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Knock knock June 27, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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…except not even on the door. No. On the wall. At a guess with two fists in harmonious and sonorous synchronicity. Naturally I turned the music down because I thought it might be a call for help. Perhaps the thump would be accompanied by muffled screams. Perhaps the neighbour was being brutally and mercilessly attacked by a wicked criminal. I stopped myself drifting off into a happy daydream with swirling dervishes and the beat of celebratory drums and strained my ears. Silence. Even the baby was quiet. No. The knock had been meant for me. When all I’d been doing was listening to Amy at a volume which can only have been the most faintly audible hum through the admittedly paper-thin walls. It was 6pm.

These are our second shitty neighbours. Part of the reason for moving from our first Berlin pad, apart from thinking we’d die of carbon monoxide poisoning every time we took 40 winks, was to escape the woman underneath who would come to complain that we walked too audibly. But her hair was purple which meant I could never take her complaints seriously. Any hatred for her was prevented from attaining its natural and speedy magnificent proportions because she had a nice husband called Mario. (East(ern) Germans like(d) names ending in o.) And when water trickled from our bathroom and sent the stalactites of swirly paint on their bedroom ceiling a shade of grey, Mario was forbearing and forgiving. We had a confusing goodbye, the Russian and I alternating to say, “Thanks, Mario, you were great,” to Mario and hissing at his purple-haired wife. Our other neighbour from the same house, a quite nice whoopsy whom we would occasionally bump into as he was setting off to the West to go to a bar which reeks of shit, regaled us with stories of the people who replaced us in the flat having such loud parties that the police would come. The Russian and I high-fived and smiled like Cheshire cats.

But it’s all much more unsatisfying here. At least the old house was a ramshackle hovel that made you want to commit crime as soon as you walked into the entrance. I would sometimes wait there in the dark and mug the Russian. Yet this house is categorised as respectable. Rather than your thoughts turning to crime as you walk in, your senses are ambushed by an all-pervasive abstract image of furniture polish and mopped floors. If you’re lucky, you can get up the stairs without bumping into any of the neighbours. The stairwell is like the room in a house used only on special occasions. Dreary and lifeless. Apart from, of course, when there is some other neighbour trudging indignantly in or out, doing their best not to say hello to you or catch your eye.

And so it is with the immediate next door neighbours. A young couple with a sanctifying child. Russian in some way we can’t work out. Or at least Russian-speaking, though their surnames are as German as could be. Her face is cast in unpainted plaster, its expression fixed – presumably since the moment she met her other half – in a permanent cocktail of misery and disdain. Non-stop unhappy hour. His is the face of the young moralising idealist. It combines, with the misery and disdain he and his beloved have perfected in each other, conceit and reproof. The face, which, by wonderful chance happens to be quite stunningly plain, is bound by the ugliest and most motionless hair this side of a waxwork museum.

Berlin houses are made of tracing paper. Berliners are famed for their rudeness. So it is not surprising that the neighbourly experience can be a less than pleasant one. But these neighbours, livid, perhaps, having thought they’d moved somewhere ennobling and respectable-making, at ending up next door to a pair of life-noise-emitting, Russian-speaking poofs, make the Russian and me have wicked thoughts. We say a cheerless and steely hello when geography has made it necessary. They answer with silence. Perhaps I’d unendeared myself to the man of the house when, before I’d realised he was in some way Russian, I would say to the Russian, in Russian, “Why doesn’t that twat say hello?”

Still, he should let it pass. There’s no need for us to be friends, true, but a cheerless and steely hello in the corridor is one of the few things keeping us apart from the animal kingdom. They may wish, nerves frayed after another sleepless and bawl-filled night, that we didn’t exist, or at least existed in silence. But that’s not what compact urban living is about. It’s compromise. While we have to settle for living cheek by jowl with our fellow cretins, we must make the experience as tolerable as possible.

Infuriated by the injustice of their uncivilised ways, I waited till 3am, put on Amy at full blast and knocked, my fists thumping in reciprocal harmony, on this side of the wall. I heard kerfuffle. Their front door opening. A ring at our bell. I braced myself to see him. It’s always him. She is presumably busy applying fresh layers of plaster to her face. Opened the door. Sure enough, there, in all its non-glory, was his charmless visage, sporting a withering expression.

“Sorry, I remembered your hair and how much it annoyed me,” I said by way of explanation and closed the door in his face.

The agony of choice June 20, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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It’s a battle of wills every time I leave the house to do my favourite thing in the whole world now that I’ve given up smoking, going to the supermarket. It was worse in the old days when I hadn’t worked out how better to spend money I didn’t have and no-frills supermarkets were also in the picture. But now that my wallet’s packed full of cards and I am, therefore, rich, the battle of wills – my wills – is down to two. I turn right out of the front door and hurl abuse at everyone walking in the direction of Lidl. “No-frills scum-king,” I shout, without even an offer of a translation.

But what about when I come to the junction of our humble street and the biggish street close by? If I do a left, it’s only a step or two to Edeka which is cheaper than the competition but still good enough to make me think I’m one of life’s winners. Or I can do a right and get to Rewe. Further away. But bigger so sort of better. They have the odd male cashier, which is a minor thrill. And also take credit cards which can be a deciding factor when I need the shopping to be free.

Yet now that my supermarket habits no longer leave any room for doubts as to my one-of-life’s-winners status and there is no great difference really between the fairly piss-poor range of comestibles on offer, and as I am an indecisive type, I can sometimes spend as long as three to four days standing at the junction, reasoning with myself, sometimes rather loudly, about which way to turn.

“Edeka,” I’ll shout at myself to the consternation of imaginationless passers-by. “Only a total wanker would go to Rewe.” Then I scrabble around on the ground for a bit, fetching myself almighty blows round the chops, and get back up, crying, and then remonstrate with myself, “No, Rewe. Rewe’s bottle machine gives you a breakdown of the type of bottle you’ve returned. Edeka’s doesn’t. Loser.” Then I beat the shit out of myself a bit more and pull my hair out. And toss a coin when I can’t bear it any longer.

Both supermarkets now have cafés. This used to be a matter of little import. But Marsha changed all that. I wandered off one morning, braced for the junction ruck. Stopped by the letter box. A parcel. From Marsha. Of comedy. I was so stunned by her generosity – more generosity in that single gesture than I’ve had out of the Russian in 24 years (or something like that) of blissful togetherness though he did tenderly say recently that maybe we weren’t so bad after all – that I had to go to Edeka. As it was, I barely made it. Reeling from her kindness, I had to do the last few metres on all-fours.

Sustenance was called for. Edeka’s café is plastic and sterile enough but blow me if I didn’t have seats to the best theatre in Berlin. So much to watch! The wishing cashier wished me so many good things – appetite, day, rest of my life – that I felt very at peace with the world. Workmen happened to be working on the automatic doors. The in-charge one looked at the same bit of ceiling from inside and out and shook his head. His minion did likewise and played with his mobile phone. A dog was tied up inside the entrance to the supermarket and stared out forlornly, like an old lady hoping someone might come to visit. An old lady who looked a bit like the old lady the dog looked like came to pet the dog. It continued its forlorn look for a couple of seconds, then snarled and gnashed and went for her jugular, practically throttling itself as its lead refused to unfurl any further.

But today I needed the shopping to be free. Trolled off to Rewe. Whizzed my way round, knowing that I’d reward myself with a stale sandwich and a nice cup of machine coffee at the end of it. Rewe’s café is even less charming than Edeka’s but, oddly, it has its own gallery attached. So while I can commend the setting even less, it gets extra points for the cultural angle.

I hurtled my goods into my plastic bags. Distributed the weight evenly. Looked admiringly at an old couple who’d been together so long they seemed to have lived beyond the wishing-each-other-dead stage who were carefully going through their receipt, checking off item against item. Returned my trolley. Got myself a half-sandwich and coffee and sat down ready to peruse some art.

Water-colour and pencil vaginas if you don’t mind! Bet you wouldn’t get that at Tesco’s in Ruislip.

Italy v France June 18, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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Not as nice as the pictures I see at Café Galerie in my local supermarket, where everyone who’s anyone is trying to get exhibited, but they’ll have to do. Buggered if I know how to edit the photos now. WordPress locutus est.

A special grazie to Pino who told me how to spend a day in Milan when I ended up there and knew nothing about the city. A blogger in need is a blogger indeed. Not in any of these photos, mind, as the memory card, or whatever it’s called, from the camera, which would have allowed me to take more than one (or thereabouts) photo, had carefully been forgotten at home.

Can anyone tell me if I’m morally obliged to continue reading Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française? I’ve been picking it up and putting it back down again for months and while I don’t want to be disrespectful to her memory ‘n all, I’m finding the book an awful chore.

Football has already lost my interest. Attention span deficit post-traumatic syndrome, I think. Though a Germany v Holland final would be nice, if you’re Dutch or German, perhaps.

Love is a losing game June 15, 2008

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I can’t currently see the point of not being in love with Amy Winehouse. I’ve been cautious about coming out as a fan, worried that it might be akin to driving a Vauxhall Astra. And then the last time I decided to come out as liking someone, it was James Blunt, and I don’t even live in the UK so didn’t know that to like him was worse than kiddy-fiddling. Hopefully Nizlopi have split up.

Anyway, I’ve checked with a number of humans from a variety of backgrounds – I’ve asked them to fill in forms outlining their age, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientation and IQ (and the forms of anyone with an IQ of lower than 145 were cruelly discarded and subsequently used for doodling and shopping lists) – and I am told that it actually is perfectly acceptable to be head-over-heels in love with her.

Plus it’s very easy as relationships go. For a start we’re at a very early stage and boredom and reality are yet to impinge as, as sure as hate follows love, they surely will. After all, she makes almost no demands on me, so I am free to drink cheap beer from a tin in front of the TV and play with my testicles, which I do round the clock, and she doesn’t nag me. And the only demand I make of her, which she satisfies without exception and, thus far, perfection guaranteed, is to not have had clips of her that I want to watch on youtube deleted. And initial research shows that she is from a nice Jewish family so she probably doesn’t have any bad habits like drinking alcohol or taking snuff. Phew!

My editorial policy means I can’t link to the clips that have got me sending Amy taxis of roses and writing her heart-rending poetry expressing my thought that, “And on the seventh day, God created Amy Winehouse”. (I hope she’ll be happy with my efforts so far, such as, “One day I’ll build a fine house,
For me and Amy Winehouse.”) In any case, they are clips of her performing some of her numbers live. Just her and a guitarist. Her sitting down, when I thought you had to stand up for your diaphragm to be at its songful best. And just when you might want to think, “Oh, fuck, this is going to be a bit naked. A bit bald. Just her and a guitar,” she belts something out with such loveliness and simplicity that she bees a whole orchestra.

I’m enjoying the good times while they last. I suppose, before we know it, she’ll be off pleasuring other men and not reacting to my poetry. But in the meantime, I won’t believe a word any of you has to say against her. Unless it’s very convincing.

A tale of two airports June 11, 2008

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Stansted Airport, waiting for flight to Italy. I had left a boiling Berlin. In ‘London’s’ 18th airport, people were huddled, sheltering from the blizzard that swept into the award-winning building every time someone traipsed determinedly or panickingly in.

Six identically-sized Welsh goblins hovered near me and expressed wonder at everything that happened here in the land of the big people. The ladies had Judith Chalmers hair. The men joked constantly. The man of the youngest of the three couples – presumably son+daughter-in-law/son-in-law+daughter goblins – smiled much too eagerly which made him look as if he was on a marathon smelling-sour-milk session. I worried that his legs were a bit too thin and hairless, even making concessions for the fact that he was a goblin, for someone who was probably planning, judging by that grin, to father children in the near future.

All Europe was at Stansted. Persecuted-looking young Polish women married to older English bits of rough. Lucky bitches. Some grungy Italians played basketball with their rubbish and unstinting accuracy. They whooped in fake celebration, much to the amusement of a Geordie mum and her two children. She read them, one eagerly on either side, Roald Dahl and I wanted to sit cross-legged on the floor. Her boisterous son, his Dahl-listening done, would get up to four-year-old mischief. She curtailed each bout by counting. “If you divvun’t stop doin’ that, we won’t get on the plane. 1. 2. 3.” The counts got longer and longer as the son computed the emptiness of her threats. I left for a wander when she’d reached 99 and three quarters.

A three-member family wore the same persecuted look. Mother+son+daughter. Maybe because there was no father. Or because he’d upped and died. Or because they were on their way to Marbella to see him. No way of knowing.

A cleaning woman in a buggy refused to adjust her route along her selected floor tiles when she came across a TV crew filming someone trying to be authoritative about the airport. They shuffled twenty centimetres sideways to avoid being mowed down by a mop on wheels.

The noise of hard plastic – hard plastic handle snapping against hard plastic suitcases – as parents dropped luggage in anger at another child’s misdeed. “Hold mummy’s hand, Natalie.” Natalie looked at dad with a look that said, “Fuck off, loser.” “Wave to grandma, Natalie.” Natalie perfected her look.

Police strode around with swagger and enormous weapons. I pretended to smoke a cigarette out of my rolled-up bit of online boarding A4 and only stopped when I fainted into one set of manly arms as two boys in blue completed their butch and authoritative sprint towards me. I woke up being probed by some woman doing some survey. The cow was always attacking the vulnerable. Surveying oldies too polite to refuse. “Do you live in the UK?” asked the only woman in the UK I saw without straightened hair. “Germany, dontcha know,” I whispered before fainting with effortful choreography into policeman no. 2’s even burlier arms.

700 girls with straightened hair loomed into view wearing t-shirts that said, “Czech me out”. They were presumably back from a hen-do in Prague. (Suggest an occasion you’d dread more here.) “We didn’t have to pay to go to the toilet in Prague, did we?” one asked, heading towards our great, free-of-charge, British toilets. “Yeah, we did in one place,” answered an identical pal earnestly.

A woman with a limp so severe that she looked like a car with one flat tyre rotated past me slowly.

“Perhaps I should pop into London for the few hours,” I thought resourcefully. “Hmm, 26 quid for the ticket. Perhaps I’ll stay here and observe Europe in all its glory instead.”

Bari Airport, waiting for flight to Milan. I was given a charming proto-bollocking by the no-liquids-of-more-than-100ml man. I felt a satiable urge to tie all Italian men’s hands behind their backs to see how it would affect their speech.

All of Europe wasn’t here. Just Italians. I felt exotic and sported my British passport with pride in case folk couldn’t guess from the unironed and filthy shirt I was wearing from not having packed enough clothes.

The noise at the departure gate rose steadily with Italian men inadvertently knocking each other flying as they rocked their hands back in forth in front of themselves, which led to easy conversation. “Che belli bambini! Quanti anni hanno? Bellissimi.” The hubbub didn’t have the same frantic gossipiness it would have had if we’d been in Spain but if you were hosting a house party and you got this hum going, you’d think you’d done a good job.

Stunningly handsome twin brothers ambled in. They communicated and ignored each other with the well-worn expertise of a married couple. Or a parent and child. Or, indeed, twin brothers. Their haircuts were identical, as was their level of careful unshavedness. They both wore polo-shirts, but one was blue, the other white. The blue one had his collar turned up and sat with his back to me. The upturned collar revealed, just where a tattoo would have been on his neck if he’d been a very different type altogether, the word ‘kissing’.

Che bello. Bellissimo.

Tax haven June 1, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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I’m running away from my tax declaration. Those of you living beyond the borders of our glorious federal republic will be unaware that May 31st is tax day but I’ve been here long enough to know that no-one gives a toss if you submit the bastard an oodle late.

Still, my life has taken on an air of respectable perfection of late. Which probably explains why I’ve been unable to blog, because, inevitably, perfection goes hand in hand with clanking boredom. If I’m not busy not smoking, I’m rushed off my feet not drinking. Then there’s the odd press-up to do to hone my virtuousness. I might lift a dumbbell for three seconds once a week and that brings on another time-consuming session of halo-polishing. And, finally, there are the sit-ups. About twice a week, I raise my blubbery torso approximately one degree off the floor and consider my sports regime tended to, worrying the whole while, as I lie panting on the bathroom floor, that the pointy light-bulb in the lamp above me will come free of its moorings and hurtle downwards, piercing my untoned belly in the process.

So the perfection made me think I’d better get other areas of my life in order. Naturally none of this rubs off on how the Russian and I interact. We can both pursue our paths to perfection with admirable individuality. I’m busy being perfect on my path so shining any Peruvian revolutionary would be proud of it. The Russian busies himself shuffling along his less lustrous version. He is more of a meddler than I am and occasionally strays on to my perfection-path, shielding his eyes from the dazzle of my virtue, to try to tell me how to tweak my life-choices. But I stand my ground.

“Maybe, for the first time ever, I should do my tax declaration on time,” I said on some perfect day in May. Between you and me, and I know it’s sacrilege to waste an opportunity for a bit of a moan, doing your tax here couldn’t be easier. Unless by easier we mean not doing it at all, which has its attractions. But I have an inner Calvinist streak which ordains that life’s unpleasanter duties should, by rights, be borne with forbearance, stoicism and a spirit of embracing that which brings suffering.

But, darlings, I’ve only read the first chapter of my self-help book. I thought giving up drinking and smoking would flick the magic perfection-switch and I’d be handing out the hymn books in the local church within a week. I’d be nicer to the Russian. I’d make jam for the neighbours. And tax declarations would get done on time.

Not a bit of it.

I perfectly undertook the first pre-steps of my tax declaration. “It’s all just so easy when your life’s perfect,” I said to myself as I was inoculating deprived children against cholera and giving their mothers a heartfelt lecture on the benefits of breastfeeding. I composed some poetry about the joy of doing one’s taxly duty by the state. I squeezed in one final pre-tax round of meals-on-wheels and finally got down to the paperwork.

Being perfect dictates that one organise official papers into orderly piles. Oh gosh. But what must these receipts be from? Oh god, how did I get a photocopy of that? I must have taken to photocopying in my sleep. Jesus, and how did those UK stamps get in there? And that-person-whom-I-haven’t-seen-for-two-years’s visiting card? Fucking hell. There’s a five pound note!

The papers spread with the speed which only inanimate objects can. Order disappeared. I had to start locking the door so the Russian couldn’t come in and try to force his version of perfection on me once more.

And I had a moment of weakness. Even we perfect folk have those. I took a swig from a bottle of bleach and booked a flight to Italy. You’ll probably never hear from me again.