George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Friday 27 July 2007
Wednesday 25 July 2007
Full story to follow ...
Owen Powell - 25th July 2007
"Liechtenstein is basically eleven villages in the mountains," explains Silke. "Lots of people in London, when I tell them where I am from, say that they have been around in Switzerland and Austria, and been through Liechtenstein. It only takes half an hour to cross by car."
Silke loves London life, and drinks English bitter, and has a very intriguing middle-European accent. When I mention it, and say I can't quite place it, she immediately says, "Please don't say 'Birmingham'," which is apparently what a lot of people think it sounds like.
Alex Horne - 25th July 2007
Mishaal went to university in New York in 1990, the same year that the US and UK invaded Kuwait to remove Saddam. If he’d tried to leave a year later it wouldn’t have been possible. ‘That year changed a lot of people’s lives’, he said. He and a friend watched the fighting on CNN.
‘I was firmly anti war’, he continued, ‘but at the same time I felt ‘that’s my country he’s pillaging – I want them to get him out… diplomacy hasn’t worked for so many years’. At that time my view of war changed. After continued aggression you have to respond to defend. That’s the only way to get back to diplomacy.’
Mishaal, meanwhile, found himself swept up in the internet revolution of the early nineties: ‘It was very exciting and creative. People would just walk in with money making offers. I worked on the first internet banking system. The US was where it was at. That’s why I never considered going back to Kuwait’.
He’s currently working with some scientists at Imperial College on a business plan for a medical device that employs biotechnology to do something that he explained in detail but which I couldn’t really understand.
Tuesday 24 July 2007
Full story to follow ...
Owen Powell - 24th July 2007
Dan was born in Vanuatu when it was still jointly ruled by Britain and France, and came to the UK with his (British) missionary parents when he was four. He's a music producer now, although he's tempted to join the Vanuatuan Olympic team as it's just "Six guys and a flag".
Full story to follow ...
Owen Powell - 24th July 2007
Chikondi has worked in London for two years as a Policy and Advocacy Advisor for the VSO, trying to influence international organisations like the IMF and World Bank on teaching issues. She has four children under ten years old (the youngest was born in London) and they've all adapted well to big city life.
Alex Horne – 24th July 2007
According to one of the many dubious dictionaries on the net, a blog is supposed to be ‘an online diary; a personal chronological log of thoughts published on a web page’. So I feel I should apologise for this one’s chronological shortcomings and the growing number of entries that have not yet been entered, weeks and months after the relevant country was added.
So far we’ve resisted the temptations of Facebook and other online communities that could well make our search a lot simpler, mainly because we feel there’ll be more interesting stuff to write about if we have to find our people by ourselves using our feet and our mouths. What this does mean, however, is that we end up spending an awful lot of time wandering around London and only a tiny (the opposite of awful?) amount of time sitting in front of our computers, typing up our adventures.
Yesterday* however, we both headed up to Edinburgh for a month at the festival, when and where we plan to ignore the fact that we’re in the wrong capital for a large chunk of our year and use at least some of that time Getting Our Blog in Order. So if you’re waiting for your story to appear here soon, apologies again, but hopefully it will materialise in the near(ish) future.
In the meantime I do want to hastily write about my most recent encounters, if only to make my Scottish workload appear just slightly lighter.
I met two guys a week ago today, Phillip and Stephen, both 26 years old, both white, both university-educated, both with pretty similar backgrounds to my own. We all grew up in close-knit communities in fairly idyllic surroundings (some more idyllic than others, admittedly), and are all now based in London (well, very near London in my case), returning to our childhood homes every now and again for a few breaths of fresh air.
The gap between Phillip’s two worlds is substantially more pronounced than mine or Stephen’s. He was born and spent most of his formative years with 80,000 other people in the Seychelles, a small group of islands off the east coast of Africa. He currently works at Freshfields, one of the world’s largest corporate law firms, and we met in Room 45 on the 6th floor of their impressive offices, overlooking Big Ben, the Patent Office and the Royal Courts of Justice, to where coffee and biscuits were brought midway through the interview making me feel, for once, like I actually had some business in this neck of the woods.
‘I came to the UK to do my GCSEs’, he told me, ‘because my family knew it would be much easier to get on in life once you're in a system like the one here. Obviously you can do well if you stay in the Seychelles but it’s just a lot harder if you’re not on the track’. And so he’s been here ever since, collecting A-levels and a Law degree before qualifying and landing a job at Freshfields two and a half years ago - the British track well and truly trodden.
He used to fly home every holiday (‘it’s amazing how many friends you suddenly make when people find out you’re from a place like that’) and still returns annually to what he freely admits is the closest thing to paradise. ‘You take it for granted when you grow up there’, he said, ‘but now I go back and realise that it really is an amazingly beautiful place’.
He was raised on the most northerly island, three degrees south of the equator, a rock named Bird Island after the three million sooty terns that summer there. I, of course, got over-excited about this (the show I’m doing here at the Fringe is called Birdwatching and is about Birdwatching, inspired by the fact that my Dad is a Birdwatcher. If that tickles your fancy – and I don’t see why it shouldn’t – you can read more about the show here) and explained my own birding heritage. We bonded about dads. Phillip’s, it emerged, is a hotel developer (the Seychelles' biggest industries are tourism and tuna and I can’t help thinking he chose the less predictable option), now retired, who used to pretty much run the ecologically renowned island. He learnt his birds on Bird Island. And he learnt his hotels on a course in the UK where Phillip’s mum was training to be a teacher and living, coincidentally, with a girl from the Seychelles. They met and married within six months. ‘A year later, they moved to the Seychelles - to my grandparents' dismay, I imagine’, said Phillip.
Indeed. I can’t imagine my parents-in-law being entirely thrilled by their daughter being whisked off to a far-flung island after an eighteen month relationship. My wife currently lives on the island next door to her home (we live in England, her family in N.Ireland), and I know even that’s sometimes a struggle for such a close family.
But I did like the idea that within two years of meeting someone, Phillip’s mum’s world could have been turned so literally upside down.
It all seemed so surreal. Us, sitting in a room on top of London, so much in common, except for the fact that he grew up on a tropical island where adults still dig for pirate’s treasure in the hope of finding gold (‘I know one bloke who’s been digging the same hole for the last twenty years. He’s using an enormous drill at the moment. I can’t help wondering how the pirates would have got it in that deep…’).
I pondered the whole situation for a while and it did cross my mind that it could all just be an elaborate hoax. A remarkably well-researched and quite pointless hoax, but a hoax nevertheless. I told him his story was so fantastic, I just couldn’t believe it. He smiled and showed me a picture he’d taken of Bird Island on his phone. Evidence! I succumbed. He’s a cracking laywer.
To be honest, I never really had any doubts. That was just a bit of fun. We were getting on well enough to have a bit of fun after twenty minutes. We probably won’t end up moving to a desert island together but I could imagine us staying in touch. Like I said, we had a lot in common. And anyway, we’ve met enough people now not to be surprised by these exotic backgrounds. What’s more, paradise is never that simple. Fuelled by the freshly brewed and delivered coffee, Phillip went on to tell me about the political problems masked by the Seychelles’ make up.
‘It’s officially the most indebted country per capita in the world’, Philip revealed in typically precise legal English. ‘That’s not a particularly well publicised fact’.
True. I also didn’t know that apart from the odd visit by people like Vasco Da Gama around 1500, the islands weren’t actually populated until the French briefly settled in the eighteen hundreds then the British got even more comfortable in 1812. One hundred and sixty four years later, the Brits kindly granted the island independence, meaning the population today is, to me, quite a bizarre mix of people descended from European colonists, African slaves and Chinese and Indian traders.
He and his family actually left for a while in 1982, when the country was ‘quite a communist sort of place … Having only recently gained independence from Britain and with my mum being British I think we were urged to leave.’
Now the blend is settling, with the islanders speaking a combination of French, English and Seychellois Creole, apparently at random. The last was recognised as an official language in 1995, the only Creole to have such recognition (unlike those spoken in Reunion, Mauritius or the southern states of the USA). When Phillip’s Dad was being educated at a Jesuit college in the islands some forty or fifty years ago, the language was strictly prohibited. Last week, Phillip spoke to his Gran on the phone, almost entirely in her native tongue.
I still can’t quite imagine this London lawyer growing up on the beaches, speaking the languages, surrounded by sooty terns. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can ask for an invitation to see and hear it all with my own eyes and ears just yet.
From Philip’s office I took the central line three stops west to Oxford Circus where I met Stephen in the doorway of the Nike Shop, a place I’ve never actually dared to enter but an excellent spot to locate foreign strangers in London’s most ridiculously busy crossroads – especially if, like me, you’re wearing yellow shoes.
Now, Stephen also grew up on an island, one with an even smaller population of just 65,000. He too studied in the UK and now works in one of Soho’s many post production houses. The only major difference between his story and Philip’s is that Stephen lives in Guernsey. And Guernsey, according to the UN, is not a country.
Stephen contacted us after reading about the project in one of London’s free papers. He immediately checked our Countries Found List, saw we hadn’t got Guernsey and fired off an email. It never even crossed his mind that Guernsey wasn’t ever on our Countries Wanted List.
While I have some difficulty remembering whether the likes of Taiwan, Kurdistan and Reunion are recognized by the UN or not, I don’t think I’ve really given the Channel Islands a second thought. ‘Part of the UK’, I would have muttered. ‘If we’re not counting England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland separately, I don’t see why the Channel Islands should be given special treatment’. But, like I say, I don’t think I ever gave it more than the one thought.
What I didn’t realise, and what Stephen was keen to inform me, however, was that Guernsey does have a number of strongish claims to Being a Proper Country and that the people of Guernsey do indeed presume that designation.
He kicked off with the statement: ‘I’m still not used to the English weather’, which immediately put me on the back foot. ‘Surely it’s not that different?’ I asked, a little aggressively, presuming that Guernsey was just a matter of yards away from the Isle of Wight.
Stephen silently drew me a map. And he drew it with such speed and precision that I had no doubt he’d drawn it for several other ignorant Brits in the past. It turns out Guernsey is just off the coast of France, not England, (although, I still insist the weather can’t be that different), and is only affiliated with Britain now because it stayed loyal to the Duke of Normandy back in 1066.
He went on to describe Guernsey’s own currency - ‘try using a Guernsey £1 note in London’ - Guernsey’s own accent - ‘unfortunately it’ll die out with my Grandfather’s generation, nearly all the kids were evacuated to England during World War II and it’s been diluted ever since’ - and Guernsey’s own government - ‘as I understand it, we’re loyal to the Queen but not to the British Government. We have our own one called The States of Deliberation’ - all of which, he insisted, meant that Guernsey is as much a country as France or, indeed, the Seychelles.
And, just to conclude, here are five other statements that Stephen made and which did eventually sort of convince me that Guernsey is sort of probably a country of sorts:
1. ‘I hold a Bailiwick Guernsey Passport’
2. ‘University in Britain was a massive culture shock. When I was growing up Guernsey was absolutely a white Christian place. I think I had one Chinese friend. Then I went to Manchester University and remember being stunned by my ignorance – ‘why are those people wearing those funny hats?’, I thought to myself. And it was even more of a shock moving to London.’
3. ‘I used to shoot for the school against France and England’.
4. ‘People always ask me ‘why aren’t you French?’, ‘are you cheating on your tax?’ and ‘do you have electricity?’ (I didn’t, but did ask him which one of Graeme Le Saux and Matt Le Tissier was from Guernsey. It’s Le Tissier. Le Saux’s from Jersey. So Guernsey definitely wins that one).
5. ‘It costs me as much to fly home as it does to get to New York’.
*I’m writing this on July 31st, not July 24th, but the Country Concerned was Encountered on July 24th so that’s what I’ve put on the Blog Date. It’s a muddly system.
Monday 23 July 2007
Saturday 21 July 2007
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Owen Powell - 21st July 2007
When Patricia is in London, she says she's from Sierra Leone, but when she went back to Sierra Leone earlier this year (for the first time in over twenty years) she felt like a foreigner. "Most of my friends," she laughs, "tell me that I'm such an English lady."
We meet in a bookshop cafe the day after the latest Harry Potter has come out, and Patricia's two young daughters look suitably excited. "I tell them that they are lucky to be growing up here," she says. "I moved to London when I was eleven - if I had stayed in Sierra Leone through the civil war there, then things would have been very hard for me."
Friday 20 July 2007
Keeping Up Appearances
Alex Horne – 20th July 2007
Ohood is Arabic for ‘promises’. It’s a fine name inferring trust and potential. Not just one promise either, promises. And the Ohood I met has already lived up to the challenge of her moniker.
We hooked up for a coffee by Chancery Lane (she’d found us, of course, I merely answered her email and set up a meeting) and I quickly discovered that this was a girl going places. Maybe it was partly because I’d met her in the same location, but she reminded me a lot of Violeta, the impressive young lady from The Democratic Republic of Congo. On both occasions I came away thinking both that London was lucky to have them and I to meet them.
Ohood arrived in the UK from Bahrain in the year 2000 when she was just sixteen years old. Her parents are Muslim but wanted a secular British education for their daughter so sent her to a tiny Vatican run Catholic school called Sacred Hearts in Hamad, a ‘government city’ built outside the capital Manama. There she excelled, winning a scholarship that took her from this tiny, intimate seat of learning to Cheltenham College, a large and alarming British boarding school. ‘It was very different and so was I’, recalled Ohood. ‘I spoke American English and my accent was much worse then! Did I enjoy it? It was an experience...’
Ohood represented half of all the Muslims at Cheltenham and was the only Arab in her year, but once again, she thrived. The scholarship she’d modestly mentioned was actually the Royal Crown Prince Scholarship, one of just six handed out each year in Bahrain. ‘I’m meant to represent Bahrain over here’, she admitted shyly, ‘like an ambassador’. After leaving school with an impressive set of A-levels she completed a BA at LSE then an MSC at SOAS – and when you’ve got that many initials on your CV I think it’s fair to say you’re representing your country pretty well.
‘My masters is in development studies’, she told me, ‘but since August I’ve also been working for a company called Ralph Appelbaum that’s building museums in Dubai and, yes, Bahrain’. This is a pretty cool job for someone so fresh out of college. She’s effectively freelancing for a globally respected company, dishing out advice on her country’s new national museum. ‘It’s already been built’, she explained, ‘now they’re doing the exhibits and it’s up to me to sort out what information goes with the interactive bits. It was meant to open in September but it’s all running a tiny bit late so it’ll probably be more like February’. ‘Sounds familiar’, I said. ‘Wembley!’ she nodded. ‘Yes’, I smiled. I was bantering with an ambassador.
Ohood is 23 years old now (well, 24 and a half if you’re using the Islamic system of counting the moon’s cycles rather than the sun’s). I told her, as politely as possible, that she seems a lot older than that. Perhaps it’s this youth that makes her so ambitious. ‘This job is just to keep me going’, she told me as we neared the bottom of our coffee cups. ‘I want to go into banking and the emerging markets next. But I would love to stay in London. I feel more at home here than in Bahrain – it’s wierd – I did my growing up here. This is where my social network is. I guess I found myself here’.
Like I said at the beginning, that’s good news for us and good news for London. I told her I thought she was an excellent ambassador for Bahrain. Ohood, however, was worried she wasn’t pleasing everyone. ‘My mum is waiting for me to get married to a Bahrainian’, she said with a slightly nervous smile. ‘Most girls marry between the ages of 21 and 25’. I didn’t ask which way her mother counted but tried to reassure her that she needn’t worry too much. Reading between the lines I can’t help thinking her parents (and namers) are justly proud of their daughter. They grew up in a council flat in Manama before moving to Hamad, her dad working as an engineer, her mum as a headmistress, and even with their combined income, Ohood told me it would have been impossible for her to study in England. For a girl brought up on Mallory Towers and Keeping Up Appearances (yes! in Bahrain! Is no-one safe?) to now be doing what she’s doing where’s she’s doing it in the manner she’s doing it is no mean feat. In her own words, ‘this really is a dream come true’.
Full story to follow ...
Owen Powell - 20th July 2007
Yesterday, Alex and I appeared on BBC World's lunchtime news show, being interviewed by George Alagiah. (The show has a potential worldwide audience of 250 million people - none of whom live in London, so maybe more of a potential humiliation than a help).
Right at the end of the interview, George cheekily threw us a curve-ball and announced, live on air, that he'd met an Angolan the night before. This was amazing. Without taking my make-up off, I left the BBC and went straight to Grays Inn Road - but the Angolan, a chef, had just finished his shift.
Going back today, I managed to meet Miguel. He's working in London for a year, taking a break from his degree in Sheffield, and cooks in a tiny kitchen alongside colleagues from Brazil and Portugal, all speaking Portuguese.
Wednesday 18 July 2007
"I Look Foreign"
Alex Horne – 18th July 2007
Because we’ve now got people tracking us down instead of us unearthing them, we sometimes find ourselves in situations when we’re meeting strangers in fairly random London locations having only exchanged an email or two. What this means practically – and what we seem to only realise when it’s too late – is that we often don’t know what the person we’re going to meet is going to look like. Or, even more crucially, whether they’re going to be male or female.
On this occasion, waiting to meet someone called Jeyhun from Azerbaijan outside Shepherds Bush tube station, I had a hunch I was going to be meeting a girl. It just looked like a girl’s name to me.
I sent a text to say I’d be wearing yellow shoes.
I received one back which read ‘I’ve got a green t shirt on and I look foreign!’ I found this quite funny. Not all that helpful, but quite amusing. Until I started looking round for a green-shirted foreigner and realised, not for the first time, that pretty much everyone in London ‘looks foreign’. Everyone looks different. And that’s kind of the point of the project.
When Jeyhun eventually found me (very few people have yellow shoes) he wasn’t a girl. And, of course, he looked no more foreign than anyone else. We found the nearest Starbucks, I bought him a coffee and we started to chat.
Never having met someone from Azerbaijan before but having eaten my first Armenian meal just weeks before and knowing that the two countries are neighbours I chose to open the conversation with a description of the restaurant. ‘Oh yeah’, said Jeyhun after I’d been going for a couple of minutes, ‘you know we’re fighting them’. ‘Oh no’, I said, ‘I didn’t know that’. But I wasn’t surprised. I’ve learnt pretty quickly that there are an awful lot of wars going on in the world that I don’t know about.
‘Actually it’s pretty much stopped now’, Jeyhun continued. ‘They’ve taken what they wanted’.
Jeyhun is 27 years old. He arrived here three years ago and has since married and divorced an English girl. He told me he likes the UK, ‘not because I can earn money, but because it’s democratic. If you’re talented you’ll do fine. If you work hard you can do it. I think that’s great’.
Jeyhun works hard in a gym round the corner from the café in White City. But things aren’t completely rosy in his particular view of cosmopolitan London. ‘There are too many Poles here now’, he said. ‘They are spoiling the name of foreigners. The local people have started complaining and they look at me and think I’m Polish. It wasn’t like this before but now we’re all lumped together’.
There has been a lot of varied reaction to the undeniably large number of Polish immigrants recently and it was interesting to hear the opinions of a fellow Eastern European immigrant on the subject. He was keen to point out he has nothing against Polish people per se, it’s just the high concentration of them that makes people uneasy and therefore has an effect on his life.
‘I work with lots of Polish people in the gym’, he told me, ‘and they’re lovely. But even they say the situation is not right. One of them has a brother who runs a business back in Warsaw but he can’t recruit people any more because they’re all over here. He says the only people left are over fifty years old.’
We returned to the subject of Armenia and, in particular, Edward, the Armenian guy I'd interviewed; ‘Did he have a big nose?’ asked Jeyhun with a broad smile. ‘And your person from Georgia, were they very stern?’ I told him I wasn’t not too sure on either count and evidently looked quite concerned about his line of questioning. ‘Oh no’, he reassured me, ‘we’re all the same – Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani – we really are all the same. We group ourselves together. We’re all Caucasians’ (referring to the Caucasus mountains that separate Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan from Russia and which Berdia, our Georgian, had also been keen to praise).
Jeyhun left the region for good when he was twenty three but he’d already visited Britain nine years before that. ‘In 1995 I came here for a swimming competition’, he explained. ‘That’s how I fell in love with England and the English language. I’m self-taught in English now. The competition was in Bath’ – we both, inevitably, chuckled about particular linguistic gem – ‘I know’, he acknowledged, ‘but it’s a beautiful place’.
After leaving school back home, Jeyhun worked in Azerbaijan's capital as a swimming teacher and fitness instructor then moved over to the UK as soon as he was able. ‘I used to miss Baku for the first year’, he told me, ‘and I still miss my family and friends but I’m used to the lifestyle and being independent. It’s different. When I go home I miss London so much – I miss meeting so many people, I miss the big flow of people. In Baku even the town centre is quiet.’
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. In a couple of weeks he’s taking a British friend of his back to see his homeland and it’s clear he’s looking forward to the trip with some pride; ‘I did some research on the internet and found out that out of the eleven main climates in the world, nine of them can be found in Azerbaijan. It’s a little country but there’s an amazing climate. You can grow cotton, grapes, walnuts, apples, bananas, kiwis, everything’.
I asked him why it’s not more prosperous. ‘It is. Or at least it was, but then there was so much corruption. The government is clamping down now but all the wealth went to just a few people’. To demonstrate he showed me a picture he’d taken on his phone the week before of two expensive looking cars with the number plates B8AKU and B7AKU. ‘I found these outside some massive house’, he told me. ‘Some people became rich after communism. There were a few billionaires. But there were a lot of poor people’.
‘Have you found many people from Azerbaijan in London?’ I asked him. ‘You’ll like this’, he said with a smile. ‘When I came over I know there was one person from my old school here already. Then one day I was walking around Wimbledon and just bumped into this guy waiting to do a driving lesson. Neither of us could believe it. We just stood there gobsmacked. It’s such a huge place but we’d found each other. I hadn’t seen him in ten years and I didn’t know which language to speak in!’
I did like it.
It started to rain outside (no need for ‘outside’, I guess, but there it is). ‘Ah, I love the rain’, sighed Jeyhun. ‘Baku is by the Caspian Sea and it’s always windy. I hate that’.
He did, however, seem happy, for the most part, in London. In fact, he seemed like a typical Londoner – if that’s not an oxymoron considering the third paragraph of this entry.
I guess he seemed happily grumpy. ‘For me it’s difficult to stay here’, he muttered before we said goodbye, ‘but for the Polish it’s easy’. It’s a favourite topic of conversation amongst Londoners and Jeyhun has his unique own angle: ‘It costs £30 to get to Poland but £366 to get to Azerbaijan. Is that fair?’ I didn’t answer. His self-taught English was pretty much perfect and I thought it was probably meant as a rhetorical question. Either way, I really don’t know the answer. It’s quite complex this immigration issue.
Full story to follow...
Alex Horne – 18th July 2007
I met Sava and her friend Nilpa by the escalators of the shopping centre on Hounslow High Street. They were both in school uniform. I felt just a tiny bit dodgy.
Hounslow is a cosmopolitan corner of London as close to Heathrow distance-wise as it is in spelling terms. Closer even. As you walk past M&S, HMV and KFC you are constantly aware of planes swooping yards above your head. It’s a place you’re always conscious of immigration.
Sava herself is 17. She lived in the U.A.E for fourteen years but says she prefers school in London; ‘the people are much friendlier’.
Nilpa, by the way, is brilliant. She wants to be a sports journalist and later supplied us with the phone numbers of both Emmanuel Eboue and Kolo Toure’s agents. They are from the Ivory Coast and play football for Arsenal (at the other Emirates of course). Unfortunately that meant they were too busy to talk either to us or Nilpa.
Sunday 15 July 2007
Two or three bits of exciting news this morning.
Firstly, we've only got 80 more people to find - which sounds simultaneously quite daunting and very easy. 80 people isn't very many. It's possible, although unlikely, that we could find them all in one go inside one of London's famous bendy buses. It really isn't many people at all.
Thirdly, we're planning our forthcoming 'The World in One Picnic' on Sunday 22nd July. If you're one of the 112 people we've met so far you'll be getting an email this week about it, but if you're from Andorra, the Marshall Islands or the Central African Republic (etc) and want to come along then email us (email@example.com) and we'll let you know where it is!
Owen and Alex
Thursday 12 July 2007
Wednesday 11 July 2007
A Typical London Day
Alex Horne - 11th July 2007
Actually, this isn’t really a typical day. Most Londoner’s days aren’t really like this. And most of my days aren’t really like this either. But today has been typically unpredictable - which is, I suppose, quite typical of London and really quite typical of our year so far.
So here’s what happened:
6.15am: Wake up and impulsively/sleepily decide to catch a lift with Rachel into London (from Chesham. I live in Chesham now).
8.00am: Arrive at White City, where Rachel works, and spend two hours in a café; the first properly waking up, the second writing up my Antiguan story. Not entirely, obviously, that won’t be done for another few weeks, but I make a start.
10.30am: Head down to Whitehall for an interview with the Daily Politics on BBC2 (I occasionally get asked to do these things and genuinely have no real idea why me. It’s fun though, so I’m happy to say yes and go along with it. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m boasting). Mention the project to the Politics Team, none of whom can think of anyone from any of our Wanted Countries.
1pm: Comment on Gordon Brown’s first and second Prime Minister’s Questions on the bit of green in front of Big Ben, live to the nation (well, I think they get about 500,000 viewers – still a terrifying herd of people if you could actually see them).
1.30pm: Wander back to the tube across Parliament Square. Notice a six-foot (king-size?) inflatable puffin. Wander over and bump into an (or ‘a’?) RSPB spokesperson whom I also happened to bump into the previous week at a Birdwatching preview. Lembit Opik is posing with the Puffin in a bid to highlight the plight of British sea birds. I was watching him ask Gordon Brown a question just half an hour ago. The RSPB lady gives me a puffin pin-badge so I can highlight the plight too. I’m wearing a smartish suit with a yellow t-shirt and yellow shoes. I think the puffin complements my outfit nicely.
2pm: Notice a mid-size protest on the far side of the square, near that gnarled peace protester whom I childishly idolise a little. Don’t recognize the flags that these other protesters are holding so sidle over to investigate.
2.30pm: Sidle away again after chatting to a man called Mustaf for ten minutes. He and his fellow campaigners are from a place called Ogaden in Somalia. I haven’t heard of Ogaden. I guess that’s why they’re holding banners explaining the situation there. The situation being, according to Mustaf, Ethiopian troops carrying out ethnic cleansing against the Somali civilian population for the last month. Mustaf understandably wants the world to at least take notice and, ideally, intervene. ‘The world cannot afford another Rwanda and Darfur’, reads a slogan. He’s very glad to tell me the story. I promise to at least mention it here but, as so often in these situations, felt slightly pathetic and useless.
3pm: Take the tube to High Street Kensington and walk an incomplete but enormous circle via Shepherds Bush and Kensington Park, ending up at Queensway having knocked on the doors of three different churches which Philippe (our French fellow nationality collector) thought may contain traces of Kiribati. In the first I meet a Lithuanian who says there are at least twenty different nations represented in their congregration but nobody from a Pacific island. In the second, the Parish Church of John the Baptist on Holland Road, I'm greeted by a Priest who says, ‘oh yes, I saw you two on the telly!’ when I tell him what we we're doing, which is nice if slightly odd. He also tells me that followers of the Eritrean Church (the oldest in Christianity) worship there from 6.30am to 12.30pm every Sunday and might just attract a Kiribatian. I say I might return. He understands. The third is shut.
3.15pm: During the walk I come across an enormous map of the world, still in it’s cylindrical casing, that someone has discarded in a skip. I pick it up. I don’t know if that’s theft and I’m not sure that my wife will completely approve but it seems like a good omen. I’ve found the world in the city. Over the past four weeks I’ve also bought one light-up globe, three different sized inflatable globes, one hug-me globe cushion, two pocket atlases and one map of the world shower curtain.
3.30pm: Arrive at The Cow on Westbourne Park Road (a pub, not a particularly well-known animal) and ask for Ousmane, a Senegalese chef whom Philippe said had worked there three years previously. Am amazed to discover he still works there now. Although not today. Today’s his day off. I say I might return. This time I mean it.
4pm: Drink a beer. I don’t often have a beer at 4pm but I feel like I’ve earnt it. Also call Jeyhun, a guy from Azerbaijan who’d contacted us that week. We arrange to meet the following week. Then, Ilia, a guy from Albania who’d been recommended by Owen’s Hungarian. I was excited because she’d mentioned in passing that he had quite a life story that possibly involved the mafia somewhere along the line. We arrange to meet the following hour.
5pm: Arrive at Piccadilly Circus Tube station and manage to find Ilia by calling each other and saying things like ‘Are you there? Yes, I can see you… no, behind you, there… I’m the guy with the yellow shoes… yes, there you are! Should I say goodbye?! Hello?’
5.05pm: Enter a Starbucks. Ilia sits down at the only spare table.
5.20pm: I finally sit down at the table with our coffees after a very awkward quarter of an hour during which I keep glancing back at Ilia, rolling my eyes and shrugging as charmingly as I could at how slow the staff are being. Ilia does his best to do the same gesture back.
5.25pm: After a tiny bit of small talk (that really is little), he starts to tell me his story. It’s a strange one. I’ll try to keep it simple.
Ilia is twenty five years old. He’s got long hair and is the youngest of nine siblings. The rest of his family all live in Greece now. But Ilia lives in London. And he’s currently writing the script for the movie of his life.
I tell him a movie of my life would be a pretty dull movie. He smiles: ‘some people have easy lives, some have it tough.’
Ilia left home when he was eleven years old. He remembers going out of his front door and seeing his mother wash his clothes in rainwater. She was sick and weak with rheumatism. He told her that he was going to leave to work so he could buy her a washing machine. She said ‘no, you’re too young’. He said, ‘one day, I will’. Later that day he ran away. He’s only been back once, seven years ago.
Ilia started working on the mountains, looking after the sheep. He worked seven days and seven nights a week. He told me he saw bodies of people who’d died from hunger or cold.
At the age of thirteen he got a job as a butcher.
At the age of sixteen he came to London.
He’s now the manager of a bar in Green Park.
Unfortunately he’s not willing to share the rest of his tale at this stage. It seems that various people have approached him recently with the idea of writing it up, filming it or some how using it to make money for themselves. He’s therefore wary of giving too much away just yet. He says we should meet up in a week and he’ll tell me some more. I say that'd be great. I’m engrossed.
We still have half our coffees left so chat more generally about Albania. I learn that Ilia’s father was the highest ranking general in the army and tried desperately to protect his family from the violence that was spreading rapidly across the country. ‘Everyone had guns’, he tells me. ‘Everyone was in the army. If you said ‘fuck you’ to someone they would shoot you dead’.
6pm: Say goodbye to Ilia, shake his hand with as much strength as I can muster and tell him I’m looking forward to seeing him again soon, desperate to win his trust. Take the tube up and along to Old Street.
7pm: Finally meet our Fin. This was quite a different chat. We’d actually crossed paths some weeks previously at a gig by a band called Seeing Scarlet whom my friend Tom plays guitar for (have I said before that I’m in awe and envy of all musically talented people? If I haven’t, well, I am. And he’s one of those people. Very very nice but annoyingly gifted). Paivi is a friend of the band and we drunkenly agreed that she would be our Finnish Find as the evening came to a close. Now she takes me to the Foundry, an indescribably cool bar on Old Street, outside which we sit on two rickety chairs and talk. I’m glad to discuss slightly more trivial matters. Like tattoos.
Paivi has quite a collection of tattoos. Whenever she goes to the tattoo parlour, she will always get two done at the same time. She’s now developed a friendship with her tattoo artist. ‘I used to be into piercings’, she says, ‘but now I’m a bit too old for that’. I shyly tell her about my one tattoo – a tiny lizard on my right arm that I got in New Zealand when I was eighteen. I’ve always secretly been quite proud of it. But one’s enough for me.
I ask what her mum thinks of all hers. ‘She’s cute’, she says. ‘She sometimes says things like ‘don’t you think that’s enough?’ and ‘but what if you change your mind?’ but she reckons they’re beautiful. She’s always been supportive. She told us ‘as long as you do your A-levels, after that you can do what you want’.'
Paivi’s favourite tattoo is of an actual-size jar of marmite on the nape of her neck. ‘I love marmite. And I love tattoos’, she tells me. I say that makes sense. She tells me she likes symmetrical designs and was inspired by the Henna Night held for the bride before an Indian wedding. She has a sari of her own that she treasures. ‘It’s six metres of fabric – amazing - that’s all you need!’
Paivi is a creative type. She took a course in tailoring a couple of years ago and now buys her fabric from Green Street in Walthamstow. She makes her living playing music with her brother (they’re called the Dirty Fingernails and are great – www.myspace.com/yourfavouriteband) but also prints t-shirts and makes backdrops for other bands.
She’s 27 years old and very close to her brother. They live together and started the band eighteen months ago, initially looking for a drummer and bass player to join them but then deciding to do it all themselves. ‘It’d be difficult for a stranger to fit in’, she tells me. ‘Instead we’ve got an octave pedal on the guitar and drum machine I bought on ebay for a tenner. And now no one’s ever going to say they can’t make it to a rehearsal because they’ve got a date or something. We’re both in it together’.
Paivi goes back to see the rest of her family once a year. ‘Home is up north, near Lapland. That’s where we lived the longest. We’ve moved around a lot, in different cities and villages but I’ve never lived in Helsinki.’ Her mum works in a school teaching Russian and sport.
Will she stay in London, I ask. ‘Oh yeah!’ she replies with certainty. ‘I don’t want to go back to Finland. There are eight million people in London and only six million in Finland! I like English people and different cultures. In Finland there isn’t that mix. Also, I’ve been a vegan for ten years. Here I can get all the food I need in supermarkets. I don’t like fake meat – I live off salads and soups. But in Finland there was nothing.’
By now the temperature is beginning to drop at the close of what’s been a rare sunny summer’s day (this really isn’t a typical day). We’ve been talking for an hour and I’m late for my next appointment. I rush awkwardly off.
8.30pm: Arrive out of breath at Little Venice where I meet up with four of my old (British, unfortunately) school friends on a barge owned by the parents of one of them. The five of us sail (chug?) to Camden and back, swigging beer and reminiscing as we pass London Zoo and the West Way.
11.30pm. By now I’m fairly tired and drunk and can’t really get back to Chesham without incurring a £50 taxi fare. I phone my friend Tom and ask to stay in his flat in Kentish Town.
11.45pm. Get off the tube at Willesden Green expecting to get the overland train to Kentish Town West. Am told that the last one left half an hour ago. Ah. Stumble out of the station and into the street, eventually gaining my bearings and aiming for Harlesden – not one of London’s more innocent corners, especially this close to midnight, and especially when you’re wearing quite a bizarre combination of clothes.
11.55pm. Manage, eventually, to locate the only minicab firm on the High Street and settle, relieved, in the front seat. The combination of exhaustion, alcohol and not being mugged makes me unable to stop talking so I quickly learn that my driver is from Uganda. I get out my file, persuade him to join our project and scribble down some notes. As far as I can tell, David’s story goes something like this:
He’s been in London for the last twelve years and is now thirty seven years old. There was a civil war in Uganda when he was eleven or twelve and the memories are still fresh in his mind today. Idi Amin assumed power in 1971 after Uganda had become an independent nation (as opposed to a UK protectorate) in 1962. ‘According to Amin, if you wanted to be Ugandan you had to paint yourself black every morning’, says David drily. ‘He’s been dead now for three years, thank God’.
I’m scrawling my notes in our World In One City Panini Sticker Album style folder and as we stop at some traffic lights near Kilburn David’s eyes fall upon the flag. ‘Yes, that’s it’, he says. It’s a memorable flag: six horizontal stripes; red, yellow, black, red, yellow, black, with a picture of a crane (the bird, not the mechanical device for lifting) in the middle. ‘The black is for the black country’, he tells me, ‘the yellow for sunshine and the red for brotherhood’. ‘And the crane?’ I ask. ‘Oh well that’s our national bird. If you kill it you go to prison’, he said. ‘Oh yes’, I say. ‘I think we have the same system with swans here. But they didn’t get the nod on the flag’.
He tells me he loves London. ‘The colonial era doesn’t matter to me. But the policy of divide and rule still affects my country. We still have a huge tribalism problem’. He misses the UK when he returns to Uganda. He goes back every year to see a girl there. He says he’s also got girlfriends in Arizona and Cranleigh. At least I think that’s what I’ve writen. And then I notice we’re outside my friend’s house. I say goodbye and thank you to David.
12.30am: Try to sleep on a leather sofa and realise why most people don’t have leather sheets.
The next day I meet up with Owen and walk for miles around East London to find someone from Viet Nam and no one from Laos or Cambodia. I’m sure he’ll tell you about that soon. I then head back to The Cow and successfully hook up with Ousmane, the chef from Senegal.
He’s cooking lunch at the time – it’s a terrific pub, with an open kitchen at the end of the bar and trays of oysters and crabs piled high on the side. He’s conconcting some sort of seafood pasta while chatting to me and in between seasoning and stirring the sauce in the way that only chefs can he tells me he’s been in London since 1991. He’s forty two now and has always been a cook. He came to the UK in the hope of getting a job and developing more skills and it’s worked. He now not only cooks in a well-respected London gastro-pub but is a master of French cuisine. It’s amazing what different people get out of London.
Friday 6 July 2007
Alex Horne - 6th July 2007
Now that I live in the countryside with fresh air and plenty of space on the pavement, I often wonder why so many people choose to live in London. Why, for example, would someone decide to move to the capital from somewhere as tranquil as Antigua and Barbuda?
Rachel is an artist. She recently got her degree in Fine Art from the London College of Art and we met for a cup of tea (her idea and my first of the project, surprisingly) on Tottenham Court Road, a place that certainly doesn’t have either of the two qualities mentioned in the first sentence.
She showed me pictures of her work. I’m no art connoisseur so excuse this layman’s description but they are physical pieces; attractively rusting metal and stretched canvas (calica to be exact) combined and deliberately weathered with sea water to create three-dimensional works of art that you want to touch as well as gawp at.
Obviously you won’t really be able to picture them from that so imagine a sail, drawn tight across a metal bar and left in the sun by the sea for several years. Or some debris smoothed by tides, swept on to the shore and again, dried out by the sun. Those are the things they reminded me of. I liked them a lot and tried to tell her so but fear I sounded a little insincere. I think I said, ‘oh, they’re lovely’.
‘Are they to do with boats?’ I ventured. ‘A lot of people say that’, she replied, both rescuing me and making me wish I’d said something a bit more incisive and original.
She never really told me what they were actually meant to be. Maybe they’re not actually meant to be anything. You never know with art these days. Well, I never know. Each of the pieces is untitled (a classy touch in my eyes. I’d love to write an untitled book, song or film). But she did say that they definitely reflect her childhood in Antigua.
‘There’s no way I would have used salt water and rust without having grown up seeing it everywhere. It’s amazing – when I went out on the boat (her family used to ‘camp out’ on the sea all the time, she told me) and a towel flew into the sea, we’d dry it on the deck and it’d get as stiff as a board. There’s a reflection of that in there somewhere. And I’m interested in lines because of the waves on the ocean. Yes, a lot of it is to do with the ocean and where I’m from. Whatever art you do, it’s all about your personal journey, about you and who you are. Well, that’s the case for me anyway.’
I asked her if Antigua is as idyllic as I imagined. ‘Oh yes’, she said. ‘My room is on stilts. Everything is open and outside. When we have hurricanes we have to bring everything in – the table, tv, chairs, everything’. Even the storms sound fun! ‘You wouldn’t believe how much I miss it – the weather, the atmosphere, my friends – just going to someone’s house and chatting about boys…’
Rachel first left the island aged sixteen to do her A-Levels and an Art Foundation course in Farnham. It didn’t go very well. For two years she tried to be a dancer instead. But then she sprained her ankle went back to art, unexpectedly ready to take it more seriously.
Although at first, she told me, she didn’t know quite what to make of her degree. ‘It was 20% thesis, 80% practical, and ultimately all you had to do was create two pieces of work in three years. It was incredibly independent. But that’s why it was great in the end. They just fed us names of all these artists and we had to react. If you want to make it as an artist you have to push yourself our there.’
I told her what Antonio from El Salvador had told me about London’s uniquely eclectic design scene, generated by the city’s exceptional cultural mix. She said it was the same with art. ‘My mum runs an art gallery in Antigua and all the stuff is pretty similar. It’s all beautiful. Things you’d put up in your house, lovely stuff. But everything here is so different and varied.’
‘Like your stuff’, I said crudely. ‘You couldn’t put that up in your house. Unless you had an enormous house. I mean - you couldn’t put it up because it’s big, not because it’s not beautiful. I do really like it. It’s great. But it’s bulky. You couldn’t get it in my house. But I wish I could. It’s really nice…’ This went on for some time.
Luckily, Rachel didn’t really need my approval. Just last week she’d been invited to display her work in the Barbican and had come for tea with me today straight from a meeting with her new ‘employers’. It’s a huge opportunity. She’ll be a part of a major exhibition opening in October. And she was tingling with excitement.
‘I miss my friends. I don’t have many good friends here. I grew up with them in Antigua. There your friends are everywhere. And the rest of my family are there too. But with all of this going on here I think I might just stay in London a while longer. There are just so many opportunities.’
And I guess that’s why people decide to come to the capital from somewhere as tranquil as Antigua and Barbuda.
Wednesday 4 July 2007
Alex Horne – 4th July 2007
After The London Paper published the first bit of press about this project back in late April, we were contacted by a lady called Anne from Luxembourg who was eager to help. Great, we thought. That’s a tricky country caught without too much fuss.
About the same time we also received an email from someone telling us about the ‘Luxembourg Society’ who met once a month at an undisclosed location somewhere in London. We were intrigued. We thanked Anne and said we’d be back in touch soon then sent an email to our mystery society supplier asking for more details about this unlikely gathering.
There was no response.
In fact there has still been no response.
Apparently the Luxembourg Society is a secret society.
Unfortunately by the time we did actually get back in touch with Anne, it was too late. She’d returned to Luxembourg. This was no surprise - several of the people we’ve met so far (David from France and Diego from Belgium, for example) have now returned to their homelands. London’s population is a transitory one. But for the first time, we’d missed our opportunity. We’d got greedy. And now we were kicking ourselves.
But not for long. Luckily for us, Anne had a surprise up her sleeve; ‘I have a substitute Anne ready to take my place!’ she told us. I’m not sure how many of our finds have replacement people from the same country – with the same name – waiting in the wings, but we were incredibly grateful to be able to finally meet someone from the seventh smallest country in Europe and swiftly cease our self-flagellation.
And so on Independence Day 2007 Anne II took me to Le Pain Quotidien, perhaps the classiest coffee house of the project so far, just round the corner from Carnaby Street and the perfect setting for what was probably the best-prepared, most professional interviewee I’ve met so far.
Anne has only been in London since September but her English is spotless. ‘I was an Anglophile at school’, she told me, both demonstrating and explaining her impressive vocabulary. ‘I used to get bullied because I wanted the perfect English accent. They called me ‘Miss Well’. Everyone else wanted an American accent – that’s much easier by the way’.
Like a lot of the people we’ve met, Anne is ambitious. Sat across from me, wearing what I can only describe as an ambitious leather jacket and ambitious jewellery, she told me she had come here to do food journalism, ideally on the radio or TV; ‘I want to look at the sociological implication of our consumption. You’ve got plenty of celebrity chefs already, but I want to be more about the personality than the cooking’.
I nodded and looked over the menu, now slightly worried about the sociological implications of my order. The waitress came over and I asked for a black coffee and some olives. I was panicking a bit.
‘Are you a good cook?’ I asked (Anne, not the waitress). ‘Yes!’ she replied, ‘but I’m a vegetarian.’ I felt better about the olives. ‘That’s fine in London but it’s not easy in Luxembourg’, Anne continued. ‘It used to be a country of peasants, a very poor land. So people still eat a lot of meat and potatoes – things like Judd mat Gaardebounen’ (which literally translates as ‘Jew with broad beans’ – ‘but it’s not anti-semitic!’ she stressed, ‘it’s just smoked pork, beans and dill!’).
Anne spent her last few years in Luxembourg working as a freelance journalist and presenter whilst still at school. ‘I tried to make a cooking show for youtube. Being Luxembourgish opens a lot of doors’. Luxembourgish? I repeated a little incredulously. ‘Yes, well, Luxembourger is the correct term. But my friend says it should be Luxembourgeois – that’s more fitting for the country. But anyway. It’s a small community – very friendly, so networking is important. Everyone looks after each other. If you meet someone here you’d know someone who knows them from home’.
And Luxembourg is no longer a poor land. The native population of 470,000 swells to around 700,000 during the working week as commuters pour into its various lucrative industries. ‘It’s a very international country now’, Anne told me (I’ve since found out that it actually has the highest percentage of resident foreigners of any country in the world – a particularly salient fact in the context of this project).
‘There are a lot of banks’, she went on. Banks from everywhere. It’s the banking capital of Europe’. I asked her if she liked banks. ‘Well, the banks in England are horrible!’ she laughed. ‘They’re much nicer in Luxembourg’. I’d never really thought much about banks before. But then my olives arrived so I didn’t have to.
Anne is 23 years old and already has considerably more forthright views than me. We soon moved on from London’s ‘horrible banks’ to other areas of the city. ‘London is a very ugly city’, she asserted. ‘For me it’s a stepping stone. There are just so many negative factors – like prices and security – especially now. My parents are very worried about me here’.
I asked her if Luxembourg could ever be a target. She scoffed. ‘Luxembourg is a bubble. Now it is very rich and very clean. It is also very safe. There are extremely good services there.’ Better than in London? ‘Not just London, better than the UK. The health service there is much better than the NHS. I have had awful experiences in hospitals here. They’re the most horrible things I’ve seen’.
I’m not sure if I’m presenting Anne fairly here. I can’t help thinking it sounds like she spent most of our coffee complaining about London. She didn’t. We spent most of our time just chatting – about olives, TV, the weather – it was a lot of fun. But none of those things seem as relevant as her strong and fairly negative opinions about the city we were sitting in.
I asked her for how long she expected to pursue her gastro-televisual dream in horrible old London? ‘Well, my limit was 2012’, she told me. ‘I thought I didn’t want to be here for the Olympics. But then I thought – well, I don’t want to pay my taxes and not have the benefit so maybe I’ll stay a little longer. But then it’s Berlin for me. I love Germany and that’s totally my city. All the cool stuff of London in a good place – warm in the summer, cold in the winter, a great underground scene, and it’s cheap…’
What was that? All the ‘cool stuff’ here? See, I told you she didn’t spend the whole time complaining about London. I decided to use Owen’s Special Sunday Question to get her to elaborate on this ‘cool stuff’.
‘Well’, she said, eyes aglow. ‘My perfect Sunday – I guess I’d go to Borough Market – for the food of course. But I wouldn’t buy anything, it’s too expensive, I’d just eat all the free stuff. Then I’d take pictures of all the nice food – I’m going to start a food-blog soon… Then I’d head up to Primrose Hill. That’s what I love about London – the villages. I love exploring corners and mapping out my own city – like Crouch End and Muswell Hill… and then the Primrose Bakery for cupcakes, dinner at Sabor – it’s this South American restaurant in Angel… Maybe I’d go to Old Street for some music – the Mother Bar or the Music Hall…’
I scribbled frantically as she rattled off more names of clubs, restaurants, nooks and crannies. She barely drew breath the entire time we were there. She really was quite something to behold. And I’m sure, sooner or later, you’ll get the chance to do just that when she snares her first job on TV.
Ukrainians Don’t Ski
Alex Horne – 4th July 2007
I like the name Ukraine because it looks a bit like a weather forecast (UK – rain). I also like Oman because it sounds like a frustrated teenager (oh man…), Andorra because it doesn’t sound like it can make its mind up (and/or a…), Bahrain because once I genuinely thought someone was talking about a trendy weather themed pub (Bar Rain), Suriname because every time I see it I think it says Surname, and Bahamas, Cameroon and Congo just because they sound fun.
So, after tearing myself away from my hero Julio I raced down to Baker Street to meet Alina. Again, I was put in touch with her by a random reader of the blog (thank you JM). He said he liked the project and had a Ukrainian friend – would we like to meet her. We said yes, and that this was exactly the sort of thing we hoped would happen. But the meeting that followed turned out to be unique for three reasons:
1. She was the only person so far to have brought along her passport for proof.
2. She was the only person to bring her friend along too – very wise, I thought. I wouldn’t trust us.
3. She was the only person for whom I didn’t have enough paper to write down everything she said – she had a lot to say.
So bearing these things in mind I hope you don’t mind if a fair amount of this entry is hastily hammered out. ‘Hammered out’ in quite a professional way, obviously, but in a hasty way too. The way proper carpenters wield hammers. Not that artistically but hopefully effectively.
I’ll get the basic details out of the way first. Alina has been in London for eight years. She’s a student now but I think an eight year residence more than qualifies her for our project. Especially since she brought her passport along.
Her family sent her to the UK originally so she could do her A-Levels. The plan was to return soon after but she thought she needed further qualifications so is still here now. If all goes to plan she’ll be a qualified accountant this time next year. ‘I’m applying now to the Big Four’, she said. I didn’t know exactly what this meant but did understand that she’s therefore probably quite bright.
‘I actually want to stay here long-term now’, Alina told me. ‘I’m so used to being here. I’ve been here since I was seventeen. All my friends are here. All my life is here. And my mum comes here quite a lot to see me. It works out well. It’s so cold over there in the winter, -30 degrees or -20. Right now it’s fine – only about -10, but winters in UK are much nicer’. I said that it must be fun to have all that snow – sledging, skiing... ‘Ukrainians don’t ski’, she told me matter-of-factly. ‘It’s only sixteen years since we got independence so we’re not quite ready for things like skiing yet’.
Alina used to live in Kiev which meant that I was able to offer her my history of that particular chicken dish (see Armenia for details). ‘That’s right!’ she exclaimed, making me feel a whole lot better about the snow thing. ‘Borscht is the main dish. But they argue with the Russians over who came up with it first.’ She then described what for me is the perfect food – ‘salo’ – essentially, the fatty bits of bacon that my Rachel says I shouldn’t eat. ‘It’s smoked fat’, explained Alina, ‘it’s what the villagers used to eat with the vodka they made at home with sugar and beetroot. Sixty percent proof!’ I wolf-whistled with genuine admiration.
We’re a long way away from these happy (I would have thought) villages of Ukraine, sitting, appropriately enough, in The Globe pub near Baker Street Station, just down the road from her flat. ‘I’m living right opposite Regents Park’, she told me, ‘It’s amazing, I can hear the festivals at the weekend. I love it there.’ This, of course, leads me on to Owen’s Sunday Special Question; ‘so apart from listening to some free music, what would you do on your perfect London weekend?’ Alina leans forward excitedly (it really is a good question); ‘Well, I would go for a picnic with my friends in the park. I used to go to museums but now I’m into temporary exhibitions, things at the National Portrait Gallery or the Tate, then maybe into the West End. I love musicals. I used to go with my parents but now I’ve found one guy who likes them too! I’ve also been to Sotheby’s recently with a Ukrainian designer. And a polo match in Richmond. And the McDouglas gallery near Haymarket – do you know the place?’
I shake my head in answer to the question but also at my own laziness. It may well be an excellent question but it does sometimes make me feel a tiny bit ashamed about how little I use the capital city. Still, at least I’m meeting some of its inhabitants…
‘…and I went to Ascot too recently’, Alina continued, nowhere near the end of her perfect day. ‘I won £200. Well, £300 but I had to give some of it to my dad… in Ukraine people say that those who do things the first time have a lot of luck. I was lucky with poker when I tried that too…’
I eventually steered the conversation back to Kiev. ‘It’s a properly European city’, she told me. ‘We had Eurovision a couple of years ago and that gave us a real push. And of course we’ve got the football in 2012’. I told her it was refreshing to hear someone talk about both these things without the cynicism so common in Britain. She said she wasn’t entirely positive: ‘Unfortunately all the money is going to the capital so the rest of the country is still suffering. The population is actually going down – it was 52 million in 1991 and is now 48 million – because there’s so much emigration and the death-rates are now higher than the birth-rates. You get given money if you give birth now’.
Again it all seems so far away from this pub in London, where a lot of people are quite happily crammed into a room, drinking beer, watching cricket and not having to worry about mortality rates. She agrees it’s a different world and tells me about her own far-flung family; ‘everyone has relatives all over the Soviet Union nowadays. I have an uncle in Bratsk and one in Siberia. I’ve been there once, that was the best holiday ever – the air, the vegetables, so fresh. It was a five hour flight from Moscow but the people were so friendly, despite the cold weather’.
I realised a lot of our chat revolved around perceptions, generalisations and stereotypes. Siberians are nice even though it’s chilly. Londoners are cynical. That sort of thing. I asked her what people in Ukraine thought of the UK: ‘My friends think I see Robbie Williams and Elton John every day’, said Alina and we chuckled. It’s an odd stereotype for a city to have, and not necessarily one to be proud of.
Alina nodded, then shyly admitted, ‘I did see Elton John once. He came out of a shop in South Kensington with some magazines. He looks like he does on TV. And I saw Beckham when he was doing that Vodafone advert. But I didn’t recognise him’. Stereotypes, of course, can sometimes be true.
But people in Britain, according to Alina, have almost no perception of Ukraine whatsoever. ‘People always say ‘you’re from Russia!’, when I tell them I’m from Ukraine’, she said with just a hint of frustration. ‘Do you know Abramovich?’ they ask’ (she doesn’t this time, by the way).
Near the end of our chat she told me that because of Chernobyl and the revolution there is now a general awareness of her country, but again people’s views are broad and, largely, wrong. ‘They think it’s a dangerous country because they’ve seen it on the news’, she said. ‘The funny thing is the revolution was extremely peaceful. It started in November and ended in January. Ukrainians are very peaceful people. There’s a joke that on Russian TV there’s always war and on Ukrainian TV there’s always singing and dancing – but it’s true! That’s why I don’t have Ukrainian TV!’
I laughed, not so much at the joke but at Alina’s own pithy putdown of Ukrainian TV. And before I go, on the subjects of jokes, here’s one that seems vaguely relevant but again probably isn’t all that funny:
I met a guy from South Korea.
He was very short.
His name was Samsung.
Sorry, that’s a stereotype.
At least it’s well researched.
Alex Horne – 4th July 2007
Exactly 231 years after the USA gained independence from the UK, my friend Owen Powell recreated history by taking himself off to Turkey for a holiday. And just as 231 years ago, people this side of the Atlantic had to get on with things as best as possible pretending they weren’t missing out on any sort of party over there (I’m guessing that’s what happened – for some reason we didn’t get taught anything to do with British colonies at school), so on July 4th 2007, I was the one, left behind, doing my best to keep things going.
Or something like that.
The trouble was, I had to go to Hackney and, more specifically, the Bodrum Café on Stoke Newington High Street where I’d arranged to meet a man called Julio. We’d had a brief and efficient email a couple of weeks before (thank you KM) which simply read:
Award-winning photographer Julio Etchart www.julioetchart.com
Currently exhibiting in Brighton, lives in North London
So I went to the website, sent an email, and was now on my way to meeting an award-winning photographer from Uruguay. Thank God for the internet.
Unfortunately, Hackney is a particularly Turkish area of London. Everywhere I looked I saw reminders of Owen’s jaunt; the Bosphorus Travel Centre, the Dogin Gida Bazaar, the Aziziye Halal Restaurant below the white-marbled Aziziye Mosque, and several mens’ clubs devoted to FC Besiktas and FC Galatasary. This wasn't fair.
Eventually I found the Bodrun Café. I should have guessed. It was a Turkish café. I decided to lay my envy (and any very weak Independence Day analogies) to one side and try to enjoy myself. After all, meeting an award-winning photographer called Julio in what seemed like a very nice snack bar is hardly hard work. I ordered myself some Turkish sausage on toast and a Bosphorus coffee and waited for my man.
From the moment I set eyes on Julio – and I knew it was Julio as soon as he came through the door with his bicycle panniers and swarthy face – I was a tiny bit in awe of him. He was a proper man. Someone who’d seen the world, done most of things you can do in the world, and who was pretty much happy with his place in the world. When I was growing up, this was the sort of man I wanted to turn out like. I haven’t. But at least I’ve met him.
He came to London 33 years ago from his home in Montevideo (one of my favourite capital cities – meaning, probably, ‘I see a mountain!’ – almost certainly with an exclamation mark). He’s now 57.
‘I left during the dictatorship’, he told me as we sipped our coffees. ‘It was about the same time as the coup in Chile’ (an earlier 9-11 that I know I knew very little about). He had been working as a scientist at the university before the fascist regime closed it down. ‘I was arrested’, he told me unblinkingly, ‘and thrown into military barracks a couple of times. But I was released without charges, my father got me a passport and I left’. I tried to look like this was the sort of stuff I heard all the time and nodded earnestly. Really I was thrilled to be hearing such a story and hoped that at least some of his experience would rub off on me.
‘I had a couple of friends over here’, he continued. He’s got a brilliantly gravely voice, by the way. So imagine all this being said in a low husky growl. Especially the bit about being arrested. Maybe go back and read that paragraph again with a rumbly intonation in your head. Or get someone like Steve McQueen or Sam Elliot to read it for you.
‘And I had a few friends in Paris but I came here for the Wilson government (‘oh dear -he knows about British politics too’, I thought, ‘I could be in trouble here’. I kept nodding). I arrived on the last day of the General Election. Of course Wilson won (‘of course’, I muttered) and that was great. I hadn’t been able to do photography in Uruguay – it was all so chaotic, so I got myself a place at Newport Art College and started getting some freelance work’. Newport College, he told me, was the only place at the time to teach documentary photography.
If you have a look at http://www.julioetchart.com/ you’ll get a better idea of what happened next than from anything I can write here. He’s photographed everyone from Nelson Mandela to Ken Livingstone, everything from Brazilian football to Bollywood movies, and everywhere ‘from the homeless of London to the child labourers of Brazil and Thailand and the refugees of Africa.’
I asked him how often he went back to Uruguay. ‘Oh, my friends ask me back all the time – but I’m not a political animal (‘ah ha!’ I thought, ‘so we do have something in common!’). I want to take photos and I’m into practical politics – things like Oxfam, Save The Children, War on Want. In that sense I’m political, but that’s it’.
He now has two bilingual children of his own. ‘My son is very proud of his dual identity. He asked me to speak to him in Spanish in front of his mates. That’s exceptional – most people his age would find that embarrassing’. He told me they’re quite unusual as Uruguayans in London too. ‘It’s not like the Brazilians, Bolivians or Colombians – most Uruguayans tend to go to Spain, France or Italy. It means I get to be on the guestlist for a lot of the ambassador’s parties! I think there are about 600 of us here’.
‘London’s changed so much in the last ten years. I really enjoy it now, it’s so vibrant. Back then if you wanted a decent cup of coffee you had to go to Bar Italia in Soho, now there’s Turkish coffee everywhere…’
‘Uruguay’, he went on, ‘is a much smaller country. I’m proud of it but it’s tiny. It’s also a very formal country. It’s been secular since 1918. My father was a humanist, my mother was a nominal Catholic but we never went to mass. I’m truly neutral…’
By now, as you can probably tell, Julio was doing most of the talking and I was contentedly listening and scribbling. I felt like the guy in Karate Kid learning from the master. Julio knew everything. He’s a member of the NUJ and talked about Alan Johnston (‘the press used to be untouchable’, he said, ‘it’s so dangerous now’), he’s got a back injury (‘I got it while being tortured in Uruguay – and a lifetime of carrying camerabags doesn’t help…’), he’s even been to both Midhurst (where I grow up) and Corrymeela in Northern Ireland (a peace and reconciliation centre in Northern Ireland where my wife worked for six months; ‘I covered the Gibraltar Three funeral and took a lot of pictures of Martin McGuinness and Jerry Adams…’).
He’s literally done everything.
I was in danger of not saying anything at all for about half an hour and was desperately trying to think of something insightful to ask him when I remembered Owen’s latest ploy: the Special Sunday Question. Owen’s pretty pleased with this. He’s started asking the people he meets how they’d spend a perfect Sunday in London. Well, when the cat’s away, it’s ok to nick his questions...
‘Ah’, rumbled Julio, ‘my perfect Sunday. Well, I’d play tennis with my son. I love that. I learnt as a kid but there’s not much tradition of tennis in Uruguay so coming here was paradise – free courts everywhere. And I’d cook. I like to cook for the kids. Maybe a little barbecue. I live very simply. I think I’ve always been a Buddhist at heart. I’m happy, I can’t complain. Just a simple day like that. I don’t feel like traveling as much any more. It’s not as much fun as it was – there’s so much hassle. I’m happy in London. I’m a good tourist guide for the city! I take people to the cheap and cheerful places’.
Indeed he is and indeed he did. Bodrun was certainly both cheap and cheerful and Julio definitely appeared content. And the fact that he now likes to play tennis and have a barbecue at the weekend restored just a little bit of faith in myself as a man. That’s exactly how I’d spend my perfect Sunday. Now I just have to travel the world, get mixed up in a couple of coups and buy a bike - one day I'll be a proper man like Julio.
Sunday 1 July 2007
Swiss and Sausage Roles
Alex Horne - 1st July 2007
We had a housewarming party today. Unfortunately Owen couldn’t make it as he’s off to Turkey early tomorrow morning (I know, how’s that going to help our cause?!). Luckily, (my wife) Rachel’s friend and colleague Ladonna was able to come all the way out of London and in to Chesham to help us warm our house and, in the process, become our Number 103 – the Swiss Representative.
Now, Ladonna from Switzerland is a bit like Aman from Ireland and Gianina from Costa Rica in that she’s never actually lived there. But she does have a Swiss passport and an intriguing story and that’s more than enough for us.
Her mum is Indian, her dad half-Scottish-half-Swiss, and based on looks alone (bearing in mind that it’s me doing the looking) it’s almost impossible to guess Ladonna’s nationality. She’s exotic looking. Last year, during a show, I accidentally discovered that she was born in Bahrain (sometimes, in a comedy night, that sort of thing happens) and presumed she must therefore be Bahrainian (a nationality we’re still anxious to find, by the way). I’m not saying she looks Bahrainian, but I definitely would have guessed Bahrainian an awful long time before Swiss. But I'd have been wrong. She's a Swiss citizen. And that's a sentence I couldn't say by the end of the evening.
She has been to Switzerland, she told me as we grabbed a sausage and a chat on the fringes of the barbecue (yes, we had a barbecue - because, unlike in London, it never rains in Chesham): ‘I went to Lausanne when I was fifteen to reconnect – and get my French up to speed pre-GCSEs’, she told me. She stayed in Chateaux D’Oex, a postcard-perfect ski resort, tucked away in the Swiss Alps where her Grandmother had grown up. ‘I have a very Heidi-esque image of her upbringing’, she smiled.
Ladonna’s been back to Bahrain too: ‘I’m all about getting to grips with my family history!’ she said. Because even though she feels British having lived here nearly all her life, she told me she likes to think she’s made up of many different parts of the world: ‘I hope I have quite an international outlook. I’m curious about all different places.’ When your parents are from two different continents and you were born somewhere in between, I think that’s fair enough. I’d love to have such a broad family tree to climb. I think I’m about an eighth Scottish and did in fact take Rachel up to Iona to visit my great uncle Harold a while ago – but that’s about all the reconnection I can really hope to do.
Happily, Ladonna’s far-flung parents actually found they had a lot in common when they crossed paths for the first time, thanks largely to their respective upbringings over four thousand miles apart. Both her pairs of grandparents were members of the Christian Brethren (an evangelical Protestant church with followers all over the world) and raised their offspring according to very similar doctrines, meaning that when they met, her parents had an immediate and fundamental understanding of each other that drew and held them together. At least that’s what I scribbled down in what, by now, was a fairly addled state. I was well on my way to Earls Court, as I believe people say nowadays.
Ladonna told me her brothers (and that might have been brother singular – I'd got ketchup on the page) also inherited this international wanderlust; ‘We all want to travel. We’re proud to live in Britain but we’re always wanting to get out of Britain!’ They have, unsurprisingly, visited her mum’s homeland a fair few times over the years. ‘But she comes from a different India to the India most people visit’, Ladonna said. ‘We normally stay where she used to live but we went to Delhi recently and were confronted by things like Bollywood for the first time. That was a shock. That’s not the India she or I know’.
By this stage my sozzled presence was again demanded at the barbecue (I may be one of the least manly men I know but for some reason I’m still trusted with any outdoor cooking that might need to be drunkenly done), so we soon rejoined the group and I reluctantly reverted to more standard party conversation. I’d enjoyed asking the questions we rarely ask people we already know well. I guess, once you’re officially friends with someone, it can feel rude to ask them basic things like; ‘Where are you actually from?’ Luckily, with this project I have license to query. So before heading back to the group I had to ask her about her name:
‘So – ‘Ladonna’ - is that Swiss? Or Indian? Or Bahrainian? I’m fairly sure it’s not Scottish…’
‘Oh no’, she laughed. ‘I’m almost certain it’s made up. It’s sort of Italian – in that it means ‘The Woman’ - but it’s not an Italian name. In Italy they laugh at me! No, if anything it’s probably American.’ Well then, another continent to add to her international make-up, and a very nice name too.
We headed back to the house-warmth and I told her I didn’t think there was anything at all wrong with made-up American-sounding names before turning to my little brother, Chip, who was busy handing out some delicious looking burgers. Yes, I may have had a couple of drinks, but food will always keep me on my toes.