George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Wednesday 30 May 2007
Cinnamon Chewing Gum
Owen Powell - 30th May 2007
Diana and her boyfriend Matt got in contact with us after our appearance in The London Paper, and asked if they could come along to our ‘half-way’ party. We said yes! Yes, please! (Diana is from Slovakia). On the night, it was quite hard to interview them as there was so much milling about to do, so we arranged to meet the week after for a proper chat. (Matt is from the States, but by this stage we’d already got our American. Shame, in a way. We’re still searching for an international couple to take part in the project).
Diana’s story is rather entwined with Matt’s – they met four years ago while she was working on a student visa in Ocean City, Maryland. She spent several summers in the US from the age of 17, but after she graduated last July and the student visa was no longer available, it was time for the two of them to decide where they would live.
“We always wanted to go somewhere else,” says Diana, “Not Slovakia, and not America. But we never thought of coming to London. We originally planned for Prague, but we couldn’t make that work, so on one day in September last year we both flew into to Stansted – Matt from America, and me from Bratislava. We arrived within half an hour of each other.”
Matt takes up the story. “We had no real plans – no jobs, and no accommodation beyond six nights we’d booked in a hotel in Crystal Palace.”
Diana again: “There were lots of reviews of the hotel on the internet, mostly they said it was shit.”
Matt nods. “It was shit. It had already taken us an hour and a half to get out of the train station with all our bags. 150 steps up over the tracks, then down again, then up the hill. Things have got better since then.”
Matt’s doing a Masters in International Business as he couldn’t get a working visa; he says, ruefully, “We can bomb together, but we can’t work together”. Diana managed to get a job within a few weeks of arriving, in a charitable organisation in the mental health field. “It’s a kind of half-way house,” she explains, “offering 24-hour community-based care for people who have come out of other institutions. Sometimes I have to stay overnight, which can be scary. I take a lot of DVDs to watch, and call Matt every half an hour to let him know I’m ok. During my degree – I graduated in Psychology from Bratislava University last summer – I didn’t see many people with schizophrenia, and I was expecting them to be rocking in the corner, but most of the people I see here are mostly fine.”
When they arrived, Diana and Matt didn’t know anyone in London, but on her way into the job interview she heard a woman on the phone speaking Slovakian – they are now colleagues, and close friends. In contrast to their experience in their first few weeks here, Diana and Matt feel settled in London, living in a flat above a pub in Camden. “I think we got pressured into taking it by the landlord,” Diana muses. “He told us there were lots of people interested, so we signed up straight away. Then we had to spend a week cleaning and painting it so it was actually nice to live in.”
Diana’s and Matt’s relationship feels like a real post-Cold War metaphor: a man who grew up in the States, and a woman who grew up under Communism now living together in Western Europe. It’s almost impossible that they could have met a generation ago. Diana’s memories of life in Communist Czechoslovakia (as it then was) are faint as independence happened when she was seven, but a few survive. “If we ever wanted to go to Austria, we had to write down every piece of jewellery we were wearing, the car got searched, and we weren’t allowed to take money out of the country. My Grandma once flew to the US and hid money in her bra. And then there were small things, like it was really hard to get cinnamon chewing gum.”
Before independence, everything from television programmes to road sign were in dual languages, Czech and Slovakian, and Diana also learnt English and German at school from a very young age. (By contrast, when I ask Matt how much Slovakian he knows, he says with admirable honesty, “Beer and chicken and cuss words”).
Diana and Matt are still adjusting to London life. When they were spending time together in the States in previous years, Diana describes it as “more like a holiday – we were both working and had lots of money. Here in London, we’ve had to scale down and it’s a bit more stressful. It’s got more serious.”
One thing they do love about London is the transport. “I miss driving,” says Diana, “as I used to drive all the time in Slovakia. But here, it’s on the wrong side of the road and you have all these little medieval streets. It’s really different to somewhere like New York – I really like the way Manhattan is because you can never get lost there. It’s a grid system, and easy to follow. But in London you have great public transport. It’s massive – you can get almost anywhere, although it should be open later at night.”
“But you don’t like buses, do you?” says Matt.
Diana rolls her eyes. “Buses. They are hard to get used to. How do you know when to ring the bell? I’m constantly looking out of the window trying to recognise places. And then suddenly the bus stops and you have to get off immediately. I don’t go on buses anymore. They are for real Londoners, people who have been here years. Eventually, maybe, I’ll start to use them.”