George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Wednesday 18 April 2007
Not Even Half a Handful
Alex Horne – 18th April 2007
Despite being some thirty countries behind schedule we set off with high hopes on this particular Wednesday, pleased to have at last found a day on which neither Owen nor I had anything much on. We’re trying to squeeze this project around our normal London lives, it’s not our job and, unfortunately, it can’t always be our number one priority and for the last few weeks it’s had to take something of a back seat as we’ve done other time-consuming things like ‘Easter in Ireland’, ‘preparations for the Edinburgh Festival’ and ‘a gig in East Grinstead Sports Centre’.
Now, however, the day stretched before us like a long hot summer holiday (until 5pm when I had a meeting over in Ladbroke Grove) so after eating a brief and efficient breakfast in The Breakfast Club we set off on the dot of 11am (Owen had already had a meeting on Liverpool Street at 10am) determined to end the day with at least one handful of foreigners, maybe even two, or perhaps one handful and a couple of fingers – either way, five at the bare minimum.
First stop, the Piccadilly Circus end of Regent Street where a month earlier I’d bought some black material (fabric, not risky jokes about plane crashes) for my own Edinburgh show from a man who happened to mention he was from Malta during the transaction. Yes, Malta: eleventh smallest country in the world and therefore an enormous one for us.
On re-entering the establishment I immediately recognised the suave shopkeeper behind the counter, tape measure draped casually but deliberately over his shoulders and set about reminding him of my previous purchase. Thankfully, he remembered me. This was going well. I felt a surge of pride and was glad Owen was on hand to witness the fact that I had recently made quite an impression on a Maltese tailor.
I went on to excitedly explain why I was back, that I’d remembered his nationality and would love him to join our project. He continued to smile. But then he started shaking his head. What? No! Yes – he was saying no!
And then, to make matters worse, he suddenly gestured to another a man at another counter and said, ‘we’ve been here too long’. The other man turned round – it was the first man’s twin brother! An identical twin! And he was shaking his head too! Neither of them would help!
I was feeling fairly desperate and confused so begged briefly but this only increased the intensity of their identical head sways. ‘Oh no, we’ve been here more than fifty years’, they said, ‘we can’t really help’. Yes you can, I cried, you’re perfect. And you’re twins! We haven’t got Maltese people or twin people! ‘No we can’t’, they replied, ‘and I don’t think you’ll find any other people from Malta in London. There really aren’t very many’. No. No. No! Well, Ok. Thank you. Goodbye.
I regained my composure and hustled Owen out of the shop. A difficult start. A couple of Malteasers. We marched in silence to the nearest tube.
Piccadilly Circus, I think, is quite a fun tube station. One of the few that is actually entirely underground, once you’ve descended into the earth you can walk in a complete circle around the barriers and get your keys cut, shoes cleaned or buy a samosa from the miniature shops on the outer ring. It’s pretty much exactly like a real circus.
Pulling ourselves together after the Maltese Disaster we decided that now would be a good time to get the London Underground’s multicultural staff on our side. We sidled up to one friendly looking employee and told him what we tell everyone. He sounded interested but said we needed to speak to his Supervisor who, he was pretty sure, would say no. Still, we thought it was worth a try and set off in search of this apparently negative man. We’d already Oystered ourselves through the barriers at this point but our amicable L.U. employee agreed to swipe us out again and told us how to find his boss’s office in the middle of the Circus. This was now officially an adventure.
When we finally penetrated the station’s inner sanctum, where shadowy figures stared at London’s commuters on a bank of TV screens in true Big Brother/James Bond style, the Supervisor/Main Baddy (a surly and very English bloke) greeted us grimly but said that yes, we could ask his workers if we could interview them. But that they would then say no. They definitely wouldn’t do it. Fine. Ok. We smiled, said thanks and both thought he was sending out mixed messages but went back to our friendlier man and told him his Supervisor had said that we could ask him questions but that in all likelihood he wouldn’t answer them. Flouting this prediction our man gleefully said he would answer them. So we asked him where he was from. And he said he was from Suffolk.
He then mustered his fellow on-duty colleagues (all three of them), each of whom revealed that they were born in and around London. One added that he was half-German but when pressed, crumbled and said he wasn’t sure if he was really. We then had more problems Oystering ourselves back through the gates and eventually scuttled down the escalator admitting a second humiliating defeat.
The first person we met on Electric Avenue (out of Brixton tube, turn left, then left again) had a much simpler and more positive attitude to our project. He was called Kelly and came from Kashmir which, like Kurdistan, Bermuda, Montserrat, Palestine and Wales, is a place that people have told us they’re from but which isn’t a member of the UN (according to their and our arbitrary rules, he’s actually from Pakistan. I for one find this confusing and am constantly worried about making offensive political blunders but we’re definitely going to try to keep track of ALL nations, regions, ‘countries’, tribes or realms we meet, whether they’re in the magic 192 or not). He was selling batteries.
‘You’ve come to the right place’, he cried, gesturing down the stall-laden street and grinning. ‘There are people from at least five hundred countries here!’ As I said, we’re keen to meet people from everywhere so an extra five hundred nationalities on one street would be a real help.
As it was, after a slightly incoherent chat with Kelly about the world in general and Duracell in particular, we strolled down the Avenue asking each stall holder where they were from and did indeed encounter people from all over the planet; blokes from Brazil, Poland, Australia and Lithuania offering shoes, household goods, cheese and pens respectively, two guys from Jamaica and one from Nigeria selling music by playing it very loud and dancing a bit, men from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ghana and Bolivia chopping up lots of different meat, girls from Malaysia and China vending various herbal remedies, a Frenchman with a flag stall and even an English girl selling tea. Unfortunately, we’d got all them already and, as far as we can tell, there’s no-one out there with whom we can do any Panini-sticker-album-style swaps.
In one of the covered market areas we found a guy called Amin from Guyana who was studiously poring through a medical textbook while not selling any of the fabrics in his shop. He told us his dad would be ideal for us and promised to phone or email us later that week. We’re still waiting.
A few shops down we stumbled across something called The Sierra Leone Shop, outside which three lively ladies were dancing to music whilst sweeping the shop front. Again we asked them to help us. ‘We’re too busy!’ came the implausible but by now predictable reply. Round the corner we entered somewhere promising us ‘Religious Artefacts from Haiti and USA’ whose Haitian employee, we were told, had all moved on the previous month. It was becoming a frustrating day.
We did have some joy. Just before leaving Electric Avenue we finally persuaded our Eritrean to become our 60th ambassador before a kind lady in Brixton’s Registry Office patiently told us when would be the best time to come to one of their weekly citizenship ceremonies (we’d missed today’s one by about an hour and a half).
But even when we travelled North West for a quick raid on Ladbroke Grove before my meeting, we couldn’t shake off this run of bad luck. The receptionists in the Serbian Community Centre on Lancaster Road wouldn’t let us into their building, all the butchers on Portobello Road were from Afghanistan or Pakistan (both already found) and the Singaporean chef in the healthy but trendy ‘Grain Shop’ couldn’t remember his myspace address and has since failed to find ours. After over five hours of searching we’d dug up just one new nationality and now decided that a new approach was needed.
Tired and discouraged we retreated into a café under the railway bridge to drink coffee and hatch a new plan.
I think we just assumed the guy making our drinks was Italian. If not Italy, definitely from some other country we’d already come across. Probably a rare one like Cape Verde, knowing our luck.
After almost six months of searching, however, Owen and I had grown into two nationality-seeking ninjas, ready to ask someone where they’re from at the merest hint of foreignness (without almost all the politically correct qualms we had back in October). So when we’d instinctively churned out our story and our barista invited us to guess his homeland we jumped at the challenge.
‘Erm, you’re not from England are you?’ I ventured, not wanting to fall foul of some ingenious double bluff. ‘No’, he smiled, with just a hint of a Mediterranean accent. ‘Ah! Spain?’ tried Owen. ‘No’, said the man. ‘Italy?’ ‘No.’ ‘Malta?!’ ‘Oh no… there’s a clue here’, he grinned, ‘look around you’. We both glanced around the cosy café. It was called Pitta The Great. ‘Greece!’ we cried. ‘No!’ he replied. ‘Tunisia?’ ‘No.’ ‘Portugal?’ ‘No.’ ‘Russia?’ ‘No.’ ‘Somethingystan?’ ‘No. Have a look at the menu…’
Ah. There we are. Felafel! ‘Israel!’ (I think I got it in the end) ‘Yes!’ All three of us cheered. And while our initial assumption was actually true – we had met a young man from Israel selling handwarmers on a stand next to Iwona’s in Charing Cross Station a few months ago, he’d failed to show for a future interview so we still needed Israel!
This playful start to the encounter went on to characterise the whole meeting. After thinking carefully he decided that he wouldn’t tell us his real name: ‘You can call me Pitta. That’s what most people here do’. And the rest of Pitta’s story we had to tease out of him as he painstakingly ground some of the finest coffee I’ve ever drunk in London.
Ironically, perhaps, his journey to London was one of the most straightforward and logical we’ve come across. Twenty five years ago he came for a conference in a hotel about hotels and was offered a job in a hotel. When his visa ran out he lived in Switzerland for a while until he was granted another UK work permit. He then came back to England thinking he’d stay for a couple of years. Thirty years later and he’s still here. ‘Well’, he said by way of explanation, ‘London is very welcoming in a cosmopolitan way. And my family are here now, I have two kids – we’re British citizens!’
After he had his work permit approved four times he applied for citizenship, became a temporary resident, kept four more successive work permits, became a permanent resident and was, indeed, nationalized. ‘It’s fairly uncomplicated’, said Pitta.*
Back in Israel he’d worked in the hotel industry and up until 1980 was employed by the Hilton chain over here. For the next few years, until 1987, he enigmatically told us he worked on various other ‘projects’, before, twenty years ago, he found himself in the ‘coffee game’. He’s sold hot drinks and falafel on Portobello Road ever since.
‘Am I here for good? I expect so but I can’t say for sure. I enjoy it all – except that it’s so loud and expensive’, he told us. Leaning forward he continued, ‘also, my mother is getting on now. She’s 92 years old. My father died fifteen years ago, my sister’s in L.A so she’s the only one left in Israel. Maybe I’ll get her over here, maybe I’ll go back there – I just don’t know’.
It’s clearly something that’s been troubling Pitta. He described how his mother fled Frankfurt and Hitler in 1936 at the age of 11. Pitta was born in 1950 and they survived ‘a couple of wars’ in the mid fifties. ‘But we lived in the middle of the country – you won’t have heard of the town (I’m becoming used to that normally true supposition) so we weren’t affected. To be honest, when I did leave it was by accident. It wasn’t for any religious or political reasons. I just got a job over here’.
He told us more about his shop; how his was the first espresso café on Portobello Road – ‘then Starbucks came along’; how his seven foot wide bar, The Coffee Stop, was featured in Notting Hill – ‘you can just see the end of it when Hugh buys his oranges’; and how we should definitely come back at the weekend – ‘there’s no place like this when the market’s on…’
Our faith restored in our original and fairly haphazard search method, we might just do that. Especially if we don’t come up with any better ideas first.
*Although I can see why so many immigrants took to the streets on the May Bank Holiday, calling for an amnesty for illegal immigrants in what was called the ‘Strangers Into Citizens Campaign’.