George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Friday 23 February 2007
Alex Horne - 23rd February 2007
There is a small Norwegian community built around a church in Canada Water famed for its herring, waffle and brown cheese that I was looking forward to visiting at some point during the year. Before we got round to making this tasty pilgrimage, however, we were contacted independently by another of Norway’s imports who’d happened upon our project while visiting her own place of worship, myspace.
Ida Bondo (there’s an accent on the final ‘o’, but I can’t work out how to do it on my keyboard. Just imagine it’s been crossed out neatly, as if some killjoy had seen the comparatively fun ‘Bondo’ and thought ‘no, that really should be Bond, sorry’) came to England three years ago to study print journalism in Southampton. So basically she’s much more qualified to take on a project like us than Owen or I.
After she’d completed the course she moved to London with her English boyfriend (whose Dad’s main joke is to ask if people in Norway are particularly ‘hard of herring’ – that’s a good English Dad for you) and I met her for a coffee in the BBC where she’d recently surprised herself by snagging a job in development.
‘Ask me something exciting!’ she said as soon as we’d sat down in the canteen and I immediately stopped trying to spot famous people off the telly and tried to think of my most exhilarating question.
‘Do you have any hobbies’, I tried – not outstanding, I admit, but somehow hitting the jackpot. ‘Well, I go to a lot of burlesque parties’, she replied. ‘Yes of course you do’, I said, doing my best to take this news in my stride but almost certainly blushing, despite the fact that I didn’t really know what a burlesque party was. I thought it probably had something to do with basques or brasieres or something equally brazen so blushing was really the only option.
‘It’s essentially classy pole dancing’, Ida explained helpfully. ‘Singing, stripping, magic – old fashioned entertainment. Being a journalist I managed to blag some V.I.P. tickets to some parties on myspace and I loved it’. I know it’s a little pathetic to get embarrassed about this sort of thing but I’m English so I tried to focus on the magic and singing bit and just about managed to regain my composure. ‘So what do you do at these parties?’
‘Oh, I’m still creating my performer at the moment’, she said mysteriously, adding ‘but I’m not going to get my kit off’ to immediately lessen the mystery (and demonstrate yet more terrific colloquial English, perfected, she explained, by the subtitles used on English language programmes as opposed to dubbing).
‘I’d never have got into the whole burlesque scene if I hadn’t lived in East London’, she continued, explaining that she’d initially lived in ‘dull’ Ealing before falling in love with Hackney. ‘There’s a burlesque festival later this year if you fancy it?’ ‘Well…erm…’, I spluttered. ‘Will there be many other people from overseas’. She shook her head, ‘no, mainly English actually’. ‘Oh well’, I sighed, ‘I think I should really spend most of my time looking for foreigners. Yeah, it’s unfortunate but you know what work’s like…’ Phew.
Burlesque is something of an escape for Ida, who otherwise feels stifled by London life. She’s always lived by the sea and found her city existence ‘horrible’ at first. ‘So whereabouts in Norway are you from?’ I asked (again, not a particularly stirring enquiry but another amazing answer from Ida). ‘Well, my family own seventy two islands in a place called Rorvik Vikna, Nord Trondelag (ignore most of the ‘o’s bviously). ‘They actually live on the mainland but we all go to the islands in the summer. It’s fantastic. Cold seas but warm land. There’s no electricity or running water, just fish, ducks and geese. If you don’t kill, you don’t eat’. It sounds terrifying. She brought a couple of her English friends their once. They bravely jumped into the sea but turned blue and Ida had to fish them out.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, she’s not planning to stay in London that much longer. Even burlesque parties can’t make up for the blatant lack of seagull eggs, skiing and swimming with ice that she’s used to.
‘So, what next?’ I asked (why change a winning formula?). ‘I’m planning to go travelling for five or ten years’, she said breathlessly, and I agreed that if you’re going on a long journey it should definitely either be for five or ten years. ‘I want to travel the world and work as a journalist or write childrens books. I can’t do it here – London drains the creativity out of you’ (not good news for this particular creative exercise, I thought). ‘I’d love to go to Cuba at some point but I’m open to suggestions…’
‘Aha’, I said, at last seeing an opportunity to speak with some authority. ‘If you’re looking for somewhere unusual to visit, you could always try Georgia, or even Cape Verde…’ Well, I’ll probably never brave the world of burlesque or dive into the sub zero temperatures of the Nordic seas, but I can at least live vicariously through the people I meet doing this.
Thursday 22 February 2007
Don't Mention The Film
Owen Powell – 22nd February 2007
What could be more unusual than spending a morning with a genuine Hare Krishna who was also a tennis fan? How about having lunch with someone from an incredibly famous country that no-one really knows, someone who was about to become a top-secret Soviet space scientist but instead married the leading cricket statistician in the world?
The country was, of course, Kazakhstan, and our Kazakh, Irina, met us in the Lounge Bar, near to where she works in Holborn. It seemed almost impossible that we’d get through the whole chat without mentioning Sacha Baron Cohen’s recent film, and even though neither Alex nor I had seen it, it was one of the first things that came up. “Before Borat,” said Irina, “when I told people where I was from there were two reactions. Firstly, most people would just say, ‘Where is that?’ Secondly, some people who thought they knew where it was would say, ‘Stan ... stan ... stan ... but you don’t look Asian’.” And after Borat, we wondered? “Don’t go there,” she replied. We didn’t go there for the rest of our half hour with her.
Luckily, there was plenty else to talk about. Irina had been a student during the late 1980s, and spent six years doing a degree in Physics and English. It was a highly sought-after course (only two people were accepted onto it each year) and was supported by the KGB. After her degree, she went on to do a Phd researching solar cells for satellites, but before she got to work in what I like to imagine as a James Bond-style lair, the USSR collapsed. The future of the Soviet space programme didn’t seem to be very secure, so Irina found herself working in the EU embassy – the first the EU had established in central Asia. As she wryly pointed out, one of the consequences of the collapse of communism in Russia was that lots of London city firms started targeting the massively qualified ex-Soviet mathematicians and scientists who were looking for alternative work. Irina came to London 12 years ago, spent a year studying economics, a year doing an MBA, and has been an actuarial consultant ever since.
Going back to Kazakhstan for visits is proving troublingly difficult. The last time she tried, in 2002, she was nearly arrested after an immigration official had some concerns with her having a long-term UK visa. Since then, her family have been visiting her in London instead. Kazakhstan itself has a quirkier history than even some recent films that we’re not mentioning would have you believe. Its old capital Almaty (in the south-east) was downgraded and replaced by a new capital in 1998. This city, in the centre of the country, was originally known as Akmola (until 1961), then Tselinograd (until 1991), then renamed Aqmola (different spelling) after Kazakhstani independence. Aqmola is generally taken to mean ‘White Grave’, which wasn’t considered a good name for the new capital city. So it was again renamed, and the new capital city of Kazakhstan is called Astana, meaning ‘Capital City’. Irina had lived in Almaty, and said that although it was frequently minus 15 degrees there, she never owned a hat. There was absolutely no wind, and no moisture in the air. “Once you fix your hair in the morning, that is it for the rest of the day, it does not change,” Irina said. “You ask any woman from Kazakhstan who is now in London, they will tell you that this is the one thing they miss most from Kazakhstan. In London ...” Irina tailed off, and made a face. We got the impression that London was not good for hair.
Irina also said that Kazakhstan had a strong international feel. In her school class of 32 pupils, there were 14 different nationalities represented. Dotted around on the steppes are clusters of German villages, moved wholesale from their original location in western Russia by Stalin during World War II, as he feared they might try to help the invading German troops. If you’re wondering what German villages were doing in Russia in the first place, it was down to Catherine the Great (herself of German extraction) who, 250 years ago, invited Germans to farm land near the Volga, allowing them to keep their culture and language. There are now an amazing 300,000 Volga Germans living in Kazakhstan.
Like many of the people we have met who are now raising children in London, Irina is keen to give her family a good sense of their heritage and speaks to her children only in Russian. They also attend a Russian school in Hampstead. She met her husband, David, in the company she now works for, not, as she was at pains to point out, “in the desert, in a yurt, drinking horse milk”. Intrigued by his un-English surname, Kendix, they managed to trace back their respective family trees to discover that their great-grandparents were from villages 50km apart in what is now Ukraine. Kendix, to Irina’s ear, sounds very similar to the Ukrainian word for ‘stomach’. David also works as an actuary, but more excitingly (probably – I don’t really know what an actuary does) he developed the statistical system that the ICC uses to rank international cricket teams. He and Irina had been to the cricket World Cup in South Africa four years ago, and plans were afoot to visit the forthcoming tournament in the Caribbean. However, before Alex and I thought to ask her if she had any spare tickets she had finished her chicken salad, and headed back to work.
Alex Horne – 22nd February 2007
“God fulfils our desires”, said Pranadikha in the latter stages of our interview and I found it impossible to argue with the sentiment. Firstly, and generally, because she’s as calm and hypnotic as you’d expect somebody with an important job in London’s Hare Krishna hub to be and I couldn’t imagine her arguing with anybody. But also, more specifically, because after three trips to the temple over the past month, we’d finally been granted a Croatian willing and very able to tell the story both of her own journey to London and that of the Hare Krishna movement itself.
After our previous visits, two phone calls and several emails, Owen and I were relieved when the ‘receptionist’ at the Soho Street Temple told us we were expected and should ring the bell by the black door three buildings up the road. It was all fittingly mysterious.
That is, until we were let into what was actually an exceptionally bland office building (especially compared with the golden shininess of the shrine a couple of doors away) with the legend ISKCON emblazoned on the wall as if it belonged to some faceless American chemical corporation.
Pranadikha met us with a smile and a remarkably firm hand shake on the first floor, gave us a glass of water each and sat us down in her office while she made sure her busy schedule was clear for the next hour. We sat expectantly on two of those swivelly chairs with wheels, trying our best not to fidget, like kids about to meet Father Christmas (if that’s not too inappropriate a simile).
We weren’t disappointed. One of Pranadikha’s two jobs (the other being the surprisingly bureaucratic sounding post of ‘property manager’ for the equally official International Society for Krishna Consciousness, whose abbreviation we’d noticed before) is to talk to children in various primary schools around the capital about Hinduism and she proudly handed us a folder full of bright and heartfelt thank you letters the kids had made to show how much they appreciated her story-telling. Over the next sixty minutes we got our very own adult (and slightly more personal) version of the Krishna tale and by the end of it we too felt like making some sort of card to say thanks. I guess this is it.
She started by telling us the four principles of the Krishna belief; no meat, no intoxicants, no sex before marriage and no gambling. Even before hearing these ground rules, Pranadikha had already unintentionally made me feel a little like an interloper when, despite the pile of footwear lying by the office door (the only sign that this was no ordinary workplace), she’d told us we needn’t remove our shoes. At the time I’d quite wanted to. I thought I could probably blend in pretty well here. I’m a fairly peaceful bloke. Casting my mind back to the previous typically boozy Saturday night, however, I realised that we still had a way to go before revealing our socks would really be an appropriate thing to do.*
Reassuringly, Pranadhika told us that she herself had taken quite some time to adapt to this more abstemious (and much healthier) way of life. Whilst still at school in the north of the country she, like most of us, had seen Hare Krishna devotees around, they’re hard to miss, and by her eighteenth birthday she’d actually met a few and learnt a little about their philosophy. But she wasn’t interested in ‘the East’, and was just about to start training as a vet. Yes, a vet. And maybe that’s not necessarily worthy of repetition but for me, for some reason, it sounded unlikely and exotic. In fact I think she’s the first qualified vet I’ve met in London. So there.
Back then Pranadhika was much more interested in living in London than making any sort of Krishna-inspired pilgrimage to India and applied for a post as an au pair in England after she’d qualified (as a vet!). In the meantime she began to meet a few more followers and visited her local Krishna temple the odd time but still, she says; “I didn’t like it. I wasn’t attracted to it. I was in another mood. I had other interests. And I was a Catholic” (like 87.8% of Croatians).
In her fifth and final year at veterinary school, however, she met two men (not unlike Owen and myself) (no, sorry, probably nothing like Owen and myself) who changed the direction of her life for good (yes, in both senses). The first, a spiritual teacher, invited her to come to the temple once again and listened patiently as Pranadhika asked yet more questions. Her curiosity grew, she invited him round for tea and he invited her back to the temple. She eventually started to truly appreciate his beliefs but still didn’t like the food or the music: “Croatia is very different to England, remember. If you saw someone with black skin you’d say, ‘wow!’ It’s not a cosmopolitan place, so all this spicy food was very unusual”, she laughed.
Still, the philosophy was powerful enough and inspired by the persuasive logic of his answers, she started going to the temple more regularly. She’d even given up meat by then (“just like that”, she said, but without the standard Tommy Cooper gesture or expression) although she was still smoking.
Not for long. Soon she was to meet another Croatian teacher, a Krishna devotee and professor of physics with an IQ of 170 who plied her with scientific answers that appealed to her own medical background. The combination of philosophy and fact proved impossible to resist. “I found it the perfect marriage of religion and science”, she told us, before listing off names like Mandel, Einstein, Newton and Faraday to demonstrate illustrious and religious scientists of the past.
By the time she was meant to be looking after other people’s children in England, she had fallen in love with the faith and forgotten all about London. She started actively practising Krishna consciousness in 1991 before giving the four solemn vows the following year. It was then that she moved into the temple in Split and was given the name Pranadhika. Legally she is still called Natalija but, like Pope Benedict, she is now known only by her spiritual moniker (which, by the way, is the same name as Krishna’s wife and means ‘She who is dear to Lord Krishna more than his own life’ but with Dasi on the end, meaning ‘servant’).
“Of course that was a very big moment for me”, she explained as candidly as ever. “When you move into a monastery you feel extremely fired up and you have to think ‘can I do this for the rest of my life?’. It’s a massive thing and of course it is hard at times. But we’re not as strict as some religions. You can live in the temple for a bit, then change your mind, move out, get married, it’s not a big deal”.
Indeed after five years living in her Croatian temple she did decide to move away, live outside and enjoy a little more privacy. First, however, she made that trip to South India where, unlike Croatia or London, four in every five people are Hindu and the orange robes of the Krishna community don’t stick out quite so much.
Hinduism, and the Hare Krishna movement in particular, was fairly limited to India until the mid 1960s, Pranadhika told us. Then, at the age of seventy, one man, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (or Prabhupada for short) brought Krishna Consciousness to the west. Well, one man and the British Empire. “Remember, Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion. We’re not trying to convert people. That’s why we’ve never caused wars in the past. But by the grace of the UK, it was spread all over the world”.
“Thanks” to colonization, Hindu workers were taken from India to Fiji, Kenya, Uganda and the West Indies and the faith was subconsciously spread to all corners of the globe. Prabhupada, in the meantime, headed off alone to America. “This was back in 1965, there was no internet, he was seventy, he didn’t have a clue what was going to happen. He had no money, just a few rupees – such dedication, it’s amazing”, she said, eyes wide. “But step by step he did it”.
He lived in New York, close to Tompkins Square and would meditate on a bench in the park. A stranger once asked him what he was doing there and he replied, “I have so many temples and followers”. “Where?” the man asked. “They are here, just waiting to be manifested” came the assured response, a typical display of faith that was indeed fulfilled.
“This was the 1960s and he was advocating an ethos entirely opposite to the lifestyle at the time”, continued Pranadhika. “Everyone was smoking and drinking, it was the sexual revolution. But it was deeper than that, people were really looking for a change of consciousness, a different way of thinking”. If we ever do this same experiment in New York, we’ve promised to go to the temple at 26, 2nd Avenue and pay homage to a plaque on a tree in Tompkins Square set up by one Mayor Guiliani in honour of the philosopher.
Prabhupada then sent six disciples from USA to London who famously got in touch with Lennon and Harrison, and inspired the latter especially to spread the reputation of Krishna with an album and number one single which was played on Top Of The Pops and allowed Krishna devotees to travel all over Europe chanting the names of Vishnu (Hare, Rama and Krishna). The first (tiny) temple was set up in Bury Place in 1969 but thanks to Harrison’s celebrity endorsement the movement rapidly swelled and after Bhaktivedanta Manor was built in Herefordshire, the London sanctuary was moved to Soho Street in 1977, with Mick Jagger sponsoring the marble on which the main Deity stands.
About twenty years later Pranadikha herself came to England, moving to Oxford in December 1998. Just six months later, however, she moved back to Croatia and worked as a vet for two months, still questioning herself and her faith, but finally deciding that her life was now devoted to Krishna.
In 1999 she made her final move to London and is now a British resident. “I was thinking about why I like it here and what would be interesting for you guys”, she said a little coyly. “Now, this is probably mundane for you but I’m a big tennis fan…” Mundane? Not at all! After desperately trying to find some common ground with nearly all of our previous forty six discoveries by clumsily crowbarring sport into our conversations, we’d finally got the chance to discuss it in perhaps the most unlikely of settings.
“I’m a big tennis fan”, she continued as we nodded enthusiastically. “When I was growing up I always wanted to go to Wimbledon – that was my dream. But when I didn’t come and work as an au pair I forgot all about it. I was so engaged in Krishna consciousness. Then when I came here for the first time in 1998/9 it didn’t feel foreign. I immediately felt comfortable here”. Having traveled round the globe once already, she was used to being in strange places but this time it was different. “I was sitting there in the car with my friend thinking, ‘I’m where I’m meant to be. God fulfils our desires’. And then suddenly I realised I’d forgotten all about tennis!”
Just two years later, in 2001, Croatia’s most famous sportsman, Goran Ivanisevic, unexpectedly reached the final of Wimbledon after qualifying as a wildcard. Pranadhika had just returned from a trip to L.A. and was in the capital. What’s more, because of some surprising rain (in the summer? Yes, in the summer!) the match was to take place, for the first time ever, on a Monday – People’s Monday, meaning that ‘normal’ fans could come along and queue for what are usually highly exclusive tickets. And what a final it was. Arguably the most nerve-racking and exhilarating contest in open era history, won, of course, by the honorary Londoner and Croatian hero Goran, born and raised in Split – the same town as Pranadhika herself. He was not only the first wildcard but also the first Croatian in history to claim the Wimbledon title.
Pranadhika didn’t go.
“But I had the chance!” she chuckles. “I had the chance to fulfill my desires.”
Owen and I both loved the fact that Pranadhika was a huge tennis fan but I’m not quite sure why we were so surprised - I know quite a few vicars who like cricket. But I guess I probably went into the meeting a little prejudiced, expecting to meet some noble hippy and possibly be preached at. Neither of those things happened. Her belief, she explained (in a very non lecture-like way) was that; “God lives in three planes – all around us, in the hearts of living beings and in the spiritual world. We should therefore respect the environment and each other (a typical service will begin and end with the word ‘namaste’ meaning ‘I respect you’) and have fun in life”. And according to her interpretation of the faith, having fun can definitely mean watching tennis.
As we left her office Pranadhika handed us a couple of books by or about Prabhupada, thus doing her bit to keep up ISKCON’S impressive statistic that “every seven seconds one of Srila Prabhupada’s books is distributed somewhere in the world”. I’d been given one several years earlier by a monk in Chichester but had never even removed its unnecessary cling-film-like wrapper. After today’s chat, however, I’m definitely going to try get a little further - especially after her conspiratorial whisper of, “I’ve always regretted not going to that final” on our way out. Namaste.
* On a very enjoyable trip to the greyhounds in Walthamstow followed by a birthday in a bar in Crouch End we’d certainly consumed both meat and intoxicants, definitely gambled and while I’m no longer able to have sex before marriage, there’s a fairly good chance that at least one couple in our party broke rule number three too. Full House. And even that’s a gambling term.
Wednesday 21 February 2007
Georgia on my Mind
Alex Horne – 21st February 2007
Before returning to her office, high up in Eventika Towers, Katerina, our Grade-A Belarusian, had promised us a Georgian. Unsurprisingly, a week later she’d not only made contact with the man but had primed him about our project so fully that when I finally got round to sending him an email he replied within minutes to say:
“Yes, I do know about you and your friend and about your interesting project. Katerina told me everything about it. I'll be more than happy to meet you today or tomorrow if it is convenient for you. Ideal time for me is either lunch break or after work (at about 5:54
Not feeling confident enough to meet at such a precise time in the evening I picked the lunch break option and not wanting to look as badly organised as I am, set off an hour early for the meeting and still only arrived at his workplace in Bloomsbury with half an hour to spare. Without much of a plan I wandered aimlessly for a while before being swept along by the tide of multi-lingual tourists that was flowing into the British Museum – which, I decided, was as good a place as anywhere to pass my extra time.
I was right. Inside, I headed to the magnificent central greenhouse that was opened in time for the most recent millennium, where I saw a sign for the Paul Hamlyn Library whose purpose, it said, is ‘illuminating world cultures’. Ah ha! I could do some research! And if this library was willing to help shed light on the country in question, I’d be a fool not to go in.
So I went in. It was a lot like a normal library, but grander and even emptier and I immediately found a free computer in whose search engine I could type ‘Georgia’. Within nano-seconds (probably) The Making of the Georgian Nation popped up with its very own grid-reference (947.85 Sun) which I scribbled on my hand before leaping up and setting off once again. I was getting into the whole doing some investigation in a library thing.
Looking from the shelves to my hand and back again, I walked clockwise past books on Rome, Greece, Asia, the Renaissance, England, China and Yemen, realized I’d gone too far and eventually found the chunky but manageable book nestled between the histories of Scandinavia and Byzantium. It contained four hundred pages all written by Ronald Grigor Suny, the Alex Manoogian Professor of Modern Armenian History at the University of Michigan, and all pertaining to Georgia. With just twenty minutes remaining till my appointment I decided to read the first and last pages and hope they would summarise the intervening 398.
Unfortunately, with the most recent of Georgia’s revolutions happening just four years ago, the end of this history book (published in 1994) was already more outdated than most. The introduction, however, contained a timeless tale that I would later recount to Berdia in a bid to impress him and which I’ll include now, because I like it:
“A favourite story of modern Georgians relates how God came upon the Georgians only after He had parceled out all the countries of the world to other nationalities. The Georgians were in typically festive mood and invited the Creator to join them in wine and song. The Lord so enjoyed himself that He decided to give these merry and carefree people the one spot on earth that He had reserved for Himself – the valleys and hills that lie to the south of the great Caucasus Mountains.”
So as I headed off to meet Berdia* for the first time, I was looking forward to spending time with a typically festive, wine-loving, song-singing, merry and carefree sort of person. And while he didn’t quite look as happy-go-lucky as I was hoping, dressed immaculately in pin stripe suit and shiny shoes, he certainly proved to be exceptionally good company.
“I love black coffee”, he said as he guided me into the Starbucks nearest his work and insisted on buying me one too. It might not have been wine but he drunk it with gusto then started talking eagerly and with unerringly precise English. He’s been in London for three years now and we both agreed that people here are lazy when it comes to learning languages. He has two young sons back in Georgia, both already studying English and Russian (alongside Georgian) at their school. In fact Nicolas, the littlest, had picked up so much from the cartoon network in his bedroom that once, at the age of four, he surprised his father by saying; ‘I’m going to sleep now – please close the door’.
‘My generation is absolutely different’, says Berdia, referring to the cable TV and American movies his kids have enjoyed and nicked their English from. He’s 32 in a couple of weeks and has already experienced three revolutions in his homeland. ‘I’ve seen so many bad things. I don’t want my sons to see what I’ve seen.’ So now he’s working hard to ensure they get all the opportunities in the world, earning a Masters in I.T. from the University of East London, eventually winning himself a five-year visa, and filling every minute in between with part time work and yet more study.
Back in 1991/2, Berdia was still at university in the capital T’bilisi when the civil war was waging. While his lectures took place on one side of the river, his compatriots fought on the other. They never stopped attending their classes, even though they could sometimes see the bullets screaming over the water. Now, sitting in Starbucks on Southampton Row, just down from the plush showroom where he works, he says it’s hard to believe what he and his people went through.
‘Georgia is a very old country’, he continues, and I manage to slip in the story I’d read that very morning. ‘Yes’, he laughs, ‘it’s true. We are very hospitable. We love to have a nice table with fine wine – we have the best wines in the world – and we like to pronounce a toast whenever someone has a drink. In fact, we’re the only table in the world at which every single glass has to be toasted!’ I like the ideas both of the constant toasting and this global feast, at which every country has their table.
‘That war was a black page in Georgia’s history’, he says, leaning forward again. ‘But at least we learnt from it. The Rose Revolution of 2003 was different because the opposition and the people made the president step down without guns. Not a single bullet was fired and the government quit’.
Soon after, he left too and spent every day for the next couple of years toiling industriously in London.
It paid off. He now works for Spink, the venerable auction house founded in 1666 and dedicated to the collection of coins, medals and stamps. ‘I got a promotion two weeks ago’, he smiles. He’s clearly proud of his employers and tells me that he’s discovered several Georgian coins in the company’s numismatic books. ‘I used to think auctions were very posh, I’d see people spending millions on TV and never imagined I’d one day be the IT manager of one of the oldest auction houses on the planet.’
‘Before I worked here I wasn’t interested in that world but I’m fascinated now’, he tells me, and this seems to be a trend in Berdia’s life. He was no good at things like maths or physics at high school but when the computer revolution (this doesn’t count as one of the three mentioned above) kicked off, he found his feet and got his first job at the age of sixteen. Since then he’s worked almost every day of his life, taking virtually no holidays or sick leave. ‘I hate being off sick. I’m so used to work now, I’m addicted’, he says, grinning again. ‘I’m a workaholic. I quite often come in on a Saturday but I think if you enjoy it, it’s fine. The person’s happy if he does what he likes to do. And if you really want to do something and you really try hard, you can definitely get it. I like challenges. I like to finish things. Nothing’s impossible. For six months I lived on five hours sleep a day, but I got there in the end’. He’s a very positive man.
Coming to London, he says, was the hardest thing he’s had to do. Like everyone we meet he says it’s an extremely expensive place to live, but Berdia doesn’t complain. ‘I had to work very hard both on my essays and in my free time’. Thankfully, his degree in English from back in Georgia stood up to the test and he says the ‘huge challenge’ of London was definitely worth it. ‘Back home the people are lovely and the country is beautiful (‘I know’, I said, ‘I’ve heard the story…’) and you can find a job if you’re smart and hard working. But the possibilities are limited. London is the centre of Europe, of the world. You can do anything here if you’re hard working and want to achieve something’. Like I said, he’s a very positive man.
Berdia is currently working with Spinks’ CEO on the company’s first on-line auctions. In fact, if you have a look at http://www.spink.com/podcast/index.html you’ll be told all about the next one on April 19th and can maybe even bag yourself your own piece of history. It’s an exciting and, indeed, revolutionary step for such a traditional industry.
Berdia’s always been ambitious. ‘Even in my childhood I knew I wanted to graduate in the UK or the US. When I was 12 or 13 I was reading a lot about England and learning English. I heard many stories about London and started to get interested’. Now, thanks to his job at Spinks, he has secured that highly-prized five-year visa and plans to stay for as long as he can after that.
‘I want to bring my children here – once they’ve finished their schooling in Georgia. Basic education there is important. I’m not saying British education isn’t good but they’re Georgians. I want them to learn Georgian history. A person has to know his own country before he can travel the world, otherwise they’re lost’. This, like everything he said, was again both sensible and inspiring. Professor Ronald Suny closed his book with the words;
“Georgia has the experience and potential of intolerance and exclusivity, as do most nations, but it also has traditions of inclusion and generosity, tolerance and acceptance of other cultures. Whether Georgia can be successfully transferred from a society rent by conflict into a pluralistic democratic nation will depend on Georgians rethinking their history. The key to the future lies in what a people selects from its past, how it imagines itself as a community and continues to remake itself as a nation.”
With people like Berdia looking after the past, I’m sure Georgia will be just fine.
*Berdia, he told me, is an unusual name even in Georgia; ‘I typed it into a search engine to find out what the name meant and do you know what it told me? ‘You must be an alien!’’
Wednesday 14 February 2007
Law and Mantras
Owen Powell - 13th February 2007
After we had joint-interviewed Saraa and Mohamed (see Mongolia and Guinea), we decided to tackle the increasing queue of keen students by talking to one each at a time. Just as Alex had some bad luck with ‘doubles’, people from countries we had already met, I found that two of the three people I spoke to were also inadmissible under the strict rules we had set ourselves. First up, Maria from Ecuador was in London solely as a student, and wasn’t working here. Second, Vladimira from Slovakia was so settled in the UK that she now lived in Arundel and worked as a head waitress in a restaurant there. Even though Maria had never seen snow until last week, and Vladimira encouraged me to go skiing in her home country, I had to let them down gently and turn to the next person in the queue.
Shelbys was from Venezuela, and had been in London for just over a year and a half. As well as studying at the school, she also worked there part-time as a secretary, and had had previous jobs in London as a waitress and au pair. But her long term intention was to get her English up to a good enough standard (it was already pretty good) that she could go back into the field she worked in in Venezuela: Law.
Shelbys had been a public prosecutor in Venezuela for most of her twenties (she’s now 32). However, after a number of upheavals in Venezuelan political life it became difficult to continue working, and she had to leave her job. Leaving the country to find work elsewhere seems to have been the next logical step, and so Shelbys had travelled to Europe.
Although Shelbys didn’t mention him by name, most Europeans with half an eye on the news will associate Venezuela with its President, the entertaining Hugo Chavez. I have been reading about his speeches and policies for a while now, and find much of what he does and says compelling. He has become a sort of poster boy for the Left, a totemic figure opposing the advance of US policy across Latin America, and appearing to do a lot for social equality in his own country. (Much of the investment comes from the sale of oil, though, so his progressive credentials are automatically compromised). However, during this project we have met various people from the area (for example, Ligia from Colombia) who have a very different attitude. I wasn’t sure that my comfortable Western European preconceptions (gathered from occasional articles in the liberal press) added up to much, though, so didn’t attempt to discuss the ins and outs of current Venezuelan politics with Shelbys, and, as lessons were beginning again, we collected together our notes and headed out onto the street.
After leaving the language school, we had one further appointment. Alex has mentioned elsewhere our first interaction with those Oxford Street regulars, the Hare Krishnas, and today was the day we made good on our promise to return. We had been told to arrive at 1pm, any afternoon, and we would be able to take part in that day’s public lunch lecture, open to all. So, after nodding sagely at the lady at reception and at anyone else we found on the staircase, we found ourselves peering through the glass door to the temple, shoes in hand. The people inside were chanting mantras. Occasionally new people would quietly walk past us, open the door, go in and ring a small bell that was attached to the wall. Sometimes they would go in and not ring the bell. The whole bell-ringing scenario filled me with dread, as all religious services do. I’m useless at religion. I always find that for something that’s inherently spiritual, there are a lot of systems and technical stuff going on that it’s all too easy to get wrong. Were we supposed to ring the bell or not? I had visions of us pushing the door open, brashly giving it a ding and offending the Krishna devotees for eternity. Or, alternatively, sneaking in and ignoring the bell, which might mean terrible things for our ancestors or descendants. There was no way of knowing. We looked at our watches. It was five to one. Did we dare go in yet?
Thankfully, the Krishna temple is run to a pretty tight schedule. Just before one, the chanting came to a triumphant conclusion, and the room started to empty. We caught sight of one of the monks we had met the previous week, and he ushered us in for the start of the lunch lecture. There was no need to ding! We found some mats on the floor, and took a seat. Rather smugly, I crossed my legs. Alex struggled. There are benefits to being five foot seven, after all.
I don’t want to reveal too much of the mystique of what goes on in the Krishna temple. It’s well worth popping along yourself – everyone there is very friendly and open, there are some interesting ideas being discussed, and you get a nice communal meal as well. (Krishnas famously don’t eat meat, fish or eggs – on the day we attended, it was a special feast day where they don’t eat pulses either but our potato and broccoli combo was delicious). The only slightly awkward moment came right at the start when, out of thirty or so attendees, we were noted as being the only new faces and asked why we were there. The factually true answer – “To find someone from another country” – seemed to be inappropriate, so Alex and I mumbled something about being curious to discover the basis of Krishna beliefs. The man leading the session was glad to oblige, and seemed to direct the whole of his talk towards us. We felt quite honoured, especially when we found out after the event that he was a retired rock star who had played (as a session musician) on Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting.
After the talk and the meal, suitably enlightened and fed, we thought about how best to go about finding our country representative. The lady at reception gave us a contact number for one of the centre’s leaders, Pranadikha, and said that she would be able to help. One phone call later, we were a step closer. We had swapped email addresses, and a meeting was on the cards. What would happen next?
Tuesday 13 February 2007
Back to School
Alex Horne – 13th February 2007
We arrived nice and early for our third trip to the Oxford International Language School and were welcomed by the friendly faces of Vishan (Mauritius No.2) and Angela (Jamaica – sort of). As break-time approached we made small talk about last week's snow and this week's slightly milder weather but Owen and I were only really thinking about what might happen in the next half an hour.
Thankfully Vishan kept us grounded with some more invaluable comments about life in London, the best of which, preceded by an exemplary world-weary sigh, was; "sometimes on the buses here you literally can't even breathe".
Unfortunately we didn't have time to ponder this oxygen-starved transport quandary for very long as Angela soon whisked us through to the staff/common room where she arranged biscuits and he made coffee. And no sooner were the refreshments prepared than in came the students, shepherded, of course, by Angela, and looking appropriately sheepish.
Owen, I should say, was on fine form this morning. After a few awkward minutes that took me back to all those teenage discos I'd endured in which everyone was too shy to talk to anyone else, he suddenly stood up and launched into a brilliant speech explaining just what the hell we were doing there and exactly what the hell we wanted them all to do. It was a fine piece of oratory that I was quite unprepared for. If only he'd been around when I was going through puberty and trying to dance.
The only downside of this remarkable display of courage and rhetoric was that everyone suddenly wanted to talk to us and we only had four eyes, two mouths and no shorthand between us. Still, we knew we had just twenty odd minutes to meet as many of them as possible so got cracking with Saraa, a smiley young lady all the way from Lambata in Mongolia. Yes, Mongolia! (I'm disappointed to report) I literally punched the air when she said the word.
Unsuprisingly, she seemed all too aware of her country's famous out-of-the-way-ness and repeatedly informed us "it's near China" and "it's not far from Russia" with the determined insistence of someone who rarely meets anyone who has a clue where she's from.
She's been in London a year now and enjoys it despite the cold (although the average temperature in Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar, is -16°C in February so I'd have thought she'd have appreciated today's balmy morning). She plans to stay for at least another three years before looking for a more 'professional job' with her new improved English. She lives in Brixton which, she says with typical Mongolian understatement (she's the only Mongolian I've ever met so this is wild conjecture), "is fine".
But then, already, it was time to move on. The queue of foreigners behind Saraa was looking impatient and the clock was ticking (this, of course, isn't unusual for clocks but that's what people say when they really mean that time is running out).
Next up was Mohamed, a cool looking guy in baggy clothes (except for the baseball cap which was snug) who I would have guessed was from the U.S.A. Until he spoke, at which point I would have asked for another go then changed my first guess to France. And I would have been wrong again and given up. He's from Guinea.
They do speak French there, along with over a (slightly excessive) hundred local languages, of which Mohamed has mastered three. His English is pretty good too and actually seemed to improve after a faltering start as his story began to tumble forth. When we eventually and reluctantly managed to stem his verbal tide we'd learnt that:
- He currently works in MacDonalds to pay for his study but knows that he "just can't stay in that sort of job, for sure".
- He says "for sure" a lot and it makes him look and sound even cooler.
- He's lived in France and Switzerland at various points in his life but prefers London because he's never been a victim of racism here. "French people", he says "are bloody racist", before apologising for his language. I'd like to say he said "excuse my French" but I don't think they're on to colloquialisms yet.
- Lewisham is his home now and he's pleased by the amount of black people he sees on posters, TV and in public positions compared to the rest of Europe.
- But he feels it's his duty to return to Guinea at some point in the future and employ his skills in his homeland where he can really make a difference: "A diploma here doesn't mean that much, but in Africa it really does".
- He'll be proud to take his London qualification back home with him, for sure.
We were sad to say goodbye to Mohamed, who'd been as inspiring as it's possible for someone to be in a four minute period in a staffroom overlooking Oxford Street, but we had work to do and the several remaining students weren't going to interview themselves. In fact, with the next lesson looming, Owen and I decided to tackle the next few separately and so embarked on a speed-dating scenario, determined to rattle through the rest and not get bogged down by things like 'inspiration' or 'moving true life stories'.
And rattle through my group I did as Paulo, Ahmet and Fabian were instantly dismissed for being Portuguese, Turkish and Brazilian respectively. It felt odd and wrong to say 'no, we've got you, sorry' and clearly disappoint people who'd only come to help and maybe practise a little English but time was not on our side and we'd already banned compassion from the proceedings.
Mercifully, next up was Carolina, a highly motivated twenty seven year old from the fabulously named Cochabamba in Bolivia. "It's beautiful, lovely and hot there", she said a little wistfully, "but my husband is here".
She's lived in South Wimbledon for a couple of months now and is planning to stay for at least two more years while her husband works as a manager for Pret-A-Manger. For now, with just one income between them, money is tight, but Carolina is determined to get a decent job herself once she's perfected her English. Until then, despite her Bolivian degree, she says she'll have to work "as a cleaner of something".
Midori, on the other hand, is concentrating on having the best possible time during her stay in London. This is her first visit to any country other than her homeland Japan and so far it's lasted two years and seven months. Was she scared when she arrived, I asked: "Oh yes, but I could handle it", she replied and handle it she certainly has.
The best thing about London, she says, is meeting people from all over the world, which seemed quite an appropriate thing to say in this particular set of circumstances. Unfortunately I then let myself down geographically yet again when she told me she was from Osaka. I was fortunate enough to spend a month travelling around Japan just a couple of years ago so confidently said, "Oh, Osaka – that's way up North!" "No", said Midori, coping with this situation especially well: "It's in the South". "Oh yes", I backtracked, "that's right. It's in the South".
Living in Streatham, Midori's got many more serious things to worry about than this Englishman's ignorance, but seems able to deal with them all with her customary cool head. I mentioned the well-publicised shooting that had taken place at the ice-rink round the corner from her house the previous week. "Oh yes, I saw the police tape and I was very surprised", she laughed. "Of course, I won't tell my family".
Most other Japanese people she's met here tend to live in North London and think the South is very dangerous. For Midori, however, it's just another place to have adventures and make new friends. "I've lived in Balham, Surrey Quays, Tooting Bec and Colliers Wood – I have to move fairly often because the landlords keep selling their houses" - just another small hurdle to be taken in her stride.
Bewildered from having already met an entire handful of brand new nationalities I got off on slightly the wrong foot with Sohyun. She'd opened with "I'm from Korea", I'd grinned, said "Great!" and had a quick glance in my folder to check we'd got the flag right. "Ah – do you mean North or South Korea?" - an astute enough question, I thought, having been faced with the confusing two options of the Republic of Korea or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"South Korea*, of course", said Sohyun emphatically and with a genuine look of disbelief that I'd even had to ask. "Oh yes, of course", I said, finding myself backpedalling for the second time in two brief interviews.
"That's obvious because…" I continued hopefully.
"Because people in North Korea are very poor, they can't travel and you definitely won't find any North Koreans in London", she explained helpfully but also slightly demoralisingly. We'll see about that.
Sohyun is 25 years old. Well, she's 25 years old in South Korea. Here she's 24 years old – not, of course, because she's travelled backwards through time much further than the standard nine hour difference, but because they have a slightly different counting system there. When you're born you're already one year old. Which, I suppose, is logical enough considering today's accepted wisdom that we're alive and having a nice if snug time for at least some of the spell spent in the womb. And it also means that Sohyun can choose which of the two she'd like to be when travelling the world. She usually picks the younger.
She swapped Seoul for London just six weeks ago and is impressed by the capital's "beautiful buildings" in comparison to Korea's more modern architecture. I agreed. Unfortunately, however, at this stage of the chat my mind was elsewhere as she'd also just told me that she'll be heading home soon to get a job in business management.
"So, you're just here for a short time?" I pried.
"Oh yes, I just want to get my English a bit better then hopefully get a better paid job back home".
Home, quite obviously, being South Korea, not London. So she couldn't really be our South Korean representative. She's a student. She's not really living and working here. And that's strictly not allowable under our stringent regulations.
She is, however, staying with her uncle, a (Korean) chef just about to open a (Korean) fusion restaurant in Gloucester Place ("it's got very beautiful buildings") and I've got her email address so will try to meet him before she returns home. For now, I'm counting the country but will, of course, minus one (in a nod to the Korean age system) if I fail to find him.
*South Korea's full name, as I'm sure you already know, is the simpler Republic of Korea. The North (the Democratic People's version) will get a bit more of an explanation as and when we encounter one of its nationals.
JAMAICA (country notes)
At this point Angela, the equivalent of their school bell (but much friendlier sounding), said it was time to return to lessons and we waved our goodbyes, wondering if we'd achieved our potential. We'd only actually ticked off six countries (including Owen's Venezualan and my South Korean) and felt we'd have got at least a couple more if only we'd been more organised.
Yet again, though, Angela came to our rescue. "Come back any time", she smiled and we promised we would. "In fact, I might have a Jamaican for you – I'd love you to interview my mum and dad". We were both moved and excited. She'd obviously put her students' language needs first and helped us in the process but all the time was yearning to tell her own life story – and maybe even give us a bonus tick.
Unfortunately, Angela's mum lives in the USA and her dad lives in Jamaica. We can't actually count either of them because of those pesky regulations Sohyun had transgressed just a few minutes earlier. But her dad used to live in London (and, she said lovingly, "he is very handsome") so we are going to give him a call and see what he's got to say about life here and why he moved back to the warm, friendly, relaxed and tropical island he'd grown up on.
Obviously we'd love to have interviewed Angela herself but she has a British passport (as well as Welsh, Polynesian, American and Jamaican relatives – she says they look like the UN Security Council when they get together) so is also ineligible. For now, though, we're more than content to have had the pleasure of meeting and 'working' with a brilliant person. She plans to open her own International College in the future and I'm sure it'll be a brilliant place. She's brilliant.
Sunday 4 February 2007
Owen Powell - 4th February 2007
Today I had an American day. While cooking my breakfast, I listened to one of my favourite recent albums, Remain In Light by Talking Heads*. I then went for lunch at a local riverside pub where both the bar staff were American. That evening, I watched a DVD I had got free with my newspaper, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, with Jonny Depp and Leonardo di Caprio. I hadn’t seen it before, it was great. When it finished, there was one of those Louis Theroux programmes, where he goes and politely insults people – in this one he was in Las Vegas and it was just as horrific as you’d expect. The casinos had no windows and they looked like the downstairs parts of cross-channel ferries. Everyone on the programme was an idiot. It was very funny.
Then I got on the tube, and went to watch Superbowl XLI.
Alex had got us tickets to the Hard Rock Café near Hyde Park Corner. Before tonight, I had never been to a Hard Rock Café. I think you’re supposed to go to Hard Rock Cafés in other countries and then buy the T-shirt from that Hard Rock Café and wear it when you get back home, to prove you’ve been abroad (but didn’t really like the culture you found there). I didn’t buy a T-shirt. They gave me a token. I exchanged it for a Budweiser and waited for Alex to arrive.
Before the game, there was lots of build-up. I regretted not having a quick Wikipedia about the rules of the game before I left the house. Oh well, I was determined to just treat it as rugby, and try to get an idea from various cheers and boos which team was doing something right. (Incidentally, it was Indianapolis Colts against Chicago Bears. I knew that much.)
As part of the build-up, Billy Joel appeared with his piano and sang the national anthem incredibly slowly. The camera panned round the stadium. Some people in the bar area stood up and put their fists on the chests, but they might have been doing it ironically. Then the live footage of the stadium switched to an army base in Baghdad, and showed some troops with those funny little square hats they have, all standing to attention. It was hard to tell, but I think some people in the bar booed. The camera switched back to the football players and the booing stopped. If it was booing. It might have been an odd kind of cheering, like when Man U fans used to shout “Ruuuuuud! Ruuuuuud!” for Ruud van Nistelrooy and it sounded very negative.
Anyway, Billy eventually sang the final line and the hundred or so players all jumped around and clashed helmets with each other, before most of them went and sat down and a few stayed on the pitch to start the game. Each team had an honorary captain for the game, which didn’t make any sense, but they did a coin toss anyway. Indianapolis called tails, but it came down heads. I wasn’t sure that this would have a massive effect on the game, but when the Colts kicked off, Devin Hester of the Bears caught it and straight away scored a touchdown. My only cultural reference for this was when Roberto di Matteo scored inside forty-five seconds in the 1997 FA Cup final, for a pre-Abramovich Chelsea. It looked like it was game over for the Colts. Only three hours left to make a comeback!
The game continued. Before four minutes have gone on the game clock (is it called a game clock?), there have been two advert breaks. I get another beer. It’s going to be a long night, I think, and I’m not sure there’s any way I can go and approach a table of Americans who are all quite enthralled and who seem to understand what’s going on. For me, it’s a game where there’s almost too much admin. There seem to be about twelve referees (umpires?), some of them popping up every now and then on the touchline waving sticks with numbers on the end. Sometimes the players catch the ball and run sideways off the pitch, and everyone cheers. Numbers come and go across the bar at the top of the screen, and different coloured lines are moved about – computerised – on the pitch. (It took me about an hour and a half to realise these weren’t on the pitch itself. It took until we met our American to work out what the lines represented).
Alex arrived just before the start of the second quarter, and we found ourselves some seats on one side of a booth. The guy on the other side didn’t seem very affable. Our waitress (Australian) suggested we ask him about the rules of the game, but he didn’t really want to know. He didn’t even seem particularly interested in the match. In fact, the only time he got animated at all was when there was a news story about a forthcoming American Football game due to be played at Wembley. Our mayor, Ken Livingstone, appeared for about two seconds, and the guy opposite and a few others all got to their feet to yell “Faggot!” at the screen. Once it all settled down, Alex asked him why he disliked Ken Livingstone so much. The guy shrugged. “He’s just unpopular,” he offered as an explanation.
We decided not to ask him to be our American.
At the end of the second quarter, it was half time. They built a stage in the shape of the Prince symbol, and invited what looked suspiciously like out of work actors pretending to be a real crowd onto the pitch to watch. Then Prince did a medley of songs. I tried to think of what they do at half-time during the FA Cup final, or even the World Cup. I’m not sure they’d ever do anything that had the potential to be more entertaining than the game itself.
During the third quarter, we met our American! By now, it was getting on for two in the morning. We were quite tired. Most of the sports fans were quite drunk. Play had stopped for some kind of infringement, and the words ‘Unnecessary Roughness’ appeared on the screen. Someone plonked herself down on the opposite side of the booth chairs to us, so we said hello, and asked her what was going on.
Lori gave us lots of very useful information about the game, and what to watch out for. She explained the systems of ‘downs’ and how to advance the ball along the pitch. She discussed how the constant rain would affect the play. (As the game was being played in Miami, it had been trailed as the ‘Shootout in the Sun’, but it rained from beginning to end). She told us to watch out for the Gatorade. We promised to watch out for the Gatorade. We asked if she’d like to represent her nation in London. She agreed.
Lori had only been in London for three months. She works in children’s television, and was in the middle of something very secretive with Ragdoll, one of the UK’s leading children’s TV producers. In a clever ruse to guess at her age, I mentioned that the last time I had heard what the Chicago Bears were up to was when I was seven in 1985, and they won the Superbowl. She raised her eyebrows. “You were seven in 1985?” she asked. “Woah. So that makes you …”
“I’m 28 now,” I said.
“OK, OK,” she said, still raising her eyebrows.
I think she’s a couple of years older than me, but I couldn’t interpret the raising of the eyebrows.
She was from New York, her dad was about 6 foot 8, and played basketball, and she’d grown up in a very sporting family.
We asked her about the Prince interlude. Lori explained that he only sang two of his own songs, and even then only sang about 30 seconds of each, because he is still in dispute with his record company over who owns the rights to the songs he wrote. Before he changed his name back to Prince again, he famously appeared at a Brit Awards ceremony sometime in the mid-90s with “Slave” written on his cheek. A lot of people thought this was in bad taste, when you consider the millions of actual African-American slaves throughout history who hadn’t been able to go to the Brit Awards and weren’t millionaires. I remember finding it very droll when David Rowntree, the drummer from Blur, got a marker pen and wrote “Dave” on his face.
With someone to tell us what was going on, the third and fourth quarters flew by. The Colts were in a commanding position as the game entered its final stages – that early Bears touchdown not looking so decisive after all. The clocked ticked down to three minutes left, then two. “Watch out for the Gatorade,” Lori said again. Within ten seconds, the cameras showed the Colts bench, and all the substitute players and coaches picking up the massive drum they keep the cold drinks in, and tipping it up so all the ice and cold water went over the head coach. Who’d be a head coach? According to Lori, this happens without fail whenever a team wins. The losing coach didn’t look too happy either.
The game was over! The Colts had won! We had found an American! We were tired and drunk! I got on a night bus and sat in traffic for an hour.
* I realise it came out in 1980, but I only bought it six months ago, so to me it’s the sound of now.
Friday 2 February 2007
Leave One Beer
Owen Powell – 1st February 2007
On the way in to the Chelsea office block where we met our Belarusian (no. 35), our Russian (no. 36) and our Latvian (no. 37), we had signed in at the reception desk, and exchanged a few words with the security guard who worked there. Amazingly, in those few words we had managed to ascertain that he was Nepalese. We’re getting better at this as we go along.
We spent about two hours sitting in the canteen area of the Eventica building. There were vending machines, we both had a cup of vended coffee, and I had a packet of crisps. In the waits in between our interviews, Alex and I would turn to each other and say, “What a bonus! We’ll definitely chat to the guy from Nepal on the way out,” but I think we both secretly feared that we had been there so long that he would have knocked off, or gone on his lunch, by the time we emerged again.
But when we had said goodbye to our Latvian … Hurrah! He was still there! We handed our security passes back in, and showed him the folder we always carry with us, explaining exactly why we had been monopolising the canteen during everyone’s lunch breaks. His face lit up. Devraj said that he would love to be our Nepalese representative.
My notebook came out, but before I’d even asked any questions it was requisitioned, as Dev wrote down his full name, email address, website address for the site he runs (www.nepaluk.com), other useful websites, estimates of the current UK Nepalese population (40,000), the current Nepalese population (25 million), and the number of Nepalese living in other countries around the world (about 1.4 million).
I wasn’t expecting to meet someone from Nepal today. I knew I’d be meeting a Mexican, a Bulgarian, and people from a variety of ex-Soviet states, but Nepal wasn’t somewhere I’d really prepared for. I was all ears. I didn’t really know what questions to ask.
Dev has been in London for four years. He originally came to study, in the hopes of becoming a computer technician, but his English (whilst perfectly serviceable for a quick chat) wasn’t advanced enough to get him the right kind of technical job. He’s been working in the building we’re in for nine months, but I think it’s pretty much a staging post on the way to bigger and better things. He lives with his wife in Hounslow, where there is a vibrant local Nepalese community, about 150 people who come together for community and charity work – Dev acts as their President. He’s been back to Nepal quite recently, last year, and likes to help the charity raise money to help worthy causes back home. My guess is that the charity raises a lot of its money during social evenings out – Dev explained that he has written a slogan for the group: “Leave one beer, and help a poor person”. I think that’s something we could probably all take to heart. At the moment, they’re gathering funds together to help build a school. (Nepalese restaurants, said Dev, are a little like Indian restaurants. His favourite dishes contained fish, and chicken, but no vegetables.)
We also spoke briefly about the Gurkhas, the soldiers who have fought alongside the British Army since the mid-nineteenth century. Their bravery has an almost mythical status – Gurkha regiments have won 26 Victoria Crosses over the years. In fact, of the twelve living recipients of the medal, four are Gurkhas. Dev couldn’t quite get his head around the injustice – UK soldiers get a pension that is three times bigger than that offered to the Gurkhas. And this, believe it or not, is an improvement – Gurkha pensions have more than doubled in recent years, from what was a pitiful sum. I asked Dev whether, if he was still in Nepal, he would have considered becoming a Gurkha. He smiled, and explained that Gurkhas were generally drawn from the lower castes, whereas he, as a higher caste person, had been to university and set out on the road to a better job. It reminded me of something that Rachel often said while working at a refugee charity, that while the popular conception of migrants is of them being poor, downtrodden, victimised people, often the people we see arriving here are the ones who could afford to get away – it’s the people they leave behind who are the great mass of humanity, surviving day to day at the bottom of the pyramid.
The Best Fans in the World
Alex Horne – 1st February 2007
I'd been looking forward to meeting a Latvian. I'd visited the capital, Riga, a few years back with my Rachel and, unusually for us, we'd actually spent a whole afternoon exploring a museum and learning about the country's history. Admittedly, it was partly because we were there for a week and had already done pretty much everything else there was to do (including eating caviar and drinking champagne for about 50p and enjoying a dodgy but apparently humane cat circus) but I did feel that at last I'd have the upper hand over Owen in the 'knowing some facts about the country' stakes.
When we met Lyosha, the final global contact up Nastia's generous sleeve, he was not necessarily in the best of moods. Don't get me wrong, he was utterly charming, extremely helpful and wearing a brilliant green tank top that Owen and I were both envious of, but he was clearly having 'one of those days' (i.e. not a very good day). Arriving an hour or so behind schedule after being asked to fixed nearly all the computers in the offices above us, he finally sat down with us and his lunch at 3pm, weary and in need of a break. At one point he told us that he was quitting his job in a couple of weeks and needed to sort out problems either with his house or with his health – we weren't quite sure which and didn't want to make things worse by asking him to repeat and clarify his problems – but whichever way round, Lyosha had a lot on his mind.
This did not come as a huge surprise to my experienced Riga-trained eyes. A lot of the people we'd met on our holiday had tended to be a bit world-weary (cat circus ring-master excluded). Not rude or nasty, but a tad downtrodden, slightly brusque even. I presumed it was an after-effect of all the recent political problems I'd learnt so much about in the Occupation Museum of Latvia.
"Oh no, don't believe what's written in there", said Lyosha precisely puncturing my one and only Latvia-based theory. "These days they say one thing about what happened. A few years ago they said the opposite. You can't trust any commentators. Everyone has an agenda'. Fair enough.
So, hopefully without any bias, here's a very brief account of how the last hundred years have been for Latvia: A devastating First World War was swiftly followed by the War of Independence which ultimately resulted in an independent Soviet Latvia being proclaimed in November 1918. Over the next twelve months the army had to withstand attacks by German and Russian troops before the Great Depression of 1930 and a subsequent coup and dictatorship that lasted until 1940. Soviet forces then occupied the country again and kicked off the Baigais Gads (the Year of Horros) in which thousands were either arrested or disappeared. In 1941 German forces invaded. By the end of the Second World War 200,000 Latvian citizens had been killed. Following the conflict the Soviets reoccupied the country deporting thousands of Latvians and replacing them with Russian workers, causing the ethnic Latvian population to fall to 62% by 1959. After Glasnost, the Declaration of the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia was finally signed in 1991 and Russia's military withdrew completely in 1994. Ten years later, Latvia joined both NATO and the EU but, according to the democratically-written Wikipedia, "after a difficult transition to a liberal economy and its re-orientation toward Western Europe, Latvia still has one of the lowest standards of living in the EU".
Lyosha told us he'd watched the events before and after Independence unfolding on the TV but he was young and didn't really experience it first hand. I also got the impression that after a hard day in the office and potential health/home issues on the horizon, he wasn't too keen to discuss politics at this particular moment.
"Did you go there on a stag weekend?" he asked instead. "Stag weekend? Oh no. I was with my wife", I said, a little defensively, but slowly realising why perhaps we'd been greeted with suspicion in most of the restaurants, hotels and bars around the city.
"We got lots of them coming over now", sighed Lyosha. I've witnessed lots of people in this country making the same remark and expression when talking about the influx of people from new EU countries. I can't help thinking being on the receiving end of plane-loads of drunken men is a much more depressing prospect than the arrival of fresh and hard workers, keen to make the best of a new opportunity.
But Lyosha himself is even-handed about his worries: "Stag weekends aren't that bad at all. For some reason since we joined the European Union we're not allowed to produce as much sugar as before and a lot of the factories have been forced to close. Farmers are also forbidden from producing as much crops. So tourism is now extremely important for us. But I am concerned about the stags themselves. They come and get drunk and shout and don't understand that there are people in Latvia who will punch them in the head. In Latvia you can still get away with fighting".
A sound warning which brings me neatly onto our final topic of conversation and a much happier way to end our encounter: ice hockey – a sport in which you can also still get away with fighting. To make up for our afternoon of (unreliable) culture, Rachel and I spent our last night in Riga in a Latvian bar watching the national team play ice-hockey against Russia. It was fantastic and quite unlike watching the England football team under-perform in an English pub. Literally everybody wore the maroon colours of Latvia and most beat drums or sounded horns throughout the game. When Latvia actually scored a goal the whole place erupted, strangers hugged, everyone laughed and I immediately bought myself a Latvia hockey shirt which I wear with pride to this day.
The score at this point was 3-1 to Russia. "Yes", said Lyosha, with the biggest smile of the day, "we have the best fans in the world."
Who am I to disagree?
Owen Powell – 1st February 2007
Nastya Krasko had it all. Twenty–two years old, she was the personal translator for the President of one of Russia's biggest oil and gas companies. In the evenings, the translation work continued but she turned from fossil fuels to old rock stars, converting the whole of Rolling Stone magazine from American English into Russian. She lived in St Petersburg, and says that "For anyone who has read Crime and Punishment, it is still Dostoevsky's city, except it has more supermarkets now. It is a beautiful place." But on 2nd January 2006, without knowing anyone in Britain, she arrived with four suitcases at Stansted airport, leaving all that behind. Was she excited, I ask? "I was shocked," she answered.
Nastya lived for two weeks in a B&B in Victoria, paying £40 a night, and hit the internet cafes in search of work. Russia is outside the EU, and so getting hold of the necessary work permit can be frustratingly hard and expensive. She had nine or ten interviews in banks, all impressed with her CV, but put off by the thought of all the paperwork. The year rolled on. I turn 23 on 31st March, thought Nastya. If I don't have a job by then, I'll think that, well, I had a good time in London, but I'll go home to Rolling Stone magazine.
She emailed Jonti Small, the editor-in-chief of the Russian Investment Review, and also a friend of ours from University. He didn't have any jobs to offer – he's pretty much the only employee of the Russian Investment Review – but he passed her details on to Simon Joseph, who runs Eventica, a firm who specialise in arranging events and conferences for the Anglo-Russian business community. This is more like it, thought Nastya. She became Simon Joseph's PA for six months, then he promptly promoted her to deputy director. "It is a pompous title," says Nastya, shrugging.
But what's this? Has Nastya fallen for Jonti? Their paths cross at various functions, and soon she is thinking of a way to call him, just for a friendly chat. As luck would have it, she's now living in a new flat and needs to do some DIY, so she phones Jonti and asks if he has a drill she can borrow. "He's so taciturn," complains Nastya. "I can't believe just how taciturn he is." She goes to collect the drill from Jonti's house, from his housemate Pete. (Pete, another friend from University, has been working with me at the Globe Theatre for years, and knows Benji, our no. 22.) She gets lost, and arrives late. (Pete and Jonti were living on the same Bermondsey Street that Rachel, my girlfriend, now lives on). Jonti is out, but our mutual friend Phill Breen is in. "You know Phill Breen?" asks Nastya. Alex and I nod. We know Phill Breen. "Phill Breen was sitting on the sofa, eating ice cream from the tub like this." She does a very good mime of Phill Breen eating ice cream from a tub. Pete gave her the drill, but it was so late she couldn't get home again, so she stayed up all night with Phill and Pete talking about theatre – Phill knew a director who had worked in Russia, and was in fact a friend of her father's, an actor. I'm working on a spider diagram of this paragraph to make things a bit clearer. It might take a while, but I'm hoping to publish it before we get to our number 192.
Nastya and Jonti are now an item, and live together (with Pete) in a flat in Pimlico. The work is hard, but she enjoys it. As Nastya says, she is career-hungry, rather than money-hungry, and is happy to take on responsibilities and work on bigger and bigger events. One of the biggest, which Alex and I attended a few weeks back, was the Russian Winter Festival in Trafalgar Square. It was great. We got to have some borscht and watch amazing Russian dancers, choirs of monks, a military band who did Glenn Miller numbers (the Cold War is definitely over). Lots of her work recently has been preparing for the tenth annual Russian Economic Forum, the biggest yet. I ask about the most famous Russian in London, Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich. She hasn't met him, but tells us that far from being an interesting one-off, he is merely first of many such businessmen who may begin to make investments in British life.
I also ask about the second most famous Russian in London, ex-KGB man Alexander Litvinenko. He died last November, poisoned by polonium-210, a suspiciously rare radioactive isotope. "It is interesting," she says, "He is seen as a victim here, but as a traitor back home. Normally, my mother calls me every three days, but when he died my step-father called me straight away to find out what I knew, and we had a big argument. I was sad for him. It was a terrible way to die. But do you know what the front page of a Russian newspaper said? 'A Dog Deserves A Dog's Death.' That is not very nice."
Nastya says that, like may of the people we have found, she thinks in English as well as speaking it. Unlike other people we have found, however, she can even sleepwalk in English. One night, she got out of bed, knocked on Pete's door and demanded, "We need the answers, Pete! We need the answers!" Poor Pete. He gave her a drill, but he couldn't give her the answers.
Thursday 1 February 2007
An Impressive Young Lady
Alex Horne – 1st February 2007
Owen and I are generally optimistic. When we set off to Trafalgar Square for the Eventika-produced Russian Winter Festival back in January we fully expected to get double figures' worth of new nationalities. After all, there were fifteen potential Soviet-ish countries to tick off, we'd surely be able to find two thirds of them.
Unfortunately, as Owen has already explained, all we actually found was a large quantity of cabbage and dancing; lots of fun and an excellent day out, yes, but not the sort of foreign figures we'd set our sights on. Yet our hope remained undented as Nastia (our mate's girlfriend and festival organiser) invited us instead to visit her office in the next couple of weeks for a Russia-themed meeting – just before rushing off to encourage a man in an enormous box to get on stage and dance expressively.
A couple of weeks later, then, we made our way to the futuristic Chelsea Harbour for what would certainly be our most formal encounters so far in which our journalistic incompetence was well and truly exposed. Nastia had very kindly persuaded two of her colleagues to take part in the project and first to take the seat opposite Owen and I in an entrance hall on the ground floor of Eventika's office was Katerina, a high-flying 22 year old from Belarus.
From our first shaky introductions to her own elegant departure, Katerina had the upper hand throughout the meeting. Because of the workplace environment it felt a lot like a job interview. But one of those job interview which results in the interviewee getting the job and immediately sacking the interviewers for being inadequate. I kicked things off by tentatively showing her the flag we'd found for Belarus and stuck in our (childish) folder and enquired slightly pathetically about the unidentified object on the left-hand side. "It's an ornament", said Katerina, in a manner so conclusive that I was unable to ask her anything else about it.
I did eventually find out that she's been in England now for two years and three months and that she's learnt English since the age of six both in school and university. In fact, she's familiar with more than just the language having visited her Somerset-based mother several times since she herself moved here at the turn of the century. Katerina's mum is a doctor for the Royal Society. She was invited to this country to experiment on a new species of willow-wood which may provide an alternative fuel source. "She must be in great demand", I faltered. "Yes she is", countered Katerina calmly. "Is it better money over here?" I asked, a little less hesitantly. "Oh yes", replied Katerina with a smile. "Belarus doesn't pay scientists nearly as well".
In fact, Belarus has problems funding more than just its scientists. Half way through Katerina's typically impressive degree in Tourist Management, French, English and Latin, her own university in Minsk was suddenly closed by the government.
"I could have gone to a state university", she explained, "but it wasn't going to be interesting enough for me". Instead she migrated to England, completed a degree in Business Management at the University of Sunderland and soon snapped up a dream job at what is a very rare British/Russian company in one of London's wealthiest spots.
True to form, she's now helping to set up a 'Global Luxury Forum' which is expected to attract some of the world's richest people. She's not yet met Roman Abramovich, this area's most famous 'Global Luxury' type figure, but with the Russian market expanding as quickly as it is, she says she encounters 'top people' like him all the time.
"Are people from Russia very different to people from Belarus?" asked Owen at this point, steadying our journalistic ship a little. "No, we're fairly similar", said Katerina, patiently. "Except people in Belarus are a little more patient. For that reason it took us a long time to achieve our revolution, much longer than Ukraine, for example. And now we've got peace, we're happy to be patient, not to rock the boat, and to keep things peaceful for as long as possible".
Belarus is indeed a young country, recently independent, growing rapidly but obviously not quite in Russia's financial league. Like Lyosha the Latvian, however, she was too young to really remember the moment Independence was won. She was well aware of last April's 'difficult' presidential election, of course, but is unwilling to talk about politics while in England. Having left Belarus to attend university here she says her name is already on certain lists somewhere and she doesn't want to jeopardise her return to work there by being seen to criticize the government in any way.
We chat about her life in England instead. "I've felt comfortable here from the very first day", she says and I ask her if she tends to socialise with other Belarusians, Russians or Brits. "Oh, I don't really go out", she laughs. "I'm very busy here. But I do eat in Russian or Georgian restaurants – although I also love continental cuisine. And noodles. Wagamama is the best."
Katerina is an impressive young lady. She's already come along way (Minsk is 1167 miles from London) but I'm sure she's going to go a long way further at great and highly efficient speed before too long. And although I was slightly intimidated throughout the meeting, I did also find her funny, friendly and very good company. Well done Katerina.
"I do have a Georgian friend I could introduce you to", she said a little coyly as she left.
"That would be marvellous", we agreed. And we're still sure we'll complete our Russian set in the very near future.
 In alphabetical order, they are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan.
 So, including her, we did get a fifth of the countries located in and around the Russia area, and felt that our faith had not been entirely unfounded.
 Something of a relief for me as I struggle to learn about the history of each nation we meet – You're just 12 years old? That's fine, I can manage that…
Welcome to the Jungle
Owen Powell – 1st February 2007
I arrived too early at Battersea Square. I’d been here the week before to see Alejandro Garcia Gonzalez and his band, Alejandro Garcia Sound System, play to a packed crowd at BarRio, but now it was nearly eleven in the morning, the square was deserted and BarRio – where we’d agreed to meet – was shut.
I went on a time-killing wander down to the river, took a photo of a helicopter landing at Battersea’s riverside helipad (we’re opposite Chelsea and its billionaires – more of that later in the day) and got back in time to meet Alejandro. He was wrapped up warm today – last week he had arrived at the gig wearing a leather pork pie hat which he promptly popped on my head as Milena (see no. 30) introduced us. Now we sported woollier hats, scarves and gloves, but BarRio remained shut so we stood around outside chatting while we waited for Milena to join us.
Alejandro talked a bit about the gig and his style of music. While he has Mexican influences, he also looks to other cultures for inspiration. (This band is only one of his musical projects, and is what he describes as ‘Latin American Jazz’, a bit of bossa nova, a bit of Spanish guitar.) I mentioned that Mexican cinema in particular is making a bit of a splash globally at the moment, with directors like Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu producing multi-layered, fragmentary and frequently quite bleak films.* It appears that these three adjectives might also be a fair representation of Mexican society as a whole. “Mexico is seven countries in one,” Alejandro explained. “It is not united. There are many problems, political problems. We have a new president, but still the old problems. Nothing really changes.” One of his other musical projects has the ironic name ‘Another Death Poet’, and is dark music, almost film score music, using lots of synthesisers and produced on computers in his bedroom. He’s spent a lot of time on it during the winter in London when the evenings are dark and cold, and he stays inside. The name is a reference to the constant threat in Mexico that intellectuals might just sometimes ‘disappear’. In the 1970s, when he was growing up, 25 students from a nearby area disappeared.
BarRio was steadfastly refusing to open, which was a shame as its owner, Daniel, was from Monterrey, like Alejandro. Not only the same town, it turns out, but the same quarter – and not only the same quarter, but the same street. Alejandro couldn’t believe it when he found out, and didn’t really remember Daniel, who’s a few years older. “But,” he smiled, “I do remember his sisters …”
Music and art run throughout Alejandro’s life. His mother was a painter, and he teaches painting in London and back in Mexico, encouraging the kids to dip their hands in paint and splatter it all over canvases on the wall. In 2005, he spent some time making videos with Picasso – so called because his front resembled an abstract painting after he had had a fight with a shark. Picasso, I should make clear, is a dolphin who lives in Cancun. After several weeks working at the dolphin sanctuary, Alejandro wrote a song for them and played it with their trainers looking on. The trainers all cried – Alejandro had sneakily written the song from the point of view of a dolphin who longs for the freedom of the sea.
This encapsulates Alejandro’s attitude to art – there is no point in doing it if it doesn’t change things. His work tends to have a sharp political (or, more recently, environmental) edge. One of his favourite paintings plays with the myth of the founding of Mexico City (or Tenochtitlan, as it then was). A prophecy had told the Aztecs to build their city when they found an eagle sitting on a cactus, eating a snake. This was found, the city was built, then, a few centuries later the Spanish arrived, destroyed it, and built Mexico City on the ruins. The eagle and snake still appear on the Mexican flag today, but in Alejandro’s painting the snake reaches up to turn on the eagle, devouring it – the corruption, the self-destruction of the capital city.
Alejandro is getting more and more interested in the ancient history of his country. Milena stumbled across him in the ruins of a Mayan temple in the middle of a Mexican jungle, in November 2005. It was only in that year that Alejandro himself had travelled far enough into Mexico to come face to face with this amazing evidence of his country’s previous inhabitants. Monterrey is in the north, and is very Spanish – the remains of Mayan culture are mainly found in the south-east of Mexico. The modern Mexican artists whose work Alejandro most admires, the mural painter Diego Rivera (husband of Frida Kahlo) and David A Siqueiros – unknown in Europe – were producing their most iconic pieces in the 1950s, just as the Mayan murals and artworks were being discovered, and Alejandro sees strong echoes of the vibrancy and power of these earlier works in the twentieth century. Just by chance, I had in my bag a pack of photos I had taken of a mural on the side of a building in Cable Street, commemorating the events of 1936 as Mosley’s fascists were prevented from marching into the East End by a loose affiliation of Jews, communists and trade unionists. As we sipped our coffees, I passed the photos round and Alejandro gave the mural the once over. “I think it looks a bit Mexican,” I hesitantly began, basing my comment on little more than having watched the film ‘Frida’ with Rachel a year and a half ago. “The colours, the faces of the characters, the way the scenes all whirl together.” Alejandro nodded – it had passed the test. However, he suggested I should travel to Mexico to see some real murals as soon as I could. This is the trouble with doing this project – my list of potential holiday destinations is getting longer and longer.
After meeting Milena, he joined her in London in May 2006, and played his first gig two days after landing. Within a few weeks, Milena had whisked him off to Bulgaria to take part in the annual festival she helps organise. This time, his first appearance in a new country was not so auspicious – one morning he woke with intense stomach pains and went straight to A&E. While waiting to be seen, writhing around on a hospital bed, he watched two surgeons in bloody uniforms relax with a quick smoke and a game of chess, as Welcome To The Jungle played at full volume to drown out the screams of the other patients. Alejandro’s operation, to remove his appendix, went well, although he was slightly disturbed to come round from his anaesthetic to discover the doctors had written ‘666’ on his forearm in marker pen. It took a while to work out they weren’t accusing him of being Satan, it was just a way to remind them that he’d had his operation on the 6th June 2006. So, just to make things worse, he’s not able to drink during the World Cup that begins three days later. Nor can he swim, with a load of stitches and dressings attached to his stomach, which is a problem when you’re sitting by a pool and two naked girls are inviting you to join them for a quick splash around. (Milena helpfully chips in at this point that the festival was also about fashion, so there were lots of models about). In a fit of anger and irony and possibly surrealism, Alejandro produces an autobiographical painting for the festival showing him with his appendix being removed, an appendix in the shape of (and labelled, to make things clearer) Bulgaria.
The music and painting are an ongoing project. He and Milena are putting on a joint exhibition of paintings at the Bulgarian Embassy on March 26th, but the next date for your diary is Alejandro’s next gig – at the Ritzy in Brixton on February 10th. If you go to his website (http://www.alejandrogarciagonzalez.com/) you’ll see that the music is described as ‘Music To Make Love’ – I asked where this came from and what it meant. He laughed. “It’s sort of a joke. I was being interviewed on Mexican radio – a big radio station – and this radio interviewer, well, she was flirting with me a bit. So she asked what kind of music it was, and I just said, ah, you know, it’s musica para hacer el amor – music to make love to. And she went crazy! She was on the live radio, and I said that, and she was like – come on then, Alejandro, right now! Make love to me.” He scratches his head. “Man, she was a big woman. A big, big woman.”
*When Inarritu’s first film, Amores Perros, came out I asked my friend Alice, learning Spanish at the time, what the title meant. She furrowed her brow, and eventually suggested “Dogs In Love”. Which was quite close. It actually translates as “Love’s a Bitch”.