We left London yesterday on route to Nepal. We stopped over in Doha airport where we were greeted by a pristine transit lounge packed with luxury goods and stylish if a little over-designed cafes. I stopped to drink coffee in one and couldn’t help enjoying the comfort of the large, reclining chairs, the perfectly adjusted air conditioning and the fragrant smells of cardamom and coffee. There were plenty of immaculately dressed staff ready to serve but the one that happened to come forward was a man from the plains of Nepal. He smiled as he quietly took my order. Something about him felt very familiar. I told him of my family connections with Nepal and the places I had visited there. He was amused when we discovered that I had spent time in the village where he grew up. He was young, good looking and laughed easily. The conversation moved on to the coffee he had just served me. He told me that it was made using freshly ground Arabica coffee beans and that it was stronger than European coffee. I wondered what he knew of European coffee. I was pretty sure he had never tasted any kind of coffee before coming to Qatar. I was also near certain that when the time came for him to return home, he would not miss the coffee or the pastries he served daily.
I knew enough Nepalese that had worked in Qatar to know that at some point they always returned home. They were there because it was one of the few options open to them to earn money to support their families. They lived in self-contained dormitories and did not mix much with the locals. Instead they worked hard and sent almost every penny they earned back home. Young, able-bodied men were Nepal’s biggest exports. They leave in search of work usually before marriage and then return home to marry. After marriage or after the birth of a child they leave again. Many set eyes on their children only a handful of times throughout their childhood and sometimes not at all. I wondered if the young man from the café had a wife and child or if he was saving so he could return home to find himself one. Either way Nepal was his reference.
As I boarded the plane for Kathmandu I thought about how lucky I was to be able to travel for pleasure and not because I had to. This freedom was something most of us in the West took for granted. Not that life was all bad for the Nepalese economic migrant. My Nepalese friends had many tales to tell of fun and adventure during their time working overseas. Parties and live music sessions were common and the relationships they forged during their time working overseas were formative and long lasting. The work was hard and they missed home but they sourced joy where they could. This was a habit I was still learning.
I had moving encounter in the toddlers drop in gym session today. There is something about the place that makes connecting to others easy. Maybe because it draws people from all walks of life together in one enclosed space with nothing to do but play.
She was a young mother of a beautiful girl who gracefully shared the trampoline with my daughter whilst we chatted. She spoke perfect English with an accent that I initially mistook for Italian. She was in fact Serbian although she had lived in London since she was thirteen. She was calm, eloquent and measured. We chatted about schools in the area, which led her to talk about the one she first attended when she arrived in the UK as a teenager. The experience had been quite traumatic. Almost overnight she went from being a popular, outgoing girl who was also quite rebellious to a being a quiet, bewildered teenager who craved solitude. Leaving her homeland and moving to a new country and a new school had changed her. She was still the same girl on the inside but had no one to reveal herself to so she shut down. In Belgrade she had been loud, cheeky and funny. Here she was a fish out of water. She was misunderstood and an easy target for bullies. She finally left the school and moved to another one further away. She was happier there as she was left alone. She still had no friends but at least she was given space and that gave her solace.
I asked if her parents had felt bad about bringing her to London. She laughed… “On the contrary” she said. “They had managed to get us out of Serbia during the civil war and that was something they were proud of. As far as they were concerned they had brought us to safety and given us the possibility of a better life. We were taught to be grateful and to get on with it”. She paused, “In truth they were right. They were very hard years, but not damaging in the long run. I am happy now. I have a good life and a good husband who is also from Serbia. I didn’t plan to marry a Serbian man but in the end I realised it was important to have a shared understanding of what we had been through and anyway you don’t always choose what comes your way in life.” She was gentle and wise. She told me she was from an educated family in Serbia and as such was expected to do well and go to university, which she did.
I was intrigued by how the expectations placed on us and the values we are raised with shape us. I thought of all the other economic migrants and refugees of war that weren’t so lucky. But even for the lucky ones the experience of having to make your way in a new country is not an easy one. You come with no entitlements. Your old identity must be left behind and everything constructed anew. My mind turned to my own husband who is still constructing his new identity ten years on. In Nepal he was a pop star, a lead singer in a band. When he goes back he still is but with the added kudos of living in the West and having an English wife. His identity is there. Here in London he is simply Nepalese and he doesn’t care. Here he is raising his kids, giving them the education he never had, earning money to support his family and waiting to one day go home. I wasn’t sure that the mother from Belgrade felt the same way. She didn’t completely belong here but she had been here too long to call Serbia her home. Her children would have a different story to tell.
She stood out. Not because she was noisy or wearing bright colours but because she was so still and calm.
She was sitting on the floor in a drop in gym session for toddlers. It was busy and as usual the mums were following their kids around, joining in the jumping, rolling and swinging or chatting to each other and checking their phones. No one was still. No one was just watching. But she was sitting calmly, hands by her side, hardly moving and just looking. She didn’t shift her gaze, reach for her phone or get involved with the little girl she was with. And yet there was something about her that felt totally engaged. The little girl was happy. She was enjoying throwing herself over the elastic ropes. She didn’t check to see if she was being watched, she didn’t call out ‘look at me’. She was focused on what she was doing and she couldn’t have been more than three years old. The woman was holding the space for her and she felt it. I guessed from her age that the woman was her granny. She had something of the many mothers I knew that had raised children in the seventies in North London. Her grey hair was not neat. She wore no make up. She wasn’t trying to hide her age and she was beautiful. She had brownish yellow skin and wore a khaki waistcoat over a cheesecloth shirt and loose jeans. She looked Japanese but I reckoned that she had been here a long time, long enough to consider herself a Londoner.
She had an alert, peaceful way about her but other than that she was hard to read. I wanted to find out where she was from and what she felt about what was going on around her but wasn’t sure if she would be open to that. As it turned out though, I was wrong. She did talk. Maybe she made an exception because she could feel my interest. Anyway, it was after the session had ended. We were sitting down next to each other putting on our shoes and helping the kids do the same when she turned to me and asked me about my daughter. Her accent was strong and she spoke quietly. She told me that her daughter, the little girls mother, had gone to school locally and was now in her mid 30’s. I learnt that her daughter lived with her and worked part time. She took care of her grand daughter so her daughter could work. The little girls’ dad was Brazilian. He didn’t live with them. “Things have changed so much since we were raising children” she said. “Not everything depended on having money. It didn’t matter so much whether you had it or you didn’t and we didn’t feel so alone. Life was simpler somehow”. She smiled as if acknowledging her own nostalgia. I thought about the other women I knew of her age that had come from all over the world to north London to have kids and raise kids in an easy bohemian way. They shared common ideals and they experimented with new ways of living.
Her daughters aloneness clearly touched her but she also saw the bigger picture. Times had changed and she felt this strongly. Her offering was a steadfast commitment to her daughter and her daughter’s child and a calm unhurried presence – an attempt to keep things simple maybe? As she turned to say goodbye, I wanted to tell her that it was OK, that even though the spaces for just being were smaller and the pressures greater, people were still finding ways to connect, to nurture, to love and to create in ways that didn’t depend on money. But then again I am sure she knew that already.
I was heading out of town for a few days by train. I had some time to kill at Liverpool Street station so I went in search of a gift for my kids. I spotted a Lush store, the current favourite among my girls because of its heady mix of colours, textures and intense fragrances. I walked towards it preparing myself to be approached by an over enthusiastic sales assistant waxing lyrical about the wonders of Lush. I was slightly over its’ marketing style, which prides itself on not paying for advertising but instead invests in the power of the brand – homespun, ethical and natural. Its exponential growth is proof that this approach is working. People come out of the store feeling like they have bought a piece of something pure and good and overlook the fact that a few small bath bombs have cost over twenty quid.
As I walked in the kid behind the counter gave me a big smile. And that was it. Not a smile and then a sales chat, just a smile. He was mixed race, clean-cut, a little on the skinny side with a big easy smile. I asked about the ingredients in a bath melt. He showed me the list and pointed out that they were made with all natural stuff. He was at ease. He was giving me space, so I bought more. He agreed things were a little pricey and then disarmed me with some of his own personal tips for doing things the natural way: “A squeeze of lemon under the armpits is a wicked alternative to deodorant. I tell my friends about it and they laugh as if it is some weird jungle talk, but I am tellin’ you that stuff works and you don’t need to spend money and put all those chemicals on your body. Mother nature has the answers”. He was a twenty something year old Londoner and he took the edge off my cynicism. I left feeling like I had come across something pure and good and it wasn’t the bath melt!