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To the island! June 30, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

I have to make a visit to a small island and not, unfortunately, one located in one of Berlin’s many lakes. No, I need to get on a plane. Be away from home. Talk to people. Nothing I loathe more.

“Darling, shall I not go?” I said looking for discouragement from the Russian over a late-night dinner. But the Russian and I both have far too humble origins to ever seriously contemplate doing anything as decadent as deliberately missing a flight. I did once miss a train while waiting for it on the platform – it came, loaded up, dropped off and departed without me noticing – but that doesn’t matter in the UK, or never used to, at least, as you could just get on the next one. But, having booked my ticket to a small island, and even if the ticket did only cost 3p, I daren’t not go.

When I get my job at Lidl, none of this will be a problem, of course. Then I’ll be a 9-5er. I’ll know my life-timetable weeks, maybe even months in advance. Trips to small islands will be penned in and then relax, unworried about, in my otherwise untroubled filofax. But no sooner do I book a trip to a small island with my current ludicrous life-timetable than despicable work comes crawling out of usually work-free crevices and I am left juggling 18 things at once. And I am the clumsiest person on earth. As the Russian lovingly puts it, “Your hands grow out of your arse.”

I wondered if I might have the good fortune to be in a (non-fatal, of course) plane crash. Just a bit of a skid off the runway, then me suffering from shock for, say, about five months and nicely being holed up in hospital and enjoying the room-service. I offered this scenario to the Russian for his consideration. “Whaddaya think? A plane crash might be nice.” “You haven’t paid the rent yet.”

I’m not very good at life at the moment. I’m having to do an amount of work that, presumably, 99% of other grown-ups cope with on a day-to-day basis. Then there are trips to islands. Summer guests. Summer weddings. Visas to organise. Officialdom to deal with. And the Russian’s insistence that we VOLUNTARILY get on a plane at another point in the summer to go to a place which neither of us will know, where we will know no-one (admittedly, that could be a plus) and where I will yearn, the whole time, to be at home. Do I still have to feign interest in the local iron-age mushroom museum at 36? Couldn’t we just stay in bed?

Thankfully, the destination for the next plane-journey of the summer isn’t yet fixed. Various places I’d rather skewer my testicles than go to in unknown bits of France and Spain have been posited. (I’d be happier at Lidl.) “Hm, but where would we stay?” I say, hoping to fudge the issue for another few heavenly minutes. “No, we can’t go there. The water’s too rough and cold…” “…or there, they vote Le Pen…” “…no, isn’t that the bit of Spain which is a Belgium-sized greenhouse?” The British Isles and the former Soviet Union are ruled out for the sake of neutrality. Anywhere else non-EU and the Russian will need a life-force-sapping visa. “Greece?” the Russian suggested as I manoeuvred my ear-plugs, blindfold and slippers into position. “Yes, we could go to Mt. Athos [and I could become a monk, at last, which is what I’ve always wanted, never meeting anyone ever again, but for Prince Charles when he comes on retreat].” “Is it island?” “No, it’s on the mainland…” “…or Mykonos?” “No, I don’t vont go gay place. I hate gays.”

Lesbos it is, then.

BiDs June 23, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

…or bugs in distress.

Darlings, my loathing of the animal kingdom knows almost no bounds. I mean, I like a cat or a dog as much as the next man, and I may vaguely coo in pre-awe at some incredibly cute furry thing. Knut’s been known to get a coo out of me, per esempio. I dashed for the pandas when I went to Berlin zoo. I adore foxes. And would be even more impressed with the elephant/rhino/hippo fraternity if they didn’t have such bad derms.

But, god, aren’t flying, crawling, buzzing things cunts?

Berlin is a tricky place to live. The climate is basically shit. Not as shit as in London, by any stretch of the imagination. We have all the seasons here, pretty much, and give me snow and proper arcticity any day over London’s wet, even-greyer, +2 version of winter. And Berlin can do boilingness in the summer which, let’s face it, we all richly deserve having put up with the other ten months of the year.

But I’m finding the buzzing/flying/crawling sub-division of the animal kingdom almost unbearable. Of course I’ve blogged all this before – history HAS officially ended as far as my life is concerned and it’s just going over old ground from now on – but you can’t flog a dead horse too much in my book. But no sooner are the really arctic days behind us when the windows can be flung open for more than ten seconds to remove the stench of stale cigarette smoke but the loathsome beasts start to arrive.

My battle with the flies is almost constant. I mostly go for the straightforward smash but, in the spirit of Wimbledon, I’ve decided it’s time to brush up on my backhand slice too, which always takes the bastards by surprise. I’ve got a not bad in-to-out forehand. The lob is under-used. In any case, flies deserve to die, be they dispatched with Federerian skill or not.

Wasps come later in the year but are utter fiends in central Europe. It’s not unknown to have wasp-alarms announced in the press. Rumour has it a glass of water filled with sugar draws them in like wasps to a glass of water filled with sugar.

But today, as I sat drinking a thoroughly well-deserved postprandial vat of wine, I had my worst ever bug experience.

Bugs are annoying enough as it is without them being in distress. A bug in need is a cunt indeed. (Darlings, I do apologise for such liberal use of the c-word. Sometimes, especially when talking about bugs, no other four-letter word will do.) So I sat, gently wading my way through whole barrels of wine when a noise reminiscent of a plane nose-diving to the ground swamped the kitchen. I dashed to turn on the telly to see if there’d be breaking news of a jet downed over Berlin’s inclement skies. But soon realised it was no such thing. It was a bug-in-distress. Talk about not knowing how to make friends and influence people. The largest, ugliest bug I’d ever seen had kamikazed itself right into the kitchen lamp. It was AT LEAST as big as a giraffe and not nearly as pretty. It had dimly landed on its back and was flailing its loathsome little limbs corybantically, like a toddler having a tantrum. Noisy, uninvited and ugly. Not a single saving grace.

I screamed for the Russian to do something. “What IS it?” I screamed, before he prosaically answered, “bug”. “Is it a giraffe?” “It bug. BiB, you are mad. It bug.” I ran for my life, and lit myself an analgesic ciggy. The Russian warned me the coast was clear. “I throw it out vindow. It khardly fly.”

Bugs should know where and when they are welcome. They have the entire outdoor world to gambol about in, spreading disease, fear and nastiness. I’ve never seen why flies see fit to settle on the living-room lamp-shade, for example. Nothing to do with being attracted to a flame. The bastard’s switched off mostly. They should be out, getting some exercise, rather than loafing round the house watching me not work. Wasps know that everyone loathes them and pop in just to spite you. And bugs as big as giraffes should just stay in Botswana or wherever it is they call habitat.

They all make it very hard to believe in god indeed.

The Sanjak of Novi Pazar revisited June 20, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Darlings, remember this? Not that I expect you to, of course. In fact, I’d be a tad worried if you did. But what I thought was a one-off, one-man extravaganza on a boiling summer’s eve in fact turns out to be something of a tradition.

Not that I should have heard music on Berlin’s most boring street at all in weather like this. I should have been living it up. Soaking up the sun. Showing off my favourite new clothes item, a pink t-shirt handed down to me by my ex-boyfriend. (Although I think he and his present must have a live-in lover. My ex is a large gentleman. His present is tiny. I am neither, really, yet it fits like a dream. I like it so much, in fact, that it’s the only thing I can bear to wear and have to wash it constantly and then put it back on, so it’s bound to fall to shreds any sec.) Not that it’s turned me any heads, mind you.

But I can’t. Because of the demon work. Stinking, bloody work. Work for people who pay such a pittance that I, for once, was willing to haggle an extra few tugriks out of them. “Look, I really can’t be bothered to work for that sort of sum,” I said, honestly, and, if I don’t have to chase the person round the world to get my tugriks out of them, it might put off death from starvation by a couple of days.

And who should work in this weather? With midsummer upon us? Mind you, I’ve had guests galore of late. And then there was gay festivating to do last weekend (and more this). So I suppose it is about time I picked a translatorly pocket or two. But, honestly, I really can’t remember the last time I could take a well-deserved month off. It must have been at least WEEKS of work in a row now, I tell you. Weeks!

I am having computerly problems of late. I decided to remedy this by deleting half the programmes I didn’t recognise on my non-laptop. Unfortunately, this included the internet browsers too – I knew I recognised that big e from somewhere – and I seem to have sent the bastard into permanent meltdown. So it’s my rubbish old laptop to the rescue. It does its best, bless it, but does see fit to crash about eighty times a second. Still, nothing for it. It’s me and my laptop against the world.

Which means I can work on my sunless balcony. It’s logistically tricky. I don’t have some sort of table and I can’t put my feet up on the metal railings to prop the comp up as I’m worried the neighbours from the 100%-long-term-unemployment-house across the road will see my dirty feet. The clothes-horse needs to be positioned carefully, and to have a strategically hung drying item on it, to accommodate my cigarettes, lighter and mobile, which last rang in 1983. Then it’s jiggling of knees, bemoaning my lack of non-mouse skills and taking breaks every three seconds to stretch my nagging limbs.

To break the relentless boredom, I thought I’d have Serge, whom I’d cleverly downloaded into the laptop a second before, to distract me with lovely old ditties about incest and coming and going between someone or other’s kidneys. But I couldn’t hear Serge for the wailing of, as I thought, someone’s Bulgarian folksy music going loudly in the background.

I looked at my watch, germanly. Gone 8. The music was awfully loud. And quite an odd choice. I couldn’t work out what type of neighbour would happily admit to listening to accordiony, mouth-organy music with such pride that he’d subject the rest of the street to it too. Naturally residents’ heads popped out onto balconies at regular intervals. None seemed particularly happy. There was frowning and tutting. I began to enjoy the music more and more.

And then an odd sensation. The music seemed to be getting louder – it would be a brave neighbour who cranked his Bulgarian folk music CD up even louder having already brought the disdain of 90% of the street on him – and the quality seemed rather good. I rubbernecked for all I was worth. And within seconds a troupe of actual musicians wandered into view.

Darlings, I was thrilled. Last year, it was just one drunk accordionist. This year it was two grown-up men, a grown-up woman and a child in a baseball cap. I think the child’s cuteness was meant to be an extra selling-point. He was wearing a German national team football top with an 11 on the back and the word Deutschland emblazoned across it rather than the name of any player – I think the German no. 11 is Beckenbauer – presumably for the sake of neutrality. He occasionally shook his baseball cap at the people hiding behind the plants on their balconies. The woman would sometimes join him, with a plaintive cock of the head. And the two men beed men, holding things together, bossing the choreography, setting the walking pace. One of them was just – not that he’d have noticed – waiting to be spotted on the street and turned into a top model. Ravishing. And he could play. And it was a lovely contrast to our boring old street. This genuine taste of central Europe. Dark-skinned, proper travelling musicians. And the odd yellow-haired local dashing into their houses to escape the danger. But I took a quick mental straw-poll of the neighbours’ reactions and, do you know – it must be because it’s midsummer – I’d say they were mostly positive. Just as Ed told me was the case last time this happened, some people hurled coins at them at well-timed intervals.

The session appeared to have come to an end. There was a two-minute silence as they wandered to their next mobile bandstand a few hundred metres further on and, having counted the takings, the boy could put his baseball cap back on. They then warmed up a bit as they went. The boy, who, I realise, hadn’t played a note, decided to join in. He shouldn’t have.

Thrilled, I got back to my translation. Still, it was quite nice when they stopped.

The (next-)best thing June 14, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

…about going out on a spontaneous, all-night, post-work-rush bender, during which you have to hold up your friend and he nuzzles into you, as if you are his mother, and he wants you to make it all better, and you feed him water, which he imbibes with slightly less grace than Knut might, and you feel 15 again and remember a bender, which has created victims, when one of your co-15-year-olds would suddenly become the authoritative one and recommend the drinking of milk and the Heimlich manoeuvre – Heimlich? What’s heimlich about it? We all know it exists. And is ‘manoeuvre’ the only word which is written differently in British English and American English in TWO whole places? – and your parents pop their heads out the bedroom door and you explain that your friend has eaten something exotic – like pasta – which his delicate, English, 15-year-old stomach couldn’t cope with, and they settle for that, oddly, and disappear back into their bedroom in their M&S dressing-gowns, but then you remember that you and your current piss-up friend aren’t in fact 15 and have a combined age of 80, is taking a long tram-journey home just as Berlin is coming to life first thing.

Now it might have been the booze talking, as it were, but the city seemed a triumph of… something. Can’t say will, obviously, though it is slightly the word I mean… erm, humanity at about 6 in the morning. I have lived in five cities, four of which might all well put World War II as their historical low-points. London for the blitz. St. Petersburg for the blockade. Paris for the humiliation. And Berlin for how it all could have happened. Perhaps Stoke-on-Trent suffered too. Paris and St. Petersburg survived the war largely in tact, of course. (Have folk read tales of St. Petersburg’s blockade? When the war-time equivalent of memos would go out advising people where nutrition was to be found? Such as in the glue holding up wallpaper?) London suffered galore. And Berlin was smashed to fuck.

Darlings, I’m free-associating here, and may be spouting bollocks, for a change, but it seemed to me, drunk(ish), at 6 in the morning, that London and Berlin went about rebuilding in different ways. London’s destruction was, no doubt, more here and there. And not of such scale. And I imagine reconstruction was done in a roll-your-sleeves-up, practical, get-on-with-it way. Whereas Berlin’s reconstruction seems to have had more politics involved. Yes, so the slum-clearances which came later in London were examples of (I’m guessing) war-prompted social engineering. And, of course, Berlin, with its mythologised Trümmerfrauen, has more than enough examples of its roll-your-sleeves-up, practical, get-on-with-it stories too. But after the war the UK was still the same country it had been, at least politically. Whereas Germany got another couple of generations’ worth of political upheaval.

BiB, what are you on about? In London, they built tower-blocks. In Berlin, they built tower-blocks. A tower-block is a tower-block is a tower-block. But why, when I see tower-blocks in London, do I think quickish, cheapish, not-taking-up-much-space housing, yet, in Berlin, do I think quickish, cheapish, not-taking-up-much-space housing but with a huge sociopolitical twist? In London, a house seems like a house. In Berlin, it seems like a project.

Not that history ended in the post-war period, of course. Change went on. And as the wall came down and the East became part of the West, it was again time to tinker with the post-war housing (of which there’s more over here, in the East, though there’s plenty in the West too). London upgrades its housing estates too. In a practical way. Security issues. Ugliness issues. Of course there’s regret at having gone down the high-rise route in some quarters. Little houses looked nice. People had streets rather than walkways. But then what hope is there of reversing such decisions so far down the line in a city as crowded and expensive as London? But social snobbery isn’t as acute in Berlin as it is in London. Yes, there’s a preference for the Altbauten, but it’s not the end of the world living in a post-war block of flats.

And trundling back through the East at 6 in the morning, through Friedrichshain, Lichtenberg, Weißensee (then Prenzlauer Berg and Pankow), it all seemed like the (perhaps drink-fuelled) triumph I alluded to earlier. Yes, you can’t get too visually excited by one tower-block after another. By parallelogram after parallelogram. But it was all so fucking pretty. The greyness is being airbrushed away. Greenness does its best where it’s allowed to. And it all looks tended to. Call it the nanny-state if you will. It somehow made what could all be an endless bleakscape warm and soften the hardened cockles of my heart.

And all the men out at 6am, bar those post-bender, are wearing workmen’s dungarees with holsters for tools. I fancied every single damned one of them.

The best thing June 4, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

…about being skint when you’re a chain-smoking alcoholic is not being able to afford a swimming-pool because, let’s face it, you’d only be found dead in it.

Anyway, fuck that shit… Hands up who’s got a new laptop… What? No-one at all? We have. Or, rather, the Russian has. Naturally, I’m not allowed anywhere near it, both because I’d get my dirty fingerprints on it and he guards it like a national treasure, and secondly because I’d have a good old rummage around to do as much spying on him as my technological skills would allow. Indeed, so treasured is the new toy that often the last thing I see as I wave my beloved off to a hard day’s surfing the internet in the university library from my semi-slumber is him giving the bastard one final polish so that he’ll be the envy of all the other erudite surfers. But the troublesome thing – for him – is that I do now need quite regular access to his pride and joy. Not actually because I can be bothered to spy on him that much and, in any case, there’s always a preparatory ten minutes or so while he, presumably, deletes every transaction that’s ever happened on the computer before I am allowed to get my filthy, staining mits on it, but because it’s got… erm, 麻將 – no, wait there, or is it 麻将? Or, fuck, 麻将? Sorry, my Chinese is awfully rusty… mahjong on it.

Darlings, we’re hooked.

It can’t be the proper version, as my travels through wikipedia – any resemblance between the wikipedia page on mahjong and the Chinese characters above is purely coincidental – assures me that mahjong is played by multiple players. But, and providing further evidence that computers do, in fact, improve everything, the version that’s built into the Russian’s new laptop is for solo mahjong. None of this having-to-commune-with-other-humans nonsense. Just you, the computer and hours and hours of swearing and frustration.

Do folk play? If so, can they let me know if there are any rules to speak of? The Russian is, as his name suggests, Russian, so he can do all sorts of clever things like play chess and build his own tank. Whereas I can’t do anything. At all. He automatically saw a system in the whole thing and has instructed me, when trying to pair off my matching tiles, to work my way from the outside in, rather like with cutlery on posh occasions. I have pooh-poohed his advice and stab away wildly and then holler at the injustice and cruelty of it all when, just as I think I’m about to get the computerised fireworks display having cleared the whole bally lot of the bastards away, I am left with two – er, what are they called, actually? Is it tiles? – thingies SITTING ON TOP OF EACH OTHER, meaning they are unzappable. What sort of cunning bastardry is that? Plus it’s colour-blindist. More than once I’ve snorted at the computer’s stupidity in refusing to let me ping two clearly identical dragons to kingdom come only to realise that they are, in fact, different colours. I plan to sue China for what the Russians call ‘moral damages’.

So that’s our news, which, I agree, is nothing to write home about. Or to write on a blog about, really, but it’s that or nothing. Take it or leave it.

Have any of you got some lovely news?