Angry men, determined to protect statues of obscure historical figures are also determined to remind us that right wing national socialism movements that existed in living memory are actually left wing.
They have also gone on to explain that up is down, yes of course means no, but still definitely need to make clear black is absolutely not white.
An angry 65 year old white man took a break from angrily standing next to an inanimate metal model to explain:
“Look, if a political party from the past or now says something, they aren’t allowed to lie. That means everything they say is the truth.
“So when we look at National Socialism, we can see socialism clearly in the title. This means they are socialist. Case closed.”
When it was explained that all actually socialist members of the National Socialist party were literally murdered to death by Hitler, old halfwits had this to say:
“I don’t care if National Socialism actually was so opposed to socialism it killed socialists, their title was National Socialist. I’m clearly brilliant at history, that’s why I think it’s vital to protect statues of people I’ve never heard of, who it turned out committed vile crimes against humanity.
“Because it’s important to accurately remember and protect history.”
Thuggish, poorly educated men have also been sighted doing National Socialist salutes while protecting a metal box with a statue inside of a man famous for being diametrically opposed to National Socialists.
A British Nazi explained.
“Churchill is a British Icon. He single handedly defeated the nazis of Germany. That’s why we, as nazis, are here to to make sure no one takes that statue down. He was directly opposed to our belief systems, so we revere him as a God.”
An actual historian offered insight on why the world has gone absolutely fucking mental:
“What we clearly see here is people forgetting history, allowing it to once again repeat itself. By deliberately forgetting everything that happened in the past, like the right wing being right wing, it allows the right wing to go on being the right wing, while claiming not to be the right wing.
“Yeah it is hella confusing. Let me try again. Remember sitting in GCSE history and one of your whinier classmates would suddenly exclaim “but how could something like Hitler and the rise of the right wing in Germany be allowed to happen?!” The answer is this. Right now. What we’re enduring right now.
“What makes it unfathomably ironic, is that protecting history is one of the main current focal points of the extreme right, who couldn’t grasp history if it came flying at them made of velcro and super glue.
No, the term “wilful ignorance” is far too generous; that would imply people this painfully stupid have actual control over their own rudimentary thought processes.
Before leaving, I had really looked forward to the romantic notion of train travel. Despite my close affection and relationship with many European countries, I’d never interrailled before.
I was aware that I was interrailling about 15 years too late and 15 years too old, which many of my friends tripped over themselves to point out. But if you’re travelling through five different counties over a six-seven week period it seems pretty expensive and socially irresponsible to even consider air travel.
The actual train journeys were brilliant. Copenhagen to Hamburg had been by bus and then boat, with a couple of trains at the end. I got to take the TGV from Paris to Bordeaux which was legitimately exciting – it’s as ludicrously fast as the name would suggest. And the scenery as you cut down the side of the Pyrenees to enter Spain is exactly as breathtaking as epic mountain ranges with snow capped summits basking in the warm foreign sun should be.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Primarily because it was on a train, but also because no matter where you are, there will always be the occasional other train voyager who isn’t quite capable of behaving themselves in as a refined and mindful manner as one should on a train. As we sped southwards with the Mediterranean glistening on our left and the Pyrenees majestically rising on our right, the quiet calm of my carriage was shattered by a high volume Australian gentleman mewling at his daughters they were crossing the Spanish Alps. For some reason it really bothered me. And he kept saying it. Why would you call them the Spanish Alps? Why would you repeat this error more than once? I prevented myself from correcting him which would have definitely been even more dickish, and continued staring out my window.
I wondered what a journey through Europe with him would be like.
“Look kids, The French Rockies.”
“Oh girls, The Paris Leaning Tower Of Italy.”
“The Capital of Catalunya – The Spanish Vienna.”
I tuned out his nasal accent and inane babble.
On top of the occasional other passenger, there is another part of interrailing that grew a bit tiresome. If you are a thorough and prepared traveller, you can spend a lot of time pre booking specific seats on trains ahead of schedule. I mean, I think you can. I didn’t even try. So every time I wanted to get a ticket I elected to go to the ticket office of the appropriate railway station and buy one in person, my preferred, old-school style. In the UK I feel like this is a relatively painless process involving orderly queues and efficient customer service.
European ticket offices are a bit of a cluster fuck. They always have somewhere between 50-100 customers, a maximum on a good day of about two manned desks for public use and a third person sitting at a kiosk doing nothing, and a ticket numbering system that for some reason, can’t just be numbers that increase sequentially.
You take a ticket that says something like A97. At the top of the call out screen will be a very hopeful and promising number like A82.
“Fuck it, I can wait for about 15 customers,” you’ll say to yourself, “get out in time for a spot of lunch and a cheeky wee beer. I am so much better at travel than all those wretched, overbearing control freaks who book their tickets months in advance. I am so good at this. Fuck, I am brilliant. Really I’m just a citizen of the world – bask in my magnificence.”
This narcissistic illusion will then be brutally and mercilessly squashed when some other unforeseen number will appear from nowhere. C36 will suddenly be top of the list.
A cold sweat descends.
What the actual fuck. How many letter categorisations are there? How does it decide which letter takes priority? Suddenly, what seemed like a half hour wait, turns into, quite literally, anybody’s guess. It might be an hour. It might be three. As if by magic, new customers materialise from nowhere and go to the desks ahead of you. And reluctantly, even with a ferociously Pro-European stance, you are forced to admit that some things, such as customer service and queueing, are really pretty good in The UK.
Don’t get me wrong, Interrail should be highly, and I mean HIGHLY commended, for managing to homogenise train companies from a diverse range of countries. But this also creates issues. For example, you’d obviously have to be a presumptuous idiot for assuming there’s a direct train from Bordeaux to Barcelona.
Like I did.
It took not one, but two connections, in France alone. From Carcassonne it was a direct jump to Barcelona. But then I needed to get the train to Lleida, where my pal Dani and his craft beer and record store were awaiting my arrival. Four trains, sevenish hours, and the heat ever increasing with each connection.
Lleida is not a tourist destination. It’s a small town in the west of Catalunya which is very agricultural and a hotspot for Catalan nationalism. It’s peculiar in a couple of respects; primarily the microclimate, which apparently has something to do with where Lleida is situated, having almost completely flat plains to the south west, and the foothills of the “Spanish Alps” to the north east.
An incredibly brief history lesson – bear with me.
Like most of Europe, Spain was an ancient Roman province. The Roman provincial capital for Spain was Tarragona, which is on the Catalan coast, just south of Barcelona. According to my work colleagues when I first taught English in a high school in Lleida when I was 21, Lleida was where Roman soldiers were posted as a punishment for misconduct. “Why?”, I hear you ask.
In the winter, a thick, cold fog descends over Lleida, and it becomes one of the coldest places on the Iberian peninsula. Spring lasts about 3 days in March as the cold then transitions into heat, which then continues to get hotter and hotter until it hits a blistering 40oC+ in August. Autumn lasts 5 days somewhere between November and October and again, the perishing cold returns. I’m exaggerating of course, the weather does vary a little more to one extent or another, but generally, it is widely maintained that Lleida only has two annual seasons of remarkable extremes, at least by Iberian standards, with ludicrously brief transitions in between.
Even though I arrived in Lleida at the beginning of May dressed down to shorts and a t-shirt, sweat was dribbling down my back, and running deep into the crevasse of my arse cheeks long before I even exited the train.
It’s also peculiar, the tricks the mind plays and how memories become distorted over time. The main street in Lleida runs from right next to the train station to the other side of the centre of town where Dani’s bar is situated. In my head I always think it’s a ten minute walk. With luggage, in the evening, when you also forget where exactly the bar is and have to ask directions, it takes a good half hour and change.
Beleaguered, sweaty and thirsty, I presented myself at Dani’s bar for a beer and a catch up.
Little did I know, my trauma was not yet over.
“I have good news and bad news.” said Dani.
“The good news is you have a room and a bed, that’s all fine. The bad news is Idurri is also on the way.”
I had no idea what an Idurri was or what an Idurri would entail, but soon I would find out.
There are forces in nature that defy explanation, forces that really cannot be controlled and must be allowed to simply function.
Six hours later, and three hours later than originally planned, Idurri whirled and clattered into the bar.
Armed with nothing more than a small diving bag, and a glint in his wild eyes, loaded with intent.
Yesterday night, a friend used one of the best expressions I have ever heard to have come out of lockdown.
The Tyranny Of Productivity.
By now, we’ve all probably come to terms with thinking this would be a time of personal growth and worthy pursuits, only to discover that really all we actually like doing is sitting on our arses as their size increases exponentially.
If you have found something to do that makes good use of your time, well done. Realistically though, if you’re reading this, it’s because like me, you’ve got nothing better to do.
This morning, Facebook decided to show me what I was doing a year ago.
A year ago, I was in Bordeaux halfway through my trip across Europe from Denmark to Spain. As I travelled, celebrating my freedom, and lamenting the attitude instigated by Brexit back home, it had seemed like a great idea to write as I went. The problem was blogging every day, felt kinda like, you know. A job. Fun became work. And again, it turned into what can so succinctly and accurately be described by my friend:
The Tyranny Of Productivity.
As the days in Europe went by, I became less and less prolific. Days between posts became weeks. And so productivity was replaced with guilt.
A thousand months ago, with Coronavirus looming, as it became clear we were all going to be at home for a while, I looked forward to having time to write again. No job to go to. No excuses. But again, the first week came, and I had done nothing. The second. The fifth. I knew there was no point forcing myself to write.
Instead, I drank and I watched things. Because that’s what I do.
And I really enjoyed it.
Over the past weekend however, lockdown weekend number eleventy-twelth, I decided I wanted to write again. Not that I had to, but I wanted to.
………And then Facebook reminded me my blog had got as far as Bordeaux, and the rest of Europe was waiting.
Bored in Bordeaux
Another element of that lamentable breakfast in Normandy that had made me want to scream till my head exploded was asking the dad for advice.
Kim had been concerned about my decision to stay in Bordeaux on the way to Catalunya. She felt there wasn’t much to do there.
The purpose of my trip was to revisit all the places in Europe I had worked or studied and Bordeaux was where I had spent a summer at a French language school during my Undergrad.
At 19, it was my first real opportunity to visit Europe alone, and my first time meeting real live Europeans in a consequence free and liberated environment.
In short, as you might imagine, it was a wonderful summer.
But if there’s anything I’ve learnt, the romantic nostalgia of a wonderful experience once upon a time has no bearing on the realities of the present day. Maybe Bordeaux would be terrible by myself. Maybe Kim was right.
And so, me and Kim asked the dad where he would stop off between Paris and Barcelona.
However, after he’d listed the virtues of every city in France between Normandy and Corsica, I was nowhere nearer to a useful answer, and decided to stick with the original plan.
Bordeaux would be my first opportunity to spend time alone, which, thanks to the party in Normandy, seemed like a wonderful proposition. It was the first time it began to dawn on me that constant travel and meeting new people is incredible, right up until when it isn’t.
So as the high speed train left Paris and headed south, with my accommodation all booked for one, I looked forward to drinking wine and dining all by myself for a couple of days.
It is peculiar dining by yourself. It’s amazing the conclusions we all jump to about people eating alone. But I was happy at the prospect. I wouldn’t have to spend hours agreeing on what to eat, or finding the compromise that suited everyone’s wine preferences at the table.
This is how I felt, right until I entered the first restaurant. It was Saturday night in Bordeaux and everywhere was booked. I finally found a Thai place with a table.
The unbearable bullshit of solitary dining combined with my neuroses began before I had even sat down.
Which way to face. Where do you position yourself on table with four seats and one lonely bottom. If you look into the restaurant, you end up probably staring awkwardly at the other dinners and feeling really conspicuous. Alternatively, as I chose, you face out the window with your back to the crowd. No intrusive and patron distressing eye contact, but it doesn’t matter, as you still feel really conspicuous.
I glued myself to my phone, for the most part to convince the other diners, who let’s face it, gave zero fucks, that I was incredibly popular and had loads of friends. I also did it because it’s actually pretty boring eating by yourself. Mercifully, meals do not take long though. It’s pretty much down to the speed at which the waiters can bring you the food.
Having finished dinner, it was time to do what I had been looking forward to since before I’d even left home, chiefly getting drunk by myself on fine wine.
Finding a wine bar in Bordeaux is very straight forward. Actually getting inside one on a Saturday night is virtually impossible. After trying three different places with no luck, I gave up on researching great wine bars and decided to find the next place that would serve me alcohol.
Of course that wasn’t before I had tried to exit the final wine bar, squishing the female owner between me and the door frame. I had just finished being told there was no seats. As I decided to leave, she decided to walk out the door on my blind side. The door frame was not big enough for both of us.
I will never really know the look she gave me as we both occupied the doorway, because she was scowling directly at the side of my head with no sight. But as we both wriggled free, I caught a glance off her that definitely told me to go fuck myself.
It’s weird being blind in one eye. I’m not disabled enough for people to go, ah fair enough, he’s special. They just assume I’m an idiot. They aren’t necessarily wrong.
And so escaping wine bars with angry, small servers is how I discovered the craft beer scene in Bordeaux. Bars filled with beards, tattoos and taps. I had found my people.
The next shock came in realising that after burning the candle at both ends for the past month I was ready for bed at a very civilized time. Again though, the beauty of this was that I was no longer at the mercy of anyone’s judgement. It didn’t matter that I was travelling through Europe and should be grabbing every opportunity to live my life to the fullest. Instead I could be in bed by midnight sleeping life to the fullest, no one would be any the wiser.
I woke the next day, feeling fresh and wondering what tedious middle aged adventures I could embark on. I began by not leaving bed until pangs of hunger made it impossible to stay there any longer.
I left my air bnb and marched into town, grabbed lunch and went to the tourist office to investigate wine tastings, discovering I would have to wait till the next day. I headed back the way I had came, and drank wine in a small sunny square. After passing a few hours in this fashion I decided to nap then head out for dinner. And so it was I enjoyed Bordeaux, alternating between eating, drinking and sleeping with no interference from others who had the intention of sharing annoying little things such as “opinions” or “ideas”.
After three days had passed, two things had become clear. Bordeaux was as pretty as I remembered. Kim was also right, it was a terribly boring place, and I am stuck with the realities of being an extroverted introvert – People are the worst, but I hate being by myself.
I booked my trains to Lleida to meet up with my old friend Dani.
When I was 16 I read Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin
school for my French A-level.
I don’t really remember much about it, except that the protagonists Therese and Laurent, who had committed murder, were trapped in a squalid little Parisian home with a cat that just kept staring and meowing at Laurent. Eventually, the cat got booted out a window. Furry little Francois represented guilt as a theme, so he got hoofed.
sitting in a beautiful flat in Paris with a city of possibilities
right out side my door. The only thing trapping me is my laziness
brought on by too much drinking in Brussels over the weekend. My only
company is a cat called Ninja.
The cat will not stop staring. Perhaps this is just what cats do in France, be it in literary or real life terms. They stare at you, and force you to think upon your sins. Well Ninja, perhaps the window for you too.
I have to be here, this is where I live.” Ninja says.
this isn’t going to write itself, cat, although I wish it would.
Of all the places I have visited thus far, Paris has stolen my heart the quickest. It is like no other capital city I have been to or lived in. Unlike London or Tokyo, which overwhelmed me due to their size and frenetic energy, Paris feels completely manageable. Perhaps because its centre is still ornately beautiful, or perhaps because I’m not immediately immersed by frantic crowds, I feel content and comfortable in a city I barely know.
On arriving at the train station, I grabbed the subway to Odéon to meet my friend Kim. When we first lived together in Brussels I had no idea how posh she was. Now, as she takes me into her family home, it begins to dawn on me that perhaps not everyone in Paris lives in a huge multi bedroomed flat that is of the classic Parisian style, with high ceilings, cornicing, marble fireplaces and shuttered doors that lead on to a balcony over looking the street from every room.
pause and take in my grand surroundings. I have gone from naught to
Paris in the blink of an eye. I struggle to hide my excitement.
I haven’t seen Kim since she visited me about six years ago, but she hasn’t changed a bit. Except that instead of getting into a career in politics and diplomacy as was planned in Brussels, she’s now retraining in medicine. Either way, she’s sharp as a tack and the fact she can pick and choose such illustrious careers is remarkable.
to her medicine degree she is predominantly busy during my time with
her, which is a shame, but as she hands me a spare set of keys to a
flat I have no right to live in, it feels as though she is handing me
the keys to Paris itself.
the time I arrived from Brussels it was already late, and Kim has
studies the next day. We share a quick catch up beer and turn in.
The next day, after a very lazy morning, I head out to find coffee and a croissant. If you are wandering around the 6eme arrondissement, be careful. This area is the heart of Paris. The cafes are infamous as the meeting points of the revolutionaries that stormed the Bastille, or the hang outs of the philosophers that, in the way that only the French can, chain smoked cigarettes and agree the most pragmatic view of life is that it is of no consequence, so it’s probably just as useful to light up and order another glass of wine.
Now though, this means a coffee and brioche in one of these famous cafes is worth about 12 euros. I can assure you, there is no pastry in the world that I am comfortable paying this much money for. And so, my search for coffee and breakfast desserts continued.
After eventually giving up on finding anything worth eating at a reasonable price, I have lunch overlooking Pont Neuf and head back to try and catch up on some of the writing I should have done a week ago.
I wake up from a nap and stare at the empty laptop screen, I realise
it is approaching 7pm and Kim is walking in the door.
to get some din…” she begins
I cut her off, closing the computer screen over and grabbing my coat
and wallet in one swift movement.
neighourhood, it turns out, is in fact filled with places to eat that
are all excellent and priced appropriately. I am just terrible at
looking. But then again, that is why I try my best to only stay and
travel with natives. I hate being in a place and not having the cheat
settle on crepes, which traditionally is washed down with Normandy
cider. Over dinner Kim informs me we have a party to attend the next
night. Also in Normandy.
go for a stroll and Kim’s experience as a river boat tour guide
comes into play. I’m definitely staying in Paris with the right
Tuesday rolls around and it’s still up in the air if we’re actually still going to this party. Kim explains it’s the 27th birthday of a course mate. Apparently the guy is super cool and a DJ in his spare time, we’ll have a whole house to ourselves and we don’t need to bring anything, as there are beds for us when we get there. It sounds pretty good, and I’m looking forward to meeting a group of young French doctors.
After picking up a bottle of rum, we meet her pals in Paris who are driving up. I suddenly remember that I am in my 30s, and they most definitely are not. I also have a degree in French, but I completed it 14 years ago, when the people in the car were realistically about 12 years old. As we begin the drive out of the city, the two other students in the car begin quizzing each other on medicine. In French. It slowly dawns on me that, actually, unless people meet me half way language wise, this might be a tough night. With the ongoing medical test taking place up front, bizarrely I fall asleep in the back quite easily.
couple of hours later I surface to discover nothing but rolling green
fields, cows and trees around us, and grey menacing clouds hanging
low in the sky. As we arrive in the small rural village, it crosses
my mind that this may be the French answer to Deliverance. Certainly,
without a lift home, we are stranded for the night. Before I go any
further, I’d like to quickly state that the family that welcomed me
into their home in Normandy were the loveliest, most hospitable
people you could ask for. And yet.
the night of the of Tuesday, 6th June 1944, a vast group
of Allied soldiers undoubtedly spent one of the worst nights of their
lives stranded in Normandy. No way home, but just the hope of
surviving the night, and eventually seeing their loved ones again.
this wet, cold evening, it was very easy to relate.
folded out of the car and were taken into the house we would be
staying in. I met a couple of additional students who politely said
hello, reminding me yet again how much older I was than everyone else
at this shindig.
As we walked into the building it became apparent there were some serious renovations being done. “Unfinished” would be the most accurate term to describe this house. “Cold” also kept echoing in my mind. I dumped my bag in the upstairs bedroom where there wasn’t a single stick of furniture, but simply rugs and mats on the floor. I looked over pensively at Kim, wondering if perhaps she knew something I didn’t. I managed to snag the one fold out bed, and assumed duvets and pillows would be provided later, but not wanting to look rude or high maintenance, I said nothing and followed the group to another house.
were greeted by children and adults. I was at a family get together
where food was being served and I didn’t know a single soul. A cold
sweat took hold as I realised this was my world for the foreseeable
future. My grip tightened around my bottle of rum. I had to drink my
way through this.
In total there was a mum and dad, two baby sisters, the birthday boy and about 10 other students. They all knew each other and were sitting around the kitchen table chatting politely and drinking fruit punch. After putting in some serious groundwork with the dad, I started on the punch and hoped my awkwardness would not become apparent. As the evening slowly dragged on, the family, including the birthday boy all disappeared, leaving me, Kim and the other students to our own devices. Someone suggested a board game. I was over joyed at the prospect, having come all the way to Normandy, with no escape and a level of French too basic to understand the intricacies of a French parlour game. I opened the rum, found apple juice and limes and made brown sugar syrup.
After the kids turned their noses up at a treacle cocktail and returned to fruit juice lightly mixed with low levels of cheap alcohol, my heart began to sink.
Eventually, and thankfully, the board game came to an end. The birthday boy ushered us back to the first house undergoing refurbishment, and I began to cling on to the distant hope that this would be when the party might begin. As we entered, the kids all began to take position around the dining room table, and pulled out a deck of fantasy cards. These twenty year olds had all happily finished my rum before I got a chance to do it any serious damage while neglecting to bring anything to drink themselves. I did my best to hold back the waves of tears eager to escape my face, and opened a remarkably cheap bottle of terrible red wine.
As far as I cared to tell, before the final remnants of my interest were beaten to death and left to die cold and alone in that fateful Normandy village, the game was about werewolves that villagers had to catch before they killed everyone. I was handed a card identifying me as a werewolf. Fuck, I thought, this probably means I’ll have to talk to people.
The dungeon master or game leader or whatever the fuck began talking, at great length, setting the scene in archaic French. If only I’d wasted my uni degree 14 years ago focusing on niche medical vocabulary and dungeons and dragons. Sadly though, I hadn’t.
was talking. So much talking. All the kids were creating elaborate
strategies and lines of questioning to establish the villains of the
game. As far as I could tell, there was very little drinking taking
the hours rolled on and I wondered if there would be much point
stabbing myself in the jugular with the cork screw as sadly I was
surrounded by med students who annoyingly would probably only save my
life, I looked up to catch the gaze of Kim, who I realised was as
horrified by the predicament as I was.
had a team meeting, just the two of us and worked out what to do
Instead of being truthful and admitting we were bored to the point where ritual suicide seemed like a nice way to spice up the evening, we claimed we were tired and escaped upstairs to watch Netflix.
were still no duvets or pillows, just thin white hospital sheets that
the kids had stolen from their placements.
I lay fully clothed, shivering, lying under little more than an
oversized handkerchief, Kim asked me if I’d mind getting the
earliest train home, which meant getting a bus to the station at
about 8.30am. I enquired if there might not be anything leaving
slept for two cold and dreadful hours and sprang out of bed at 8am,
running out the door as quickly as our frozen legs could carry us.
Our haste was pointless, as the bus still refused to be scheduled any
earlier. We slowly ambled back to the first house in the hope that
the breakfast we had been promised might have some kind of
I’m going to go ahead and say it. Europeans are fucking shit at breakfast. And this was the shittest yet. I had slept two hours, meaning my French and my patience were wearing thin, and now I was back to hanging out with the parents and having to be unbearably polite in a foreign fucking language. The mother offered me bread she had baked herself. I said that would be lovely, and as I turned around was presented with the blackest, driest, hardest loaf of nightmares that I had ever seen. Every bitter bite became more sour as I watched the lovely French baguettes make their way to the table after my desperate attempt to be kind.
I gnawed on my bread, wondering just how much longer I could hold my shit together, when mercifully, Kim announced it was time to go. We politely made our goodbyes, and in need of showers, sleep and any kind of meaningful stimulus, dragged our fatigued bodies to the bus stop.
every mile the bus put between us and the night we had had, warmth
and laughter returned. This would be the second time in three days
that arriving in Paris would bring nothing but joy and happiness to
my heart. Kim claimed she would never leave Paris again. I could see
Alex is finishing up
work for the day on Thursday and instructs me to meet him at Place
Place Du Luxembourg is the square outside the front entrance of the European Parliament. When we had been doing the stage there, from every Thursday onwards this would be crowded with trainees and parliamentary assistants enjoying happy hour, and then the many other subsequent hours that seemed happy thereafter.
Considering how many
trainees and assistants there are between all the European
Institutions, the square would be literally filled from one side to
the other with young and remarkably attractive Europeans. And
somehow, me. In fact towards the end of our traineeship, Brussels had
been forced to re route buses, as negotiating the throng had become
far too difficult a task.
For that reason it
was a bit of a shock when, as I walked towards the square at about
5pm, the place was empty. Alex messaged to say his work was closer to
Troon, the metro stop from where I had just came. I cursed Brexit for
destroying everything good in this world, and made my way back.
I had been looking
forward to seeing Alex, not just because he is a dear friend, but
because if I ever needed genuinely informed insight into the
political situation in Belgium and beyond he always had the answers.
I also wanted to understand the effects of Brexit, first hand, on
this side of the English Channel.
Last time I saw Alex
he had visited me in Scotland and was the assistant to Seb Dance, a
Labour MEP who now lives in infamy as the man brave enough to call
out Nigel Farage for being the lying, rubber-faced chew toy he is
during a committee meeting. Viral doesn’t cover it.
To my horror, the
first effect of Brexit hit home when it turned out Alex was no longer
in that previous job role, but had changed career to consultant and
lobbyist. He had jumped the gun and left Labour, knowing his job
would be coming to an end in March. But it wasn’t, was it, and Alex
was dismayed, when yet another Brexit extension was put into effect,
this time till Halloween.
“And not the last,
mark my words.” I’m informed.
In short, my idiot
Brexiteers, the May government has made it clear they do not want a
hard Brexit. It’s not happening. Chiefly because they know it’s
disastrous and a ridiculous thing to aim for. Everyone knows this.
Except Brexit voters, who let’s face it, know very little outside
their tiny spheres of pointless existence. The sooner we just revoke
Article 50 and do what the British are amazing at, specifically
moving on and pretending bad things never happened, the sooner we can
all get on with our lives.
(I just like to add
that May resigned yesterday. I’m confident in saying which ever
lunatic put in to replace her will either destroy the UK, or won’t
be able to break their way out a wet paper bag. Either way, yet more
Although he doesn’t
mind discussing it, Alex informs me he’s tired of the entire
discussion. I can only imagine, so I let him off the hook. We go for
Lebanese for dinner, where I am rudely reminded of another side to
Alex, the human hoover.
Alex has eaten at this restaurant before so I let him take the lead ordering us a number of tapas style small plates to share. The devious bastard suddenly takes a fond interest in my life, how I’ve been and how the trip is going. I suddenly realise that all the food is disappearing at a stupefying rate, as he looks up and asks another question. Not this time Alex, not this time. I dive into the remainder with a fervent vigour.
Like all good
friendships, after a few beers it’s as if nothing has changed. We
reminisce on the stage, and plan the rest of our weekend.
And, so it was, that
I was forced to attend a low division Belgian football match. And I’m
pretty sure I did football wrong.
For a start, Saturday was cocktail day, when I chose to make my Belgian inspired Negroni. I may be wrong, but I always understood football was to begin with piss warm weak lager and smashing up a bus stop.
We instead settle
into our second Negronis as I finish editing my video, and try and
steel myself for what is to come. It is not yet midday, and we have
skipped straight to the late night spirits. So far actually, I’m on
What else wins me over is that the game is taking place in Bruges, which if you haven’t been, or seen the film, is an absolutely beautiful medieval town in the north-west of Belgium. It’s also where the College of Europe has one of its campuses, where Alex studied after the stage.
I get a fun day of
tourism, I tolerate the tedium of a football match. Could be worse.
It gets even better. In Bruges, we meet a couple of Alex’s pals and retire to a craft beer bar, as we await the arrival of a few more. Belgian beer is amazing. Craft beer is amazing. Belgian craft beer is very delicious. Up until my time in Belgium six years ago, I had been happy drinking normal lager like everyone else. In attending a beer festival in Leuven, I discovered how great beer could be.
And so, I have had Negronis, Bruges and craft beer. If all football days were like this, I could be a convert. The last of Alex’s friends arrive and they all seem completely at odds with my experience of football, certainly in Glasgow, perhaps because they can cope with conversing using words and coherent sentences. A far cry from the sectarian, “stabby” lunatics I’ve become accustomed to, these football fans are all charming and erudite, friends Alex has made over his 6 year career in Brussels. The company is good, and the beer is excellent. At this point, I’m actually ready for football.
But then, football
The trip to the
football stadium was by taxi, and as we disembarked, I wondered where
all the crowds were. We bought tickets and made our way into the
I noticed a couple
of things upon arrival. It was remarkably cold and I was horribly
under dressed. Also, for a professional game of football, attendance
In fact, in a
stadium that could house close to 30,000 football fans, it seemed a
push to suggest there were more than a couple of hundred in our
Songs then started.
Songs I did not know. And songs I had no idea how to blag. I awaited
the laminated handout containing lyrics and sheet music but to my
horror it never came. How people learn these songs without rehearsal
and music to follow is beyond me. Still. We could drink beer in the
stands, which I understand is another no no in the UK. So well done
For some, 90 minutes is a rather short period of time. To me, it felt as though time stood still. People scored goals, it was hard to follow. To be honest, it looks like TV coverage is far superior to being there in person, those camera guys are way better at following the ball. Plus TVs tend to be in really warm places.
I must say the fan base of Saint Gilles were a very upbeat group of people. I don’t think they stopped singing for the full game, while the supporters of the other side, confident of their team’s superior football skills, seemed to stir very little in their sporadic groups throughout the rest of the stadium.
By the end I think I recognized a couple of the chants. I didn’t know the words but made noises that sounded about right. No one seemed to care.
By the end of the game, it looked like our team were pretty bad at football. The other team were two goals ahead. Pretty low numbers considering both sides had had 90 minutes to have a go at it. Plus, at this point, our team suddenly decided to begin participating. Which makes you wonder what the point of all those other 80 minutes were.
As I understand it, what happened next wasn’t very normal. Our team decided to score a goal in the 82nd minute. Then they scored a second one in the 90th minute. Now I was pretty sure everything was supposed finish at that point. Certainly I’d hoped so. But apparently they get another five minutes, probably because football seems to never end. Anyway, our team Union Saint-Gilloise decided that this was the appropriate time to just win the game, so we could all go home. So they did.
Due to boredom, but
also because I just had a weird feeling about it I actually managed
to film the last goal getting scored, here it is.
I’m sure if I
liked football, or understood it, or liked the team I was there
supporting, this would be ace. Actually, joking aside, I’m pretty
chuffed I got the goal on camera, clearly everyone thought it was
excellent. Meanwhile next time, I think I’ll bring a scarf.
We wandered back to
the train station and picked up some terrible Belgian lager on the
way. This felt more appropriate to the sport we had been watching.
I’ve been sitting here while writing this trying to remember what
happened next, but it’s all a bit blurry. We definitely got the
train back to Brussels, but after that I really don’t remember what
Anyway, the next day
was one of brunches, hangovers and shandies, so it was probably fine.
The train to Paris
was to be mercifully short on Sunday night, but sadly convincing
Belgian people in customer service to be of any use has always, in my
experience, been impossible. Because I got horribly lost, I missed
the first train I was attempting to take.
I was then informed the next one was full. With an hour to kill before a third train that I actually managed to book a ticket for, I went and waited on the platform anyway. Upon enquiring, a train guard informed me the first train I’d enquired about was not full, seats were available, but I’d have to go and buy another ticket.
There is a point,
when, if a human asks you for something that it is well within the
remit of your job to perform, you should do it. Furthermore, you are
well within your rights to go out of your way to help those people,
especially if they are friendly and polite.
Belgians do not feel this way. Belgians seem almost honour bound to do the exact opposite of what would make the situation better for everyone involved. It genuinely feels like some kind of cultural knee jerk reaction. I am not a fan. My next stop was Paris. How bad could the French be?
In every country I
revisit, there always seems to be one key element I always forget. In
Belgium, it is how remarkably terrible the weather is.
I arrived at Gare Du
Midi under heavy clouds and a drizzle that was almost depressing
enough to remind me of home. Perhaps worse, because the weather
really seems to make people here more miserable.
My pal won’t be
done with his work for a couple of hours, so I make the decision to
retire to the nearest suitable bar and find a Belgian beer to drown
the rain in.
Still trying to
remember my way around this city, I push through Saint Gilles to find
a suitable candidate. Through error and rough guessing, I suddenly
land on an area that makes memories come rushing back.
Looking out across
the city shrouded in grey cloud and damp mist, it’s impossible not
to think of the European institutions, given that Brussels is the
EU’s seat of power. Belgium was pretty much picked by the major
powers by throwing a dart in a map. Germany looked at France, France
looked at Germany, and they both settled for literally the middle
ground that was fought over throughout history.
Given the size of
the Belgian war memorial dedicated to the soldiers that fell in two
world wars, it also hits like a rock, why Europe sought to tie itself
closer together, rather than push itself apart.
With that thoroughly
sobering and miserable thought, and the weather doing it’s best to
worsen my mood further, the urgency of that beer begins to augment. I
march back into Saint Gilles.
The six months I
lived in Belgium were probably some of the most exciting of my life.
Believe me, that was not because of Belgium. How I ended up a trainee
at the European Parliament is still totally beyond me. Everyone else
there had political affiliations, or had come from other impressive
traineeships or degrees. My boss at the time who selected his short
list had followed only one criteria. He wanted a native English
So low had the
applications been to the traineeship from the UK, even I stood a
chance. No wonder the UK has such a cringeworthy and ignorant
relationship with the rest of Europe. While the majority of other
nations across Europe see the value and purpose of what the EU does,
the UK’s media, desperate as ever to shift newspapers, as page 3
tits and yet more exposed paedos weren’t doing the trick, ran a
contrived and ill informed smear campaign against the faceless,
unelected elite of Brussels who apparently spent their time and our
money masterminding the correct angle at which a banana should curve.
Of course newspapers
shift when they cause outrage. But there was one tiny, insignificant
problem with the UK’s opinion of the EU.
It was all complete
Let us begin by
evaluating how anonymous and impenetrable the nefarious goings on of
the EU are. During my time in the press office my job was to write
press releases. Shocking, I know.
important, I was a trainee working for a Dutch guy with an incredible
career history of war correspondence and Dutch broadsheets. He
handled the stuff that mattered, I picked up the scraps.
And what might you
assume we did with those press releases? Every single committee
meeting, of every single committee in the European Parliament, that
debated and amended every single report and directive that came down
from the European Commission was analysed, read over and compiled
into a no-nonsense, easy to read press release, then put on the
parliament’s website for everyone and anyone to read. Oh, yeah, and
they were translated into every European language that each press
release was relevant to, with English being the core language every
press officer worked in.
Why does no one know
what the EU does? Because they don’t look.
It is thoroughly
indicative of the small minded stupidity exhibited by every Brexit
voter. Let me give you an example.
A few months back,
right wing news sources reported that the UK car company, Jaguar,
decided to close its factory doors in England, and move its
operations to the Ukraine, for cheaper over heads, and because of
financial incentives from the EU.
As this was
admittedly a terrible blow to the UK economy and job market, I
decided to look into it myself.
Instead of finding
news sources, I went straight to the heart of the information,
tracking down the original press release from Jaguar.
It turned out, the chief reason for Jaguar’s move was financial uncertainty caused by nothing other than the UK leaving the EU. Brexit, fucking the UK economy, one company at a time.
But why read the original source material, when you can read your favourite news outlet, become easily exploited by people wanting to drive traffic to their website, and waste time directing anger in completely the wrong direction?
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with a section of the UK public. They actually believe what they are told by people who need them to read their poorly written and crass articles. Any ability to question and reason, if it ever existed in Britain, has fallen by the way side.
And, wait, it gets
better. These easily led people were then actually asked their
opinion on something they did not know or understand. And that is why
the UK is now, in a word, fucked.
Who in their right mind would ask idiots who don’t understand or work in foreign policy to decide foreign policy? More idiots, it would seem.
It’s really just a basic recipe to social unrest and mass political disillusion. Economic recession, loss of jobs, disenfranchisement, and then, the arrival of demagogues who make promises to the easily led which they can never deliver.
Why is Jaguar moving
to the Ukraine? To get the work done cheaper. That is capitalism
Why did the poor have to bail the banks out? Because someone had to foot the bill and it’s never going to be those who can avoid it. That is capitalism failing.
At no point in any
of this, is it to do with immigrants needing NHS care or setting up
shops and communities in neighbourhoods most Brexit voters have never
been to. They aren’t stealing our jobs, our jobs are being moved
elsewhere because capitalism is about creating the largest margin of
profit. Any belief that immigrants are out to get you, is a classic
example of divide and conquer. Blame each other, fight amongst
yourselves, we’ll just keep making money.
It was never the EU that imposed austerity on the Great British public. That was done by the UK’s own government. Loss of jobs was caused by austerity, not by immigrants. This was clearly stated by the government at the time, and yet here we are with the rise of the right, and all common sense being thrown out the window.
A final thought.
There was at one point, an idea for the EU institutions to introduce
a new taxation across all member states, called the FTT, the
Financial Transaction Tax. In short it was the closest the real world
came to the hopeful desire of us liberal snowflakes – the “Robin
Hood Tax”, a tiny percentage taxation on all financial transactions
performed by major financial institutions that would then be put back
in to national tax revenues. Unlike promises made by Brexiteers on
the side of the bus, this genuinely would create vast swathes of
revenue for the UK. It seems so obvious. And yet, it is impossible to
make happen. Why?
And now, the UK,
whose economy is driven by the financial sector in London, is making
a run straight for the door. Coincidence?
Who doesn’t enjoy
a juicy conspiracy theory.
Anyway, this is what
happens when I’m left with too much time on my hands. My friend
Alex is finishing work, and I think getting dinner and another beer
is a far more upbeat use of my time.
Cologne, if you’ve never been, is amazing. Although I speak with the highest level of bias you can possibly imagine.
Years ago, for
Albrecht’s 27th birthday, his friends secretly invited
me to a party they had organised in a medieval tower in a park
somewhere in the north of the city. I seem to remember being poor for
pretty much all of my 20s, (actually all of my 30s as well) so how I
managed to afford travelling out to Germany at that point in my life
is a long forgotten mystery.
Whatever the case,
one of his pals collected me from the airport, beer in hand. This is
always a novelty for anyone coming from a country like the UK, where
the punishment for drinking in the street is a beating by the
townsfolk and public castration.
The fun of
surprising Albrecht with my radiant visage was only the beginning.
The tower was three stories of DJs, dancing and carnage. How British
bombers during “the war we don’t talk about in Germany” managed
to level an entire city and miss this chunk of medieval history is
beyond me. No matter, because we trashed it that night anyway.
And so began my love affair with a northern German city. There is one problem though. Because I only have fond memories of Germany, when I return I’m forced to tackle a reality that for some reason is a genuine surprise to me every single time – I don’t speak German. A shock, but an obstacle I’m used to overcoming by making sure all Germans speak excellent English.
This time round, I
wasn’t sure what to expect, but even by the standards I’d grown
accustomed to, this week looked like a serious one. I had the viewing
party with Albrecht and his TV band the first night, a birthday party
in some high end fashion boutique on the Saturday, and another
birthday in a club that used to be a strip joint in the red light
district two days later.
On a tangent I just want to establish that neither I nor Albrecht frequent red light districts in Hamburg or Cologne on a regular and depressing basis. It seems that Germany society is doing everything in its power to reclaim the seedy parts of each city and repurpose them for more wholesome activities. Like drinking until you are sick.
The viewing party was excellent, Albrecht’s band mates were charming and personable. And even though we got home late, there was still time for Albrecht’s favourite activity. On the first night of any time I visit him we end up sitting drunk at his kitchen table drinking and smoking while having a deep and personal catch up. Since the last time I visited, Albrecht had discovered port. We were one step away from smoking jackets and leather bound chairs, or so we thought, drunk and messy at 4am.
Party number two was to me, the funniest, although upon arrival, I had no idea where the night was going. Me and Albrecht took a subway to one of Cologne’s nicer shopping districts and made our way through some narrow streets to find the boutique in question. It wasn’t so much the people or the place…. Wait, maybe it was the people and the place.
I have never
understood how or why these fashion boutiques exist. You know the
type of store – there are more staff members than items for sale,
because each piece of clothing is worth the same as a small car, loud
techno plays to remind you you aren’t cool enough to ride this
train, and everyone, and I mean everyone, is insanely attractive.
Obviously, I get that these shops aren’t aimed at me, my question
is – “but, then who?”
Where do these
people with bottomless pockets and a strong desire to spend large
sums on unique clothing come from? Because I’ve never been friends
with anyone like that. I’ve never even met anyone like that. Until
now I suppose. I just don’t understand how the business model
I felt out of place. And what made it worse was that Albrecht had suggested I make cocktails. Beforehand I had been a fan of the idea for a couple of reasons. One, I can make cocktails. And two, cocktails help you make friends. Also it meant I might be excused from having to actually converse with people which sometimes I find incredibly intimidating, especially when it’s a party I shouldn’t be at and I don’t even speak the same language. But it’s also a pain in the dick making cocktails in a place that doesn’t have a cocktail bar, and upon arrival I suddenly remembered that fact.
Again, my social anxiety was completely unjustified. Every single person there was incredibly charming, pleasant and welcoming. And luckily, the cocktail ruse worked a treat, although I can confirm that trying to make sugar syrup and transfer lime juice to a glass bottle in a kitchenette barely suitable to make a cup of tea is a fucking ball ache.
The party was moving along smoothly, then it happened. Suddenly, I became aware that all the beautiful people had disappeared leaving about 10 of us downstairs. From upstairs, flashing lights and 90s hardcore eurotrash techno started emanating at remarkable volume and frequency.
It was a photo shoot. An actual photo shoot, involving models and costume changes, and ludicrous makeup. This wasn’t just happening. It was happening to me. If they played Frankie Goes to Hollywood I was going to lose my mind. As I stood outside in the back courtyard, looking upstairs to the flashing lights and hot girl tugging around with her sequinned leotard, the largest smile crept across my face, and laughter began to eschew forth uncontrollably.
I would like to categorically state that I am being an arsehole. All those people upstairs had been really nice to me, but that didn’t change the fact that their photo shoot confirmed all my worst suspicions about photo shoots. I was thrilled that everything I’d been told was 100% true. The lights, the sounds, the super camp laughter and drinks. Drinks which were my fault, I might add. It was excellent, and one of the best things I’ve ever witnessed in Germany. It was also time to go. Time to let the beautiful people be beautiful.
Me, Albrecht and his
pal Shari grabbed a taxi to a bar for one last drink before we all
headed home. And that was when I was confronted with the sum of all
my worst fears and worries.
Albrecht had just
finished working on national TV, Shari had just begun her career as a
stand up the year before. Both their professions were going the right
way. As we talked about them and their next steps, I became aware of
a guy sitting at the bar not far from me, looking over with ever
increasing excitement and agitation.
I have worked in
bars for a long time, and I have dealt with this cartoon character a
million times. I didn’t know exactly how he was rudely going to
thrust himself upon our lives, I just knew it was precious moments
And so then, it
came. The lengthy monologue about his life and the moment he was
almost famous, only for it to fail because the world wasn’t fair.
And here he was, 30 years later, still obsessing over that moment,
knowing we should know all about it, because it’s all he’s
thought about while drinking in bars ever since the world turned
cruel. How could it not be of interest to everyone else?
When I meet someone
like this, I panic, feeling like I’m being confronted by some
horrifying vision of my future, not just for one, but two reasons.
The first is I used to play music in bands and for the longest time
when I was a kid, believed I might be famous. Luckily I think, I
don’t still hold on to that fantasy, obsessing about the one time
it almost happened. For me it never did, and I knew plenty of
talented musicians who came close and still didn’t make it. In
short, I live in the real world.
No, the real reason I fear these people with horrifying, self introspective terror, is I’d hate to be sitting in a bar by myself 30 years from now, clinging to a past that never was. It is a reminder of everything that can and might go wrong. But perhaps then these people serve a purpose; even if I never achieve anything, please, let me at least have the dignity not to ambush people drunk, desperate to make myself relevant for one more repetitive night.
Me and Albrecht ran
away to the port sitting on his kitchen table.
The third and final party was yet again, a completely different pace. It was in an ex strip club that still had all the tacky 80s red décor that, through the marvel of time being linear and trends being cyclical, had actually become retro and cool – lots of red tasselling and shiny Chinese dragon mosaics on smoke marked mirrors. What made this stranger was that a lot of the attendees were in their 40s. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just you could feel this was a special occasion away from the kids, rather than just another Tuesday night out. You’re also never quite prepared to walk into a strip club to be serenaded by a Calypso band of five white German guys in their 40s and 50s dressed in Hawaiian shirts and straw hats. Roll with the punches, I say.
Another night of
drinking in Cologne, one of my favourite things to do.
The Thursday rolled
round, and with it, the need for Albrecht to return to some semblance
of normality. He took me to the train station where I booked my train
Sitting in Albrecht’s vinyl infested flat, my hangover is making me
feel wretched and melancholy. Simple tasks seem too challenging, and
I’m thinking about copping out by ditching the laptop to go for a
stroll. I miss being in my twenties, where this would be easily
solved by some schnitzel and glass of Kolsch.
Last night I
schmoozed. Last night I also drank.
Me and Albrecht have
been friends since we were 16 and 17. Trapped in a boarding school
with other kids who in hindsight must have been sociopaths, we formed
a fast and close bond through music and well, trying to escape the
lunatics we were stuck with.
strange about a long distance friendship over friendship in day to
day life. While 17 years have rolled by for both of us, we’ve made
and lost friends, had low points and high, loved and had our hearts
broken, and while our lives have changed drastically since we were
teenagers, our friendship has still endured.
I have a theory
about this. The chief reason is that we don’t have to be around
each other the whole time. Also, as we only see each other, at best
yearly, and at worst with a gap of about three years, there’s
always news and new lives to learn. It’s having an old friend and a
new friend all at once.
Even then, this
time, Albrecht got woke. And his foremost concern, understandably
given my history of making very insensitive jokes since the first day
we met, was that I would crow, mocking him over being a snowflake.
The reality though,
is that to live in this world, and not allow that space needs to be
made for acceptance, even if I may adore saying the worst things that
come to mind, I too have done my best to adapt as a kid that grew up
in the 80s and 90s to be tolerant as well. A social justice warrior
of sorts, but hopefully with the dogged cynicism that comes from
knowing a world before everyone got butt hurt over using terms like,
well, butt hurt.
Anyway, after the
penny dropped for Albrecht that as per usual, we were pretty much on
the same page as we always had been, a week unfolded of parties,
wine, port and hangovers like the one I’m currently enduring.
Only now looking
back do I realise that every time I have visited Albrecht in Germany,
it has resulted in my sneaking into some ridiculous parties the likes
of which I would never have gone to back home.
My first trip over
was at the tender age of 16, when I went to Albrecht’s home town of
Hamburg. It was my first time to Germany, my first time to the
Reeperbahn and my first ever terrifying interaction with an overly
If you don’t know,
the Reeperbahn in Hamburg is where all the clubs and bars are. It
however is also the red light district for the city.
Given my upbringing
to this point had been in the rural Highlands, my experience of red
light districts, and European hookers, was amateur at best.
As me, Albrecht and
all his friends ventured towards one of their favourite pubs, I
became aware of a great deal of women, all wearing tight, brightly
coloured ski-pants, loitering around on the main drag. Seemed
sensible, it was a cold December as I recall.
If I can give
advice, I would say this – if a girl in a red light district
dressed in tight ski pants in winter makes eye contact with you, do
your best not to stare back. I can promise you the result of getting
your arm grabbed by a lady of negotiable virtue is thoroughly
alarming, especially when you’re only a child who’s barely even
had his first drink.
wondering how to get out of a situation like this, there are really
only two options. One is to sleep with the prostitute of course. The
other, and the one I elected to take, is to whimper, in the most
confident and manly manner, “no thank you” while desperately
tugging your arm back and scuttling off towards any other location in
the world than that street corner.
I hope she still
laughs about that moment. Maybe it was the highlight of her evening.
Actually, I probably just hope she’s alive and living in a better
world than that cold December evening.
The rest of the
night was eventful, but uneventful.
We finished up at a
Thai karaoke club, in the small hours of the morning, singing Britney
Spears to a room of slightly irritated and bored Asians.
Albrecht for such a long period of time, I have seen a 17 year old
kid getting bullied at school for making the mistake of being German.
I have seen a
student discover literature and philosophy at university.
And now in our thirties, I have seen Albrecht finally arrive at a legitimate and professional level of music. When we were kids, one of his foremost party tricks was to play the music for every level of Super Mario on piano, each track punctuated with that twinkly bit when you pick a power up as you progress to the next stage of the game. Hilarious, skilful and still one of my favourite things about Albrecht.
Now though, Albrecht
has just jacked in his last job due to stress. My father who taught
him music at school doesn’t know this, but as one musician to
another, he couldn’t believe Albrecht would turn his back on such
an incredible gig.
As you probably
know, late night talk shows in America always have a house band.
Germany also has talk shows, and also has house bands.
Over the past couple of years, Albrecht has gained some authentic notoriety in Germany from becoming the band leader for just such a show. From the kid who played Super Mario during free periods at school, to one of the two guys responsible for running an entire band for a popular national TV show. It’s a hell of an achievement, but beyond that, a hell of a transition.
Last night, I got
drunk with a group of those band members. The band is so popular,
that they tour Germany, Austria and Switzerland playing to sold out
theatres and auditoriums. Unsurprisingly, the show gets recorded and
edited down into a video for social media and beyond. Last night we
attended the viewing party for that show. How I got to be there, is a
mystery. Nevertheless I don’t question, I just go.
The show turns out
to be excellent, although my German isn’t adequate enough to
understand it all. His band mates are all absolutely delightful,
bending over backwards to include me in the evening. Take note dear
hipster music wanks of Glasgow – the ones that are the real deal
don’t waste their time pretending they’re too cool to be nice.
And as we drink the free bar in the TV station dry, the last of us
slowly peel off to head home.
It was an excellent
night to start my time in Cologne, but this was Albrecht’s final
farewell to his band mates and the show. Now he has his own music
career to think about, which is what he has always wanted to do. For
me, the excitement will be getting to see what a German pop star does
next. My friend of 17 years.
It just so happens,
that today, on the day I am finishing writing this, Albrecht has just
dropped his latest single.
The track is banging. The track is called Der Ubergang, which translates to English as “The Transition.”
When some people travel, they enter the scenario with the somewhat
understandable attitude they may never visit their destination again.
Armed with research done over a number of months, and activity
filling every waking minute of their trip, they hit the nearest and
furthest tourist attractions they can manage between the rising and
setting of the sun.
I understand the
reasoning. But to me, nothing could be more wretched. I don’t
understand being exhausted and drained by work, just to then be
exhausted and drained by a trip. When do these people stop? What’s
more, I have never felt particularly enriched from standing in a
throng of tourists, all staring and yammering, taking pictures they
will probably never look at again.
On my first day in
Copenhagen this time round, I almost felt obligated to start with
this nonsensical pavement pounding.
Tourist attraction number one in Copenhagen – The Little Mermaid.
As we stood amongst
the other tourists, gawping at a small metal statue of a fish
princess on a rock, and the standardised handpan busker thwacked his
metal drum bowl, I stood trying to find a handle on the moment and
how little I felt about any of it. Rest assured, the story of the
little mermaid has little to do with Ariel and singing rasta crabs.
Check it for yourself.
Andersen. Terrorising little children since 1805.
We had been late to
rise, and late to tourism, and we were now hungry. We swung by a
pizza place with the plan of sitting on Pernille’s balcony for a
quick lunch break with a beer.
Four hours later
with the sun still beating upon our faces I was going nowhere.
Vitamin D makes people happy. Alcohol makes people happy. Rest makes
people happy. Staring at famous sights, at best, makes people feel
like they’ve achieved something. Personally, I have come to find
achievement overrated. And so, any thoughts of tourism and sight
seeing went out with the empty beer bottles and plastic recycling. We
napped, ordered takeaway food and watched horror movies.
The heroic traveller
I had met the year before would have disapproved. She would have been
horrified. But this was nothing to do with her. This was for me.
Over the next few
days we lived with no purpose or direction. And yet, I had a first
rate guide to the heart of Copenhagen, and Denmark. One day, Pernille
said she wanted to take me swimming where she grew up. We caught a
train up to the north coast of the island to swim in the Kattegat
When a Danish Viking
wants to go swimming, you say yes. But I remembered jumping into the
North Sea on the Scottish side when I was a boy, which when you’re
five and an idiot can be fun for about three minutes, then a cold and
shivering nightmare for the next hour.
We got to the beach
and put our towels out. To be fair, the Spring sunshine was warm on
our backs, which filled me with some courage. Pernille went in first
and I watched as she made it look like she was dipping into a
paddling pool. So I followed.
The North Sea is
still the North Sea. I paddled out for a minute or two, and realised
that not only were my legs cold, but a strange ache had begun to grip
them. Two minutes later I was back on the beach sitting in the sun
again cursing her Danish name.
“It was pretty
cold today.” she eventually confessed.
Like any other week off in a city, we filled our time going out for dinner and drinks, watching films and TV and lazing about in the sun. But what made visiting Copenhagen worth every minute, was the company I got to keep. The only time me and Pernille were silent with each other was in our sleep.
Eventually my final
day in Copenhagen came, and again, suddenly, I faced the sadness of
having to leave someone great.
I love going places,
I detest leaving.
I got up the
earliest I had ever felt necessary on my trip so far, and began to
repack my life into three bags. I had a ten hour journey ahead of me;
a bus to Roedby, the ferry then train to Hamburg, and the connection
Before I had set off
on this new adventure, I had remembered the nostalgic joy of being in
Europe many times before. What I had forgotten, was the stress and
anxiety that travelling actually causes.
With every item I
stowed away, a dull sense of nervousness grew.
Pernille ordered the
taxi and we sat waiting for its inevitable arrival. I checked my
pockets; wallet, phone, passport. I was ready.
I don’t measure my
travelling in terms of destinations. I measure it in terms of the
people I meet. And on this sunny Wednesday morning, even the charm
and the humour of the taxi driver made me question my decision to
“We say here in Denmark – the USA used to have Kennedy and Bob Hope. Now they have Trump and no hope.”
A killer line and
now my favourite cabbie in Denmark. An ambiguous morning. As we drew
up to the train station I re-checked my pockets. And with the cold
sweat and panic that only such a discovery can create, I realised my
tickets were sitting safely and purposefully on the coffee table in
Pernille’s beautifully decorated home. There was a lot I could have
done without that morning, and having to immediately take another
taxi round trip to our point of origin was top of the list.
We raced against the
clock, and my teeth, hands and bottom were clenched in fearful
excitement. The worst thing that can happen to an idiot is they are
rewarded for stupidity. We made it back in time to find the first
coach had been filled to the brim and had already left, leaving a
second coach for the last five of us to take to Roedby in luxurious
space and comfort.
I didn’t know how
to say goodbye to Pernille, but we hugged. I boarded the bus, put on
my headphones and prepared myself for the jump into Germany.
Before I left, my best friend pointed out that my vanity while writing was infinitely more important to me than my writing.
Given my pre
disposed notions of travel writing, half the fun, actually perhaps
all of the fun, would be the posturing on sunlit balconies or in busy
cafes, drinking fine wine with a laptop open for all to see. Of
course, chain smoking cigarettes would be the only way to complete
that over used and tired image.
Ernest Hemingway for
a new age.
But I kicked the
smoking habit a few years back and really wanted to keep it that way.
And so my first
internal struggle of many has begun, and as she takes a long puff on
her vape, she clearly has no intention of helping.
Pernille lives in
the beautiful district of Osterbro near the lakes of Copenhagen. Her
flat is remarkable. Her flat is where adults live. I have no business
When I first met her
six months ago in the miserable November rain of a Danish autumn, she
claimed she was a nurse. Not untrue, but also, pretty fast and loose
with all the info.
She is a nurse. She
is also one of the leading researchers in ALS and Parkinson’s in
In the world.
In November, I
didn’t know this. In November, I just wanted to see if I could get
a date in a foreign country.
But this is one of
the greatest things about random meetings in random cities. You can
I had no idea what I
was getting myself into. I entered the coffee shop, late, looking
exactly like a guy who had been walking lost in Copenhagen in the
As a Scot, I am no
stranger to the rain. The rain, although not my friend, is a familiar
foe I have a well worn tolerance for. There is Highlands rain. There
is even Glasgow rain.
And then, there is
Copenhagen rain. It doesn’t just soak your skin, your hair or even
your bones. It cuts to your soul, swiping through any good humour
along the way.
But I was determined
to meet this blonde Viking, and I had the screenshot google maps to
She didn’t drink
coffee, she drank chai. She didn’t muddle through English with a
Danish accent. She spoke English with the upper class diction of a
British aristocrat. And it became quite clear within a very short
amount of time I was outmatched, outgunned and out charmed.
The first clue that
she was one of the most prominent in her field came at the end of the
date when, with all the charm and sophistication that a man who’d
been sitting in wet clothes for two hours can muster, I clumsily
tried my luck. Five minutes later I was walking back to my
accommodation in the heavy rain alone. This was not the clue.
Life can really have
a bizarre and coincidental nature if you allow it to. This was not
the end for me and Pernille, this was just the beginning.
What defied belief,
and should have made me understand a bit more about who I was talking
to, is that she would be in my home town in only four days time. Her
department was sending her, along with a group of delegates, to an
international convention on motor neurone disease. In any other
world, at any other time, I would have never seen this person again.
But life came calling.
Now it was my turn
to be difficult. When you’re in a full time bar job it’s pretty
hard to get a free moment to meet anyone who works in more
conventional careers. Their time off is my time to be neck deep in
graft, even if, like me, you try to avoid graft at all costs.
Thursday rolled around, and we couldn’t meet. Friday, she was
tired. Saturday was the last chance and I was beginning to lose
faith. But I met her and her friend half an hour before closing time
in an over priced cocktail bar in the heart of Glasgow hipster
heaven. From that point, we could safely say we were in each other’s
lives. The next morning, we discussed my desire to travel Europe. Why
not start in Copenhagen?
Me and Pernille
messaged for months. Over those months, more and more came out.
Pernille moaned about having to attend yet another conference dinner.
This time it was an international conference for leading women in
science. The good news was, at least for this one, she didn’t have
to present, and give a speech like she had the previous year. The
penny began to drop. This time, when I set off for Copenhagen, I
wouldn’t be meeting up with a nurse. This time I was apparently
meeting one of the top mental health researchers in the world.
I’ll actually be
seeing her again during my trip, when she will arrive in Barcelona as
one of her stops across Europe to present her findings to the rest of
the world’s scientific community over the coming months. In spite
of this, she still introduces herself to people as a nurse.