Saturday, 21 January 2017

Mushrooms


I want you to imagine that you are in a dark room, maybe the size of your living room with four others. You all have a pretty good knowledge of the layout of the room and quite soon somebody would stumble upon the door and you would be back in the light. Now imagine you are in a huge stadium-sized room with thousands of people and no knowledge of its layout. Now, being intelligent and communicative human beings, you would form groups who would collectively decide on the best plan to get out. Democratic groups that would devise and agree on the best course of action, this is exactly what you would do, right?

Twitshot

But, this would be a course of action that would be based on darkness. After some time and failure to find a way out, disagreement would begin and the groups would fight and fracture. New smaller groups would form under new leaders. Now you have two problems, finding the door and arguing with the other groups. At this point the disagreements could easily become a priority. Yes, of course some would argue that you should get back to the task of getting out but these pleas would get drowned out by the anger and frustration between the groups. “Why will they not listen?” the leaders would have the conviction that their way of reaching the light was the only logical conclusion. The group members would be more and more prepared to defend their way. These new groups and their leaders would gain more and more influence and despite not successfully finding a door, you would become more and more reliant on your group and leader for guidance and support. Pretty soon the only people looking for the door would be anyone who had not joined a group and working alone would have minimal chance of discovery, in fact they may even become fixated by their own approach, I mean, what type of person would they be anyway if they didn’t want to join a group.
We live in a world where most of us have been enjoying a well-established path to a truth, a truth that was authored by others over thousands of years. A truth that adapts periodically to serve the contemporary context. Simple instructions and protocols that enable us to concentrate on higher tasks instead of trying to work out how to survive each day. These instructions may be difficult to follow and feel restrictive but they shape our lives in ways we no longer register. These protocols exist for the good of the whole while masquerading as self-improvement. Learn what you need to know to contribute to the whole by means of some challenging and worthwhile task that sustains the cycle. If you you execute these duties well, you will have value and be rewarded, with these rewards you can acquire the tools of happiness and satisfaction, tools that were created by more people like you who have laboured under the understanding that they are contributing to something of value. But, in this darkness we only see those who are very close and usually only by how they touch us. We are the mushrooms in the dark cultivated of a nutritious bed of bullshit.
Now, back to the room. Imagine that someone found the door after generations of living in a safe, secure darkness, would you believe them? Would you understand what the door was? Would the light of the outside world not offend your eyes and strike a fear into your heart that would steer you back into the comfort and familiarity of the darkness. And, if one of the leaders found the door, would he tell you?

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Bonus Episode: A Dog Day Afternoon

This is an episode from my From Under Dark Clouds story. It comes sometime before the unnamed protagonist, who is a disgraced British media celebrity, stands for public office. 

enjoy...
Someone once said that you can judge a nation by how they treat their animals. I used to have a cat. Woke up after a party one afternoon and some bastard had left me with a pair of kittens. What kind of person carries kittens around in their handbag. Well, we became good friends. She would sidle up to me when I was chilling out and we started to regularly share a spliff together. She would love to just sit on my lap and purr until she fell off and found a corner to pass out, like cats do. By the time I was chasing brown, we had a good thing going, but even she snubbed me the first few times. Cats have an inner wisdom. Brown has patience and it wasn’t long before she would bug the hell out of me until I cooked up. I think it could have been the reason I went from being a social user to a full blown addict. I said there were two kittens, didn’t I. I’m pretty sure the other one escaped down the rubbish chute disguised as a Vesta beef curry.
Here, they hate cats but they do love puppies. Cats are left to fend for themselves on the streets while Puppies are bought for vast sums of money and played with for hours. They are taken out to show friends and cosseted, but never trained. Then, they get bigger and more demanding. They need walks and cleaning up after so they get chained to a stake in the garden or left on the balcony to keep the neighbours awake at night. All too often they are taken to the village. ‘Taken to the village’ sounds kinda warm and rustic, doesn't it. What it actually means is taking it to the nearest rural area where the animal can be pushed out the car and the owners can drive away, safe in the knowledge that it had been safely returned to its natural habitat and back in the warm embrace of mother nature. Trouble is, I live in the village and it is now filled with packs of feral dogs.
So, I was riding me Vespa through the village when one of these packs ambushes me, nipping at the wheels and barking. I slowed down to a walking pace, there seems to be an optimum velocity at which their hunting instinct is piqued. If you drop below this, they will usually lose interest. This time was different. I stopped completely but instead of leaving to sniff each others butts until the next passerby, they encircled me with the alpha-male looking very business-like, hunched low, and snarling. I had the evolutionary advantage, only man with his immense intelligence will start a fight he can’t win. I alighted and stood defiantly staring down the drooling creature, the rest of the pack were awaiting instructions. I only needed to face off the boss and the others would follow suit. The Vespa was still popping away behind me and I kept it close, it was covering my south. I looked deep into the eyes of the beast and snarled, a deep bark brewed in my chest. I would exert my superiority in its own language, “WOOF!” the creature retreated in line with my stare. Its teeth still bared and lips quivering but a step back, I advanced aware that I needed to keep the putt-putting of the Vespa close, not to open a space for the rest of the pack to close the pincer behind me. My step was small but I leaned in. The sun was almost behind me so I aimed to caste my shadow over the mutt. “WOOF!” I took another small step.
“Vlaka!” I heard a woman’s voice from one of the houses. Who was she to call me an idiot? I was exerting my— .
“OW!” I swear my balls leaped two inches to the left. The dog had made its move. I stomped my foot in riposte to try to regain lost ground but it was leaning in. It had missed this time but its aim would improve.
I jumped back to the Vespa. The circle closed.
“Vlaka!” I heard the bitch again. I’m getting my balls gnarled by rabid dogs and I’m the wanker, really? Clunk. The Vespa in gear I raced away, 200cc of 1950s Italian engineering versus four legs.
My neighbour was coming out as I returned home. He asked me how I was doing, I asked him for the number of the council.
He laughed. “It’s Sunday you’ll be lucky to get anyone today. Why?”
My voice skipped an octave as I told him, “I just got bitten by a bloody dog!”
“Where?”
I pointed to my balls. He didn’t even try to hide his amusement. “Do you have the number of our councillor?” I was sure he had it. He’s the type who always has a direct line to best people to harass when he needed a favour doing. He said he didn’t.
I stormed up to my door where the wife was sitting on the veranda seeking asylum from the kids. I told her my story and told her to get the phone. She did so promptly but I didn’t know who to call. I called the police.
After I had given up all hope they arrived in a used car lot trade-in roughly livered in police stripes. They sympathised wholeheartedly but couldn’t do anything except waste my time telling me at length how they couldn’t do anything.
The next day I took my miserable story to the council who had much more power to do nothing due to the pressure of the animal lovers who would sue if they tried to. I told them that next time it could be a kid or an old lady. I figured protection of the weak and infirm would give the situation more gravitas but it seemed the dogs could not be trumped.
“What can we do. Put them down?” Came the incredulous reply.
“If it was a gun laying around on the street, would you pick it up?” I got no reply. “Don’t be fooled by the tail and floppy ears, this is a dangerous weapon that someone has left on the streets of my village.”
I called an animal sanctuary. They were very concerned about the situation. “Is the animal neutered?”
“How would I know, I was too busy trying to stop it neutering me!” Just the words made my voice leap an octave.
After a dead silence, “Do you have a paper from the hospital?”
“No, I have teeth marks!” Fuck, what is this with stamped sheets of paper. “I have photos, I can send them to you.”
“That won’t be necessary. We cannot collect the dog without a confirmation from a doctor.” She continued.
I called the councillor. I went to the council. I called the mayor. He was ever so sympathetic. He said I was one-hundred-percent right and he couldn’t agree more but his hands were tied by the zoophilic organisations who had issued no less than six pending writs for collecting strays without the proper paperwork. And all this with an election year coming. He assured me that if I were to vote for him he would definitely explore the possibility of the matter being considered for a reasonably high priority in his next term.
The wife had done some calling round and hit the same brick walls. I decided to get the press involved. I called a local TV station and explained the plight of our village to one of the dogged reporters who would be sure to use some pounding power chords in post production. Packs of wild dogs terrorise sleepy mountain village. Da da daa!
“Did you go to the hospital?”
Truth was it hadn’t really broken the skin, just a bit of a pinch mark. “No. I was waiting for the police to arrive and do jack shit.”
“Who do the dogs belong to?”
“I don’t know, they weren’t carrying their paperwork.”
“Hmm.. No… paperwo—” she noted.
“Listen, sweetheart. They should be chipped, eh?” All dogs must, by law, must have an identity chip. That much I had learned. “Wouldn’t be difficult to get some vet to scan the chip and take it to the people who dumped the dogs here in my village.”
She paused. “Have they attacked any children? Disfigured anyone. Facially, a pretty girl perhaps.”
“No, I don’t know. Would you like me to arrange it?”
“No, sir. That won’t be necessary.”
The wife was watching me, poised. I had one more card to play. I could trump these mutts. I could get a media circus down here with two words. “Listen, my girl. Do you know who I am? DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”
The wife was only wearing slippers but the kick left a bruise I could show you today.
“He’s English,” she had the phone now. “He’s not used to these things.” She punched me with her free hand in the arm. “Yes, of course we’ll let you know of any developments. Thanks for your concern. Goodbye.”
FUCK! If I’d had half the support that these rabid animals were getting, I wouldn’t have given the better half of my money to a bunch of lawyers in London. I wouldn’t have the other half tied up to pay off the catholic church. I wouldn’t be in this Duelling-banjos of a country.
The wife didn’t speak to me for the rest of the day.
I googled it and found out who said that thing about the judging a nation by its animals. It was Mahatma Gandhi, some Indian guru in a nappy who took India away from the British. They worship cows and let them stray around the place. At least they get free-range burger and shake. Maybe I should think about opening a Chinese take-away.


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Saturday, 7 January 2017

I have discovered the meaning of life and you won't like it!

The beginning of a new year is always a good time to stop and take stock of the past twelve months and by any comparison 2016 was a doozer. You begin to dream about the next year with expectation and new hope but then at a particular age all the data from all of the years starts to make sense and conclusions can be drawn. I’ve reached that point and I know. What I now know is mostly that I know nothing. But, that “nothing” has more clarity and pertinence than ever before. What I have discovered is the meaning of life.
Douglas Adams dealt with the greatest question in his book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and it’s so easy to overlook the wisdom in the mirth. According to Adams, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42 (sorry for the spoiler) and it takes a super computer, the size of a city seven and a half million years to arrive at this. Many of you are aware of this, Adams’ risible conclusion is often quoted, but it’s the next step of the story that should receive much more attention. Another organic super computer is built to work out the QUESTION. They call this computer “Earth”.
Twitshot
Plato and Socrates (I always put these two as a double act as it was Plato who documented his mentor’s teachings and I’m sure the younger lost his objectivity from time to time) pondered the purpose more than the meaning of life. They came up with The Principle of Specialisation. What they meant is that in order to be moral and true to one’s self, one should not venture far from their preordained purpose. Merchants should trade, builders build and sailors sail with philosopher kings at the top ruling with reluctance and wisdom in equal measure. Aldous Huxley studied this idea some two and a half thousand years later in Brave New World with much less optimistic denouement.
There has never been a shortage of people telling us the way to righteousness. These sages will, once they have established their moral superiority, franchise their own answers until they are the only reasonable conclusions and followers will defend this safety of knowledge against any and all who disagree. History shows us that this defence of faith becomes more and more vehement until the keepers of opposing answers will wage spiteful and bloody wars on each other just to prove that their answers are good and moral. The irony is that the profits of these answers invariable begin by teaching acceptance and love for all.
We, as a species, need purpose and tend to fall into two distinct groups. Those who seek meaning and enlightenment through institutionalised faith or philosophy and those who get on with wrighting ships, building buildings and making trades so they can buy stuff that will give their lives some meaning. And, while they would appear to be fitting nicely with Plato’s Principle of Specialisation, they are deeply frowned upon by the prior. This could be seen as simply religious and secular but they are merely two sides of the same coin.
You see, the biggest poverty in both these approaches is that they keep any truth at arm’s length. The closer you get to the answers the more you need either faith in an external omnipotence or an update.
I recently visited Holy Mount Athos, Greece’s monastic state, I watched the faithful yearn for reason and enlightenment. The monks devote their lives to it scouring the scriptures for answers and guidance. But, in order to find pertinent answers, you must first craft apposite questions and to do that you must look inward and not to others. Questions are deeply personal and you must understand yourself to ask them well. We live in a society that pretends to encourage self-awareness but needs you to follow the herd and need what is on offer. You should consume the mass market solutions to questions you never asked
So to the meaning of life I promised. Well, it’s simple really. The meaning of life is proliferation, that’s it, the great existential answer is to service the species and make babies who will continue this. I invoke Kafka’s assessment that the meaning of life is that “it ends” and while it seems too nihilistic to stomach, it is true. I’d like to bring you back to Adams because I’m not an intellectual snob, I believe that it is just as likely that wisdom can be found in a 20th century Essex boy as much as a couple of beardy Greeks or tortured Austro-Hungarian. The meaning and the purpose of life can easily be confused, the purpose of life is propagation of the species but the meaning is just what you put in it. We are too answer-obsessed to stop and reassess our questioning skills. And, while information and data satisfies our need to know, the ability to craft purposeful questions requires a level of self-awareness that can be unsettling and is discouraged by society. While we continue to look for reason and meaning in the wrong places, there is no chance of us ever looking behind the curtain. But, if you learn to ask the right questions, you will find the answers that will help you live a better, more satisfying life. Not by looking to others but by knowing yourself.
So, would you like me to put you on the right track to finding the right questions. If you do then you have not understood a word.

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.

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.

Debranding
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


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.




Belvedere,Vienna




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.

"DEU-TSCHE!"

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 booking.com. 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.

From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY