(From my memoir ‘ To Paris for lunch’)
My German boyfriend’s realisation that instead of becoming a doctor, his parent’s dream and life ambition, he wanted to become a professional jazz saxophonist, changed everything in my life. He decided that to fulfil his dream; he had to be in London, where things were really happening. His determination and my love for him made me agree to move to England for a short while, after I finished my apprenticeship as a dressmaker. That was exactly thirty years ago, 1987.
Arriving in London with two big rucksacks, a saxophone in his and a sewing machine in mine, we found ourselves in Brixton station. My boyfriend had the address of somebody, who knew somebody, who had a room to rent.
I had seen Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, Windsor Castle and Kings Road before, but I had never seen anything like Brixton. It was very different from Dusseldorf.
Eventually, I managed to get a job at Cranks restaurant on Marshall Street, near Carnaby Street and a few weeks into my job, I was promoted to waitressing service. I was very shy and my English was improving, but still not great.
One day when I was clearing the table of two ladies who just had lunch, I overheard them talking about costumes and deadlines. I don’t know what came over me, but I suddenly blurted out, ‘I can sew!’
They looked at me surprised, but I continued to explain that I was a fully qualified dressmaker. One of the ladies told me that they were looking for volunteers.
‘Nobody is getting paid. It’s for the Notting Hill Gate Carnival, but if you are interested, why don’t you just come by one evening? It’s near the Oval.’
The following Friday, I found my way to the address given to me by the two ladies in Cranks. Opening the door to the building I entered another world. It felt as if I had just arrived in Trinidad. Soca music, bright coloured fabrics, people laughing, dancing, massive constructions being built and fitted on people’s backs. From then on, every evening after work, I would go to the Oval and help out. I was hooked.
‘You really know what you’re doing!’ Caroline, one of the ladies that I had approached in ‘Cranks’, came up to me, while I was cutting through bright yellow Lycra.
‘Yes!’ I blushed. ‘This is what I trained to do, for three years. This is my profession.’
‘Why don’t you give me your number? I know nothing about you, I just know your name!’ she said.
I blushed again and said to her quietly, ‘I don’t have a telephone.’
I felt ashamed and really poor for the first time.
‘But can you give me your address?’ she insisted.
Three weeks later I opened my letterbox and found an envelope that I didn’t recognise.
I turned it over to see who it was from and my heart stopped! It was from the BBC costume
department, asking me to call them to make an appointment for an interview.
I hardly slept that night.
The next morning I got up earlier to give myself time for this most important call. I was so nervous. Standing in one of those red telephone booths, my hands were shaking when I pressed the numbers. The booth was dirty and stank. There were cards of ‘ Models and Masseuses’ pinned everywhere offering their services, and here I was…calling the BBC costume department.
I took a deep breath and waited until somebody answered.
‘I’d like to speak to Vin Burnham please! My name is Nicole Urbanski.’
Oh my god, I have to spell my name in English, how do I do that?
‘N I C , C for car, O L E…., E for…..’
Oh no, I can’t think of a word starting with E, oh…England.
‘E for England, U R B A N S K I, I for Ice, yes that’s right!’
I started to sweat, there was no air in this telephone booth.
‘Yes, I can do that. Yes, I can come to Kensington Olympia on Monday for 10 am, thank you very much. Good day to you too!’
My hands were shaking so much by now, I nearly dropped the sticky receiver. I did it! Oh my god, I have got an appointment with the BBC costume department! And that’s how it all began, here for me in England.