Alex and The Great Football Incident

Alex is finishing up work for the day on Thursday and instructs me to meet him at Place Lux.

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 vrowded 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 disaster looms.)

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.

Yes I did freeze and cut my own ice, thank you for noticing.

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 board.

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 happened.

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 stadium.

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 was sparse.

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 stand.

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 there Europe.

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.

That, is liquid football.

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 came next.

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?

The Heart of Europe

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 speaker.

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 bollocks.

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.

Sure, nothing 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 succeeding.

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?

Capitalism, baby.

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.

Drinking in Cologne

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.

This isn’t the medieval tower. But it probably looked like this.

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 works.

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.

Yes. The shop had a swing in the middle of it. Of course it did.

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 away.

Our evening was about to be rudely interrupted by my greatest fear.

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.

Something Albrecht describes as “The Champagne Laugh”.

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 to Belgium.

Cologne: Old friends and new lives.

Did anyone ever look great as a teenager?

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.

There’s something 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.

The oldest street in Cologne.

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 friendly prostitute.

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.

I don’t know. It was the early naughties.

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.

If you’re 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.

Having known 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.

It was about 2am and no one was sober.

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.

I can confirm the drummer’s hair is always that cool.

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.”

Have Sun Will Travel

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.

Hans Christian 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 sea.

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 to Cologne.

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 leave Copenhagen.

“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.

Pernille and the Copenhagen Rain.

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 being here.

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 Denmark.

In Europe.

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 meet anyone.

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 rain.

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 prove it.

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.

I love going places. I detest leaving.

Copenhagen – Osterbro

About a million years ago, when I was setting off to find my fame and fortune as a journalist in London I had a leaving party the night before.

Thinking about it now, it had been a stressful week beforehand. I had flown down to London only a couple of days earlier to find a flat. Three days on my friend Sofia’s couch in Shoreditch to go house hunting, two days back home to pack and put my life into a few bags, then off to London forever. I executed the plan perfectly. It was an absolutely horrific plan. I’m not sure how exactly to describe what transpired at that leaving party, but “spoilt teenage meltdown” comes close to doing it justice.

I don’t really know the best way to relocate in a stressless environment, but I do have a few perfect examples of how to get off to a terrible start.

I was notified I had the position in Brussels only a fortnight before the job started. It was approximately 12 days before that same job started that I discovered my passport had expired. After I’d renewed it and booked the fights, changed my entire life savings of about £500 in to euros, packed and said my goodbyes, all that was left was to entirely relocate to my new home city and find a place to live.

I’m just saying, if there’s an easy way of doing it, it still eludes me.

This time, leaving for Europe I knew one thing: there would be no leaving party. I intended to sneak out the back door. To me I was just leaving for a trip.

However, over a far too extended period of a fortnight, I seemed to be spending a lifetime saying goodbye. The stress of a leaving party, spread concisely over weeks. And so it was, I got it wrong again.

But here I am in Copenhagen, the sun is streaming through the fourth floor balcony and open door, and instead of the happiness of being about to start a new adventure, I’m sitting here having second thoughts.

I made the decision to finally leave and go wandering in December, probably by being the living embodiment of every mid 30s cliché in the book.

I had just got out of a long term relationship earlier that year, I was in a job going nowhere and suddenly I had an inflated sense of freedom, along with my usual feeling of self importance. It also seemed that everyone I was meeting at the time was travelling.

Wonderful and captivating anecdotes of the freedom of solitary travel.

One of these heroic travellers I met last year was a girl who wanted no commitment, didn’t see a future between us and didn’t feel that we should have any obligations of fidelity to each other. This wild and free feeling of complete liberty was a heady sip of wine.

But when that girl drives you to the airport months after you first met her, it’s never as straight forward as you’d hope. That had never been part of the plan. This really fucked with the plan. But that’s how plans work when they get hijacked by life. I think you can either have one or the other: A life worth living, or a set of plans. They mix as well as oil and vinegar. They jostle for position and you really have to pick one and stick with it.

And so, under a cloud of doubts and indecision, I set off for Europe.