George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Thursday 10 May 2007
No.69: Czech Republic
Alex Horne – 10th May 2007
As our search gathers speed, Owen and I are becoming increasingly excited about this whole unwieldy thing. A rolling stone gathers no moss, they say, but a rolling snowball does gather snow - in fact it gathers the stuff a lot more efficiently than if you just add flakes individually - and we’re currently picking up nationalities at an alarming pace.
But I don’t think either of us are as excited as Petra, our Czech Republic representative, who I met for a coffee in Golders Green, a couple of hours after Singapore and Paraguay and just before Iceland and Canada. Towards the end of our chat she told me she literally couldn’t wait to read her story on the website. So I can only apologise for the fact that I’ve now forced her to wait no less than three weeks. A rolling snowball might get bigger quickly but unfortunately it doesn’t have much time to write up its blogs.
Still, I’m here now, and Petra’s is certainly a deserving story. It was the tenth anniversary of her arrival in England last week, ‘but I didn’t tell anyone’, she told me, thus cancelling out the fact. She left a ‘boring job’ in a bank when she was 19 years old, and is now much more stimulated by her job as a university administrator at University College London and, she says, is ‘very honoured to represent her country’, both in this project and general.
I seem to remember that our initial plan was simply to meet as many nationalities as possible and tick them off like stickers in a Panini football album. As time has passed, however, so many tales have emerged that are more interesting – even than the contents of a Panini football album – that each entry means so much more than just filling a gap on a page. It’s at times like this that I feel a little nervous at the responsibility of creating this almost accidental global collection.
Petra picked Golders Green as our meeting point because she lives in Archway. ‘That’s not a pleasant place’, she said, ‘but I like it here. That’s my local Chinese over there. It’s delicious.’ Back in the Czech Republic, Petra didn’t have a local Chinese. ‘I come from a small village called Lestina U Svetlé Nad Sázavou (which has also has accents on the first ‘s’ and the second ‘e’ that my keyboard can’t cope with and which literally translates as The polish village by the town by the river) and hadn’t ever travelled before I came here. Everyone thought I was very brave. But I wanted to come to England and perfect my English and wasn’t worried about the consequences. When I arrived all I knew was that I had to get off the train at Victoria Station’. Like many of the people we’ve met, however, what she thought was fairly usable English learnt at school didn’t quite stand up to the test over here. ‘When I arrived I couldn’t understand what anyone said! Especially if they had accents’ (funny speech, not funny symbols this time).
Lestina U Svetlé Nad Sázavou, Petra told me, is in the Bohemian region of the Czech Republic. I thought by this she meant that everyone there is artistic, unconventional and probably quite cool, but it’s actually the historical name for the western half of the country (the two other areas are Moravia and Silesia). If your geography is as bad as mine, this means it borders Germany rather than Slovakia. And if your history is as bad as mine, the Czechs and the Slovaks split in 1993 (I remember wondering at the time what happened to all the Ians) in what was dubbed the Velvet Divorce on account of the lack of violence. ‘We barely even noticed the split’, she said. ‘It was unusual that it was so peaceful. Now there are loads of Czechs and Slovaks (and, I think, people called Ian) where I live in North London, and we really just think of each other as one nation.’
Lestina U Svetlé Nad Sázavou itself has a population of just five hundred people. That’s one sixteenthousandth of the population of London. Unlike the capital, therefore, it’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone. ‘I go back three times a year’, Petra tells me and gives me a beautiful photo of Prague in May (thank you, Petra, by the way!) before pinpointing her own home on a map I’d brought along. ‘Ideally I’d live half the year there and half here. I miss my family and the lifestyle. The atmosphere there is relaxed and safe. In London you pick up habits and ways of behaving that people find funny back home - like I’ll never leave my bag in the car any more. Back home that wouldn’t be an issue at all. It really is a friendly place.’
I know how she feels. My wife comes from Fermanagh, pretty much the Bohemian equivalent of Northern Ireland, and after seven years in London she now instinctively locks herself in the car whilst driving, even if she’s just nipping into Lisnaskea to pick up a paper. London has this effect on people. You have to be on your toes. ‘But it is good too!’ insists Petra, reassuring me that the city hasn’t corrupted her life entirely. ‘People don’t judge you if you’re different here. If you don’t conform in London, that’s fine. Like I’m a vegan and in the Czech Republic people think that if you don’t eat meat you must have a mental problem. And you can wear what you want over here. And meet people from all over the world…’
That last one is clearly one of London’s main attractions and even more relevant to Petra’s life than mine or Owen’s. After her first year here she met her husband, who had himself come from Nigeria. As it does for so many couples, London offered the perfect halfway house from which they could visit both of their families without too much trouble - once Petra had got over her fear of flying, that is.
‘Yes, I was terrified of flying!’ she says, noticing my surprise that someone would choose to live so far from home despite being so uncomfortable with the one thing that could quickly whisk her back. ‘I’d never actually flown until last year but eventually I had to cure myself. It was taking me eighteen hours to get to and from London by coach, but just an hour and a half by plane. And now I can go to Nigeria too!’
Her parents, however, are yet to conquer their aviophobia. ‘When she comes to visit, she adores it here,’ smiles Petra, ‘but my mum just won’t fly’. Petra has clearly come along way both literally and metaphorically. Her family didn’t expect her to stay in England more than a month, let alone ten years. ‘I was difficult and shy then’, she says confidently, a twinkle in her eye. ‘But I had to do it to grow and change. It is difficult sometimes – my mum still wants me to come home. But I must lead my own life’.
And that’s exactly what she’s doing. I can’t really imagine meeting her ten years ago, living in a tiny Bohemian town, shy and scared of flying, as opposed to this assured Londoner (I think I can call her that – I’m not saying she’s not Czech; she’s as proud of her country as anyone and clearly misses home enormously – but she really does seem to have found her place here and I think you can be a Londoner as well as being from wherever you’re from) with her local Chinese restaurant and international friends.
Before I head off to my next couple of nationalities she advises me to start more chains, to get more of the people we’ve met to themselves find the next ones. I agree. It’s a good idea. Almost everyone we’ve met seems to be much better than us (and perhaps British people in general) at getting to know other people from other countries (and there's also that whole snowballing analogy I attempted earlier). But for now I have to rush off and leave her in the cafe. ‘I’m going to stay for a while and do some foot shopping’, she says as I put my jacket on. She means window shopping, of course, but Petra’s now doing things her own way and it all makes sense. In fact, I think 'foot shopping' is a much better phrase and might even start using it myself.
A quick apology, I'm a bad journalist, please ignore most of that last paragraph!
I'm very happy to say that we're still in contact with Petra. She came to the Nearly Halfway Party and it was great to see here again. By that stage, of course, I still hadn't got round to writing up her story...
It's always a bit nerve-wracking when you know the people you've met are reading our/their stories for the first time. I'm always worried I've said something utterly or politically incorrect. On this occasion, Petra has just told me, it was my hearing that had let me down. When I left her in the cafe, she hadn't said she was off to do some 'foot shopping'. She'd said she was going to do some 'food shopping'. This makes a lot more sense and to be honest, since her English had been entirely perfect up until then I don't really know why I'd jotted down 'foot shopping' in the first place.
BUT I do still like the phrase 'foot shopping', and will stubbornly continue to use it wherever possible!