On my way to Barcelona, Spain, where I am currently trying to acquire the entrance ticket to the cultural imperialist English teaching industry by taking a four week high intensive course in English grammar fascism, I was passing through London and stayed there for a little under a week. Anyone who has been using the low cost airlines to get around Europe that have come about earlier this century will be familiar with being stuck in London, or at least Stansted airport. I was not quite in that situation this time, instead having a bit more time and a few radical meetings and some interviews on my schedule.
And somehow I ended up in a sector of the world working class that I had only known from books previously.
Our site is the New Cross Inn in South Eastern London. When I arrived, at first glance the youngsters there looked like the backpackers who had stayed at the youth hostels in Central America and Mexico. So when I went to the “common room,” being all occupied typing away on my laptop, and some of the others asked me to participate in what i thought was a game, I felt obliged to socialize at least a little with this “party crowd.”
The “game” involved balloons that they blew up with gas and then sucked the air out of them. I thought that the point was that they would fill them with helium and then breath it in to give themselves Mickey Mouse voices. At least in my concept of kids birthdays, that is generally a central part.
But that was not what was going on. It was not before I was about 3/4 through my balloon that I realized that we were doing drugs. I know, I am really naive about narcotics, and breathing in the gas from a cream whipper is neither forbidden nor all that strong, but I just had no idea.
Around the table was we had a Asian-South African guy who was working in constructions, an Australian anarchist girl who was now working in a bar, a Slovenian who was looking for a job, a Syrian who was looking for tricks on how to get into a British university after their latest fee increase for foreign students, a black guy from Genoa, Italy who had hung around most of Europe looking for jobs and the owner of the cream whipper: a slim English girl sitting in the corner who had come to London about six weeks ago in order to study acting, but since her teacher had become ill, it was still uncertain when classes could actually start and so she needed to find a job in London. In the mean time she would spend her days hanging around the inn, getting high on cream whipper gases.
Although poor, the situation of most of them had at least the idea that their current situation was voluntarily chosen.
During the fat post war years back in the seventies and also somewhat beyond, in the 1980s and 1990s, a greater layer of western youth could afford to travel in their own countries for longer periods of time. Some of the “culture” and “ideology” of this tourist movement have stayed, but the material conditions have changed dramatically.
Rosana was living in the dorm bed next to me. She has been living here for 4 months — very typical. In London she has been altogether 5 months. She came here to find work, which was back home in Spain, close to the Portuguese border. In Spain she had studied political sciences — two ways into her doctor degree. And she took a teacher certificate as well. The only job she has found so far in London is to clean toilets in the middle of the night (that is why she has to turn the light on at about 3am). “Now I am making enough money to pay rent for a real apartment,” she explains, “but they want three months rent as deposit. And even though she would scrape that together, I then won’t have enough to pay for the subway. And without subway, I won’t be able to go work.” Also, she is not sure how long her work will be there. If it’s certainly gone, she might have to go without work for a few weeks, and that might mean she would have to move out again. That is why she pays a higher fee to stay in a 6 bed dorm room instead. Here one pays on a day to day basis. “It’s really odd to think, but if my glasses would break,” she considers one night before going to bed at 9pm, “I would have to work a week blindly to earn enough money to buy new ones.”
<%image(20070309-rosana_in_bed.jpg|2272|1704|Rosana in heir home for the last 4 months — a dorm bed in the New Cross Inn.)%>
Three people sit in the reception: Joe, Giovanni and Elsa. Joe started out as a traveler from Australia, and represents the last bits of voluntary backpacker culture around here, he explains one day when he is invited to our dorm room to eat spaghetti. Giovanni is from Italy, and also found this as his only job in London. Elsa has died her hair red, has one piercing that I can make out, and is from the United States, and I talk to her while she smokes outside. I had thought she had traveled through Europe, and was just temporarily resting here. “I absolutely hate it!” she says about the job at the youth hostel. But it is the only place where she can find illegal work. The decision to come to Europe was made within a few days. “After three weeks, I ran out of money,” she says, and so she got stuck in London. That was more than 18 months ago. Since then she had to move across the border every six months to keep her status legal. ‘The first time, I was lucky, cause I had lost my passport. So when I said that I was just gonna be here a few more months, they said ‘a few more MONTHS??? […] But they ended up giving me six more months. After that I said the last two times: ‘one day, my flight is leaving from London tomorrow’ when going coming back from France.” At first, Elsa had thought she could go back this summer, but that does not seem to be viable after all. I don’t ask for the economics in that decision. But I wonder why she is hanging around this most expensive town, also because she told me that she liked Berlin. “It would be harder to find illegal work there,” she is sure.
Another guy staying in our room says he is from South Africa, but I believe his story changed from him being a cook to him wanting to study 5 years of culinary arts when two young American exchange students come by for two nights. For many here (but not Elsa) getting to the United States still seems as the ultimate stage of luck. To find a partner with US citizenship still opens the doors to richness, the believe is. In the common room, run into “Captain America” my second night here. Captain America is really a British citizen, but he claims to have lived in the United States most of his live. While I am there, he comes home with another girl every night. But people are not jealous — Captain America makes s all proud. After all, he is one of us, and if he brings home girls to our inn, it means that we’re still good…
The economic traps Rosana and Elsa and many of the others have ended up remind me most of all of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle on immigrants in Chicago who end up in traps of rents and have no other solution than badly maintained inns, although the overall cost there is actually higher. But that was in 1906.
But contrary to what i had thought, some class consciousness seems to be there. “It’s like the beginning of the Industrial Revolution,” also Rosana concludes. She has been a party activist in Spain, although she was never anything of importance. “I was the girl who operated the copying machine,” she says somewhat frustrated, “I wanted to learn from the other militants how one organizes, but I chose a small party that had no influence” — and therefore no job opportunities for her. Also Elsa has been active before, in the alternative community back in the US. And the Australian girl had been part of an anarchist center in Perth. But here they had no connecting to nothing in Europe so far. “One really needs to built a union or something like that,” Rosana believes. Also Elsa seems interested in “getting involved again” when I go to an occupied cultural center one night. But I do not really know what to do. I end up giving Rosana the phone number of a teacher’s union member who has been recommended to me, and I hand Elsa a note on my way out “Illegal work in Berlin, Denmark, Norway? email@example.com” I figure that I will be able to help her somewhat if she should actually mail me ever.
But what to do about the general problem? Who builds the union that Rosana talks about?