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Rubén Reyes

In conversation with James Powell

Photo of Ruben Reyes' Fish & Chips shop

Originally from Ecuador, Rubén has been living in Oxford for the past two years, working as the manager of Carfax Fish & Chips shop. Before coming here Rubén worked in London for eight years, also in a fish and chip shop, but as a helper to a manager. Rubén moved to Oxford because the opportunity came up to be his own boss. Our conversation took place during a typical working day …

James: I came back to talk to you because when I came in here last week you were laughing and smiling …

Rubén:    [Laughs] … I think this is a good possibility for me because a smile is costing nothing, you pay nothing for it!

I like working in here because it is the perfect environment in which I can have the simple life that I aspire to. It allows me to have interactions with other people, but also I see it as a place of continuity in an ever-changing world. If someone who had come in here twenty years ago was to come back now they would find that this place has not changed, it is still the same. This is good. This country is very interesting because things are always changing, always people are trying to change everything, building and building again, people are always making changes to themselves and their environment. But Oxford is trying to preserve itself as it has been for however many hundreds of years. The University here is trying to keep its buildings as they always were, and so I am trying to reflect that spirit in my shop by also keep things as continuous as possible. To me this place is special because it is the same as ever.

Why did you choose to come to England?

For me I did not really choose this, I just came here. The reason that I left Ecuador is because circumstances there are different. Essentially I came here for working, always working.

But why did you not go, say, to the United States?

I tell you that I never reflect about why is it here, why is my destination here or there? I guess I think the people here are free, diverse. England is a special country because there is respect for the people and it is peaceful here, so the difference is this one, and it’s a very important distinction.

Of course I miss Ecuador, it’s my country. You have a special connection with your country, you know? Ecuador is beautiful … I particularly like the way-of-life of the Indians; they were simple people, but now that culture is mostly lost.

A customer comes in …

Rubén: How are you, my friend? Is everything ok?

Customer:     Yes. Ça va?

Rubén:     Ça va bien! [Chuckles to himself]

Customer:     In France it is usual to spend three hours, if not longer, round the table. You have friends, or maybe family, around the table and you try to discuss while you are eating …

Rubén:     This is very good.

Customer: … so you can spend hours at the table. People here don’t seem to understand that.

Rubén:     In my country it is like you say it is in France. People there spend lots of time eating and speaking, lots of time cooking, but in this country it does not seem possible because the way-of-life is different. People here seem to believe that if they stop the system there will be big trouble [laughs]. So maybe there is no possibility for eating to be like that here … [turns to me] But I don’t know, you tell me about it … is it because of the attitude to money in this country?


So do you try and do anything to change people’s attitudes to eating when they come in here?

It is very difficult. There seems to be no balance in the lives of people who are thinking only money, so maybe if you give them a little balance maybe things will change. This is the problem, but I don’t have the answer as to how you can change something so complicated.

[Serves the customer fish and chips] You know, maybe this food was more popular a long time ago, eaten by people when they were working very hard in the factories because it gave them energy, but obviously now times have changed. So people are not working in the same way, now they are working in an office instead. If they are just sitting all day they know that such food is going to make them fat. I wonder if the gradual change in the working environment in this country is the reason why most of the people who come in here are not British?

Maybe also it’s because people in this country have been eating that dish for so many years that now they like to try things from elsewhere in the world?

Yes it’s true.

It was very interesting in the news this morning because they were talking about the trouble that they are having in this country with chips, because they are making children fat. Maybe that is also another reason.


So what kind of customers do you get in here? How do you cope with those who are rude or unfriendly?

You get every type of person in here. This is the job. You try to understand because not all the people are the same. Sometimes they are drunk, and so not in a good condition. When you work in a public place you recognize that this is just part of the job. Yes, it does upset me inside but I can deal with it easily enough.

The conversations I have with my customers are completely different, because people are coming here from all over the world. People from different geographical locations are obviously concerned about different things. People also seem to have different ways of behaving depending on their economic situation. So you try and keep the balance by recognizing that everyone is different.

I like the Asiatic people best, Chinese, Japanese, they are very decent people … their behaviour is very respectful, very interesting to me. But also the people coming from France, Italy, Spain they are very nice too. I haven’t met any people yet that I do not like. All people are special in different ways, if you try to find something special in people you will find it …

I do have some regular customers, but I think most of the people who come in here are one-off. I see now that people are trying to diversify their lives, to always try something different, so they don’t come here too often.

How has meeting so many different people increased your desire to see more of the world?

The most important thing to me in life is knowing that there are other people, other places. I like travelling, other than coming here I have only really travelled round my country. I hope one day to travel to France, Italy and Spain, but right now there is not a lot of possibility for that …

If I went to those countries I think that I would be most interested most in their history, I like to know what has happened before in different places. You know, I like politics and history, people, sociology – even though I have never studied these subjects. Ultimately, I am always interested in people.

So I like this job because it gives me the chance to always be interacting with others. Maybe if I was working somewhere else I wouldn’t have the same opportunities to meet people like this?

The people in Oxford are multi-cultural obviously, very educated, so I think it is a privilege to live in this place, because it gives me the opportunity to meet many different, interesting kinds of people.

So what is the most important thing that you have learnt from working here and meeting so many different people?

Working here has made me realize that life is very short. You try to enjoy it, and give something to other people. It makes you feel good.

Do you feel that working in here satisfies your desire to interact with other people? Do you wish you could do more for others?

I like to pass on knowledge, because I don’t have money!

If the opportunity arose, why not? I don’t do enough for other people, there is a lot more I could do … there are many who don’t have orientation; the young people, I could give them knowledge for how to change themselves. Maybe youngsters involved with drugs or alcoholism. Sometimes such people are coming in here. This situation is very difficult, because there is a clear need for help. But what more can I do? Not a lot. I start at 9:30 in the morning and finish 11:30, even 12 sometimes, at night. My energy is leaving me by the end of the night, and so I just go straight to sleep.

I have my family as well. Sometimes I don’t work Sundays, so I try to spend it with my three daughters. We might go to the park or take a bike ride; a little exercise is good for me.

My biggest hope for their future is to get them a good education, that’s my most pressing concern. The first is sixteen, just starting her A-levels, the second is in school, she’s twelve, the last is nine. Yah, I would have liked to have had a boy … I even looked in the street! [Chuckles]. But I’m very happy with my family, my life. I enjoy the fact that now we are together, there hasn’t always been that possibility.


Another customer comes in, and we chat and joke between the three of us about football …

Rubén: You know, now there is a lot of money in football; before people were playing with a lot of heart. For example, in 1966 when England were World Champions, Bobby Moore did not have lots of money as a salary. Times have changed – imagine how much Beckham gets just for one week? Before people were playing for fun, with heart, but now … maybe it is the sign of a wider problem?

Why do you think that people seem to be so obsessed with money nowadays?

I don’t know why people are so motivated now by money … maybe it is for keeping power? It can’t be just about having the money, because after a while you can have so much that you simply won’t be able to spend it all anyway; for example look at the owner of Chelsea, Abramovich. So it must be something else. Power definitely, but maybe also when people are in a system they need an indicator that they are keeping going, because they are afraid of those who are not going anywhere, and money fulfills that function for them.

I don’t know what the balance for this problem is. If you find the balance then I think you’ll be ok. I try to lead a good life, to have enough for my living and no more, it is enough. But maybe for others it is not possible to change.

Does it bother you if people only come in once, and so maybe you cannot have a significant impact on the way they think?

In here, there’s no real possibility to change people’s attitudes; I encounter so many different mentalities from around the world. For example that last customer was from another town, so it is enough and better just to talk and laugh with people like him. I enjoy that most, it makes me happy. People change themselves. I just try to bring a bit of balance that’s all.

Some people eat too much; they reach the point where their tummy simply cannot take anymore so they throw the food into the rubbish. But they don’t reflect on the fact that there are people out there who have very little to eat. The same for those wasting water from the taps … maybe it is possible that those who don’t even have water for drinking could be using that excess instead?

So one way in which people could maintain balance in themselves and in life is by being educated that they should only use what they need when consuming

So what experiences led you to these conclusions about life?

It’s empiric surely! If you do a lot of exercise you muscles are tired; it is the same in life – you do too much of one thing and you become weary.

But how can you keep balance in your life if you are working such long hours in here?

It’s a good question. The situation here is such that not many people are coming in here, so if I close at all maybe I cannot afford to pay the rent. You understand? But then if more people were coming in here it would be big trouble for me to cope! You need to stay long hours, although it is not consistently busy or hard work throughout the day. But I am always inside so I get tired.

Does that affect how you think about the future?

I try to not think about the future a lot because to me it is scary. Life can change a lot very quickly, so you can never know what is going to happen to you. For that reason, I try not to plan too much because it makes life complicated, and I want things to be simple. So I try not to think too much into the future, I think only in the present; the present for me is more important.

Always inside yourself you have ambitions, but I don’t know what will happen tomorrow so it is more simple to not think about it too much.

What more do you want to achieve in life?

I am happy! [Laughs] Some people might think it strange that I enjoy being here, but I work here, I live here, for me it is enough. It can be like a home here for myself and for others. I believe that some people who come in here are all alone, have no family, so when they come it is like talking to a family for them when they are chatting and eating. People sometimes talk about the problems they have and just appreciate having someone to listen, I think …

I would like to carry on doing the best I can with my cooking and my conversation, but of course I am not perfect because I am a human being.

I don’t want to change my shop. There would be no point in making the décor and furniture in here more ornate because at the end of the day people are just coming here to eat food. So I keep those simple as well.

If you could get in a time machine and go back and meet yourself twenty years ago, what would you say to your younger self?

I would try to educate myself more. Sometimes young people lose time, and I could have spent more time on education before it was too late. You need to do something special with your life; I realize now that there is only one opportunity for living, I don’t know if we are going to live again. I wouldn’t say I was wasting time when I was twenty, it’s just that I wasn’t living to full capacity. I wasn’t looking at the circumstances and context around me, questioning what I should do with my life.

My attitudes to what I wanted out of life only really changed organically with time. You have a lot of experiences good, bad and try to understand why it happened this way, then you change direction, only time gives you the knowledge to do that. It would be good if you could gain that knowledge when you are very young, but I think it is impossible! [Laughs] Young people like going to discos, to drink, everything is tried to try and discover something meaningful in your life. So I don’t see it as wasting time …

Different people are presented with different opportunities, and so people like me like simple living.

What do you think your life’s purpose is? Do you believe in a higher power?

I believe in God, I think it is very important to believe in something, although some people don’t. Religion gives you morality, which helps you discover where the limits are. Everybody has a purpose when they come into the world, and you try and find it during your life. But I think that if you have everything materially you can lose the necessity to find your purpose in this world. Also, if you just work the whole time you can either lose sight of your purpose or not reflect on what is inside you.

If you look inside yourself it is possible that you can be very happy. Because in there is everything there is and everything that you need. How can you not be happy simply by having your body? It is more important than money to be content with everything you have within yourself. Only people who realize this are happy, they recognize that the body is a very special piece of engineering. Feeling unhappy with the weather? The weather is nothing! If you don’t feel alive then it is a big problem, without energy everything is … finished.

How would you like people to remember you?

As the very happy fish and chips man in this place! A very happy man … this is good!

Photo of Ruben Reyes

September 2004