George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Thursday 15 March 2007
From Windhoek to Wimbledon
Alex Horne – 15th March 2007 then 14th May 2007
I really wish and I hadn’t lost that notepad. As mentioned over in Ghana, I managed to misplace it somewhere in Ireland (I think) before getting the chance (well, before getting round) to writing up either Nathan or Herman’s story. Sheepishly, then, I contacted both again and arranged to do second interviews. Considering Nathan’s sister-in-law Debbie had made me cupcakes with a map of the world iced on top while he himself introduced me to friends from Afghanistan and Kurdistan the first time round, I didn’t think twice about making another trip down to Peckham. With Herman, however, I thought we could get away with doing it via email. We’d had a very nice drink in a very nice pub round the corner from Farringdon station, but it was a simpler encounter than Nathan’s and as there was no promise of future nationalities or homemade food, I thought it would save us both a bit of time.
So this is a very brief combination of what I can remember from our actual meeting and what he sent me in the subsequent virtual interview that he kindly did without any fuss at all. I hope it does him justice.
Herman has been in London since the beginning of 2001. I was put in contact with him by a mutual friend who described him as ‘a good bloke, a real rugby player, you know, a good bloke’, a description that proved pretty accurate. He was confident and calm, completely un-phased at the prospect of chatting to a stranger in a pub about his life or, it seems, starting a new life in London at the age of 25: ‘I had a very good friend living here who phoned me up one day and told me to get myself sorted and come over. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Six years later and I now think of London as home.’
He currently lives in Wimbledon where a lot of his free time is, indeed, spent at the rugby club. ‘It’s a very good way to meet people. My friends who play there come from all over the world. But I suppose the majority are antipodeans and UK citizens.’
At first, though, London was something of a shock. ‘It was very different, aside from the wide open spaces, untouched nature and relaxing lifestyle of Namibia it was the population of London that caught me unawares. Everywhere you turn there's a crowd.’ Herman was born and raised in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city, home to less than a quarter of a million people and centre of the world’s sheep skin trade.
He told me that he left the city at eighteen to study civil engineering in the picturesque wine-growing area of Stellenbosch over in South Africa and I must confess that lazily, I had by this stage pigeon-holed Herman alongside a lot of the wealthy white South Africans that can normally be found in the Springbok bar on Covent Garden. I knew this was ill-informed stereotyping on my part so I thought I should ask him how the countries differ.
He was happy to educate me; ‘Namibia and South Africa are still similar in many ways due to the old ties between the two countries but Namibia has come a long way. We don’t have the racial tensions and violence that South Africa is still struggling with. We went through a very smooth transition to independence in 1990 and there have been very few problems since.’
In fact, Herman’s whole life seems to be fairly trouble-free. Our initial chat was as relaxed as any and when he popped up again at the Nearly Halfway Party he was by far the most laidback person there. How long do you think you’ll stay in London, I asked him. ‘I don't know how low long’, he replied, ‘and I don't know what comes next but for now I'm happy here.’ And right now, that’s enough for both of us.
Like I said, he’s a good bloke.
Friday 9 March 2007
Owen Powell – 9th March 2007
Just round the corner from the Bole Café is another food outlet, the cheerily-named ‘Grab A Bite’. Like many of the Caribbean takeaways we had tried (and failed) to find people in before, it had a fridge stacked with ginger beer, a wooden map of Jamaica on the wall, and reggae music issuing from a tinny speaker somewhere in the kitchen out back.
The lady behind the counter eyed us worriedly as we made our approach – perhaps she could sense our nervousness or pessimism. But as soon as we had explained ourselves, and bought our by-now traditional can of ginger beer, she shuffled the menus in front of her and said, “You’ll be wanting Conrad, then.”
After a brief discussion in the kitchen, Conrad popped his head round the door, flashed us a smile, and we got chatting. He asked us to guess his age – we always go deliberately, politely, too low – but still, 50 was a surprise. He’d been in London since he was 18, moving here with his sister after he finished high school in Jamaica, and rejoining his parents who had come with the Windrush generation in the 50s. We asked how he thought London had changed since he arrived – was it better now? “Oh you know, it’s better but worse, if you know what I mean.” We nodded. “One way I will say it’s got better is that when I arrived, there were no shops open at the weekend, you know? Now, it’s a 24-hour city. Much more convenient.”
Conrad was a chef now, but hadn’t always been. “Oh man, since I’ve been in London I’ve moved around in jobs and places. All over, really. And I know a lot of other islanders. You go from here to Harlesden, you’ll meet twelve, fifteen people I know. You want to watch the World Cup with Caribbean people? Most of them watch it in their homes, but you could try the West Indian People’s Association in Willesden. You’ll meet a lot of people there.”
That trip would have to be reserved for another day, however, as Alex and I were off to meet our agents in Ladbroke Grove. We arrived a little early and, feeling in good West Indian optimistic spirits, thought we’d make some inquiries in the even-better-named Yum Yum Caribbean Take Away. Most of the staff, interestingly, were Polish, and the owner Jamaican – she was disappointed to have been gazumped by Conrad only half an hour before. We chatted, and were persuaded into a spicy lamb patty each. As we took our first bites, she called out to a man walking past, “Trotter! Where you from?” Trotter popped in. “I’m a Lucian.” We explained the project to Trotter, and how we’d already found a Lucian. “Ah, man, I only know Jamaicans and Lucians. Still, good luck.”
Patties in hand, we said farewell to Yum Yum and headed outside, just in time to see Trotter disappear into the barbershop next door, called (probably the day’s best name) Mo’ Betta Cutz. Alas, there was no time for a hair cut. But I can’t help thinking it will be a shame if we get to the end of the year without at least one of us having our hair cut by someone from abroad. Given the respective lengths of our hair, I suppose I should be the first volunteer. Watch this space.
Wednesday 7 March 2007
Fresh Fish, Phones and Vegetables
Alex Horne – 7th March 2007
Once Nathan and I had got to know each other (an account of which I’ll be able to write up fully once we’ve done it for a second time) we decided to hit the town. Keen to help and eager to show me round his neighbourhood we set off in his car and drove to his Netto (back then in March, Nathan was manager of the Netto supermarket in Peckham Rye. I would have explained this in the Ghana entry if I hadn’t lost my notepad, but unfortunately I have, and I’m fairly sure he’s now got a new job, the nature of which I will definitely reveal as and when we meet again). Unfortunately I was slightly distracted at this point as I’d just received a call saying my burglar alarm had gone off and even though I was 90% sure it was a false alarm, part of me thought it was perhaps more important to check on my marital home than wander the streets of Peckham in search of foreigners.
In the end we decided to compromise by racing round a few of his usual haunts and pencil in a return date in the near future to pick up the nationalities we missed. I relaxed a little.
To an outsider (i.e. me) nearly all the shops in Peckham look identical. They sell everything a greengrocers-butchers-cornershop-combination would offer, feature an international phone card stall in one corner and are full of noisy customers whose number doesn’t seem to be affected by the fact that so many outlets seem to do exactly the same thing. The Fresh Fish and Vegetables, Afro-Caribbean Food shop not far from Nathan’s biggest rival Lidl was no exception.
Nathan, I should say, seemed to know every other person in the area. He was greeted with smiles and back-slapping wherever we went and I grew more and more confident in his shadow, proud to be associated with such a respected figure. It was in this capacity that he introduced me to the phone-card salesman in the shop with the protracted title mentioned above, a gruff but friendly man called Rain from Afghanistan.
Rain left his home eight years ago and is now more than happy to call Peckham his home. ‘I’m safe here’, he says, ‘I had to escape and I now have a new life in London’. Nathan buys his mobile phones for trips to Ghana from him. Most of Rain’s family still live in Afghanistan, ‘but I get to talk to them all the time’, he smiles, pointing at his overseas communication stall – a perk of the job, we laugh. Unfortunately, before I get to ask any more pertinent questions about what made him leave, Nathan reminds me that I may have been burgled and he has more people for me to meet so we move on to a more traditional market stall under a railway bridge on Rye Street.
Here I am presented to a fruit seller from Kurdistan called Rebaz, from whom Nathan buys his Ghanaian yams every week. ‘You know Kurdistan?’ he asks doubtfully. ‘Oh yeah’, I say, without conviction but fairly sure it was one of those fifteen former Soviet Union countries I listed a month or two ago.
I was, of course, wrong. Kurdistan doesn’t actually qualify for a country according to our and the UN’s strict rules. But looking back I was extremely glad I didn’t have to tell Rebaz that actually, no, according to my notes, Kurdistan isn’t a country at all. He fled his town (technically part of Iraq) and the threat of Saddam five years ago and is now grateful for a better, safer life.
He asks me how old I think he is (a common request so far). I say 40. He’s 21. He left home for England when he was just 16. ‘I was a kick-boxing champion back in Kurdistan so I look older than I am. I lost only once.’ Like I say, I’m extremely glad I didn’t have to deny the authenticity of Rebaz’ country to his face.
By now, my phone was ringing almost non-stop as the other nominated key-holders to my house called me to say that they’d also been called to say that I may have been burgled, so I decided that enough was enough, it was time to go home. Nathan very kindly dropped me at Elephant and Castle tube so I could get the Bakerloo Line straight up to Kensal Green where, thankfully, everything was ok. And now, with the loss of that notepad, I’m more anxious than ever to get back down to Peckham and spend more time with my Ghanaian friend.
Alex Horne – 7th March 2007
Now then, it was because of Nathan initially that Debbie (see Lithuania and Sudan) thought of contacting us. She told me that she did then start to think of all the other nationalities she might know and between her and her extended family she certainly knew more than most. But it was Nathan’s story that I really wanted to hear. And having been warmly welcomed into their house and given a very nice cup of tea, he told me everything.
Unfortunately, I am an idiot and on a trip to Ireland following our meeting I managed to misplace the notebook into which I’d scribbled Nathan’s life.
It’s fine though. We’re going to meet up again soon and he says he’s happy to tell it all over again. It is a great story. In the meantime, here’s a taster:
Nathan is from Kumasi in the middle of Ghana. He’s the tenth of eleven children and the only one to have ever left Africa. He’s always been independent. ‘When I was at secondary school I asked lots of questions about travel’, he began in a measured tone but with an expression almost of disbelief that his story would end with him in his new home here in South London. ‘Back in 1997 I had a friend who’d been in Germany for ten years and who offered to help me go to Europe. I discussed the idea with my family but one of my six sisters didn’t like it at all. “If you travel you might be deported back home – that’s very expensive. If Dad invested £1000 and you get sent home, that money will be gone”, she said. Dad agreed. I got very upset and burnt my passport’.
Two years later, however, the seed began to grow again. Nathan applied for a new passport without telling his family, confiding only in one friend who helped him prepare for an emigration interview at the embassy.
And that’s your lot for now. Sorry about this. We’re going to meet up in the next couple of weeks. I genuinely can’t wait.
24th May 2007
Right then. On the day of our Nearly Half Way Party, I finally got down to Peckham again and have this time managed to keep hold of my notes.
It was great to see Becky and A.J. again. He’s walking now and today was his dad's last day at the supermarket. The first time we all met, Debbie (Nathan’s sister-in-law, Becky’s sister, A.J.’s aunt) had made cup-cakes with the map of the world iced on the top, we did an atlas-style jigsaw and ate traditional Ghanian food washed down with supermalt in their lovely house. It was one of the most heart-warming moments of my year, only slightly marred by the fact that halfway through I had a phone call to say my burglar alarm had gone off in Kensal Green (see Afghanistan).
This time round, Becky, A.J. and I had a walk through the town and over to Bellenden Primary School (see Guyana) before meeting Nathan in the church where they got married. He told me not to worry about losing my first load of notes but I still felt a bit guilty. So this time, I’m sticking them straight into the blog – I can’t help thinking they’re more powerful alone than with any of the flowery faff I’d attempt to adorn them with. So bullet points it is:
- Nathan lives in Peckham Rye with his wife Becky, and their one year old son, AJ. AJ is the one person we’ve met so far who doesn’t have a passport at all.
- Nathan has ten brothers and sisters. He was the only one to leave Ghana.
- At the age of 18 he suggested coming to England but was told not to by his family. Nathan was very upset and burnt his passport.
- He’s always been independent. He’s never stayed at home for long. Like most people in Ghana he went to a boarding house where he learnt to live by himself. ‘Your mother’s not always going to be there’, he told me.
- Three years later, with the help of a friend, he headed to Accra and without the knowledge of his family, gained a visa to come to England. He’d applied for a new passport 12 months previously. To get the visa he had to answer 45 questions. To pass the last one he had to convince his interviewer that he’d definitely come back to Ghana. Nathan did his best. When he’d finished, the interviewer said, ‘well done. I’ll take your word for it.’ The High Commission was worried people would come to England and become lost in the system instead of returning to renew their visas.
- He didn’t tell his family he was in London until he’d been here for two weeks. His father still didn’t believe him.
- When he arrived at Victoria Station another Ghanian man, a cleaner, said he’d look after him. He had to wait in the station all night as the cleaner was on the night shift, but eventually they made their way back to Mitcham where he stayed for his first month. During the day Nathan would walk and walk and walk, again not telling anyone where he was going. He walked from Mitcham to Brixton, to Elephant and Castle, to Camberwell, and gradually learnt about the streets, the shops, the people.
- Through his new friend, he eventually got a job, also as a cleaner, at Waterloo station. He worked there for a year and managed to get his visa renewed.
- Next week he starts his new job as Personal Banking Assistant for Abbey National.
- In between he worked at the Co-op, Lidl, Aldi, Costcutter and Netto, starting at the bottom rung of one, he worked every available hour, for free at the weekends, and within a few years was the manager of the last. I worked in Budgens when I was 18 (deputy head of dairy), I can’t imagine putting in those sorts of hours, sometimes without even being paid.
- He met his wife, Becky, in the Lidl on Old Kent Road.
- We met, for the second time, in the Church where they got married. AJ was now walking. When I left, Nathan was putting together some shelves from Ikea, so that the kids’ toys would have somewhere to live.
- Whilst working his way up the supermarket ladder, Nathan was also going to school and doing several other jobs including working for a security firm at the Millennium Dome (‘it was good actually – I took my family to see Craig David’).
- He’s lived in Kennington, Clapham, Camberwell and Peckham. Does he like it here? I asked him. ‘I’m used to it’ he replied.
- When he showed me around Peckham, I was amazed by how many people he knew and how many people knew him. Everyone said hello. ‘There are lots of African people here’, he said, ‘so they know how to respond to my jokes’. He barters with the market traders. ‘They know how it works. If they say £9 for plantains, I’ll say £7. I’ll then buy them for £7.50’.
- In 2003 Nathan was able to buy his own plot of land back home in Kumasi. He showed me the picture of the house he is having built there. It should be finished by the end of 2007. It will have fifteen bedrooms. When it’s ready he plans to rent it out as a guesthouse then maybe live there, with his family, in four or five years time.
- He would like his own son to study in Ghana till he’s 16, then finish his education in the UK.
He wants to have two or four kids himself. Not three, he smiles. Two or four is fine.
- His mum came to visit for the first time in February. She was surprised by everything. She was upset by their babyseat. She couldn’t understand why you couldn’t just hold your baby on your lap in the car. She also found it strange that the baby didn’t sleep in the same room as his parents.
- Nathan had his citizenship ceremony in 2005.
Clearly not from Alaska
Alex Horne – 7th March 2007
‘Hello Mo’, I say, reading his name badge. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘He’s from Alaska!’ shouts Edvardas, emboldened after the conclusion of his interrogation.
Mo (short for Moutaz) is clearly not from Alaska. With Sudanese parents, he grew up in Dubai, was educated in Egypt but was actually born in St George’s hospital, Westminster. ‘I can definitely be your Sudanese representative though; I’ve got a Sudanese passport – although I don’t actually know where it is at the moment’. Thankfully this is a fairly red-tape-free project and I saw no reason why I shouldn’t immediately approve his application.
Mo has led an eventful and varied life. After studying law in Egypt he returned to Dubai, a somewhat eccentric decision considering Dubai had just that year banned internationals from practising law. He therefore spent the next few months selling cars and photocopiers (‘not at the same time!’ he laughed) before moving to the USA to take a masters in criminal law.
Predictably enough, his itinerant inclination followed him to America. ‘It was too expensive so I quit and worked in restaurants and donut stalls until this guy came along and asked me if I was “interested in making big bucks.” At that point I knew it was time to move again – I didn’t want to spend my time pushing drugs – so I made the small journey to London. That was in 1997.’
Since then he’s studied alternative medicine and graduated last September from the College of Naturopathic Medicine. ‘That’s what I now know I want to do. That’s my passion’. So after a couple of decades and one marriage (‘I’m happily divorced’) Mo is finally showing some signs of settling at the age of 39. ‘Am I going to move again? Well, not for a while. I have to pay all my debts first!’ he laughs yet again.
One country Mo hasn’t visited over the last twenty years is Sudan. His family are from Khartoum and although a few of his relatives still live there, it’s not necessarily a place at the forefront of Mo’s mind. ‘Do I feel Sudanese?’ he ponders. ‘That’s a good question. I don’t really know what that means. I don’t think patriotism is necessarily good. If someone invaded England I’d stand up for it. I love it here. That’s the link – that’s how I feel. But I’ve made friends everywhere. I like everywhere’.
‘My Dad’s stories are all set in Sudan so there’s an echo of the place in my head. I’d like to help Sudan – if that’s not patronising. Dad didn’t live there for long but he was born in a beautiful spot there. But now he’s passed away and all the people he knew are gone. And now I’m here and this is where my life is… Oh, I’m so self-centred!’
I didn’t think Mo was at all self-centred. To be honest, I didn’t think he was really anything-centred. But he was definitely interesting, entertaining and the duty manager at the hostel so it was soon time for him to return to his desk.
And that, for now, was that at the hostel. Becky assured me there were many more nationalities who were unfortunately not around just then and I’m sure I’ll return before the end of the year. Instead of heading back west, however, the four of us then bundled into Becky’s car and drove south (past a Finnish Church by Southward library which I must also remember to revisit) to Peckham Rye, Becky’s house and Becky’s husband, Nathan.
Alex Horne – 7th March 2007
When we tell friends and family about this project we usually encounter one of three reactions. First, we get the ‘oh, that sounds interesting. What countries do you still need?’ to which we sheepishly list the 132 countries we haven’t yet found. Second, the businesslike, ‘ok, well, I’ve got Australia – have you got Australia? You have. America? Oh. That’s it really for me. I did meet this Polish guy…’ to which we nod and smile and change the subject. And third, the ‘oh right, well good luck’, which is probably the most helpful of them all.
When we actually chat to people from countries outside the UK, however, they’ve tended to be much more excited about the idea as a whole, keen to share their experiences and tell their side of the London story.
And just occasionally we meet someone from this country who shares that enthusiasm and is eager and, more importantly, able to help us with our quest.
I met up with Debbie at the flagship YHA centre in Rotherhithe. I’d got there early, something of a relief seeing as spring had suddenly arrived, catching me unawares and making me sweat even more profusely than usual under my unnecessary layers. I was pleased to have fifteen extra minutes to cool down inside the enormous and very shiny building. The biggest hostel in the UK, YHA Rotherhithe can easily house over 350 people whose international breadth was reflected by the multitudinous flags that adorned the wall and which I took as a sign of good things to come as I sat as still as possible with arms outstretched.
Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable and aerated again, Debbie arrived with her sister Becky (who used to work for the YHA) and Becky’s one year old son A.J. (whose birth interrupted Becky’s employment at the YHA) and we spent several minutes saying our hellos. Debbie had actually been to a show that Owen and I had put together the year before and she’d recently happened upon our project by chance. A performer herself, she’d offered to lend a hand and after several emails we’d fixed today as the day. Before too long our table was transformed into some sort of international meeting point as Becky brought her diverse friends and colleagues to meet me and discuss their lives.
Unfortunately, Orietta, the hostel’s chef and my first candidate, was from France. Just five days earlier I’d met David. Like I’ve always said, they’re like buses the French. You wait for ages then two come along at once (I can’t think any other ways in which people from France are like buses).
But then in strolled Edvardas, Becky’s replacement on reception and a lively Lithuanian. He’s lived in London for three and half years now and has no plans to return for longer than the two week holiday he’s got coming up next week. His father, brother and sister all live in Lewisham and he’s enjoying London life, even if it is more stressful than the countryside he’s used to back home.
He told me about Teppelina, the main food he misses at the moment. It’s a layered dumpling featuring mashed green potato, meat and more potato which is boiled and eaten at the start of the day. If you manage to consume two you won’t want anything else until the following morning.
Edvardas is one of at least 100,000 Lithuanians who are said to live in London, although that number, he says, is made up mainly of the Russians who buy their Lithuanian passports cheaply and illegally. He’s comfortable working in the hotel industry for now and wants to stay in London where all his friends are also now based. ‘I don’t like to move from one place to another’, he explained. I pointed out that he had moved from Lithuania to London. He said, yes, but he wouldn’t want to make a move like that again any time soon.
‘My first few months here were hell’, he continued. He didn’t know anyone, he found the language difficult. ‘A gardener was once working at my dad’s house and asked me for a coffee, but I couldn’t even get that! He must have repeated it three or four times but I just stood there – I didn’t know what he was on about!’
As he went back to work in the hostel, however, he bantered with Mo, my next interviewee, in word-perfect English and confirmed that he’s now perfectly settled in his new home.
Friday 2 March 2007
Kensal Revisited Again
Alex Horne – 2nd March 2007
Owen had to go home after lunch. Unfortunately this isn’t actually our job so sometimes both of us have to do things that don’t involve asking strangers where they’re from. I, however, had a couple of hours free in the afternoon and am self-employed so decided to head back to Chamberlayne Road and see if I could sink the Pakistani and French putts I’d been lining up earlier (yes, that’s a golf metaphor and it only really works if golfers 'line up' their putts three hours before taking the shot. Which they don't. Oh well).
To my amazement, I holed both first time. To begin with, all the way from Pakistan, I met Javed, the actual owner of the internet (and phone accessories) shop we’d dropped by that morning. ‘As in Miandad?’ I said, hopefully, continuing our tradition of using sport as a conversation starter. ‘Ah, yes. You have much knowledge of cricket’, came the reply. This was going brilliantly.
The only thing Javed wasn’t willing to share was his image in a photo, but to ensure you know what I was up against, I’ll do my best to describe him now. He’s 45 years old and was prodding a broken mobile phone with a tiny screwdriver. He was also a picture of sophistication I can only dream of achieving: chocolatey brown suit, creamy black polo neck, some sort of patent leather shoes with frilly bits on the side, and jet black hair slicked back from his smooth forehead; his really was a great look.
He’s run this business for a year but has been in the country for seventeen. He has customers from all over the world using the internet and getting their phones fixed in his shop and I asked him if he thought immigration to London had changed much since he arrived. ‘Not really’, he sighed. ‘There are good people and there are bad people. That is life’.
I agreed and told him how suspicious people can be when approached by two men holding a folder and asking questions about their nationalities. He laughed and I felt proud. I’d made a very sophisticated man chuckle! To be honest though, I was feeling a little awkward in front of his wall of debonairness and my questions were rapidly drying up. ‘You must want to ask me something else’, he said perceptively. I said something inane about how fixing phones must be very difficult. He told me it was his job. I thanked him again for helping me.
‘I like to help anyone who is doing research’, he smiled, serenely. Ah, well, yes, research, that’s what I’m doing. ‘So why did you come here?’ I asked eventually, relieved to have thought of something, anything. ‘I came to get a better future’, he replied, employing his trademark sound-bite style once again. ‘It was much safer here than in Pakistan’.
Now I was really anxious. ‘Why? What was going on in Pakistan?’ I should have asked. But being English and reserved and not wanting to admit any ignorance to such an unflappable individual, I kept quiet. I’ve since found out that Pakistan had been ruled by the military president (or martial law administrator) Rahimuddin Khan for the last eleven years and was in the middle of some of its tensest border disputes with India but at the time I nodded sagely and said I’d better be getting on. He calmly waved me off and said I could come back with more questions any time. I really should take him up on the offer.
But in the meantime, I had a Frenchman to meet so hurried back down to his deli, relieved to be approaching a country I knew something about. ‘I’m from Caen’, said David who was happy to answer my questions in his post-lunch lull. ‘Oh Caen’, I grinned, ‘I grew up near Brighton. It’s quite similar - in the south, nice and warm’. ‘Oh no, not Cannes, Caen. It’s in the north, it’s not nice and warm, but it is quite near Brighton’, he laughed and I felt a little bit pathetic.
Luckily David (and I hope you’re pronouncing that the French way), was a jovial sort of fellow and I didn’t feel down for long. He’s been here two and a half years and is saving up for an enormous trip round the world, taking in Barcelona, Canada and South America at the very least. He originally left Caen (located in Normandy, 96.8 kilometres from Le Havres – I know now) because he wanted to see something different and London was the closest big city. He arrived, penniless and immediately had to find a job that gave him enough cash to pay for his hostel on a daily basis. Fairly soon though, he’d made friends, picked up enough regular work and a lot of the language and has enjoyed discovering the city for himself ever since.
Now, again, he wants to see something different and is working hard to bank enough money for his forthcoming voyage round the world. ‘It’s a nice place to work though’, he said before adding, a little cheekily, ‘the food is excellent – it’s not just from England, it’s from all over the world!’
Unfortunately, when I left I was so busy getting his details (his email address included the initials BLT, by the way, which he said was actually in honour of the Great British Sandwich so I forgave him his little dig at our cuisine), I forgot to pay him for what was genuinely a delicious cup of coffee. Halfway home, pleased with my two successes, I realised my mistake and scampered back, tail between legs.
‘Yes, I realised when you’d left’, smiled David and I was glad I could reassure him that it hadn’t been an elaborate day-long plan to get a free cup of coffee. It’s just an elaborate year-long plan to spend lots of money on cups of coffee and be inspired and entertained by people like him.
A Carrotty Surprise
Owen Powell - 2nd March 2007
After a reasonably difficult morning, our encounter with Harsha and Sophie had enthused us again, and we headed towards Kensal Rise with more confidence. Alex had previously scouted out an Ethiopian cafe, so our expectations were high as we turned into the parade of shops near the railway station and saw the colourful sign above the Bole Cafe and Diner.
Inside, preparing for a busy lunchtime, was Aynalem (or Ayni, for short). Alex ordered an orange juice, and Ayni suggested he might want some carrot juice mixed in with it. Slightly baffled, Alex agreed that probably that was exactly what he was after, and he wasn't wrong - it was delicious.
In between jobs behind the counter, Ayni joined us for a quick chat. She was very softly spoken, and seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention, but smiled when Alex complimented her on the juice he was thirstily hoovering up with a straw. She had been in London for nine years, but had only been running the cafe for the last six months. It seemed to be a real labour of love for her - more often than not she worked seven days a week, and provided a catering service as well during the few times the cafe was closed. The Bole provided traditional Ethiopian food, popular not only with the large Ethiopian populations in nearby Queen's Park and Ladbroke Grove (where Ayni lived), but with many other customers as well. During our chat, one of Ayni's regulars, a burly Ghanaian man, came in for his usual mid-morning snack.
Ayni was happier talking about her new life in London than her old life in Ethiopia. She said that she had arrived on her own nine years ago, had lost her mum and dad, and had never been back. When we asked what her plans were, if she hoped to stay, her eyes lit up. "Oh yes, I hope to stay for a long time." She has settled now into a new community, and particularly enjoys (on Sundays when she is not working) visiting a church in Battersea where she has lots of friends.
The lunchtime rush was approaching, but before she went back behind the counter we asked about the name of the cafe. "Bole?" said Ayni, smiling. "Bole is the name of the airport in Addis Ababa. It was the last place in Ethiopia I stood in before I came to England, before I flew to Heathrow. It reminds me of home."
Alex Horne - 2nd March 2007
Almost three months after our morning’s trawl of the south side of Ashburnham Road, Owen and I decided to have a second crack at NW10, this time concentrating on the Rise rather than the Green (Kensal Rise does indeed rise, by the way, if you’re coming from the south. From the other direction, of course, it falls but “Kensal Falls” would sound too much like a waterfall and expectant tourists might be disappointed. Kensal Green is not green).
Like in November we thought it would be a good idea to save time and aide our memoires by using a single word to describe the mood of each person we came across. As always, we were expecting an enormous haul of willing immigrants.
At the civilised hour of 10.30am we set off from the bottom of Chamberlayne Road, opposite Kensal Green Cemetery, perhaps the most cosmopolitan graveyard in London (one of the key regulations of the endeavour, unfortunately, is that the people we find must live in the city, but this could well be an idea for a future project) and entered almost every establishment between the New Church and Kensal Rise station – with some success.
But first, some failure.
And a lot of coffee.
First up, the car wash, where my hopes were raised on The Day of the Snow by a Kosovan with a sponge. Unfortunately we were told that today he’d just gone off on a two week holiday and everyone else was too busy to talk. “Are you from Kosovo?” I persisted. “I’m too busy to talk”, came the reply. They were quite literally “too busy to talk” (except to make it quite clear how busy they were and what that meant they weren’t able to do). I’m pretty sure he was from Serbia but the only adjective I could write down for sure was “busy” (and from now on, our key adjectives will all be found “in speech marks”).
A large proportion of the time we spend approaching people we think might be foreigners is actually devoted to getting the moment of contact exactly right. We often walk past a shop, glance in, then stop the other side of the door, just out of sight, and discuss whether the people inside look (a) alien, (b) busy, and (c) happy. If the answers are yes, no and yes (in that order) we proceed. With caution. If I hadn’t already known there was some chance of getting a Serb at this location, there’s no way we would have entered the carwash on this basis, with the answers being at best ‘maybe’, ‘yes’ and ‘hard to tell because of the preceding ‘yes’’.
When it comes to places that serve food or drink, this discussion usually takes place in the warmth of the café/bar/restaurant itself, fuelled by the appropriate coffee/beer/food. So on entering the first café on the corner of Harrow Road. we ordered drinks, noticed the Arabic writing adorning pictures of somewhere hot on the wall and waited until the jovial looking owner got off the phone whilst sipping two incredibly strong (and definitely not British) espressos. Eventually the time seemed just right to pop the question, Owen jumped in and, hooray! He was willing to talk to us! And we both described him as “expressive”! But, oh no, he was from Morocco. And we’ve already met Rashid. We knocked back our caffeine and left.
Next we came to a money transfer shop, so common in London but which I had never before been inside. In case you, like me, have never had to wire money anywhere, I’m pleased to report that the interior of one of these places looks very much like a bank, except that this one had no queues whatsoever. The two cashiers looked genuinely “excited” to see us and told us ‘yes, we get lots of foreign people here’. ‘Great’, we chorused, ‘where from?’ ‘Oh, Brazil! They’re all from Brazil! We’re from Brazil!’
Brazil. No good to us of course. We’d interviewed a man called Bertrand in Islington. They were however “helpful” too and pointed us in the direction (North again) of next door’s dry cleaners-cum-tailors.
‘I’m rushed off my feet today’ was the immediate response of the cleaning/adjusting business’ owner, despite the fact that his shop was also empty. ‘I can’t chat on Fridays or Saturdays’, he explained, ‘it’s the end of the week’. We had to admit he had a point. Those two days are indeed at the very end of the week. Why this meant ‘no chatting’ we didn’t ask because he was a Cypriot and we’d already met Antonis from Wapping (also in the laundry business).
After another encounter with a (slightly “short-tempered”) Moroccan in the adjacent café we then met our first new country in one of the trendy delicatessens that had recently sprouted across the road. True to form, though, despite another dearth of customers, the Frenchman behind the counter said he was too “flustered” to answer our questions right then. ‘It sounds very interesting’, he protested, ‘but I can’t do anything now. Maybe come back later?’ To be fair he was sort of rushing about, putting pastries on trays and that sort of thing, but we were beginning to feel like we’d missed some community meeting in which everyone in the area had agreed not to talk to us on any account whatsoever.
The hairdressers opposite strengthened our suspicions with “surly” being the adjective I scribbled next to the “Lebanese” nationality of the manager and “sheepish” beside his two Polish assistants (we didn’t need them anyway, we’ve got friendly Hassan and lovely Iwona). After one Italian Cafe, two Indians and a Bangladeshi curry house (got, got, got), we were then rejected by the lady in charge of the Caribbean takeaway further up the road. This was even more painful both because we’d patiently bided our time while her only two punters finished their supermalts (I still don’t know exactly what this is) and because she was from Jamaica – our bogey country. This was our fourth close shave so far with the third largest of the Caribbean islands. At least now I know where I can find a Jamaican within a few hundred yards of my front door. If the worst comes to the worst I can always come back and beg.
The first internet café of our trip provided our twelfth nationality in just thirteen stops as the “laid-back” proprietor told us he was from Pakistan. We soon discovered that this wasn’t going to be a simple find either, however, as he insisted he was ‘only looking after the shop for a friend.’ ‘A friend?’ we enquired. ‘Yes! He’s from Pakistan too. Interview him!’ Apparently this man didn’t feel comfortable stealing the tremendous thunder one gets from being involved with this project whilst on babysitting duty for his mate. We tried to explain that it didn’t really matter if the people we spoke to don’t actually own the building in which we’re speaking to them but he was having none of it. ‘Be patient’, he said, testing our patience. ‘He’ll be back at two… ish’
And so, into the carpet shop next door and our very first British sighting – a statistic not lost on the gentleman in question. ‘From your accent I guess you’re from London!’ quipped Owen on hearing a cockney-ish voice. ‘That’s right’, he replied gruffly. ‘I’m the last one left’. Ah. Good for our project, but not so good for him apparently: ‘And I’m thinking of leaving too. I’m serious. I’m the only bloody one left. Put that in your book!’ Alright then, sir. Done. We scampered away.
On the other side of the railway bridge we then found a shop, closed unfortunately, that finally seemed to mark a change in our fortunes. All Nations was its name and ‘Specialize in African Afro Caribbean and Continental Groceries’ was its claim. And while its shutters were shut, our hopes were lifted and we bounded across to the road to the corner of Chamberlayne and Harvist Roads, where our faith was rewarded in the most ramshackle of settings, The Salvage Shop.
Now, this is a place I recommend to everyone. In fact, I’ve brought a lot of my friends specifically to its door over the past couple of years - it’s that spectacular. You can barely squeeze through the quirky furniture, broken typewriters, vintage tennis racquets, ‘unique’ paintings, spare hooks, fireplaces and springs that are piled in no particular order from dusty floor to peeling ceiling, but if you look hard enough you can nearly always find some gem hidden amongst what some might call junk. In fact a better writer could probably draw quite a neat parallel with the area in general – but I’m not quite sure how without the words ‘salvage’, ‘broken’ and ‘junk’ making it either offensive or patronising.
Anyway, on this occasion we certainly found our pearl secreted in the office at the back of the shop in the form of the manager, Sophie, and her merry band of salvagers. She, unfortunately, was from Cyprus (cf Antonis again), but she was so keen to help, so energetic and so funny that we felt like we’d scored an extra ten nationalities. ‘What countries do you want?’ she barked through her cigarette smoke while examining our folder from back to front. ‘Ah, you need Yemen? I was proposed to by a Prince in Yemen! But he doesn’t live in London now. I’m learning Arabic and Russian by the way…’
This sort of thing went on for a while. In the end she took our details, pointed us in the direction of a Jamaican hairdressers just beyond the station and promised to get us any further nations we desired. We promised in return to bring her a bottle of champagne for ever five finds. Starting with Harsha, one of her several Sri Lankan helpers who she’d beckoned into the office as soon as we’d finished our story.
Shy but apparently very happy in this chaotically cheery environment, Harsha answered our questions quietly whilst distractedly fiddling with a torch. He’s 23 years old and has been living and working in Kensal Green for two and a half years now. ‘I’m a removals man’, he added, a little unsure if that was the correct job description to use in front of his boss. Thankfully she nodded and confirmed, ‘he’s a removals man’.
The worst thing about London, he laughs, is the women; ‘the women are terrible here! They fight too much and they shout too much!’ He has a girlfriend back home in Sri Lanka who is much better behaved.
When not removing things that people don’t want any more he’s studying for a Masters in electronics from the University of Bolton which seems to be going well because halfway through our chat, the fiddled-with torch was suddenly fixed. His face lit up briefly. ‘I’m going to be an electrician one day. But I miss Sri Lanka a lot’, he whispered, almost as if he didn’t want Sophie to hear his confession. ‘There’s no place like home’.
After a little more banter with the two of them in which Sophie claimed to have taught Harsha all of his colloquial English (‘He speaks brilliantly now thanks to me; things like, ‘Come on you bastards, work harder!’ - I taught him that!’) we said our goodbyes and headed up to the road to get some more much needed coffee.