George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
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.