (the next sentence has three sets of brackets – apologies if they're unnecessary). In between cleaning the first toilets of her life (nearly every household in Colombia has a maid) she posted an advert offering her design talents for free on Gumtree (an invaluable website for people arriving in the UK hosting free adverts for housing, friends, jobs and business services) and fairly soon got picked up by The Voice (a weekly tabloid mainly aimed at the British Afro-Caribbean community). She then spent the next few months working all hours, seven days a week, earning enough money to survive, building up her portfolio and ultimately applying for work on the next rung of the ladder.
It paid off. Three months ago, the phone rang and she was invited to come to talk to the people at Fruit Towers. Three interviews later, the job was hers, Ligia screamed, stopped screaming, screamed again then phoned her mum in floods of tears.
Since then she's been getting to grips with the European design industry whilst improving her English and picking up a fair amount of 'bad' language from her potty-mouthed boss. Impressively, she still goes to an English Language school in Soho twice a week. In an oversight typical of our tentative start to the project, Owen and I had not yet thought to try one of these centres for other nationalities. I'd also not realised that non-EU pupils can pay as much as £4000 per year for classes. That's a huge amount of money for people often earning very small amounts of money. Luckily Ligia herself is now exempt after having lived here for more than three years and marrying a Brit (incidentally that particular Brit is from County Down, Northern Ireland. My wife is from Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. I can't quite detect a Northern Irish twang to Ligia's now near-perfect English but I do hope she eventually picks up the occasional Belfast vowel to complement her South American consonants).
Ligia says that Colombians love to work hard and she herself certainly embodies that ethos. The majority of London's Colombian community is based in Elephant and Castle. According to Ligia there are so many South Americans around the area that you can get a bus to Brixton, speak Spanish all the way and be understood by nearly everyone. But because Ligia is so keen to integrate herself into the British way of life, that's all I'm going to say about Elephant and Castle. Except that it must be a confusing and perhaps disappointing name for all those South Americans when they first arrive ("Che? No elephant? AND no castle?!" etc etc).
For Ligia, learning English is more about the culture than the grammar and her education is largely based on willing trial and error. On her very first night in Brighton she went to a pub and found the experience so novel that she fell fast asleep in her chair. For in English bars, as she quickly discovered, the custom is to drink beer or wine and then sit and talk. And talk and talk. Back in Colombia she would drink rum or shots but then dance and dance. And drink and dance. So people never really got so drunk they fell asleep in their chairs.
In fact, dancing, and salsa in particular, is incredibly important in Colombia – a fact that makes me think that Owen and I would soon lose any advantage previously gained by our effeminacy. As Ligia says, "If you can't dance, what do you do at parties? It doesn't matter if you're very pretty, if you can't dance, what can you do?" She herself, she says, is an excellent dancer. She's also keen for me to point out that Colombia is the best country in the world and whether or not it's true (I'm not sure if there is a 'Best Country' competition – I know about things like the Olympics and the World Cup but they're fairly sports-based tournaments – a general 'Best Country' competition sounds like an excellent and not-at-all incendiary idea), she says it with such conviction that I'm fairly sure she's probably right.
But would she go back? It's safer now, she says, but you never know what's going to happen next. Her Northern Irish husband feels the same about his homeland and would love to one day make the move to South America. When they could buy a five bedroom farmhouse for £20,000 near her home town of Barrancabermeja instead of whatever amount they've paid for a flat in Sydenham, I don't blame him.
Politically, next door neighbour (Venezuelan President) Hugo Chávez is potentially troublesome. He's being nice at the moment but apparently he's unpredictable. The USA have practically managed the Colombian government after initiating Plan Colombia in 1998. The controversial scheme designed to curb drug smuggling by supporting various different Drug War activities hasn't necessarily worked but it does mean that America now thinks it's in charge. It may also have something to do with why Ligia picked the Kingdom over the States of America when selecting an English-speaking country (with United in the name) to live in. She just doesn't feel comfortable there. She says that Mexicans, Colombians, Brazilians, Chileans (oh dear, we've got a lot of people still to meet…), in fact all South Americans are all the same to North American eyes – second class citizens.
And while we're sort of on the subject of drugs - when I told friends that I was off for a meeting with a Colombian most of them jumped to the far-fetched conclusion that I'd developed a sudden cocaine addiction. According to Ligia, however, that's a stereotype that doesn't really hold true for the Colombian people themselves. And the same goes for coffee. There may well be an active trade in both commodities going out of the country, but the people within Colombia just can't afford the good stuff. She's never seen cocaine in her life and has only tasted 'real' Colombian coffee whilst in London. Back home she drinks Nescafe.
Like everyone we've met so far, Ligia is hugely patriotic. Maybe it's because she's so far from home or maybe it's because Colombia really is the Best Country in the World, but either way, she paints a spirited picture of her birthplace. She also recommends the website www.poorbuthappy.com/colombia to anyone interested in visiting. It's a site set up by a Belgian bloke who fell in love with the country ten years ago and whilst well worth a look, I can't help thinking that in comparison, the U.K. is basically rich but glum. In fact, I can think of many affluent but miserable countries and a fair few impoverished but cheerful ones – is there a link? Would we all be happier if we didn't have any money? I don't know. But the food at this Portuguese café was definitely tasty but cheap and I went home satisfied on many levels.
*For all you fruit fans out there, a fact about the kiwifruit: In North America, South America and Europe, the 'fruit' part of the name is usually ignored because we very rarely find ourselves in situations where we might be confused with the bird of the same moniker ("Do you want a kiwi after your boiled egg?" "You're sick." "No, I meant the fruit." "Oh yes, that would be lovely.") In New Zealand, however, this sort of exchange is not uncommon ("Kiwi juice?" "Now, do you mean the juice of the fruit or…") so kiwifruit there is now mostly marketed under the brand-name Zespri.