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Зимний Вечер December 28, 2005

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What with all this talk of Russians and winter and student days, I think it’s time to put up any Russian student’s first poem, by none other than the great Aleksander Sergeevich himself…

Буря мглою небо кроет,
Вихри снежные крутя;
То, как зверь, она завоет,
То заплачет, как дитя,
То по кровле обветшалой
Вдруг соломой зашумит,
То, как путник запоздалый,
К нам в окошко застучит.

___Наша ветхая лачужка
И печальна, и темна.
Что же ты, моя старушка,
Приумолкла у окна?
Или бури завываньем
Ты, мой друг, утомлена,
Или дремлешь под жужжаньем
Своего веретена?

___Выпьем, добрая подружка
Бедной юности моей,
Выпьем с горя; где же кружка?
Сердцу будет веселей.
Спой мне песню, как синица
Тихо за морем жила;
Спой мне песню, как девица
За водой поутру шла.

___Буря мглою небо кроет,
Вихри снежные крутя;
То, как зверь, она завоет,
То заплачет, как дитя.
Выпьем, добрая подружка
Бедной юности моей,
Выпьем с горя; где же кружка?
Сердцу будет веселей.

Isaura the slave-girl December 28, 2005

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“Maybe I’ll go and write something on my blog then.”

“Write what a bastard you are,” came the helpful suggestion. With those words, I left the Russian in the kitchen, slaving, like Isaura the white slave-girl, as he likes to put it. He is the chief cook in the house, it has to be said. I do the laying-table and cleary-uppy and washy-uppy bits afterwards. A division of labour he moans about rather a lot more than I do. Anyway, it’s got me free to blog while he is chained to the stove.

I’m afraid the weather’s going to have to get another mention. The slave-girl and I are fairly fresh back from a joint walk. (They always end in disaster.) Once I’d got the early stages of hypothermia waiting for Isaura on the street outside the flat, I realised that going for a walk in -5 isn’t actually that much fun. Yes, refreshing and all that, but not as nice as sitting indoors with the heating roaring expensively in the background. But we soldiered on. Now I am a moaner, and a poof, but I still purport to be a believer in the stiff upper lip. Which is why it is so fucking infuriating when you’re outstiffed by a Russian. But I suppose he’s always going to outdo me on the weather front. But it is just a tiny bit infuriating, as you realise on the first properly arctic day of winter that actually you really do need to dress rather a lot more carefully for weather like this, to have the word “warm” mouthed in a hail of icicles from somewhere in the immediate proximity. Now maybe I’m being a stickler, and the word that any Russian student will learn as meaning warm – тепло – doesn’t actually just simply mean warm. It also means not cold. But it does also mean warm. Bikini, swimming trunks, swaying palm trees, cheap booze warm. I don’t want that understanding to be prejudiced by an image of people grimacing as their limbs go numb and noses redder than the nearest AA convention.

“No, it’s arse cold.” But the clouds of ice that formed as I uttered my words perhaps meant they never made it to his frostbitten auricle.

When I studied in Russia in 1998, in a fairly northern town – just whipped out my atlas. As far north as the northern tip of the Faroes – I first understood this тепло-doesn’t-mean-warm-it-only-means-not-fucking-freezing malarkey when my hostess (not in a strip club) declared that it was ‘warm’ when the thermometer hit the dizzy heights of 0 degrees. Yep, that’s freezing point to you and me, but she had uttered the word ‘warm’ and I sensed an internal longing for Yalta or Sochi cloud her internal world momentarily. But there was no time for wishful thinking then. It was back to defrosting the washing she’d left out on the balcony to (freeze-)dry.

Anyway, where can one ski in Berlin? I possess neither skis nor coordination, so of course couldn’t possibly hope to perform any skiful act. But the Russian’s constantly gagging to go off for a bit of cross-country skiing as soon as it’s ‘warm’ and snowy enough. Any tracks in the environs, Berliners?

Mug-shots December 27, 2005

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From Finland for Thought, this is a bit of a hoot, in a nicely narcissistic way. You upload a mug-shot of yourself (or whomsoever you happen to have pictures of, of course) and it tells you whom you most look like, although I have a sneaky suspicion it matches pose as much as anything else. But anyway. A huge dent for my confidence, because I only look like women, whereas I’ve always thought I was a brutally masculine lump of beefcake. But the men I most look like – although perhaps their database only has 12 photos – are Marcello Mastroianni, John Travolta, Eminem and Muhammad Ali. Oh well. Makes a change from being told I look like fucking Paul Mc-fucking-Cartney. But the person I absolutely most look like, way more than anyone else, to my mystification, is Katie Holmes. I am equally mystified, and almost proud, to say that, to some extent, I look like Helena Bonham Carter and – this is my proudest moment – the great BS. Go and upload a (face-on, it can’t cope with profile shots) snap immediately.

…and a bottle of rum December 26, 2005

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No, actually, it was all a fairly abstemious affair. Which was nice. I got into the Christmas spirit rather late and living with a Russian, for whom Christmas means nothing, means that it’s never going to be the huge celebration in this house as it is back on the island. The worst oversight in this lack of preparation was that there was nothing in the house that we wanted to drink so we were gagging to get through our bird, salads and potatoes done Komi(not Commie)-style so that we could get out of the house and go and get some booze inside us.

Now the weather hadn’t obliged us with Christmasness all winter, really. In the evening, there was a sprinkling of snow, but only for politeness’s sake. To respect tradition. Whereas today, there is proper, delicious, thick, constant snowfall. I’ve never thought I’m much of a smell-man, but when I popped out on to the balcony, I had an olfactory flashback to a school skiing trip to the Swiss Alps when I was 15, my first time in proper mountains. The right-angles made by the metal slats in the fence-thing that stops us falling off the balcony are now filled with perfect little ski-jumping slopes. I expect miniature Finns to be whizzing down them forthwith.

But where was I? Yes, the weather. So yesterday evening, it was just a fairly arctic, but unsnowy, wintry evening. We trolled down to Unter den Linden, hoping one of the Christmas Markets might have forgotten to close, and, joy, one had, and we managed to get a wonderfully warming mug of Glühwein with a shot of rum in it, then some almonds… and then they remembered to close. Buggeration, we thought. We weren’t even in the swing of things yet. Unter den Linden was deserted. The Russian got cockgrow from the huge Christmas tree outside the Russian Embassy whereas the British Embassy, just round the corner, had nothing but a few policemen for decoration. We minced down as far as the Brandenburg Gate, got cold feet at daring an escape into the West, leapt on the S-Bahn to Oranienburgerstraße and lolloped to Hackescher Markt in search of signs of life. (There really is no need to ever look for solutions beyond Prenzlauer Berg.) Just when I always think we’re not going to find anything open, good old Cafe Cinema always subtly reminds you of its unshowy existence and it’s there, come rain or shine, Christmas or not, humming away. I can highly recommend it to any Berliner – temporary or permanent. Yesterday, of course, it was peopled mostly with us lonely foreigners/tourists, which made for such brilliant people-watching, I can’t tell you. A squillion different nationalities, all fitting their stereotypes (more or less) perfectly. Well, the Finns were a bit effusive, but were young so perhaps hadn’t discovered the joys of silence yet. The Greeks were dolled up and jolly. The mature Portuguese looked tormented by the smoke. The Israelis discussed things ardently and seriously. The Danes were scruffy and cool. The Americans behaved according to form, sort of loud and sympathetic. And the Germans beamed with inward pride – must do the organs no good – at how funky their Hauptstadt was. Cafe Cinema’s such a good, solid kind of place. You don’t have to be a wanker to go there (I was thinking of writing, ‘but it helps’, but that’d be unfair) and we had some scrambled eggs and beer to round Christmas off, which was bliss.

Keeping in Christmas mode, I’m feeling public-spirited and need to divert you to some other Yuletide Blogland musings. I Hate My Neighbours has a couple of festive posts about Christmas bog roll. And, back in the Bundeshauptstadt, the Hauptstadt Blog captures some of the Christmas spirit photographically.

Right, I’m going out to play.

Live-blogging Christmas December 25, 2005

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…ok, that was a joke. Although, now that the big day is upon us – and may I wish everyone a fantastically Happy Christmas – I have accidentally belatedly got into the spirit of things and am thinking I should start draping fairy-lights on the balcony, as the natives do. I fatally switched on the TV and have been half-gripped by, of all things, the Pope doing his thang. He’s chanting away next to me as I type. Of course, with ‘our’ German Pope, the midnight mass is being shown on every regional German channel I have (but maybe it’s televised every year) – a lot – with very clever translators being able to deal with the gazillions of different languages being used in the service. All quite a spectacle, although Ratzi looks like he wouldn’t mind going to bed. He is 112, after all. (Mind you, as impressive a spectacle as it all is, I don’t think I’ll be charging for the doors of a Catholic church if I do ever discover religion. Can’t compete with Orthodoxy as far as I’m concerned.)

Well, in this multikulti household, the presents are done on New Year’s Eve, so I can’t have the vicarious pleasure tomorrow of thinking I’ll be having exactly the same day as the rest of you. No, just me and the Russian and no new jumpers, socks and gloves, but we’ve got a bird, so we’ll do our best.

Cheer and good will to you all…

Haven’t we met somewhere before? December 24, 2005

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“Hello Georgi,” I say, prepared in advance for what I know will come next. A pair of semi-drunken, staring eyes glare at me with no sign of recognition, a hint of suspicion and utter stupefaction.

“Are you in the CIA?” Georgi asks. I am not in the CIA. Indeed, the likelihood of him bumping into a Russian-speaking CIA agent in one of Berlin’s tackier gay establishments is, I would have thought, pretty low. But then nothing seems impossible in the haze of beer and fags and whatever shots of poison the barman in a small German boozer eventually decides to start giving you for free. (This always happens.)

I explain to Georgi that I am not in the CIA but am, not surprisingly, simply a fellow punter in the gay establishment – as it’s so small, you invariably get chatting to the people around you, unless you’re a major sour puss – and that that, equally unsurprisingly, is how I had met him in the past. Chatting at the bar. “But how do you know Russian?” Georgi asks. My answer is practically out of my mouth before the question’s finished.

Fortunately, Georgi is a perfectly nice man and having the same conversation with him three of four times a year is a satisfactory way of spending an hour and a half propping up the bar. But, alas for me and for him, his forgetfulness and my autistically razor-sharp memory provides no end of – for him – CIA moments. But then some of the facts are so good that I could never forget them. “How are your family?” I ask. Georgi has quite a family. “How did you know I had a family?” After a quick internal drone, a lightning explanation that we’ve had PRECISELY this conversation eight times before and a final reassurance that I’m not a spy, spying on the very important Friday night of a middle-aged homosexual, Georgi answers. Georgi is now on wife number two, but lives with wife number one, and has two children, one of whom is gay. Yesterday he was boozing with his (very handsome) gay son. In fact, as his heart warmed (and grew) with every drop of poison, I was almost invited to spend Christmas with them. I waited for the idea to run its course – roughly the time it takes the barman to offer three free shots of Jägermeister – and, thankfully, it soon ran out of steam. I didn’t that much fancy the idea of explaining to wife one that I was a frequent but utterly forgotten acquaintance of her absent-minded ex-husband. And she’s the jealous type. As he explained yesterday, with some indignation, she actually has the cheek to ask him where he’s been when he rolls in at nine in the morning. Imagine the impudence! No wonder they’re divorced.

Well, if I dare seek solace in others’ weaknesses, it’s almost a relief, just now and again, to meet somebody who is clearly not barking, who is relatively normal – well, as normal as a gay man with two wives and two children, one of whom is gay, ever is – but who has such a stonkingly bad memory. I don’t dare claim that I am eminently rememberable, of course, but anyway. As my years trundle by at their steady pace, I do occasionally worry that the grey matter ain’t what it used to be. (Which is true, at least partly. I could manage French verbs at 12. I can’t manage, mid-30s, German ones after four years of practice.) But I haven’t yet quite reached the stage where I utterly forget having had rather a few conversations with another soul.

My New Year’s resolution is not to go mad.

Anyway, I need to go and start my Christmas shopping. Oh, and to poison the tips of some umbrellas.

Have a bona Christmas girls!

Letter from a friend… December 23, 2005

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…sent to a UK newspaper.

Now that civil partnerships between lesbian and gay people living in the UK are an everyday part of our lives, as they have been in some other countries for years, I propose that henceforth the five countries in which gay sex is still punishable by death – namely, Mauritania, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen – be referred to in this context by acronym only, as the MISSY countries. Suits you, sirs.

I’m afraid the Prophet, peace be upon him, hasn’t done too well out of that list (depending on your point of view, of course). Love an offence punishable by death! Can you think of anything more perverse?

I say, I say, I say… December 23, 2005

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What do you call Santa’s little helpers?

I don’t know. What do you call Santa’s little helpers?

Subordinate Clauses.

Boom boom!

Ballroom dancers December 22, 2005

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Yes, ballroom dancers. That’s what young Berliners look like, or at least those that flock to the shops around Schönhauser Allee just before Christmas. I’ve mentioned the leathery tans before, but there’s the tweezing too. Both he- and she-Berliners are overtweezed. And what is it with that pulling the dyed-yellow hair back so tightly that their faces look as taut as Joan Rivers’? Not a good look.

Another fashion item I thought had been consigned to the basse couture hall of fame was those half-cord, half-jeans trousers with the pockets alternating with whichever material they are sewn on to. Did these make it to the outside world or were they stopped at the Berlin/Brandenburg border? They were as much of a class giveaway as a doubly buggy, even if the boy-next-door-ish barman at one of my local woofter joints could get away with them. Today I saw them on a young man for the first time since about 2002. Maybe I’m so behind the times that they’ve gone out of ‘fashion’ and come back in again. Could that be so? Stranger things have happened, like me getting my Geography AS Level. (I think we only had to accost shoppers in Watford to pass.)

The trousers and ballroom-dancing observations were made as I went on ‘my walk’ (as opposed to ‘my other walk’). I’m a man of habit and my walk takes me through the Mauerpark, even though I don’t possess a drum, but as I stumbled into it today in the pitch darkness, I thought I’d better not go any further as all I could see was the odd scampering alsatian and I was worried I might either get bitten to death or given a random blow-job (maybe that Mauerpark rumour is untrue) and I was in the mood for neither death nor fellatio. So I ducked back onto the streets and realised, when I saw someone in a shirt and tie, that that is a look one sees pretty god damned rarely here, whereas, of course, on an early evening in London, it would be the look of about 75% of the men you came across. Well, far be it from me to comment on the employment figures in Berlin…

Aber, as I headed homewards and revolutionarily took a completely new route – seeing as I’d thrown all caution to the wind with the Mauerpark swerve in what I hope won’t become an instant tradition and make me have “my other other walk” – through bits of Prenzlauer Berg, the place seemed fairly busy with new little businesses here and there. But they’re not the shirt-and-tie type of business. I wonder if Prenzlauer Berg will soon collapse under the weight of cappuccino machines. I mean, how many cafés can the area take? They’re all very nice, of course, but they did all look a tad on the empty side, but I suppose folk hadn’t got out of their ballroom dancing classes yet.

Still, wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, of course…

Well-orchestrated promotion December 22, 2005

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I’m always happy to be the victim of a nicely well-orchestrated bit of selling. I am delighted when I discover I am consumed by some trend in common with a good chunk of the rest of the population. It makes me think I’m normal. Like everyone else. And I have no interest in standing out from the crowd (although I was perfectly happy, I must say, to be the only person I encountered on the street yesterday without a leathery tan on December 21st)(those Sonnenstudios do a roaring trade).

Now I’m not that much of a pop fan. My finger never lingers from zapping onwards when I come to Viva on a routine scroll through the channels. Except recently it has started to linger. For the last however long, Viva only seems to have been playing one song, “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt. Then I saw him on telly somewhere on some American show and eventually I got the subliminal message being hammered at me from every angle that I should do something about this enjoyment of the song and dashed to his website. Incidentally, he sang even more lovelily live on the American show than he does recorded with lovely changes of pitch, or timbre, or octave, or whatever it’s called in songese. For the sake of a drop of constructive criticism, I think he could perhaps do with outsourcing the lyric-writing. (Maybe he already does.) And couldn’t he have a haircut and get a good meal inside him? Or has male beauty now adopted scrawn as the de rigueur look too? Anyway, it’s a lovely song, and what a nice thought to think Mr. Blunt was not blinded to beauty in the fog of war.

And I’ve fallen hook, line and sinker for Nizlopi, as I rightly should have. I’m sure a blogger – it must have been a blogger – alerted me to it what seems like months ago and I loved it and forgot it. But the love has been revived, well-orchestrated-ly. Constructive criticism moment: why the faux Estuary English? Aren’t the gentlemen from Royal Leamington Spa? But it’s lovely. And singy. And of course makes me think of my wonderful 3-year-old nephew, who I know is going to loathe school, who loves his digger and whose father does an equally manly job to the Bruce Lee dad. (Don’t think he’s got a JCB, but I know he’s got a gurt big tractor.)

Anyway, that’s my youthful concessions to the Christmas season over and done with. Back to Radio 4 and some stuffy old Schubert from now on…

Queen outmanoeuvres king December 22, 2005

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With the simple utterance of the words, “I, Reg, take thee, David“, (Ooh I betcha do Elt) Elton John yesterday formally contracted the country’s first celebrity gay marriage, so so much for the low profile. Now it seems a bit rude to outdo Chaz and Caz in the Queen’s backyard – same registrar, the works – but the Grauniad article certainly underlines that that was the case. I’m afraid to say that some of the quotes actually brought the beginnings of a tear to my eye: Carole Hewett from Maidenhead said, “This is living in the 21st century.” “I hope he has a good life,” Luke, 11, added solemnly.

This nicely reflects what I more and more firmly believe, i.e. that most people couldn’t give a toss about gayery. Of course it’s possible to get skewed world views. Living in Berlin and only knowing fairly young types (to my chagrin), I never come across anyone who gives a flying fuck one way or the other and even if, at a guess, the fairly religious Catholic 60-something father of a friend might, at some level, think being a friend of Dorothy isn’t ideal, that certainly hasn’t stopped him making me welcome in his home or telling me about what life was like for the Sudeten Germans. Yes, in Paris, one old cunt on the street asked me if I was one of those men that thought he was a woman, but a quick swerve soon had him out of view (and more or less out of mind). Russia was obviously a different world, but not, actually, in terms of reaction when the subject came up. Again, no-one really gave a toss. And in London, of course, I was practically applauded for being a poof at every turn. (I find this a bit embarrassing, between me and you.)

At the other end of skewed world views, I tend to read a lot of blogs. Obviously the talk of uphill gardeners and sodomites disappoints, and annoys, a bit, but it also mystifies. I can half-understand straightforwardly hating gay folk, if that’s your bag, but why get it mixed up with a million other things? That this is a threat to the sanctity of marriage. It isn’t, obviously, and isn’t the same as marriage anyway. That this is pandering to militant gay rights loonie lefty can’t-say-manhole activists. It, again, obviously isn’t. Surely no-one is suggesting gays have actually somehow got a better lot than anyone else, are they? That we’ve pulled a fast one? That this is just another sign of our society’s degradation and is there no end to it and my god soon there’ll be uphill gardening lessons in schools. Well, that’s again, clearly, bollocks. How could legalised homosexuality without these rights be morally any superior to the new situation? For god’s sake, go and have a cup of tea or repair a fence or something. Why bother with all the effort of fomenting ill-will to your fellow omi? There aren’t that fucking many of us. Worry about something worth the trouble.

Which isn’t to say that gays haven’t got a job to do. We need our good ambassadors. We need types that show we are fairly normal folk. Different, perhaps, but pretty normal. Elton has been a good ambassador. He’s got (sort of) married, for fuck’s sake. And I’ve met many a type who told me I’d done some good PR for woofterdom myself. Not by doing anything wondrous, you understand, like darning their socks or bellowing out a complete repertoire of Shirley Bassey numbers. But just by being normal(ish). The biggest single success I had was, oddly, with a Finnish Lutheran pastor in London for some conference at my university. He asked if I was married and I said, “No, I’m a poof.” I wouldn’t always do this, actually, but thought it was OK with a Finn in the hallowed surroundings of some academic conference. But he looked horrified, and didn’t initially believe me. But after further chat, he told me that I’d single-handedly, (more or less) instantaneously and irrevocably changed his view of queendom. Hurrah!

Anyway, which is why it’s nice to read in the Graun that ordinary people went to cheer on Elton not really because it was cool or political or anything to do so, but just because he’s another star and they wanted to wish him well. I find that nice.

The summer starts here December 22, 2005

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The calendar has its weaknesses, in my view. Well, or not exactly the calendar. The planet. Or the northern European bit of it. Up in the north, where the summer is, admittedly, the most beautiful, they’re celebrating midsummer and jumping over their bonfires and putting whatever-it-is, probably lavender, under their pillows and dreaming of their future spouse on June 21st, the longest day of the year, but often when the summer has hardly got going at all. This is Europe’s bad fortune. It would indeed be lovely if the longest day of the year really did fall some time in the middle of summer, and not such that you might tend, if of a maudlin disposish, to think, “Fuck, the days are getting shorter already.” Well, but for all us moaning miseries, at least the opposite is true in winter. It’s been a shit winter in Berlin so far. Just shitty and grey and rainy. Not enough snow. Not enough perfect properly freezing days with a nice blue sky and plenty of sun. +2 or +3 instead of -5, which would be much more pleasant. But at least we can now, on December 22nd, think that the worst of it is behind us. The shortest day is vorbei. Maybe it’s going to be -15 in February but at least it won’t be pitch at 4 (or 1, as it seems to have been of late). Yep, the summer starts here. Forget your yuletide gloom and your thoughts on how to spend a perfect New Year. Renewal starts now.

Finnish tales December 21, 2005

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Because the only two people with blogs I know personally are both from university days, and because their blogs (and others) have became such a staple of my virtual diet, and because I want to tell stories, I am having many a flashback to the heady days of the late 1990s when we all found ourselves in Russia together. The few months provided many a tale, partly because we were pretty much free, partly because there was a fairly hefty gaggle of us in a pretty small town, partly because alcohol consumption was of high social value, and partly because we were such a marvellous group. Well, and the locals were pretty special too, as was the town’s location. Petrozavodsk is the capital of one of Russia’s many constituent republics, Karelia, which has close historic, linguistic, cultural, ethnic (everything, basically, although Karelians are actually only a fairly small minority within the republic) ties with Finland, which lies next door. Indeed, some areas of what is today Karelia (and neighbouring Russian regions) were Finnish before WWII.

Now I might holler on about Belarus and a bit about Russia on here every now and again, but I really should do the odd yak about Finland too, which is another great love. So rather than remembering some of the exclusively Russian tales from those months all those years ago, I’m going to describe a couple of occasions where Finns played a leading role.

As luck would have it, I was studying both Russian and Finnish back in London. And as luck would doubly have it, our university was twinned with one just near the Finno-Russian border and as luck would trebly have it, I was invited to attend a course in Finland starting roughly when the Russian course came to an end. I had never been to Russia or Finland before this trip. I’d met a gaggle of Russians and Finns back in London, of course, but it’s always interesting to study the species in its native environment so I was happy to get the chance to go to the wilds of northern Europe.

Now because of those close ties with Finland, and because Finns are richer than Russians, and because Russia is cheaper than Finland, and because they could, Finnish businessmen, mostly working in the forestry business, would come across to Karelia to buy Russian timber. And as Petrozavodsk was the biggest town in the area, there’d frequently be a gaggle of Finnish businessmen visiting the town.

Very conveniently, for the sake of this entry, one afternoon – boozing started early back then – the two bloggers, a non-blogger(ess) (to my knowledge) (about the blogging, I mean. I know she’s a woman) and I went for a drink. We popped into one of our locals where, alas, there was no four-person-shaped table for us to sit at. But a respectable-looking gentleman, alone, moustachioed and wearing a selection of greens, browns and perhaps even tweeds, occupying one table alone, beckoned us over. We youngly hardly acknowledged him, sat down and started to chat. In English. At which point the betweeded gentleman spoke to us in English and was surprised to discover a group of English folk in Karelia. We gave him our spiel. “University.” “Twinned.” “Russian.” He explained he was a Finn. “Here on business.” “Forestry.” “Cheaper.” He seemed very respectable. Boringly so. But he proceeded to get fantastically, uproariously, staggeringly drunk. Quite marvellously drunk. The tone of his conversation soon headed south. “We play cards for R_,” (the female member of our group), he suggested to me. I explained that I didn’t own her and that she wasn’t really mine to give away (or win) in a game of cards. She’s an itsenainen nainen, I said, in perhaps my first and only ever vague play on words in Finnish. (It means independent woman.) “Fuck off,” he bellowed back at me, but it was a friendly bellow and I must say that however uproarious he got, I don’t think any of us feared for anything, except perhaps that he might die, throughout the encounter. He was eventually deflected from his bright idea of winning R_ in a game of cards – R_ took it all in good spirits – and moved on to recommend to us some of his favoured sex tourism spots. “Prague. The women is very cheap. The beer is very cheap.” And then came his best line, which many of my friends have had a hard time disagreeing with as I’ve told them the story over the years. “I like drinking and fucking. Hobba hobba.” He bellowed this over and over. “Drinking and fucking.” He was fairly caveman in his linguistic level by now, but, inexplicably, still managed to talk R_ and me into going back to his hotel with him for another drink – maybe R_ secretly fancied him – at which point the bloggers abandoned us. The hotel was another story in itself. The bar was a Soviet dream. Lots of brown. Lots of wood panelling. And lots of drunken Finns and depressed-looking local prostitutes. Our caveman introduced us to his other friends, all in the same business, and one of whom looked like Dracula – it was the hair – and dressed a bit like the grimmest character in a standard Kaurismäki film. But, alas, our evening was not much prolonged. The caveman was certainly going to do no fucking that night and we said our goodbyes in the form of a note placed under his head which had now collapsed onto the table in front of him.

An inauspicious, perhaps, but entertaining introduction to Finns closer to their natural habitat. But soon I would see them in greater numbers. On the morning after Argentina knocked England out of the 1998 World Cup, I set off with a heavy heart (and head) for Savonlinna, via Helsinki, to deepen my cultural and linguistic understanding of the Finns (and drink a lot). After a brief and happy reunion in Helsinki with my (erstwhile) beloved, I went north for more student fun, only this time with a group of strangers. The northern summer is so perfect, as was the location, and we were soon like old pals. Savonlinna, although pretty bloody famous by Finnish standards, is still fairly small and we only found a couple of places to go out in the town, both of which were pretty good fun. But the months of drinking had taken something of a toll on me. Or, rather, on my shape. I was not a thin man. Rotundity levels were high and the long days and constant boilingness had given me a rather pink tinge. Not that I gave a toss, really, but it provided the fuel for my favourite Finnish quote of the summer number two. While standing at the bar to order another beer, a friendly, handsome, strapping, big blond thing asked me, nicely, smilingly, but definitely drunkenly, “Are you English?” Now I am nothing if not Nimmo-like in my manners, and I gave him a polite, vicarish reply and then asked him how he had guessed. “Because you have a big, fat, red face.” It was quite the nicest insult I’d ever been given. He said it so friendlily, unaggressively, almost well-meaningly, and continued to beam at me afterwards. It was a bit of a conversation-stopper, though, and our friendship didn’t blossom. It didn’t get me in that gym the next day but I’m happy to inform that I am now waif-like and pasty in comparison.

Time flew ever onwards and it was soon further goodbyes to new-found friends, another quick stop in Helsinki – a city I adored and still love to this day – then a quick trip to Turku to see some pals there before ending anything study-related on this trip and heading to Sweden on the ferry for a bit of pure tourism. But I was to have one valedictory moment more of drunken Finnish joy. The ferry trip from Turku to Stockholm is fucking gorgeous. I happened to go when there was a perfect sunset, but you also pass through an archipelago and it’s just stunningly beautiful from port to port. The ferry trip is also famous as an out-and-out, total piss-up. And it didn’t disappoint. Our caveman seemed practically sober in comparison to some of the pissheads on board. I was anti-drinking-alone at the time and so sat soberly by, scribbling postcards and enjoying the scenes of revelry around. Then, all of a sudden, a walrus of a woman wearing a carpet approached with all the grace and elegance of a rhino. Bellowing seems to be the order of the day amongst drunken Finns. “Do you have a husband?” she bellowed. “How observant for a rhino-like drunken walrus in a carpet,” I thought, but she slowly clocked her mistake and adjusted the gender accordingly. I explained I didn’t. She then thundered round behind my chair, causing tidal waves as she went (no, that’s not true), and in the quickest movement she’d no doubt made in quite a number of years, grabbed my balls. And we lived happily ever after. No, no, we didn’t. Well, it was a bit of a shock to have your balls grabbed by a rhino-like walrus in a carpet, but I managed to make it quite clear that I didn’t actually that much fancy a quick shag, if she wouldn’t mind awfully. She didn’t mind at all, in fact, and happily thundered off, not noticeably crestfallen or affected in any way, in search of her next grabbee.

Which is a strange way to embody my love for the Finns, with three stories of drunkenness and less than noble behaviour. But they’re the best storiful moments. And I do love the Finns. Very much. And Finland is, I think, if push came to shove, my life depended on it and I just HAD to answer a quiz question on what my favourite country on earth was, excluding Blighty, naturally, then I think I’d have to plump for Finland. I love the people. I adore the landscape. I crave the language (the most beautiful on earth). And if it only had a 12-month summer, rather than a 10-minute one… But we can’t have everything.

Titles December 19, 2005

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As always, this will be a few lines of ill-thought-out garbled chuff but, as the great Dr. Johnson said, “Blog it when it’s fresh, for ’twill otherwise surely go unblogged and unrecorded for the good of mankind,” or something like that. So I got to thinking, as I tucked into a little cigarette while pretending to be at the computer for work’s sake, that titles are an awfully useful thing. I’ll explain…

Now I’m having a cigarette. Yet, the thing is, I am, officially, a “non-smoker”, so it doesn’t really count, you see, me smoking. I may get through a good packet and a half on a “good” day, but, having nomenclatured myself a non-smoker, I can puff away without the slightest hint of remorse or worry – this is probably untrue, in fact, and the fact that I’m writing this is no doubt the first seed of guilt, doubt and worry. I might be renaming myself with early post-Soviet vigour forthwith – about what I’m doing to my innards. (I’m in a room alone with doors and windows closed so only my cactuses and swirly bit of IKEA bamboo can conceivably be suffering the effects of passive smoking before someone high-horses me.) But non-smoking smoker, that’s me. And, titles aside, I’ve got a squillion other ways of justifying this internally. If I hadn’t gone out yesterday, then I wouldn’t have had to buy these emergency fags anyway. So, you see, they’re only an occasional vice. Honest. No, really.

I’m all for a bit of deceit. My sister and her husband claim to be vegetarians. Drones ring out across nations the moment anyone thinking of ever inviting them into their home is reminded of the fact. But the wonderful thing is that my vegetarian sister and her husband are everyone’s favourite type of vegetarian. The type that eats meat. They’re always a relief, that kind, and make such easy guests. Most vegetarians I know eat meat. I decided I should be a vegetarian aged 19. As I was too dim to know why I’d done it and as you always have to justify why you’re a vegetarian to folk the moment you declare it, I eventually came up with a stock answer that it was because I hated animals so much. That normally shut people up. I never dared say this in France, of course, where vegetarianism is a serious social crime on a par with murder and not-being-in-a-bad-mood. (Oh, mais alors là, tu m’énerves!) And France soon cured me of my vegetarianism anyway. But the thing is, when I was a vegetarian, I happily chomped away on a choucroute bursting with sausage when it was put before me, willingly twizzled lashings of spagbol onto a spoon provided or even, when nobody was looking, gorged on burgers from the chip-van that served the hordes of drunken, underfed 19-year-olds that poured out of the Student Union building on a Friday night. My ex’s family was crawling with meat-eating vegetarians. We would condescendingly sneer at the barbarians tucking into succulent venison with a good splurge of thick, meaty gravy as we prodded our lentil bake gloomily around our yearning plates. Then we’d queue up, silently, with not a seditious word peeped by anyone, to gorge on the carnal leftovers when the barbarians had retired, fully sated, for the night. But vegetarians we remained, at least in name.

So, yes, I’m all for a bit of an obfuscatory title. I don’t know what else I lie about. A well-worn lie becomes so ingrained eventually that you forget it’s not the truth any more. But the day I declare on this site that I’m a non-drinker, someone call an ambulance. Quick.

Russian fags December 18, 2005

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There’s a visually evocative link over at the booksellers’ gaff reminiscent of many a pulmonary incident in Russia. I remember forcing myself to smoke these and these. (Actually, one English visitor was so impressed with the latter, especially the price, that he took however many he legally could back with him to the island.) But as low as coffers and spirits ran, I never smoked these filterless high-speed lung-destroyers, as, I’ve got a feeling, our man in New York may have been known to. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)

But, anyway, Liukchik has been forced into a bit of comfort-smoking by the mere presence/whiff of an eastern bloc fag and, as coincidence would have it, those pretty packets entered my internal world – only psychically. I’m not letting those bastards loose on my internal organs – only yesterday when I went to see yet another Russian film, Okraina, at my Stammkino. Quite an extraordinarily odd film. I’m not sure I’ve seen a Russian piss-take before, and it was very well done, and all shot in the style of old Soviet classics such as Chapaev. (God this linking’s a pain.) It recounts the tale of a few simple folk from somewhere in the Urals defending their land against the wicked oil barons in Moscow. They set off to get to the bottom of who sold them out and wreak revenge on ever bigger fish and with ever greater cruelty along the way, and they get right to the top. There’s a delicious scene at the end of our three heroes spluttering off on their motorbike with sidecar from a Moscow in flames AND with a trophy woman – the oil magnate’s secretary – to take back to the provinces. Hilarious. Well worth a watch.

In a smooth and totally unorchestrated pun, speaking of Russian fags – boom boom – I’m going to my first ever gay Russian disco in Berlin this evening. Today is Sunday, so it could well be empty, but the fact that it’s in one of Berlin’s best-known gay clubs and the party has been going on for some years makes me think it must be something of a success. So I hope to be strutting my stuff to many an AlPu classic this very evening. (I tend to fall asleep in clubs these days, be it said.) Of course gayness is no biggy in Berlin, but when I was in Russia, gayness really had to be tracked down and sniffed out. Obviously I couldn’t ask my colleagues where the local poofters’ joint was and the bit of info I had from a fellow English poof before leaving for St. Petersburg was only half-useful because it turned out that there were 150 Red Army Streets in St. Petersburg. But when I did eventually find the subtly and originally named Club 69 – now sadly no more – it was a surprisingly happy moment. I’d studied in Russia before but had never done anything gay there. There wasn’t anything, to my knowledge. And trips to Moscow and St. Petersburg then had only been short and touristy and didn’t have a gay window. (Plus in Moscow we were always too plastered.) So when I went into Club 69, after, admittedly, only a few weeks back in the closet, it was such a relief to be able to, as it were, let it all hang out again. And Russian gays were so much less uniform than western queens. The club was full of all sorts, including real sailors, going absolutely apeshit to crappy old pop. It was bliss, and I smiled out loud. I beamed from ear to ear. They were recognisably queens, yes; this is when I understood that the language of queendom is truly international. Camp just must be genetic. None of these queens would have been to London or San Francisco or Berlin for queenery lessons, yet there were as expert as any self-respecting Doris on Old Compton St. (Thai queens were just the same.)

But in Russia, of course, Club 69, while not at all hidden down a back alley or anonymous in any way, was a real refuge for people, 99% of whom would have been leading double lives. Thankfully, Piter’s queens have still got Greshniki (Sinners) to go wild in. It’s on the street where I used to live, queerly, is a much nicer club than 69 anyway, which liked to think of itself as cool and enjoy turning folk away at the door, and is wonderfully tacky. I hope DJ Lubovnic will be able to compete tonight…

Euramost December 17, 2005

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I don’t know who runs Euramost, but their articles, especially if written from within Belarus, give cause for hope. (The site is in English too, but is more up-to-date in Russian/Belarusian.) The article linked to says Lukashenka’s choice of such an early election date shows he’s running (relatively) scared (maybe ambling scared) (and amusingly says that Lidzia Yarmoshyna, head of the Central Electoral Commission, should be nicknamed Lida 75%. Makes Misha look saintly in comparison). Well, the internet is pretty much the only source of information in Belarus that isn’t under Luka’s control – although RSF did call Belarus one of the world’s fifteen enemies of the internet – and so is, obviously, fantastically important. But the internet only reaches a certain sector of the population and, sadly, the sector that least needs convincing that Luka’s a bad thing. Well, the article says in the opposition’s favour that, apart from Lukashenka running scared, the early date means that any other random, oddball candidates are unlikely to be able to gather the bazillion signatures necessary in time so it could just be a two-way run-off on the big day. I’m all for pluralism, of course, but in the case of Belarus it would be better if there were as few opponents as possible for an uninitiated public to get its head round. Somehow, I’ve got a feeling Belarus’s equivalent of Pickfords won’t be moving the lorries in on March 20th next year to pack up Luka’s hockey sticks, hammers, sickles and farming GCSE certificates, but the signs aren’t all TOO gloomy.

Momentary lapse December 17, 2005

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…into politics. I know, I know. I said I wouldn’t. But the beeb seems to be touting Misha 2% as a serious political rival to Putin. (Nothing in the Russian service, admittedly.) It’s funny to see Kasyanov portrayed in the good-guy light as he was famed for being so brazenly corrupt in the past. So it’s interesting to see his PR transformation happening before our very eyes, and he can even hold his own in an English-language interview and say all the right things about how Russia is becoming less and less democratic and freedoms are disappearing under Putin. Even if he was staggeringly beautiful as a young man, I doubt this has much bearing on matters and I wonder what sort of standing he really has in Russia. Could he be a real potential presidential candidate? I’ve moaned about Kasyanov before, but anyone who gets the Putin Youth (note the Soviet .su, not Russian, website address) (maybe this was only because .ru was taken, but I doubt it) protesting against him might be worth his salt after all.

Happy Birthday to a Bulgakov masterpiece December 17, 2005

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The Master and Margarita is 65 today (well, not quite today, but around now), and in its honour, I’m giving it the BiB seal of literary approval in a one-off Oprah-style BiB book-club.

It’s a book I’ve had a torrid affair with. It may be the book that’s most got under my skin. It started, of course, at university (number one), when I was meant to take a seminar on it but of course hadn’t read the bastard and had to bunk off and miss my moment of glory. Very grown-up, you’ll agree. I’d been assured by my teacher that it was a book I wouldn’t be able to put down, yet I found it eminently, relentlessly, effortlessly putdownable as a man barely out of my teenage years. But once reading it was no longer forced labour, but a labour of love, I was hooked. It IS a gripping read.

I’ve just been listening to a snippet from the BBC’s Russian service and, to my great relief, intellectual number two, being interviewed by presenter and intellectual number one, couldn’t say what the book was about. It’s a cop-out (for me), of course, to say it’s hard to say what the book’s about, but it really is true. (This reminds me of when my ex-boyfriend was raving about Blue Velvet to one of his (American) father’s scarily intellectual (American) friends and, as he fluffed his opening lines in trying to describe the film was asked, curtly, “It was about something?” But more about those very same American intellectuals (not werewolves) in London in a deliciously smooth link-up in a sec.) The book’s got everything. Love, the devil, madness, Soviet Moscow, hilarity, Jesus and Pontius Pilate, a talking cat… the works.

Now one can get a bit caught up in one’s books. Rather like Alan Bennett and his father’s two suits, known as ‘my suit’ and ‘my other suit’, I’ve only really got two books I recommend and give as presents. This one and Daniel Deronda. I so need to branch out. But back to the American intellectuals. Ex-boyfriend was struggling to think of a birthday present for his father. I piped up with my one and only solution, new at the time, and the freshness and enthusiasm of the piping convinced ex-boyfriend that it was a satisfactory choice. And it turned out to be so. Thankfully, his father hadn’t read it and looked suitably chuffed before no doubt placing it on a shelf where it gathers dust nicely to this very day. We set off to celebrate at a very mediocre Indian restaurant – must geniuses hate food? – where we were joined by American-intellectual-in-London number two. When it came to present-giving time, out came a book-shaped parcel and, to no-one’s surprise but my ex-boyfriend’s and mine, in it was The Master and Margarita. We whooped at the coincidence of it all. But the American intellectuals (and girlfriend of AiiL#1) thought nothing of this – they clearly got out more than we did – and nor was anyone (but us) surprised when AiiL#2 took the book back and produced a back-up present.

Anyway, in spite of this perhaps inauspicious start, I have continued, relentlessly, to give the book as a present. I amazonned it to someone this year, who commented that it looked large and wasn’t that the book I’d given a gazillion times to everyone I knew already? So, yes, I must branch out.

Fucking good read though. I highly recommend it.

East-drinking December 16, 2005

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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I can never remember how to attach a hyperlink in a blog comment which means I have to make like I’m going to create a post, make the hyperlink there, and then copy and paste the bastard to the comment I want to make. Well, I’ve just done this again, but it seems a shame not to make use of the links now that they’re here. I can’t believe any Berlin-based visitor won’t know Kaffee Burger, host to the infamous Russendisko, but there’s a chance they might not know about the lovely Polish Losers just down the road. With a gaggle of less-than-sober pals, I once managed to get that emergency last drink there at some ungodly hour when the lovely barmaid had forgotten to lock the door but didn’t have the heart to send us away drinkless after we’d made the effort. That’s hospitality for you! Anyway, if I may include Finland in the east for the sake of this entry, I’m utterly gutted to see on the Kaffee Burger site that I missed a Finnish party there. Finnish cover versions, a bit of tango, plenty of Salmiakki Koskenkorva (I see it’s known as Salmiakkikossu “for short”) and, hopefully, not too much small talk – I bet the evening went with a bang.

Time of the month December 16, 2005

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Yes, it’s that time of the month again. Or, to be more precise, the 16th, when we are asked to light a candle for Belarus. Hard to get any decent figures on this, of course, though organisers say it was more successful second time round than the first. This is the third month when, hopefully, lights will go out and candles will be lit.

It’s hard to know how effective this sort of protest is. But those opposed to Lukashenka can only do what they can. Today it has been announced that the presidential elections will be held on March 19th 2006, which doesn’t give Milinkevich and the opposition much more time to further his cause, but, on the positive side, perhaps suggests a hint of fear from the Lukashenka side in that the elections being held earlier means he wants to halt whatever momentum they have. One can but hope.

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