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Victoria August 23, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I think to myself within half a second of arriving in the UK. “Fuck, fuck, fuck. Why did I come? Shit, I miss home. Damn, I must have missed at least 300 spam e-mails by now. Fuck. It’ll be awkward seeing the brother I still owe 80 million pounds to. Bugger, I won’t get a chance to see a single London friend and then will feel guilty and this feeling will only be redoubled by getting testy e-mails from the relatives/friends I didn’t see at all or enough saying, ‘Well, I must say, I think you could have…’ Bugger, it’s too late to text everyone I know. Why is eaSyjet always late? I wish Luton Airport would stop pretending it was in London.”

“Bugger,” I think to myself having got out of the airport building. “There isn’t a bus to the station for another hour. Bugger, it’s already a million o’clock. God, it’s freezing for the middle of summer. There’ll be no trains. I bet that Australian regrets wearing shorts. Fuck, I haven’t got a jacket. Christ, there are designated smoking areas outside. Can’t I smoke anywhere I can freeze? Bugger, I’ll have to get a coach.”

Which was quite entertaining. “Where ya gaain’?” a member of coach-staff asked each of the frozen tourists proffering their bags for safe-keeping. After lots of sorrys and excuse-mes, they would answer. “Finchley Road,” a Latvian might say, shyly. “Baker Street,” an American might offer, hoping they’d understood the question rightly. “Victoria,” I said, having forgotten London’s geography and hoping I’d be able to make it from there to the wilds of far south-west London. “That’ll be 700 pounds,” said the driver. “Can you wait a couple of hours while I try and earn the fare working as a prostitute?” “Yeah, no fuckin’ problem, mate.”

We trundled off to London. Brent Cross. (“Why did we go out of town to shop?”) Childs Hill. (I waved to my father buried close by.) Swiss Cottage. (“Oh god, did I think that was a tourist attraction when we had Spanish exchange students when I was 14?”) Lords Cricket Ground. (No-one got off.) Baker Street. (Saw a mad, ancient, freezing, homeless man who made me have positive thoughts about Sweden.) Marble Arch. (“God, isn’t Oxford Street a shit-hole?”) Hyde Park Corner. (“That Wellington Memorial should be much famouser than Marble Arch.”) And Victoria.

I followed some Italians who seemed to know London better than I did and made my way to the train station. And, for whatever time it was in the morning – maybe 2 by now – the place was heaving with life. People milling around outside the train station. Homeless folk in sleeping bags. Ne’er-do-wells loitering with ill intent. (I pursed my lips.) Police cruising around. Gazillions of lost tourists (the category I fit best into). And drunk Londoners waiting for night buses. I went to a cashpoint to withdraw another 900 quid for whichever bus it was I’d end up taking. Sainsbury’s was the only bank around. “Sainsbury’s?” Then I wandered frozenly from stop to stop, seeing if any of the N-routes went to anywhere I’d heard of. Nsomething. Camberwell. “Oh buggery fuck.” Nsomethingelse. Tulse Hill. “Double buggery.” I wandered on, thinking how long it would be before regular transport started again. Then collared two gents wearing fluorescent yellow and asked if there was a bus to Waterloo, which I naively thought might have trains running through the night. And, sure enough, there was a 24-hour bus-route that’d take me there.

I settled in for a freezing wait and watched London life go by. An Italian homeless man came and offered me a one-day travelcard seeing me struggling with the machine. I explained I had no change. I dashed off to an open café. Bought the smallest drink I could see, a minute bottle of apple-juice. Gave the cashier 400 quid and dashed off to finish off my transaction with the Italian. He started his next transaction with a pair of mystified Japanese tourists. A Polish boy with lovely Slavic hair helped a French woman with the slightly incomprehensible London transport system. “No, you must go to stop X.” “Got a Rizla, pal?” asked a Scottish gent who’d fallen on the hardest of times. Unfortunately, his askees were the same Japanese couple who by now must have been suffering from a persecution complex. Another homeless man approached me and asked with exasperation, as if he’d already asked me 19 times and I was being particularly intransigent, “Can ya just fuckin’ gimme 80 pence?” I splashed out and gave him a quid. “At long fuckin’ last,” he exclaimed cirrhotically and wandered off. Two Korean girls looked uncomprehendingly between their watches and the timetable.

The bus came in its own good time. I clambered on and asked, touristically, for the driver to let me off at the nearest stop to Waterloo. He duly did so. The Eye was resplendent. Parliament gave me a thrill. I wondered what would become of Waterloo’s international terminus whenever the new Eurostar bit will be ready. Wished I had a jacket. And got to Waterloo. Which was as closed as closed could be. “Oh stinking buggery fuck,” I hollered internally, longing for a warm bed in Pankow and the Russian’s generous girth.

Luckily, there was an all-night hypnotherapy centre open and I dashed in and uncovered from the depths of my cerebral recesses that there was a night-bus from Piccadilly to Twickenham which would only mean a 20-minute walk on either side of the journey. Struggled over Hungerford Bridge. “God, isn’t London fab?” Saw youngsters hanging around outside an expensive-looking night-club. Trolled up to Trafalgar Square. Examined the incomprehensible night-bus map. Gave up. Wandered to Piccadilly through Leicester Square. Caught hypothermia. And then wondered at London’s huge size as I took the night-bus for three hundred hours as far as Twickenham. Posher youngsters loitering outside an even more expensive-looking night-club on Kings Road. Worried I’d fallen asleep and had ended up in Dorset as we drove forever through Putney Common. And then hoped I’d at least get the sight of some lovely foxes scampering about in night-time Twickers…

Did I buggery. Too freezing even for them.

A grand night out August 12, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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Once you’ve been together with your beloved for a hundred years and know everything about each other, you need to be creative to stop time running into itself and becoming a stream of sameness in order to distinguish one moment of long-term togetherness from another.

Nights out are fraught. They invariably start with a vaguely spontaneous decision to leave the house just as we’re about to lose the ability to walk from being stuck at the computer for so long (and there’s only so long you can pretend that a one-thousand word translation takes three weeks). I rummage around looking for something to wear (and put a wash on when I realise all my three items of clothing are dirty) and then negotiate with the Russian which of his items of clothing he now hates enough to allow me to put on. Then I check that the windows are only left open in a satisfactorily burglar-proof way. Make sure things are off. Check that the gas hasn’t been left on, and then remember that we don’t have gas. Double-lock the front door. Then double-open it to check all the same things again. And then we head aimlessly into the night.

Which normally isn’t too bad. If we leave the house at, say, seven, we might have settled on a place to eat by about ten, which means your appetite is healthy and you’ve had plenty of time to let potential resentment over who’s going to pay the bill fester to the point of heart-warming grievance. We settled on Etienne, where the Russian had a massive, fuck-off lump of duck and I had a much more manageable chunk of salmon. There were excellent au gratin potatoes to be had. Two glasses of wine (Côtes du Ventoux). (Luckily, the waitress misheard that we in fact wanted quite a lot more. A blessing in disguise.) Coffee. Forty-something euros. Not too bad. And, anyway, we didn’t need to bother with grievance because they take credit cards – no small cause for celebration in Berlin – so it was free anyway. So pop to Etienne, Berliners/visitors, with your plastic for a free night out.

We were so thrilled with the free food and how little we’d drunk that we thought we’d better go and drink rather a lot more to make sure there was a chance to spoil the evening after all. Beer’s especially good for spoiling any occasion, but luckily we managed to avoid that disaster and drank ourselves dead on cocktails at Zum schmutzigen Hobby – look! Even Rupert Everett’s been! – instead. A perfectly satisfactory gay bar as Berlin gay bars go. Not bitchy. Not so pitch black that you have to have sex with everyone on the premises. Not so exclusively gay that a woman’s presence will turn heads. You can sit outside or in, and the Kylie isn’t on so loud that you can’t talk to your neighbour.

Not that the Russian and I wanted to talk, of course. Thankfully there were distractions such as the odd good-looking man or two couples with dogs or radically enhanced people-watching opportunities in the shape of a huge gaggle of young Americans on a pub-crawl of exactly the type Herr Diary describes here. I think their tour-guide was being naughty dragging them into a gay bar but they liked it well enough. One of the girls was impressed with the two dogs and exclaimed, with a bar-penetrating voice, “Like, what is it with dogs in bars here?” And then, turning to a couple that anyone would have been hard pushed to imagine as straight, asked, “Is that how you pick up chicks?” They muttered to each other and wondered what ‘chicks’ meant. The young lady had already skipped off enthusiastically for the exchange to go any further.

The bar-goers thinned out and the Russian and I wondered how next we might amuse each other. Salvation came in the shape of a found pen and free postcards. What could be more natural than to write calling cards for each other and then to strew them around the bar? “Hot Russian boy,” I began. “Russian (for that is his name). Call me. (“Darling, what’s your phone number again?”) 0171…” The Russian ripped up my efforts. “Cheap British slut,” began the Russian, which I thought was lowering the tone a tad. “BiB. Call me. 0171…” Hmm. “Horrible Russian boy. Russian. Microscopically tiny willy. Call me. 0171…” Rip, rip, rip, went the Russian. “Even-cheaper-than-on-the-last-postcard British slut. Ingrowing willy. Riddled with the pox. Call me. 0171…”

“Have you got a photocopier?” I asked the bar staff as we saw fit to stumble out the door. You’ve got to hedge your bets at my age.

Birmingham August 10, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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One of my aunts has died. An OK death, as deaths go, because she was 150 and in pain. So breast-beating and the throwing of selves onto funeral pyres has been kept to a minimum. Still, an excellent chance for a bit of a gossipy reminisce with my mother.

My mother has cottoned on to 2007 and globalisation and has started asking me to replenish her wardrobe thinking, probably rightly, that what I can buy here will be a lot cheaper than the same item she can buy in London. On one of her recent calls, when I assumed she was ringing to find out if the Russian had a visa – no – or if we’d decided to extend our summer stay exponentially and would in fact not bother with coming home in between and just stay on till Christmas, there was a hint of being-willing-to-make-a-demand in her voice. Being a mother of at least three hundred children – I’ve given up trying to keep up with how many siblings I have. Yes, god was involved – and of a certain age, the brashest thing she’s probably ever done is ask someone to put the kettle on for her. (Mind you, she’s also cottoned on galore to the Russian being able to cook. While my siblings sat around waiting for Sunday lunch on one of our visits – the Royal Albert Hall has to be hired out for such occasions, natch – the Russian only just managed to keep his polite-guest face on as he found himself peeling carrots (while the men checked Ceefax for football scores and the women talked curtains) (we like to obey tradition in my family. You can’t believe how pleased everyone is to have a poof on board).)

“Y’know them shoes Birkenstocks (B-I-R-K…)? I’ve had a pair but they’re after breakin’. And they’re fierce comfortable and I asked your sister to get me a new pair but you can only do it on the computer and then what if they deliver while I’m out? And they’re German and I think they’re cheaper in Germany. I’ve had gold ones but I don’t want gold. I want beige. Size 40. (I was deeply impressed at this point that she knew her Euro-size. The Russian was deeply impressed that any woman had such big feet. I explained it was our good peasanty stock. Probably cover ground more quickly in times of hunger or something.) I’ll give you the money when you come for that wedding. Youse’ll stay for a few months, won’t youse?”

The Russian and I found ourselves in the environs of the Birkenstock-trading establishment this afternoon. Found the sandals. Beige. Size 40. Ludicrously cheap. Oh, but, bugger, a buckle. “I think she wanted just a plain strap. She didn’t mention a buckle. I’ll text her and then she’ll ring tonight.”

We left the shop. “Fffffff,” vibrated my phone. A text. From my mother. Who has been asking me to teach her to text for ever. “With,” said her message, with professional texting brevity. And this from a woman who, last time I witnessed, would hold her mobile at arm’s length in case it gave her a disease and pressed the buttons to make a call with the dexterity of a two-year-old at a piano.

“Bought,” I texted back, seeing if it was a fluke and I’d got the number wrong by a digit and a wrong-number person was playing along.

“Thank you,” my phone fffffffed back.

The Russian and I decided beer was in order to cope with the rigours of the day. The Russian dashed off to wash away the dirt of the city. I texted my mother again. “You’ve learnt to text, or do you have an assistant?” “It’s me,” replied sister number 312, who I’d actually forgotten existed. “We’re just back from Auntie’s funeral in Birmingham.”

Deciding, rightly, that texting is an unsatisfactory channel of communication, my mother rang this evening. I could hardly hear her for the first twenty seconds as she guffawed about the excitement of our texting sagas. “And then the phone went off again – hysterical laughter – when I was only after putting it away. And we were on the train. I got the train from Euston and changed at Willesden Junction and then got the train to Richmond and then the bus came just as I was coming out of Richmond.” If there’s one thing my mother loves more than funerals, where she can have the satisfaction of having outlived some other dead loser, it’s buses. “And I got a seat. And then I was just after getting in and your sister (no. 903) rang. She changed at Reading and…”

“So how was the funeral?”

“It’s a lovely church. And there were bagpipes. And then there was a lovely spread after at the club. Tea and coffee. (Coffee means posh.) And cold meats.”

“And did you see Birmingham?”

“‘s awful grotty.”

“I thought they’d done it up. Does the Bullring still exist?”

“Oh, sure, it’s still grotty.”

“And was this cousin there?

“He was, and his wife. She’s lookin’ awful old.”

“How many children have they got? Were they there? What are their names?”

“And what would the children be goin’ to a funeral for? They don’t go to the funerals. Sure I can’t be rememberin’ their names. They’re very nice. Fierce good-lookin’ altogether.”

I drifted back to the early 1990s. One of the last times I’d been to Birmingham, where all of my father’s family lives and who, them being our exotic relatives, with a different accent and all, kept me and my 1033 siblings amused in our misspent London youths, between bouts of taking drugs and skateboarding, by talking like Pig from Pipkins. This trip involved my ex. His family is a tad different from mine. His father is a pianist. His mother a shrink. My father was not a pianist (by a long chalk). My mother is not a shrink (regardless of the insightfulness you may have gleaned from this post). We ended up in the same school by my parents trading up and his mother slumming it. The ex’s father was performing at Birmingham’s posh new concert hall (which my mother probably found grotty). We drove up to Birmingham with my mother. She dashed into a grotty provincial taxi, no doubt, and headed to my aunt and uncle’s place for saveloys, pickled onions and pop, and we dashed on to some Beethoven concert or other. We popped backstage afterwards to see the ex’s father, who greeted us queenily. His girlfriend, who played some blowy instrument or other, was too socially inept to say hello. We were introduced to Simon Rattle. “‘ere, Si, ‘s a fuckin’ funny surname, innit?” I hollered, before we dashed off to rejoin my mother and aunt and uncle to wallow in vinegar.

“Yow all riiiiight, nephew BiB?” inquired my aunt at the door, shuffling her decorative Zimmer frame out of the way. (We never gave her displays of illness any credence.) “Oh, and is this yer frieeeeeeeend? You’re very welcome. Have a saveloy.”

My ex did his best to look at home in his surroundings. He burped and smashed a few windows to be like other working-class people before smiling politely and looking around for approbation.

“Would yow like a noice cup of teeeeeea, BiB’s friend?” the stone-cold, snow-white, saccharine liquid being dutifully provided with a side order of pickled onions by my angelic but getting-on-for-senile uncle. “So, was yow concert noooice?”

“Oh yes, my father was playing The Emperor. We’d never heard it played quite so fast before. Sir Simon must have been in quite a hurry. Ah ha ha. Ha ha ha,” my ex said urbanely to an arena of blank looks. He burped.

“Birmingham’s grotty but a lovely place for a day out, isn’t it?” my mother commented in the car on the way home.

Tables, visas, quacks August 6, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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Nothing to write. At all. So let’s go over some old ground.

The Russian has surpassed himself in making an elephant out of a fly (as our German and Russian cousins like to say) of the unnecessary yet seemingly-simple task of giving the kitchen table a make-over. It must now be seventeen coats to the good and I have to say I’m gripped by whatever incarnation it will eventually end up in. Its first fifteen (or thereabouts) coats consisted in getting it from that lovely blue I talked about in some post or other to a rather Spartan white. As lazily minimalistic as we are on the decor front, I did think this was pushing things a tad, but with a resplendent bunch of some thorny-looking flower that the Russian found somewhere with a nice orange bloom, the ensemble had a not unpleasing finish.

And then a stripe. Blue. About nine thirteenths of the way down the whitescape. I was transported to Haifa, circa 1947. (The owner of this blog would like to make clear that he bears no liability for the depiction of ‘facts’ which can only be called wrong. Or pre-Israel Israeli accents which can only be called London.)

David – “‘ere, Yitzhak, you come up wiv a design for a flag yet?”

Yitzhak – “I ain’t makin’ that good progress, Dave, now’s you ask.”

David – (aside) “Rifka, whydya recommend Yitzhak for the job?”

Rifka – “His bruvver’s me sister’s doctor, inne? He said he was good wiv designin’ stuff.”

David – “So how far ‘ave you got?”

Yitzhak – “Well, I thought we’d have a nice white background. And then a blue stripe about nine firteenfs the way dairn.”

David – (to Rifka) “I don’t know who’s the bigger meshuggeneh, you or ‘im. A flag I ask for and a stripe he gives me, ‘nine firteenfs the way dairn’.”

Rifka – (to David) “Dave, don’t be ‘arsh. You know he’s been very busy with the kibbutzim.”

Yitzhak – “…and then summink Jewish in the middle, like one of ’em candlesticks. And maybe anuvver stripe.”

Though subsequent events have brought me back from the Middle East. A new stripe has appeared. Grey. And with no respect for vexillological tradition, pre-Israel or otherwise. There is talk of another stripe and further huffing and puffing, all of which will only shine further light on the work-shirking me.

Darlings, and you wouldn’t believe quite how incompetent British visa bureaucracy has become. My life is now a tawdry correspondence between me-as-the-Russian and Hungarian pen-pushers. “Dear Hungarian pen-pusher, further to my previous seventeen e-mails, each of which you have failed to read or, if not, in which you have failed to answer my one very simple question, i.e. have I, Mr. Russian, been granted a visa and have you sent me my passport back?, I ask again, have I, Mr. Russian, been granted a visa and have you sent me my passport back?” “Dear Mr. Russian, you can see online that your case has been dealt with and your passport has been sent back to you.” “Dear Hungarian pen-pusher, thank you for your eighteenth identically-worded and inadequate answer. As I have pointed out to you seventeen times, we both know that information is false, because the one time I did manage to speak to a human in Düsseldorf, she told me that the online info was an arrant lie and there merely to placate angry visa-applicants who would rather like their passports back.” “Dear Mr. Russian. OK, you’ve finally sapped my will to resist. I’ll get onto someone at Düsseldorf and ask. So can you give me the details of your application?” “Dear Hungarian pen-pusher. By application details, you mean precisely those which have been included in each of the e-mails I’ve already written you?” “Dear Mr. Russian. Yep, that’s them.” “Dear Hungarian pen-pusher…” Sometimes progress has much to answer for.

And just when I was beginning to enjoy my spate of summer run-ins with the quacks – think I might squeeze in the asthma dr. soon while I’m on a roll – my ear-quack has lost my confidence and made me think she’s mad. I went back on cue today to explain my ear was still generating an unsightly goo. On this occasion, she didn’t even bother looking at my ears themselves but resorted exclusively to swinging her divining rod between my knee and some bottles, muttering to herself reassuringly throughout. Then she prescribed me another new set of drops, each of which has 99% alcohol content and costs a small fortune. Mad as a brush, or getting a commission from the dumb foreigner with posh health insurance. Can’t decide which.

Still, it’s reassuringly sane-feeling-making doing business with the inane and the inept.

Cuckoo and more August 2, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
33 comments

I was hoping to give you locals another helpful cinema tip but now, looking at Kino Krokodil’s website, I see that the film I wanted to recommend to you finished yesterday. I’d be a hopeless agony uncle. So you’ll have to make your own efforts to find Kukushka (The Cuckoo) now, or hope, as is Krokodil’s wont, that it reappears at some point in the future. But it’s a fun film, especially for language nerds. Four languages on the go: German, Finnish, Russian and Sami, which, while I got the linguistic equivalent of a stiffy about, also made me think that it might be an idea for subtitles to somehow cleverly indicate what language is being spoken, which I first worried about when watching Kolja, when there were moments at which it was significant whether people were speaking Czech or Russian and which must have passed lots of people by.

But bugger all that. Going to the cinema alone remains the greatest pleasure life has to offer beyond having your ears syringed. But I don’t know if it’s a new thing at Krokodil or I’ve only noticed it thanks to my new, improved ears, but as you sit, almost alone – I can’t believe the cinema makes any money at all – waiting for the gent to start the film for you and looking at the photos of Eastern European cinemas on the wall and getting another language-stiffy at the one of the cinema in Belarus with the permanent notices written in Belarusian while all the actual film stuff is in Russian, there is now a sort of lounge-music to lull you filmwards. And it’s poor enjoyment enhancement. It sounds like a group of posh children, whose parents have told them that whatever they do is brilliant, have swallowed helium, tinkled pencils on milk-bottles and then expressed their glee. Silence please.

So, films may also be watched at home. There, not only can I prevent myself from accidentally switching on music and having that annoying wait while the film starts twenty minutes after it’s meant to (admittedly, a crime against humanity which Krokodil manages not to commit), but I can also have the inner satisfaction of watching with headphones so as not to rile the easy-to-rile neighbours (and I try to limit any gleeful reactions, helium-fuelled or not, and make sure all bottles are stored at a safe distance). And so I watched Coming Out, which my ex thoughtfully sent me from London, thinking, rightly, that it would float my boat. It is East Germany’s most famous (or perhaps only?) gay film. As I live in a bubble of flagrant ignorance, I had no idea it existed and, as I watched it, was already dreading expressing my (quite quiet) enthusiasm to German friends and saying I knew nothing about the bastard film as I worried I’d be met with the looks of kind weariness that met me when I mentioned to a gentleman in France that I was new to Rimbaud. (Honestly, the French are too well educated. I was only 2 and a half.) (But, fucking hell, better late than never. Read some of his correspondence with M. Verlaine if you haven’t already. The heterosexual males amongst you might have to pretend you don’t find it moving, but dash into the loo where no-one can see you and let some tears be jerked.)

Anyway, Coming Out is fun to watch at a squillion levels. If you’re in Berlin, because you can look out for the places you know and marvel at the cars and wonder which station used to be called Marx-Engels-Platz. And because it’s the end of an era. So end-of-an-era, in fact, that it premiered on the night the wall came down. The film portrays the lot of a gay schoolteacher in Berlin and his struggles to admit that he’s an out-and-out screamer and how this affects his career, his loved ones and the men he gets involved with. An old queen gives him a you-were-lucky lecture, explaining how he’d ended up in a concentration camp for being gay (and going on to explain how his Communist comrades helped him later, though the film makes no paeans to Honecker) and how now, gays in the East German paradise are the last discriminated-against group (which was bollocks, of course). Gayness was tolerated in the GDR, and the film used real gay venues for the gay-scene scenes, but, when those scenes stray from raucous hedonism and painted faces – today’s scene is very boring in comparison, let me tell you. Though it would be shit to live in a place again where you have to hide your gayness a bit, such societies do tend to have a much more interesting scene. Give me St. Petersburg with its tacky fun over too-cool-to-exist Berlin queenery any day – there is talk of fear, loneliness and anonymity.

And excuse me being frivolous, for a change, when it comes to dealing with a serious film, but the fashions are quite marvellous. There are lots of tight jeans. Some exemplary mullets. A brilliant Bananarama haircut or two. Luckily, our hero is staid enough not to do anything too drastic on the hair-front, and he is thankfully called upon to parade around the screen wearing nothing but his one pair of very tight, very high-waisted jeans, for much of the film. Woof!

I won’t hear a contrary word. Be warned, Russian, and anyone who thinks I need to be advised against it, but when Herr Freihof comes up to me on the street one day, as is probably almost bound to happen, and tells me that I am the man he’s been waiting for all his 44 years, I might not put up much resistance at all.