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With or without you September 6, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Darlings, I was in the shiatsu chair in my local shopping centre the other day – honestly, the best 2 euros you’ll ever spend (downstairs in the Arcaden on Schönhauser Allee, for the locals). You are mechanically fisted – no penetration – for ten minutes and while it’s a bit embarrassing whimpering from pain and pleasure in public, it’s well worth the humiliation – trying to avoid thinking about the Russian being in Russia for fifty years again and watching the world go by. “But what will I do if anything breaks while he’s away?” I pondered. “What if I have to use some device with more than one button? What if I forget my keys and am locked out for a month?” (The concierge has a spare set, he assured me, but I don’t believe him.)

Just as the mechanical fists were giving my lower back a right good going-over, my thoughts of abandonment were rudely interrupted by interesting-looking passers-by. A professional son with a very vacant look in his eyes, though there was intelligence behind the vacancy, supported his aged and disabled mother as they dawdled past me at record low speed. I doubted they’d spoken – to each other or anyone else – in a number of years. I imagined their life consisted largely of tea and dry cake in a flat decorated with the German equivalent of Hay Wain reproductions. Perhaps the mother might occasionally cry, “Me knees,” and the son would adjust her pouffe or blanket as the occasion demanded.

“There but for the grace of god,” I started to think to myself, but then nipped that cliché in the bud lest I instantly turn religious. “Still, even if my beloved does fuck off and abandon me for eleven months of every year, my fate is a lucky one. I am yet to be institutionalised into any caring, familial role. I live my life quite disgracefully selfishly.”

I was just working my way up to the top floor of the shopping centre to buy a self-help (or help-others) book on how to be good when who should I see on the escalator going in the other direction but the institutionalised son! Without his mother! There was no way he could have delivered his charge back to their flat and put a blanket over her knees in this time. Naturally I assumed he had flipped – those eyes had a hint of the murderous – and killed his poor mother, chopped her up and left her body to dissolve in sulphuric acid – or is it folic? Though isn’t that the one that stops you getting Alzheimer’s? A shame to waste it on murderous pursuits – in a bath. But, then, if he hadn’t had time to get her home, logically, I suppose he couldn’t have had time to commit the perfect crime either. All such a worry. But better safe than sorry.

“Murderer, murderer,” I screamed, pointing hysterically at the very likely cold-blooded killer. A few blonde-haired ladies interrupted their gossiping for a moment or two but chose not to get involved. The Turkish greengrocer continued announcing reductions in a holler. The freshly-orphaned very likely cold-blooded killer turned his head to face me very slowly, his expression unchanging, and turned away calmly, not even quickening his step to escape.

I was being as socially useless as ever. Not only wasn’t I helping a disabled relative have a more comfortable life, I couldn’t even help detain the most recent very likely cold-blooded killer of our times and region. I dashed for the street, hoping I’d find a trusty German bobby, recount the whole grisly tale – I’d stop off in an internet café first, I thought, my ideas racing, and check German for sulphuric on an online dictionary – before fainting helplessly into his arms.

I hurtled out into the autumn, barging bag-laden consumers aggressively and refusing to answer their facial indignation with so much as an apology. I saw a police car and rolled over its bonnet which brought me face-to-face with a pot-bellied Berliner whose disdain for me was growing by the nanosecond. I noticed that my attempts to detain a killer had, at long last, begun to cause a ripple of interest. I surveyed the scene and prepared to launch into my spiel. When I saw the son reappear on the scene laden down with shopping bags and walking towards his mother whom he’d seated at the outdoor café.

“Sorry. Falscher Alarm,” I whispered to the policeman and rolled off the other side of the bonnet and crawled along the road to the next junction.

“You kopink vizout me?” asked the Russian by text, presently.

“Yes, very well, darling. Very well.”

Exchange August 29, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

The best thing about having a beloved from another world, apart from realising that, not surprisingly, the similarities outweigh the differences, though I’m sticking with my snobbery about British humour and am yet to laugh at a single Russian joke – though the ones about Finns aren’t too bad – about people falling over – nothing will make the Russian laugh more uncontrollably than mention of someone falling over (or, if he’s extra lucky, actually seeing it happen. I had to look on slightly bollockingly as he saw an old babushka unable to negotiate the St. Petersburg metro ticket machines getting mangled by metal and laughed hysterically rather than running to her aid) or a pun that produces anything vaguely similar to the word fart – is the quid pro quo cultural exchange. Like many a Westerner, I’d embarked on my foray into the Russian world prompted by the times I grew up in and the deserved fame of their literary canon. And then having the most private of access to a real Russian soul could only help deepen my acquaintance. “…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” my arse. Churchill should have got out more.

But the terrifying part of the equation, from a responsibility point of view, is that I could have had almost total power to shape the Russian’s cultural learnings of Vyest for make benefit of his glorious Russian soul. He can rightly claim that he has made more available, more accessible, more comprehensible to me the wonders of Dostoevsky. Would I have bothered my arse reading Rozanov – a shit of the first order – were it not for him? Would I have made myself sit on an elektrichka and visit some out-of-town palace if I didn’t think the Russian might take his shirt off as my reward? Would I have put my suit on to go and see/hear Tchaikovsky at the Mariinsky if I hadn’t thought it was my duty to integrate in my new surroundings? Would I be intimate with the secrets of the Russian kitchen – I’m serious, by the way. Best food on the planet. Perhaps – if I hadn’t found the love of a local? Look at all he’s done for me, culturally. Literature! Music! Man-made beauty! Cuisine!

Russians younger than the Russian are as exposed now to the Anglo-Saxon West’s cultural offerings as much as everyone else on the planet. But when the Russian was a youngster, the West was still heavily culturally sieved for impurities. Germany was ideologically OK because half of it had come to consciousness and seen the political light and its philosophy and romanticism had been very influential on Russia. France, though politically wicked, was always seen as the height of sophistication. The aristocratic cachet of French as a second language hung on in some circles. French films and music were popular. Indeed, in its attempt to filter out much of popular culture from the West, popular culture in the Soviet Union could be very open to areas which, when I was a youngster growing up in London, would have seemed arcane and otherworldly. Indian cinema was popular. Italian film and music got an airing. And Central Asia and the Caucasus weren’t foreign at all. Mainstream Anglo-Saxon western stuff came through in drips and drabs. The Beatles were popular enough. Soviet citizens chortled happily at Some Like It Hot.

But now that we’ve sunk into the morass of degradation that is Berlin, the Russian has put all that is noble behind him and decided to make up for lost time. I’d had a head-start by learning his language and studying his country before I’d met him. For him, the West, beyond what he’d been given access to by his kindly Soviet cultural guardians, was a blank spot on the map. He hadn’t learnt any English. (German and French were far preferable.) Paul McCartney was a living byword for everything the Anglo-Saxon West was about. And the UK was a place where the soot-covered proletariat toiled for a slave’s wage while posh aristocrats in bowler hats and dripping in jewels flung the crusts off their cucumber sandwiches into their ungrateful mouths.

I’ve been lazy. Let the Russian decipher his own way through the cultural menu of my childhood. And the internet and TV do most of my job for me. Somehow he finds the music I grew up surrounded by on last.fm. Trips to the UK at Christmas mean he is exposed to all TV classics in one fell swoop. And it’s lovely to watch those programmes or listen to that music with a fresh set of eyes and ears. With a different set of prejudices. Heavenly to watch Steptoe and Son with him in a hotel bedroom with the subtitles on and him pissing himself with unprejudiced laughter. Wonderful, as I curl up in bed in the daytime to hide from a translation, to witness him enjoying Sister Sledge – Sister fucking Sledge! – as if they were the new, um, Sister Sledge. Or putting on Bananarama to encourage me back to work.

It slightly makes me wish he wouldn’t fuck off to Russia for half the cunting summer/autumn every year to stock up on new cultural goods to meet his side of the bargain.

Size matters August 25, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Darlings, my big computer is broken – feel free to alert the media – and having to use this shitty little laptop with the reaction times of a deaf, sickly tortoise always gives me Sydenham’s chorea, or perhaps St. Vitus’ Dance – I’m forever confusing the symptoms – but then blogging is the only thing in the world I like more than dreaming of unimaginably exuberant, unearned riches so blogging on this two-bit, wheezing piece of toss it is.

Plus, naturally, I’ve been far too busy to blog, what with my new position as Head of Things Olympic for London 2012. I watched the 29th Olympiad with committed dispassion. Until all of a sudden there was a glut of British golds, which meant I had to show the medal table to the Russian several times a day. But the Russians went and spoiled my fun by sneaking past ‘us’ – sorry, I always feel a bit of a wanker sharing in others’ hard-earned victories – in the dying seconds of the games, probably as David Beckham was kicking his ball and that man from Status Quo was guitaring along to that lady sitting on top of a pole. “Well, you should have been old enough to witness the Moscow games,” I intoned gravely, demonstrating my birthright to talk bollocks by dint of having had the common decency to get round to being born earlier than my darling. “We won everything then,” I added, without providing any documentary evidence, but the Russian took my word for it, in awe that anyone he’d got busy with should remember an event so sacred and Soviet as the Moscow Olympics when chemicals were fired into the air – they borrowed them from the East German athletes – to prevent rainclouds forming. “The 800 metres. The 1500. The darts. The snooker. Every god-damned medal worth winning, we won it.”

“I not remyember enysink earlier Brezhnev funeral,” the Russian admitted sheepishly. And asked if I’d like a hot-water bottle.

“Darlink, maybe zet’s vy you mad. Because you so old,” the Russian resumed, putting away his abacus after double-checking his figures and wiping his brow in disbelief.

“Darling, there’s nothing mad about the way I live my life, polluting my internal physical and mental landscapes, living in a (now faulty) virtual bubble, stumbling from crisis to crisis and then writing it down for strangers to read. Anyway, I feel decidedly between crises at the moment. What you call a personality disorder, I call a personality.”

But an awful worry to be told you’re bonkers. Well, not really a worry. Plus, everyone knows that words designed to injure when ushered into play by a beloved must have their truth-content made subject to at least potential dilution by a factor of, say, a billion. Just to be on the safe side. But then the seed of doubt. It at least provides a distraction between avoiding work, worrying about something or other and thinking when I can next get stark-raving hammered.

“Bugger, now there’s a thing,” I exclaimed internally as I sat sanely sticking pins in voodoo dolls of my neighbours in full view of everyone on the balcony and wondering if I could sell the ash from burning my tax bill on ebay as a work of art. “What if the Russian’s right?” I let out a haughty snort of derision at the very possibility! “But what if bonkersness is as boring as this? And as relatively slow? The descent into madness might not be rapid at all. And at such slow motion, the change is so gradual that it’s bound to seem normal.”

Darlings, so do tell me if you see any tell-tale signs. I’m off to write letters to the Stasi with the old bag upstairs. Between you and me, there’s talk of a plot to assassinate Churchill.

London 2012 August 8, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

My greatest fear is that I’ll be put in charge of organising the 2012 London Olympics’ opening ceremony. Stranger things have happened, and I might easily be having an affair with someone important by then, like Seb Coe or Jacques Rogge. So what if they say, thinking, mistakenly, that I’d take it as an honour, “‘ere, BiB. We reckon you’ve got what it takes. Here’s £22.75. Come up wiv summink a bit spesh.”

So I’ve been watching the opening ceremony from Beijing to get some hints. I’ve been taking some notes and think with a little bit of cross-cultural adaptation, I might be able to produce something pretty god damn memorable. And it’s relatively early days, of course, when I presume, if push comes to shove and I am expected to portray the UK to the world in a positive light, I’ll just have to go down Barking High Street a few weeks before the event and ask a few willing citizens if they’re happy to help me out if I buy them a pint afterwards. I doubt the good salt-o’-the-earth folks of East London will let me down.

I suppose I could grow into the job, once I conquer my initial dread. But what if I pitch it too low? What if I shame Queen and country? What if I paint a false picture of the UK in the eyes of our overseas chums? The Chinese, after all, have packed thousands of years’ worth of culture into their extravaganza. And Sarah Brightman.

A central motif of today’s spectacle has been paper. The Chinese invented it after all, probably. And fireworks. There’ve been plenty of those. And money. And all that number 8 symbolism – 8pm, 8th day of 8th month – is to do with the word being the same for wealth. Much of the action has happened on an olde-worlde scroll which unfurled itself, in a very newe-worlde way, and provided the central stage for much of the ceremony’s proceedings.

Now I’m sure there’s no such thing as plagiarism when it comes to Olympic choreography so I think I might stick with the Chinese paper motif for 2012. But then how to keep costs low? My budget will probably only be £22.75, remember. So I’m thinking of getting some volunteers – we can cut their benefits if they refuse – to sew a few thousand copies of The Sun and The Mirror together, preferably ones that have at some point in their life had fish and chips wrapped up in them, and unfurling them to whoops of joy from the world’s public.

But what could be the opening gambit of the ceremony? Once we’ve got the fish and chip scroll unfurled, we need to get a bit of a show on the road. And it’ll be London. So I think we should have a London Routemaster bus trundle out into the centre of our new and nearly-finished Olympic Stadium, incompletely built in the shape of a bowler hat. A pearly king and queen could be the driver and conductor. Or, if they’re willing to waive an appearance fee, the actual Queen and her consort. They would deliver to the centre of the fish and chip scroll the bus’s only passenger, our compère for the evening, Britain’s best comic, Jim Davidson. He could wow the crowd and, indeed, the world with gag after gag. “My wife’s so ugly…” he could begin.

But there’s got to be music and dancing too. And, like China, the UK is a multi-ethnic country. Naturally, these being the London games, we’d have local school-children doing a routine as chimney-sweeps and then a right, good ol’ Cockney Knees Up Muvva Brairn song and dance. Got to make the most of those braces, after all, as they’ll take up a good chunk of the budget. There can be some bagpipes to represent Scotland and bottles of whisky flashing up on the overhead projector (kindly donated by some London Borough Council free of charge as long as we leave their sticker on the side). A Welsh choir singing to footage of coal-mining and eisteddfod druids. Some murals from Northern Ireland. And something Cornish from Cornwall.

I’m thinking Right Said Fred for the pop interlude once the athletes from all those Pakistans and Palaus and Panamas are in. They should have the crowd going wild as the build-up to the Olympic flag being run up the flagpole and the Olympic flame being lit becomes unbearably tense. I’ll give Jacques a little kiss on the cheek and wish him good luck for making a rousing pre-Olympic speech. Prime Minister Dave can declare the games open and even announce that, thanks to me, not that I think I should be central to the ceremony at all, but maybe they could put a snap of me from my hols on the overhead projector at that point, we’d kept within our £22.75 budget. The Olympic flag, in a last-minute cutback, can be welched on and a photo of it can be stuck up on the overhead projector instead.

These games will be, most importantly of all, green games. Burning gas wantonly when it’ll be light for most of the proceedings is a great waste of resources. So we can modernise the Olympic flame. As the crowds hush and everyone realises the climax is upon them, Eddie the Eagle can be greeted in a riot of swooning, flag-waving and adulation, light a Swan Vestas safety match, set fire to a piece of string leading to a great big cauldron high above the not-quite-finished stadium and, just when everyone expects flames to billow out over London’s historic skyline, someone behind the scenes can flick a switch and a huge long-lasting two-pronged light-bulb will flood the Olympic sky with just as much mythos.

But I’m still not sure I’m the right man for the job.

Tax apple August 6, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

I now await my tax bill with bated breath. I reckon I’ve been underpaying by some millions so fully expect to starve to death the day the bill plops onto the doormat.

Which all takes away from the feeling of heroism I richly deserve at having done the bastard in the first place. The Russian’s only utterance to me since the beginning of the year, bar, perhaps, the odd, “You look pregnant,” has been, “Tyex dyeklaration.” Which means, of course, that to do the tax declaration would have been giving into one of his requests and, ergo, a massive moral defeat.

“Hmm, this is very unsatisfactory,” I’m almost bound to have thought to myself at some point as I mulled over how not to do my duty by the state. “How to spread the gloom?”

I wrote the Russian a text message in case he was having a nice day somewhere without me. “Darling, I’ve decided you should do my tax declaration. After all I’ve done for you.”

“You khev done naasink for me,” he answered from the next room.

“What?” I texted back. Perhaps even in capitals. “If it wasn’t for me, you still wouldn’t know what an avocado was…” I write, relieved to have remembered yet another example of my beneficent altruism. “I introduced you to MacDonald’s, the internet, credit card debt!”

Duly chastened, he agreed. Though it would require my help. I’d have to provide the figures, after all. I fought him off as long as I could. “No, I’m too busy,” I’d say, as he appeared on the threshold of ‘my’ room sporting books on tax and an earnest look.

“Aha, Slaminsky!,” the Russian exclaimed, catching me having a sneaky look, in a short break from my frantically busy professional life, at Slaminsky. He reappeared as quick as a flash with the least interesting books ever written, the earnest look, and an insistence that I switch on my antediluvian laptop.

We co-approached the task differently. The least interesting book ever written gave tips on how to fill in each point on the least interesting form ever written. The Russian pored over each one, dignifying them with a respect I thought they were in no position to have earned. German compound words had me flailing for alcohol – the best part of alcoholism is the drinking – whereas the Russian would furrow his brow, as I last did when trying to read philosophical texts at university, and try to understand. “Darling, I didn’t fill in that box last year,” I’d say jollily, reminded helpfully by the computer programme. “We can probably skip to the next one.”

The Russian took a bite from a therapeutic apple. I made a grab for it too, but the Russian brushed my hand away from the forbidden fruit. I always tend to think I have a spousely right to anything belonging to the Russian, be it clothes or food. Whereas he is a much more modern type, thinking what’s his is his and what’s mine is mine. I remind him that I’m the one that grew up in the wicked West whereas his formative years were spent in a laboratory of social brotherhood, but he is not for turning. But I had to insist. These were no ordinary times. We were filling in a tax declaration. We were up against it. Us against the state. Spending unprecious free time doing something horrible to help the state reinforce my poverty. This was no time for not sharing the tax apple. We exchanged a solemn look, understanding the gravity of the situation. The Russian smiled reluctantly. And gave me the tax apple. I slobbered all over it. We had a manly hug.

Anyway, the bastard’s in. Anyone know what it’s like in debtors’ prison?

Water July 29, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

The Russian and I were still suffering the aftershocks of orgasm when we were both dazzled by the sunshine which had doubled its intensity to make it through our blacked-out windows – you can never be too careful – to advise us, subliminally, to take our annual trip out of the house. We got up from our respective computers and bumped into each other in the hall. Both thought of trying to pretend we hadn’t seen the other. But as extremities of our blubber came into accidental contact, we admitted we were no longer alone and attempted conversation.

“How was it for you?” I asked.

“Ze desk moved.”

“You’re a fantastic cyber-lover,” I added, my heart softening. “I love the way you do that thing with capital letters.”


“Should we, like, you know, actually go out?”

Of course it mostly ends in tears, this leaving the house. I have decided it’s the height of degradation, for example, to go anywhere without buying a shirt. Which could go part of the way to explaining my fantastic debts. But you never know when you might have to look respectable somewhere or other and what could be more respectable-making than a shirt? Once I decide it’s the height of bad manners to leave the house without buying a suit, I’ll be sorted.

So the sun redazzled and redoubled its intensity and branded the words, “Sit out in me,” in the filth of the flat’s windows. Out in the sun! What a thought. My feet lead me inexorably to other built-up bits of Berlin when I deem the quarterly walk necessary but the Russian had a brainwave and remembered that during a period of especially hating me a couple of years ago, he would seek refuge in Treptow, a suburb on the south side of the river Spree which affords all the beauties of the river itself, a huge fuck-off park and a Soviet war memorial.

Darlings, it’s heaven. Well, the war memorial isn’t, especially, but the river is. Water is such a good invention. And even better when not full of salt. We wandered through the park, whooping for joy at all the exposed flesh. “Phwoar,” I might shout, at two-second intervals. “Woof,” I might bark, at the seconds in between.

“Darlink, you must not shout ‘voof’ at every myen zat passes.”

“Darling, why not? I haven’t seen another human since 1986. I’d forgotten how beautiful they all are… Woof!”

“Darlink, zat voz statue.”

And then we hired a pedalo. A pedalo! (Thought it was easier than a rowing boat.) And it was heaven. Actual heaven. To be on a pedalo on the Spree. And people were swimming in the river, so I did too, except I had to do it naked because I didn’t have any swimming stuff with me – distance assures discretion – and it was double plus lovely, swimming round the pedalo moored to a buoy, until I got worried that the Spree might have alligators and breed tick-borne encephalitis. The Russian and I would smack each other’s hand away from the steering rod with matrimonial ease. And then pedal-paddle to the next buoy.

“Zere is nice outdoor disko,” the Russian instructed me as we reacquainted ourselves with terra firma after a hopeless dinner on a pretty-view-affording boat. The boom boom could be heard from the other side of the river. With my head still giddy at recent memories of quarterdecks, shank-painters and clew-garnets, the Russian and I trod purposefully discowards.

Teenagers with dreadlocks and rucksacks rolled cigarettes furiously. On more than one occasion, we were approached and asked if we had any spare papers. Perhaps, in their youthfulness, they hadn’t yet realised that you could buy ready-made cigarettes, thus obviating their labour. I suggested to the Russian that we might tell the DJ to make a public-service announcement to give them this intelligence (and to remind them, even if they did have dreadlocks, that there was a smoking ban, you know), but the Russian thought I was missing the point.

I asked a barmaid where the loos were. She looked at me in disgust a) because she had never before seen anyone so old and b) that I should want to do anything so conventional as use the loo. I returned to the Russian with a spiel prepared that I was no longer twelve (and very happy not to be) and this was without doubt the most miserable half-hour of my entire existence. A couple helped matters briefly by dancing in a gaze-capturing way. He played an air guitar languidly enough to do a very good impression of a scarecrow with a pacemaker. She jumped up and down as if having electric shocks applied to her feet every time she made contact with the floor.

We left as soon as I could convince the Russian he too was no longer in the first flush of youth, played British Bulldog with the swarms of teenagers asking for papers and, in one case, money, dodged past another teenager vomiting into a bush, stole back down to the river bank, threw the Russian’s and my disco shoes into a pedalo, cut it free of its moorings and let it drift away into the waters of the past.

Don’t walk July 11, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

My road rage, or, more specifically, pavement rage, knows no bounds. I wanted to write this post for the benefit of your minds and well-beings four days ago but I accidentally popped out for a pint of milk which involved crossing the road, which took four days.

It can take so long to cross the road here that you can witness whole lives play out before your eyes, as long as they’re the type of life which happen at a different speed. As I waited six months to cross the road on one of my recent expeditions – see how it’s pointless ever leaving the house – I saw a couple get married, have their first baby and start divorce proceedings, all at a junction. I saw a child finish school and graduate from university. I saw a toddler clamber down from her father’s back when it became embarrassing to be there with the body of a teenager. Royal dynasties came and went. A putsch occurred but was put down and order restored. People changed from summer to winter dress and back again. Continents moved apart and new seas formed.

All in the space of time it took to cross one street. The only plus side of this forced immobility is that I allow myself to have torrid affairs at traffic lights. I confess all to the Russian the second I get in, so relieved to discover him still alive after such a long separation that infidelity seems trifling. “I don’t know if I’m free, Wolfgang,” I’ll say to Wolfgang who was a bit immature at the start of our relationship but had developed into a fine, respectable citizen by the time we parted some years later. “I think I’ve got a husband. I haven’t seen him for some months because I had to go to the post-office and buy a new belt, which involved crossing three streets, so he might easily have run off with the raggle-taggle gypsies by now, or established a cult, or become Bundeskanzler. No way of knowing.” Wolfgang and I part, him having aged terribly. The cruel, cruel injustice of it all.

All cars’ fault. Not surprising in Germany, perhaps, that cars should be kings of the road. The Germans make every car on earth and they don’t need them held up at traffic lights because how else will they get exported quick enough to make room for new ones? Types have probably worked out, knowing types, how long, ideally, for the cars, pesky pedestrians should be given to cross the road. It was awfully complicated, no doubt, and the formula used every letter in the Greek alphabet and even had to make some new ones up but it was decided that, for traffic to flow optimally, pedestrians should be given one eighteenth of a second every 43rd leap year. The joyous moment, when it comes, releases a rush of such emotional turmoil and civil unrest that the formula is revised.

Yet don’t you think, if you are without Germany’s borders, that our moment, when it comes, is ours alone. Pedestrian joy is not only short-lived. It is shared. With cars. The types worked out that not only should we be given one eighteenth of a second every 43rd leap year to dash across the street but that, for traffic flow to go unhindered, the cars should be able to weave in and out between us. We have the moral authority. But it’s also crystal clear who’s going to blink first if there really is a showdown.

I am always unsure of how to react in such moments. I get home and write a road-crossing manifesto. But so much time elapses between one car-avoiding sprint and the next that all principle goes out the window. But I wonder whether to stand my ground and walk at a smidgen below regular speed, the car nudging ever closer, and defend my pedestrian rights, which makes me feel like a bit of a tosser. Or whether I should up my speed a little for the driver’s (and traffic-flow’s and, thereby, the German economy’s) benefit, worrying the whole time it’ll only encourage them. Or whether I should walk at a very fake normal speed and hope the driver doesn’t realise that my mind is turbid with worry that I’m holding him up, he’s going to run me over and, in attempting to appear normal and unconcerned with external appearance, I have adopted the gait of John Merrick.

Civil disobedience is called for. For I’m only quite sympathetic to a Berlin motorist’s need for perfection on the roads. Our public transport is a dream. I can take a tram from my computer to the bathroom and there’s a price reduction for short-hop journeys. It’s that well-planned. (Though it’s annoying that ticket inspectors have access to my home.) I have some moral objection to travelling underground, like some rat in a tin-can, but bite my lip heroically if needs must. Folk can whiz around this not-too-hilly city on bikes. We have big fat overground trains and some excellently well-appointed railway stations.

The motorists need some mayhem in their life. All this perfection is no good for them. A traffic-jam or two will do them good. The odd low-speed pile-up never did anyone any harm.

If we can just seize control of the traffic lights…

You say tomato July 7, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Darlings, I’ve been working like someone without an inheritance to look forward to of late. Ghastly, of course, to have to pay one’s own way in the world when surely it is a human right to be able to do nothing and yet still go to restaurants at least four nights a week. Still, working for a living does give me something to bollock the Russian about so it’s almost worth the bother.

The queer thing is, I had to linguistically reinvent myself as an American for the latest bout of wage-slavery. I’ve done this before, of course. Every now and again, an employer will add, as one final extra nudge towards irredeemable alcoholism, “Oh, by the way, the client would like the text in American English.” Piece of piss. Even employers whom I’ve regrettably built up a bit of a relationship with – the most boring drink I’ve ever had. Worrying about grammar and not getting too drunk throughout – have daringly admitted it’s just a case of changing the odd ess for a zee. The odd -re to -er. And then it’s been a life-long ambition to write the word ‘maneuver’ in some context or other. Sadly, it didn’t come up. Again.

But it all seemed much more difficult this time round. Perhaps the flippancy of the previous employer made me think it really was as easy as pie. But then their translations were always technical. Hardly as much as a sentence. So even if I did americanize wrong, it meant nothing because everyone who laid eyes on the document had committed suicide before the end of the first paragraph. Yet here it was all sentences. And grown-up-sounding ones that looked like they needed to be taken seriously. And my new-found zeal for the zee had me in trouble in no time, sticking them in where they had no rightful place. When I spelled and ‘zand’ I knew I was in trouble.

I went online for some real-American advice.

“Yo beeyatch. You online?” I wrote to a friend who’s not even that much of a bitch.

“Yo beeyatch.”


“Yes beeyatch?”

“Do Americans say, ‘annual leave’?” I asked, feeling more parochial with every zee-free tap of the keyboard, though I suppressed the emotion with restorative thoughts of the House of Windsor.

“Dumb-ass mutha-fucka. Ain’t no cock-suckin’ faggot gonna say no ‘Annual Leave’,” and I could sense him mouthing ‘annual leave’ in a fake English accent and raising a fake cup of tea to his lips with his little finger raised. He corrected me accordingly. “Hell, scrub, you needz to get yourself a real job ‘stead o’ sittin’ round all day on yo’ fat ass typin’ shit like some mutha-fucka.”

I finished sewing some frilly lace onto my curtains and got on with the job, imbued with the vigour of one who has learnt something new. He’d given me just the sort of gentle hints I needed. Any time I had another doubt, I would say the sentence out loud to myself. “Would an American say that?” I’d ask. When the case was particularly thorny, I’d say it out loud to myself in a Deputy Dawg accent, assuming, no doubt rightly, that no parochial anglicism would make it through that stern filter.

“Darlink, vot you doink? Vy you speak yoursyelf?” asked the Russian, standing scornfully in the doorway.

“Saying my translation in Deputy Dawg.”

“OK, but zen you maast hang out voshink.”

Almost happy with my final version, I pressed F5, replaced every ‘you’ with ‘y’all’ and sent off my last ever translation. My prostitute training-course starts next week.

Knock knock June 27, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

…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.

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.

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

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

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

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

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.

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.

Tattoos and testicles May 13, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

The sun has now beat down on Berlin long enough – a week at least – for anyone but the most negative to forget that we live with one of the planet’s most intemperate climes. Far be it from me to put a dampener on things and heaven forbid that I should mention, just as we put the endless(-seeming) greyness out of mind for however long we are blessed with this perfection, that Berlin’s climate is, for want of a better word, shit.

The Wetteramt decided that we would dispense with spring this year. We went straight from the 250th consecutive day of gloom and a grey sky so low you scraped your head off it to cloudlessness, sunshine and temperatures of 25 degrees and above. Not surprisingly, the locals are all of a sudden awash with hormones and do almost nothing but leave their houses, flaunting their existences like they were nothing to be ashamed of.

I had a feeling at some now unpindownable point in the past that fashions were about to veer towards the smart. Perhaps I’d just seen a man with an office job or a foreigner in a shirt-collar, smart strides and polished shoes. And I thought men were about to plump for neat, sculpted haircuts. That women might revert to a just-short-of-high heel. That trousers would once again display an intimate familiarity with the iron. Who knows, even hats might reappear.

And that probably would all have happened if only the clothes- and hair-wearing months of misery and low metabolism had lasted just a smidgen longer. But now it’s all exposed flesh. No sleeves. Legs galore. And short haircuts.

Just as we were on the cusp, I went to the hairdressers-cum-sex-workers. While the haircutting harlot was giving me a cranial hand-job, I admired the exquisite locks of a man in front of me. I guessed he might be of mixed German and Turkish origin. The locks were thick and wavy and a delicious dark red. I stared at him whenever it was decent to, including when he left, donning a fedora as he did so.

“Isn’t hair a marvellous invention!” I said to all Berlin as I left the hairdressing brothel but all Berlin answered, “Not while the sun’s out,” and instantly proceeded to shave their heads as one. I am now the only person in Berlin capable of tousling.

And the things folk put on their heads! I gawped at a couple with lashings of tattoos and an ugly little dog with testicles which ran like a fat child. She hadn’t been able to have her head shaved yet so still sported her teddy-girl pony-tail and those tufts at the front. Her legs and arms were a riot of bruise-coloured foliage. Her gentleman friend was the same. But his shaved head had been given over to the tattoo-artist too. It was difficult to coordinate my gait to get close enough or for long enough to read the whole work. It had words and everything. And numbers. I thought they might represent the date the tattoo had been done, and surmised he could easily have done just as well with making a note in a pocket diary. How will he remember the date, after all, when his hair grows back come the end of the sunshine?

Just as I was arguing with myself whether I liked tattoos or not, I came to a road. Crossing the road, as anyone knows, takes three hours in Germany so I had plenty of time to mull over the options. I told myself to compromise after I’d already come to auto-blows and decided that one or two, especially if on a moulded male arm, do it for me almost as much as a broken limb. But a man on a bike – bald, tattooed – who could clearly hear my inner discussion went to stick his fingers in my eyes as he rode past. I didn’t know whether to put it down to hair-envy, sun-stroke, tattoo-poisoning or him not being able to find a way to express the fact that he found me dangerously irresistible. Even from the vantage point of a bike.

The Russian explained that sometimes a poke in the eye is just a poke in the eye.

Instrumental May 9, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

No, not the snappy case in Slavonic languages. The version of songs. Without words. That establishments choose to play.

Does a restaurant need a licence to play music? If you’ve got a restaurant, say, with a CD player sitting nicely on a shelf somewhere, do you need to have permission, perhaps even from the artist themselves, if you want to stick on a CD of theirs? If, say, I had an Anglo-Russian restaurant, serving beans on buckwheat porridge – I’ve thought of a name and everything – and I wanted to pipe Madonna to the punters, would I actually have to write to Madge at her castle in whatever county it is and ask if she and her retinue would mind awfully if I numbed the punters’ senses with her choonz?

It’s a phenomenon I thought was over. It was all the rage in fast-food establishments in the UK in my youth. They’d pipe in pop music with the tongue-desensitisers, but it would always be an instrumental version, or a cover version sung by the members of staff. Close enough to the real thing but clearly not yer actual, say, Bucks Fizz (who are, obviously, inimitable).

The weather here is stunning at the moment. I have put my winter being into storage for the four tolerable months of the calendar and reminded myself not to think of September-April until August 31st at the earliest. Life is so easily good. The Russian and I have reduced our drop-dead! count to factor in daylight saving. Hell, the sun has even made me give up booze for a while and enjoy it. I feel healthy. I feel warm. And I’ve noticed a benevolent attitude to the world and all its imperfections. I smiled like Laura Bush at the tram drunk yesterday. This contentedness, I presume, can only mean that I am about to become a religious fanatic or have a nervous breakdown.

So the Russian and I trundle out of the house a bit more. Our imaginations don’t stretch beyond food and booze so dinner invariably features. Still no idea where might be a decent place to go but the weather allows for strolling indecisiveness. “As long as we don’t end up at Thai Cuisine on Oranienburger Straße, I don’t mind.”

About an hour later, we take up our places at Thai Cuisine on Oranienburger Straße, a restaurant we both actually hate. Its only customers are English pensioners, who, I presume, end up there because they’ve got a reduction with their Green Shield Stamps. This time, we had the exotic distraction of actual Germans. Pensioners, of course. Discussing their pensions and insurance. Their conversation was a combination of indignation (at everything) (especially prices) and fear (of everything) (especially prices). The food is shit. Shit. Worse than I’d make. I ordered a soup, convincing myself it would be delicious. Ooh. Coconutty, prawny soup. That’ll be good. Except it was, of course, a prawn in a heated can of coconut milk.

The Russian and I discuss which one of us is to blame – “You. It’s your fault. If you hadn’t grown up in the Soviet Union, we wouldn’t have to fucking live in fucking Berlin.” “No, you, you grow aap in dyekadyent Vyest and not appreciate naasink and deliberately choose shit restaurant out of spite. If you grow up in Kirov…” – and instantaneous divorce.

We specify the wine – before I’d gone puritanical – to the waitress at some length. “This bottle, please.” It has a number, like the dishes. Oddly, the waitress then leaves the restaurant. Reappears a few minutes later. Gives us the wrong bottle. Not even the right colour. We feel guilty for making her shop for the wrong wine. She looks crestfallen. We look sheepish and apologetic. And then discuss whose fault it is, recycling the same accusations, when she leaves the table.

But the music. I asked the waitress for some pen and paper so I could jot down the fucking awful songs in their fucking awful instrumental versions. As I waited for one execrable number to finish and another to start, I scrawled ‘shit’ with frantic, aggressive strokes of the pen. The Thai Cuisine instrumental compilation album, perhaps bought online for 1c, featured wordless versions of: I Just Called To Say I Love You and You Were Wonderful Tonight. All Out of Love – Air Supply! Cunting Air Supply! Without words! – and Crying in the Rain. Ferry Across the Mersey and Guantanamera. I waited with dread and noose at the ready for Rainy Night in Georgia. Or, oh god, no, with my finger poised for Dial-a-Firing-Squad, Hotel Fucking California. Or Whiter Shade of Pale.

We skipped dessert and trudged home in silence.

Fetish May 5, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Is there anything more sexy than a man with a leg in plaster? Two legs would be showing off, but one cast leg, with satisfactorily revealed shin and calf, sported by a handsome, hobbling brute, makes for a fine figure of a man. I’m not sure if women pull off the look with equal panache. They probably do. But it is a sad realisation to appreciate, finally, that what really does it for you, as your hormones bob about springily with the vigour of the freshly awakened, is a man with a broken leg. How am I to achieve this look with the Russian? I can’t start pushing him down stairs as that would be rude and even if he agreed to satisfy my lust for plaster of Paris, how would we explain to the authorities – we’d be hard-pushed to keep cosmetic domestic violence secret in this cheesecloth house – that, yes, we understood it was violent misconduct in a way but we were two consenting adults in private and what has the world come to when you can’t even allow yourself an occasional minor fetish and, huh, I don’t go blabbing to the authorities when I hear the neighbours screaming, although, admittedly, that is sometimes from wild delight – honestly, I’ve heard rumours about this female orgasm business but it sounds terrifying in the flesh or, rather, through the ceiling – and, and… So I won’t resort to violence on my other half.

Anyway, I think the cast-lust is just a one-day affair. The sun’s out in Berlin for the first time since the wall came down and people are exposing bits of flesh right on cue. But today was a medical day and as I strode back into the world of the healthy, with reawakened joy at being alive and not being told I had twenty minutes to live – it was only ears, mind you – a fetish-creating hormone bubbled to the fore just as a man hobbled out of the same medical complex, beaming with handsomity and being helped by an equally handsome though unlame friend, with a freshly plastered leg. I think what clinched it for me, on the woof front, was the handicap borne with pride. It was a badge of honour. A membership card to Men’r’us. The offending (though not to me) leg must have got into this state, after all, during a game of football. Or a motor-bike accident. Or, oh no, drunken violence (perhaps at the hands of a girlfriend/wife who had pushed him down the stairs because she so fancied men in casts). I deleted all these images and fetishes and got back to living in the land of the able-bodied.

Going to the doctor’s was, as ever, total heaven. No. Untotal heaven. It would be total heaven if I could speak properly and understand what was said to me. Being only semi-communicative makes the process imperfect. But then it also adds a little frisson of excitement. I get to play the dumb bimbo. And that gets me talked down to by the person in authority. Which, let’s face it, is probably another fetish. I suppose I shall only truly reach paradise on earth when the Russian has a broken leg and is dressed up as a doctor telling me off for not looking after my health and prescribing me ear-drops.

“So vot’s your trouble?” asked the Frau-Doktor and I tried to set off on my ill-rehearsed spiel. Broken ear. Occasional dizziness. Goo. Itch. I’d learnt all the words and everything. Only, bugger me backwards, in my stage-fright, I forgot to mention that I was probably as deaf as a post too but had got used to it and so wasn’t sure.

She looked into my ears. I worried she would discover that my innards were one great yawning chasm. That I was a Tardis-made-man. There’s already plenty of me on the outside but, inside, there’s even more room for silence and emptiness. She barked intelligence on my normal-actually innards to her assistant who managed to be more of a bimbo than me, even with the gift of language.

The odd thing is the word for dizziness in German is Schwindel. Which also means swindle. I told myself not to get distracted beforehand but when I said to her I get the occasional Schwindel, she asked me what sort of Schwindel I meant – I’m not sure I could describe a type of dizziness in English, to be fair – and I let myself drift off and think about people pick-pocketing me, or the tax office deliberately miscalculating my tax or someone nicking the 50p pieces from my gas meter and stared back blankly at her. “Herr Inberlin,” she said, coinciding with my inner BiB, who nudged me awake from a comfy corner he’d found in the Tardis with a, “BiB, wake up, you fat fuck.” She told me I could get my balance back and avoid my dizziness with a few simple but mad-seeming exercises – sit on bed, head back, then lean your head to the side and allow yourself to fall in that direction – and then examined my nose, with some tweezers or other, and eyes by putting blinding – they make you not see. I don’t mean they’re magnificent – glasses on me and making me look this way and that before sending me off without so much as a follow-up appointment.

Every time I see a quack, I think, “This is it, BiB. Prepare yourself for The Big One.” A prescription for ear-drops and a discovery I fancy raspberries just isn’t the same.

Toss April 30, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

…and turn. Toss and turn.

I am keeping an old pal company in his insomnia. When it would be much better to keep him company somewhere else. And so I am trying to exhaust myself, thinking this is just about not expending sufficient energy in the daytime, with fifty-hour walks. Now that the greyness and arcticity appear to have gone for good, it is, goddammit, even pleasant to do so.

But fatal, if an insomniac’s problem is a busy head, to go for a walk. All those people out looking and being interesting. They’re enough to cram your head full of sleep-preventing images till the winter comes back, though I hibernate well, so the eight dark, gloomy months of the year here have their purpose.

A couple of days ago, I needed an excuse to leave the house, a work-sesh behind me. I’d forgotten about the purposeless walk, what used to be known as ‘a walk’, and wondered how I could possibly justify going out of the house. But I haven’t had an idea since my importing-samovars-to-Tula business proposal was rejected out of hand so have had to, unless one presents itself of its own accord, create jobs that involve burning calories and creating tiredness.

So I’ve started destroying my documents so that I can go and apply for new ones. I trotted off to the town hall to remind the ladies there that I still live exactly where they know I live. “But would you mind printing it out for me again? Oh go on. I’ll give you €4.09.” But, darlings, it was all so much more stimulating than I could have hoped for. The town hall is chock-full of riveting snippets of information. Once I’d got my number, I settled in to watch Town Hall TV. Some failed to be gripped. Paid attention to their children. Or their newspapers. But I couldn’t take my eyes off it. For Town Hall TV lists facts and, for someone incapable of thought like me, facts are brilliant.

“Pankow has this many trees,” Town Hall TV explained with pride. And then there was a breakdown of make of tree. “And Pankow has this many people and is the largest district in Berlin.” My heart swelled with civic love. But Town Hall TV must have had consultants in who’d said that inculcating the locals needs to be done interactively. You can’t just bombard them with facts. Get them involved to keep them fresh. Just as I was about to burst from fact-excitement, Town Hall TV gave us a quiz. And not even about Pankow! But about the outside world, as if Pankow didn’t have everything a human could need! A flag appeared on the screen. “Which country’s flag is this?” asked the quiz. It was so Finland’s flag. Christ, this quiz was made for me. “a) El Salvador. b) Finland. c) Burkina Faso.” “b). b). Finland,” I shouted with all the force my pleuritic lungs could muster and springing to my feet competitively, almost ripping my waiting-room number in the process. “Is Burkina Faso the one that used to be called Surinam?” asked my neighbour, an old Berliner still indignant at having had to press a button to get a number in the first place.

Didn’t sleep a wink all night.

That walk was such a success, though, that I decided to repeat the performance yesterday without so much as a purpose. An old-fashioned, purposeless walk. But blow me if I wasn’t bombarded with all sorts of interesting events and goings-on. “This isn’t going to help knock me out this evening,” I worried, and then post-worried that that would mean the Russian moaning at me with sleepy indignation when, at 5am, having managed to lie still for 3 hours, I decided I needed to have a minor tossing-and-turning session, waking him up in the process. He doesn’t do insomnia. Indeed, he’s got the bed=sleep association so down to a t that sometimes, just when I think we might be about to embark on something sinful, his envy-inducing snores ring out. So I’ve taken to wearing a cow-bell on bed=sex occasions to keep him awake and that works very well.

Just as I was getting into my ambling stride, I saw a youth trying to catch my eye. He appeared to be heading a youth convention. He was the only boy and was tonnes taller than the six or seven girls. “Oh god, I’m going to be mugged in broad daylight by a group of 15-year-olds.” But I wasn’t. “Do you speak English?” he asked and I was thrilled to be linguistically unhandicapped for once in my life. “Can you tell me how to get to the Brandenburg Gate?”

That was sweet, wasn’t it? And respectful of tradition. To want to get to the Brandenburg Gate. I instantly had thoughts of Big Ben. And being asked directions to Big Ben. That would have made me bristle with some positive emotion for London. The trouble was, for the non-mugging youngsters, we were in Camden Town. Nowhere near Big Ben. Or the Brandenburg Gate.

“Hmm, well, you’re quite a way away, youths,” I said, thinking there was no point breaking it to them gently. The male youth took the news like a man and asked me to suggest a route nonetheless. A bus, perhaps? The girls all agreed. And I realised they were Danish. They gobbled advice to him like rather aggressive turkeys as he manfully led the show. His English was so good, at 15, that he could even put on a cool accent. He’d selected London for this linguistic outing. He used the word mate. And a glottal stop. I sent him on his way with his gobbling brood behind him.

Music of the type heard in discotheques – not a tune you could whistle and not a lyric for love nor money – boomed out of an establishment. I was on a busy street but this seemed to be taking the piss. Discotheque-volume music in the afternoon. And then there appeared to be a queue. Good lord. Could it mean that there was a new phenomenon of daytime dances? The French used to do those. As I got closer I saw the boom-boom was coming from a Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream emporium. Flyers for free ice-cream were strewn across the street. The Ben & Jerry’s staff, all dressed in blue, were struggling to cope with the throng. The girl who was on balloons was hard-pushed to inflate them fast enough, thereby keeping the party atmosphere alive. You can’t have a party without balloons, after all. I wonder if queuing for free ice-cream at a Ben & Jerry’s day-time discotheque was part of this cool-Berlin phenomenon that folk are so fond of talking about.

I won’t sleep till Christmas at this rate.

Location, location, location April 25, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

There is a bar in our neighbourhood which makes me shake my head and tsk my teeth whenever I walk past. It’s not in glorious Ruislip proper. Nor is it quite far south enough to technically be in the next area, the mere mention of whose name is enough to double property values and make everyone in London want to buy a flat there. No. It is in a sort of no-man’s-land in between. Not, unfortunately, a no-man’s-land that I can romanticise and say was former wall country – though one unremarkable-looking house does have a plaque to some victim or other of fascism on it. Which just goes to show that even resistance fighters can grow up in unremarkable-looking houses – where people were constantly making daring attempts at a dash to a perfect life in the West. Mind you, if any did do their dashing around here, it’s a slightly sobering and deromanticising image to think they dashed from Pankow (Ruislip) to Wedding (Northolt). This bit of no-man’s-land is, far more prosaically, probably so no-man’s-land-like because it’s along a fairly long sweep of mainish road with a good gap between U-Bahn stations and the U-Bahn is actually still just about above ground, or about to molishly bore its way into the (thankfully, suspecting and prepared) ground right there, which means the main road is divided in two by engineering which gets in the way of life nicely organically springing up. There’s no waving to your neighbour across the road, really, if a big train’s going to yellowly trundle past with Teutonic predictability every couple of minutes.

No-man’s-land, as befits the designation, is not pulsating with life. The pavements on this couple-of-hundred-metre stretch are even less pounded than elsewhere in Ruislip. A petrol-station is perhaps its highlight. A video-shop whose recruitment policy was only to employ ravishingly handsome working-class young men. A bric-a-brac shop (not-)selling the same ancient toaster. A market which I’m not sure deserves the prefix flea-. All in all, an uninspiring few blocks, fitting for a perfectly ordinary and OK residential area in a forgotten and forgettable part of Berlin.

One of the vacant commercial lets – there are lots of those, and those which do get let are usually for let again very quickly as, surprise, surprise, there turns out not to have been that much call for a shop selling coloured glass in a corner quiet even by Ruislip’s standards – was one fateful spring to be seen with a gaggle of youngsters inside clearly preparing it for a grand opening. Youngsters with a project! How enterprising. And they looked a certain type of Berlin youngster. Perfectly nice. Nerdy and cool. Can’t think if the girls might have shown a millimetre of midriff. The boys would have been too thin. Probably took a drug or two but preferred green tea. One of the girls might have been a lesbian once. Would ideally have liked their enterprise to open in Prenzlauer Berg, aber, na ja, the rents were probably too high down there and they were probably convinced – they were a good few years too early – that Pankow was the next big thing.

They beavered industriously away. It was going to be a bar, by the looks of things. The Russian and I feigned interest and enthusiasm. “Oh, that will be nice. There’ll be somewhere we can pop into in the local area if it’s run by green-tea types.” And then they installed shelves! And books! It was to be a ‘Leselokal’. A reading pub. A book bar. An imbibrary. They painted their sign. Quite a good font. Neutrally stylish. And stylishly neutral. The name was neutral too and alluded to the local area. Café No-Man’s-Land it was. (Not really.)

But it all seemed an age before it got off the ground. When was I going to be able to go and get pissed and educated? Sellotaped A-4 Word documents started appearing on the door. “Due to problems with the landlord…” “Due to problems with the electricity people…” and then the explanation, written in the carping language perfected by youngsters conflating grievance and privilege.

Hmm, this wasn’t looking good. Not only were there delays getting the place open, so the young entrepreneurs weren’t making any money, but was a literary saloon really what this area needed? And would the locals go for it? I had my doubts. But internally wished the youngsters luck.

Eventually it was open. The décor looked all right. There was the rash of early promotions. Which looked, as each customerless week passed, increasingly desperate. “Buy one (or even a half), get nine free.” “Beer, wine, hot drinks, snacks and as many books as you can get in your pannier.” They tried everything. “English night.” “Free sex.” But none of it worked. Soon it closed down and the young entrepreneurs tasted, for the first time, the bitter pill of failure.

The premises remained vacant for a while. But then, sure enough, the busy-bodies that we are, some other humans decided they’d give the location a shot. “Ooh, I wonder if they’ll come up with something unnecessary and inappropriate,” I pondered as I walked past, imagining myself as a ruthless business guru with rings on my fingers and gold on my teeth. These owners were older. Perhaps more local. A bit tougher. Less green tea.

Another pub! The youngsters hadn’t even bothered stripping the place. The bar was intact. The tables and chairs had probably been left behind too. All the new lot had to do was make it their own with the odd throw-cushion, perhaps a lick of paint and we’d see how Café Incarnation no. 2 did in comparison to its predecessor.

They didn’t change the name. But they did redo the sign. The font got a bit more bubbly. Some might say trashy. A lot more ‘fun’-looking. The books and shelves went. A telly appeared at one end of the bar. A pool-table and dartboard at the other. Plants and other non-Pankow fripperies were tossed out. Decoration was kept to a minimum. Though not in the Conran sense, exactly. More in the don’t-really-care-about-décor and nothing-to-distract-you-from-beer-telly-pool-and-darts sense.

Packed to the rafters every night.

Kitchen wisdom April 19, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

As for any son of the Soviet Union, accidental or otherwise, and my late-adopted cultural heritage is very much accidental, the kitchen has become the centre of my world. Admittedly I don’t have to turn on the kitchen taps before I’m unafraid enough to set the world to rights, but, taps or no taps, and with my captive audience of one suitably silent true son of the Soviet Union, I have now taken to middle-aged kitchen rants.

Western men of a certain age are more than happy to talk bollocks too, of course, given half the chance, but if you really want a prime example of someone holding forth, preferably on a subject they don’t necessarily know that much about, you need to get yourself a time machine and fly off to the past. To the Soviet Union. Though post-Soviet Russia will do. Or my kitchen.

This type of ranter is well represented in Dostoevsky novels, proving that even the might of the Soviet Union was not enough to quell the irrepressible Russian soul. I like Dostoevsky as much as the next wanker, but I would always groan in displeasure, and put the book down for three months until I’d forgotten my objection, when a male character would inevitably say, “This is the way I see the world and here, let me talk about it in a 75-page monologue.” Or, using an alternative literary rant device, “This is the way I see the world and here, I just happen to have written it down and someone can now read it out in a 75-page monologue while I die noisily of tuberculosis in the corner.”

Though fair play to Dosters because anyone who’s been in a Soviet or post-Soviet kitchen knows that the characterisation is perfect. The type exists. Male, of course. Ideally with the first flush of youth well behind him. Has reached the serious-dressing stage. You can’t rant in jeans. A collar. A jacket. Preferably a well-rounded belly. Principled on all matters and with strict lifestyle choices (this is where I fail the Soviet test). “Shall we knock back a quick 50g (to help me bear the remaining 25 minutes of your rant on tea), Volodia?” you might say to a ranting Vladimir who happens to have turned up in your kitchen on a wintry Tuesday evening to hold forth on tea. “Vot? Vodka? On Tuesday? I nyevyer dreenk vodka on Tuesday. Vodka make you impotyent. Beeb, khow you kyen dreenk vodka on Tuesday? Ektuelly, I karrently writink book on vodka and impotyence. Let me tsyell you about it for 35 minutes. By ze vey, I not say you kyen call me Volodia yet. Please call me Vladimir Poligrafovich.”

A good Russian rant can be entertaining, though the length can be exhausting. The subjects can be mundane, e.g. tea, or trying, e.g. why foreigners are cunts. Jews are good Russian rant-grist. From how they don’t exist. I’ve been at that rant. To how they don’t eat meat, which is why they’re weak, which rant took place in the very room I type from, by an exiled Soviet ranter, and which has been mentioned before, who went on to rant further that the Estonians and Ukrainians were also cunts. And then took me to the map of Europe on the hall wall and, making a compass of his thumb and index finger, showed me how far into Russia NATO missiles would reach when NATO, inevitably, started bombing Russia any second now. (Coincidentally, the range was the exact same distance as the largest part-circle his thumb-and-index-finger compass could draw.)

And by the queerest twists of geopolitical and romantic fates, I have become the first queer, post-Soviet, non-Soviet ranter. It’s the Russian passing his unwanted rant genes on to me, while I have generously donated my empty western soul to him. While I rant, he online-shops. While I hold forth on Ukraine being further along the road to democracy and manage to blame the (considering-itself-)Russian population in eastern Ukraine for all the country’s ills, the Russian smiles a smile combining pity and magnanimity in superiority and thinks of holidays. While I spout that theists should stop thinking they’re important enough to deserve a god and that we’re just fleas. That we’re no different from fleas. No, we don’t deserve a god – drink can feature on these occasions – the Russian will briefly be shuddered awake by the more preposterous aspects of my russorant – “What? Actual fleas?” – before returning to an IKEA-reverie.

But I’m thinking if I can just youngen up my wardrobe there might be hope for me yet.