jump to navigation

Pablo Picaro January 13, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

So there I am, over at Wynders’s gaff, having a bit of a pre-dinner mosey, and I click on this link from this entry and my attention suddenly, surreptitiously, and by the mystery of unintentional clicks, finally ended up being snared by this little tale of stunning arrogance and conceit.

Now I can well understand the Picasso clan wanting to protect the family name and only have cars called the Citroen Picasso darting niftily round Paris and other glamorous locations. Aber to try to stop other manufacturers from using quite a different word altogether… well, that’s just a touch wank, isn’t it? It’s not as if Daimler Chrysler wanted to call their car the Picasso. They wanted to call it the Picaro. Quite another noise altogether. Which makes me think the Picasso clan might just be suffering from a slight overdose of haughtiness to have taken Daimler Chrysler to court (and lost, and then lost the three appeals). I hope Monet’s heirs and descendants are on to Ford to have the Mondeo renamed and that the van Goghs are making sure all those Vauxhall Vivas are taken off the road with immediate effect. Actually, even Vauxhall sounds a bit like van Gogh. And now you – or, rather, I – come to mention it, even the word ‘car’ sounds a bit like Caravaggio. Is there no end to this exploitation of artists (whose names have already been sold by their estate)?

Anyway, back to Wynders and that car. Unless it’s the drink typing, I’ve got a feeling, somewhere in the comments to that post, folk said you’d never be able to sleep – or something like that – worrying that the bastard would be nicked. Which leads me beautifully into a little story. Many years ago – well, 1992 – I was living in the lap of luxury – not – in good ol’ Kentish Town. The ex – excuse the frequent mentions. He’s still a majorly good pal – had a job to do with cars, meaning he often came home to our hovel with a brand, spanking new motor. This was all well and good, and as we were young and poor, we’d revel in the chance to go out for a bit of a spin. But one evening, the ex was given an Aston Martin to drive home in. And we weren’t in the posh bit of Kentish Town. No, we were in the majorly dodgy, bloody ugly, quadruple-buggy part of town. Living above a betting shop. (Oh the glamour.) We had even expressed an interest to our landlady in buying her flat and had had it valued and knew – those were the days – that it was 30-something grand. And the Aston Martin – dunno what type. Sorry – was valued at 140 grand. Which means, just as Wynders’s commenters rightly suspected, we were frantic with worry and spent half the night getting up to check if it was still there. And, of course, it was, and no ill befell it at all. (Although we were called wankers as we took it for a spin by random folk, even in Hampstead!)

The ex likes to recount tales – I think apocryphal – of how I became so inured to luxury that I would sometimes sneer out the window from above the Kentish Town betting shop and say, “I’m not getting in that,” if he drove home in, say, a Lexus. My brain is too wine-addled to come down on either side regarding the truth of these allegations. But, amusingly, almost, the only cars that did get broken into as they sat nicely outside the hovel were utter pieces of shit. Cor blimey. They knew their place, those thieves, back in the early 1990s.

Anyway, as classy as I think the Aston is, I think my heart would still take me to one of these little beauties. Home is where the heart is…
(Photo taken from Jordi Gaya-Gallofré.)

Bakterioita January 13, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

It can be queer living abroad, there’s no denying it. Although it depends on the abroad, of course. The Russians have a nice way of distinguishing between the ‘near abroad’, i.e. that which they don’t consider that much abroad, such as Ukraine and Belarus, and just abroad. Well, depending on your point of view, for us Englanders, Germany could easily fall into the ‘near-abroad’ category. We’re not that different, us and them. The view from the island might be a bit different, but over here on the continent, where your nation’s neighbours are one mental remove fewer away, the similarities are probably as likely to make themselves felt as the differences. Now it goes without saying that German-bashing is a Europe-wide sport, but once you get past the goose-stepping and sausage jokes, I think most Scandies, our Dutch cousins and the various other Germanic stragglers around the continent – actually, I’m beginning to want to contradict myself already. I think the Swiss and Austrians defy categorisation – would agree that we all have rather a lot in common.

But then there’s that little gem language to remember. Most Englanders are always going to feel more at home where the locals sound fairly much like we do. If they happen to be descendants of subjects of Her Majesty into the bargain, I suppose the mental link might be felt even more strongly. And then most even feel fairly at home in those naughty old colonies that dared declare independence all by themselves. (Zimbabwe’s lovely at this time of year, I hear.) Of course I don’t mean to say I can’t make as good a friend amongst the Germans as I can, say, with a New Zealander, but with a New Zealander, you’ve got a head start.

Which is why I’m interested to go and see how a couple of weeks in New Zealand are going to work their magic on me. Is it going to have all the mystery of exotica, or is it going to be a bit queer, sort of England-like but with decent weather and wooden houses? In any case, I’m already looking forward to the lingo. The list of things I’ve got to do before going – have haircut, get suit dry-cleaned, become a nicer person – have all been put gloriously on hold as I remember, “No, I won’t go and struggle to explain what I want here, I’ll go to the other side of the world and do it more easily there instead.” I fully expect to make up for lost linguistic time and chat to strangers on the street, flaunting my perfect English and stunning the natives with my fluency. (I just have to remember to adjust those vowel sounds. Fush, not fish. Pin, not pen.)

Which is, again, not to say that living with a language disability – or is it called facing-the-challenge-of-being-too-dim-and-lazy-to-learn-a-foreign-lingo- once-you’re-in-your-30s these days? – can’t be fun too. I have just had many a festive reminisce with pals about the days when we first arrived in Germany and there was no way round me dealing with bureaucracy all alone. An awfully kind friend had organised accommodation for us for our first month here but obviously we spent the first weeks frantically looking for a place to live. There was no phone where we were staying so I bravely set off to the Post Office to acquire a cheapo mobile. “Phone, phone,” I said, cavemanly and pointily to the – ça va sans dire – woman-with-short-hair-and-glasses scowling behind the counter. She came back with a box, unfurled a biblical screed of what I presumed were terms and conditions and talked me through them at great length without realising, or at least not totally, that I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. I got round this by humming my agreement at ten-second intervals, ears pricked for the slightest suggestion of interrogative intonation in her soliloquy. But, luckily for me, there were no questions asked, I got a phone with nothing more than a grunt, a point and a few uh-huhs and we were all happy.

Understanding the odd word – very odd, indeed – can be more of a hindrance than a boon. At least with my short-hair-and-bespectacled official I didn’t have to overly strain my brain. I knew it was a lost cause and just hoped for the best. But when I went to Finland, I was meant to know the language. I’d studied it for two whole years. I was invited by Finnish taxpayers to improve my knowledge, be put up in luxurious university accommodation and be shown a corkingly good time by the people organising the course. But of course I couldn’t understand a fucking word. Well, or just the odd fucking word, as I say. When we had all been given a sonorous but utterly incomprehensible welcome by our hosts, we were then shown to our accommodation which led to my first bit of terrifying one-on-one-ness with a Finnish-speaking Finn. I was led to my incredibly nice student flat with my guide saying something along the lines of ‘Kokko kukka kykkö kökky kokissako.’ I uh-huhed for my life, again ears to the ready for interrogative pitch (or ending, actually, in Finnish) in case I had to make a real contribution. But I seemed to be in the clear. Yet as she showed me my spangly, shiny kitchen, she did a wiping motion with her right arm, spurted forth a fountain of ks and then, in the middle of it, to make me feel comfortable, no doubt, she said, very carefully, pointedly and succinctly, ‘bakterioita’. Now bakterioita might mean, “The bus to the university leaves at 8am.” Finnish is that kind of language. But I’ve got a feeling it actually means ‘bacteria’ (partitive plural is my guess). An odd word to have got into our first ever chat; we didn’t fall in love and settle down, you’ll be surprised to hear, but at least she must be a stickler for cleanliness.

Well, language is sorta kinda everything. Without it, you’re fucked. There’s no denying it. And the language barrier is pretty insurmountable beyond the most caveman of communications. Yet sometimes I wonder if the sacrifice of struggling to talk to the locals is actually more than compensated for by also not being able to understand half of what they say. The next couple of weeks are going to be a Germany v New Zealand special. If understanding the idle chatter of NZers beats not understanding the idle chatter of Germans, I shall seriously have to reconsider my geographic future.

Adopt-a-Russian January 13, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Well, or more like, Rent-a-Russian, or Short-Lease-a-Russian. Just for a couple of weeks.

Some vital statistics:

Age: 30

Build: brick shithouse

Appetite: ferocious

Usefulness around the house: exemplary, including repairing things that are already in full working order

Ability to knock up dinner out of a (half-)fridgeful of utterly uninteresting ingredients: exemplary

Conversability: improves upon lubrication

Maintenance: low

Gore Vidal January 11, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

What a git. Well, no. That’s not strictly true. I mean, I like Myra as much as the next man, and old Gore’s definitely got a way with words. But what’s this about never missing an opportunity to have sex or appear on TV? OK, again, I concede, he might be onto something with that sex idea. Sex has definitely caught on. But TV? Overrated.

I am unproud to say that as of however-long-it-takes-some-German-youngsters-to-get-their-act-together, both the Russian and I will have embarked upon our TV careers and from the way he describes his experience so far, I think it looks as we’ve both been well and truly verarsched (fucked over in the vernacular). The phone rang last week and a young man with a handsome voice who sounded as if he’d just been doing something healthy like playing badminton and who’d clearly never done anything naughty in his life asked for the Russian. I then witnessed the Russian squirm politely on the phone as the disembodied voice exuding health listed his demands. If I may be allowed to conjecture a third party version of how the phone call went, in translation, I think it was a-something like this…

“Um, hello, Russian?”

“Yes…” (shudder, squirm)

“It’s me, healthy, young, happy TV-programme-maker with a perfect complexion. Would you mind if I made about a million fairly unreasonable demands of you, occupied all your time for, say, the next month-and-a-half and didn’t pay you anything at all into the bargain and, oh, could we also go out for dinner, not on me, at somewhere of my choosing to discuss it all?”

“Yes, that sounds very reasonable.” (shudder, squirm)

“Well, here’s our pitch. We want to make a documentary about two students. One, our friend, perfectly happy, 21-year-old, healthy, fine-fettle, badminton-playing girl who gets a BAföG (grant) and only 2000 euros a month from her parents to live on. The thing is, she sometimes has to work – one minute a week in a café – so we want to show what a hard life she has and explain why it is she needs 37 years to get her degree in crochet.”

“Oh yes, I can quite see that. Yes.” (squirm)

“And we thought we’d like to compare her very tough life with some foreign wanker student who has it easy. Erm, with you, actually.”

“Oh, yes, that’s an awfully good idea.” (shudder, squirm, shudder)

“Good. Well, it’ll be very straightforward, and we’ll just want to interview you for about 23 hours a day for about 14 days running in Spandau, but that’ll be it and I definitely won’t ring you again tomorrow and e-mail you thirty times a day with another million unreasonable demands just in case we get some other really good ideas into our head. Is that OK? Sorry, I can’t talk long. I’ve got to go and play badminton.”

“Erm, yes, OK. The thing is…” (blush, shudder, blush, squirm)

“Oh, I don’t think that should matter.”

“Erm, yes, I’m sure you’re right, but the thing is, I’m actually a foreign student and that means I’m not entitled to any grants and I’m only allowed to work for a limited number of days a year and…” (squirm, squirm)

“Yes, but you are a wanker though, aren’t you? I mean, in comparison to Pippi?”

“Well, yes, I suppose so, but, erm, aren’t we slightly skewing events if we claim that Pippi, who does actually have her own helicopter, has rather a struggle of it whereas I would have to struggle quite a lot harder to make ends meet than I already do were it not for my incredibly kind and generous and altruistic and selfless beloved?” (blush, blush)

“Oh, I don’t think we need to let the truth get in the way of our point of view, do you, Russian?”

“Erm, no, I suppose not.” (shudder)

“OK, I’ll ring tomorrow at 4am to arrange our next inconvenient appointment.”

Which is rather how things seem to be when you let TV folk into your life. I’ve made the same mistake myself. Last year, I agreed to take part in a French TV programme being shot in Berlin where Europeans from different countries sat around and talked about something or other. I happened to be in the environment programme. I know nothing about the environment but was grilled for hours on end and by various media – phone, e-mail, mobile – by some adolescent office-girl from Paris. Having worried myself into paroxysms of fear for weeks beforehand, it all passed off boringly and uninterestingly enough but did I get my complimentary video of the show after it had been aired? Did I buggery! And pain-in-the-arse office-girl even rang me weeks later, I thought to thank me, but in fact to ask if I could recommend folk to appear on the London show. Honestly, give these TV folk an inch and they’ll bleed you dry. (Unless, of course, it all leads to something marvellous and the Russian gets talent-scouted and he gets whisked to Hollywood and we all live happily… or something like that.)

Arachnid chat January 11, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Jens, our house spider, has my sympathy in ever greater quantities the more I think about him. A very public-spirited, but anonymous – blog-wise – Jon in Australia has given me encouraging news on the NZ-fauna front. There are no snakes there and only one spider which is pretty rare.

But no wonder Jens is single, forcing himself to be celibate, starving himself to death and shunning spider society if the only chance of a bit of company he’s got comes in the shape of cheap sluts like Kati Po.
I mean look at her. She’s way overweight, a bit frumpy, and who’s fooled by the orange stripe down the back? As if that makes you fashionable! Silly cow.

Whereas our Jens… Well, look at him.
Now I must point out that this isn’t ACTUALLY Jens, but it’s a fairly good likeness. Still, you can see he’s got some style. A bit of grace. He’s a sophisticated spider. I mean, when did Kati Po ever suffer from depression? No, she’s not good enough, and I’m not going to invite her back with me to the Old World to relieve Jens of his woes. No, I think he’s better off alone than with some colonial upstart like her.

But I’ll be having a word with Jens before I go. He needs to get out more. I’ll encourage him onto the web – boom boom! – while I’m gone. There must be some sites where bugs with legs can get together, upload profiles, then invite each other out for, say, dinner and a bit of a spin.

Well, I must confess there’s a traumatic childhood tale of one BiB pet not surviving my absence for just a week, and I’m a bit worried about the arachnid-Russian dynamic in this household. I can sense the rivalry, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s quite a bit of vying for supremacy whilst I’m away. Love and friendship, eh? It ain’t easy…

The sound of silence January 10, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Which is bollocks, of course. Even on the dullest street in suburban Berlin, where every light in every flat is off by about 9pm, you never get real silence. There’s always the hum of the fridge, or the rattle of a radiator shuddering into life or the smack of a German lady with short hair and glasses pursing her lips in indignation at some perceived slight, such as an interloper having crossed the road when the Ampelmann is gingerbread-man red rather than raging hard-on green (or committing some other equally egregious crime).

Silence, I’m assured, can only be heard in the desert. Two English friends who have been in the Sahara assure me there’s nothing like it. And that I certainly wouldn’t have heard it anywhere I’ve been. But I must say I’m revelling in the relative sound of silence. Berlin silence.

For not only is silence golden, it really is relative. After the rigours of the New Year and having to interact with human beings for days on end – imagine! – silence is even sitting at the computer, with the Russian busily wandering in and out of the room looking for ways not to enjoy himself – he had the bathroom mirror down a few minutes ago – and, prompted by this entry from mimi in NY, even a tape of Rimsky-Korsakov’s thunderousness whirring quietly in the background. But that’s all effortless hearing. I’m not really having to do any listening. Whereas with humans, you have to listen, of course, unless you’re willing to be quite spectacularly rude, which I haven’t yet worked out how to do (unless there’s a bottle of vodka in the immediate vicinity).

Now we had various guests over the festive period. Two of them made the period very festive indeed, and every word they uttered was balm to my ears and… something else soothing – booze? – to my soul. I was genuinely bereft as we twice in one day said out-of-breath goodbyes having sprinted across Alexanderplatz to get them on the airport train. There was a day of overlapping between guests one and two and guest three. Our suburban street had never seen anything like it. We were up till all hours – at least 10.30pm – and imagine the cacophony of two queens and three ladies round a booze-laden table. I once had dinner at someone’s place in Berlin – we were eight à table – and a neighbour called the police as they clearly didn’t like us having fun at 7pm on a Friday night. But we got away without a call from the men in green and hit the sack relieved that guests one and two had somehow managed to be combined with guest three without a hitch.

Guest three is a rather loquacious lady. As I say, the evening had passed without a hitch, but I did sense the odd smack of pursed, Swabian lip that she hadn’t been able to get onto a good monologous roll for a full 24-hour period. But her time would come. And once we’d said goodbye to guests one and two, and loquacious lady had us all to herself, the floodgates were raised and it was one long stream of consciousness for the next three days. Now far be it from me to bitch about a friend on this blog, but a three-day talkathon is pretty exhausting. You know someone has talked too much when you know the names of all of their never-to-be-met-by-you colleagues, what they look like and what they eat for breakfast. You know someone has talked too much when, even as a polite Englander, you are struggling to keep up the pretence and are fighting to disguise a scowl and grimace from your ordinarily smiling visage. (A long-held scowl hurts far less than a long-held smile. Those scowling Russian shop assistants are on to something.) And you just know someone has talked too much when you’re beginning to think it might not be that bad to suddenly be taken ill and have a few days putting your feet up in a nice, quiet, geriatric ward in a German hospital. As I believe our friends across the pond say (or used to in 1994), “Too much (fucking – my embellishment) information.” Not even a shrink can bear more than a hour of paid self-centred free association. God it was hard.

So I’m enjoying the peace. And relative quiet. I’ve got two weeks solid of New World socialising to do coming up. I’ll have to have smile-removal surgery when I get back. But, for now, thank heavens for work. Thank heavens that everyone’s skint after the excesses of the festivities. Belated bah humbug. (See how working at home gets you out of life-practice.)

Which isn’t to say I don’t love guests. Indeed, I’m even hoping that the two bloggers I know personally might visit these four walls this year. And I’ll love every second. I can cope with drunken rants (and can do those myself). I can cope with mindless gossip. I can cope with holding forth and story-telling. But please, interlocutors, nothing, aber nothing, about your secretary’s dog getting ill or company recruitment policy. Otherwise, I warn you, it’s the bottle of vodka and the barely decent monologue of my own.

So if we could all raise our glasses… January 10, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Quick! Someone write me a speech! Very naughtily, and only once the groom in question was sure I was making my way to the other end of the world in the most extravagant concession to marriage I’ve ever made in my life, I have now been informed that I am to be best man. What an utterly inappropriate epithet. Now I had worried I might be given the ‘honour’ of making sure I would do nothing at all for weeks but fret about having to make a hilarious speech in front of a group of strangers and had even suggested suitable alternative candidates for the job to the groom just in case he got any odd ideas. Well, those suggestions have been flagrantly ignored and I have been informed that it falls to me to not only bankrupt myself by flying to the other end of the world when I have a Russian and, er, no children to support but will also have the ignominy of losing the rings and humiliating myself by making poor jokes with a big piece of lettuce sticking out of my teeth, a dodgy suit and a ludicrous haircut. And I’ll probably have a sniff. Or trip as I get to my feet. Or be drunk. Oh woe is me.

Not that I’m getting flustered about this, you understand. Well, I have been worried someone would ask me to be their best man for about 35 years. Oh god, I suppose there’s even a chance gay friends can ask now. Haram! Oj gevalt! Neeeeeeiiiiiin! But then what if I like it? What if I get up, discover it’s actually bliss speaking in front of a captive audience, culturally obliged to laugh at jokes I make about the utterly unknown sexual past of the groom and amusing little anecdotes about the bride’s idiosyncrasies – I don’t suppose New Zealanders will be that amused with stories of how amusing I find her accent. I know no other idiosyncrasies – and get into a roll and speak for 45 minutes and decide to take up a career in stand-up comedy? (Is there English-language stand-up comedy in Berlin?) And then all sorts have been best men. I’ve witnessed some pretty appalling speeches in my time and could hardly imagine I’d do far worse. I definitely won’t mention prostitutes or masturbation, as I’ve heard done more than once. I don’t think I’ll go down the ex-girlfriend route. (I only know one, and she’s still a good pal.) So what else is left? Reading out telegrams? (Do folk still send telegrams?) (By ipod, perhaps?) Thanking the bridesmaids? (If there are any.) Thanking the person playing the Bontempi organ? Thanking everyone for coming and subtly reminding them all how far I’ve travelled? Or does the groom do the thanking?

Knowing I might girl’s-blouse out, the groom has told me it’s all going to be such an informal affair that I don’t even HAVE TO make a speech, but that would be wank, wouldn’t it? And I’ve seen the role carried out well. Our Germanic cousins are the best at wedding speeches in my limited experience. I’ve been to weddings in Finland, Denmark and a half-German affair in Belgium and even though I could hardly understand a word of what was said at the Scandy-unions, you knew the speeches were good and there was not a sniff of onanism or paying for sex anywhere. And, anyway, Germanic weddings are a free-for-all on the speech front, so it’s no big deal. Old friends get up and say a few words, or even do a bit of a sketch. The only French wedding I’ve been to was speech-free. No, only ‘Anglo-Saxon’ – to be French about it – weddings seem to have formalised the speech-troika of bride’s father, groom and best man.

So all suggestions gratefully accepted. Both for content and style. And length. And everything else. I suppose I should be thankful that I’ve only got to worry about this for a little over two weeks. It should also be enough time for you life-rich bloggers to save my bacon and tell me PRECISELY how to behave.

Foreign parts January 9, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

I got interrupted as I was writing my last post and was rushed into publishing it before it was finished. What Jens the spider and worries about foreign travel were meant to lead into were horrors of past travels, especially as regards fauna.

Now I don’t know whether to think I am well-travelled or not by modern standards. By world standards, I obviously am, and going to New Zealand will take me to my fourth continent, whereas I suppose a huge percentage of the world’s folk have never left their own borders. But many a European, North American, East Asian, Antipodean and Middle East native will have been to many or all of the world’s continents (bar Antarctica). And if I were to whizz back in time, I suppose I could even give Columbus and Marco Polo a run for their money, although I’ve done no major journey by sea or overland. (I have had a fantasy of going to the southern tip of Malaya by land, which, I’m guessing, is the longest overland journey you can do from mainland Europe, but I can’t imagine it will materialise.) But anyway, this isn’t about quantity. It’s about fucking scary creatures one encounters along the way.

The only countries I have been to in the tropics are Mexico and Thailand. Mexico wasn’t at all a worry on the creepy-crawly front, and Thailand wasn’t nearly as much of a worry as it could have been. The only close brushes with fauna were on Koh Tarutao, which I’ve mentioned before, but, in spite of the warnings for cobras and scorpions, and the knowledge that the island was home to crocodiles only 20 or so years ago, the only startling moment was the singing insects.

No, the worst run-ins with nature have been far closer to home. The most wimpish moments came in the glorious surroundings of Umbria. The ex – a huge, hulking brute – and I were spectacularly girl’s-blouseish when confronted with scorpions in the bedroom. But then I can’t help thinking that’s a fairly normal reaction. Could many people sleep easily in a bed with a view on scorpions at every angle? They were above us on the ceiling beams. On the walls to our left and right. And, most terrifyingly, on the floor. Checking shoes was the order of the day, as they like to curl up in there for fun, apparently, and hospitalise you with poisoned toes before breakfast. Our hosts couldn’t understand what the fuss was about when they got up at crack of dawn to see us standing on a wall outside the house with a full view of our surroundings. It was our hilltop fortress, and we slept in the car from then on. The trouble with scorpions, apart from them being spiteful, nasty shits – they had really hospitalised a previous guest – is that they look exactly like scorpions. Such a disappointment. Obviously I’d never seen one in the flesh before, and hoped they might be cuddly close up, but they weren’t, and moved in just the hideous way you’d expect them to – all mechanical and crispy. Italy has been ruined for me as a result.

Another friend’s house just outside Paris was also a bit of a terrorthon. Snakes – both venomous and non-, but you could only tell which was which by killing them and cutting their heads off and then having a peek – lived not just nicely nastily outside, looking for victims, à la Petit Prince (or should that be au?), but actually IN the walls. Ghastly little shits. Thankfully, they didn’t make an appearance whenever I visited, but there were big furry spiders – admittedly my first big furry spider was in the less than glamorous surroundings of my parents’ house in London – and once even a weasel INSIDE the house. The cheek. My host had his gun out in an instant and I thought I might be witness to a real bit of country living, but he trapped the bastard, which turned out to be pregnant, and let it waddle off into the night. (His house was later overrun with the bastards.)

Anyway, the wimpish hulking brute and I eventually decided we were fed up of foreign fauna and thought we’d even have to strike France and Italy off the destination list as too exotic. We understood our travelling days were pretty much behind us. Everywhere was too dangerous. But then that seemed a bit grim. So we came up with a perfect compromise solution. Belgium.

Now of course the non-travel plans were scotched, and I even ended up living in France later on, even in the snake-infested house for a while. But to honour our resolution somewhat, we did set off on one joint holiday to Belgium. We drove up from Paris, crossed the border straight into the gorgeous Ardenne and stopped randomly at the first town we came to which took our fancy, lovely Dinant. We found a hotel, prepared to settle in for the night, flung open the windows as it was a scorching Belgian summer – a scorching Belgian summer? – and we were immediately invaded by a brood of squawking bats, flying in perfect circles and getting ever nearer my cowering head with every swoop. Is not even Belgium safe?

Well, I’m older and wiser now, of course, and am consciously taking my life in my hands and braving the New World. My sister has just been and has already stunned me with stories of what the colonials get up to. Jumping off tall things with an elastic band strapped to some limb or other. I’ll see what I can do about reformatting any contracts we made with our cousins over there. But things have clearly got out of hand since we let them look after themselves if feigning suicide is the number one leisure activity. Looks like it might have to be the human fauna I’ll be looking out for on this trip…

Creepy-crawlies January 9, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

I’m due to set off on a fairly exotic adventure in a week’s time so just to make sure I work myself up into a frenzy before getting on a 6-year flight on my own, I’ve started, in good time, to think about things to needlessly worry about. This process was set in motion by an old and loyal friend. Our very own Berlin Spinne. No, not a Teuton band doing snappy cover versions such as, “I’ll be arbeiting my Weg zurück zu dir, Schatz.” No, our house pet, the spider that has lived in our tiny bathroom (without a bath) for a good few months. I’m beginning to worry for his – dunno why I’ve decided he’s a man. He just looks like a bit of a Jens – welfare. Because there seems to be nothing at all in the way of spider-fodder to eat in our bathroom. I have occasionally worried if he’s hanging dead, but then he’s mysteriously in another corner the next time I come in to check on him. (Unless the Russian is sparing my feelings and is carefully removing the dead spider every few hours and gluing him in a new position.) But perhaps spiders don’t need much in the way of sustenance. Can they go for months without a single entomic morsel? Or maybe I worry about Jens’s welfare needlessly. Perhaps there are all sorts of aphids and other micro-creatures infesting our bathroom (without the bath) and Jens is having a slap-up binge every day. But then he does look a bit thin – as daddy-long-legs-like as arachnid, really – and he’s too depressed, I’m guessing, to have even bothered spinning himself a web. All very worrying. But at least he’s warm.

Anyway, Jens the spider got me worrying about spiders. Now a putatively hungry, homely, thin, lanky spider like Jens couldn’t scare anyone. But I am about to set off to the southern hemisphere. No, not to terrifying Australia. But mysterious-on-the-danger-front New Zealand. Is New Zealand hiding its fatally dangerous light under a bushel? I know those Aussies love to boast about their crocs and lethal spiders and all sorts of other charmless members of the animal kingdom. But what about New Zealand? Is it all just flightless birds and Merino sheep? Or am I going to get stung, bitten or pecked to death by some unknown (to me) creature? I think my sister-in-law-to-be did once say something about one fatal strain of spider – obviously only the most distant of relations to Jens, who wouldn’t hurt a fly (but would, of course, eat one) – but they were very rare (or killed 80% of New Zealanders a year. Can’t remember which).

Still, a couple of weeks of winter sun AND getting to see the water go down the plughole the other way are surely worth the risk…

Не всё коту масленица January 7, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

…which translates, rather clumsily, as, “It’s not all Shrovetide for the cat”. (Can someone give me a 1st year secondary school refresher course in punctuation? Full stop after quotation marks or within the buggers? (I’ve always been a within-man myself, but see without more and more often.) Is this something where Brits and Americans differ? Or are rules passé?) Which translates from Russian-English to English-English as, “After Dinner Comes the Reckoning”. And even if it’s the wrong feast, it’s fully appropriate that this proverb should be in Russian. Because the Russian’s got a bee in his bonnet. Now for those of you with limited access to our post-Soviet pals, there’s something you need to bear in mind if you’re going to get involved in a deep liaison with them. Between you and me, they find straightforward, unadulterated old fun a bit of a sin. I don’t mean they’re against it altogether. Au contraire. They can party like the best of them. (I rather like generalising about the inhabitants of the largest country on earth. It’s a perfect reflection of my laziness and simplicity.) But they’re a superstitious old bunch, the Russkies, and the overwhelming majority of Russians, to this day, will have led pretty tough lives. So straightforward, unadulterated, long-lasting fun is a bit of a novelty. And that’s pretty much what we’ve had from late December to this very day. (Imagine, fun with blogging reduced to a starvation portion. It’s possible, boyz and gals.)

But, my oh my, is our Shrovetide well and truly over. The Russian has a good ten days’ worth of guilt at all that fun to expunge. Luckily for him, having had guests for ages provides an easy penance. The flat is utterly filthy. And those dreaded three little syllables – уборка (pronounced uborka) – have wormed their way into his fun-addled brain. And a Russian uborka isn’t a little bit of a rub-round with a duster and doing the washing-up. No, an uborka is the bollocks. It’s unscrewing U-bends and fingering out the amassed filth of the last few months. It’s taking down curtains to get to grips with the months of dust that has gathered nicely and patiently. It’s opening the cassette-decks of a hi-fi to have those rotatey bits wool-free. It is, in short, major cleanage. So far, I’ve managed to get away with the washing-up, putting on and hanging out a wash – thank god we’ve got a washing-machine and I haven’t got to do it by hand, or rather, by foot, in the bath. And we don’t have a bath – and mopping the kitchen floor. But I just know he’s going to come up with an operation of some sort any second now, which is why I’ve slipped away for some emergency bloggery while there’s still the chance, before he’s got that insane, Rasputin-like look in his eye, a sweat up and is on his knees with a bucket of luke-warm, grey, acidic water, guaranteed to take your skin off, and a cloth which is miraculously hidden for the non-uborka days of the year – perhaps in the U-bend – and has clearly seen better days.

Well, I am currently being deafened by the sound of some old-fashioned hoovering and have been set my next task, which is of a pleasantly technical, rather than physical, nature, so shall bid farewell. The post-fun hiatus could be just as long as the fun hiatus. Depends on a highly unpredictable guilt-dirt ratio…

К Павлику January 7, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Well, don’t get frightened by the dedication, Pavvers. I know you’re a happily married man and all that. But as you’ve kindly reminded me of another Pushkin gem, I think it only fair you get a bit of a dedication.

I think we old SSEESites are getting wistful as we unbatten the hatches and surrender gracefully to middle age. Of course I’ve got a few years on you all, age-wise, but having had a visit from a couple of fellow SSEESites for New Year, I must say we had a pretty glorious time, both straightforwardly having fun but, of course, also having a heavenly old where-are-they-now-type gossip about everyone and anyone that sprang to mind. (I’m happy, if that’s the right word, to say that, what with the advancing years and our soaring maturity levels, the tragic was remembered with due gravitas along with the jollity.) School days being the best years of your life strikes me as being shit, but might university years – depends if you like what you’re studying, of course, or if you went to university – have a genuine stake to that claim? I suppose that early adulthood period is pretty vital, personality-wise. And my behaviour with anyone from that period remains utterly 19-year-old. Which is wonderful, of course.

As wonderful as this poem is, and as glad as I am to see Pushkers getting an airing elsewhere – see what I mean about the wistfulness? – I hope its words don’t actually apply to anyone at the moment. Well, the rediscovery of a lost love is undoubtedly a wonderful thing, but I hope we all enter 2006 with unheavy hearts and with “the genius of pure beauty” already within our grasp.

К ***

Я помню чудное мгновение:
Передо мной явилась ты,
Как мимолетное видение,
Как гений чистой красоты.

В томленьях грусти безнадежной,
В тревогах шумной суеты,
Звучал мне долго голос нежный
И снились милые черты.

Шли годы. Бурь порыв мятежный
Рассеял прежние мечты,
И я забыл твой голос нежный,
Твои небесные черты.

В глуши, во мраке заточенья
Тянулись тихо дни мои
Без божества, без вдохновенья,
Без слез, без жизни, без любви.

Душе настало пробужденье:
И вот опять явилась ты,
Как мимолетное видение,
Как гений чистой красоты.

И сердце бьется в упоенье,
И для него воскресли вновь
И божество, и вдохновенье,
И жизнь, и слезы, и любовь.

They think it’s all over… January 7, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

…it is now. Well, sort of. Pretty much. No, sillies, not this blog, which I have thought of frantically every moment I’ve been knocking back another drink and swinging my slightly arthritic mid-30s hips to whatever songs it is that 30-somethings play at festive parties. (Regardless of age, sex, class, nationality, religion, some Abba hit or other always seems to get an airing.) No, now, on January 7th, I think I can finally declare the festivities over. The Russian has racked his brain to remember if today or yesterday, or both, are technically Christmas in Russia, but I think that lack of knowledge says all you need to know about how much it’s going to be celebrated in this house. (I even flirted with the idea of sneaking in a quick Orthodox service somewhere but our last guest’s shrieks of horror and the understanding that it would be a good 45-minute public transport sesh soon had that idea in abeyance.) Anyway, the guests have all gone, the excuses for pretending I can’t work have dried up, but at least that means I can get back down to some serious bloggage.

Very belatedly, as the rest of you are already no doubt planning how to spend your Easter holidays or thinking of this year’s Christmas presents, let me tell you the predictions I heard at the rather groovy New Year’s party I went to.

Prediction number one, told to me by an Iranian journalist, was that Israel would attack Iran’s nuclear facilities (and that all hell could thus break loose).

Prediction number two, told to me by a random German guest, was that England would win the World Cup. (Perhaps he was just being hostly.)

Prediction number three, told to you by me, is that had our last guest not left earlier today, I would have died of liver cirrhosis within the week. In spite the abuse, though, having guests has been bliss. The Russians say the year continues as it starts – starting as you mean to go on, I suppose – and, if so, I say, ‘Roll on the rest of 2006.’

Orthodox good wishes to one and all…