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Coffee May 8, 2013

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So there was an expensive coffee on sale, which I thought I’d better buy, as it was called Berlin coffee, and the illustration on the packaging was over-40s with grey beards being turned away from Berghain and others pointing and laughing, and then it just cost so life-affirmingly much, and I asked if they could change the currency when debiting my card, to make it more expensive. And then I got it home, and gave it pride of place in the kitchen. And built an extension for it. A shrine for it. And then it turned out to be whole beans. Whole cunting beans. And I didn’t have a grinder. So I bought a grinder. “Which grinder should I buy?” I asked folk. And they said that one. And I did, but it would take ages to come in the post, and of course I wouldn’t be in when it arrived, or was, but didn’t hear the door, because I was hiding from reality, and so it went to the neighbour. Who’s got so much better-looking. And he wished me, “Schönen Abend Euch,” at the end of our 12-nanosecond chit-chat, when he knows full well that no other human has entered this flat since 1997. And then I overfilled the metal drum. And there was coffee everywhere. And the bouton pressoir ergonomique wasn’t even all that impressive. And the coffee wasn’t even all that much nicer. Though there were four complimentary biscuits.

Drink?

Central European porn, Berlin as home and thinking about my mother July 13, 2010

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I’d so been looking forward to not going anywhere that wasn’t in Berlin ever again, or at least not this summer, yet somehow the Russian managed to cajole me into going to Hungary.

I’m bored of travel. Firstly because my mother was ill from last summer to this Easter, when she finally died having run out of all other options. I can very thoroughly unrecommend the death of a mother and the toing and froing between Germany and the UK added nothing to the experience. As I got on the plane back to Berlin the day after her funeral, I resolved to have no truck with any public transport journey that cost more than €2.80 for at least the next eternity.

And secondly because travel means leaving Berlin and I am obsessively in love with the city at the moment. I’m still not sure what home and place should mean as I fumble towards forty, but I’m very grateful to Berlin for opening its arms, perhaps originally a little reluctantly, to me and the Russian. Russia couldn’t give us a home. And the UK would have been awkwarder than Germany. And as neither of us had even heard of any of the other countries either of us had ever visited, Germany it had to be. And now that Berlin has let me into its embrace, I’ve got as clingy as a drunken lover.

We headed for the Hauptbahnhof and the night train to Budapest. Czech, it turned out. And we had our own little hotel room. Bathroom. Room service. Bunk beds… And within about eleven nanoseconds of the train chugging out of the station, the realisation that this was the first journey in a year that had nothing to do with my mother lowered the mood, which wasn’t that much in need of lowering, quite considerably.

I drifted off on the top bunk and let the Russian compose poetry about his terrible fate in peace.

“Room service,” chirruped Pavel the train person. He showed us how everything worked. Told us which button we could press if we needed anything. Explained he’d wake us up half an hour before Budapest with breakfast. All in perfectly good German. Then he paused. And stepped right inside our little compartment and closed the door behind him. He then switched into Czech, which the Russian and I were preparing to work out how to make the basis for an argument, but as he spoke, subtitles dripped out of his mouth and floated along the bottom of both the Russian’s and my field of vision. “And have you seen the shower?” he said/we read. And began loosening his tie.

I juddered awake. Slapped myself about a bit for equating anything Czech with porn. And swigged at a bottle of beer to help me drift back off to the soothing accompaniment of the Russian tapping furiously on his typewriter and suppressing anguished sobs.

The literature lying around in our little compartment had explained we might be awoken in the night as we crossed national borders but easily might not be. So I thought nothing of it when a Slovak – Lukas – and Hungarian border guard – Árpád – came to check our passports together. And I love having my passport checked vaguely far from home, and then it’s even more fun seeing officials checking a Russian passport, fingers flicking fervidly through every page to make sure a foreigner they might quite enjoy hassling had obeyed all the rules. They began in German and then switched into English when they saw a UK passport.

“Thank you, Mr. Inberlin,” said Lukas the Slovak.

“Full name?” Árpád the Hungarian asked the Russian having got a sniff of Cyrillic. “Russian Russianovich Russianov,” answered the Russian, for that is his full name. The two border guards looked at each other and seemed to establish a tacit solidarity at one of the old enemy who seemed to have incomplete documentation. They closed the door behind them and began to speak in Slovak and Hungarian, again subtitles dripping out of their lips and floating along the bottom of our fields of vision although, vexatious neighbours as they are, the Slovak insisted his subtitles be placed before the Hungarian’s. Lukas took off his peaked cap. Árpád began undoing his belt. “This is very serious transgression of legislation of Hungarian Republic,” he said/we read, and the Russian and I agreed that we could probably both have done a better translation. “You very bad boy.”

I juddered awake in Budapest.

Now not that everything is about sex, of course, but I thought if we were to compare Prague and Budapest, as I couldn’t help doing with every porn-free step I took there, then they would make very different lovers. Prague had smothered me in kisses, sent me flowers and bought me huge boxes of chocolates. Budapest had stood in a club with its arms folded, refused my ever more desperate advances and then relented with a huff, taken me home, shagged the living daylights out of me and left without a word the next morning. I loved the city.

But Budapest’s downside is that it isn’t in Berlin and the time for the return journey came round with a pleasing speed. And again the journey became very motherful and the map of my internal world felt piercingly more shapeless and sparse than ever. I’m not sure I know what grieving and mourning are. Unless missing and being sad. But perhaps there is a method to them, one which I haven’t discovered, unless to think of her and remember her and wave to her photograph and wish that she’d never got sick in the first place.

The Russian and I discussed the pros and cons of bunk beds on the way home from the Hauptbahnhof.

Queer beer January 28, 2010

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A friend rang and suggested a surreptitious and spontaneous late queer beer. The Russian was already in bed and it felt spectacularly naughty to dress for booze and braving the walk through the heavenly Berlin winter when a peek round the bedroom door revealed a sweet little head peering out from under the duvet and some gentle early snoring.

“Darling, I’m meeting N_ for a surreptitious and spontaneous late queer beer,” I explained, thinking it would mean I was officially an alcoholic or having an affair with a 19-year-old if I went out without saying anything. Not that he would necessarily have noticed if he’d got up for a midnight snack and found the flat empty but for his own good self. I once walked around the world and only on streets with an x in their name and all he said when I got back, bearded, suntanned and riddled with disease and bullet-holes, was, “Porridge cold.”

I arrived at the appointed venue a tad before N_. Ordered myself an indecently large beer and chose a perch in a corner affording a good view and got down to some serious people-watching. Wondered if people might think I was a rent-boy. Or rent-man. I tried to look slovenly and wanton. Not that I really fancied having sex for money. And there was no way of knowing what time N_ might arrive. It’d be embarrassing if he arrived at any point in the proceedings, to be honest. And he might worry that the innocent suggestion of a surreptitious and spontaneous late queer beer had careered morally downhill with such speed.

A familiar face appeared at a satisfactorily distant part of the bar. I felt reassured that there was a suitable gaggle of encumbering drinkers between me and him for us to be troubled by starting conversation. And then the familiar face belongs to someone I’ve probably seen 117 times on and off over the last however many years and not on a single one of those occasions has conversation flourished beyond the preliminary unless circumstances have, to our mutual horror, obliged us to be so geographically close that to peremptorily truncate our words after how are you would seem wilfully uncivilised. Our eyes met and we contorted them to signify hellos, making sure, even though we were both alone, that the hello didn’t look so inviting as to imply him making his way through the throng of poofs between him and me to make me look less like a prostitute.

That social duty exacted, I surveyed the more perfect strangers. And, darlings, do you know, there was not a proper, old-style cissy amongst them! Indeed, if I hadn’t known I was in an establishment frequented by the fairer orientation, I might have been quite scared of many of the younger men. (I was anyway, but only really of the conversation I might have to have with them if the occasion had arisen, which, of course, it didn’t, rather than of violence.) A good many had decided that hair was an unnecessary and unduly prissy adornment. Many more had spent time changing the shape of their bodies with either sport or beer. Almost all of them brayed. Some smoked with an inelegance that would have shocked Karen Matthews.

Some of the older poofs suited my stereotyping mood better but still not a good old John Inman or Larry Grayson for love nor money. There’d been plenty of those when I first started going to gay bars in London in the late 80s. Men who would twirl their hands above their heads as they popped to the loo. Men with admirably ridiculous hair-cuts. Men who wore pink and whose linked cuffs flowed generously from beneath their sleeves. Men who, if you were lucky, drank spirits and cried by evening’s end as they told you of loves lived and lost.

N_ arrived wearing an I ♥ Barbara t-shirt and we set about wondering what the world had come to when you couldn’t find a single cissy in a gay bar on a wintry Monday night when you’d snuck out for a surreptitious and spontaneous late queer beer.

Party! November 1, 2009

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The useful side-effect of the Russian having magnifying glasses surgically attached to his face to spot my shortcomings more easily is that he’s now brilliant at reading the small print on any threats that come in the post and all-roundly excellent at noticing the little things in life that might easily pass us surgically-unenhanced types by.

We trooped into the house from an outing to buy booze or food, or perhaps both. I shuddered as I walked past the newly-erected map of the house, showing who lives where with full names. “Darling, now they’ll all know we’re two men,” when I think the disguise the Russian had been using had had everyone convinced all along. But he showed no interest. He was already polishing his surgical enhancements and peering at a new note that had been put up by a neighbour.

There, in mousey handwriting, was an apology-cum-invitation for/to a party. A new neighbour, she explained. And the move coincided with her birthday, she explained. How couldn’t she have a party, she wrote, as if trying to convince herself it was a good idea. So she apologised in advance if there was going to be any noise and added that if any of us should like to attend her party, we were more than welcome. Please bring your own eye-glasses.

The Russian and I concluded in speed and silence that we would stay at home. We would tut as strains of Livin’ La Vida Loca reached our ears but resist calling the police just this once. Let the girl have some fun. Her birthday AND a new flat. Live and let live a little. But our trains of thought were interrupted by a clamour at the front door. The flash of cameras almost blinded us – the Russian’s magnifying glasses have their downsides too – and we were nearly flattened by a throng of men wearing corduroy and carrying clipboards.

“Guinness Book of Records,” they explained once we’d recovered our footing and hidden our surprise/disgust at the presence of other humans in our house.

“Are we down for ‘dullest house in the world for a record number of consecutive years’?” we inquired as one in different languages to the thankfully multilingual team.

“No, ‘speediest decision not to attend a party’,” replied one of the corduroy-wearing men as he pinned badges to our lapels and gave us each a plastic-bag’s worth of freebie Guinness paraphernalia. The Russian apologised for stabbing him in the face with the handles of his magnifying glasses and I suggested once more he have them sawn off. We smiled for the cameras and made our way up the stairs, chastened that we had been rewarded for our unwillingness to extend the hand of friendship to a newcomer in our midst.

The day of the party arrived. The Russian and I were redoubledly thrilled both at the thought of flagrantly missing an opportunity to make a social effort and out of curiosity at what a party in this house might sound like. I mean, it’s all very well hearing Ricky Martin a mile or so down the road but people have been known to call the police at a post-watershed sneeze up here. I made any excuse to venture into the communal bits of the house. Recycled coffee grains one by one. Quickly got a job delivering flyers for pizza parlours so I could spend time loitering by the post-box. Checked the electricity metre. Went to the cellar to see if any of the rat-poison had gone.

Silence.

“Darling, the party’s very quiet, isn’t it?”

“She not write time on eenvityayshn. Maybe voz dyaytime party. Zey khev ze koffyee and ze kyake and go.”

Which could easily have been the case and the noise she was pre-apologising for might well have been the furious tinkling of forks on plates and coffee cups being replaced deafeningly on acoustic saucers.

The Russian and I got on with some communal silence. But curiosity got the better of me and I went for one last peek from behind the curtains, dislodging a fly we thought we’d made a deal with as I did so. The Russian and I looked at each other in panic.

Three seconds later the doorbell rang. The Russian slipped back into his disguise just in case it was the landlord double-checking. We checked our hair in the hallway mirror in case it was the photographer from the Guinness Book or Records back for one last stunning shot.

The neighbours had formed a human pyramid so that no-one’s view of the spectacle would be hindered. Every woman wore a hair-net. Every man wore a dressing-gown over pyjamas and held an unlit pipe. The Russian recoiled slightly to cancel out the effect of his magnifying glasses. The spokeswoman for the group, who explained this was unusually inconvenient because she was still sweeping up crumbs from the very successful party she’d just hosted – the neighbours concurred with nods – and that she hoped this wasn’t how it was always going to be, looked demonstratively at her watch.

It was 10pm.

She handed me a fly-swat and gave wordless instructions for the human pyramid to disassemble.

AA October 20, 2009

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I’d go to Alcoholics Anonymous but I don’t like my name enough.

I have three default occupations: working, drinking and nothing. Which normally might not matter – lots of us bumble along thinking no further ahead than making it to the end of the cup of coffee we’ve got on the go (though I’m rarely that ambitious) – but the difficulty and futility of the nothing occupation magnifies itself exponentially when I have periods of solitude and independent living.

My beloved is sojourning in the former Soviet Union – this just in from Crimea. Gents hotter in Ukraine. In Russia, everyone looks a bit gay – and I am left to ponder the present alone.

And in a bout of not boozing or working, of nothinging, in other words, I got to worrying about a future. All brought on by marzipan, of course.

Darlings, you know that fear I’m sure we all get where there is some freakish disaster and, wouldn’t you just know it, you’re the only person to survive it and then, wouldn’t you just know it again, human beings go and replicate themselves almost immediately and arrive on the planet that had briefly only been populated by you at exactly the same distance along the evolutionary ladder and – would you credit it! – speaking English but without knowledge of the past and these arriviste new folk somehow realise you’re the only survivor from the old days and therefore think you are the very embodiment of omniscience, Wikipedia made man, and you have to impart history’s secrets and teach them how to farm and form societies and invent the wheel and the spinning jenny and the internal combustion engine and aeroplanes and the internet and space travel and France and Christmas, well I just wouldn’t have a clue how to do any of it. I’d have to just go and hide in a cave, hoping the freakish disaster which had left me all alone in the first place hadn’t made the planet perfectly even and free of hiding places, and hope the new re-humans were too thick to come and find me.

Because I wouldn’t even be able to tell them how to make marzipan.

I consoled myself that I could justify my ignorance by comparing myself to all those unlucky solo-survivors of freakish disasters of previous generations who would have had far less to impart to their new re-co-humans. Oh yes. So much less not to know back then. Huh! Shakespeare! Think you’d be any better at the job than me? Teaching them to write purty ain’t gonna help. They’ll all be dead of the plague by the end of their first couplets. Oh well bloody done, Joseph of Arimathea. So now they know about altruism and you happened to know how to make sandals. But how are they going to make red wine? Or invent music? Is a planet without Pump up the Jam even worth trying to recreate?

But slapped myself down. What arrogance! Easy for us – or me, seeing as the rest of you have been momentarily obliterated – to think that life was less complicated in the past. That we’re all specialists now. That they were all generalists back then. No doubt the medical profession seemed just as impenetrable to us non-people of science a squillion years ago as it does today, even if the most advanced remedy was to go and pick a leaf off three neighbouring bushes and put two of them in your hair and the other under your pillow.

And then I worried if, by some freakish PS to the original freakish disaster which had left me alone and in sole possession of knowledge in the first place, a wormhole was created whereby I regained access to Wikipedia – yes, to all knowledge – that I would just set it up on a big screen for all the new re-cos to watch – hopefully a sheep-dog would have survived the disaster with me – and just play it to them over and over again at high-speed in the same way that Milla Jovovich watched history in The Fifth Element. I might not try to resculpt humanity at all. Just let them become and recreate all that we had been and all that we had had.

It is terrible not to have an imagination beyond marzipan.

My name is BiB, and my beloved is on holiday.

Faggots & Bloggers April 28, 2009

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Clutching at straws. Young straws. Thought I’d better have one last go at being young. Like an old tosser moonwalking at a wedding. Not that I want to be young, of course. But something youngening caught my attention.

Darlings, I hate music, naturally. If we take hate, for the sake of fun, to mean like less than something else. And I think I probably prefer silence to music. But I have found last.fm bordering on the enjoyable. I mean, it’s got ELO and everything. But I probably wouldn’t have paid it much attention if the itinerant, who’s decided to beat the credit crunch by robbing a bank and swanning off to Mexico – at least I think that’s why he’s there – hadn’t got me more addicted and introduced me to all sorts of new folk. I’ve discovered all sorts of lovely German stuff, a fun Argentinian song that I torment my beloved with, as well as trawling through to find songs that might evoke particularly intense moments of happiness from the past.

So the itinerant or the programme itself led me to Fink. “Ooh, that sounds rather nice.” Though I wondered if he was trying to pretend to be American. And then bollocked myself for daring to wonder when who am I to know what any musician from Brighton sounds like in this day and age when the last time I went there all one did was eat rock and perhaps stumble, amid much guffawing, onto the nudist beach and wrap your feet in bandages from all the blood-letting wrought by the stones and contemplate that the sea as viewed from England’s southern coast looked almost nothing like the sea one saw on the travel catalogues I used to order as a teenager to try to broaden my parents’ horizons. And then the site cleverly tells you if the musician is on tour or not. And, blow me, Fink was. Playing in Berlin too, if you don’t mind.

“BiB, this could make you young,” I thought to myself. I could go along to a concert. I could perhaps wear make-up other than the stuff I put on my nose to hide the alcoholic’s veins I’ve got there. If I get the application wrong, I look almost exactly like the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. I could take narcotics. I could binge-drink alcopops. And snog folk. And vomit and hold my lighter in the air. And then cry because Mark from Geography got off with Stacey and not me. Wanker. Bitch. And then ring my mum and say I’d spent my bus fare home on Diamond White and would she pick me up from Harrow Weald.

I got this close. I’d composed an e-mail to everyone I know in Berlin – an unholy alliance of foreign faggots and foreign bloggers, adding a couple of made-up German-sounding e-mail addresses to pretend I was integrated – to suggest we all go together. See how young I am? Yes, let’s go to a concert. We’ll dance and take drugs. Oh yes, a week-night of course.

“Darling, I’m inviting everyone I know in Berlin to a concert on Thursday so you have to put a temporary tattoo on my neck and spray my hair blue on Wednesday,” I warned the Russian so he had time to get accustomed to the idea of the new, young me.

“Syurzday?”

“Yes, darling, Thursday. It’s not as if I’ve got a job to go to. And it’s Fink’s… Fink. Don’t you know him? Oh, he’s incredible. Amaaazing. I’ve, like, got a lot of respect for him actually… it’s his only night.”

“But Syurzday ven you go beenge-dreenkink veez ze fyeggots and ze bloggyers.”

“Darling, you’re right. Thank fuck you remembered.”

I deleted the e-mail and cried from relief that I hadn’t forced myself to listen to noise live. I kissed the Russian goodbye – he was going skateboarding – and poured myself a sherry.

Tout va très bien Madame la Marquise March 16, 2009

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The Russian, who has asked that I refer to him here as ‘my lovely husband’, but I have had to stick to the old version, call me anal, because while he is, by all accounts, almost unbearably lovely, he is not technically my husband, and we can’t just go around lying to all and sundry, is away. I don’t think, even though it isn’t a family trip and he is still somewhere on Germany’s hallowed soil, it’s a complicated ruse for the sake of an affair. Ostensibly, it’s to do with academia. Going off somewhere to do study in a group. Can you imagine anything more ghastly?

The trouble being, of course, his fellow students. The Russian had the misfortune to meet me at a tender age. Though perhaps any age would have been a misfortune, though naturally I tell him on an almost daily basis that I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to him. And the trouble with youthfulness, and my being older, is that he must have, at some unhealthy level, held me in some sort of esteem. Not my words or opinions, necessarily. But in the early days of our courtship, shortly before emancipation of the serfs and just as Avdotya Potapovna was about lo leave our service, I suppose I was, technically, the grown-up. The one with a job and some qualifications behind me. And, fatefully/fatally, for the Russian’s future happiness, translation was the profession this exotic grown-up, whom he also happened to be in love with, was beholden to.

When it came to emigrating from St. Petersburg and the Russian deciding what to study in Berlin, the only way of him staying here or, indeed, getting here in the first place if we wanted to play Germany by the book, which we did, neither of us having an imagination, call me strict, but I don’t think the Russian took the procedure all that seriously. There was a couple of minutes of fingering through the university prospectus. “Mongolian Studies?” “Darling, don’t be ridiculous.” “Scandinavian Studies?” “Darling, do you even like foreign languages especially? Why not something computery? You love computers. Or proper cooky-cheffy training. You’re a whizz in the kitchen.” “Translation?”

Without hesitation or explanation, I went to St. Isaac’s Cathedral to throw myself off the dome but was thwarted by the entry price, which was 400 times more expensive for foreigners than for Russians, and then counted my blessings that poverty had prolonged my life on this occasion and made my way home to reason with the Russian. “If you study translation in Germany, you’ll go blind from the glint off all the translatrices’ glasses within the first term,” I prepared internally as my killer punchline, deciding against throwing myself in a canal as a plan B as I remembered Rasputin’s ignominious end. Anyway, I can swim.

“Darling, if you study translation in Germany, you’ll go blind from the glint off all the translatrices’ glasses within the first term,” I remonstrated, the padded inner front door barely closed behind me. Silence. I was pleased that the Russian was stunned so by my excellent reasoning. Only to find a note tucked between the samovar and the collected works of Vladimir Ilyich.

“Gone post-office. I choose tryenslayshn for staady. I syend off epplikayshn.”

Forty years later and here we are, the Russian allegedly nearing the end of his studies. And thank heavens, for the world needs as many translators as it can get.

“All going well down there?” I wrote to inquire, assuming this translation outing must be taking place as close to hell as geographically feasible. “Or have you been blinded by the glint off translatrices’ glasses?”

“Almost blind,” came his immediate reply, only to be followed by a stream of incomprehensible typos, a translatrix with particularly dazzling eye-wear having presumably loomed into view.

While alone, I have worried my inability to be a grown-up might have terrible consequences. In a chaos-theory, butterfly-effect way. That, say, I might wobble my body along in an attempt at rhythm to Good Shoes and that the current of air created by my flapping double chins might make the curtains billow and catch light off a candle and before you know it the whole castle house would have burnt down.

I’ll probably be all right though.

Counters January 26, 2009

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The Russian doesn’t realise that the world will end if he turns on the heating at random. I don’t mean because the ice-caps will melt and the oceans will rise and the only habitable place on earth will be a very crowded and inhospitable peak somewhere in the Himalayas. Though perhaps I could factor that worry in too. No, he doesn’t realise that all sorts of chaos will be unleashed on an unsuspecting humanity if he just struts elephantinely up to a radiator and, terrifyingly, turns it on at random.

Whereas I, like any sane person, of course have to have a radiator on a setting. They go from 0 to 5. Obviously, strikingly so, a radiator can only be switched on to a whole number. Or, if I’m feeling very, very devil-may-care, a radiator could just about conceivably be switched on to 2 and a half. 3 and a half. But the Russian will happily – happily, I tell you. He even laughs maniacally after he’s done it and puts on an eye-patch – and nonchalantly turn the knob without even looking and walk away and get on with something else like ironing the bills or filing the tea. Once he is safely out of sight, I will approach the radiator with trepidation, as if approaching a ticking bomb.

2 and a quarter! 4 and a seventh! Not even on a notch. The arrow might not even be aligned to anything at all. Just looking blankly at a bit of white plastic, between black lines crying out to be aligned against to save the world from instant chaos. I take a few deep breaths and gingerly adjust the dial to a world-saving setting. No doubt, on each and every occasion, getting there in the nick of time.

I rush to the bathroom to get a cloth to apply to my forehead. The veins in my temples will be throbbing. I will cry from relief at having saved the world again. Suppress narcissistic thoughts along the lines of, “…and what thanks do I get, eh?” And try to regain my composure. I turn the hot water on but instantly sense that all is not right with the world. Bracing myself for the worst, I turn my head slowly to the right.

“Oh god, no!” the water-heater will be on 3 and a bit. “Jesus H….” but there’s so little time left to save the world that I don’t even get to finish the exclamation. I hurl the dial to 3 or 4, depending on whether I’ve been paid or not, and dread to open the bathroom door. The chances are, after all, that the whole world will have collapsed. Descended to a pile of dusty rubble. The bathroom will stand, the only man-made structure surviving, in recognition of my attempts at good-deedery, on a spindly pinnacle of rock… Yet I must have just got there in the nick of time once again. The bathroom doesn’t open out onto a scene of devastation and lifelessness. The dingy corridor is just where it’s always been.

I dash to find the Russian. This has gone on long enough. I plan to have it out with him.

He is busy filing the tea.

“Darling, you switched a radiator on to 2 and a seventh. And the water-heater was on 3 and twelve seventeenths. How can you be so disrespectful of human life? Don’t you care about humanity’s fate? This is probably why Russia’s history is so troubled. Democracy won’t just flourish with irregular settings left willy-nilly in flats everywhere.”

“ByeeB, I no khev time diskaas zis now. I filink ze tea.” And he cackles a cackly laugh and puts an eye-patch over his second eye.

I repair to my quarters, close the door for the peace and quiet I need to mull over the fact that fate has thrown me together with the world’s most dangerous man, and ponder the future. I begin to give in to self-pity. What bad luck. To be thrown into the maleficent arms of the world’s most recklessly uncaring man. But I glean a sliver of bright light. It may be my bad fortune to have to adjust dials for all eternity, but then, aren’t I fortunate to feel the glow of good-deedery that saving the world so god-damned often brings? And then, if we’re counting our blessings, I have to be grateful that the Russian is the only person on the planet who has the disorder of not turning radiators and water-heaters to numerically succinct settings!

The quandary solved, I switch on the TV to clear my head. To let worries be driven out by images and noises of vapid, empty nothingness. I go to adjust the volume. With only minor dread. I mean, surely he couldn’t have… Surely he wouldn’t be so evil as to… To not have the volume on a setting divisible by 5. I press the volume button. 17!

“Oh, god, no!”

Keep your fingers crossed that I keep making it on time.

iSchool January 16, 2009

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The Russian’s got an iPhone. I can’t remember if it was for Christmas or just for occasionless extravagance. Probably the latter, knowing the Russian, who loves nothing more than a bit of occasionless extravagance and only thinks a day has been well spent if cash has been parted with to acquire something needless and luxurious. Or on a night out. Or on flights somewhere. Which perhaps bespeaks a much better attitude to life and money than my own, which consists of never leaving the house and, the second a penny ever arrives, doing something sensible with it, like paying tax, or paying bills, or paying off debts, or going out and blowing it on booze.

Still, the Russian has an iPhone. And I can quite see the point of it now that I’ve worked out how to win the tennis game. And then it has that clever Shazam music-recognising programme which Herr Engelsk alerted me to last summer which I then thought – and might still, at a push – was the best technological invention since the fax. But now we’ve discovered the even funner midomi, which is a programme that lets you sing into the phone and then it tries to tell you what it is you’ve sung. Unfortunately, it almost always tries to tell you you’ve sung something by Avril Lavigne, when I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song by her (except I do know Complicated, having just looked at a list of her songs) (I’ve got a feeling I might have gone head-to-head in karaoke against my niece in that one) (I bet I won) (though not via iPhone), but we have managed to make it recognise us singing something by Abba, Eternal Flame (on the Russian’s recommendation, as he said, belittling his singing abilities, the programme had even recognised his rendition) (though he thought it was originally by Atomic Kitten) and Hava Nagila.

But anyway, apart from improving our tennis and singing skills, the iPhone is even refreshing our education. I think it’s just as well I’m a whoopsy as I’d be much too thick to help my children with their homework but we did have cause to resort to mathematics the other day. Technology can make even the utterly mundane interesting for half a second and the Russian and I whooped with wide-eyed amazement when the device told us that it was 360m to our nearest tram-stop and 460m to our nearest U-Bahnhof whereas, I must admit, trudging those unquantified distances in real life has never aroused my excitement once.

“Hm, so it’s 100m from the tram-stop to the Underground,” I said to the Russian as we were bored of discussing the essence of being yet again.

“Da, I sink so… Oi, nyet, ze distance maast be as ze byurd fly.”

“Oh, well maybe I’d better go and stand at the tram-stop and ask the phone how far it is to the Underground then, otherwise we’ll only have to move on to, ‘Whither the Russian soul?’ or, ‘Something happened on the way to the smetana queue/chip-shop’.”

“No, use myeths,” suggested the Russian, as if I was 14.

Anyway, thinking it was good for my personal redevelopment, I’ve been out to buy a set-square, a protractor, a compass, an exercise book with squares in it, logarithm tables and a slide-rule and got down to business. But to spread the fun, I’d like your help or, rather, I’d like to test your skills too and see whom, based on IQ, to foster and whom to delete from my circle of acquaintance.

“Hmm, but which maths to use? Well, I’ve got two distances and one unknown distance. Two known lines and an unknown line. Ooh, a triangle. Oh bugger. Is this trigonometry? I don’t know my sin from my cotan. Or is that something else? Oh, hang on, it’s a perfectly straight line from here to the tram-stop. And then a 90° turn from there to the Underground. Oh my god. It’s a right-angled triangle!”

Darlings, Pythagoras it is.

Frau Schmidt has a gammy hip. Frau Schmidt has an appointment with a specialist to see about getting a hip replacement. Frau Schmidt needs to get to the U-Bahnhof which she knows is 460m as the crow flies, because every time she needs to get to the station, she waits for an obliging flock – or is it parliament? – of crows to sweep her off her balcony and deposit her there and they announce the distance like a taxi-driver might announce his fare. But today the crows refused to deposit Frau Schmidt at the U-Bahn as they were on the go-slow and said they wouldn’t fly a flap further than the tram-stop. “360m, that’s our limit today, Frau Schmidt,” they squawked. Frau Schmidt says it hurts if she has to walk more than about 200m. Will Frau Schmidt make it to the U-Bahnhof without too much trouble or will it be effing and blinding all the way?

Right, we’ve got the hypotenuse, i.e. the distance from here to the U-Bahnhof. 460m. And we know that from here to the tram-stop is 360m. So, how far is it from the tram-stop to the U-Bahnhof? Please show your workings.

All correct(ish) answers will receive a one-man standing ovation.

Virtue-gap January 3, 2009

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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Darlings, what’s yours? In DWBs*? A virtue-gap being, of course, the period of clean living it takes you after a period of unclean living to put the wicked memories of debauchery and ribaldry behind you and feel that you wouldn’t look out of place and, indeed, might even cut quite a dash in a village church on a Sunday morning?

Not that, as a wicked old nullifidian – darlings, I all of a sudden got worried by the word atheist and wondered if it made me be a wanker to come out as one. That what’s-his-face Hitchens – not the one in America whom I can’t help having a crush on even though I’m probably meant to disagree with quite a lot of what he says – I might even do, possibly, but he always says it so alluringly – although he looks much worse now that he’s had all those makeovers and his teeth done. No, the sour-puss brother – is right that atheism is a belief-system in itself. I mean, I don’t think it is, but then I want my unbelief to be un- rather than actively non-, I think, and worried that if atheism is active belief in there not being a god, which I’d probably be happy to throw my lot in with, actually, then I’d still rather be labelled, when the machine in the people-labelling factory gets to that stage in its workings, just in case, say, by some, admittedly, extremely queer twist of fate, we had to be labelled according to our beliefs, with a label that meant, ‘doesn’t-much-go-in-for-that-religion-lark,’ which perhaps nullifidian suits better – I should be equating attendance of a service in a village church with the height of virtuousness. And, as tolerant and respectful of others’ belief systems as I am, sometimes, I must say my faith in a certain type of Christian wearing t-shirts with verses from the Bible was cruelly dented when I saw a walking billboard quoting Jeremiah 30:17 – King James Bible version: For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds, saith the LORD; because they called thee an Outcast, saying, This is Zion, whom no man seeketh after – trying to barge into a hot-dog queue.

But I do do that equation a bit. Which is an odd virtue to have at the top of my virtue Christmas tree. That the personified height of virtue should be the type that turns up at a village church religiously – boom, boom – of a Sunday morning. This moral nirvana is located, in my head, in some corner of England I don’t know but can ascribe all the attributes of a virtuous idyll to. Probably in Lincolnshire. Near Spalding somewhere. And the church would be full of kind Lib-Dem-voting types who popped in on their old neighbours and bird-watched and wore greens and browns and whose wickedest ever misdeed was failing to enter a cake in the village fête. The men would all look like this and take The Telegraph – or would Lib-Dem-voters take something else? – and like cricket and obviously prefer rugby to football and drink real ale – but not to excess, although perhaps they’d allow themselves one half-squiffy evening three times a year – and be active in local politics and drop in on new residents of the village to make them feel welcome – probably taking along the cake they’d forgotten to enter in the village fête and a bottle of surprisingly good white wine that they’d bought when staying at their house in Brittany – and speak less-than-execrable French and be thinking of learning Spanish or Italian and think Britons’ lack of knowledge of foreign languages was worthy of despair and that knowing a few words of the local language can really open up the culture and the locals react so differently (as they are packing their goods into the removal van from the house you’ve just bought off them) and know how to use a gun, though would approve of Britain’s gun laws and would drive within the speed limit but cycle where possible and support local businesses and certainly never inhale and be an accomplished, considerate lover. (Too depressed to describe his wife now. Lucky bitch.)

But a half-logical moral idyll to create because it’s as far-removed a life from my own as I can imagine within the same cultural boundaries. And I can’t think what the perfect moral man from my other two worlds – Russia and Germany – would quite be like. Except that the Russian moral paragon would ruin things, for me, culturally, by lecturing folk on how this was moral perfection and everyone else should live like this too and the German would be proud of his beer consumption and probably like to do things in the bedroom that my Lib-Dem-voter would have to wrinkle his brow at.

Because the time of year has made me feel particularly unvirtuous. Not that I feel guilt – oh gosh. I did one of those word-cloud things for this site and, apart from me, me, me, narcissistic drivel, public masturbation, me, me, me again, the word ‘guilt’ came up. Bugger – at calendric hedonism, really, but I do see the picture of the boys from Swing Out Sister, which I carry around with me as something to aspire to at all times, slowly erasing itself like Marty’s family photo in Back to the Future. Day upon day of wanton drinking. And not doing anything virtuous, i.e. work, which would nudge my moral compass closer to Lincolnshire before you knew it.

But that’s the festivities done. No time for any more fun till the vernal equinox at the very earliest. The weekend can just jolly well skip straight past my hard-nosed threshold and hand over my fun-ration to the wonderful couple next door. (Yes, they did complain on Christmas Day, since you ask.) It’s working my fingers to the bone from now till 2017.

Though I’m not sure if it’s the current alignment of the planets or the global economic crisis meaning we have to make cuts where we can, but my 2009 virtue-gap from marauding, self-destructive, bawdy, loud-mouthed, braying arse-hole to sedate, glasses-wearing (and my vision is perfect), Schubert-listening, moralising, tutting tosser with the demeanour and sartorial acumen of a Latin teacher is now down to a single DWB*.

I shouldn’t be at all surprised if I make the 2010 New Year’s honours list.

*days-without-booze

One gold ring December 24, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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rostov19

Have you ever seen such beauty? You can see it even bigger here. Doesn’t it just make you want to grow a beard right now and go and do nothing but chant and swing an incense-burner all day? I was so staggered by the beauty that I had to dash to last.fm and listen to two songs by Ace of Base in a row.

It’s in the town of Rostov, north-east of Moscow, and not to be confused with Rostov-on-Don which is in quite another part of Russia altogether. This Rostov is one of the towns of the Golden Ring which are all so dripping with churchly beauty that I want to give up all that is worldly and go and live as a holy fool, spending my nights and days murmuring in a cave. Naturally, having lived down the road – by Russian standards – for two years, I didn’t go to a single Golden Ring town but, if I’m spared, it’s down as an ambition for a suitably vague point in the future. Still, Novgorod – not to be confused with Nizhnij Novgorod. I do apologise for all this – where I have been, has enough churchly beauty to make your heart ache too, as, indeed, does Moscow’s own Kremlin. Ignore anyone who tells you to go to St. Petersburg, which is where Russians pretend to be Italian.

Anyway, that’ll do as a Christmas card, won’t it? It’s got snow and churches. And one of the wooden structures in the foreground is almost bound to have a manger.

Have beautiful, bearable days.

Winterspeck December 22, 2008

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Darlings, the sky over Berlin has decided to give up on keeping up even the meagrest of appearances. The sun thinks, unlike the diligent lamp-lighter in the Little Prince, that it is not worth its while shining weakly for half an hour or so a day and has put its feet up and decided to tend to Berlin later. The shortest day is, of course, just behind us – summer starts today! – but the shortness this year appears to have borrowed an extra layer of grey. It is now gone 8, so should, I think, by rights, be daylight and, while you wouldn’t think it was night if you bothered your arse, needlessly, to look out the window – I’m only bothering to open the curtains so I’m not the subject of neighbourhood tuts – the sky hasn’t got that much of a daytime quality about it either.

So I plan to eat and drink the darkness away. Plus everyone’s favourite day of the year is just around the corner so eating and drinking are majorly par for the course. And we have guests coming this year – they know this blog exists, so I can’t be too revealing – but we are a drop worried about what we’re going to give them to eat. Mind you, they’re both from the English-speaking world so hopefully don’t know anything about food. Still, I slightly can’t get beyond thinking a bowl of cornflakes for the starter and then two bowls of cornflakes for main course. Perhaps with a bowl of cornflakes with sugar for pudding.

Plus there is a no-sweet-things policy in this house…

We’ll relax it for guests. But, gosh, terrifying letting people into your home, isn’t it? Giving them first-hand experience of your domestic folie à deux. The Russian and I are going to have to hide so much evidence of bits of our existence over the days to come. Like we did when his brother came to visit before he knew my darling was a trouser-bandit and I was his bellebeau and then he walked into the kitchen when the Russian gave me the only spontaneous peck on the cheek he’d ever given me. And then the Russian accidentally pinched his bum. I think as long as I can remember to take my discarded clothes off the Christmas table, we’ll pass muster…

I think it may have been a one-man executive decision – the no-sweet-things policy – but the Russian mostly goes along with it and makes sure that any gorging on Snickers is done outside the home. I do occasionally remember that policy needs to be enforced so, in moments of political zeal, I carry out spot checks and make sure no sweet things have been smuggled into the house. Yes, sorry, I’m afraid you do have to remove your shoes and belt, sir. All in the name of girth-control, of course. Which hasn’t factored in that the consumption of 18 billion savoury/liquid calories a day are also a significant contributory factor to size.

But it’s the season to be jolly. To let your hair down. Bend the rules. Yet I am busier with work than I have ever ever ever been in my long-legged life so have had almost no opportunity to make the most of the atmosphere of almost unbridled joy that Berlin’s ever-smiling, ever-polite citizenry never need an excuse to create. I did manage to have one or two light ales in honour of this chap’s birthday the other day – there was a sweet angel at the occasion that I chatted to. When I realised I was being exposed to a new species of human, I asked him his age. And he said 24. Which I think was the sweetest thing I’d ever heard. I didn’t even know 24-year-olds still existed! I gave him a brief lecture: don’t take drugs, put a little money aside every month, what do you mean, you’re a musician? Get a job! And a hair-cut! Help little old ladies across the road, an apple a day…, wash behind your ears, wait till you get married, tolerate benignly but laugh and point fingers the second they leave your field of vision at those dim enough to think differently from you, look both ways, careless talks costs lives, honey’s very good for you. And then I gave him the five-euro note I’d been planning to use as a hankie to buy an ice-cream. Mind you, that’s 700 quid now, isn’t it? – but otherwise it’s been work, work, work and almost no play at all.

So the Russian had smuggled in Nutella. I’m a late adopter because of growing up in such non-privilege. Can you believe I didn’t get to go skiing in Switzerland for the first time till I was 15? Fif-fucking-teen! If that’s not child abuse, I don’t know what is. But a school French exchange when I was 17 introduced me to Nutella. And oysters, and rabbit, actually, but Nutella’s resonated with me more ever since. But, obviously, one can’t just pander to one’s desire for Nutella! Like other almost unimaginably extravagant luxuries, I thought it was to be savoured strictly away from home only. Perhaps in a little hotel somewhere. Or as the house-guest of an obscenely rich friend who just has Nutella cavalierly lying around cupboards! So I needed an excuse, to assuage my guilt and justify the consumption, to open the jar, excavate huge, great, stonking mechanical-digger-loads of the stuff and polish it off before looking down at my rotund frame and regretting it with due speed. “I’ll only allow myself a spoonful with a cup of tea,” I settled on as a routine and had hardly got to my second cup before it was all too late anyway and the Russian had cleaned the thing out better than brigands raiding a jewellery shop.

Anyway, it’s led to a quest for ever better, ever more luxurious, December-only sweet items. And we’ve discovered this. If it’s only available in Germany, and you’re mad enough not to live here, drop what you’re doing and hijack the first conveyance that will get you here. Chocolate and mint but – imagine! – even better than After Eights.

I think we’re all allowed a little indulgence till the sun comes back, don’t you?

Cheer December 9, 2008

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Insomnia or, at the very least, disturbed sleep caused by worrying that I might die while dancing along to Mickey by Toni Basil, is wreaking havoc with my clockwork. Still, as luck would have it, I’m keeping the world afloat single-handedly and there’s no time for sleep with all the scampering I have to do in my translatorly hamster-wheel.

Do you dance, darlings? I used to think it was a thing to do but as I’m now not far off the telegram from Her Majesty, I’m close to giving up the ghost. I’ll throw myself around a dance-floor if need be, but need doesn’t often. My mother taught me to waltz, or to move in a shape approximating a waltz, no doubt seeing it as a vital life-skill for a man about to embark on adulthood in the 1990s – I put it down to her not knowing how the world works rather than actual madness. And, anyway, her mind’s in far better shape than mine is and she’s 200 if she’s a day, which she is, at least, because she had me, and I wasn’t born today, or even yesterday – and I dutifully tried to pass on my dancing skills to the Russian in case we ever establish a foundation and start hosting gala dinners but my beloved is not light of foot or, indeed, mass and I think his dancing exploits are best left uncategorised, unnamed and unchoreographed.

(Speaking of choreography – Ms. Basil’s main bag – guess how old Toni Basil is now. No cheating.)

So dancing has become a vicarious pleasure.

Call me heterophobic if you will but I’ve got a feeling gay men probably set an ounce more store by dancing than our heterosexual brothers. Us gayers being artistic types – I only translate to help humanity. I’m a singer-songwriter-sculptor mostly – means that a dance-floor pulsating with poofs might even have the odd profesh or two on it and it’s not a rare treat to see someone moving in a way that seems to have education behind it. I look on in admiration and order myself another drink.

Darlings, but even we artistic gayers are products of our surroundings. And unless one makes a very concerted effort to pretend to live in a different world and is very selective about the company and geography one keeps, there are still chapters of one’s life that are heavily heterosexual. I am unfortunate enough not to know any gay men much older than myself or any long-term gay older couples. So I don’t know if the Russian and I, as surely as bankruptcy follows Christmas, will do that couple-dance that so many of our older heterosexual co-humans do. You know, the sort of jivey-dance. Him twisting her around. Their arms fumbling overhead. Catching her, supposedly, if she has spun clean away and then halting that momentum and spinning her back at just the right time. And all performed, almost without exception, with a total lack of co-ordination and skill after the committed consumption of booze.

I was only reminded that I didn’t have a prototype of couple-future when the Russian and I ended up Sunday-night-drinking in Poland. The club was quiet, naturally, and only hardened boozers bothered venturing out in flagrant disrespect of the working week ahead. Psychotically drunk people who’d never been to ballet school hurled themselves around furiously. Occasionally I would worry that it was about to descend into violence. The more psychotically drunk men were all much the most huge and most meaty present. “Probably not gay at all,” the Russian and I would reassure ourselves, drawing naturally gifted and florid designs for pink-gated communities on beer mats, but then one would pull his trousers down and dance in his boxer shorts and the other would pull his t-shirt off and then, in a crowning dénouement tying up all loose ends neater than a Vienna baker, they would snog each other and collapse with an unsexy thud onto the stage. (The Russian and I set fire to our blueprints.)

And it was only the straights who could show us the way in how to grow old gracefully and dance like proper couples. A deliciously jolly pissed couple did the inelegant jive-dance. Their movements were so slow, so padded, that even their reactions to getting the spins wrong without fail would come about twenty seconds later. Mr. would spin determinedly on. Ms. would move as the laws of physics dictated, having no mental input to contribute, and would be hauled back in close when Mr. was in a position, both physical and geographical, to do so. She would try to mouth words of apology and self-deprecation, blinking very slowly throughout. He would guffaw jollily. Then they would snog.

“Darling, we don’t know how to do that dance. Maybe it is a vital ingredient of a happy partnership. And we don’t have any older gays to ask guidance. We are pioneers. We don’t know what the future holds. Oh god, if we get rich and establish a foundation and have gala dinners, will you instantly then run off and leave me for someone 19? I promise I don’t mind that you wear pyjamas.”

Luckily for us, No Stress then rattled scratchily off the gramophone. We got jiving with the best of them and, do you know, I think we were even better than the Puerto Rican couple.

Lucky dip December 1, 2008

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The troublesome thing is choice.

I went to Poland. Quite by accident. I’d only meant to take the S-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz to go and see Klee and Koons – it’s K season at the Neue Nationalgalerie. Lowry and Lichtenstein up next. I’ll have learnt the whole alphabet by 2013 – but got confused and ended up in Warsaw.

Made up for my error by going to see Koons and Klee another time, though. May I recommend to anyone thirsting art but who hasn’t got a bean to walk around the outside of the Neue Nationalgalerie building if they want to see the Koons? You’ll see every single exhibit thanks to its perfectly glass walls. And the troubling thing is, if you go in, apart from having to pay, which makes any transaction less satisfactory – just ask a man who frequents prostitutes if you don’t believe me – you might watch the little video about Mr. Koons. And that slightly spoiled him for me. Because while I was quite happy to look at his big bowl of eggs and think, “Hmm,” I was slightly underwhelmed by Koons the man. Nice enough guy. But I wish I hadn’t heard his justification for his works. “All about acceptance.” Drone.

But Klee was far more problematic. Horridly prolific. Wall-to-wall fucking art wherever you looked and downstairs at the NN is loathsomely spacious. Couldn’t get away from the stuff, though I did have one moment of joy when I went to turn another corner, fully expecting another frightful, never-ending vista of more wanking Klee, and it was just an alcove with a fire-extinguisher. The one brief let-up in the whole sorry affair.

But there was a lovely museum-goer with the best intellectual hair I’ve ever seen. A small gent. In his 60s. Jacket, shirt, trousers. Brown shoes, of course. Wandering around with his less intellectual – at least if her hair was anything to go by – wife who nodded spouselily and dutifully at his disquisitions. But his hair was top-hole. A swirling typhoon of hair, which may have had its whirlishness increased by having to double as an extremely elaborate comb-over. But the most extraordinary thing was the pate – is that the word I mean? You know. That bit where all the hair seems to spring from. Where he’d have had a bald patch if he’d had less of his intellectual hair – was just behind his left ear. I was transfixed. Much more interesting than the endless, non-stop Klee.

And the art made me think of potatoes, and how, as I shuffled from one hateful Klee to the next, I’d much rather be engaging with potatoes. Preferably eating them, of course, but, at a push, even looking at them. I’m not sure whether I’d rather have peeled potatoes than be at the Klee but it might have been a close run thing.

So I ended up in Poland. The Russian – for he was with me. You think one of us would have noticed we’d missed our stop when the border police got on, but no – commented, when we took a breather from hijinks, that, say what you like, and Poles may well like to say otherwise, being in Poland does feel just an incy bit like being in Russia. Warsaw looks quite like Russia – all hugeness and parallelograms – and the hustle and bustle of downtown Warsaw feels quite like the hustle and bustle of downtown St. Petersburg and Poles and Russians look quite alike with their chunky men and all the glamour pusses and Poles and Russians abandon themselves to fun, when they have decided to abandon themselves to fun, in the same concerted, uncynical way. It’s very attractive.

We had such fun that the Russian has had to convert to Catholicism and I’ve had to go and rescind my excommunication from the church so that we can quickly join Opus Dei and self-flagellate the pleasant memories away. In the meantime, we have fantasies about moving to Poland. Like Russia, but not. Surely we’d learn the language in ten seconds. And the totty! My god, the totty. We have retuned our souls to their Slavic settings and now have to fight drearily over who gets to wear the best shawl.

But, darlings, the only problem is that Poland gives you choices. If you go to a cash-machine, it asks, “Do you want us to fix the exchange rate now or let your bank do that, kind sir?” When you pay by card, the machine asks, “Shall we charge you in złotys or some other currency of your choosing, kind sir?” Honestly, do these people have no respect for their totalitarian past? I can’t cope with that kind of choice! The whole trip was wasted prevaricating.

But once there’s a lucky dip button on all Polish machines, that’s it. We’re emigrating.

Trois Hongroises November 14, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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“Surprising to bump into someone around here,” I thought to myself. They looked familiar, but I was damned if I could remember who it was. The ideal solution would have been to pretend I hadn’t seen them. Turn my eyes away not too demonstratively. Fake rivetedness in some passing fancy. But it was too late for that. We’d clocked each other. I was going to have to tough the occasion out.

I rid my throat, preparing for speech. And began to contort my face to express honest but, I hoped, polite bewilderment. The stranger’s face showed no equal foreboding, so I was going to have the redoubled shame of being the only one to admit I didn’t know who the other was. I clicked my fingers. Then wiggled them. All semaphores for, “It’s coming to me. Tip of my tongue.”

“Sorry, I know I know you from somewhere, but I can’t remember where. You’re going to have to tell me your name. I do apologise.”

“Raashn,” said the Russian, who never had mastered articles.

“Good Lord! Well, fancy that! What are you doing round here?”

“I leev kheer,” said the Russian. “Zees our flyet. Kyen I gyet past?” And he disappeared into the bathroom.

“Well there’s a thing!” I thought, though I suppose bumping into the person in my own flat should have been something of a hint. It’s a rare occasion indeed that out-and-out strangers parade up and down the corridor from kitchen to living room, bedroom or bathroom. Though with all the talk of doom and gloom I shouldn’t wonder if I were soon sheltering all sorts of sundry Berliners down on their luck.

“Darling, do you mean we’re still a couple?” I inquired having entered the bathroom unannounced, eager to get to the bottom of the mystery and deciding, our acquaintance rekindled, that I had the same rights of intimacy as before. “It’s just I’d clean forgotten. I mean, it’s been so long. Must have been ’99, mustn’t it? The Biafra campaign? Or, no, wait. ’03. Jonty’s wedding! Where have you been all this time?”

“In nyext room,” he said with ease, as if conversation of this levity was an everyday occurrence. He wiped toothpaste foam away from his cheeks.

I went back to my quarters to regain my composure. There I’d been thinking I was a man of leisure without a care in the world and it turns out there’d been a significant other all along. So troubling was my confusion and so chaotic the flood of memories pinballing round my minimally-furnished head that I wasn’t even sure if my conscience could vouch for good behaviour in the intervening years. Still, no time for going back over old ground now. It was time to face up to the current lie of the land. Which seemed to mean a new beginning. A clean sheet. Starting over.

“Um, so what’s your best news?” I asked the Russian when we next bumped into each other, minutes hardly having passed. An old trick I learnt – the Trucial States, ’77 I think it was – to oblige the person to answer positively. Or was it to counter the slew of miserable old widowers my parents appeared to have adopted when I was young? Ask them how they were and they’d have the cheek to answer in all honesty. “Well, BiB, sure I don’t like to complain but this diabetes is fierce hard altogether. I can only have 100 calories a day. One cup o’ tea and that’s me lot.” Poor old widowers. Gone to London to make their fortunes and if their wives didn’t up and die the second they left, their children flourished with some foster family or other while they floundered, unable to look after themselves in the big city.

“Obama veen elyekshn,” the Russian retorted, only minimally getting into the spirit of the question yet refusing to take the contemptuous scowl off his face.

“Really? Did he? I hadn’t heard. Yes, that is good news.”

“And your byest news?” asked the Russian for the sake of at least passable propriety.

“Well, funny you should ask because I did see three rather gripping Hungarian women on the U-Bahn. One was prim. One was terse. One was frumpy. And they all had such small feet. And I thought the prim one had probably married rather well and the terse one slightly hated her. But the frumpy one seemed the happiest and…”

“Zet not news. Streektly spyeekink.”

“Oh. I see. Well, you know, darling. Same old, same old,” and I closed the door gently behind me.

Face-off October 27, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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By the time the Russian and I have wolfed down dinner in (verbal) silence in about fourteen seconds flat, having toiled lovingly over the preparation for considerably longer, the bottle is still usually half-full, even if the glass is half-empty. This inevitably invites a moral dilemma of critical proportions.

The only way to achieve a moral victory is, of course, to put that glass cone – the cleanest and most unused item of kitchenware in the house – in the neck and put the wine-bottle away in some dark corner where it can supposedly be forgotten about until the next wine-drinking occasion raises its predictable head the following evening.

Yet even moral fortitude and rectitude have their downsides. Chiefly that they are the enemy of hedonism and doing what you’d really like and while I’m not desperate for life to be one long string of gleeful moments, I do worry that these positives, if they can be so called, might be even loosely tied up with guilt and before you know it people will be saying or you’ll be thinking, “Once a Catholic…” which makes me want to go and impale myself on a spire somewhere, or, at the very least, speed-convert to the Church of England.

And closing the bottle with the pristine cone has the added disadvantage, or, at least, mitigated benefit, of putting me in the Russian’s good books. “Molodets,” he’ll say as I trudge hunchbacked to the cupboard under the sink where undrunk wine keeps the cleaning products company. “Umnitsa,” he’ll continue as I return to my seat and sip languidly on gone-flat mineral water in a mood redolent of the day after your birthday. Because being in the Russian’s good books and creating a fraudulent image of sobriety and temperance is as morally wicked as lying. Unless I was willing to change my ways, which I sometimes pretend I am, but am probably basically not, it would be awfully naughty to create such a false impression. And so early in our courtship! I haven’t even met my father-in-law yet.

One unlikely permutation, which occurs about as irregularly as the Earth changing direction, is that I will experience a rush of primness and suggest the bottle be coned just when the Russian’s looking like he’d fancy quite a lot more booze. I am magnanimous and say the decision is his but may have to tut (and remind him of his above-recommended-guidelines consumption) with sneering frequency.

But far more likely is a face-off between me and the bottle. Dinner is over. If I’m trying to be French, the national barometer I think best aligned with good living – ignoring the statistics for liver cancer – then I should, by rights, push my glass away from me and do something proper like meet my mistress or smoke and have an intellectual conversation at the same time, preferably with raised voices and aspersions cast on the interlocutor’s sanity. But I am not French. And the wine bottle is a foreign body my cultural immune system tries to attack. “What do you want to drink more of me for?” it whispers waspishly, circumflexes and castles leaping like sprites off the label and dragging my heavy fingers back from where they came.

Eyes right to see how I’m doing with the Russian. Is he in a wine-coning mood? Or one of those festive ones where we may drink on as long as we can find some excuse for it? “It’ll spoil by tomorrow.” “It’ll help us relax.” “We’re alcoholics.”

But the most crushing defeat is if my beloved benevolently waves his approval at my drinking on but fails to join me. He will return to online-shopping and academia and I will be left with two more cauldron-sized glasses of occasionless wine to drink. Each delicious drop tinged with reproof and condemnation. The Russian might find me in my one-man snug and ask advice on some linguistic matter. I will try to make my eyes look perky or not to slur my words or hide my red-wine lips but in an attempt to appear beyond reproach I will knock over a cactus or tip over the glass. “Uh-huh,” he’ll conclude soberly and turn on his heels, mission truncated.

Still, the nights are drawing in – it’s now dark at 2pm – and we don’t want to be too perfect, do we? What’s the world come to if a man can’t sip away the winter blues in the comfort of his own home! I say almost non-stop wine-drinking is a seasonal and traditional rite till the onset of spring.

To your good health!

Mis- October 24, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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Hope none of you went with that recipe. Worst indigestion I’ve ever had.

Darlings, I’m all about the getting-things-wrong these days. Naturally I assume this is just the next stage of my irreversible dementia and living mislingually. Still, every experience is a good one, apart from, perhaps, being held against your will and tortured, or talking backwards, or eating upside-down, so I’m thinking even the misexperiences are to be enjoyed and, as surely as night follows day, written down for my own and, selfless old thing that I am, your appreciation. Perhaps even marvel.

These are hard times – mind you, a gent I chatted to the other day in a bar told me there’s no crisis and it’s all just bollocks, which is surely bollocks, isn’t it? Still, he had excellent teeth so I thought he had the moral authority and I had to go and seek out an all-night glazier to reglaze the window of the bank which I’d just smashed in – so making positives out of negatives is to be encouraged. Brain going down the pan? No! It’s just the next stage in your brain’s (mis)development. The world going down the tubes? Not a bit of it. Just an opportunity for us to realign to less nasty habits and make our own entertainment. Worried about your future and thinking employers will start giving you less work? Very easy. Just charge double!

See. Life is good, even when you get things wrong.

I’ve been tapping away fairly furiously of late, trying to scrabble enough pfennigs together to put a Würstchen or two on our humble table. By the time the taxman’s had his wicked old way with my money, there’s not much left for luxuries like food, booze, fast men and fast public transport. Yet it goes without saying that this is yet more cause for rejoicing. Giving is good. How could you not feel warm and fuzzy to think you were probably single-handedly providing schools with science labs, hospitals with vital and state-of-the-art equipment, godforsaken provinces with roads and electricity and civilisation and the people from the 100%-long-term-unemployment-house across the road with fags? But the tapping’s caused short-circuitry. Shatteringly vivid incidents of misinterpretation, mishearing, miswriting and misseeing.

Loving my fellow humans as I do and hoping that one of these mishappenings might lead to a eureka moment and be of some great benefit for mankind – wasn’t penicillin invented when some drunk person put his kebab down next to a moulding pizza-box as he went to check his e-mail having rolled in drunk at 4am? – I am careful to follow my mistakes diligently. But the results have only been disturbing or pathetic.

Favourite typo. Should have written ‘bacteriostatic’ which, as anyone with even half a day at school behind him can tell, is something boring and scientific. My mistype came out as ‘bacteriotastic’ which paints bacteria in a much jollier light. Singing and dancing germs. I wrote to the authorities to see if there could be any use for the word – even went as far as e-mailing the Académie Française, with a subject line of ‘bactériotastique’ as I’m happy to sell my soul to the French for fifteen minutes of linguistic fame – but no-one was interested.

I tossed and turned in bed all night and had dreams which magnified the extent of my failings. I argued with the Russian that the socks had been mispaired but he laughed maniacally, dangling miscoloured, mismatched garments in my face and said, in perfect English, “Don’t start an argument your colour-blind ass can’t win.” Terrifying. When did he learn English? Had he been misspeaking to me all this time? Had I misinterpreted all along? Had I misbothered speaking Russian?

But the real, waking Russian got bored of my missleeping. As my dreams about my misdeeds and misachievements got ever more misbegotten, my tossing and turning – so I’m told – got ever more mismanageable and misignorable. The Russian began to contort in such a way that, with minimum effort, he might push me as far across the bed as possible to be less misturbed. I awoke with a shudder, the terrifying visions of the unconscious disappearing as quickly as a student whose round it is, only to be met with misvisions of arms and legs flailing with the rest of some body concealed under a blanket. It looked exactly like an octopus in chainmail.

I’d very much like my brain never to misbehave again.

My perfect syrnik September 24, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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Darlings, whom would you least like to be invited to dinner by? Though I like Closer to Fine well enough, I’d still have to say I’d least like to go for dinner at the Indigo Girls’ house, assuming they live together, because, let’s face it, you’d only choke to death on quiche and some bone-dry salad within minutes.

A squillion years ago, part of a job I had was translating the restaurant reviews for a St. Petersburg magazine. It was an OK way to (part-)earn a living, though not as much fun as translating the excoriating film reviews by the same person. He saved his sharpest vitriol for anything that came from Hollywood, or perhaps even America in general – he was a product of his times and environment, after all – and I then found that a bit of hoot. I was young. But he was more obsequious when it came to food, or perhaps the food in St. Petersburg restaurants was just unfailingly excellent. (I often did eat rather well there, but was too skint for it to be frequent.) And I remember him saying that the pudding was always the most important part of the meal as that’s what you leave the restaurant with the memory still fresh of.

I thought that was probably bollocks as even now, with my brain almost completely erased by badness, I am still capable of thinking, “Hmm, that spotted dick wasn’t so good but their toad-in-the-hole was magnificent.”

So I am heroically resisting an urge to let my pudding-memory, as it were, of England disflavour my whole meal. Yet am I allowed just a minor gripe about transport back on the island? I was even impressed to find a website to help you plan journeys when I’d always previously relied on ze Tschermans, even for journeys within the UK. Faithfully, trustingly tapped in Metroland to Luton Airport. Quickest option was by two buses with a 15-or-so-minute wait between the two at the romantically named Bricket Wood. “Wonderful,” I thought. “I’ll get fifteen minutes of greenery. There’ll probably be a cricket match happening within view, the players making the most of the last days of sun before it disappears again for 8 months. A thatched cottage or two.”

I was dropped off on a dual carriageway at a ramshackle bus-stop which had last seen human company in the 1970s. Lorries whizzed by at what, so close up, seemed terrifying speed. The odd motorist dashed a sympathetic and unbelieving glance at the nutter waiting by the side of the motorway. And then my bus appeared. In the outside lane. Travelling at about 100mph. I stuck my hand out feebly, remembering my country’s mores – a French friend once refused to believe that pulling the string on a bus would make it stop – but it sped past. “Just as well I’ve left myself oodles of time,” I muttered to myself, picking the bits of gravel thrown up by passing vehicles out of my face. And then another 757 to Luton Airport. Going at 100mph and in the outside lane. I stuck out my hand, then pretended it was the opening move in a head-scratch as he whizzed past. “Just as well I’ve left myself oodles of time,” I remuttered to myself with less confidence. A man in a rich person’s car pulled into the bus-stop’s microscopic lay-by, I thought to rescue a gentleman in distress. But he looked at a map and sped back off. Eventually a 321, servicing the world’s slowest and most circuitous bus-route, stopping at every bird’s nest in the south east of England, trundled up in the right lane and ground to a stunned halt. The Polish driver – I thought of befriending him it all took so long – got us to Luton Airport in record non-speed, where it was a mad dash through security – fuck, haven’t got a pound coin for the liquids plastic bags and it takes no other coins. Excellent. Fuck. Will risk it – planewards. I wrote indignant SMSes to the Russian throughout keeping him up-to-date. “You write complyaint lyettyer ven you get khome.”

I arrived in Berlin some hours later, still breathless from my English goodbye, wondering if the Russian might have decided to truncate his trip by a few months and surprise me by being here. Not a bit of it. So I’m fending for myself. Threats in the post. Mostly placated. And a fridge with some milk that had turned into yoghurt and a packet of Quark. (Is that really curd cheese in English?)

Nothing for it. It was going to have to be a syrnik (cream cheese fritter or cottage cheese pancake, says the online dic), which Russians eat for breakfast, for dinner.

Cook with BiB. Take a bowl. Splat packet of curd cheese – I don’t know how many effing grams. Probably 250 – into bowl. Add some white sugar. Add one egg. Add some flour. Mix it up until it’s a fairly sturdy gloop. Then dollop some gloop into a frying-pan sizzling with butter or olive oil. If you don’t burn them to a cinder, as I do, you should end up with a fairly satisfactorily thick, rubbery pancake. Nice with jam or nutella for breakfast.

Or dinner.

White trash September 19, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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Google says I’m riff-raff. Spot on, of course, but you don’t expect computers to be quite so damned discerning. But maybe it can sense the HP Sauce stains on my shirt or smell the vinegar off my crisp-soiled fingers. All I wanted was to google something, like any sane and sober person, when it provided a very ugly screen, which they’ve enuglied especially to put us riff-raff in our place, telling me that I reminded them of a virus-creating robot and spyware-ridden ne’er-do-well and, frankly, a bit of a tosser. And I had to do word verification just to get things back to normal, as if I was posting a comment on some lovely blog. I was struggling to hold back tears as it was – imagine not being allowed access to google. Surely a far more severe punishment than the death penalty – but they thought they’d complete the humiliation. The word verification word was ‘sCUmbAg’. Honestly!

I’m on the island. Bloody hell. Lovely here, innit? The Russian and I have already had to exchange soul-searching SMSes. “Darling,” I might write. “London is the wickedest place on the planet. We should probably move here tomorrow.” But he has to go and spoil things and shatter delusions by introducing reality. “Vere I vill vörk? Vot I vill do? Deesh-vosher?” Which, combined with freshly-formed thoughts of bedsits and single-ringed hotplates and the western end of the Bakerloo Line, saw me removing my dunce’s cap and thinking the current set-up, where I am treated to fantastic but infrequent snippets of London, is perhaps not the worst thing in the world.

I accept I may not be the first to point this out but it’s worth repeating. My god. Isn’t London fan-fucking-tastic (pardon me tmesis)? A pal asked me what had changed since I was last here as normally there’s some obvious shift or other. Though this time nothing has leapt out. Well, there always appear to be new buildings around Canary Wharf but I can’t remember that skyline from one trip to the next. I wouldn’t notice fashion trends, though people seem well-presented and, though this could be to do with my own magnificent age and decrepitude, folk look in good shape. Perhaps slobbishness is out (though I put on a good couple of kilos a day from all the delicious sausages). “Hmm,” I said to the pal. “Well, of course it’s still 900 times more crowded and racier than Berlin, but maybe things don’t seem quite as hectic as normal.” But I must have hit some quiet blip as when I ended up at London Bridge station some hours later, I thought I might pass out from the excitement of so much movement. Bloody hell. Humans swarming this way and that. Crowds the likes of which Berlin only sees when American presidential candidates or the Love Parade come to town. And yet, to my touristy eye, the atmosphere seemed pleasant enough. I never felt I was only a hair’s breadth from a frustration-unleashed bloodbath.

And my mother has moved to beyond London’s borders. To betjemanian Metroland. Even London Underground staff look bewildered when I ask for a zones 1-9 travelcard. “Where ya goin’?” they ask, pouring scorn on my mental probity. Then their eyes roll with dollar signs as they ring up my bill, a one-way ticket costing, naturally, 700 pounds. Still, London is so magnificent that I have even resisted the urge to engage in the quick getting-a-dig-in-at-how-expensive-everything-is conversation with Londoners. How else are we riff-raff to be kept out, after all?

So here I sit, blogging on what feels like a boiling hot day, though the body may have reset itself to autumn, in my mother’s Metroland garden. A little splash o’ Reeocka to wash down my second go of sausages of the day. A 25-metre extension cable keeping me hooked up to the grid. And nothing to disrupt the idyll but the odd scratch of a squirrel and my mother’s pen dancing elegantly across the Daily Mirror crossword (and perhaps my testiness at having to give hints to, “Scottish River. Three letters. TA_”).

It’s a privilege to be here.

Love all September 9, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
35 comments

If TV didn’t exist, Americans would have to invent it.

The US Open has just come to an end. For a tennis fan like myself, it is both the best of times and worst of times. Not it being over. It being on. Because my love is so ardent and my partisanship in any match so fanatic that I normally can’t bear to watch. Which slightly defeats the object of having a love in the first place. I might allow myself to follow the score online, but have to switch that off when the score approaches excitement. Or I might allow myself to watch a snippet of the first few potentially unimportant games of a match, but then panic when the player I’m rabidly supporting misses a first serve. I quickly instruct the remote control to move up or down one channel and alight on soft porn – there is a lot of this on German TV – which is a convenient backdrop as my heart-rate resettles. Perhaps Stephen Pollard is right that tennis is a sport for being who don’t like sport.

I’ve at least learnt that women flick their hair a lot during sex.

And there was even British interest in this year’s men’s final. It would have been exciting if Murray had won but I am thrilled that Federer, whose tennis can be so beautiful that I sometimes have my passions cryogenically put on standby so that I can absorb more than a few minutes’ worth, has, at last, won another Grand Slam.

And tennis is a great waste of time while the Russian isn’t here (and even when he is, to be fair). I can get a good few hours of work avoidance out of checking every result of every tournament happening on the planet twenty times a day. And once the results are known, and the suspense is deadened, I can try to find a replay of highlights.

And one of the presenters on the US Open website TV bit – I don’t know his name. He may be a mega-star in the States – was just so damned good, wandering around talking to random spectators, asking what they thought of this and that result, that I understood TV had to exist. He was made for it. And his excellence and charm make the viewers’ experience more enjoyable. Of course there must be good TV presenters from the UK. From Germany. From Azerbaijan. But it did appear, watching an unknown-to-me man in Flushing Meadow, that Americans had perfected the art. And cue much cringing when foreign broadcasters try to adopt and adapt some recipe that’s worked on American TV. French TV trying to be zany. The Price is Right on British TV.

This could be the success of American TV so dominating the market – when I was young, real life had English accents and the unreal world American – that it’s made me think anything that skews from the path American TV has laid out is less good. But if I want glitz and glamour, or upbeat fantasy unreality TV, I want it with an American accent. For feel-good, I want USA. For grit and comedy, I look more to the island.

Speaking of which, I am having the first strong pangs of home-sickness since about the year 2000. It’s meeting Londoners (or people who live there) what’s done it. I’ve had guests (or met others’) from London and the ease of contact makes me think, if I lived there, I’d probably make best friends on the Tube at least every day. So I’m going to come and nip the home-sickness in the bud by visiting the Big Smoke.

Anyone up for debauchery next week?

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