This is a project that Owen Powell and Alex Horne started on October 24th, 2006 (United Nations Day), and finished on October 24th, 2007. Our aim was to prove that London is the most cosmopolitan city in the world, by endeavouring to meet and chat to a citizen from every country in the world who currently lives and works in London.

We managed to meet people from 189 countries. According to the UN, there are 192 countries in the world, so we've proved that at the very least, London contains over 98.4% of the nations of the world!


We are still looking for people from three countries:

Marshall Islands; Palau; Tuvalu.

The final encounters during our year appear below, but to follow our story from the start please click on the links under 'How we're doing' on the left-hand side.  The countries appear in the order in which we found their representative. (Any country with an asterisk * next to it has a brief account of the interview - longer versions will appear in the future!)

To find out more about the project, including our self-imposed rules, then click here.


Follow this link if you have the urge to see us looking awkward on Channel 4 news.  Or just below you can see us when we were half-way through the project being interviewed by George Alagiah on BBC World.


Please email us on worldinonecity@hotmail.com if you want to get in touch, or if you know any shy Londoners who are also Tuvaluan, Palauan or Marshallese.

George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC

Thursday, 25 January 2007

No.32: Mauritius

Shiny Happy Person

Alex Horne – 25th January 2007

After yet another Breakfast Club breakfast (just a sausage and onion sandwich this morning – the healthy option) we set out for the second time on our Oxford Street English Language School Trail, determined to ask a lot of foreign flyerers the same awkward question on a dry but chillier morning (see Iran, our No. 25).

We started at the Tottenham Court Road tube station, heading West past the tacky tourist shops towards some more tacky tourist shops and soon came across a girl just visible inside coat, scarf and hat, shivering and handing out leaflets for the Oxford International College at No.s 19-23.

She seemed happy to chat, probably hoping it might warm her up or at least take her mind off the freak sub-zero temperature, and we soon found out that she was from Mauritius. An excellent start. We didn’t yet have a Mauritian. Milco, our Macedonian, had promised us one back in December but he’d had to return home to sort out some family business so we metaphorically grabbed this one with both hands.

Mauritius, like Cape Verde, is an island off the coast of Africa, this one floating in the southwest Indian Ocean, about 560 miles east of Madagascar and just 2,450 miles southwest of India. It boasts one of our favourite flags – four broad horizontal stripes of bright red, blue, yellow and green – that somehow seems to suggest a colourful confident country that laughs in the face of usual flag convention (only the elaborate Central African Republic pennant has more multihued strips).

“What’s it like in Mauritius at the moment?” we asked, perhaps a little insensitively. Nalini’s only 19 years old. She’s been in London for just three weeks and spends most of her time either in the college improving her English or outside the college distributing their promotional material. She’s hoping to eventually get a job as a carer.

“Oh, it’s nice and hot there”, she said, smiling bravely in the cold before saying one of our favourite sentences so far; “the weather in Mauritius is very shiny”. I know I’ve used ‘favourite’ twice now for one country but it was a lovely moment and I’m sure it’s a lovely, shiny place to live.

We didn’t want to keep Nalini from her flyering for too long so soon scampered unselfishly inside and rode the tiny (but warm) lift up to the fifth floor where she’d told us the college itself was located. Amazingly Angela, the wonderfully welcoming receptionist, listened with patience and then definite interest to our story and soon set up an instantaneous meeting with three of Nalini’s teachers.

Within seconds we were sitting in a typical school staffroom eating biscuits, attempting to convince an Englishman, Irishman and American* to let us use their students for our own gain.

And convince them we did. After some slight scepticism on the part, mainly, of the Englishman, they agreed that it sounded fun, we looked harmless, and any interaction in English might just help them do their job too. We therefore organised a return visit on an allocated breaktime in the next couple of weeks, and even pencilled in a possible ‘Friday night in the pub with the teachers – and two strange men who say they’re writers’ for later in the month.

This was great. We still hadn’t got anywhere near completing our Oxford Street English Language School Trail but maybe this was better. As soon as I got home I emailed Milena, our outgoing Bulgarian, and asked if she could sketch out a poster for us. The very next day later she obliged with a fantastic design that would have taken Owen at least a year to create. Two days later I handed three copies to a still-smiling Angela. We’ll be back at 11am on Thursday 8th February to harvest our crop.

*We still hadn’t actually found our American at this point but knew we had the Superbowl on the horizon and also felt that if they knew we hadn’t even found someone from across the pond yet they might just wonder how we could even start to call ourselves journalists or writers, let alone Professional Intercity Nationality Collectors.

Part II

Snowy Happy Person

Alex Horne – 8th February 2007

I was genuinely excited when I woke up on the 8th of February, looking forward to our first truly enormous yield of as yet undiscovered lands. Instead, however, I immediately discovered an enormous yield of unexpected snow. There was loads of it. On the roads, in the sky, all over the place. I felt uneasy. When I was little I could never understand why my Dad got grumpy when it snowed. Today I got it. Snow made things awkward.

Still, things started off ok when I wiped a few inches of the stuff from my car with my hand wrapped in a plastic bag (which kept it dry but not warm) then dropped my wife at work and the car at the carwash. I tend to get it cleaned once every two or three years because I'm disorganised and lazy and having marked today down as The Day I wasn't going to let a bit of snow get in my way.

I was therefore not only excited but relieved when the overall-clad man with a hose in his hand said, "of course we're open!' in a thick probably Eastern European accent when questioned as to the current status of his vehicle cleansing facility. We didn't get to talk much (cars get particularly dirty in the snow, apparently) but I did find out that he was from Kosovo and there hadn't been any snow there this year. After that he was off to the next filthy car owner so I resolved to return in the near future and officially tick him off. My car may get two washes in the shortest period of its so far rather stressful life.

Unfortunately, all things transport-wise went downhill (in a bad way) from that point on. Everyone knows London grinds to a halt when there's even a rumour of a hint of a shadow of a snowflake and I didn't want to use this as a forum to moan about our capital's shoddy infrastructure, so I'll try to be brief:

First (and I admit I'm more to blame for this than that arch-enemy of the Americans, Ken Livingstone) I couldn't make up my mind whether to walk to the station with an umbrella or without. I knew snow was wet but I didn't know how wet and you don't see umbrellas on Christmas cards. I left my brolly at home and arrived at the station sodden.
Second, there wasn't a train for ages. Lots of other soaking wet people arrived before one eventually turned up. And when it finally did, we all squeezed in and were immediately told that the journey may well take a lot longer than usual. Because 'it's snowing'.

In the end the train didn't even make it beyond Marylebone so I had to jump out, change lines another two times before turning up half an hour late at Tottenham Court Road, getting wet again on the way to the Breakfast Club and then, not having enough time to eat my sausage sandwich inside, slurping down a cold soggy sarnie on the way to the Oxford Language School.

Which was shut. No sign of Nalini outside – an ominous absence – then another 'it's snowing' from Nishan, the only person inside, a friendly but frustratingly Mauritian guy who was in the process of shutting up the college. Frustratingly, because he soon imparted more fascinating nuggets about life in London in a a matter of seconds than we'd been able to squeeze out of a frozen Nalini the week before (again, our fault, not hers, it was very very cold). Gems like, "to be honest, I was very disappointed when I arrived in London, because there were so many foreigners"; "even if they speak good English, they're still foreigners'; "only when I moved to East Grinstead did I think, at last, real England!"; "come to Mauritius, my friend has a nice house, you can stay there for free", and; "do you have a nice flat in London where I can stay for free?" – that sort of thing. He was extremely entertaining and we'll hopefully bump into him again next Tuesday.

Because next Tuesday is the next The Day. Nishan helped us update Milena's posters with the change of plan, we left a note for Angela then went on our way. For about ten metres. Until we got talking to two Hare Krishan chugger types who we'd surprised by approaching and engaging in conversation before they could do the same to us. One was Irish, the other Russian, so both useless (in a personally practical not fundamental way) but they did recommend a quick trip to the temple on Soho Street.

And so we retraced our steps and entered a well disguised sanctuary next to Govinda's restaurant round the corner from the FA headquarters. Where we were told that there was no-one in really, because they're all in India (at least a more imaginative excuse than the snow-based one we were expecting). The 'receptionist' did, however, say we'd definitely meet someone if we attended a lecture/service the following meet so, despite feeling a little like victims of a bribe, we vowed to return next Tuesday. At 1pm. After finally collecting our huge yield of nations at the school…

Friday, 19 January 2007

No.31: Morocco

“That’s My Work”

Alex Horne – 19th January 2007

One of the motivations behind this project was the chance to tell stories that would never normally be told. Every single person we meet has decided to leave their home, travel however many miles to London, and start a new life in this cluttered city. For me, that’s always going to be interesting. And sometimes, people tell us their tales in such a way that there’s very little more for us to do than act as international stenographers.

At the end of last year, my wife and I were watching telly when water started pouring through the light fittings in the bathroom. The flat upstairs was leaking. Luckily, our vertical neighbours are both lovely and efficient and within a few hours a man called Rashid had patched up the hole and started drying out our damp. Today he was coming round to give our ceiling a final lick of paint.

On that very first day of ‘the bathroom problem’, I found out that Rashid was from Morocco. But it didn’t seem all that appropriate to ask him to help us with our slightly nebulous quest when there was still a lot of bathwater pouring into the wrong flat. So now, with just hours to go before the job was done, I did my usual sales pitch and he started telling me his story.

Rashid moved to Wembley from Morocco when he was 22. He’s now 44. That’s right, Owen, he’s spent half his life in London (see our Cypriot, No. 13). And no, he didn’t find that a particularly interesting statistic either.

His plan was to stay for about three months and perfect the English he’d learnt for the last couple of years in college in Rabat. Unfortunately, on disembarking at Dover he soon discovered that he couldn’t actually string a sentence together that anyone here would understand. Bearing in mind that he currently has faultless English with a stronger London accent than most of the Eastenders’ cast, this is hard to believe but Rashid says it’s all down to a school on Oxford Street.

Back in 1985 when he arrived, there were even more of these English Language schools than there are today (see Iran and Mauritius, No’s 25 and 32). Margaret Thatcher had just decided that people entering the UK should have visas and to get one of these invaluable bits of paper you needed a letter from a college saying you were doing your best to learn the language. Rashid did exactly that, enrolled on a course then went along to the ‘Alien Office’ (he couldn’t say this without smiling) in Holborn where he was told that yes, he could stay, on the condition that he got a job immediately.

Immediately, then, Rashid found himself work first at the famously luxurious 5-star hotels, Grosvenor House and Claridges, where he soon started picking up his English from people of nearly all walks of life. One of his very first jobs, for instance, was as a runner between the kitchen and dining room at the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Within months of arriving, Rashid was serving potatoes to royalty while crowds of onlookers stared through the hotel’s windows.

By this stage, we were waiting for the penultimate coat of paint to dry so had stepped out of the bathroom when Rashid noticed an exotic lampshade we’ve got hanging in the corridor. “Ah, now that’s Moroccan”, he said with a knowing smile. I explained that we’d picked it up from an Arabian bar off the Edgware Road that was being revamped a couple of years ago. “Yes, I know the one. It’s on Crawford Street, it used to be called The Street, but now it’s called Occo”. Well, yes, that was the one, I mumbled, slightly taken aback by his apparently psychic bar knowledge.

Hiding my surprise well I went on to explain how we happened to be on our way to our new, first house, when we noticed the sale, went in, and picked up the lamps, a load of glasses and our kitchen table for next to nothing. Right away Rashid marched into the kitchen, examined said table, nodded and remarked “that’s my work” with understandable pride. It turned out he’d given all the tables in that bar an MOT a few years’ back and had since been in charge of the whole refurbishment project. Even the table looked happy to be back in the hands of its master.

After a coffee we returned to the bathroom and Rashid’s hotel tales. Ten years after Fergie’s doomed wedding, he happened to be doing the same job for Andrew’s mum, our Queen, when she celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary in the same room. This time, he even got to personally look after Her Royal Highness for half an hour when Carlos, the bloke who usually insisted on playing the part, had to get something from the cellar. According to Rashid, Elizabeth II is a nice and quiet lady.

For him, however, the highlight came when he met the King of Morocco who had organised a state banquet for our nice quiet Queen in a bid to win her support for his country’s proposed entry to the EU. Hassan II’s request was eventually denied but Rashid had come face to face with his leader, something he reckons would probably never have happened had he gone home after those first three months. And, he says, the Moroccans are trying again for EU membership in 2010 and this time look like they might just have a bit more luck. Good news for Morocco – and anyone attempting to recreate this project in years to come.

All of this, he tells me in a fairly matter-of-fact way – which may well be the only way you can tell stories when you’re standing in the bath at a stranger’s house – but with that same knowing smile he’d given to our lampshade. The smile of someone who’s been there, done that, but is pretty happy doing what he does now thank you very much. Because after the Gulf War, the hotel industry went downhill – there was no money left apparently (I don’t know why this was the case but that’s what he told me and that’s what I wrote down). Having met enough monarchs, learnt enough of the language and made enough money, Rashid quickly got out of Claridges and into the building game.

And that’s where he’s been ever since – using the connections and communication skills he learnt in the kitchens to build up enough of a reputation to rebuild the capital’s bars and bathrooms every week of the year. He’s now his own boss with his own business and everything’s just fine. He spent Christmas back home in Morocco where the sun shone and he relaxed with his friends, but his family is here now and even the rubbish weather has its advantages. The night before had brought the strongest winds since 1987 (just after his arrival). Fences were blown down, walls toppled and tiles dislodged; all providing yet more work for a very content Rashid.

*I have to admit that it was only when I came to write this up that I realised that ‘Occo’ is short for Morocco. Oh well.

No.30: Bulgaria

“Uncontrolled Unresolved”

Owen Powell – 19th January 2007

Right. Strap yourselves in. Here comes the whirlwind. It’s Milena Stamboliyska from Bulgaria.

Before we begin, let’s look at that name. As far as Milena knows, only one other family in Bulgaria have the same surname, and the most famous member of that family, Aleksandar, was Prime Minister after the First World War. (Technically, it wasn’t quite the same name – his ended “-ski” and not “-ska”, as in Bulgaria you change your name depending on your gender. So Milena’s brother, for example, has the same name as the Prime Minister man, but not the same name as Milena.) The name was initially a nickname her great-great-grandfather had – it means “Istanbuller”, or “Someone From Istanbul”, as he was a trader there. The wanderlust, as we can see, is a long-standing part of Milena’s heritage.

It’s kind of difficult to know where to start. The Mexican musician she found in a Mayan temple? Pouring champagne for Madonna the night she said “Motherfucker” on live television? The two MAs? The exhibition of her art in the West End? DJing with the percussionist from Basement Jaxx?

Possibly the first place to start is how we got to meet Milena. She’s a friend of Ligia, from Colombia (see no.18), and met her while they worked together as designers on The Voice newspaper. Alex had got her email address, contacted her and arranged to meet one lunchtime in Kensington. I had had a busy and hungry morning, so found just enough time to wolf down an old-fashioned English breakfast in a café nearby while Alex watched with a look of vague disgust on his face. I couldn’t quite finish it, pushed my plate away, and the look of disgust turned to one of hope as he reached over and dipped a half-eaten sausage in some bean juice. Sometimes, I wonder what all our foreign visitors make of meals like the English breakfast. I can’t believe that many of them are impressed.

Feeling a little bit bloated, we waited at South Kensington station and Alex sent a text to try to identify us to Milena: “Great, we’re there, I’ve got blue shoes, Owen’s holding a coffee”. (I’m not really sure about his shoes. I think they’re made of rubber). A few minutes later, his phone pinged and Milena’s reply flashed up: “Shorty blonde in black :)”. The tension mounted as the time ticked on, a few shorty blondes came and went, and another text arrived from Milena disparaging the bus routes of south west London. My coffee cup had been empty for a while, but as my only identifying mark I didn’t want to throw it away. Why couldn’t I have worn something more distinctive? Then, as we were scouting out the north exit, we heard a bustle at the south and in dashed a shorty blonde, in black, looking very closely at everyone’s shoes.

We went to a nearby café – there were no Bulgarian restaurants in the vicinity – and took a table out on the pavement. Milena’s life story began tumbling out of her almost as soon as the coffee and chocolate arrived, and hasn’t really stopped even now – we’re still getting the odd email and text message filling us in on things she missed out. To take it chronologically, the tale begins in the year 2000, when Milena (then aged 25) completes her MA at the National Academy of Arts in Sofia, and decides to go for a second one, this time in Textiles, at Goldsmith’s, London. (We’ve met Goldsmith’s before – see numbers 16 and 17.) Whilst there, she began working for the Tate art gallery – interesting work, you might think, for a post-post-graduate art student. Except that this was for the Tate Special Events team, which essentially boils down to catering work. Hence the champagne for Madonna, poured on the night of the Turner Prize ceremony in 2001. Milena worked for the Tate for three years, and made a serious proposal that the gallery should consider devoting a room to the work of its staff (most of whom, it seems, are active artists). Unfortunately, this proposal came to nothing, but it typifies Milena’s attitude to getting things done in London. (It also typifies, the cynic might say, the attitude of the Tate towards artists who aren’t international superstars).

During this time, Milena was showing her work elsewhere, at various art fairs, but in April 2004 she hit the West End with her first full show. She had applied for a grant from the National Campaign for the Arts, and they had given her not only some funding but also a space to exhibit, at Kingly Court in Soho. Her exhibition, “Uncontrolled Unresolved”, opened in April 2004 (details can be found at www.artatkinglycourt.co.uk/Milena%20Stamboliyska.html). It was a mixture of painting, photography and video, exploring ideas connected to Alice (as in Wonderland) and the looking glass. Another shorty blonde experiencing weird events in a different world, you might think …

This exhibition appears to have been a bit of a crossroads for Milena. She sold a painting, but I get the impression that she decided to put her artistic career on hold while she looked at other options. A few months later, she’s in Sevilla, Spain, taking part in an archaeological dig. And why ever not? The flights and the course were all paid for, and they got to examine an interesting part of the town prior to it being redeveloped. Milena herself didn’t find much of interest, but, as she said, “A girl from Manchester found a sculpture of a Phoenician scarab beetle” – which is a phrase I might start using instead of “You win some, you lose some.”

When she got back to London, Milena decided to turn her artistic talents to more practical ends, and got a job (after some work experience) as a designer at Vogue House, home of the posh magazines publishing empire. For a while, she was at World of Interiors, but found it a little boring, and moved on to Country Living (again, didn’t really get on with it), then, finally, out of Vogue completely at The Voice. This sounded like a lot of fun – it’s where she met our Colombian, Ligia – although after a change in management the atmosphere also changed, and she decided to move on again.

Milena has now set herself up as a self-employed designer, although like many self-employed people (myself included) she has a part-time day job to keep those London rent payments ticking over. It’s quite a zeitgeisty job, she’s a team leader for a promotional company who work for Associated News, handing out the free paper London Lite to commuters at the end of the day.

Her attitude to London seems to have gone through the usual ups and downs that most Londoners face: “Ah … sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I just want to escape.” She’s certainly managed that, on a number of occasions. Every summer, she goes back to Bulgaria (“I miss the nature there”) to help her old art tutor produce a music festival. In the summer of 2005, this involved her DJing with Jorge Batista, the Brazilian percussionist who performed live with Basement Jaxx for four years. She has also been to the States, for three months in 2001 (flying back a week after 9-11), and again last summer to visit her brother in LA. However, LA turned out to be a bit too dull, so instead she went backpacking around Mexico, where she found Alejandro “in some ruins” and took him straight off to Bulgaria to perform with his guitar in that summer’s music festival. At the risk of sounding like I am making all this up, I have to report that whilst there, he had to have his appendix removed. It didn’t put him off, they now live (and work) together in Battersea, producing music, videos and artwork. Her London base has gradually moved across the south, from New Cross in the Goldsmith’s years, through Peckham, and now to SW11. Travel plans this year include Egypt, for a chance to compare and contrast the ancient civilisations there with the culture of the Mayans she saw in Mexico.

I think it was at about this point that I asked if there was anything she hadn’t done. Without a pause for breath, she answered, “I haven’t jumped in a parachute. Anyway, I have now registered my own design company – here is a draft for a flyer I am making for Alejandro’s next gig – and I have also acted as Art Director for an independent short film called CoLondoNbia, about Latin American emigrants in London, and in fact I appeared as an extra in the movie Stoned, which was filmed in Brixton Academy …”

When we got from the table and said goodbye, I realised I hadn’t even let go of my empty coffee cup. Milena went to work. Alex went to get his car. I stood, a bit bewildered, in the middle of Kensington for a few moments, blinking in the January sunshine.

Monday, 15 January 2007

No.29: Cape Verde

Another Dream

Alex Horne – 15th January 2007

I started setting up our meeting with Mr Estevao Gomes on December 12th last year. It was a big deal. He’s from a country I didn’t really know was a country before starting the challenge. I couldn’t afford to let that sort of place slip through our fingers.

Ligia, our cracking Colombian, had mentioned a Portuguese friend of hers whose uncle, she thought, was from Cape Verde. I got very excited and pestered her about her friend then her friend about her uncle.

Just two days later I received the first of many emails from Estevao. The subject line; ‘Hi Mr. Alex Horne!’ made me fairly certain that everything was going to be ok. The final line; ‘E.Gomes, CEO http://www.arpsworld.com/’, merely confirmed that we’d struck gold.

ARPS World is a company set up and run in his free time by Estevao. Its tagline is ‘Promoting Cape Verde Worldwide & Bringing the World to Cape Verde’ and although it’s in Portuguese, the acronym can roughly be translated as the ‘Agency for Representation, Promotion and Services’. So basically, his job is to bring Cape Verde to as many people’s attention as possible. And considering it’s ‘a country I didn’t really know was a country before starting the challenge’, we were both glad to have found each other. For the very first time Owen and I had stumbled upon someone who actually thought that we might be as useful to him as he was to us.

In honour of this symbiotic bond and in recognition of Estavao’s tireless work for his country I would therefore like to use these paragraphs to aid his promotion of Cape Verde in the UK and, potentially, every other country in the world.

But just before I do that, I should first say that the three of us met at a classy independent tea-shop in Highbury and Islington following a disappointing visit to Cuba Libre – a massively Cuban themed restaurant (featuring live-size papier-mache figures of Castro, Kennedy and Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table during the Cuban Missile Crisis) with absolutely no Cuban employees or customers. Before kicking off the interview I bought some coffees and Estavao said “Cakes! Should we get cakes?!”. Neither Owen nor I had the strength to say no so we were soon joined by one enormous banoffee pie and a huge slab of chocolate brioche which the three of us occasionally prodded but never really made much of a dent in.

So here we go. First up, some basic facts about Mr Gomes’ homeland – named after Cap-Vert, by the way; the westernmost point of continental Africa, now located in Senegal and meaning Cape Green – Cape Verde is a republic made up of ten islands and eight islets 310 miles to the west of Dakar. It was uninhabited until discovered and colonized by the Portuguese in the 15th Century. Each isle is volcanic but only one is still active: Fogo, the country’s highest peak whose name means ‘fire’ and where Estevao did his (now non-compulsory) national service. It last erupted in 1995, since when NATO have come along and made sure everyone knows the emergency procedures. So it’s fine really.

Like the Irish (see Aman, our No. 24), more Cape Verdeans live away from Cape Verde than in Cape Verde. The population of Cape Verdeans in the United States is now larger than the half million or so who still reside on the islands.

In fact, bearing in mind this resident American population, Cape Verde is probably the most geographically confused location we’ve come across so far. It’s still definitely part of Africa, despite being so far adrift from the mainland. But it’s also European enough to be on the verge of getting some sort of ‘special status’ with the EU thanks to its trade links. The language is a slightly archaic version of Portuguese and most of the food and drink tastes distinctly Spanish. A lot of the people themselves, meanwhile, like to dress like the Brazilian soapstars who dominate their TVs, and young sportsmen try to emulate the South American footballers whose posters adorn their walls. So with fingers in four of the world’s six inhabited continents, it’s hard to pin Cape Verde down to a single global adjective.

Like almost every other country we’ve encountered so far, they’ve even got bizarre links with Britain; cricket has been the country’s second sport ever since the Welsh set up stumps there whilst using the island as a coal-store for their vessels in the 19th century. There’s an old English cemetery on Sao Tiago and if you stroll around any of the towns there today, you’re sure to bump into people with British names like ‘Heenan’ whose descendants can be traced back to this historic shipping lane. Back in this hemisphere, a small Cape Verde community in Cardiff provides further evidence of a trade route that once connected two unlikely countries.

But it’s the traditional ‘morna’ music (derived from the English word ‘moun’) that perhaps captures the spirit of Cape Verde best, mingling these intercontinental elements with an island perspective to create a unique sound that reflects the country’s position both on the margins and in the middle of the world.

Cesaria Evora, by far the best known Cape Verdean and much-heralded “Queen of Mornas”, released her eighteenth album in July last year. If you have a look and listen on itunes you’ll soon get a taste of her distinctive flavour both by downloading the tracks and glancing at the several ‘genre descriptions’ Apple attempt to categorise her under. According to Estevao a lot of Cape Verdean songs highlight the islanders’ fantasise about travel. Indeed, Rogamar (the album’s name, meaning ‘Pray to the Sea’) features such wanderlust titles as ‘Love and the Sea’, ‘Another Dream’ and ‘The Sea is my Confidant’. Now a globally famous icon, Cesaria gave two private concerts in London last October. Liz Hurley, Madonna and Mr E. Gomes were among the lucky guests.

But I’m meant to be attracting people to Cape Verde here and this idea that most of the islanders all want to leave isn’t necessarily a good selling point. Estevao told us a recent visitor from Britain recently exclaimed, ‘I wanted to die there’. That isn’t necessarily a good selling point either.

The impression that I got from Estevao was of an uncomplicated country, stunning to look at and rich in tradition. Yes, some inhabitants may have to head elsewhere to follow their dreams, but if you like the idea of a more simple land with no massive buildings, pollution or war, then this is the place for you.

That’s not to say it’s undeveloped. Estevao was one of a tiny minority who attended school as a child (he’s now 47, married to a fellow Cape Verdean and has three kids of his own) but the literacy rate is currently as high as in the UK. The towns are growing steadily, but building takes place in an eco-friendly way. With a lack of minerals preventing more large-scale industry, agriculture is hugely important but traditional methods are still upheld and fishing regulations are sensitively maintained. “The sea is blue, there are no epidemics, it’s a beautiful place to live”, says Estevao.

And the people, he continues, are exceptionally hospitable. If you explore the villages on the smaller islands you’ll be welcomed into every house with open arms and some of that Spanish-style food and if they’re anything like Estevao himself, they’ll be courteous, charming, warm, friendly and generous with cakes, all at the same time – although I should say that having been trained as a traditional English Butler by Ivory Spencer and having worked for the same family in Chelsea for the last five years, Estevao’s manners may not be the fairest point of comparison.

Since last November you can fly direct to Praja, the capital, from Gatwick or Manchester for just £330 return. Within just five and a half hours you’ll be on a tropical island in the middle of the Atlantic. Because of this, more and more people are now discovering Cape Verde for themselves but Estavao says it still feels like an untouched country ripe for exploration. I know I felt that instead of just ticking the country off our list as usual, I really would quite like to actually visit the place, even if it’s just to see if everyone is as polite as our Mr Estevao Gomes.

Thursday, 11 January 2007

No.28: Iraq

A Giant Shiny Swan

Owen Powell – 11th January 2007

I like to think of myself as a fairly well-informed person. I watch a lot of news, I take a look at the BBC website almost daily (and not just for football transfer speculation), and I read a newspaper that’s still loosely a broadsheet. Cover to cover as well, including most of the world news sections. (OK, not quite cover to cover. Business and horse-racing both leave me a bit baffled.) In short, I think I have a fair idea about what’s going on in the world.

[Alex here, taking back everything I said about Owen being falsely modest in my write up of Iran. He is clearly well aware of his comparative wisdom and I applaud this straight-talking self-appraisal.]

However, until today, I had never met someone from a country which my country, in living memory, had invaded.

And, yes. It was the biggy. It was Iraq.

There’s not really a tactful way of putting this, but there were some countries whose representatives I was more excited about meeting than others. Countries that, in some ways, sum up aspects of 21st century life. Countries which, in effect, are no longer simply areas of land, but become concepts or even (is this distasteful?) brands – up there in the newspaper headlines alongside Nike, Starbucks, and David Beckham. Of course, in the last four or five years there is only one such country, and that is Iraq.

Undoubtedly, there are probably countries more worthy of our attention, for all sorts of reasons. Sudan, North Korea, even Venezuela all come to mind, for the different impacts they are making (or should be making) on the global consciousness, but it is Iraq that seems to dominate the news, week in, week out. And now here I am, marching into Al-Mustafa on the Edgware Road, cycle helmet tucked under my arm, and meeting my first Iraqi.

Standing next to a five-foot high glossy white ceramic swan, Thana introduced herself, and didn’t even flinch when I embarrassedly asked her age (34).

[Alex here again, just wanting to say that she also didn’t flinch when I idiotically exclaimed ‘Brilliant! We’ve just got Iran, so that’s great!’ on hearing that Thana is from Iraq. As I’ve made quite clear, I don’t have all that much political nous and didn’t necessarily realise that Thana herself might not be as pleased as I was with the Iran-Iraq link (I have to say, I was mainly thinking about our alphabetical list). ]

We picked up the outlines of her story – she had been in London two years and three months, she works part time at the shop selling all manner of interior decorations, and lives with her husband, a British citizen, with whom she had travelled from Baghdad, through Jordan, to Britain. The specific details of how and where they met and married got a bit lost as Thana warmed to her theme and told us of her impressions of first arriving in London – “I called my family and told them that there are dogs and cats living here in a better standard of life than you are” – and bantered with us about her growing realisation that London isn’t perfect after all. I hope it’s not a generalisation to say that the people we met today (broadly from the Middle East, broadly Muslim, generally from countries with interesting relationships with ‘the West’) were more keen than any we had previously met to tell their stories, to explain how they experienced London and just have a bit of an old chat with two middle class white boys clutching a folder.

Despite her early hopes that she would live beyond her wildest dreams in London, Thana soon discovered what we all discover when arriving within the M25, that it always costs slightly too much to live here. Now, she is more likely to phone home (which she does daily, or twice daily) to tell them that they have it easier in Iraq, that it is easier to maintain a decent standard of living back there than it is in London. Her husband is ill, and she is struggling on her part-time wages, trying to ignore any thoughts of using her BSc in Chemistry to train as a pharmacist or in medicine. “To be a student here? It is too expensive.”

Thana has noticed, however, that many other immigrants in London are able to make money, and her views in this area throw up a whole host of interesting ideas when compared to someone like Paul, our St Lucian. He had said that Britain should have been more welcoming to people like himself, ex-citizens of the Empire, loyal to the Queen and happy to do jobs we couldn’t or wouldn’t do ourselves. Thana, on the other hand, finds it astonishing that people are allowed to come here from countries without political difficulties (she mentioned India and Pakistan) with the express purpose of getting good jobs and making good money. To her, the idea that we would welcome in just another worker, whilst perhaps denying access to someone in a more life-and-death situation, is a decidedly odd state of affairs. The contrast (even the conflict) between economic migrants and political refugees is one that is perhaps glossed over in the tabloid approach to immigration, with the result that all new arrivals here are treated as simultaneously ‘after-our-jobs’ and ‘from-somewhere-dangerous’. It’s becoming clearer as we go through this project that as well as finding British attitudes to immigration contradictory, we’re also seeing how the immigrants themselves have a whole range of views on the topic.

But Thana wasn’t just ‘from-somewhere-dangerous’. She was from Iraq! I asked her if she thought she’d ever go back there again, even if in five, ten years’ time. “My husband, he says, ‘Never again to Iraq. Even if it is heaven’.” Wow. That’s pretty definitive. From her smile, however, I couldn’t tell if she agreed with him, or was gently mocking him, and actually did want to return herself. She clearly loved her country – she was wearing a necklace that was a map of it – and my guess is that in some utopian future she might be back in Baghdad again.

And then of course, the question that I couldn’t not ask. Saddam. How did she feel now he was dead? Had she seen the execution?

“I was very happy. He was an evil man. The devil. The night he was to be killed, I could not sleep. I stayed up all night until I heard.”
But would it cause more problems than it solved, I wondered? She shrugged.
“Maybe. But it is important that he is dead.”
Sure. It looks callous written down. But it wasn’t said vindictively. To Thana, it seemed quite matter-of-fact. The execution of this man who did, and represented, so much had clearly allowed her to face some old demons and move on.

Desperately trawling through my limited (and only recently acquired) knowledge of Iraqi politics, and the divisions in society there, I asked as tentatively as I could, “So … you’re … Shia?”
“Shia, yes. Although I am an Iraqi first. I am proud to be an Iraqi.” (She touched her necklace at this point). “In Iraq we are Shia, Sunni, Christian, we are all together. There are Iraqi Jews – ” (I think I may have known this already, but I probably still looked a bit surprised) “ – yes, yes, and I weep for them. They were driven away by Saddam.”

I asked her how religious she was in London. Did she visit a mosque?
“No.” She smiled. “I am religious. I believe in a god. Whether we are Sunni, Shia, Christian, Jew, we all believe in a god. But I don’t have to go to a mosque to listen to a man who will tell me what to think, so I can join with everyone else – ” (here she made a chopping gesture) “ – and follow him in a line, doing what he says. That is not believing in god. If there is a god, a god for all of us, he wants us to be peaceful, to live in peace with each other. It is important to be clean, from the inside. That is where you should believe in your god, from the inside.”

Small-minded atheist that I am, I still found it hard to repress a shout of “You go, girl!” as Thana outlined her theology. It all seemed to make so much sense, and I couldn’t help thinking that in the future Iraq could do with a few more people like her helping to decide what happens next. Unfortunately, it appears that it is precisely people like Thana who have been driven out, and are unlikely to return while such an unholy mess is being made of her country. I wondered how she saw the future. I have read some commentators who suggest that division into separate countries, Balkanisation, is the only way to restore stability, but Thana was opposed to this. Again, she touched her necklace as she explained that the real truth, the truth we don’t see on our news, was that Iraq is not divided, that the people there want to live in peace in a unified country, but that it was impossible to do that under Saddam, and that it is proving just as hard to make it happen after he has gone.

It was difficult to leave Thana’s company feeling wholly positive about the future. She’s obviously seen things and lived through experiences that I never will, and her current straightened circumstances are undoubtedly a constant reminder to her of what she’s been through. And yet, at the same time, it was impossible to leave her feeling in any way negative. If you’re passing Edgware Road and fancy an interesting and involved chat, a bit of a laugh, or just a chance to see a big sculpture of a swan, then pop in and say hello.

No.27: Lebanon

Friendly Falcon

Alex Horne – 11th January 2007

I was confident we’d meet someone from Lebanon on Edgware Road. With the Saj Lebanese food of Café Al Tanoor at one end, countless independent Lebanese restaurants all the way up to the Marylebone Road and the ever-expanding chain of Maroush in between, it was the international quest equivalent of an enormous open goal. I thought it a touch of flair, therefore, when we managed to score our Lebanese representative in a music shop called Falcon.

Despite living about 300 paces from its doors for more than three years I’d probably never have gone into Falcon had we not been doing this project. When I travel abroad I tend to buy my brothers CDs from whichever country I’m in. I like to think it’s a charming tradition but I know it’s probably slightly irritating. I expect they’d prefer some chocolate from duty-free. Still, brothers are meant to be slightly irritating and I now know I can cut out the middle (eastern) man by nipping into No.93 Edgware Road, and spending £10 on a Nancy Arjam CD (currently Lebanon’s biggest selling pop princess).

It’s a lively shop. Music blares out, customers bustle around and there’s a tiny foreign exchange booth squeezed into the front right corner just in case you’ve turned up with the wrong currency again. Hassan, the shopkeeper, was a lot chattier than most of the assistants you find in HMV or Virgin. They may well have more actual music knowledge (‘please don’t ask me about any of the artists!’ he protested more than once) but what he lacked in this department he more than made up for in general friendliness.

He arrived fifteen years ago at the age of twenty one. ‘I was young and I wanted to travel. It was exciting.’ So exciting, in fact that he never went home, instead marrying an English lady and starting a new life in London.

By now he says he doesn’t really feel Lebanese or British; ‘I’m just me’. His kids are bilingual with a slight bias to their place of birth: he speaks to them in Arabic, they understand him then reply in English which reminded me a little of my trip to France the week before when I’d bravely/stubbornly talk to people in French, they’d mostly understand but then reply, somewhat patronisingly, in English.

The CDs along the walls of the shop are punctuated by majestic-looking musical instruments. I was just about to say, ‘they look a bit like guitars’ when Owen remarked how similar to Shakespearean lutes they looked - which was probably a better thing to say although it didn’t really to make any sort of impression on Hassan.

“I can’t play any musical instruments”, he said with a smile – clearly a man who’d accepted this particular absence of talent some time ago (I’m still very jealous of musicians and am convinced I’ll one day learn and excel at the harmonica). He did, however, tell us that they were called ‘Ouds’ which got us both extremely excited having just come from the Oud Perfume shop, just two doors down from here.

“Oud?” we chorused, “like the perfume in the shop, just two doors down from here?” “Well”, said Hassan, slowly. “I guess so. I’d never really thought about it”. Fair enough. We may well have got just a tiny bit animated about the link, wanted to sniff the instrument to explore the connection and thought that probably the word ‘oud’ was an ancient corruption of our word ‘wood’ – well, they’re both definitely made from the stuff – but this was clearly not the time or place to do any of those things.

To be honest, I’d got the feeling by the end of our interview that while Hassan was very happy working in his shop on Edgware Road, it wasn’t the CDs or Nancy Ajram or the medieval guitars that made him tick, but the ‘customers’ who, like us, seemed to come in more for a chat than a purchase.

‘Goodbye, it was great to meet you and if you need anything else please come back any time’, he said as we left. It felt much more genuine than the ‘have a nice day’ we’re now used to. ‘Anything you want, you got it!’ he shouted after us. We could have stayed longer. We were all getting on very well. But we had more people to meet and freshly squeezed orange juice to drink so we marched on up to Maroush’s Beirut Express, scribbled down our notes and decided that our next target should definitely be that gaudy bazaar across the road.

No.26: Somalia

The Wrong Shade of Blue

Owen Powell – 11th January 2007

Edgware Road was certainly proving to be one of the most unpredictable places we had found so far. After finding an Iranian man working in a Lebanese restaurant, we popped next door to a Saudi Arabian perfumiers and found a Somalian.

When I asked the man behind the counter if anyone who worked there was from overseas, he cracked a big smile and said, “You’re looking at him”. Ahmed (or ‘Arms’, to his friends) is in his early twenties and appeared to be running the Arabian Oud shop by himself. No other staff, or indeed customers, appeared while we were in there, so Ahmed was happy to chat and give us a tour of his perfume empire.

As he showed us the bottles, he told us bits and pieces from his life story. He had travelled to London from Mogadishu six years ago, arriving with his mother but leaving other members of his family behind. He has studied in London, notably English – which he learnt from scratch since he has been here. As well as Somalian, he also speaks Arabic, translating the names on the perfume bottles for us. The Arabian perfume he sells is Oud, derived from the oil pressed from certain woods, and can be an acquired taste. He let us smell the stopper from a bottle of Oud that retails for between £300-£500, depending on what size bottle you want (tiny or fairly tiny). It was rather potent, and significantly spicier than I thought perfumes ever could be. Ahmed said that while some of his customers are European, most are from the Middle East, searching for that smell that reminds them of home.

Ahmed had a few questions about the project, so we showed him the folder we’re keeping. It has details for all the people we’ve met, with their photo alongside their country’s flag, and at the moment looks disappointingly empty. He firstly noted that we had printed Somalia’s flag the wrong shade of blue, then raised his eyebrows as he saw all the photos we had taken of people. It was clear that he had some concerns about talking about himself and his country to two strangers, so I put two and two together and mentioned the recent invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia.

[This is all written later, after the meeting and when I’ve had a chance to read up on the subject. I was aware that Somalia had recently been in the news, but not how deep and how intractable the issues are. To try to put it briefly, undoubtedly missing out several key events and ideas, Somalia has been in almost constant turmoil since 1991, when the then President was ousted. Various areas of the country then declared their independence, although none of this was recognised by the UN, and peace-keeping forces were deployed with the aim of averting famine as the civil war escalated. The death of 18 American soldiers during a helicopter raid in Mogadishu (alongside the negative press and Hollywood film it generated) is seen by some as being one of the prime causes of US withdrawal from military interventions on the world stage during the 1990s. The UN withdrew, perhaps not coincidentally deciding against intervention during the Rwandan genocide the following year. The south of Somalia became a de facto Islamic Republic, and last December Ethiopian troops invaded in what was declared as an attempt to restore the official government to power. This invasion was with the tacit approval of the US, an approval that later strengthened into assistance involving gunships and aircraft carriers. The dreaded words ‘Al-Qaeda’ were bandied about. The situation, at the time of writing, is still unresolved. The pessimist in me says that at the time of reading, however far into the future you are reading this, it will still be unresolved.]

This means that for most of Ahmed’s life (we never found out his exact age, but he would have been a young child in 1991) his country has been in a state of flux, and involved in varying degrees of violent conflict. His arrival in London six years ago would have been at the time of the 11th September attacks, and the subsequent re-emergence of the US as a military force, particularly in Islamic countries. He clearly saw what was happening in Somalia as an extension of previous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, asking quite angrily, “Why is the US invading my country?” He said he had lost brothers in the war – I didn’t have the journalistic gumption to ask much more about this. I was out of my depth.

No.25: Iran

A Bird in the Hand

Alex Horne - 11th January 2007

Halfway through our third month and we’re still seemingly stuck on twenty four nationalities. We need to find the same amount again in the next two weeks if we want to stay on target. The odds are stacked against us even at this early stage.

Owen and I met, as usual, at the Breakfast Club on D’Arblay Street, to assess our situation. We always spend slightly too much honk there but the freshly-magi-mixed juice makes us feel healthy and the free internet economical so we can just about convince ourselves that it’s a sensible base.

We agreed that we need to put at least one foot on the accelerator to even get close to our 192 target. Yes, we’d got plenty of leads but with our Chinese girl disappearing into thin air and a worrying amount of Jamaicans turning us down, we knew we had to get a whole load of nationalities nailed right now.

After pencilling in dates for the forthcoming Russian Winter Festival, Islamic New Year and the American Super Bowl, we therefore set off with a plan: we’d interview every single flyerer (there are loads) outside every single English Language School (there are loads) on Oxford Street (it’s quite long). We’d be sure to tick off at least five countries. Of course, we’re not allowed actual students in this project but if Colombian Ligia still studied at a college like this, surely other London residents would be lining up to answer our questions?

Eight minutes later and we’d abandoned our plan. It was raining so heavily that, for perhaps the first time ever, we weren’t handed a single flyer between Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Circus. Disgruntled, I jumped on the first bus West while Owen went back to retrieve his bike and we aimed to meet ten minutes later at Marble Arch.

Twenty minutes later we met, sodden, at the cinema on Edgware Road.

Thankfully the residents of ‘the street that never sleeps’ were soon to give us a boost that would warm our legs, hearts and hopes in the space of just sixty momentous minutes. After a small setback in a Herbal Remedy shop where the two assistants listened to our story, told us they were from China then had a good look at Owen’s fluorescent yellow cycling anorak and said they were prepared to take no further part in the project, we entered the first of many Lebanese restaurants at the southern end of the street.

At half eleven in the morning, Arabian eateries like Café Al Tanoor are pretty much empty. Twelve hours later, they’re full of people, chatting, laughing and enjoying late-night kebabs not in the British post-pub ‘I’m drunk and need meat’ style but in the ‘this is a very nice dish and goes very well with my fruit juice and flavoured tobacco hookah pipe’ sort of way. They’re good places.

We were greeted at the door by Rasoul who was amused by our dripping garments and immediately keen to help our cause, telling us with glee that he wasn’t in fact Lebanese, but he did like Lebanese food: “I like all countries’ food”, he grinned.

Now as this project progresses I’m beginning to realise just how poor my geographical and political knowledge actually is, especially compared to Owen who sometimes claims ignorance but actually seems to know the current leader, conflict and enemy of every nationality we meet.
On this occasion, when Rasoul told us “I’m from Persia!” I had to use my stock phrase; “Forgive me, I’m an idiot, but…” yet again, finishing it this time with “is that Iran?”

Miraculously, I’d got it right (later, however, when interviewing our Iraqi lady, this lucky guess would come back and kick me in my stupid face).

Rasoul had come to London six years ago in a bid to escape what he drily described as ‘problems with the Iranian government’. He says he loves it here. In fact, I was slightly unprepared for his emotional attachment to a place I tend to take for granted, especially when my legs and feet are still soaked from an eight minute walk, and when he described London as ‘beautiful’ I’m afraid to say I came back with a slightly sneery, ‘Well, it’s not beautiful’. ‘It is beautiful’, replied Rasoul. ‘There’s no killing, no fighting, the people are mixed and there’s great enjoyment’. I see. Yes. You’re right. It’s just my limbs are a bit soggy and I got distracted...

Unlike most of London’s Iranian community who tend to congregate in High Street Kensington (‘it’s beautiful’), Rasoul and his family live in Hammersmith. He’s worked on Edgware Road for the last few years having got to know the area whilst learning the language at one of those English Schools we’d hurried past earlier that morning.

Any more weighty details, however, had to wait for another day as by now our time was nearly up with lunch and hordes of Middle Eastern businessmen rapidly approaching. I hadn’t got to ask him any more pertinent questions about religion, war or politics, focussing instead on some very basic culinary queries but maybe that was a good thing. Forgive me, I’m an idiot.