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

Friday, 28 September 2007

No.156: Myanmar

Jo Brand in the rain

Owen Powell - 28th September 2007

I sort of hate myself. I’ve come to the protest outside the Burmese embassy to try to find someone from Burma for our project.

Burma (or Myanmar) is in meltdown. People are being shot in the streets, monks and students are risking their lives in the name of freedom, and the international community is definitely thinking about planning to do something about it. In Mayfair, a crowd of protestors, some journalists, me, and Jo Brand are shuffling about on a side-street under a dirty autumnal London sky, getting slowly drenched. Just when I’m plucking up the courage to ask someone if I can speak to them, a man grabs a megaphone and starts to sing. Everybody (except me and the journalists and Jo Brand – I think she’s here with Amnesty) joins in, men with red bandanas punching the air.

In the break between the second and third songs, which get more and more rousing, a builder on his fag break next door says, a bit too loudly, “Give it a rest!” Even if it’s meant somehow ironically, which I somehow doubt, it’s still one of the most repellent things I’ve heard in recent weeks. Maybe no-one else hears, certainly no-one reacts, and after he finishes his cigarette he goes back inside again. To my immense shame, its main effect is to make me feel a lot better about what I’m doing. I’m here! I think. I’m in the crowd! I’m protesting, just by my very presence. I’m protesting in the rain! And, in a minute, if I pluck up the courage, I’m going to speak to a Burmese person and ask them about what’s going on, which is probably a lot more than most people I know would do. I almost feel virtuous, despite the nagging doubt that I’m here on false pretences.

Once the songs and speeches are over, I notice several other (for want of a better word) white people come out from under doorways and begin thrusting cameras, microphones and notebooks at some of the protestors. Ah, I think, it’s fine! It’s a public demonstration, so they probably want attention. I’ll just act a bit like a journalist, and it’ll be ok. (Some of the journalists have laminated badges that say ‘PRESS’ on them. I don’t. I don’t even have an umbrella).

I ask one man, who had been singing particularly lustily, and he points out another man who might be more prepared to talk, who sends me over to another man. I begin by saying, “I’m writing a book about London and all the nationalities there are in it,” which is neither grammatically or ethically very satisfying, but he’s happy to speak, so we go over and cower in a doorway. His name is Ye.

I start by asking about the protest. “We’ve been here since the monks began marching in Burma,’ he says, “since 18th September. We have also protested in Parliament Square, and outside the Chinese Embassy.” Another song starts, and I get the impression Ye wants to join in, so I ask him about it. “It is a song from 1988, after the uprising then. It was a big thing. I was in High School, and we got involved in the demonstrations. Since then, we have tried to keep protesting, peacefully.” Ye has been in the UK for five years, but still has family back in Rangoon. “I spoke to someone this morning,” he says, “and they are still firing on the crowds.”

A policeman, very politely, asks us if we wouldn’t mind moving out of the doorway onto the street, as people are trying to get into their offices. It’s all very English and nice, although some of his colleagues are carrying machine guns. We shuffle back into the rain, and my pen and notepad start to stick to each other. I vow to remember what Ye is saying rather than write it down, which isn’t hard as it’s pretty fiery stuff. “The situation in Burma is worse than Iraq!” he says. “The regime there believes in Command, Order, Hatred and Fear. They believe that all problems must be sorted out with weapons. They are killing monks! You know, these are peaceful people. And it is not just monks and students, there is a big alliance against the regime. Civil servants as well, people from all backgrounds are protesting. You know, we had elections in 1990, and within ninety days, lots of the candidates were in jail. All we want is democracy but the regime are not interested in that. The government don’t treat people as people, they treat them as the enemy.”

On a banner being held nearby, I see a face I recognise and a name I cannot pronounce. I point to it. “What about Aung San Suu Kyi?” I ask. (You can imagine me pronouncing it correctly, if that helps). “What is the latest news about her?” Ye looks downcast. “We think she is back in prison,” he says. “She has been under house arrest for years, but we have heard that two days ago, she was taken away from her home.” In the 1990 elections, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party won 392 of the 492 seats, which should have been enough to install her as Prime Minister. Instead, she is the only winner of the Nobel Peace Prize to be currently under detention, as she has been for the majority of the time since the election seventeen years ago.

I ask Ye what can be done internationally as a solution to the ongoing crisis. He looks a bit cynical. “The government in Burma can only get away with this because they have the backing of China. And the US want to keep a good relationship with China, so they only pay lip service to the idea of doing something. We are in a difficult position, on the borders of India and China, where there is 40% of the world’s population, but it seems that nobody wants to help us.”

The songs start up again, and I thank Ye for his time (after finding out that he lives in Cricklewood). The rain doesn’t seem to affect the ongoing demonstrations, but I scurry off – I have to be home by two so that I can show the new Polish cleaner around.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

No.155: Egypt

Full story to follow ...

Owen Powell - 27th September 2007

Milena, from Bulgaria, has introduced us to more people than anyone else, I'm pretty sure of that. One of her work colleagues, she excitedly told us in an email, was an Egyptian who had once been kidnapped. Well, we had to find out more ...

I interview Shaka sitting in his van, as he zooms round West London on his evening London Lite run (picking up the merchandisers stalls and umbrellas). He was indeed born in Egypt, although his parents were from Sierra Leone - a country he returned to when he was quite young. Shaka's story is a bit too complicated to go into here, but it's worth saying that the kidnapping story is true, and also that Shaka gave me a lift home in the van after his shift finished.

No.154: Tonga

Full story to follow...

Alex Horne - 27th September 2007

Tomorrow Tonga is going to watch the crucial England vs Tonga rugby world cup match at home on the sofa. He's nervous already. He says he can't enjoy games in a crowded pub because he gets extremely passionate about his rugby.

Tonga, I should explain, is both the name and country of origin of our Tongan representative. A bit like Israel from Spain but even more confusing.

I should also say that Tonga himself is a renowned rugby player. When I met him he was wearing his London Irish training top and shorts. We were the only people sitting outside the incongrous walled garden cafe where we met. He was the only one not wearing trousers.

I'm sure when I come to write this up properly I'll use the phrase Gentle Giant at some point.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

No.153: Burundi

Full story to follow...

Alex Horne - 26th September 2007

I met Berenice with Jim, her Glaswegian future father-in-law, outside a Cafe Nero in Enfield. Neither Jim nor I had ever been to Enfield before.

After her obligatory military service in 1998, Berenice went to university in Burundi's capital Bujumburu. A year and a half into the course the university was closed down on account of the massacres taking place across the country. After being sent to a private university she then joined the socialist party, attended various demonstrations and was eventually jailed for two weeks. At this point her parents became extremely worried about her future and sent her to Europe.

Unfortunately for Berenice, she first went to Belgium, Burundi's former coloniser. 'I didn't like the Burundi community there', she told me. 'They stick so closely together. Many people don't even speak French. I didn't feel comfortable'.

She therefore spent a thousand euros (my old computer doesn't seem to have the symbol for euros), bought some papers ('it was really quite dodgy', she said) and made her way to Calais where the authorities looked at these dodgy papers and sent her right back to Brussels.

A month later she managed to persuade a Burundian friend of hers who'd been born in Belgium to lend her her Belgian passort and tried again. This time it worked. She was waved through and finally found refuge and a fiancee in Glasgow.

She recently finished her teacher training degree at Middlesex University and is applying for British citizenship in December.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

No.152: Belize

Full story to follow ...

Owen Powell - 25th September 2007

The first recipient of the MBE we have met, Errollyn is an internationally-performed award-winning composer and songwriter. She takes inspiration from anywhere, even the noise of the cafe staff bashing the coffee pots around. "That might pop up later in a piece," she says.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Live shows.

Hello everybody!

Real quicky: as the project reaches its exciting last few weeks, we're going to be doing a weekly show at the Soho Theatre on Dean Street. The shows start on Monday 24th September and run weekly until Monday 22nd October. There's more information here.

If you're from a country we haven't yet found, then you can get to see the show FOR FREE! Email us on worldinonecity@hotmail.com to claim your tickets.

Keep checking the blog for more details about the show.

Friday, 21 September 2007

No.151: Rwanda

Full story to follow ...

Owen Powell - 21st September 2007

Mary runs SURF, the Survivors Fund for Rwandans who lived through the 1994 genocide. The organisation recently raised funds for a memorial centre in Rwanda where people's testimonies and stories can be recorded.

No.150: Togo

Full story to follow ...

Owen Powell - 21st September

Alexis, who lives and works (as a physiotherapist) near Twickenham, was a keen footballer when younger, and was picked in the Togo squad for the under 16s World Cup. "I was a thinker on the ball," he says. "I'd come off the pitch totally clean."

Thursday, 20 September 2007

No.149: Saudi Arabia

Full story to follow...

Alex Horne - 20th September 2007

At six foot five, Hussein is so far the tallest of our representatives. He was also one of the most relaxed.

When we met he was waiting to start a new job at KPMG so was happy to spend time telling me about a country that has no rivers or lakes and where a quarter of the population are foreign. 'If you trace the origins of the people in Jeddah', he told me, 'you won't find any Saudi people. There are a lot of expat workers, people from Iraq, Yemen, India, Sudan, Malta, Syria, Uzbekistan... In fact the El Saud Royal Family are the only actual Saudi family.'

No.148: Ecuador

Full story to follow...

Alex Horne - 20th September 2007

'People from our country like travelling', Christian told me. 'You'll find us anywhere in the world - even Alaska!'

During what turned out to be a tutorial in Ecuadorian history and geography, he also told me about the Chaskis, Ecuador's traditional postmen who delivered mail back in 1000AD before the wheel had reached South America. Travelling on foot, these runners would rest in tambos dotted along the way between Quito and Cotopaxi. When he's saved up enough money here in London, Christian plans to recreate fourteen of these hostels to provide shelter for the cyclists that now follow in the Chaskis' footsteps. 'That is my life goal', he said. 'There will be health service for emergencies, mechanical aid, solar cells and ecological eduation. This is my project. I think of nothing else.'

No.147: St Vincent and the Grenadines

Full story to follow...

Alex Horne - 20th September 2007

Gus left the Caribbean to join his parents in Essex when he was thirteen years old. That was about 1978 and his family was one of just two black families in the area. It was then that he made a conscious decision not to worry about what he has no control over.

In January he landed a job working for the Hong Kong government, effectively selling the island to the British. 'I didn't think I'd get it', he told me. 'I thought to myself, I'm clearly not from Hong Kong! But maybe that's a good thing for them. It says, 'we're international'. I guess it shows forward thinking.'

* St Vincent and the Grenadines, by the way, is the country whose name sounds most like a band.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

No.146: Bhutan

Full story to follow...

Alex Horne - 18th September 2007

Thinley's father hasn't yet visited her in London. 'I'd love him to come', she told me. 'He's a contractor and he loves architecture. I work in Southwark so I cross Blackfriars Bridge every day and see Parliament and the Tate Modern. London is a very beautiful city.'

She thinks there are only ten Bhutanese in London. I liked the fact that I was sitting at a table with a tenth of London's Bhutanese population. We discussed Buddhism, beggars and her forthcoming marriage. But mostly we talked about football.

Like me, Thinley is a Liverpool fan. We're both quite impressed with Benayhun. Neither of us can believe Heskey's playing for England again. She said that if I can get her a ticket to Liverpool vs Tottenham (my dad's a spurs fan...) I can come to her wedding in Bhutan.

No.145: Tajikistan

The Roof of the World

Owen Powell - 18th September 2007

I'm sitting in the front room of a terraced house in suburban Ilford. It's about as normal and English as you could get (on the bus, I went past fourteen consecutive streets with the suffix " – Gardens"). But above me, over the door, is a vast portrait of stern but warm-looking presidential figure, pen poised to sign a decree, and over by the window is a huge red, green and white flag. Most of the books on the shelves have titles in what looks like some kind of Arabic or Persian script, and the smell of some exotic cooking drifts in from further into the house.

A man I know only as Latif comes back in from moving his car. "My name is not Latif," he says, shaking my hand. "I am Behzad." He nods down the hall. "She is cooking," he says, and wafts his hand in front of his face while smiling broadly.

Behzad sits, and looks momentarily worried. "How long will this take?" he asks. "It's just that I have to pick some of my kids up from school." I say, perhaps slightly disappointed, that we can do it in ten minutes. I try to get the basics established pretty swiftly.

Behzad came to London from Tajikistan nine years ago, with his wife and two young children, and they have had two more since then (the kids range in age from twelve to six, and the eldest, who I meet, says that she doesn't remember much about her pre-London life). He's a TFL-registered minicab driver, studies English and IT in his spare time, and is considering applying for a British passport soon, although he's been granted indefinite leave to remain. But he's itching to tell me more about Tajikistan.

"We have a very strong culture. We are a very new country, but also very ancient." I ask about the books, and also notice some inscriptions hanging in frames on the wall. "It is Persian," he says, "like in Iran and Afghanistan. It is my main language, but I also speak Russian. Some people use Sanskrit." Behzad shifts in his seat, and his eyes light up. "Tajikistan is a wonderful country! Full of mountains - we call our land 'The Roof of the World'! If you go there, you will find the people are very kind, very ... what is the word? Like 'hostage', or 'hostile'?" Hospitable, I suggest? "Yes. Very friendly." He glances at his watch and makes a face. "Ah. I must go to pick up my kids. Where are you going?" Umm, I say ... back to the station? "I will give you a lift. We can talk more in the car. Come on!"

Behind the wheel, where I guess Behzad spends most of his working day, he really opens up. "I will tell you everything about Tajikistan!" he announces, as he pulls away from the kerb. Taxi drivers probably have an unfair press as far as their opinions on religion and culture go, but even the most enlightened is likely to compare quite badly to Behzad.

"I am a Zoroastrian," he says. "You have heard of this?" (I nod, slightly unsurely. My brother, fascinated by religion, has mentioned it once or twice to me, I think). "It is an ancient religion. Four thousand years old. Before Moses. In all other religions, God is a man – the bible says 'He did this' or 'He did that'. In Zoroastrianism, God is both man and woman. Men and women are equal!” Behzad holds his fingers up. “There are also six angels, three men and three women. One for every day of the week, and God for the seventh day. In these other new religions like Judaism, they say there are seven days because that’s how long it took God to make the world.” Behzad puts his indicator on and turns left. “They made this up.”

I’m desperately scribbling away, loving how Behzad (partly with tongue in cheek, it must be admitted) dismisses Judaism as a “new” religion, and I don’t really have to ask any questions.

“In Tajik culture, men and women are the same. In English, you have different words for ‘he’ and ‘she’, but in Tajik we have one word for both. Now, this is true also in the Georgian language, but that is mainly because it is a poor language without many words. In Tajik, it is because we see men and women as one thing. Everything is logical. In English, you have ‘husband’ and ‘wife’.” We’re sitting in traffic, and Behzad holds up a finger from each hand to illustrate how far apart these words are. “There is no connection. In my language, it is the same word.” He brings his fingers together. “Hansa. My wife is my hansa, and I am her hansa. Han-sa. It means, ‘same-head’. It means, once you have your hansa, you share your brain, you have the same mind.” Behzad laughs. “It’s a good idea, yes?”

I’m still scribbling, my notebook a mess of ideas and religions and half-heard, phonetically spelt words. Behzad looks over at me, perhaps having his doubts about whether I am really a writer (or, more fundamentally, whether I am really interviewing him). “If you do not ask me a question,” he playfully admonishes, “I will ask one myself! What do Zoroastrians believe in? Well, there are three parts to our religion: good thoughts, good words, good deeds. We do not want to kill unbelievers, do suicide bombings, it is a religion of peace, very thoughtful. If a Christian has a child, or a Muslim has a child, that child is Christian or Muslim. In our culture, we cannot understand that. It is a child! When they get to sixteen, seventeen years old, then they can choose which religion they want. But nothing is forced. We never say, ‘You have to do this, or that’.”

“I worry about the Muslim religion. In my country, you are free to worship how you want. We have churches, temples, mosques. People are free. But in Arabic countries – more restrictions. In some countries, women are not allowed to drive!” Behzad hits his steering wheel, incredulously. “There are lots of Tajik people in the north of Afghanistan, where it is peaceful. In the south, that is where the violence is.” I think at this point, my face betrays the fact that (despite some research) I don’t really know where Tajikistan is. Behzad leads me carefully through the history of the Tajiks.

“The Tajik people were first called ‘Tajik’ eight hundred years ago,” he explains. “It is an ancient land, on the border of Russian, Persia, China and Afghanistan. I was in Uzbekistan recently, and there, there are many millions of Tajik people, but the government has forced them to change their names in their passports – they are scared to speak the Persian language. I was in Samarqand, and I looked around – no Persian newspapers or books. They don’t want the Tajik people to understand that they are Tajik. I tried to take a Persian book with me, and the police told me to throw it away or I could not travel any further. I said, ‘If you give me the whole of Uzbekistan, I will not put this book in the bin.’ In my culture, books are very precious. You do not throw them in the bin.”

Behzad has travelled home to Tajikistan over the years, although not as often as he would like as there are no direct flights and it’s very expensive. I ask if he has seen many changes in the last few years. “Yes! Things are getting much better,” he says. “The new President has made things better.” The man in the photograph, I say? “Yes. A very intelligent man who likes his culture very much.” Behzad looks out of the window as we crawl through East London. “It would be good to make more links between Tajikistan and Britain. The government should encourage more students to come here. And – more than anything – you in Britain should visit my country. There is lots to see!”

The lights were waiting at turn green, and Behzad zooms off, excitedly. “The Christmas tree! You live in a Christian culture, but no-one knows why you decorate a tree at Christmas. It is a Tajik custom! The father of the Persian language was Tajik! Everything in the world – anything of any importance – can be linked back, traced back to Tajikistan! Here. We are at Stratford.” He pulls over and I get out, my head spinning. “Anything else you need – you want to talk about religion, culture, anything – come and see me again. Goodbye! It was nice to meet you!” Me too, I say, me too, as Behzad drives off to pick up his kids.

No.144: Monaco

Full story to follow...

Alex Horne - 18th September 2007

When I asked Pierre whereabouts in Monaco he used to live I stupidly said, 'by the sea?'

'Of course', he replied patiently. 'Right by the heliport.'

I think he noticed my tiny gasp.

'It's not all luxury there though! People think it's all beautiful cars, beautiful people and casinos. But there are lots of normal people too - lots of industry and businesses.'

Pierre now works in almost-as-glamorous Mayfair in the Monaco tourist office but recently spent six months at the University of Hull. 'They do a very good business course', he told me diplomatically.

There are just 36,000 Monegasques in the world so Pierre was a cracking find. I spent most of our chat smiling broadly and telling him he was a cracking find. In return he furnished me with this tremendous flag fact: Monaco has the same flag as Indonesia - they're the only two countries who share insignia (Poland, of course, is the same but the other way round).

No.143: Cuba

Full story to follow...

Alex Horne - 18th September

A friend of Helder from Mozambique, Reinaldo is very cool indeed. He plays the bass guitar. He ordered an espresso. He's 52 years old. 'I live just for the music', he told me. 'I play everything - jazz, salsa, Brazilian.' He invited me to his next gig this coming Sunday at No.1 Poetry Street by Bank Station. I said I'd do my best but realistically I doubt I'll make it. Going out late on a Sunday night? At my age? I don't think I could stand his pace.

No.142: Timor-Leste

Full story to follow...

Alex Horne - 18th September

I didn't know a lot about Timor-Leste before embarking on this project. In fact, I didn't even know that Timor-Leste is the official name for East Timor. I also didn't know that after gaining independence from Portugal in 1975 it was immediately invaded by Indonesia with just a little help from the USA or that it regained independence just eight years ago after a UN-sponsored referendum.

Vito told me all that. He was there when the fleeing militia bombed Timorese houses in 1999 and he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for years afterwards. Now, however, he wants to focus on the positive. 'It's a beautiful place, he told me, 'and once everything's settled, Timor will be one of the most outstanding countries in the world.'

Here in London he is frustated by the lack of Timorese ingredients when it comes to cooking. He went to B&Q but couldn't find the right sort of bamboo.

Monday, 17 September 2007

No.141: Slovenia

Full story to follow ...

Owen Powell - 17th September 2007

Vid is possibly the second most famous philosopher from Slovenia. (Slavoj Zizek, something of a cult figure, is probably the first). Vid's fame came before he was even a philosopher, however, as when he was still a teenager he appeared as an improvisational comic actor on Slovenia's leading tak show for adolescents, 'The Youth Relay'. "I got recognised once or twice in the streets," he says, modestly. Now a post-graduate philosophy student, he's planning a PhD while doing work experience writing for Time Out.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

No.140: Turkmenistan

An Englishman, Kyrgyzstani Lady and Turkmenistani Lady Go into a Kebab Shop…

Alex Horne - September 15th 2007

I went to a friend’s belated birthday party in Kensal Green tonight and had a couple of drinks. My wife had generously offered to drive us home and for nearly all the hour-long journey back to Chesham I, apparently, waxed lyrical about this project, saying, at length, how great it was to meet all these people and how honoured, in particular, I was to have become friends with Mariam. I’ll now try to recreate that eulogy, albeit with a touch more coherence, in this entry.

Mariam, from Kyrgyzstan, had got in touch recently to say that after a busy couple of weeks she’d now got time to help us find people from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – not the sort of offer Owen and I were going to refuse in a hurry. So this morning, fairly early for a Saturday, I made my way up to Wood Green, North London, where she was already waiting for me.

And it was great to see her again. As she guided me round her local patch in search of these two tricky former-soviet–stans she told me what she’d been up to since we’d last met at the picnic on Regents Park, how she was finding London life and what she was going to do next. I won’t include the details here – I fear I’ve already shared more than enough of Mariam’s personal life on this blog – but let’s just say that things are basically going pretty well for her right now.

It turned out too that we had a fair amount of time to do our catching up as the places we’d hoped to find our people proved frustratingly unproductive. We were aiming for kebab shops. But we’d met at 10.15am. Neither nationality was due to start their shift until noon. Which was a tiny bit problematic as both Mariam and I had other commitments in the early afternoon. Pragmatically we decided we’d try to meet Turkmenistan now and Uzbekistan later* then, over the course of three scenic bus journeys around her local area, chatted happily away about this, that, and the other – not necessarily in that order.

Why kebab shops? You may well ask. I certainly did. And there a couple of reasons: First, Mariam enjoys exploring London and at the weekends likes to take her kids to different restaurants, which, on occasion, have included Turkish cuisine. Second, people from the Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan/Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan area tend to be able to grasp the Turkish language fairly easily, meaning that if they come to the UK they can often find employment in Turkish restaurants. Third, Mariam is very good at spotting people from those countries and will often strike up conversations and then friendships with them, whilst dining with her family.

And so at a quarter to twelve we arrived back at Wood Green (after a trip to the Rose Restaurant and Barbecue in Crouch End) and sat down to wait for the Turkmenistani employee to start her shift at the Kebab Centre. I had a coke. Mariam didn’t. It’s Ramadan (cf Samia from Yemen). We talked about this. And I’m pretty sure one of my drunken themes on the way back home that night was how glad I was to be able to discuss things like religion with people from all over the world. I’d never really thought about Ramadan before – it didn’t effect me so I didn’t find out about it. Now, thanks to this project I learnt all about how Mariam had to eat her last mouthful at 4.54 this morning and then nothing until 7.22 this evening. Not even a glass of water. I had no idea. And, sitting in the mouth-watering atmosphere of the Kebab Centre I doubted I’d have the will power.

As we were wondering if Ramadan was why the restaurant was so quiet, Mariam finally caught sight of her contact. ‘That’s her’, she whispered then, after some swift negotiations with both the manager and the girl herself, Mariam introduced me to our Turkmenistani.

‘Her name means love’, she said. Muhabbat nodded with a grin. ‘Yes it does’, she confirmed. We were off.

She came to London two years ago from Ashabat, the capital, to learn English. Like so many immigrants here she’s now working flat out every day – either at school or here at the Kebab Centre, in a bid to pay for and make the most of her opportunity. ‘Are you getting much sleep?’ I asked. ‘Not enough’, she said, with a somewhat weary smile. ‘To be honest’, she added, ‘I want to go to Canada’.

‘So what do you like and not like about London?’ asked Mariam, easily wresting the reins of the interview from my hands. ‘Well’, said Muhabbat, ‘I was shocked when I found out so many people don’t speak English. My English was actually better before I came here, while my Turkish has improved! But I like that the government takes care of the people – everyone can get a house on a credit mortgage or live in a council house.' Mariam agrees. ‘We don’t have council flats back home’, they both say before concluding, rather heart-warmingly, that the British welfare system is the best in the world. Muhabbat’s daughter was born in an NHS hospital. She’s now being looked after by Muhabbat’s mother back in Turkmenistan. ‘The doctors were very good’, she told me. ‘I’m happy she was born here.’

Mariam’s heading back to Kyrgyzstan for her niece’s first birthday in a few weeks time. ‘There’s always a big party when they are one year old’, she said, ‘because in the old days babies would rarely survive for a year. Now they do, of course. In fact, under Soviet rule if you had ten kids you’d get a medal and free travel!’ I suppose medals are certainly one thing the welfare system here doesn’t provide.

* An excellent choice in the end as, without my knowledge Owen had actually met someone from Uzbekistan the night before. Well done Owen. So now, we have just one –stan to go – the rather reluctant nation of Tajikistan…

Friday, 14 September 2007

No.139: Uzbekistan

Full story to follow ...

Owen Powell - 14th September 2007

Like Valeria from Argentina, Ibrat works for the BBC World Service, but his radio show is considered so incendiary that he has been banned from returning to Uzbekistan. When he first arrived in London, he tried going out to pubs as he'd seen how sociable it looked on 'Eastenders', but the reality of British pub life disappointed him.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

No.138: Benin

Rome goes down all roads ...

Owen Powell - 13th September 2007

“Whenever anyone asks me about where I live,” says Rome, “I tell them: London is overcrowded, London is expensive, London is dirty. I love it to death.” He flashes a big smile.

He certainly has a lot to compare it to. Rome has lived in more places than most of the people I’ve met, and has also seen more of London than most people who live here. Although he was born in Ghana, he is Beninese and grew up there, but also spent time in Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Cyprus, Senegal, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, most of Western Europe (including several months spent in Germany) and New York – where he was just prior to arriving in London nine years ago. Most famously (in terms of our project at least) he has spent a fair bit of time in Sweden, where Sarah, his wife, is from. (Sarah and Rome are, so far, the only married couple to represent different countries in 'The World In One City'). “Sweden is nice,” he says. “They have a good quality of life, it’s clean, but it’s a lot quieter. London may not look as nice, but it’s addictive.”

I express a slight worry that as Rome (short for ‘Romeo’, rather than being named after the city) was born in Ghana, we shouldn’t really count him as from Benin, but I’m quickly reassured. “My parents were from Benin, I grew up there. I’ve got a Beninese passport, as well as a Ghanaian one. Pretty soon I’m going to take British citizenship, and I’ll have to discard one of my old ones.” I lean forward. Which one will it be? “I’m keeping Benin! I suppose that’s where my roots are, although I’ve travelled so much I’m happier being in new places. I’m like a gypsy from Africa! When I came to London aged 26, I found it pretty easy – it was just another move. I feel like I could live anywhere – I could live here, I could live in Africa, I could live up a tree.”

We talk a bit about the citizenship ceremony, and I’m probably a bit sniffy about it, saying that it’s hardly fair to make foreigners learn the ins and outs of British culture and politics, when many British people make their ignorance on such matters quite clear, and swear allegiance to the Queen, something that many British-born people would have a problem with. But Rome sets me straight, saying that people who arrive here should be expected to learn the culture, the language, about the government and legislature. “You should do as the Romans do, you know? It’s foolish to expect London to change for someone who has come here – you need to be prepared to change so you can fit in.” That’s not to say that London has an exclusively ‘British’ culture – fitting in means learning about the mixture of people and cultures you’ll find here already. “Living in London gives you an open mind,” says Rome. “You become able to socialise with anyone, interact with anyone.”

One of the first people Rome met in London was Sarah. Three years later, they were married, with three different ceremonies. The first was at a Swedish church in London, followed by an Islamic ceremony in London, then (most fun of all, it seems) a big celebration in Accra, with Sarah in full African dress and all of Rome’s family there. London is their home now, although not one particular part of it – “I must have moved house 25 times since I came here”, say Rome – and he feels that he knows the city as well as anywhere he has lived. “You know what the sign of a real Londoner is?” asks Rome. “If you can drive everywhere, but don’t use a TomTom. Me, I know my way around. I don’t need Sat Nav.”

Rome has to drive everywhere largely because of his job. When he was younger, he studied administration, but arriving in London in his mid-twenties he realised he wasn’t an office person, and wanted to get his hands dirty. He started working in engineering. “Now,” he says, laughing, “I have to do some admin as I’m a boss, so I spend half my time in the office. I usually get there about nine o’clock at night, and start to plan what work we’re going to be doing.” If that sounds like a topsy-turvy day, it’s because Rome works for a subcontractor who maintain London’s tube lines. It’s tough work, and strange hours. “If you think that the tube runs most nights until 12.30, 12.45, and sometimes starts up again just after four in the morning, that doesn’t give us long to get the work done. We have so many checks to do before the line can re-open again that we’ve really only got three hours to work in. That’s where the planning comes in. In my office I’ve got a big bunch of files, drawings, plans – lots of emails to check – then I have to arrange all the equipment we’re going to need, how many workers it will take, what each worker needs to do and how long it will take.” It’s a big responsibility, I suggest. Doesn’t he worry that if things go wrong, he’ll be first in line for the blame? “Of course. If we make one tiny mistake, it could be dangerous. The Met police might come round and knock on my door ... But I trust myself and my workers to get it right. We’re like a family. Also, I’m a workaholic. I make sure I get everything right.”

It becomes clear why Rome only had a diet coke when I offered him a drink at the bar earlier. “Oh yes,” he says. “At a minimum, I’m tested twice a week for drugs and alcohol, so I don’t drink or smoke. It’s not a big sacrifice – it’s a good job, it’s pretty good money, and if I can stick at it for another ten years or so, my ambition is to retire at 45 and start working for myself. I’d like to move to Ghana, where I’ve already got a house, and be at the centre of the African boom. That’s where it’s going to happen next – they’ve discovered crude oil, the economy is stable, I could take my engineering skills there and help develop the railways. But I’m not narrow minded – I could do anything. I might start to develop properties for tourism.” Rome is nothing if not ambitious, and explains that he’s inspired to do well because of his childhood. “It was tough, we were very poor – some days there wasn’t much food,” he says. “But I don’t let it make me miserable – I reckon that I’ve seen the worst now, and this is my opportunity to do well. Make hay while the sun shines, you know? If you’ve had an easy time growing up, you don’t really know the value of things, so maybe you’re not as committed to things like your job or your family. But I want to be successful. And I want to enjoy it while I can. There’s no point finally getting wealthy at 55, you know? I can’t drive a Ferrari when I’m 55, I’ll probably want a Bentley then. Right now, what I want is a bright yellow Ferrari."

After an hour or so, I put my pen and notepad down and we start chatting about our lives in London, places we’ve been, people we’ve met. Rome hints at some forthcoming spectacular changes to the tube system (“It’s a whole world underground – people don’t realise what’s down there”) including the introduction of mobile phone reception everywhere, and some others too secret to even be discussed. He’s a very wise man, and I feel like I’m learning a lot about why I’m doing this project, about what London is. In fact, something he says that I’ve jotted down could stand as a pretty good description of the London that Alex and I are discovering. (I think Rome says it in relation to Arabic – that a different dialect is spoken in every different region of the Arab world, but in the West we assume it’s all one thing. In, fact I think it might be an Arabic proverb). It goes: “From afar, a forest looks like a single thing, but when you get there, you see that there are gaps between the trees.” I like it. It’s like a better, more thought-provoking, version of “You can’t see the wood for the trees”.

No.137: Burkina Faso


Owen Powell - 13th September

For me, the last few days haven’t been all that successful. I lost my diary over the weekend, which made me feel even more incapable than losing my phone (July), my computer memory stick (June) or house keys (yesterday, but I found them again). Somehow, not knowing what I was supposed to be doing in the days and weeks to come made the whole world appear like a terrifying blank canvas. I took to scribbling things down on receipts and in notebooks, but I was losing control. I bought a new diary.

I also haven’t had much luck with the world in one city quest. We’re at the sharp end now, only 50-odd countries to find, and it’s getting tougher. Gone are the days of waltzing into a café and expecting to find a chef, waitress and a couple of customers from several different continents, from nations we had never met before. Now, it’s a case of dedicated internet research, and long bus journeys.

Yesterday morning, I phoned the Nicaraguan embassy. (I wasn’t cheating). The lady who answered the phone said something in Spanish. I did my usual Hugh Grant thing and spluttered my way through an opening sentence in pretty unintelligible English. She asked me to slow down and try again. I took a deep breath. “I notice that it’s Nicaraguan Independence Day on Saturday,” I said. “Do you know of any events that are happening in London to celebrate it?” She thought for a while. “No,” she said. “Thankyou,” I said, and put the phone down.

Then I called the Hackney Caribbean Elderly Organisation. I’d seen several of them photographed for an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery back in June, and had meant to contact them before now. No-one picked up. “Ah well,” I thought. “They’re elderly. Maybe they don’t answer the phone.” I jumped on a bus.

An hour and a half later, I was standing outside the HCEO, ringing the bell. No-one answered. I was hoping to meet people from Dominica and Barbados. In their photos at the NPG they looked happy, smiling and laughing. Some of them were over ninety years old. None of them were in the HCEO this afternoon. It was locked up.

I got on a different bus, and went back to the Community Centre for Refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, where we’d been in July (finding it locked). It was locked again. Never mind. I also had a lead for someone from Laos who might work as a chef in a Thai restaurant near Victoria. I got on two buses. It took nearly an hour. The restaurant was open for lunch and dinner, but not at half past three in the afternoon, which it now was. I was defeated. I went to a hardware shop and bought a massive drill bit, then went home and spent the evening drilling holes in my bedroom wall.

This morning, after a photo session for a German magazine where a German photographer got Alex and I to throw six kilograms of German confetti onto each other, I decided to go to Acton. Not entirely on a whim – I’d met an oyster-seller in Borough Market called Jason who was sort-of Samoan (Samoan parents, but born in New Zealand), and he said that the Redback Tavern, in Acton, was where all Australasian people go. Some of the bouncers in particular, he said, would be islanders. “Islanders” to me now conjures up magical names: Palau, Nauru, Tuvalu. These are going to be some of the hardest places to find representatives from (Tuvalu is the smallest country, by population, in the world) so any lead was a real godsend. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover the Redback Tavern didn’t open until 6pm, but I still felt a bit cursed. I was stuck in Acton. I wanted to go home and do more drilling. I didn’t care how I got there, so I got on the first bus that arrived outside the pub, and rode it to the end of the line, at Shepherd’s Bush.

Standing on the pavement as I got off the bus, deep in conversation, was a man wearing a bright red and green T-shirt with the words ‘Burkina Faso’ emblazoned across it. Oho, I thought. My luck is starting to change.

Then the doubts set in. The conversation went on quite a long time. By this stage, I was leaning against a wall, pretending to read a newspaper (Yes! Like a spy would!). I was pretty sure that I’d lost the ability to go up to someone in the street – even someone advertising their homeland so openly – and ask them to talk to me about their life. What would Horne do, I wondered. Horne wouldn’t be so cowardly. He’d just bloody well go up there and say hello. The two men shook hands. Now’s my chance, I thought. But then they realised they were going the same way (always a fun bit of street theatre to watch), so set off away from me, still chatting. I tailed them. The feeling-like-a-spy part of my brain was giving me extra confidence. They stopped at a bus stop. Oh no! I thought. What if he gets on a bus? Do I get on as well? Isn’t that a bit weird?

His friend got on a bus. The man in the shirt turned back down the street and started walking towards me. I gripped my atlas.

“Hello?” I said. “Are you from Burkina Faso?”

It was fine. He laughed when I told him I was a writer. “This is a day of writers, for me. You’re the third writer I’ve met. I’m looking for someone to help write my biography.” I explained that I was very interested in his biography. We went into an internet café and I bought him a hot chocolate.

Doundosy came to London about six years ago, to study English. He’d done an English A-Level, and was pretty confident reading and writing, but needed to improve in order to get accepted onto a Law degree. “I was really keen to study Human Rights Law, in particular,” he said. “It’s a good thing to do, I think, to try to help people who are in trouble.” But then, as so often happens in the stories that we hear, events intervened. “I met my wife,” says Doundosy, and his eyes light up. “It was a shock! We got married in 2004, a posh wedding in Fulham Town Hall, and now we live in West Kensington. I think my plans have changed, and I’ll be staying here now.”

But Doundosy is now going back to something he used to do in Burkina Faso – music. “In 2001 I had a hit in Burkina Faso. I’m a singer and songwriter, and wrote a song called ‘Etrangers’ – I was inspired by watching lots of news on the television about the abuse by citizens of one country against the foreigners who live there. Particularly in France – we speak French in Burkina Faso, and lots of people I heard about who were in France were treated really badly. They were called sans papiers, ‘without documents’, and were imprisoned. There were lots of people struggling and I wanted to say something about it. Even here, you look around you and you think that this country was built up by foreigners. This café is owned by an Indian, foreigners have done so much, so why attack them?”

Thankfully, though, Doundosy has found London fairly welcoming. “Yes, it is a good place to stay and learn, I’ve met nice people. If you don’t like somewhere, you don’t stay, and I haven’t been home in six years, so it must be a nice place. I have a new lifestyle here, and now I have a wife, so I think I will be staying. And I would recommend it as well, if you are ambitious and focussed, London has all to give to you. You can get your future sorted, but you have to be strong and willing to achieve it.”

Doundosy has certainly been busy. As well as spending time in the studio recording his new album (“I use an instrument called a sikassaka – it’s like a round maraca, a percussion instrument”) he’s been working as a translator in the local police station, putting his new-found confidence in English, his French, and a number of African languages to good use. He’s also worked in security and as a ticket collector, but music is where his heart is. He’s currently in the middle of creating his own website (keep checking back as he plans to finish it in October), and you can even see him performing one of his songs on YouTube here. If there’s a live show soon, I’ll be in the front row.

No.136: Mozambique

Bending the Rules

Alex Horne – 13th September 2007

Strictly speaking, Helder is ineligible for our project because he currently lives just outside London’s vague borders. But what’s the point of speaking strictly when you’re having so much fun with a self-regulated endeavour and have just spent a joyful hour being hugely entertained by a talented and occasionally dancing stranger from Mozambique?

Well, you might say, surely the whole point is lost if even one of your countries is unrepresented in London? Good point. But worry not (and chill out a bit, everything’s ok) for Helder knows a couple of Mozambiquanos (yes, that’s the correct word, despite what Microsoft spellchecker is telling me) who do actually live in London and who he’s going to introduce me to in the next week or two. But for now, I want to write about Helder because Helder gave me coffee and biscuits and is a musician. I’m sure I’ve already mentioned that I’m in constant awe, occasionally spilling over into envy, of musicians. I’d love to be a musician. And this one told me I still could – he said anyone can, it’s never too late – so now I’m an enormous fan of Helder.

And anyway, Helder has lived in London for nine years (dwelling in Golders Green, Willesden Green, Hendon and High Barnet before realising his dream of living in the countryside and moving to Datchet, a stone’s throw from the London Borough of Hillingdon and just 20 miles from Charing Cross and so closer to the centre of London than places like Cranham that is officially in London, located as it is in the London Borough of Havering...), so for me, his story and opinions are as valid as anyone’s and a lot more valid than mine (Chesham is four miles even further out of town than Datchet and I was only a Londoner for six years).

I was given his number by another musician (and, therefore, object of my awe/envy) called Joe who I grew up with back in Sussex. Joe had told me Helder no longer lives in London but I gave him a call anyway, intending to ask if he could help me out with a more London-based Mozambiquano, only to be foiled by a torrent of hospitality that resulted in me neither mentioning our crucial London rule nor turning down an invite to his home. So now, a couple of days later, I was warmly welcomed into a splendid house filled with the unlikely combination of tranquillity and drums. ‘I’m a percussionist’, he shouted from the kitchen as I wandered into the living room, ‘I also play a little bit guitar and piano but not enough for my musical conception’. ‘Fair enough’, I shouted back.

Helder encouraged me to make myself at home on the settee by the coffee table where a joystick was burning while he produced the coffee and biscuits and whistled (‘I have music 24 hours in my head. My wife sometimes says ‘please, give me a break’, he told me with a smile broad enough to signify that this wasn’t really the cause of any actual marital strife). Not just any coffee and biscuits either, coffee painstakingly prepared with boiled milk (‘my grandfather used to say never to mix something boiled with something not boiled’, he explained. ‘He also said never mix tomatoes with lemons…’) and biscuits (charmingly pronounced ‘biscwits’) in the form of four (Yes! Four!) hobnobs. I was a happy guest.

‘Now’, Helder began after finally joining me on the couch. ‘I will tell you a superficial history of Mozambique then something a little deeper – if that’s ok?’ I nodded, sipped my coffee, nibbled a biscwit and listened. But then his wife came home early and we both spent quite a long time saying hello to her instead (she is from Germany, by the way, and, specifically Bavaria – a place which, like Guernsey, French Canada and Palestine, many of its inhabitants insist is a country, despite not appearing on our list).

‘So’, Helder began again when the atmosphere of calm was restored. ‘My family and I left Mozambique when I was fifteen and, like a lot of people, we went to Portugal. I lived there for eighteen years and then came here. I’ve never been back to Mozambique.’

‘Did you come here for the music?’ I asked, thinking that I sounded pretty cool. ‘Yes’, he replied before pausing. ‘…also, to be honest with you, in my country it’s very multicultural, we have influences from everywhere – Greece, Turkey, South America, everywhere – but mainly from Asia. And I think we identify ourselves a little bit with oriental philosophy, the oldest philosophy; our way to see life is quite profound. And so I think I left Portugal not just for the music but to try to find a place for my roots. And now I’m quite happy here because I’ve met lots of people with the same beliefs and foundations as me. And yes, some of them are English too.’

I drew breath. It seemed we’d skipped the superficial history bit and were going straight for the deeper stuff. That was fine with me. I’d got my biscwits and, to be honest as well, Joe had hinted Helder had some fairly weighty things to say and I was looking forward to a bit of philosophy. After learning rather a lot of sometimes trivial facts about the 135 countries we’d already met, I was ready to tackle some less tangible sentiments. And Helder was happy to oblige.

‘I try to understand life in a very profound way’, he continued. ‘Most people try to understand it in a very superficial way which doesn’t really help to make it better. The thing is, London is a very old town and in any old town I believe lots of things have happened and certain developments have happened a long time ago with the people who were born here. In this place, for a long time, they have tried to experience things here. I had an opportunity to move to Florida instead of here, but I didn’t take the invitation seriously.’ I nodded. It might not have been clear but I thought I could see his point.

He moved on to still deeper matters. ‘We believe in a spiritual journey and reincarnation – that makes sense for me; transmigration from body to body as evolution. So I didn’t go to America. The history here is much longer and my connection with other cultures started a long time ago.’ Again I nodded. This was the first time someone had thrown reincarnation into the immigration debate and it seemed to me to be rather a powerful point. According to Helder, when you die you move from one body to another, so whatever nationality you happen to be now is irrelevant considering you may well have been from a different continent before that and another one before that.

Helder went on to express further, more practical doubts about the issue of nationalism: ‘We all have a tendency to tell people, ‘I’m Brazilian’ or ‘I’m English’, but this is all our planet, where – as soon as we do the right thing and actually cooperate – anywhere is the right place to be. My father was educated by a Hindu man who said your place is anywhere in the world where you feel you’ve found your position. He was right. We are citizens of the same planet. I don’t have national pride – I think that’s wrong. For me it’s just the next starting point’.

I drew another breath. Helder smiled. I did too. I told him I understood where he was coming from (in the short term) but thought it might be hard, in practise, to factor this belief, this philosophy (‘it’s not a religion’, he insisted) into immigration legislation. He agreed but pointed out that, setting rules and regulations to one side, London seemed to be an ideal example of ‘the next starting point’ for an awful lot of people.

I was feeling pretty thoughtful by now and, as if in some drug-induced trance, meditated for a while on what a fantastic notion it might be if someone from every single country in the world had indeed come to London to start again and how the city was in turn blurring the very idea of nationality. But then I reached for another hobnob and realised that whilst still being peckish I had in fact exhausted my capacity for deep contemplation.

I asked Helder to tell me about music instead. Again, he was more than happy to oblige.

Helder’s dad was a tango champion but didn’t have access to musical instruments as a child. He therefore supported his son’s talent as soon as it became evident, helping Helder to start playing professionally when he was nineteen years old. Now forty eight, he told me he still has the enthusiasm he had then before proving it by scrambling around for a CD he’d recently recorded with the German saxophonist Ingrid Lanbrook, grabbing a series of drums and playing along. I watched in wonder.

After getting some miraculous noises out of something called an Ibo drum (which, in my hands, was simply a vase) he then stepped up to his beloved bongos and started to demonstrate how he’d become a better drummer when he’d learned to dance. I was just a tiny bit worried I’d have to join in but Helder seemed content to throw himself into the music while I sat on the sofa with my cup, saucer and notepad, feeling more British than at any other time during the project or my life.

But I wasn’t uncomfortable or embarrassed. This may well sound like an excruciatingly awkward situation but I was loving it. Helder was brilliant and when it was time to go I felt the same remorse as when you unexpectedly lose a bit of your twix. ‘I was enjoying that’, I thought, ‘but now it’s gone’. Thankfully, before I left he gave me the number of a man called Rey from Cuba – ‘one of the best double bass players there is’ – so I’m hoping there’ll be more to come. I really am in awe of musicians.

‘I believe in one thing’, he said as I headed back to my car, ‘and that’s nature’. I said thank you, waved and drove back round the edge of London to Chesham. I didn’t need to write down this final thought. I’d already scribbled the words ‘force of nature’ while he was talking and then underlined them when he was playing. I wouldn't forget.

No.135: San Marino

You Phoned My Wife!

Alex Horne – 13th September 2007

Whilst England were beating Russia 3-0 at Wembley last night, 600 people were in Cyprus’ national stadium watching their side beat San Marino by the same score-line. But their victory wasn’t greeted with quite as much hysteria over there as ours was over here, partly because the British press is, frankly, hysterical, but mainly because San Marino is the fourth smallest country in the world with a population of just 28,880 whose national team has only ever won one match; a 1-0 thrashing of Liechtenstein in a friendly in 2004. Andy Selva, San Marino’s top scorer and greatest ever player, got the crucial goal.


Apart from our football team’s performance, yesterday was a fairly unsuccessful day for us. Owen walked around most of London only to find himself thwarted at every turn while I failed to add to my, admittedly impressive, weekly score of four. I did, however, line up the target for today that, if hit, would easily be worth a day’s wandering.

I have to thank Philippe here again too, without whom our total would be even smaller and our deficit even bigger. He’d given us another fairly cryptic clue about a man, from San Marino, who used to run a café near London Bridge three years ago. ‘Be extremely diplomatic’, he warned, ‘Walter didn’t appreciate that the San Marino government gave me his details.’ And there you have the subtle difference between our project and Philippe’s. We’re not allowed to go through governments. But we are allowed to get hints from people who have.

And I have to say that I’m enjoying the treasure-trail element of our quest that Philippe’s pointers provide. Even though we’ve only actually attempted to find a handful of his own participants, it’s still interesting and telling to see how many of those have moved on in the few years since he tracked them down. Walter’s café by HMS Belfast, Owen and I discovered, was now no more, replaced, fairly recently, by an enormous café called ‘Over The Moon’ which I most certainly was not. Disheartened but hungry, we took the opportunity to buy a baked potato from a much cheaper vendor and plotted what we’d do next on this fruitless afternoon.

As well as the address, however, Philippe had also given a phone number which I rang, presuming it was the café’s old number and hoping to at least be told what had happened to the San Marino guy’s place. A lady answered. ‘Sorry’, I said. Not what you should say when you first pick up a phone. ‘You don’t happen to know what happened to Walter do you?’ I continued. It wasn’t getting any better as an opening to a phone conversation.

‘I’m his wife’, came the reply in a slightly shocked, slightly cross tone. ‘Oh!’ I said, trying to sound apologetic whilst I was actually thrilled to be one step closer to someone from San Marino. ‘I thought this was his café’s number. I’m near London Bridge. I’m trying to find his café. But it’s gone!’

‘Oh yes’, replied Mrs Walter, much calmer now. ‘It’s moved to Old Cavendish Street.’ ‘It has?’ I asked unnecessarily, ‘that’s great – thank you!’ and hung up before she said too much and Walter would be cross with her for giving away his details this time.

Later that afternoon, at around half past four, I located the café. I was sure it was the one. It had to be the one. But it was closed.

Luckily it was about 800 metres from my brothers’ flat where I was to watch the football match that night and sleep on a sofa. So, at half eight the next morning I set off, slightly stiffly, with my older brother Mat; him to work, me to finally meet a man from San Marino. And what a meeting it was!It was open this time, of course (and of course it was shut at half four, I should know how London cafes work by now). I started by ordering a generous breakfast for myself. Not because I was being greedy, you understand, but to ingratiate myself with Walter. I then introduced myself to the slightly surly man behind the counter who looked pretty much exactly how I’d expected.

‘No, I’m not Walter’, he said, in a distinctly English accent. ‘He’ll be back in a minute’. ‘Good, thank you!’ I said, almost unruffled, and sat down with my coffee.

Exactly a minute later, my sausage sandwich and San Marino man arrived – I didn’t know where to look. I was over-excited on both counts. I explained the situation as quickly as I could, he said, ‘Ah, did you phone my wife?’, I said, ‘Yes’, he grinned, thumped me on the back and said, ‘Come on, let’s sit outside, I can’t smoke in here’.

It wasn’t a busy morning at the café. Walter and I sat at one of the two tables outside on what was surely one of the last warm mornings of the year and he told me all about his life. I gobbled up my food and scribbled down the odd note, not wanting to ruin things by looking too much like a journalist.

He told me, with the glintiest of glints in his eye, that he’d been here for forty years. I told him how pleased I was to meet him. ‘There must be more of us in London!’ he cried. ‘Where?’ I cried back. ‘I dunno!’ he laughed.

He told me he’d moved to Rimini in his twenties and still has a little flat there that he rents out. ‘Come and see me’, he insisted, ‘we’ll do a deal!’ We’ve been tempted to visit many of the places we’ve found so far, but this was the first time I started thinking seriously about when I’d be free to make the trip.

Travel for him has never been easy thanks to his rare status as a San Marino citizen. ‘I went to New York, but they’d never heard of my country. I had to wait at the airport for an hour, then another hour, it was ridiculous. But I never want to lose my residency because it’s an amazing place. There’s no tax. When I eventually sell this café and move home, if I want a job and a flat the government will give it to me.’ I told him he’s a lucky man. ‘I know’, he replied. ‘Someone tried to get me to get him a property using my passport before, an Italian guy – but I wouldn’t do it. It’s too risky. But everyone wants to live there. It’s great. When it comes to voting, they pay for me to fly home and do it. They pay for my accommodation too – so I go and stay with my mum and spend the money!’

Even the Italians themselves love it, he told me, because petrol and alcohol are cheaper, and the whole surrounding area benefits from the tourism. The Most Serene Republic Of San Marino, to give it its full name, really does sound too good to be true. ‘And why isn’t it part of Italy?’ I asked. ‘Oh’, he sighed, ‘it’s a long story’.

Indeed it is. But a good one. It was officially founded as a republic on September 3 301, after a man called Marino fled to Mount Titano, site of the country today, having been persecuted in Rimini because of his Christian sermons. By the middle of the fifth century a community had formed on the mountain and continued to thrive autonomously until being recognized as an independent state by the Pope in 1631. Two centuries later, Napoleon declined to take over the country, commenting, ‘Why, it’s a model republic!’ During World War II San Marino was then protected by the Americans, who themselves had a distinct soft spot for the tiny republic; Abraham Lincoln, himself an honorary citizen of San Marino, once wrote that ‘the republic proves that government founded on republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring’. He was right.

When I got home I told Rachel about Walter’s proposition. To my delight she was as excited as me. It sounds like an extraordinary place to visit. And an even more incredible place in which to be born. So if Helder from Mozambique is right and we are all reincarnated, I'd be over the moon to be the one in every two hundred thousand people who happens to start their life there.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

No.134: Yemen

Full story to follow...

Alex Horne - 11th September 2007

On my birthday entry I mentioned that I was following up a lead for a friend of a friend I'd met at that friend's wedding. I finally tied up that loose end today. And actually, that original, now married friend is a guy called Day (yes, Day) who actually inspired this whole thing and who Owen and I are incredibly grateful to. And that friend of his is a guy called James who I would now count as a friend too. Good. He works for the foreign office (usually in Syria) and gave me the number of someone who works for a charity called the Amal Trust, whom he'd met at the British Embassy some time ago.

Unfortunately I didn't say all that when I first spoke to Samia on the phone. I just said, 'Hello. I'm a friend of James. Can I meet you?' after which she was justifiably suspicious. Thankfully when I phoned back later with more details of my alleged friendship she kindly agreed to meet me outside Bayswater station after her work the next day.

Samia has been in London for twelve years now and is a lot more streetwise than me. Keen not to take up too much of her time I started our chat on the street by the station entrance. 'Shall we sit down somewhere?' she suggested sensibly. 'Erm... well... I don't want to hold you up...' I spluttered. 'Let's just go to MacDonalds', she said. So we did, and sat down at a table downstairs WITHOUT BUYING ANYTHING. 'Brilliant', I thought. 'Good decision'.

'I consider London my home now', she said during the very comfortable conversation that followed. Her family all came over together in 1995, her parents to work, herself to learn English, and after studying in Eastbourne she's been in London ever since.

Monday, 10 September 2007

No.s 131, 132 & 133: Kenya, Equatorial Guinea and Jordan

Happy Birthday

Alex Horne – 10th September 2007

It’s my birthday today. But also, we’ve got six weeks and two days to find 62 people who’ve moved to London from, I suppose, the hardest to find countries in the world. So instead of a relaxing day, wallowing in my new-found twenty-nine-ness, I gratefully accepted a lift into town with Rachel and set off from the BBC at 8am, a whole day ahead of me, determined to make some sort of dent in our monstrous target.

I had several sketchy plans. Unfortunately, the well of people contacting us has now all but dried up, so instead I was following up leads offered by our French photographer Phillippe, a friend of a friend I met at a wedding and my own brief investigation on the internet over the weekend.

But first, a trip to Willesden to chase a man I really should have found several weeks ago when I still lived a mile away from his auto-electrical shop. Back in January the radio on my car finally gave up. Whilst he installed a new (and excellent despite its very reasonable price-tag) model, I asked the engineer (I guess that’s the term) where he was from – presuming, I have to admit, India.

‘I’m from Kenya’, he replied. ‘My family was originally from India but, like a lot of people from Asia, they came to Africa at the beginning of the century…’ ‘Cool’, I said, doing my best to hide my excitement. I had something incredibly important (I expect) that I had to rush off to do so didn’t mention the project just yet. I’d be back.

Of course I wasn’t back until today. I’m not sure why not. I guess we thought we’d stumble across a Kenyan anyway so were fairly relaxed about the country. And anyway, up until Edinburgh in August we felt like we had ages to find everyone.

But we didn’t stumble across anyone from Kenya in the meantime and so at 9am, after what was now a two hour journey from home, I got off the tube at Dollis Hill (Where? Yes! Dollis Hill! It’s next to Willesden Green on the Jubilee Line) and walked round the corner to find Neasdon Electronics… shut.

Mmm. Frustrating. I retreated to a café, ordered a sausage sandwich (it is my birthday) and waited.

Half an hour later I returned. It was open! Wonderful news! I burst in, Iqbal (the manager) sort of remembered me, and just about agreed to be involved. He didn’t have long but explained that he had arrived in London in 1978 and that he very much liked it here. I got excited at the mere mention of 1978 – ‘that’s when I was born!’ I exclaimed, thrilled that he’d been here exactly the same length of time that I’d been alive. Perhaps it actually was exactly the same length of time - perhaps it was his anniversary too, I thought. ‘What month did you arrive?’ I pressed.

‘Oh no’, he replied after a little think. ‘It was 1977. December 1977’. ‘That’s fine!’ I said. ‘Fine. It’s my birthday today. So I guess you arrived here pretty much when I was conceived…’

Yes, it was an odd thing to say and one that signalled the end of our chat. Still, at this stage it’s all about the numbers. And I was more than happy to return to the good old days of ‘in and out’, grab a nationality and move on. So move on I did…

…back down the Jubilee like to Bond Street, out and round the corner to Brook Street, the uber-trendy side of Oxford Street, and the location of Royal Jordanian Airlines’ London office. Or at least that’s what I thought – that’s what I’d scribbled down in my folder after I’d had a brainwave on Saturday, found their website, and generally felt pretty pleased with myself.

Luckily, the phone number I’d scrawled was actually still correct. ‘Oh no, we’ve moved to Hammersmith’, I was told. ‘Fine’, I said. ‘It’s my birthday!’ ‘Happy Birthday’, they said, ‘But we’re still in Hammersmith’. ‘Fine’, I said again, ‘thanks for your help’. Grrr, I thought (a much easier sound to write and think than actually make).

Still, as I kept telling people, it was my birthday so I held my chin up high – well, returned it to its normal height - and pressed on with what I was determined would be a Good Day.

This, of course, worked.

Phillippe, our fellow nationality collector, had given us the address and phone number of a man from Equitorial Guinea called Oscar. He said we had to meet him. Initially, however, we were quite keen to find our people ourselves and not rely on tip-offs, although we were, of course, extremely grateful. But with the year slipping away we couldn’t afford such ambition.

Oscar, Phillippe had told us, worked in Sutton, in a bag-shop, a short walk down the hill from the station. This represented yet another lengthy journey but it was still early and remember, I was determined.

Both sensibly and luckily, I decided to call Oscar first to check he was working that day. He wasn’t. ‘I’m in central London’, he cried (I think he was on a windy street), ‘I can meet you in Westminster at 12 O’Clock!’ ‘Brilliant, see you then!’ I shouted back (thinking he was on a windy street). Things were back on track.

I now had an hour to kill so checked up a couple of other leads on the internet (quick London tip – if you’re in central London and need the internet for a few minutes, try the Apple Store on Regent Street – plenty of computers to ‘test’, all connected to the internet. Not sure how ethical that is, but it’s certainly a useful place to know) then headed back to the Jubilee Line and down to Westminster.

Oscar was waiting for me. ‘Quick’, he said, bustling me along the street, ‘we have to go this way.’ ‘Do we?’ I asked, reasonably enough. ‘Yes, I also have another appointment at 12 O’Clock, with someone else from Equatorial Guinea. I thought you could meet us both!’ ‘Great’ I said, and off we went.

Oscar, I found out as we marched alongside the Houses of Parliament, is 37 years old. In fact, most of what I learned about him and his journey here were gleaned on our five minute walk which unfortunately meant I was desperately trying to remember the facts, whilst asking pertinent questions, whilst wondering where exactly we were going. Still, it was my birthday…

He’s been in London for five years having been born in a tiny village called Mbini and grown up in the capital, Malabo. As well as working in the bag shop in Sutton, a job he hopes to move on from soon, he’s also Secretary of the Equatorial Guinea Community in the UK, a title I would not forget thanks to the colourful card (not of the birthday variety, but still a card) he presented me with as we neared our destination.

‘Are you free on October 12th?’ he asked me. ‘Well, I expect so’, I said (I’m not, it turns out, but Owen is). ‘Well, it’s the thirty ninth anniversary of our country’s independence’, he explained eagerly, ‘and I’m organising the party. There’ll be food and dancing and loads more people from Equatorial Guinea…’ ‘Any other nationalities, do you think, Oscar?’ I lobbied, a little cheekily. ‘Well yes! Our neighbours from Gabon and Sao Tome should be –’ ‘We’ll be there!’ I exclaimed. Good. Anniversaries our good.

By now we were entering the offices of DEFRA, the governmental Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs where Oscar’s friend works. We caught our breath, had a glass of free and, I’m sure, exceptionally clean and organic water, and I jotted down as much as I could remember of our chat so far before asking Oscar why he came to London in the first place.

‘Most people to go Spain’, he said. ‘We speak Spanish so it’s much easier. Those who come to the UK come for more opportunities or to improve their English. That’s why I came here. But also I found it difficult to stay in Spain because there’s a lot of racism. I mean, there’s racism everywhere in the world, but there’s too much in Spain.’

This was an answer I hadn’t expected, but Oscar mentioned it so matter-of-factly that it was apparent it was something he had just come to accept. His father was from Spain and Oscar himself had lived in Barcelona for fifteen years before moving to London; ‘they just don’t know about black people,’ he said, ‘but in London, it’s so mixed, it’s not a problem. Anyone can get any job.’

As if to prove his point, his friend then emerged from the DEFRA lifts and made his way towards us. ‘Do you get to go back to Equatorial Guinea often?’ I asked hurriedly, before his friend arrived – not an easy thing to do with a country as blessed in consonants as Equatorial Guinea. ‘I haven’t been back in twenty years’, he said with what looked like happy resignation. Or melancholy humour. Or something that was both sad and accepting. ‘I want to go back right now’.

The three of us then spent a lot of time shaking hands and taking pictures of each other before promising to see each other again on the twelfth if not before. As the two friends then settled down to talk (‘it’s a business meeting’, they explained a touch mysteriously), I retraced my steps, enjoying my sunny birthday weather and feeling just a tiny bit proud of the majestic parliament buildings now on my right.

An hour later I got off the tube (for the first time in my life) at Upton Park and strolled down a slightly less well-kempt street beneath the shadow of another great British structure – West Ham United’s stadium. I love football grounds – the way they dwarf everything round them; castles, full of promise and potential glory. And on a Monday like today, I love the stillness – like Willy Wonka’s factory the day before re-opening. And this is just West Ham…

I was on my way to a certain house number on a certain street round the corner from the stadium that Phillippe had given us with the instruction: “Solomon Islands: brother Jonas is a franciscan brother or something like that... Upton Park station, go to No.** __________ Avenue.... I think”.

I didn’t really have a choice. I had to go. We’d met neither monks nor Solomon Islanders thus far and our quest wasn’t going to be complete without them.

Unfortunately, therefore, the quest is still not complete.

It was the right address – I was surprised to find St Martin’s Vicarage of the Mission Parish of Plaistow exactly where Phillippe had thought it probably was – but there was no-one in. And, unlike most of the churches I’ve staked out so far, there were no contact details to be found on the walls outside. Desperate not to be thwarted, I wrote a fairly lengthy letter explaining who I was and what I wanted and stuck it through the letter box. We’ll see if anything comes of it.

Having treated myself to a hefty baked potato in one of the many West Ham themed cafes in the area, I staggered back to the tube (District Line this time) for a monstrous twenty five stop east-to-west ride landing me at my final stop, Hammersmith, where the Royal Jordanian Airlines are now located. On the way I nipped into one of Upton Park’s many ‘African Goods’ shop for a bottle of water and instinctively asked the lady behind the counter where she was from – tactfully of course.

‘I’m from Ghana’ she said. ‘Oh’, I said, trying to sound interested rather than disappointed. ‘And how are you finding London?’ ‘I’ve been here thirty eight years’, she replied. ‘I used to love it, but now it has changed so much. And it’s the government’s fault. They make it too easy for people. All these benefits. Like today, they’ve decided to give pregnant mothers money so they can buy healthy food – that’s just stupid. They’ll just spend it on chocolate and cigarettes. And it’s working people like me who have to pay for it. It’s not fair…’ I couldn’t and didn’t argue with her logic. My brief political pride diminished.

An hour later, at around half three, I entered the new and appropriately shiny Royal Jordanian Airlines building and was directed up to the sixth floor by Freddy, a friendly doorman from Grenada (again, I masked my frustration) who had hay-fever.

After my Franciscan Failure I wasn’t particularly hopeful that the busy people of this high-class airline would want or be able to help me, but I needn’t have been so pessimistic. It was my birthday and a lovely lady called Emma was more than happy to help. Intrigued by the idea she insisted we sat on a special sofa and told me, briefly but professionally, how she’d ended up here.

‘My family are Armenian,’ she began – and didn’t get much further before I excitedly told her about Erebuni, by far the best Armenian restaurant in London. She patiently listened then carried on. ‘Back in 1914 there was a genocide in Armenia so my grandmother moved with the remaining community to Jerusalem. She settled there and eventually my father met my mother and because he was working for the Trans Jordan Frontier Force (a British force working in Jordan at the time), they moved to Jordan and that’s where I was born’.

That’s a lot of information in a couple of short sentences and I decided not to interrupt with any more restaurant anecdotes.

‘Soon after, the force was disbanded’, Emma continued, ‘and he ended up working for the British Embassy. When he passed away my mother decided we should move to the UK where there would be more opportunities for the family, so in 1964 we arrived in the UK. And for the last thirty eight years I’ve worked here’.

I couldn’t have asked more a more succinct story. You could have. I realise this is one of the more sprawling entries so far. But it’s my birthday.

We chatted a little about how London has changed since the sixties and she, like nearly everyone we’ve met, stressed how much more cosmopolitan the city has become. If there is a unifying thread to what we’ve been told, it’s got to be this growing cosmopolitanism. Which, apart from anything, is an encouraging thought at this sharp end of the project.

After promising to give Jordan some thought for a future holiday destination (‘people are scared of going because of the geographical location, but there’s no political instability there and there are an awful lot of sites to visit – we’ve got Petra too, the new wonder of the world!’ said Emma, professional as always), I got back in the shiny lift, said goodbye to a wheezing Freddy and took the bus back up to White City, completing an enormous and rewarding irregular hexagon of a journey round London, before meeting my wife and returning to Chesham for a slightly less cosmopolitan (but still lovely) birthday evening outside the big city.

Friday, 7 September 2007

No.130: Comoros

L’îsle Oublié

Alex Horne – 7th September 2007

‘We’re the forgotten island’ were the first words Dalila said to me after we’d met outside Kentish Town tube station; me, hungover after my early birthday party; her, keen to remind people about where she’s from, however much they’d drunk the night before.

To be honest, it wasn’t even a case of not remembering Comoros for me, despite my dozy morning-after-an-evening-in-the-Windsor-Castle (just off Edgware Road, currently my favourite London pub) state. I’d never even heard of Comoros. At least I didn’t think I had. Comoros… Comoros… No, I was pretty sure I’d never come across Comoros in my life.

I held my head in shame. And pain.

Dalila – and yes, it’s a cracking name; I told her so, she told me it was a traditional, somewhat old fashioned North African name and that she liked it to – had just turned 29. I will turn 29 in three days time (I hope to have recovered enough by then to celebrate all over again). I think we’re the closest in age of anyone I’ve met so far. And it is quite funny to meet someone the same age as you who’s from a county you’re not even aware of. I’d thought I was so wise. Obviously not.

‘The thing is’, she began, ‘we’re one of the most indebted countries in the world and our government isn’t very proactive when it comes to tourism. We have a sad record’, she continued, obviously keen to now brand Comoros on my addled mind, ‘which is that we’ve had nineteen coups d’état (no idea where the ‘s’ goes there, just as I’ve no idea if the title is actually French for forgotten island) in the last twenty two years.’ That’s quite a statistic. Nineteen coups! I’ve seen none in my lifetime! Nineteen! That’s loads! And because I said those exclamations as well as writing them here, Dalila did her best to explain why there’d been so many (even handing out wikipedia notes at the end of our chat to make sure I’d understood).

It goes something like this. Comoros is made up of four islands located off the eastern coast of Africa between Madagascar and northern Mozambique. It gained independence from France in 1975 although one of the islands, Mayotte, voted in favour of French rule and is therefore still now officially part of France.

Her island, Anjouan, is perhaps the most contentious of the other three. ‘We have issues with the other islands about where the capital city is’, she said. ‘It’s officially Moroni so all the aid goes there. That’s not particularly fair so in 1995 we decided to have a cessation and got our own government. For the next seven years there were loads of problems and embargoes until a treaty in December 2001 eventually installed the Constitution of the Union of the Comoros which basically meant there’s a federal government on each island’.

But that’s not quite it. Six months ago her own island’s president decided that he wasn’t going to stand down at the end of his term so the central government is now keen to take action against Anjouan. Bearing in mind there are only 200,000 people livng on Anjouan, it’s quite a strange, some might even say farcical situation.

‘Have you ever seen it on the news over here?’ I asked, wondering how I’d missed this political soap opera. ‘Twice’, she said definitively, ‘but only because of Bob Denard. He’s our real bête noir’. Unfortunately I thought she’s said Bob Dylan so by now was utterly lost.

If you want the full story, have a look at wikipedia for yourself, but I’m sure even that will leave you fairly confused. It seems this guy Bob was a mercenary who, for more than twenty years, was apparently paid by the French government (bearing in mind this is all according to wikipedia) to remove presidents from office and replace them with other people who were in turn ousted by opposing factions. As far as I can tell, this happened on at least five occasions with at least a couple of people dying in the process. I think the fact that he’s called Bob made it all a bit too surreal for me, especially the day after the night before and all that.

‘He was on trial in France recently’, said Dalila when we’d reached the end of the unlikely story. ‘But he got off because he was deemed too old’. ‘Deemed too Bob’ I thought, but I didn’t say it because I don’t think it would have made any sense.

The setting for this rather late geography and history lesson was an unfeasibly low-ceilinged mezzanine in an Italian café called Tolli opposite the station. And I should probably mention that about ten minutes into our chat we were joined by Mali (the third person we’ve met with a country for a name), a journalist from Canada who wanted to do a story about our story and this story in particular. Mali is from Montreal. She therefore speaks French (and was in fact keen for us to include French Canada in our list of Countries That Are Countries Despite the UN Not Thinking So considering their constant struggle for independence – I said I’d think about it). Comoros is another French speaking country (there, I’ve thought about it and have indeed granted country status on French Canada) so there were quite a few rather odd minutes while these two strangers from different continents spoke in a language native to another country in another continent which just happened to be located a matter of miles from this particular non-French speaking stranger’s home.

Congratulations on getting through that quagmire of a paragraph.

Dalila was now faced with two people who knew nothing about Comoros scribbling her words into notepads. Luckily, keen to shake off her country’s forgotten status, Dalila saw this as an opportunity rather than an imposition. She told us she’d actually grown up in France ‘like most people from Comoros’ and Mali and I wrote it down. We also noted that her grandparents and dad still live on the islands and that Dalila visits every few years ‘but it’s a nightmare to get to. You have to fly to Sana’a in Yemen and take a rubbish plane from there.’ ‘How much does it cost?’ asked Mali. ‘£1000’, said Dalila. ‘Wow’, gasped the two stenographers.

‘So why did you come to the UK?’ asked Mali next, by now with a tight grip on the interview reins. I was happy to be a passenger, reassured that an actual journalist was asking one of the questions I’ve tended to pose over the last ten months. ‘Well, the situation in France is obviously ridiculous at the moment’, answered Dalila. Mali nodded. I didn’t. I wasn’t really aware of an obviously ridiculous situation in France at the moment. But I wasn’t going to let them know that.

‘The racial tensions?’ prompted Mali. ‘Yeah’, agreed Dalila and I made some sort of noise to indicate both disgust, knowledge of the situation and the fact that I was still at the table. ‘It’s all over France’, she continued. ‘You just can’t get work if you’re black. There’s no way I could get the sort of job I’ve got over here over there’.

‘Really?’ I suddenly blurted out, ‘because of your race?’ I think I’d surprised myself with how shocked I was. I knew racism was prevalent across Europe from hearing and reading about the abuse hurled from football terraces as well as what people like Mohamed from Guinea had told us earlier in the year, but I suppose I’d never met anyone whom it had so directly affected.

‘Oh yes’, said both Mali and Dalila. ‘It’s impossible’, the latter continued. ‘I couldn’t find a temp job all summer in France, then I came here and landed a permanent job within a week. From then on I wasn’t even thinking about going back there. I told my two brothers what had happened and now they’re over here too’.

‘I now work for a charity called Parent Line Plus’, said Dalila with pride. Her job title is Operations and Quality Assurance Officer and I know that’s accurate because Mali is a proper journalist who made Dalila repeat any crucial details. I vowed to start doing things like that too.

‘What do you like about London?’ was the reporter’s next question and Dalila gave the same answer I’d given to Mali when she’d asked Owen and I what people like about the city the day before – ‘it’s so comospolitan.’ It’s true. It’s a defining characteristic of London and one that continues to attract people, despite the negative press it (often referred to more crudely as ‘immigration’) often gets. ‘People don’t look at you here. You can dress how you want. On the tube in France everyone looks at everyone – their clothes, shoes, the way you speak. Here you can dress how you want.’

‘And what do you miss?’ asked Mali – another classic question. ‘Well, the fact that it is forgotten does make it an amazing place to go to get away from things’, replied Dalila, thus ever so slightly weakening her petition for people to remember her homeland. ‘You’re away from everything else in the world. Calling abroad is extortionate and the internet doesn’t usually work. They now have French channels on TV but I go there to escape so I don’t watch them either. I love it. There’s no pollution, no tourists.’

‘It sounds great’, I said, my first words for quite some time now.

‘Yes. And there is potential for tourism’, agreed Dalila. ‘But only if it’s done the right away. Ecotourism – that’s where it’s at. In fact I’ve bought some land myself there recently. One day I hope to return and maybe start a hotel…’

I guess she does want some people to remember Comoros, but not everyone, and I think that’s fair enough. For now, I’m just grateful to have caught her before it’s too late. She won’t be in London for long; ‘I won’t be going back home for a little while but right now I’m moving to Luton’, she said. ‘I live in Stratford and it’s a nightmare with the Olympics. All the prices are going up – not just houses, but everyday things. So in November I’m off to Luton – I can still get to work on the Thameslink and I’ll be able to fly back to my family in Paris whenever I want.’ And whenever they start doing flights from Luton to Comoros, she’ll be in pole position for a slightly quicker journey home.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

No.129: Brunei Darussalam

Full story to follow ...

Owen Powell - 6th September 2007

Anismah has been working in London for four years, at the Dorchester Hotel. She also lived in Paris for a while, and prefers London as the people dress more sloppily, and you can see that they're being themselves, not posing.

No.128: Grenada

Full story to follow...

Alex Horne – 6th September 2007

With less than two months to go, we’re now in the nitty gritty of the project. And when you’re in the nitty gritty of a project it’s always good to know someone like Jim. Jim was in his last year at university when I was in my first. I looked up to him. He was a bigger boy. And an enormous QPR fan. He now works for the new Wembley (alongside the managing director, a man coincidentally called Alex Horne – something people seem to find inordinately amusing).

Jim knows a lot of people. He put in me in touch with Royan. Royan’s from Grenada. Royan and Jim play cricket together.

‘Yeah, Jim came down to the Caribbean a while ago’, chuckled Royan. ‘Unfortunately it rained and rained so the tour was washed out.'

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

No.127: Montenegro

Full story to follow...

Slavic Soul

Alex Horne – 5th September 2007

Not for the first time, living in Chesham made my contribution to this London-centric project a lot easier today. There’s a tube-strike on at the moment. It’s inconvenient for everyone (including the tube-workers themselves, I expect – I’m not taking sides here).

Maja, our volunteer from Montenegro (well, her partner read about the project and actually volunteered her) works in Watford and lives in Stanmore. To get to either from almost anywhere in London during a tube-strike would take an Everest-like treck, an Inca-trail-style hike, a bit of a pain at the very least. But from Chesham, even at rush hour, it was a simple – no, a pleasant – half an hour drive. So I felt pretty smug as I turned up, ON TIME, to the Flag, a cavernous pub cleverly located alongside Watford Junction Station, to catch a quick chat with Maja before she caught her bus home.

Montenegro (anyone know the capital? Answer at the bottom of this entry – no prizes for correct answers but you can feel pretty pleased with yourself*) was certainly amongst those countries that I didn’t really know was a country before commencing our quest. I don’t feel too bad about this as it’s easily the most recent of all the UN countries, becoming an independent state in July 2006, a matter of weeks before we set our sights on 192 countries. I found it odd to think of a country being just over a year old. But then I thought it must be even odder for someone who’s actually from that country. How odd it must be to be older than your country – or to suddenly be told you’re from this place, not that place. Maja’s story certainly reflects something of that confusion.


Before we started our ‘interview’ she asked what the project was all about. A good question. I tried to explain. She was keen to know what we were going to do after we’d found all these people. What was next? To be honest, Owen and I don’t really know yet. We’re still a tiny bit worried about finding ‘all these people’. But we know we want to do something – an enormous party, a great big group hug, just massive big kick around – something. I told Maja the truth – we didn’t really have a plan yet. She said that whatever we decided she was happy to help. I thought that was very nice of her.

Just by the way, we’re currently getting a load of emails from people trying to get jobs at at Liverpool’s Capital Of Culture events. They’ve also got the slogan ‘World In One City’ – we both thought of it independently, I promise – and they’ve got the .co.uk email address while we’ve got .com. We’re forwarding on the messages but if people would like to help our more nebulous cause that would be great! (I also wonder if they’re receiving a whole load of emails from people saying ‘I’m from Tuvalu’ or ‘I know a bloke from the Marshall Islands’ – unlikely, but it would be frustrating…)

She then launched into her own story, speaking rapidly in perfect English with what she acknowledges is something approaching an Italian accent…

(Sorry, that’s all for now, will finish soon I promise…)

*It’s Podgorica.

Podgorica! I went for Montenegro City – always worth a guess but actually rarely right. The only genuine ‘Country Plus City Equals Capital’ examples are Guatemala City, Mexico City, Panama City (all Central America-ish) and Kuwait City.

Other useful tactics include:

‘Just Say The Country and Hope For The Best’ which works for Andorra (well, Andorra la Vella but close enough), Sao Tome and Principe (Sao Tome), Luxembourg (Luxembourg), Monaco (Monaco) and Singapore (Singapore).

‘Pick A Port’ – good for Benin (Porto-Novo), Mauritius (Port Louis), Haiti (Port-au-Prince), Trinidad and Tobago (Port-Of-Spain), Papua New Guinea (Port Moresby) and Vanuatu (Port Vila).

‘Select A Saint’ if it’s a small country or island around North America; Antigua and Barbuda (St John’s), Costa Rica (San Jose), Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo), El Salvador (San Salvador), Grenada (St George’s).

And then there are the following ‘Fun Ones’ which you shouldn’t have too much trouble remembering. Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Burkina Faso (Ouagadougou), North Korea (Pyongyang), United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi), Tuvalu (Funafuti) and Sri Lanka (Colombo – although that’s only the Commercial Capital – the Administrative Capital is the trickier Sri Jayawardenepura-Kotte).

Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, is just about impossible to learn.