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Uladzimer Katkouski May 27, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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Uladzimer Katkouski, June 18th 1976 – May 26th 2007. RIP.

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The soup bag May 24, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
69 comments

Darlings, mustn’t holidays sometimes be more fuss than they’re worth?

Dependent on a lot of factors, of course. On the make-up of the holiday-going party, for one. Whether they like each other, for another. Then means of conveyance. Expense. Destination. All sorts of variables.

I recently observed a nice-enough family setting out on a trip abroad (or perhaps domestically. You never can tell in this day and age. Maybe they were flying to Aberdeen from the south of England. But the oldest daughter was already sporting a wicker hat, so I think they had Spain in mind).

I noticed them on the platform on my train journey to the airport. A handsome mum and dad and their three good-looking children. With so much luggage it looked as if they’d been given just enough notice by some about-to-maraud army that they had to leave home with whatever they could take with them. I could hear the initial panic of them having made it onto the train and settling into that part of the journey happening behind me before they gradually, in drips and drabs, got round to taking up their seats for the final pre-flight section of the journey. Around me.

Oldest daughter was the first to appear. She sat opposite me. Was at a late-childhood/early-adulthood age. What is that? 14? 15? She was sporting early breasts and had very recently decided that she belonged to her parents’ generation and not that of her younger siblings. She looked at and engaged with them with dismissive benevolence. Rather like a particularly job-weary priest looks at the more adoring members of his flock. Oddly, for the train journey to the airport, the family needed to have sustenance. Russians bring meals onto trains, but this is normal seeing as the journey may last three days, but their journey from the station to the airport would last forty-five minutes. Within three seconds of sitting down, oldest daughter asked for something to drink.

Cue activity as complicated as organising a wedding. It involved bags being gone through, drink being sought, other children being berated, parents discussing which bag the drinks were in, wondering whether it has been left on the platform – I had visions of the south of England being closed down in a security alert – and the wife wondering whether this incident had the embryonic makings of divorce proceedings in it and the husband thinking he might have nicely just stayed at home.

The younger daughter, pretty, aged about four, called J_, then loomed into view. She sloppily provided oldest daughter with liquids, all the time hassling her for another drop for herself. Oldest daughter beed dismissively benevolent. “No, J_, you’ve had enough. Take your hair out of my cup. Sit down.” Four-year-old J_ sat down and stared at me in that disarming way that children do. I looked out the window so as not to be accused of paedophilia.

With more bustling and hassling and rustling of bags, the mother, C_, took up her place in the set of four seats across the aisle. She was nice, and smily, and pretty and had worked out how to be a nice mum with the minimum of effort. Quite a lot of switching her ears off as she looked at solar-powered things to buy in the Guardian which she would hold up to her husband, D_, who never appeared from the in-betweeny bit of the carriage, and only hearing her children’s requests for attention on the second or third attempt. She was late 30s/early 40s, spoke middle-class Estuary English, had a look of the first-generation-in-the-family-to-go-to-university about her, was still resisting the temptation to remove the piercing from her nose and was very much the fulcrum of the family around whom all transactions revolved.

“J_, take your feet of the seats,” she’d say, in a nice way, mid mobile-phone-call to someone who had been deputed to take care of their lives when they were away. “Yeah, so if you can be there at about nine, yeah, that would be great. Yeah, he usually comes at about nine…” “…C_, (the son’s initial too, excuse the inelegance of doubling up) leave J_ alone.” “But her feet are touching my trousers.” “Doesn’t matter… D_, we could really do with one of those, couldn’t we?” “…ooh, C_, you like Switzerland. Look at these pictures of Switzerland. Maybe we could go there next year.” (I had a moment of primly ascetic internal disapproval that they were already thinking of their next holiday before they’d reached the airport for this one.) [OD to (brother) C_] “Leave my hat alone.” “But I want to try it on. Mum, tell OD I want to try her hat on. And tell J_ to get her feet off my trousers.” “Hmm, quite a prissy little thing,” I thought to myself and wondered if I should advise his parents to strike while the iron was hot and get him signed up for ballet lessons as soon as possible.

“D_, can I have your mobile again?” Mum needed to phone another life-sitter. D_ sighed. “God, D_, why are you getting so stressed out about me using your mobile?” “Mum, I want soup.” Soup? On a forty-five-minute train journey? More furious wedding-arranging-level activity. “Where’s the soup bag? D_, have you seen the soup bag?” But D_ kept his distance, never came into view, sighed and proffered that that may have been left on the platform too. I had visions of most of the south of England being drenched in Heinz in controlled explosions.

“Oh my god, have we missed our stop?” mum cried, having located the soup-bag. “If we’d stayed at your brother’s, we could have got a lift to the airport,” D_ interjected, having decided he could speak not just when spoken to. “God, D_, why are you getting so stressed about the train? Why do you hate trains? I much prefer trains to cars. God, doesn’t dad get stressed about trains?” she said, in the first case of ganging-up-on-D_ of the holiday. The children concurred that trains were better than cars.

I saw my chance to get involved. “No, you haven’t missed your stop. We’re just approaching this stop, then there’s that stop, then the airport’s the one after that.” OD accepted my interjection with undisguised disgust. C_ and J_ looked at their mother to see if it counted as paedophilia. Mum smiled relievedly and explained, unnecessarily, that in all the fuss, she worried, you see, that they might have missed the stop. And then bollocked D_ for something else.

The check-in queues in the airport made me want to kill myself. Poor holidaymakers.

Onion-skin May 11, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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…or BiB’s domestic bliss tips, Part I.

But I don’t mean anything to do with onion-skin used for dyeing. In fact, growing up in the least artistic household in the UK and going to Catholic schools where creativity was considered a sin, I didn’t even know that onion-skin was used for dyeing until well into my teenage years. It’s my Swedish penpal wot told me.

Did other folk have penpals when they were teenagers? I had a bazillion. All girls, of course, as I assumed writing to a boy would make me gay. Yes, all us pre-blogging autists would find each other on the back pages of Smash Hits and then write each other utterly asinine, banal letters on a frantic basis. (Still, mustn’t knock it. I’m still in touch with one of them 20-something years later. Proper pals now.) The ads would read along the lines of, ‘Lomppi Lomppilainen, 15, likes Duran Duran, U2 and robotic jazz. Write to: P.O. Box 27772, Turku, Finland’ or ‘Johanna Johansson, 9, likes Europe, Cher and eating solids. Write to: P.O. Box 27772, Uppsala, Sweden’. It was wall-to-wall Nordics. Eva R_ from Denmark used to cover her stamps in Sellotape when she wrote to me so that I could peel them off and send them back to her with my next thrilling letter. Although as I became more expert at never leaving my bedroom and scribbling away frenetically and asking my mother for money for stamps, I did manage to spread out to cover most of the rest of the world too. Nor O_ from Malaysia told me about her Proton Saga. Megan B_ from New Zealand told me she and her friends ran around drinking milk from people’s doorsteps – Christ, New Zealand hooligans must be early-risers – and then Ronald v_D_ from Holland somehow found my address and instantly made me gay. (Still in touch with him too, vaguely.)

So Ingela J_ taught me about onion-skins. We took a break in our riveting correspondence from writing about what we were doing at school – “Oh, you’ve dropped Geography? Really? My French teacher had a baby” – to her telling me about her holiday. To London. With her family. Don’t know why we didn’t meet. Maybe I wasn’t allowed out. She saw a real punk somewhere or other and he’d even asked them the time and they were very surprised that he didn’t steal their watches. The Tube was dirty. And in Harrods she bought an onion-skin…

An onion-skin?

Yes, an onion-skin.

My pre-googling research suggested it was used for dyeing. Buggered if I knew. School only taught us about god and sin and Bunsen burners. I didn’t even know it was something I didn’t know about. An unknown unknown, if you will.

Anyway, forget all that. I mean onion-skin. As in the skin on an onion. That which you remove in order to get to the delicious lachrymator beneath.

Now here’s my hint for domestic bliss. Say there are two of you in a kitchen. A couple, say. One is chopping onions. The other is standing guard, surveying the scene with a beady eye looking out for the onset of mess. The chopper may be a hopeless and unskilled cook (although a real French person taught this particular chopper the topography of the onion and the chopper can now chop with the best of ’em). And may need to interrupt his chopping, mid-chop, deciding that he desperately needs to check some blogs, check his e-mail or go to buy some fags. In the flurry of excitement, a wisp of onion-skin gently floats down to the floor.

The guard’s Soviet-manufactured mess-alarm goes berserk. If you’re not careful, the alarm can lead to the very rapid deployment of mop, rolled-up sleeves and talk of ‘mikroby’. The Soviet-manufactured guard would like this mess cleared up with record speed. To have his wishes carried out, while maintaining the all-pervasive aura of domestic bliss, should the mess-guard…

a) Say, “Ooh, chopper, it looks, in your insouciance, that you’ve caused a microscopic particle of onion-skin to land on the gleaming, microbe-free kitchen-floor…”

Or…

b) Sigh loudly and holler, “What are you bloody doing? Can’t you be more careful? Now there’s onion-skin and microbes on the kitchen-floor! For god’s sake. When did you last get out the hoover? It’s not as if you ever do the hoovering. And why does the flat stink of smoke? And you haven’t hung the washing out yet. And have you sorted out my visa? Oh god. Can’t you be more serious? Have you replied to that job application yet? What? You’re going out AGAIN this evening? But you had fun last year. Uh-huh, blogging. Is that my shirt you’re wearing?

…?

For god’s sake. It’s only onion-skin. Biodegradable anyway.

Saturday night, Sunday morning May 6, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
46 comments

Darlings, you won’t believe it, but there are TWO parties taking place within ear-shot of our humble abode on the most boring street in Berlin. Of course I’m secretly chuffed to bollocks that a bit of life has come to Ruislip, but my inner quiet-street-dweller has made me peer out windows and prepare a withering grin should I happen to make eye-contact with any of the revellers as they prepare to vomit off a balcony. And there’s no peace from either. If I sit in my blogarium, facing north, I have the hubbub of the working-class party – no doubt celebrating one of the attendants’ win at the bingo – happening in one of the forlorn houses further along the street in the direction of oblivion. If I pop into the kitchen for a soothing late cup of tea, I can hear the flonflons of the middle-class party from the other direction happening in an Altbau that’s been done up and which the new arrivals are no doubt trying hard to convince their guests is located in Prenzlauer Berg Nord.

I can only assume the police haven’t come and shot up all the guests of both parties because there was such a rush to jam their switchboard by every curtain-twitcher on the street within the first few bars of whichever music it was – Ace of Base from the WCP and Nana Mouskouri from the MCP, I think – floating out the open windows of each flat that it went into meltdown and the boys in green are busy with the phone-engineers.

But it all makes me wonder whether the Russian and I haven’t accidentally ended up living in Berlin’s next big area. Yes, yes, so it’s Ruislip, but it’s very, very close to Prenzlauer Berg (as I never tire from telling folk). But, apart from the Russian and me being a great boon to local property prices (probably), there are a few other signs that the place is up(-off-its-knees)-and-coming(-back-from-the-brink).

Take our once-dreary but now host-to-multiple-multi-class-parties-of-a-weekend street, for want of a better example (which would mean me having to leave the house once in a while and getting to know the area). When we arrived, it had a Greek restaurant on it which must have only won awards, which it perhaps chose not to frame and put on its wall, as the world’s worst-located eatery. Not only on a street which no-one has ever been known to randomly walk down, but mid-row. Not even on a corner where it might hope to leap out at drivers who’d got lost. Hopeless. It closed, was missed by precisely no-one, and then re-opened in some other equally hapless and short-lived guise. “Who the bugger would choose to open a restaurant there?” I would holler at the top of my voice whenever I saw the builders gutting the place yet again (and thus putting them off their work). And then it took on its third guise. “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” I clicked noisily when I saw the next bunch of losers-to-be doing the place up. And then we saw the sign-writers doing the sign. In yer actual French. With accents graves and aigus and everything. And the place seemed to have a bit of life in it. We’d walk past with our shopping, shaking our heads knowingly, yet there’d be lights on. Staff bobbing about. Folk chomping away on nosh in numbers which, we hoped, in a new spirit of supporting local businesses, were enough to make the owners some money.

“Darling, I know it’s the thin end of the wedge, and it means I’ll soon never walk further than forty paces even when we go out, but shall we try it?” And we did. And it was lovely. The interior still looks a tad like a Soviet kitchen, but the house has enough frontage for a few tables to huddle higgledly-piggledly on the street and though one has to battle the animal kingdom whenever it’s warm enough to eat outside, the experience has remained a decidedly pleasant one. And not only is the restaurant name yer actual French – Déjà Vu (which I’d sneered at on these here pages before, before we’d been there) – the flippin’ staff are too! The chef cooks gallically away and, when he has a moment’s respite, pops out to mingle with the punters and puff on a well-deserved fag. He speaks German as Antoine de Caunes speaks English. He’ll give you unwanky tips. (“Here, wanna try a drop of my Bénédictine?” for example.) And the waitress is French too, with an even more de-Caunesian accent than her boss. I spoke French to her. French! On our street! In Ruislip! And she’s everyone’s dream of just what you’d want a nice, stereotypical French waitress to be. She’s beautiful and slinky. Charming and teasing. Probably a temper like Krakatoa. I sometimes walk past her as she is cycling into work (with baguettes under her arm and garlic strung round her ne… OK, that’s not true) along our boring street’s cycle-path (which has seen better days, between you and me). “Salut!” she’ll shout out to me with a tinkle of her bell. I’ve seen her cycling in with her just-as-French boyfriend in hot pursuit on his bike. That’s at least three Frenchies on our street at one time, which is, let’s face it, Paris by any other name.

But the locals aren’t slacking when it comes to making Berlin’s Ruislip, or Prenzlauer Berg (very) Nord, the next big thing either. There’s nothing much high about our bit of high street. A couple of dull, permanently empty shops. A Lidl. A kebaberie or two. And then a new hairdresser’s went and opened with an undisgusting interior and squishy seating outside so you can soak up the sun. A table is strewn with lighters. And copies of Siegessäule, one of Berlin’s gay rags. A muscly queen stood touting for business. “Darling, how convenient. I just needed a haircut.” “But you had your hair cut yesterday.” “Yes, but she did it all wrong.”

I went in and had my riah done by the queen. The hair-wash was all massagey. Probably Ayurvedic. The sink was free-standing. He cut in a fashionable way, with vaguely grand, jabbing hand movements. He flicked his fingers through my locks in an (abortive) attempt at making me look groovy. He gave me no choice when it came to putting products in at the end. He rubbed a dab of something in, gave a cursory whoosh with the hair-dryer and sent me on my way. I’d asked how business was doing. I was worried he might burst into tears and say it had been an unmitigated fucking disaster opening a new salon in Prenzlauer Berg Nord. “Couldn’t be better,” he said, and gave a slightly haughty chuckle. “The other salons around here,” he went on, alluding to our soon-to-be-fashionable environs with a jerk of the head, “are no competition.”

I’ll let you know when both businesses have gone tits-up within the week and the parties fizzle out… BUT, potentially, and with enough get-out clauses to make an especially wily lawyer proud, you mark my words. Ruislip’s on the up.

The centre of my world May 3, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
58 comments

[Disclaimer: you are forewarned that the subject of this blog-post could not possibly be less interesting. Reading it may bring about acute suicidal tendencies. Please feel free to switch off your computers immediately or to go to another more interesting site. Anyway, it’s your own bloody fault for existing. If you didn’t exist, I wouldn’t write the stinking blog in the first place.]

Düsseldorf. That utterly – to me – unpicturable, unimaginable, perhaps even non-existent settlement, has oddly become the hotspot of all this household’s activities.

Red tape, you understand.

Has anyone ever had the misfortune to pass through Düsseldorf? If so, can they let me know what the life expectancy would be for a visiting pair of homos who normally find it a mammoth effort to get out of bed, ever, were we to render ourselves thereto? Of course I haven’t got a clue where it is, even. My German geography is utterly hopeless. I know it’s not up here in the north-eastern lump of Germany. And I know it’s not in that bottom bit holding the rest of the country up which is, conveniently, nicely evenly split between Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. So I suppose it’s probably in amongst that cluster of towns over in the west somewhere. I’m imagining disused mineshafts, low-budget airports and 50s architecture. TOYS’Я’US, banking headquarters and suits.

And the odd British diplomat.

But I mustn’t moan. I suppose bureaucracy is one thing the British aren’t too bad at. Firstly because, in comparison to our continental cousins, at least, there’s less of it. I mean, I know there’s the electoral register and having to tell some department or other where you live so that they can work out how much council tax you need to pay. But you can probably biff that off with no major urgency on a nice bit of Basildon Bond and hopefully it’ll take them two years to get round to answering you (and then backdate the lot and charge you a gazillion pounds), but there isn’t the heart-deadening procedure of going and taking a number, sitting in the waiting-room with other deadened types and then handing over a wad of standardised documents to a silent hag at the town hall (in Germany) who will only open her mouth to tell you something is wrong, to a policeman (in France), who will be mystified that you’re going through with the procedure at all, or to a… don’t know (in Russia) (always got someone else to do it as was too petrified of dealing with Russian bureaucracy myself, worried I might disappear down a paper-clogged black hole and never resurface).

And whatever interaction I have had with official Britain has never been too agonising. Firstly, because it mostly hasn’t been for anything compulsory so when it gets too dispiriting, like with trying to be able to vote from abroad, for example, you can just nicely give up and justify it to yourself by thinking it isn’t your direct business any more who runs the UK. (And if a translation agency with ideas above its station thinks I’m going to start filling out application forms, they’ve got another thing coming. Or, rather, nothing coming.) Yes, getting Brent Council to cough up my student grant was often a pain, but at least the application forms were in 965 languages so I could have fun thinking, “Gosh, Tamil looks nice,” while starving gently to near-death. And getting a replacement passport has been a relative piece of cake.

But the Brits have gone and efficiently centralised everything in Germany. If you want a new passport, or a tourist visa, should you happen to be from an undesirable nation, or anything else that’s got to do with Her Majesty’s government’s bureaucratic wheels, Düsseldorf’s the place for you.

It was not ever so. At least not in other foreign parts. Whenever I had truck with official Britain in St. Petersburg, for example, I could just trot up to Proletarian Dictatorship Square (yes, really) and Vanya was your uncle. (They’d imported EVERYTHING in the building from the UK. There were UK electric sockets. An Armitage Shanks loo. A real British lady refusing everyone’s visa applications – “Sorry, computer says no. Next!” – though not the Russian’s, as I was there hollering in a ludicrous posh accent and calling people ‘ma’am’. Even the men. It worked a treat. She went all deferential on us.)

But the Düsseldorfers could make a bit of an effort. My passport, for example. The photograph I sent them made me look – honestly enough – like a big, pink potato who’d been on a 36-year bender. But I didn’t worry. I thought a good chunk of the staff’s activities would be photoshopping applicants’ photos to make us all look lovely and put the Great back in Britain. But they didn’t bother their arses. They just used the photo I sent them. How unambitious! So now I’ve got to look like a fat potato until 2018. (10-and-a-bit-year validity, it seems.) (Mind you, the passport is written in Welsh and Gaelic as well now, in addition to all the Eurotongues and happily displays the word ‘quim’ at the top of the coat-of-arms, so that’s a bit of a thrill.)

But UK bureaucracy is putting on a less friendly face to those from undesirable foreign parts. I’ve already complained that a UK tourist visa now costs 300 euros (and a passport 200). We became aware of that intelligence a day after the new tariffs had been introduced, on April 1st, and that took the wind out of our sails until yesterday, when we decided we’d be brave and go the whole hog and apply for a visa for the Russian so that he could join me on some of my next few trips. We have an Anglo-Kraut wedding in the summer which neither of us could possibly miss. I’ve got a new nephew we need to go and gawp at. And my old lady will need visiting ere long.

All very posh and hi-tech, the visa application. You do the whole god-damned thing online. Well, until you get to the ‘sign here’ bit, where you have to save it and print it out. But what’s this? No demand for payment? And why can we only apply for a six-month visa? And why is the only option for payment/collection, “In person”. Hmm, OK, we’ll ignore all that nonsense and do as they say and then I’ll get onto them, not on the 2-euros-a-minute special phone number but a different, meant-to-be-for-something-else one… Frazzled, we got to the end of the process. Ceremoniously pressed the final button. Only to be asked to make an appointment.

Darlings, to get a visa to visit the UK, you now need, if you live anywhere in Germany, to go to fucking Düsseldorf. Oh yes, the site says, sneeringly. New system. Introduced on May 1st. Yep, a day before we got the ball rerolling. I presume this is something to do with security, but I can’t help thinking having a visa system which even staff at the Russian Embassy in London would find exhaustive is going to put folk off bothering to turn up and spend their foreign pounds in the UK in the first place.

All rather a pain. But tell me, is a trip to the UK worth risking life and limb with a trip to Düsseldorf for?

[My apologies to anyone who’s read this far. I did warn you.]