Saturday, 17 September 2016

Put Touching back in Keeping in Touch

This summer I tried something a little different, something that some of you will be familiar with but most of you won't have ever done. As part of My Grand Tour of Europe from Greece to UK, itself a fairly retro form of international travel. I decided to reevaluate another old-world holiday habit, postcards.

A few months ago my students did very well in their exams, I could have facebooked their success or tweeted it for all to see but I chose not to. I'm very mindful of how I use my social media, I do not 'friend' my students, I do not post my kids' faces and I even ask my wife's permission to post a photo that she's in. My social media is my social word, an adult world where I communicate my thoughts to people I know and I know all my friends. So, I sent them greetings cards, a Hallmark moment in their postboxes. The reaction was incredible. The mums told me of the glow as the kids opened the postbox to find an envelope for them, "Is it for me, mummy?" Another nailed it, "It's such a shame that few will ever experience this."

It was then that I decided to make a change. At each of the cities we stayed at I bought a brace of cards and stamps. I spent a little time composing a brief but personal message to each child ending with the words "Can you guess where your next card will be from?" Then popped them in a postbox. Simple.

We all love to share our holidays with friends and family. Part of the joy of travelling is telling others about the things you've done and seen. We post pictures of ourselves drinking cocktails on the beach, standing, smiling in front of exotic landmarks and telling everyone that we are having the time of our lives. But I didn't want to advertise the fact that our house was empty and ripe for picking.

When we returned and I met up with my kids, they were curious about where I had been and what I had seen. They appreciated that there were little pieces of shared joy in their postboxes and their parents described the excitement and anticipation of opening them to find or not find another card. One was away at camp but phoned almost daily to enquire about any new arrivals.

Smartphones and social media has made sharing our experiences so much easier but in that convenience has gone a little of the effort that makes something special. The joy of waiting, the uncertainty of delivery and the contact of something that went from your hand to another's without being digitised.

Please share your postcard experiences and let me know I'm not the only one.
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Friday, 16 September 2016

Donald Tusk finally concedes EU's role in Brexit

European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker grabbed headlines in his 'State of the Union'  speech with carrots of internet connectivity. He promised universal 5G internet connection for all Europeans by 2020. He also laid into Britain's decision to leave the union as a result of 40 years of lies from British politicians. But it was Donald Tusk's comments that were most telling. Could it be that the EU might be ready to consider its own failings as a root cause of widespread discourse in the European project and even Brexit.

The huge backlash against Britain's decision to invoke the Lisbon treaty and retire from the bloc may still be evident but it is finally giving way to more constructive consideration of why it happened. In my humble opinion it is only in that question 'why' can any progress be made, ignoring it will doom Europe to a cycle of repeated mistakes and eventually its demise. UK may suffer as a result of its decision but did the British people make the right choice for the wrong reasons.

Donald Tusk in an interview outside the EU summit in Bratislava (that UK were not invited to) urged EU leaders to take a "sober and brutally honest" look at EU's problems. This is an attitude that has only appeared since the UK referendum. Bolstered by this brave or reckless move (depending on your view) other member states have begun in/out discussions. 

On my tour of Europe this summer, I went through 11 EU countries and saw partially closed borders and heard constant dissatisfaction with the Union. Some even expressed envy at UK's decision. 

There are huge benefits to Europe standing together on the world stage and a key role for UK in that but the European commission needs to get over itself and start serving its citizens and not its own political agendas. I'm not supporting the rise in popularism that is gaining momentum pandering to popular fears and whims. 

Let us not forget that losing the UK will have significant impact on EU. The UK was the second largest contributor to EU as well as its financial, services and technology industries. If EU doesn't look very hard and long at itself it could trip into hole that it can't get out of. 


Saturday, 10 September 2016

My Grand Tour: Nuremberg

Nuremberg sits a way from the motorway and driving through the suburbs was as innocuous as any European conurbation, this could have been Basildon in Essex, the outskirts of Brussels, anywhere. But these suburbs nestle a dark heart. We very nearly didn't put Nuremberg on our route but i'm glad, no that's not the word, let's put it this way, had we not seen Nuremberg we would have missed another side of Europe. A side that hides in plain sight all over Europe, if not the world but Nuremberg is the home of its monument, the phantasm that is still too tangible to be called a ghost. Europe's malevolent ego, hibernating until memory is shadowed by hate, again.

Welcome to Germany
We dropped our stuff at the hotel and showered off over 500km. About 5km after the border traffic was stemmed down to a crawl for checks and a number of cars had been channelled off for inspection. We didn't tick any suspicion boxes and were waved through. These are borders that until recently simply had a sign declaring "Welcome to Germany".

Nuremberg's medieval centre was a sight but I needed to relax with a beer before we began exploring. We soon found a pavement pub. and settled in for some well-earned refreshment. The atmosphere in the pub was a little more raw than the gentile business people and tourists of Vienna. Definitely not a hipster hangout, the patrons were the young and disaffected of Nuremberg, punk by necessity not style-choice. I watched a young Muslim couple sit on a bench in the square, apart from her hijab they were no different from any teenage couple. Sitting opposite was a young German man alone with a large bottle of beer, apart from his cropped hair, no different from any other teenager. He began shouting at the couple. Despite my scant knowledge of German, I knew exactly what he was saying. The Muslim boy tried to ignore him but he wanted to be heard. He continued belligerently, waving his arms around. The Muslim boy continued to ignore but by the time the other was standing over him punctuating his words with the bottle he had no choice. They were soon standing toe to toe.

A bull skinhead with a pitbull and mutton chops bowled into the pub and sat at a table behind us. He was obviously a bit of a face as he was enthusiastically welcomed and spoke loudly. The others sat and listened as dutifully as his dog.

The boy with the beer bottle backed down and the young Muslims made to leave. The boy followed with abuse and got on his phone. The next day we learned of the knife attack on a train in Wurzburg, the next city.

Nuremberg is a magnificent medieval citadel that straddles the river Pegnitz. Much of the old architecture is well-maintained and the newer buildings are for the most part sympathetic. The castle sits up above the town commanding a picture postcard view but it is not Nuremberg castle that dominates, it is the church. St. Lorenz and St. Sebald are twin sisters and big girls they are too. The type of churches designed to put the fear of god quite literally into the townsfolk, I felt quite humbled by its huge dimensions and dark foreboding stone. As a Briton I'm just not used to such overbearing ecclesiastic architecture. I think after Henry VIII the shift went to the dominance of the crown over the church so our cathedrals are quite weedy compared to Europe's. Gothic buildings on such a scale are, well Gothic!

I could go on about the sausage shops and the cuckoo clocks, the twee little shops full of beautifully crafted souvenirs, but I won't. I will, however tell you about a conversation with a lady in one of these shops. My wife struck up a conversation with her, it was her who first informed us of the attack in Wurzburg. We introduced ourselves as being Greek and British and Brexit came up. "Good luck to you." she said. I took this defensively as an affront to the British decision, that we wouldn't make it without the Germans (and the EU). "If you pull it off and control your borders, i'll be moving there for sure!"

Inspired by this sublime example of Teutonic life and values, a certain failed Austrian artist declared it The most German city and chose it as the backdrop for his new Rome that he would build complete with Colosseum and Cathedral of light. Of course, the failed artist was Adolph Hitler and much of his Rome still stands, in stone and hearts.

The Colosseum, full of stories and lessons 
Just 10 minutes from the medieval citadel stands the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände as big and imposing as its name. I had intended to have a stroll around the grounds and get an idea of what it had been. I'd looked it up on the net and just saw some ruins, but we arrived as the museum opened and decided to go in. The museum is housed in the main building, this was to be his Colosseum. Built despite resistance from the soft ground that tried to defy support for this huge edifice. More and more forced labour was brought in to sure the footings by the Großer Dutzendteich lake. Eventually Hitler won and continued his plans.

View from the podium
The museum is a grim reminder of one of humanity's darkest hours but I couldn't help seeing it as a masterclass, it laid out the rise of the Nazis from a workers party channelling popular resistance to the terms of the treaty of Versailles to a hate for the injustice of its neighbours. Those neighbours were the British, the French and the Russians who had imposed such harsh reparations on the Germans after the Great War (the war to end all wars) but they started a little closer to home with their own neighbours who for one reason or another were a little less German than them. They whittled out the weak and the disabled then moved to the dissidents and any group who did not fit the great plan. Let us remember that the Jews were not the only group victimised and exterminated by the Nazis, it was also the Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, anyone who was easy to hate.As a psychopath starts with domestic animals, Hitler began small.

The Cathedral of light in its heyday
The exhibition tells of how Hitler gained political power and began levying membership on the workers which he used to stage festivals and rallies. At these rallies Nuremberg was overrun with over a million visitors and he made sure there was beer for everyone. This combination of carrot, stick and common purpose is still a familiar tactic.

Once he gained momentum, he took the positions of Chancellor and President to be the supreme dictator and the carrots stopped.

The Zeppelinplatz was his podium, now debranded, and at its height was a cathedral of light designed for over 400,000 rank and file who were integral to its architecture. A 2km road was built for parades and a monument to the fallen Germans to maintain the hate and purpose to regain German pride and place at the top table of world powers. The site would have been on the scale of the Acropolis, maybe bigger but don't get me wrong, the buildings were obviously thrown up in a hurry, their function was big-picture. Inside the Dokumentationszentrum the rough brick and concrete work shows no attention to detail. The Zepplinplatz podium is at best soviet era concrete utility. There is none of the finesse and artistry of Rome or Athens, this was broad stroke art to be seen and feared from a distance. 

Some of the buildings were destroyed after WWII and others remained unrealised but what still stands is a monument to megalomania. I pondered what should have been done with the site, should it have been razed? No, the reminder warns of what mankind is capable of. Should it be maintained? No, this would pay homage to its architects. The site sits between these two, a little dilapidated and re-purposed. The Zepplinplatz is the starting grid for the Nürnbergring race track (not to be confused with Nürburgring). The irony is that Hitler always intended it to be used as a sports centre for Aryan athletes, now it is a boating lake and football stadiums, the dream lives on. 

A private company took over Prora, a beach resort on the island of Rügen. It was to be a huge holiday resort for good Aryans but was never completed. His legacy may have tripped in the bunker in Berlin but that was not the end of anything.

See the journey so far

Friday, 2 September 2016

My Grand Tour: Lost in Vienna

The rain chased us from Budapest, not that Hungary's capital loses any of its grandiosity in the rain. Far from it, its foreboding opulence is well suited to dour weather. Like London, some cities just don't look right in the sun. It's just that we had limited time and we were headed for England, we could wait for rain.

Vienna is a short drive from Budapest, 2½ hours under normal conditions, but these were not normal conditions. Hungarian roads are equal to anything in Europe but visibility was dire. The rain may well have been chasing us but we had to creep away. 

OMV time

Just outside Budapest I filled up at an OMV petrol station, my new favourite. It has reliable free WIFI and good services. Petrol was about €1.15 a litre for 98 premium. I also bought a vignette for Austria, which was €15 and only payable in cash. 

The weather was easing up but about 5km before the border traffic came to a standstill. We found out nearly an hour later that 3 lanes plus all the smart-arses cruising up the hard-shoulder to push in at the head of the queue were being bottle-necked down to one lane of border checks. Over 15km of cars squeezed down to a snail's pace as EU free movement becomes one of the first victims of the migrant crisis. We passed the old checkpoint building that may soon be getting a lick of paint and put back into hasty service. Among the traffic were hundreds of HGVs taking goods to their ultimate destination somewhere in the free trade zone, commuters as well as tourists of every nationality. I spotted every number plate from Ireland to Greece. 

As we entered Austria the first thing that struck me was their commitment to wind power, the turbines went on and on for miles. 


Vienna was built sometime last week in baroque and classic styles then opened to the public, a huge theme park of architectural diversity all polished and daring you not to be impressed. White teethed families cycle through the streets with babies sleeping in cots mounted on stretched front ends. It's only when you get lost that the idyll of Vienna drops its veil and I got lost. 

Parking in Vienna looks difficult, everyone seemed to have a pass and everywhere needed one. Fortunately, we arrived Friday night and weekends are free. 

Not me
We wandered around the neighbourhood stumbling across the bars and clubs near a railway station. Some guys were selling from the streets, I didn't ask their business but their area of commerce was clear. We turned back toward the hotel and found an 'Irish' pub. Along with pizza and McDonald's 'Irish' pubs have gone global.

Mozart's Vienna?
The next morning we leaped out of bed to explore the home of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Strauss (I,II and III). I plotted a route to the Hundertwasser Village, a Dr. Suessian block of buildings and a welcome change from the opulence of Imperial European offerings. Of course, it was tough to avoid some grandiosity but we made our way down to the Danube sculking past the Rathaus, strolling nonchalantly round the Ringstrasse and past the Votivkirche. Ok, we failed and you will too! Vienna aims to impress and it's bloody persistent! 

Unfortunately, The Hundertwasser village is bags of wow in photos but up close you miss too much of its charm, like Dr. Suess translated into sensible. That's not to say it was a disappointment, it may not be as bonkers as the Waldspirale in Germany or on the scale of the Rogner-Bad Blumau Hotel but it is in the centre of Vienna and it really stands out but it needs to be seen from above. I'm a fan now and put him along with Gaudi's irreverence for the straight line. (Note to self: bonkers building tour) 

I bought postcards (more about them later) and we went over to the Belvedere Museum. Wow. Yes and that is about all i'll say about that as I really was becoming desensitised to Grand. Just look at the pictures.


At last we settled in Karlsplatz for a cold beer. Our trip is a mission, so little to see, so much time (stop, reverse that!) and it took real determination to stop exploring and enjoy the moment. Beer helps.

As we left a couple of greebo types accosted us, i'm guessing for some change. He, heroin thin in shiny black yoga pants, her McDonalds round with her arse hanging out black jeans probably made for him. I declined and they got quite abusive. Well, this was Vienna, maybe they we great eccentric composers, or maybe not. 

That night we ate Wiener schnitzel at a pub down by the Rathaus, at last local fayre! 

The next morning we packed up before the traffic wardens hit the streets and took one last drive round Vienna before heading north-west to Nuremberg. But first supplies. On the other side of the Danube I found a supermarket to stock up on travel food but there was nowhere to park. I dropped the good lady and told her I'd wait. Some particularly vindictive looking traffic wardens homed in on me and I ran off cowardly. I got locked into one-way systems and couldn't get back. Google maps took me through some low-rent neighbourhoods with old men sitting alone on the street with bottles of beer. I swung into a road that took me straight through a park, the one with the ferris wheel. Strange, there was no other traffic but some gesticulating joggers and a small battalion of policemen cleared that one up quick enough, I smiled, apologised and hit the gas (very gently). Christ! would I never get my beloved back, left outside an Aldi for all eternity. Was this fate? I asked myself. That kinda thinking could be fatal enough if she ever found out!    

Next time: Ominous Nuremberg

Thursday, 25 August 2016

My Grand Tour: The Police play an unexpected role

I've never been frightened of the police, I'm not a member of an ethnic minority group who feels targeted by the authorities. I didn't grow up in a high crime area where the police employed heavy-arm tactics to deal with wayward yoofs. On the contrary, my first brush with the law was when my mum asked a bobby to have a chat with her seven year old who had lifted a fiver from her purse to blow on sweets and matchbox cars. The police, to me, are just naturally flawed people stuck between government legislation and those chose to harm us, protect and serve. Foreign police are another deal altogether, they carry guns, they don't say 'please' and they know you are alone.

As the Bulgarian officer waved me over to the side of the road, I knew we were

in for a state sponsored shake-down. Their job is to raise money for the state through on the spot fines for and a smile for themselves by terrorising tourists. I had neither the budget nor the stomach for either.

He tapped the windscreen and started in Bulgarian then threw in the Greek words 'teli kykloforeias' (road tax). My wife pulled out the folder with the car paperwork and Handed over pieces for his perusal.

Applied arts museum, Budapest 
"No, no Bulgarian tax. Vignette," he said in English.

Shit! I had no idea we needed any tax and what was a vignette? A small film or prose? I had been told that when Bulgarian police give you a fine you can wave a €20 and amicable arrangements can be achieved but I have never bribed anyone and would not know how to offer one without evoking an insult. Then to my utter surprise he sent us on our way telling me to get one at the next petrol station. Could this be the EU in action? I hoped so but I didn't hang around to push it any further. We headed off gingerly and got one before crossing the border into Serbia, €10 worth of phew.

The border was slow and backed up but not nearly as much as the other side going into Bulgaria, the gods were on our side. It took the best part of an hour to get through the two check points but at the Serbian side one of the boot/trunk divers, those whose job it is to go through your smalls looking for contraband, spied the car's plates and shouted "Yiassou re!" a very casual Greek greeting. I returned the sentiment.

Alone and dejected. A Red Bull Air Race obstacle

We stopped just after to change up the remainder of our Bulgarian Levs to Serbian Dinar in a sweaty shed. Would we need a vignette for Serbian roads? I jumped the barrier onto the incoming queue and looked for someone to ask. The first car was Italian, the driver shrugged at my question quite apologetically, no English. Then I spotted a German car with a family. "English?"

"DEUTSCH!" came the drawn-out reply from the rotund driver without looking up from the wheel.

I tried to explain my question, tapping on the windscreen and making international gestures for money.


So much for euro relations, I headed off to find some travellers' camaraderie.

One of the teenage girls from the German car called me back and in broken English explained that their was no vignette for Serbia. A Romanian who despite having very little English confirmed in great detail that there were no tolls until Nis then motorway began but the tolls were quite cheap.

Tolls and Rain, these are two of my favourite things!
At Belgrade we hit rain and the tolls. The rain was much harder than the €6 toll, they cheerfully took Euros. A board just before the gate showed the charges for different vehicle categories and point of entry onto the highway in both currencies. Serbia has been a candidate nation for the EU since late 2011. It still hasn't earned membership but treats European travellers well and appears to be behaving itself. The highway after Nis are great and you get a lot more for your money than in Bulgaria.

So that's Serbia, covered in 6½ hours of driving and 10 lines. We saw a bit more on the way home. Our next stop would be Budapest but first we had another border. 

The Serb side was a breeze but the Hungarians were much more difficult. The boot/trunk divers were making a show of turning out baggage and grilling drivers. We were checked by two crews who seemed to be checking each other as much as us. A rather stern woman in uniform made me open the boot then walked off, were we done? I went to close. NO! she poked at my bags, What is this? A bag. What is this? A bag... What is this? Cigarettes? alcohol? No. then she walked off again. It took one of the other uniforms to wave us on. The next just gave us a cursory check then grunted us on our way.

I bought an €11 vignette from a very glam young lady (absolutely no irony. She was dressed to kill.)... in a garden shed. They had run out of stickers so I just got a receipt. I could have got a special double with Hungarian and Austrian vignettes for €14 but the disco shed did not inspire confidence.

The greatest power in the land...and the Budapest Parliament
Now, remember my list of things that shouldn't be too cheap? Well, Budapest added another candidate, a hotel room. I had booked a room for €23 through It looked basic but serviceable and well placed. It was very well placed. We arrived around 9pm to a dark red-light zone replete with sex toy shops and a police watch. The reception was full of desperate looking people and a fat sweaty man in string vest sitting over a pc in a box room, this was the receptionist. Ever the optimist, I decided to ask to see the room. A couple of Lithuanian bikers came out swinging their heads and rubbing their noses.

"How bad is it?" I asked.

"We will find and sleep in our sleeping bags. NOT here!"

The benefit of the doubt had gone. But where would we stay?

"Sweetheart, I booked a WHORTEL!"

So with the night getting old we had to find somewhere to stay. Police to rescue again. The wife went over to speak to the police and came back with an address. Passing, I waved a thank you to the Bobbyskis. Next thing I know they've overtaken us with blues and twos and beckoned us to follow... at speed, through red lights until we reached a decent looking hotel.

For €50 we got a very comfortable 6 floor suite without breakfast. DONE!
Budapest is basically two cities, Buda and Pest. We stayed on the Pest side. The night was vibrant and the architecture opulent if a little dilapidated. Looking up was a wonder, looking down told another story. The pavements were streaked with piss. Whether this was negligent dog walkers or pub-crawlers, I couldn't be sure but doorways were occupied by men and women clutching the by now ubiquitous family-sized beer bottle. They didn't appear to be transients, they didn't seem to have the equipment that homeless have. It may just have been their idea of a night out.

This was once one of the capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and It is well-worth seeing. Many of the buildings are Gothic or Neo-Gothic style and very grand in scale, their parliament building is the third largest of its type in the world. Although a little research reveals that they are not as old as they look, mostly mid to late 19th century. 

A student's bedroom in Budapest
Budapest is teeming with Brits! This we discovered at a nice pavement bar. The next table were Brits around our age group. Down in the basement of the bar there was another table of younger Brits. The bar was very cool, decorated like a well-read student's bedroom with an excellent soundtrack. 

Finally the bar closed and after four large Urquells for €7 we went in search of some local fayre. Again fruitless. Was it us or has everyone franchised over to pizza and burgers? Local beer was easy but noone seemed interested in food. We hit McDonalds again full of Brits and assorted tourists doing the 'talk slowly and loudly' but still using their same colloquial vocabulary in hope of being understood.

Next morning the heavens opened so we snuck into the breakfast room. Busted! The camp chubby fellow who beavered around the buffet tried to tick us off his little list that we weren't on...oh dear! I resolved to settle up on check-out. Sorry, I resolved to see if I could side-step settling up on check-out. The wife ratted me out as I tried to shush her. The receptionist tried to rush me €19 and I took it out on her, I had nearly 6000km and a lifetime to go with the wife, the receptionist would soon be a stranger. We settled on €10 and left.

We met a couple from Germany who had travelled down by train. While we were outside in the pelting rain under a half-roof having a cigarette. I introduced myself as British and asked the man about Brexit.

He laughed, "How stupid! How will you travel now? Better you stay and Greeks leave!" My wife introduced herself. He said sorry.     

Budapest was hosting the Red Bull Air Race that weekend and we went down to the banks of the Danube to watch the action but the rain and wind had other plans. It was cancelled. 

Watch my Budapest moustache tour

Part 2:


By around 3pm, the rain was not letting up. I turned to the wife in the car while eating scenic sandwiches and asked, "Shall we go to Austria?"

Goodbye Budapest, we'll be back.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

My Grand Tour: Into the Eastern Bloc

Shopping for Freedom
Just a Brit, a Greek and a French car heading north. We hadn't booked anything, the route was advisory and we had only owned the car for a week. Oh, and I'd forgotten what 3000km really means. The missus and I had reached middle-age but were more than willing to put that all behind us. Something told me we were being pretty reckless and it was about bloody time.

We were sans enfants for the first time since, well since I lied about being happy with just a cuddle on the sofa. The kids had been packaged off to Britain with Grandma. Just a couple of teenagers with wrinkles instead of acne bowling off to the Bulgarian border and way beyond our comfort zone.

This wasn't my first venture into the ex-eastern bloc Balkans. Back in the early nineties me and a bunch of assorted Europeans ran the gauntlet of Yugoslavia just before the bombs started to fall. Banknotes were exchanged and the guy at the window scrubbed out the last three zeroes with a marker to show their new value. We only stopped for a cup of warm mud on the road while half of us guarded the cars. Some years later me and the missus took a trip up the Adriatic to Venice, a firework display of rockets from the coast added ambience to our romantic weekend; the Kosovan war was in full swing and the Slavs were bombing the hell out of each other. I recently went to the Serbian town of Leskovac to speak about innovation in education at a public school. The town was still pock-marked with bullet holes and its razed industrial zone was acres of bombed-out twisted scrap metal. I spoke to a teacher there about what they'd been through, Tito's communism, Slobodan Milošević, civil war, ethnic cleansing and now the euro-zone economic crisis. His reply will remain with me forever, "Things now, David are shit... which is a major improvement." There was no hyperbole, no drama, it was simple fact.

A Truss in Sofia
Bulgaria is now a member of the EU but a long way off joining the single currency (maybe a blessing). In 2013, I went to Sofia where I met David Rothschild and other business innovators at DIGITALK. I visited a start-up incubator that was far advanced of anything in Greece. Bulgaria had only ever been a suburb of the Soviet Union but it was obvious to me that it was keen to join the west and put its days in the shadow of the iron curtain in the past.

Sveta Nedelya Cathedral
My wife is very fastidious about paperwork and she had the car's history, insurance and green card ready for inspection. The border guard simply asked for our passports and waved us into no man's land, the 500 metre gap between the Greek and Bulgarian check points. A few months before, according to the press, the Bulgarians had threatened to fence the border to keep out refugees but all we saw was a deeply rutted road and a shiny little Duty Free shop. We took a selfie and wee break and ploughed on.

Bulgaria welcomed us with a single lane country road peppered with 50kmh (31mph) speed limits and the threat of radar traps. I kept a light foot on the peddle and a vigilant eye on every corner, I had heard too many tales of police shake-downs and even fake police blocks to relax.

We stopped for breakfast in Sandanski, a pleasant little shopping town popular with Greeks for its fake designer wear and cheap cigarettes.

A few km before Sofia the road opened to a wide modern highway with 120kmh limits. The road network seems to be building out, slowly, from Sofia and it was good to put my foot down and cut the breeze, I was finally starting to relax.

Sofia is surrounded by grim blocks of soviet era housing but as you enter the centre the Former Communist Party building looms and the cars rumble on cobbled streets, Sofia is unexpectedly impressive. We parked up next to a British-plated Jaguar opposite the Bulgarian assembly and headed through the park for wifi to book our first night's stay.

Hotel Bon Bon was the type of place you check the rooms before committing to anything and €32 a night was no quality seal but it was great. A big attic room with two big double beds and a balcony. I paid an extra €5 for guarded parking, which was a fenced-off corner of scrub land with a couple of guys armed with 2-litre beer bottles and began to explore.

The 2-litre beer bottle appeared to be the accessory de rigueur. Just imagine those huge Coke bottles... with beer! I later found out that they also came in  2.5 litre and cost between €2-3 depending on quality. I never had the gaul to buy one, I have a list of things that shouldn't be TOO CHEAP and on that (short) list is booze and ladies. I chose instead to take in the ambience at a pavement bar with reasonably priced draught beer and my most exorbitant wife.

Eventually, hunger set in and we began a very fruitless quest for locale fayre, pizza, spaghetti, burgers and Greek food was abundant but nothing that looked local so we headed back to a place we had spied earlier. The proprietor of the empty Chinese restaurant almost fell off his chair when we sat down and summoned a menu, This would not be our last Balkan Chinese meal as we made a pact not to eat pizza anywhere but Italy, a pact that was broken twice and very pleasantly. We avoided seafood dishes and were not disappointed, the next morning would be the acid test.

Next morning, our stomachs were unaffected, result! and I booked our next stop in Budapest through, €23 (I later revised my list of things that shouldn't be too cheap to include hotels!). We took breakfast in the Hotel's Hawaiian beach-scape themed basement. The car awaited unmolested and protected by the same two men re-armed with more beer and we hit the road.

Sofia's highway network soon gave out to a single lane speed trap. We had over 800km to Budapest and 50-90kmh was not going to cut it. I pushed as hard as I dare but less than 100km from the Hungarian border I spotted a couple of uniforms and they were not waving.

Next: The Police play an unexpected role and a Grand 'Tache tour

Friday, 19 August 2016

My Grand Tour

This summer we decided to dispense with the usual beach lounging holiday for something a little more ambitious. A journey that took us over 6,000 km through 13 countries and 15 cities and some of Europe's most fabulous landmarks. It's not the first time I've driven through Europe between my adopted home and my place of birth but it was definitely the most pertinent. Along the road I spoke to locals, immigrants and travellers. Among them were migrant workers, business owners, artists and some EU civil servants.

We had an amazing time and I almost became desensitised to grandiose and opulent architecture but just when I thought I had seen it all, I turned a corner, my jaw dropped and OMGA! Europe opened a six-pack of awesome.
The British voted for divorce from a union that they never truly felt part of. The Greeks nearly got ousted. But how do the other members feel? 

Is Europe in peril? Is it Fuck! Follow me as I take you on a road from the Parthenon to Big Ben via the serenity of Venice, the odious ghosts of Nuremberg and the ambition of The Eiffel tower.

NEXT PART: Into the Eastern Bloc

Monday, 11 July 2016

Episode 43: Everything is Under Control?

You know me. You followed me around the country. You loved me on the TV when I had you in stitches with jokes about my penis. You followed me in the tabloids, you supported my charitable works. Then you didn't. I don't know why. You just stopped. Now, I have people who love me again. So much that they made me their mayor. This is my new story, From Under Dark Clouds.

I knew there was no one home but I still ran upstairs and downstairs yelling the wife and kids’ names hoping to be wrong. There was no sign but the brimming ashtray of the boys that Socrates had sent to take care of my family. I checked the basement, the place I had sent them to hide when we had been attacked by the tabloids but this was not the press. They shot personal moments, they did character assassination. The people who had crucified the Chinese peddler to my door did not. They had little understanding of nuance or subtlety. Some clothes and shoes were in neat piles on the beds. The wife had managed to start her packing ceremonies that were the precursor of every family trip. The ceremonies that had annoyed me so much. Looking around and finding my breath I could see no signs of violence, were Socrates’ heavies in on it?
Socrates! He would know.
He answered on the second ring. He seemed confused which made me panic more. He said he’d call the boys and get back to me. I checked my phone, I had an unanswered from the wife. I called her back but kept getting the same message, “The subscriber you have called probably has their phone switched off.”
Socrates called, “They’re ok. They are boarding the plane. We have someone in airport security who is making sure they are cared for.” I didn’t reply.
“Jude, give me your keys!”
“But the insurance is only for—” his protests continued all the way to the car but remained just protests.
Jude and Roni fastened their seat-belts. Roni even clipped her camera to it.
I knew which lights needed to be heeded and I ran them all. Roni kept asking me questions about what I was thinking only diverting her camera to show the red traffic lights pass at speed.
I answered her once and that seemed to suffice, “WHAT DO YOU THINK!”
We turned the last right onto the long straight to the terminal and I put it hard down. The departures building quickly came into sight but just outside the police building a patrol car sat with its blues on and an officer stood flagging me down. They had been stopping people here for months checking their state debts before they left the country. I changed lanes and flashed as I passed.
I left the car outside departures where others were kissing friends and loved ones goodbye. I ran in, the journos close behind. I heard shouts and whistles but I needed to get there more than anything.
Thessaloniki airport is little more than a bus terminus and I was soon at the first security gate. A tall man walked up and put his heavy hand on my shoulder. He was at least a head taller than me but his face was bright and childlike.
“They left safely, Sir.” He pointed through the windows to the Airbus taxiing onto the runway. “I could radio the plane. But, I think it would be safer not to draw attention to them.” I looked up at him. He squeezed my shoulder and smiled. “I have a girlfriend on the crew, she’s one of us. She’ll take care of them.”
I watched as the plane took position on the runway. Roni bumped into me closely followed by Jude and the police. Radios squawked and more descended from nowhere. Roni screamed PRESS!
A hand fell on my shoulder. ”Miister!”
The security guard boomed and I shook in my shoes but he was looking at the officer who had slid his hand down to my wrist behind my back. “Come here, you!” Chris, for that was the name on the badge that was pinned to his chest at my eye level, “You know who this is?”
Soon the officer had let me go and was on his radio. “Stand down!” a crumpled reply came and he repeated, “Stand down, I tell you! It’s the Englishman.”
I looked round at the journos and patted Chris on the chest, “They’re with me.” He made a sweeping motion to the officers and they disappeared apart from one who insisted on shaking my hand before he left.
“Sorry, Sir.” He offered in broken English. “You maked us worry. Too much!”
I turned to the windows but the plane was disappearing into the cloudless sky.
Chris was still looming as I turned to skulk off. I turned to thank him.
“Nothing, Sir. Don’t worry, some of those pigs have not chosen sides yet.” He changed to English, “Your family, they will be fine.” Then back to Greek, “Tell Mr. Socrates that Christos,” he tugged at his name badge. “Says everything is under control.”
“Under control?” I had never fucking doubted anything more in my life.


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From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY