University College London (UCL), 11 mai 2013: în plin iureș tabloid despre valurile de imigranți care ar da peste cap națiunea și statul britanic, UCL își propune să înțeleagă lucrurile și din perspectiva celuilalt aflat în ”culpă” – românul migrator.
Evenimentul ”Through Romanian Eyes”, despre care se pot afla detalii aici și aici, a conținut, printre altele, dezbateri pornind de la cele trei texte publicate mai jos care reprezintă mărturii ale unor românilor despre Londra. Una din aceste mărturii este preluată din volumul Tur-retur. Convorbiri despre munca în străinătate, ed. Z. Rostás & S. Stoica, București, 2006.
Publicăm, cu această ocazie, în română, întreaga poveste a ”căpșunarului intelectual” (din care, pentru evenimentul organizat de UCL a fost tradus, în engleză, doar un scurt fragment), precum și introducerea semnată de Z. Rostás pentru volumul Tur-retur.
A Romanian in London, 1840
Ion Codru Drăgușanu
Ion Codru Drăgușanu (1818-1884) was a Romanian journalist and politician from Transylvania. He travelled through Europe for more than a decade in the 1830s and 40s. Curious, well-connected and communicative, he is an engaging guide to the peculiarities of London as they appeared to a Romanian in the mid-nineteenth century.
London, September, 1840
[…] We had been told that England, being an island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, is much troubled by thick fogs, and that London, situated near the sea at the mouth of the Thames, suffers very much from this fog throughout the year, except in September, when even here the climate is tolerable. We profited by this propitious season to see this city, the hugest in Europe, in all its splendor.
[On ship.] I rose next morning rather harassed, and went out on deck to get my bearings. There was nothing to be seen but the sky, clear as could be, and the quiet green water reflecting it. The helmsman spoke French. I approached him and asked him one or two questions. With much more affability than I expected from an Englishman, he explained the virtues of the compass and the use of the card of the 32 winds, known well only to expert sailors; then later he showed me afar off the English coast, white and chalky, which gave the country its old name of ‘Albion’, to which the French have added the epithet ‘perfidious’. The English, quite the opposite to the French, are serious and silent. They only enjoy talking when they are given the chance of praising the institutions of their native land. Thus this man told me that England is the mother of political freedom and that, to preserve it, she owns more warships than France owns merchant ships. Then he went on to other – in my humble opinion – exaggerations.
Towards evening, as we were approaching the mouth of the Thames, we became more and more conscious of the proximity of London, where so many sorts of ships come and go that you can hardly make your way among them. On the Thames proper, we proceeded with great caution through a forest of masts and smoking funnels. At last we reached the customs. All the passengers’ belongings were tossed like balls from the steamer into dinghies, and thence were carried into the halls of the custom-house, so that I thought that we should never see them again; but these men are so methodical and practical that not a needle which you entrust to them can be lost or mislaid. […]
I was surprised that no one asked us for our passports. Our man told us that such an institution was unknown in England and was only a Continental luxury. The fact is, there is no more hateful obstacle to travelling than this document of protection, invented for profit, on which you waste unlimited time, because although every one is called upon to help you in case of need, you not only fail to obtain help, but have to support numbers of hungry consuls and agents with the price of your visa. […]
One English custom I thought queer, though later I found it was natural. On our excursions when we grew hot, Signor Sogno [his guide] invited me to a café to cool down. He gave an order, and immediately we were served with hot tea, though I was expecting after our own custom cold lemonade, orangeade or sherbet. The English are practical homeopaths; they use one nail to drive out another [i.e. ‘fight fire with fire’]. We are still beginners.
Last night I went to the Covent Garden theatre, a most splendid hall, and listened to the opera in English; but I did not like the singing at all, because my ears were irritated by such strings of monosyllables. It is said that the shortness of English words is suited to naval commands and indeed the English wonder how other nations can carry our maneuvers without the conciseness which only their own language enjoys. I suppose so, but they will never make it suitable for singing; harmony demands vowels that are sonorous and clear, not swallowed and sneezed as in their language. […]
In the English town society you cannot without scandal appear in anything but a black suit with a white tie. At Court and the houses of the leading nobility, tight breeches, silk stockings and shoes are necessary. Otherwise footwear is not very choice, for the English, far from excelling in this respect, actually wear iron heel-tips, like peasants in our country.
[…] It remains only to tell you something about English cooking. It is simple, like everything English, but abundant. Their dishes, that is to say their cooking, consist almost entirely of roasts, or I might say unroasted meat, which has been given a mere glimpse of a coal fire. Their meat is marvellous, extremely tender (they do not use horned beasts for work, and their game is kept in parks, where it grows fat), but as I say, their roasts drip with warm blood. Let him that likes, eat it; if not, he is called a Continental weakling.
Ion Codru Drăgușanu, Peregrinul Transilvan, here translated by Eric Tappe, and published with further extracts as ‘A Transylvanian Pilgrim’ in England in The Slavonic and East European Review, 26/66 (1947): 224-38. There is another translation and further extracts published as ‘A 19th-century Continental amazed by London’, on the website of the Romanian Cultural Centre London: http://www.romanianculturalcentre.org.uk/presentations/2010/01/a-19th-century-continental-amazed-by-london/
A City Seen by Two Pairs of Romanian Eyes:
London, 1840 — London, 2013
I am Cezar. I am Romanian by birth and I moved to Britain 14 years ago. When I read Codru Drăgușanu’s travel letters about London I was on a bus travelling away from London. Reading Codru’s stories about his visit to London in 1840 awoke in me pleasant reactions mixed with disagreement with some things he wrote about. I follow in Codru’s trail and see London today as a very different city. But Codru has opened my eyes to things I did not see before.
As I travel home crossing Waterloo Bridge, my face is often glued to the window of the bus to see the lit high-rise buildings at night, or the Thames’ Southbank displaying an array of shops, theatres and bars, or guides with packs of tourists during the day. These sparkles fade away quickly when I remember the homeless and some of the stories of migrants living in London. Even so, I think London is a great place to live, and I am not surprised that Codru wrote of it with such awe.
Perhaps London was different then. Perhaps Londoners used to talk with pride and joy in those days of their British institutions. They hesitate now, at least when it comes to the free NHS. It still is one of the institutions providing free healthcare in the world, but the division between the British who want it privatised and those who don’t is so great that one could say it has almost split the nation. Many remember Clement Attlee who established NHS after WWII and are angry that he did not have a publicly funded state funeral, but Margaret Thatcher who underfunded NHS did have one. I am among those Romanian-British migrants who are appalled at the thought of taking away free healthcare from the people. I have seen what privatisation did to Romanians after 1989, and I see now what NHS privatisation will bring – a £700 bed per night in a private hospital like the one I worked in. Isn’t the only reason behind the privatisation plans so that a handful of rich individuals can buy a slice of the NHS for themselves?
In 1840, the borders of England had no passport control barriers! Can you imagine that now? You would arrive at Stansted or Luton, where most migrants on ‘budget’ flights arrive, and the immigration officers would tell you, ‘just move through, we don’t check passports anymore’. Inconceivable! What is the role of London’s airport borders nowadays? The discourse of tightening UK borders includes protecting citizens against groups such as terrorists and traffickers. I see it as another way to invade citizens’ privacy and make travellers’ experiences almost impossible in obtaining visas. London is a gated global city to migrants coming by air and the rest entering the city by road who have to pay congestion charges. Are these measures really necessary to protect the political freedom of a country like Britain? But maybe little has changed. After all, as one Englishman told Codru, even then Britain was seen as the ‘mother of political freedom and protected with warships’.
Unlike in Codru’s days, when a man was ridiculed if he went out dressed in anything other than a black suit with a white tie, while the young girls wore corsets and long dresses; today London’s young men walk the streets with their trousers hanging down their near-bare bottoms, whilst girls walk in tiny skirts. It seems to me that fashion went from hiding men’s and women’s bodies in long, uncomfortable clothing to showing off as much of their bodies as possible – including parts you aren’t looking for, when out strolling in busy touristy London. When I see trendy-looking men and women going out at night and having fun, it brings me a sense of joy, but I cannot bear to look at those drunken ones, coming out of pubs or clubs after a binge drinking session, when the temperature is 0C, almost undressed, and buying chips with mayonnaise from the next kebab shop.
Since food is on the menu, for me, a gourmand, nothing beats a full English breakfast, especially after a wild night out. This is my recipe for a hangover: two eggs, sausages, fried mushrooms and tomatoes, beans, a couple of hash browns with two buttered toasts, and orange juice. It’s a killer-dealer. If you haven’t tried it, ask a Brit to show you how to make it. As Codru noted, most British cuisine is simple, but it’s worth learning from the Brits as some are master chefs in preparing this, as opposed to their ‘homeopathic’ ‘hair of the dog’ medicine – more alcohol consumed to lessen the effects of a hangover. In London, they say that if you want the best fish and chips go to a place in Shoreditch. I tried that and I was not impressed. My choice would be a small fish and chips place by the seafront. Go out of London if you want authentic fish and chips, sold not by Italians but by British who fish the fish and sell it fresh.
The events that Codru describes in his letters about London in the 1840s show that Codru was well connected in the echelons of the English aristocracy – and they seemed to have no prejudice against him. However, migrant workers travelling to work and live in London are not so fortunate. There are many Romanian migrants in London today facing stereotyping against them.
Since I have begun looking into the lives of migrant night workers, London has shown me a different face. These migrants cannot enjoy what Codru talks about in his letters. They juggle family lives with work, and often sacrifice themselves for their children or families back home in their country of origin. Some have to make desperate decisions for the sake of their children or old parents. They come here to work in jobs which are de-skilling, such as the case of doctors working as nannies or professionals who choose to work in London’s sex industry. These are tough choices. Even so, London is a place where migrants often feel more accepted than they are in their own countries.
As far as my experience as a Romanian living and working in London is concerned, I have intentionally chosen not to write about tourist attractions that London is known for the world over, the fancy shops and expensive restaurants. They are not my London. My London is this electrifying city running 24/7, with a huge and (fairly) precise network of double-decker buses and the tube, carrying millions of its inhabitants underground and overground. It is the place of the 2012 Olympics when I was a Games Maker, where I saw another face of London that I will treasure for the rest of my life. London for me is also the place where my aspirations and disappointments have made me attach a special meaning to this city that will stay deeply imprinted in my memory.
London is my home because this is where my bed and my shoes are, for now. Where is yours? Tell me about London through your eyes.
An ‘Intellectual Migrant Worker’ in London
Marius [‘Un căpşunar intelectual’]
[In the patisserie in Hampstead, in 2005] We were a lovely, lovely bunch of colleagues. The manager was French, I had a female co-worker from France, another also from France, two girls from Poland, one from the Czech Republic, a kid from Hungary, a girl and a guy from Sweden and a genius from Romania [laughs]. The girl from Poland pissed me off, one of them anyway. One of them was, she was Eva, who was lovely, a sweetie! She used to smile at me and ask: ‘Marius, want me to make you a sandwich?’ But the other one from Poland, Bogusia, spelt b-og-u-s-i-a, like that. A kind of misshapen doughball, that’s what she reminded me of anyway, she said to me: ‘So you’re from Romania? And you’re a Gypsy, right?’ No, actually she first said: ‘We’ve got Gypsies in Poland too and we hate them!’ And then: ‘But you’re a Gypsy too, right?’ So I say: ‘I’m no Gypsy. And anyway, you’re supposed to say Roma. Not Gypsy.’ That…ethnic integration thing. You know? ‘London? You understand? Lots of different ethnic groups.’ She goes ‘Yeah, yeah, but no, cos…’ And she starts taunting me, ‘Gypsy, Gypsy, can I call you Gypsy?’ And I said, ‘Listen, please, stop it, because you’re don’t realise, you don’t know what you’re saying.’ Right… so I didn’t speak to that girl any more, although everyone thought she was such a sound person. Oh yeah, and one evening she freaked out after someone said she had zits on her face. Sure she did, but like the nice guy I am, I didn’t say anything, I consoled her so she wouldn’t call me a Gypsy and take the piss out of me. And then I didn’t speak to her again. The Swedish girl, Ika was her name, had a ‘pierce’ in her lip. Really lovely, I really liked her. I was always nervous in her presence. But then I got over that feeling, because we were working together and helped each other out and we used to laugh and joke together and I used to make fun of her. And our colleague, the Swedish guy, who was gay, Benjamin. ‘How’s it going, man? Hi!’ I got on with him the best. OK, implicitly, that sounds like I’m a bit gay. But he was the only one I didn’t have to explain a single joke to. Whatever I wanted to express, I didn’t have to spell it out. Juliette, from France. Really nice! Stylish, lightly freckled, hair down over her eyes. Phnarr! [sighs]. She sang in a band. Areth, this guy, Stefan the manager… We pooled some money and bought some grass. Excellent idea! And we smoked it with these Swedish people. We smoked it on Parliament Hill. You can see London really nicely from there. And then I went to see my mother and my baptismal godmother for dinner. Oh yeah, I see I missed one out … What was that girl from the Czech Republic called? She was cool too! I don’t know. Anyway, after a month I thought I was going to get into a fight with the one from Hungary, even though that guy was bigger than me and if there were any issues he was going to thump me. He told me straight that the only Romanian word he knew was a swearword. And I told him, ‘Well, that’s progress. The idea is, you look for things you have in common’.
[…] You see them in restaurants… They work all year to blow it all in some expensive restaurant back home in Romania, to impress sweet-sixteen-year-old girls. And what I’m saying here is the truth: they all go and big themselves up. We’re the workforce of Europe, for that kind of lower work. I was talking with someone once and they said to me: ‘If all the migrants were to leave England, that nation would drown in its own filth.’ And being honest, I agree, after seeing the kinds of houses and people I’ve seen. Yes..
So, I have a residency permit in England, I am very lucky. Most people if they hear I’ve been in England and returned, react by saying what, are you stupid or something? Why didn’t you stay there? And I replied, well, look, I want to go to university. And then: ‘Why? Cos you’ll never kiss ass back into England again!’ That’s without me telling them I have residency there. It was just chit-chat, you know. And it started me thinking about it. Why go to England. What would I be doing? Washing toilets in hotels? Cleaning bathrooms? Polishing shoes? Doing building site jobs and things like that? And anyway, in jobs like that, nobody gives you any responsibilities or a decent wage; what a wage! [laughs.] Yes, they keep the good jobs for themselves. Like in any system, let’s face it. […]
England changed me for the better. I mean, it changed me because now I’m, well, I’ve travelled, I’m more open and I have a sense of what it’s like there. Working made me more mature, gave me self-respect and meant I didn’t have to feel like I was leeching off the back of my family so much. In Romania, I haven’t worked. Well, I don’t know, I thought about getting employed, but it’s not the same, they don’t really appreciate your work in the same way. Listen, I worked a month and made six hundred pounds. That comes to 30 million [Romanian lei] in a month; here, that’d be 20 years [laughs] or whatever, you know? It’s also the fact that in England I do things that maybe I wouldn’t in Romania; you feel more enthusiastic about things maybe, you try something new. I mean, I wouldn’t fancy cleaning cars, it’s a badly paid job. If I was paid like I was paid in England, [I’d do it] thank you very much! Why not? Why not? Although I’d rather be doing something where I’m making use of, I don’t know, my creativity or something… There’s lots of things I’d do, if I was paid like over there. Although I’d prefer to be appreciated for my intellectual abilities. I’ve said that before.
Marius [‘Un căpşunar intelectual’], transcribed by Elena Diaconu, in Tur-retur. Convorbiri despre munca în străinătate, ed. Z. Rostás & S. Stoica. 2 vols. (Bucharest, 2006), pp. 176-7, trans. Alex Drace-Francis.If you enjoyed these extracts, you can find more eastern European travel accounts of London – and other European destinations – in the anthology Orientations: An Anthology of East European Travel Writing on Europe, ed. Wendy Bracewell (CEU Press, 2009), or visit http://www.ssees.ucl.ac.uk/FurtherReading.pdf for a short list of other accounts published in English and easily available.