You may have noticed I have written absolutely nothing on here since March! Excuses: personal issues, work, laziness etc. This is an indefinite hiatus.
In any case, the blog that ISN’T on hiatus is http://www.steadmanasshegoes.wordpress.com. Follow! Read! Enjoy! Or something.
NB: Those who don’t follow non-league football may want to consult the diagram below about English league structures before reading, to avoid confusion over what a Ryman or Conference league is.
It’s an understatement to say there are a few issues to resolve following the devastating floods in the south. Issues such as whether it’s worth cutting flood defence funding if the government later has to pay more for preventable flood damage, why there is funding available to help flood victims but not working families reliant on food banks, and how Nigel Farage so closely resembles a confused frog in his waders and wellies.
The effect of the weather on non-league football is much further down the list. Winter fixtures at these levels are always prone to postponements and abandonments; indeed, the first Tonbridge Angels game I attended back in 2006 was called off after 70 minutes, as the pitch was so waterlogged that the ball was literally floating. Yet these unprecedented conditions have led to a huge backlog of fixtures for many teams. Tonbridge have had to rearrange Conference South fixtures for Thursday nights because Tuesday nights are already fully booked to the end of the season.
This havoc is perilous to the finances, and therefore survival, of clubs up and down the country. We have played just 8 of the season’s 21 home league games, with many more postponed in the past few months. Consequently, with no revenue coming in, the club’s benefactors have had to dip into their own pockets to pay players. Although rescheduled weekday fixtures arguably have a better atmosphere than those on Saturday afternoons, they’re far less profitable, with crowds and bar takings down. This is bad enough for the Angels, who are solvent. Clubs with debts must be watching through their fingers.
Meanwhile the board and supporters of Maidstone United FC, Tonbridge’s rivals, must be feeling pretty smug about this panic. The club were the first in England to install a 3G/’plastic’ pitch at their ground of 2 years, The Gallagher Stadium. Where grass pitches are susceptible to frost or becoming waterlogged, plastic pitches are resilient to the caprices of the season. Accordingly, they’ve had no home games postponed this season.
Yet current rules state that these pitches are unacceptable in both the Football League and the Conference leagues, including the Conference South – the league for which Maidstone are aiming. Sitting top of the Ryman Premier table, they’re well on course for promotion this season. The Conference leagues voted to decide whether the rule should be overturned – but the result was a resounding defeat for the Stones. Their response to democracy? Threatening to sue the Conference.
But, given the weather, their arguments in favour of 3G pitches are clearer than ever. Fewer games postponed, more steady revenue, and opportunities to loan out the pitch, raking in up to £150,000 a season. Their persuasive response to the oft-made point that artificial pitches cause more injuries than grass – that there’ll be even more injuries from a three game a week, end of season fixture pile-up on grass – is even more convincing. Add to this the fact that a European Championship game between Russia and England was played on plastic, and outsiders must be bewildered as to why the Conference would turn down the proposal.
While there is little doubt at this level that 3G pitches are the future, it’s not as simple as it sounds. For a start, they’re not cheap. The FA gives out £150,000 grants for sustainable pitches, but they cost nearly half a million pounds to install, while necessary maintenance costs stand at over £100,000 a year. The cost of installing a pitch in the short term is far more crippling to teams than a few months of precarious weather. It’s not a debt that can be paid off quickly, either; Maidstone are making a profit of just over £180,000 a year from their pitch, but this is with average crowds of nearly 2,000 a game and a league-winning side. They still have debts of over £3.3 million, £2.8 million of which was accumulated on the stadium, to pay off. A change in financial circumstance could destroy the club – a club whose predecessor was wound up in 1992 for bankruptcy. Should the rules remain, they can only be promoted if they groundshare a grass pitch; previous groundshares have seen their crowds dwindle to a tenth of their current average.
Secondly, for as long as artificial pitches are unacceptable in the Football League and ‘proper’ rounds of the FA Cup, they will continue to be in the Conference. There is no point having a vote, or now a lawsuit, to overturn rules in the Conference if in a few years the same argument will need to be had all over again so the Football League will accept them.
Finally, until the threat of injury on them has been assessed long-term, there looms the threat of lawsuits from injured players that would further deplete a club’s finances.
Besides, despite their reasonable points, Maidstone have approached this unreasonably. Aside from shunning democratic decisions, they knew when installing their pitch that it was only acceptable in certain leagues: that they have waited to consult the Conference until the season in which they could have their promotion blocked is madness. As such, their righteous indignation at choosing between stagnation in the Ryman Premier or groundsharing evokes little sympathy.
Their lobbying group, 3G4US, also has dubious ulterior motives. While it has the support of 50 clubs across the football pyramid, one of its chief endorsements comes from FieldTurf, a company specialising in artificial pitches. It takes little effort to imagine the profits that they would make from the leagues embracing their wares.
I have no doubt that 3G pitches will become acceptable soon, as clubs such as Merthyr Tydfil and Harlow Town jump on the plastic bandwagon. But ultimately, the Conference and Football League need to work together, over a sensible timeframe, to work out the logistics and consequences of implementing this change. Until this has been achieved, Maidstone will have to grit their teeth and realise they should have looked before they leapt.
Could Russell Brand’s Parliamentary revolution be achieved through slashing the cost of a candidate deposit?
In 450 days, you will have the power. It will be the first time in 5 years that you’ve been truly empowered. You will be able to change your community, your country and perhaps, just perhaps, the world. Your vote counts.
Just kidding. If you live in a ‘safe’ constituency and vote against the grain, your vote will achieve precisely nothing. Even in a marginal constituency, you only have power if your townspeople share your ideology and vote with you en masse.
Crucially, the idea of voting having any power relies on there being a candidate you can support, for the most part, both in their local and national policies. Many voters feel they have no choice but to vote for established parties, as there seem no other credible options, but many more will stay away from the polling booth, disillusioned with the options available. If no-one is speaking for you, why bother to vote? 25% of voters in an ICM poll in December named the lack of a party that reflected their views as a reason for their apathy towards voting, while 26% answered that the parties were so similar that it doesn’t matter who you vote for.
This “to vote or not to vote?” quandary has reached new heights since Russell Brand’s call to arms on Newsnight went viral in October. He demanded a revolution of not voting, as voting supports wilful financial inequality and greed, but has faced criticism in the media for failing to articulate what this would achieve, or what the next steps should be. Comedian Robert Webb responded in an open letter on the New Statesman website, counter-argued that by not voting, you support these things anyway. Those either benefited by the current government or too naïve to see that they are being failed by it will vote anyway, and your boycott will go unnoticed. Essentially, all that will be achieved by not voting is that the status quo will be maintained. He suggested that the only way to stop the current government was to vote Labour.
But this is no solution. Voters are wary of the previous administration’s legacy, particularly the Iraq war and economic mismanagement. Rightly or wrongly, history usually comes into a voter’s decision. How many voters won’t vote Tory because of Thatcher’s politics, or Labour because of Blair? How many voters are dissuaded from voting at all because the only two parties likely to win a majority are tarnished by track records of greed, incompetence and failure?
In addition to historical baggage, parties often hinder progress, especially in effectively two-party states. We see this in America, a country almost brought to a standstill by the Republicans’ refusal to cede ground to the Democrats on the national budget in October. In the UK, meanwhile, each argument a politician cannot counter is petulantly rebuffed with “It’s all (the other party’s) fault”, meaning the problem is rarely addressed – and even more rarely solved.
Surely the answer is to vote in more independent candidates. By avoiding the tit-for-tat playground battle of Tory v Labour and the necessity of toeing the party line, independent MPs can spend more time meeting local residents, hearing their concerns, and addressing these issues. In session, they can speak freely without fear of rebuff by the party whip, or being undermined by members of their party if their voters want something that doesn’t sit with the party ethos. They become accountable only to their constituents.
Yet independent MPs are a rarity. Despite predictions of independent success at the 2010 General Election, only one of the 334 independent candidates who stood were elected (Lady Hermon, in the North Down constituency), and the few already in Parliament were ousted. While several minor party candidates snuck through – most notably, Caroline Lucas – it’s not a promising sign that independents are few and far between in the House of Commons, even after a potent political scandal like Expensesgate. But George Galloway’s utter annihilation of Labour’s majority in the 2012 Bradford West by-election suggests there may be a way in, especially in the constituencies most disillusioned with major parties.
Perhaps these figures could be improved if more independent candidates were encouraged. All that stands between you and running for Parliament is a £500 deposit that is reclaimed only if a candidate receives at least 5% of the vote. In a time of fragile recovery, welfare cuts (after all, the majority of those on benefits are in work) and wages failing to rise at the same rate as inflation, many people don’t have £500 to gamble with, alongside the added costs of campaigning. Campaign costs may be more offputting to potential independents, but with social media currently directing local news outlets, there are new ways for candidates to gain exposure cheaply through publicity stunts or original self-marketing concepts. There are, however, no clever ways of getting around a lump sum that is loose change to many frontbenchers, but to the average worker is not an amount to be spent lightly.
By slashing costs of a deposit, we not only encourage more people to lend their voices to disenchanted voters; we open up Parliament to intelligent, well-informed political enthusiasts who, crucially, may not have the financial advantages that so many politicians have. Opening the door to sincere, committed but less privileged unaffiliated candidates could help to form a more representative government that is in touch with voters and that takes responsibility for itself. Fewer blame games and more accountability could make for a more effective, well-respected government.
By neither explicitly supporting parties that have proven themselves failures, nor allowing those that continue to vote to maintain a status quo that, under this government, involves tax cuts for the richest, attempts to curb civil liberties, open support of privacy invasion, and propaganda that victimises the most powerless in society, in order to divide and rule, perhaps we can address Brand’s issues. It may not be the anarchic revolution his rhetoric suggested – but it may be a successful, representative one.
Quite possibly the best series ever. The top 3 seeds are the 1st, 3rd and 5th highest-scoring contestants ever, while all 6 octochamps scored over 750 points (averaging over 90 points per game). And that’s not even touching on the contestants who DIDN’T make it; Zarte Siempre was on for a 900-scoring octorun until he was paired against the now highest-scoring contestant ever, while several other contestants fell after a clutch of impressive century-scoring performances. Every finalist has been practising frantically since they finished filming… so it’ll make for an interesting series finals to say the least.
1st QF: Dylan Taylor v Gemma Church (12th December)
2nd QF: Jen Steadman v Callum Todd (13th December)
3rd QF: Glen Webb v Jonathan Liew (16th December)
4th QF: Bradley Cates v Alex Fish (17th December)
1st SF: Winner of 1st QF v winner of 4th SF (18th December)
2nd SF: Winner of 2nd SF v winner of 3rd SF (19th December)
Grand Final: Winner of 1st SF v winner of 2nd SF (20th December)
For the past 14 years, the Steadman house has been a temple of gerbil worship. Twelve gerbils, spanning five generations*, have been the focal point of both the lounge and family relations. They’re the everyday staple of conversation when perfunctory topics such as home and school have been exhausted, while the experience of watching television involves one eye watching the screen and the other to its left, from where sounds of scurrying emanate and furry little silhouettes ghost about in a luxurious 3-foot tank. (*None related; we stuck to same-sex pairs because baby gerbils are a whole new level of responsibility – sometimes when the mother is startled, she turns cannibal on her babies. Not nice.)
This may seem odd to an outsider; cats and dogs are usually ‘family’ pets. They’re the ones who roam freely within the house, bothering everyone, in full view even when asleep. Gerbils, as with other rodents, are more commonly the pet of an individual, hidden away in a plastic cage in a child’s bedroom. But not here. They’re primarily my dad’s responsibility: he feeds them, cleans them, coos at them loudly when I’m trying to sleep. My mum, more detached from them, is nonetheless their ambulance when a trip to the vet comes around. My brother will snatch moments of interaction with them and, when called upon, looks after them. I’m just the one who bothers them and burdens them with the minutiae of my melodramas.
All their lives have had funny, adorable, touching and heartbreaking moments. All have had little quirks only noticeable to those who study them day in, day out. All have been loved in life, and mourned in death. But Polish and Pepper, the fifth generation, were very special indeed.
Back for Christmas after my first term at uni to a gerbil-less house, following the deaths of Toffee in June and, more recently, his brothers Fudge (October) and Caramel (November), my dad and I went to the local garden centre’s pet store area, ostensibly ‘just to look at the animals’. This is like a reforming alcoholic going to the pub ‘just to look at the spirits’; he’s not going to stay reformed for long.
Inevitably, we looked at the gerbils, and the two little furballs in the middle cage caught our eye. One was black, the other dark brown. One of them – my dad insists the former, I think it was the latter – somehow managed to scramble her way up their water dispenser until she was on top of it. This was a breathtaking feat of gerbil tekkers, something that neither I nor my dad had seen in our 11 years of gerbil-watching, and something that I still cannot comprehend the logistics of. In any case, this made our minds up once and for all, and we toddled off to my mum’s workplace guiltily, to get her assent to buy them. She gave it. It would have been futile to resist.
The pet store put them in a cardboard box with air holes, as they had done with all our gerbils. Except these two were not content to merely scamper about confusedly – instead, they scratched about as if trying to escape, and tried to nibble their way out. This was to become a lifelong habit for both of them. As soon as the lid of the tank was off, one – or, when at their most devious, both – would clamber up to the raised cardboard tubes they would play in, and peer out inquisitively. When they were in the travel tank, a small plastic cage used only for when they were being transported to my grandparents’ house for a holiday or when the main tank was being cleaned out, they would stand on top of their sleeping tube and launch themselves off it, with a view to headbutting the ‘hatch’ in the centre of the lid. They’d mischievously (and correctly) identified the hatch as the roof’s weakness, and escaping through it as their best chance of escape. People laughed when we said they were intelligent, but they really were.
They shared other personality quirks too. Both were selective about food, and liked to kick undesirable bits of their gerbil mix out of the food bowl, before sitting in it…
…They were extremely inquisitive, and enjoyed peering out the windows in their viewing tube to see what we were doing, both individually…
…They also liked their corner tube, whether standing on it…
…or hiding in it…
…They liked the competition of seeing who could get to the food first, although the loser of this competition would often ruthlessly squash her sister in her quest to stuff her face…
Although I was away at uni for half their lives, I felt closer to them than any previous gerbils. Where all our previous ‘generations’ have had one outgoing gerbil and one shy one, ‘Polly’ and Pepper were equally friendly and docile, meaning we handled them more than any of the others. When I was miserably homesick in the first year at uni, and more broodingly so in the second year, my parents would send pictures and updates about ‘the little girls’, and even once a month put them in the travel tank and show them to me on Skype. This was usually reserved for days when they were being cleaned out, but occasionally happened for special occasions, including my 21st birthday. Sadly this was the last time I saw Pepper, who died suddenly and unexpectedly a few months before her third birthday and a few days before I was due to return home from uni for good. I was devastated; she had always been slightly more friendly to me than Polish had, and as such I felt slightly ‘closer’ to her.
Gerbils are extremely sociable animals – any pet store that sells them individually is doing their job wrong – but also very territorial. Putting together two adult gerbils that don’t know each other is a recipe for disaster that will often end violently. So Polish was now deprived of her sister and playmate, who she loved to play-fight with in the day but cuddle up to at night, with no hope of a new one. As a result, she became grumpy and anti-social.
To counteract this, my dad embarked on a mission to handle and play with her more so that she wouldn’t feel lonely. Recently reinstalled in the family home, unemployed and miserable about developments in my personal life, I found myself spending a lot of time watching her, talking to her and stroking her (far more effective and adorable than a stress ball). Over time she became even more tame than before, although no less eager to escape, and proved that you can teach an old gerbil new tricks; she is probably the only gerbil to have ever sent a text (my dad held his phone out to her, she leant her paws on it and in doing so tapped out a message of ‘Lhd D’, whose meaning has yet to be deciphered), though her attempts to escape by trying to crawl up my arm were unsuccessful. She also spent her time watching me on Countdown, coming out while my parents watched my games on TV and peering up at the screen intently, and developing a months-long obsession with apple oats (a delicacy of porridge oats mixed with apple puree).
Sadly, no good thing can last forever. Gerbils fade very quickly once they become ill: although seemingly in perfect health on Tuesday, her condition on Wednesday evening made it clear she wouldn’t be around for much longer. But this was a gerbil who in three years would not be swayed from her tendency to try and escape, no matter how many times we told her off or tried to shoo her away from sticking her nose out of the top of the tank. She would not give in.
No matter how weak she was, she kept moving around the tank, spending time in her favourite places – the apple oats bowl, the viewing window, the standing-up tube – and, while my dad and I thought that we’d seen her alive for the last time on Thursday morning, she not only made it through to the evening, but made it through to Friday morning too.
She’s at peace now, and if a Gerbil Heaven exists (and I hope it does), I hope she’s sharing the joy of apple oats with Pepper. I will choose to remember her with this image…
…and the two of them together with this one.
RIP girls. You were wonderful xxx
“Patriotism is not enough”: Depictions of Englishness in Late 20th Century Fiction and ‘Cool Britannia’ Rhetoric
In 2002, English novelist Hilary Mantel opined that “The English sense of identity is beginning to fracture” (104). Following a turbulent century in which the British Empire disintegrated, widespread immigration to the UK saw a newly multicultural society rocked by racial tensions, and the British Parliament devolved powers to independent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish regional parliaments, a drastic shift in perceptions of national identity was inevitable. Critics, as a result, have widely agreed with Mantel.
Despite this alleged fragmentation, a cultural movement espousing a nationalist agenda emerged during the 1990s. Referred to as ‘Cool Britannia’ in the press from 1996 onwards, it celebrated homegrown successes in the arts. Several of the scenes under the ‘Cool Britannia’ banner accrued distinct genre tags prefixed with ‘Brit-’ to highlight their nationality; ‘Britpop’, the rock music scene of the time, and ‘Britart’, work by the period’s clique of artists that rose to prominence as a result of Charles Saatchi’s ‘Young British Artists’ exhibitions, are two of the most well-known examples. Such was the influence of this movement that New Labour, following their landslide General Election victory in 1997, sought to rebrand Britain on the strength of it. This initiative sought to reinvent Britain’s image overseas by rejecting outdated, heritage-based signifiers of British identity in favour of a more modern depiction of what Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, described as “a dynamic, self-confident, outward-looking society, proud of its place as a leading partner in Europe and a pivotal nation in the world” (Ward).
However, in spite of the movement’s support for British contributions to popular culture – almost exclusively English contributions, a confusion to be critiqued in due course – contemporary English literature was alienated from the movement. Accordingly, it has largely been overlooked in literary scholarship thus far. Yet the movement’s promotion of an Anglocentric agenda brought discussion of contemporary English identity to the fore, making it relevant to ongoing critical debates about national identity. As critics of both contemporary literature and ‘Cool Britannia’ agree on several key issues – including the aforementioned confusion of ‘Britishness’ with ‘Englishness,’ thereby reinforcing English domination of British identity, and the problem of exclusivity posed by the existence of a homogenous ‘English’ identity – there is clearly scope to fuse these debates and consider the two fields in tandem.
This paper will attempt to bridge the gap between these two areas of scholarship by examining London Fields by Martin Amis and England, England by Julian Barnes alongside key works from the ‘Cool Britannia’ era and contemporary journalism. In doing so, I will compare the ‘Cool Britannia’ depictions of England and English identity with those portrayed in late twentieth century literature. I will argue that literature was alienated from ‘Cool Britannia’ rhetoric because the latter’s proliferation of reductive forms of English identity sought to promote a coherent, reified English identity, whereas Barnes and Amis used postmodern theories and techniques to challenge both established signifiers of Englishness and the notion of national identity itself. These two ideologies were therefore not only disparate, but incompatible.
Neither author was aligned with the ‘Cool Britannia’ movement; indeed, London Fields was published in 1989, long before ‘Cool Britannia’ emerged. Nevertheless, its appropriation as a major inspiration for the Britpop band Blur’s 1994 album Parklife – the first ‘Britpop’ album to push a coherent English agenda into wider public consciousness – proved that Amis’s ideas on national identity were as relevant in the mid-1990s as they were at the tail-end of the 1980s.However, the distance maintained from these ideas allowed them to use satire to exploit and undermine flaws in the traditional English identities, such as those advocated by the movement. These flaws include the lingering taint of Imperialism, the tendency to marginalise communities outside of London, and the tendency to reduce English identity to lists of disparate signifiers.
My argument will be developed over three sections. The first section will establish the ‘Cool Britannia’ depiction of English identity using political, journalistic and musical rhetoric from the 1990s, as I believe they were the three most influential sectors to proliferate the myth of ‘Cool Britannia’. The following sections will focus on outlining the ways in which late 20th century English fiction questions the English identity projected by ‘Cool Britannia’. The second will examine how Martin Amis’s London Fields distorts established tropes of English identity, particularly class-based stereotypes and the centralisation of London, using an unreliable narrator and narrative fragmentation. In this section, Parklife is used to illustrate how the ‘Cool Britannia’ celebration of London, which endorses its centralisation, is at odds with Amis’s vision of the city. In the third section, England, England by Julian Barnes will be scrutinised in tandem with Mark Leonard’s 1997 pamphlet Britain™: Renewing Our Identity, the primary inspiration behind New Labour’s ‘rebranding of Britain’ policy. This section discusses the notion of English identity as a global brand, replication and authenticity, using Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra and simulation to argue that the replication of stereotypes associated with Englishness projects a depiction of English identity with no basis in reality.
It is important to clarify my definitions of ‘Cool Britannia’ and ‘Britpop’ in advance. The Oxford English Dictionary Online defines ‘Cool Britannia’ as a cultural movement associated with the perception of “Britain… as a stylish and fashionable place, esp. (in the late 1990s) as represented by the international success of and interest in contemporary British art, popular music, film, and fashion” (‘Cool Britannia’). While I largely agree with this definition, I will challenge one detail of it. I would suggest that the time span specified be widened to include the early and mid-1990s, as the different scenes that comprised ‘Cool Britannia’ developed at different rates. ‘Britart’, for example, gained popular momentum from 1992 onwards as a result of the ‘Young British Artists’ exhibitions – the very name of which suggests a collective British identity. ‘Britpop’, on the other hand, had originated in the patriotic manifesto originally embraced by the bands Suede and Blur in 1992 as a reaction against the pervasive American ‘grunge’ culture, but did not reach mainstream public consciousness until August 1995. The early 1990s are, therefore, crucial to the accumulation of patriotic sentiment that resulted in the construction of an overarching ‘Cool Britannia’ rhetoric.
While ‘Britpop’ has sometimes been used to describe British pop music generally, it will here describe the 1990s rock music scene that, despite its name suggesting a scene encompassing Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish artists, consisted entirely of English bands. The bands who most vociferously endorsed an Anglocentric ethos in the press and their lyrics were Suede, Pulp, and Blur, whose support for the English cause manifested itself in a trilogy of albums from 1993 to 1995 whose lyrics consistently centred on the minutiae and absurdity of English life. However, the most successful of these was Mancunian quintet Oasis, whose 1995 album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? is, at the time of writing, the fourth biggest-selling British album in UK history (Lane).
With the exception of Pulp, preeminent Britpop bands invariably featured all-male line-ups. Yet women were not necessarily excluded from the Britpop narrative. Several successful bands, including Sleeper, Echobelly and Elastica, had line-ups that were either female-led or female-dominated. Yet ‘Cool Britannia’ became associated with ‘lad culture’ – a phenomenon fuelled by the popularity of ‘lad’ magazine Loaded magazine, launched in 1994. Sheila Whiteley suggests that:
The media focused more on the regional rivalry between Oasis and Blur, stressing a musical family tree which was rooted in territorial fraternalism. As such, its female bands, Elastica, Echobelly and Sleeper could only be relegated to second-division players if Britpop was to retain its identity. (271)
She also points out that the objectification or overlooking of women in ‘Cool Britannia’ was “partially rescued by the Spice Girls’ girl-power fun feminism” (271), although the band’s divergence from the Britpop sound – that of “guitar-led groups… drawing on specifically British influences… such as the Beatles, mod [and] glam rock” (‘Britpop’) – would arguably prevent them from being considered a Britpop band.
While Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Tessa Jowell’s dismissal of the ‘Cool Britannia’ in 2001 explicitly marked the end of New Labour’s exploitation of it (Laughlin), the movement had fizzled out long before this. John Harris suggests that Britpop had collapsed by late 1997, as Blur had abandoned their support of both New Labour and a pro-English schema, while alternative music journalism began to focus on more musically iconoclastic bands such as Radiohead and Spiritualized (Harris 347-8). Both this and the post-General Election disillusionment felt by the pop cultural press with Tony Blair by 1998 (Harris 358), whose administration had been bound up in ‘Cool Britannia’ discourse by its propaganda efforts, resulted in celebrations of nationality in the press beginning to wane. Following the failure of New Labour projects intended to help ‘rebrand’ Britain, such as the Millennium Dome, Tessa Jowell summarised that Cool Britannia “failed because it did not realise that ‘our national culture is something amorphous, something changing, and something complex’ defined by and open to external influences” (Laughlin) – a statement that, I believe, fairly reflects the limitations of attempting to comprehensively define national identity in a tumultuous period of history.
 Prior to the election, the party associated themselves with some of Britpop’s leading figureheads to appeal to younger voters. Examples of this, such as Damon Albarn of Blur meeting with Tony Blair at the Houses of Parliament in 1995 so he could be cajoled into supporting the party in the media (Harris 196-200), are outlined in more detail in John Harris’s comprehensive guide to Britpop, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock.
 This is not necessarily an exhaustive list. At times, national success in sport also contributed to patriotic rhetoric, particularly during the England-based UEFA European Football Championship in 1996.
 In 1995, rival Britpop bands Blur and Oasis released singles on the same day in what became known as the ‘Battle of Britpop’. The polemic potential of the bands’ disparate backgrounds, satirised by Pat Kane as “North against South, middle against working class, fops against thugs” (15), sparked a media frenzy.
PREAMBLE: Finally! The long-awaited finale that everyone’s been waiting for.* (*Forgotten about because I got employed pretty much as soon as I got back, and as a result haven’t got round to copying it up until over a month after we got back.) To jog your memory: we have been followed through parks in Amsterdam by strange men who want to show us something, almost mugged in Berlin by people pretending to be mute, pulling off toilet seats in bars in Prague, watched on the toilet by an entirely unexplainable picture of a horse in Krakow, leched on by fat men in the baths in Budapest, and probably banned from Vienna for the rest of our lives due to our terrible singing of ‘Vienna’ and ‘Edelweiss’. I left our heroes at the Opera House in Vienna, with just 5 days of their trip left, but several cities still to see. But first they must remain alive in Vienna, where a terrifying presence awaits them later that night…
14th September: Kebab-Pizza Palace, Maria Hilfer Straße, Vienna, 17:33
Last night saw both extreme enjoyment and extreme fear. The former came in the shape of the opera, something I never thought I’d be converted to – how wrong I was While female opera voices are still a little shrill, Carmen’s absolutely banging soundtrack meant that it was not only bearable, but enjoyable, while the costumes, scale of cast (there must have been about 50 people singing on the stage at certain points), and voice control left us awestruck. It’s a great story, too; even though the typical virgin/whore dichotomy with Micaela/Carmen and the moral of the story that being a saucy wench will end badly are now outdated, post-Sexual Revolution, that’s not really the point, is it?
Turns out you genuinely can reserve your standing spot with a scarf (or a ribbon, in my case) – an excellent tradition that I don’t think could be successfully implemented in England. The provision of little fold-out translators underneath the bar in front of you was useful not only for hanging these on, but also for, y’know, translating the lyrics so you can follow the story. We were standing in the centre at the front of the parterre, and probably had better views than some of the viewers who’d spent a hundred or so Euros on their seats – those 3 hours of queuing paid off nicely. We were joined by a man with the deepest voice known to man; a voice so deep I giggled whenever he squeezed past and growled “Thank you” in a way that would well befit a villain. Sadly, Combover Guy must have been standing elsewhere.
However, later that night at the hostel, a presence less adorable than Combover Guy and more chillingly villain-like than Mr Deep Voice awaited us. At 2am, as we were settling down to sleep, a rattling key in the lock heralded his coming, followed by a slam of the door, a clink of keys as they landed at my feet and the pressure of a book resting on the bit of duvet over my foot. I had something he thought was his – my bed.
The bed I lay upon. The bed I’d strewn with my belongings before we’d left that morning, so that no-one could usurp it. The bed he’d removed everything from, and replaced with a bag of reeking clothes and a Bible. The bed he seemingly hadn’t realised I was trying to sleep in, having thrown his belongings on an unoccupied bed by the window in a fit of pique that someone should steal my bed.
Fearing his obliviousness would linger until he tried to climb into that same bed, Emily alerted him to my being there: “Excuse me – my friend’s up there!”. I stirred, to see a man in a green t-shirt much older than us, as he purred “Sorry – I was told two British girls left this morning.” He spoke quietly, and paused between sentences, in a vaguely unsettling way. Finding my courage, I brusquely replied, “Well, we haven’t.” Worried he would stake a claim to the bed I’d slept in the night before, I prepared to defend it. Yet he made little fuss and so, out of politeness, I responded to his questions. They were questions we’d heard from travellers in every city we’d been to – at first, at least. His name was DP, apparently, and he came from Bromley. Emily ruined my plan to give him false names, though he seemed to think her name was Amy anyway.
After these relatively normal beginnings, the conversation went off at random angles, into a series of haphazard topics including Princess Diana, free press, and the abundance of psychotherapists in Munich. These subjects began to loop, to our sleep-deprived confusion. Was he really asking us for the second time in five minutes if we’d been to Munich? Did he think we’d teleported while he wasn’t looking? Was he really oblivious to the fact that, with one eye open, head lolling on the pillow and feigning my best ‘tired’ voice, I was trying to sleep, and really couldn’t give a toss about Princess Di?
But these questions went unasked, as we listened to his steadily more crazed ramblings. “There are people from all over the world, downstairs,” he said, “Is it a UN conference?”. We pointed out that, in a hostel, you tended to meet people from every continent. This was not to his liking. “I’m not being paid to talk to foreigners,” he spat, “I’m not an MP.” We soon found out that this was the tip of a xenophobic iceberg. His quiet, venomous mutter of “Should’ve been a Nazi” convinced us that we were sharing a room with a psychopath and would be lucky to see daylight again.
The thought of sleeping near a Bromley-born Hitler was too much for Emily’s constitution to bear, so she played dead. This lumbered me with the sole responsibility for fending off the questions of a madman, my pulse throbbing with fear all the while. “Have you got boyfriends in Venice?” he asked. “Do you want to see a weird text I received the other day?” Reminded of the guy who’d followed us in Vondelpark in Amsterdam, wanting to show us something, my fight-or-flight mechanism kicked in. “No thanks, I’m off to sleep now. Goodnight!” I told him quickly but firmly, before rolling over to face the wall. And, as Emily turned off the light, that should have been the end of that.
Except DP did not like the dark, and was reduced to ripping open the curtains and staring out the window. As a siren wailed in the distance, he murmured, “So many illegal things going on in this city.” (Laughable – Vienna is the safest city I’ve ever been to.) Bored of his musings, he proceeded to bang, crash and wallop about the room, attempting to make his bed, and furiously, repetitively muttering, “Where does this go? Where does this go?”. After five minutes of his insane rambling, I was tempted to shout “UP YOUR ARSE, YOU INCONSIDERATE PRICK!!”.
His customarily noisy walk to the bathroom only got noisier once he’d reached his destination, as he began to shout “I’M NOT A JOURNALIST, I’M AUSTRALIAN!!” to himself. Emily and I instantly, simultaneously looked out the side of our bed, looked at each other, and whispering “OH MY GOD, HE’S CRAZY!” in terrified unison. As the door unlocked, we flopped back into feigned sleep again as he started a new cycle of “Where does this go?”.
Emily, who clearly had some kind of deathwish, took pity on him and made his bed for him. I meanwhile was busy fearing for my life and working out a self-defence plan. This primarily involved genuinely contemplating sleeping with my rape alarm in my hand, lest he forget which bed was his and try and get in mine. Decided against it in case I rolled onto the chain and pulled it off in the night, treating everyone to a chorus of noise.
Bed successfully made, the light was once again turned off, and we prepared to actually sleep. Of course, this was merely wishful thinking. He offered us water, which from anyone else could have been a pleasantry, but from a man whose face I suspected could be the last I ever saw before being SAVAGELY MURDERED, it was simply terrifying. He turned the light by his bed on, and – proving that ‘DP’ rhymes with ‘creepy’ for a reason – proceeded to sit bolt upright in his bed, watching us.
My terror had nullified my need to sleep for about an hour now, but finally I heroically gave into slumber. Emily, a far lighter sleeper, was not so lucky, and had wait for DP to briefly leave the room so she could ssprint to his bed, turn the light off, and dash back to her own bed lest he catch her. When she woke, he was sitting in the bed, still upright, still watching us.
Opening your eyes to find someone else’s staring at you, inches away, wide-eyed and manic, is the stuff of poor horror movies. It was also the stuff of the next morning, when – upon opening my eyes – the first thing I saw were DP’s eyes, peering at me through the slats of my bed. “Have you seen my socks?” he hissed menacingly. Stifling the urge to scream, I squeaked out a no, fearing that I would pay for ignorance with my life.
Emily also experienced this rude awakening. For when she opened her eyes, minutes later, she too saw her life flash before them as he crouched, leaning threateningly close to her, and desiring an answer to that fateful question. “Have you seen my socks?” Although I was too afraid to get out of bed, I was heartened to see that the other beds in the room were occupied by some Australian boys – who, it later transpired, had been snubbed by DP as he didn’t like their accents.
He left not long after this, apparently having found his socks in his suitcase, and having filled in a feedback form which he’d left on the table. Emily kept it, as its text was proof of his madness. In addition to stating, for no apparent reason, that he was part of the ‘humane race’, he answered the questions thus:
What was the best part of your stay?
“Unsure but as if [sic] lost a pair of socks in transit from one dorm bed to another, but ‘found’ them again in my suitcase, without having recall of sequence of events fully surrounding this matter.”
What could be better?
“Unsure exactly if press free. UN, MP, MEP would really be interested in this matter. I have prayed for good outcomes.”
To be fair, Emily thinks he probably had Aspergers, and I don’t want to further stigmatise mental health. But even if that was the case, he was still bizarre. (And hilarious – we’ve spent the whole day staring at each other ominously and whispering “HAVE YOU SEEN MY SOCKS?” on public transport, much to the confusion of fellow travellers.)
We worked off our remaining terror by taking shelter from the pouring rain in Starbucks again (more beautiful employees were working there today, none throwing straws though) and copying up my blog/updating our journals. When it dried up, Emily went for a free cycle and got pulled over by the police for cycling in the wrong lane. Naturally, I did not take up the offer of a free cycle – partly because it would have made me a huge hypocrite after spending half the trip planning new and unusual forms of torture for the many cyclists who’ve tried to prematurely end my life, and mostly because I haven’t cycled since some hellish misadventures at Center Parcs in 2010, with a bike whose chain seemed determined to fall off at the most inconvenient of moments.
After this, we headed off to Stephensdom Church (very pretty) and Schönsbunn Palace (utterly gorgeous). Mid-jumping picture outside Schönsbunn, I became aware of another tourist jumping with me. Amused by their daring, I turned to see what my new friend looked like. Imagine my surprise when it actually turned out to be an old friend – Adam, who had been one of my co-holidayees on my post-A level results trip to Croatia three years ago!
Following a long catch-up that relayed the horror of our DP experience in full, ghoulish detail, we bid him and his travelling companion farewell and sat in the gardens so I could hastily scribble out a postcard to my parents (I’d kept their postcard from Budapest to myself), before heading back to Westbahnhof to find cheap food. The only downside of my pizza was that a glob of extremely hot mozzarella fell on my hand and SCALDED IT.* (*Emily would like to state that this is an exaggeration, and it just made my hand a little bit red for a few minutes. But it hurt 😦 )
Time to go – the guy on the till looks grumpy that we haven’t paid and left yet.
A Jen who HASN’T seen your socks
18th September: Café Bazar, Salzburg, 11:15am
Since my last update, I have run out of money, been to a beach (at last!) and caught hypothermia. Ok, the last one is a slight exaggeration, but barely – since coming north from Venice to Munich and Salzburg, it has become bitterly cold. Not to mention it is currently raining on a scale that suggests a Biblical flood is nigh, and those treasuring their lives should find an acquaintance with an ark.
We are in Salzburg for a day trip at Emily’s ‘Sound of Music’-loving behest. I’ve seen enough of the film to surmise that it consists of a bunch of singing children, a singing Julie Andrews and some edelweiss. However, this is precisely why it is not at the top of my ‘To Watch’ list – children are bad enough, but SINGING children are on a whole new level of evil. (Though I’ll make exceptions for Aled Jones and Michael Jackson.) Emily pranced about at the scene of the ‘Do Re Mi’ song while I tried to negotiate a camera and an upright umbrella simultaneously, which is more difficult than it sounds. After she took a few photos of me looking grumpily sodden, we decided that we would have to decamp to a local café or succumb to frostbite. I miss my winter coat.
As ever with foreign trips lasting over a week, the closer we get to going home, the keener I am to get back. Living out of a backpack with 4 outfits on rotation is not a lifestyle I could lead for much longer. I long for a room to myself, solitude, my laptop, my lovely gerbil, my wardrobe and being able to ask for tap water in restaurants without causing offence. I especially long for being able to go a day without spending any money; Venice cleaned us out.
The trip to Venice started well; we slept well on the night train, in a compartment we shared with a group of very friendly middle-aged Argentinians. Their English was very limited, and our Spanish virtually non-existent, so we communicated in single words and, when that failed, gestures – but even if we didn’t always understand them, we enjoyed their rowdy, excitable chatter. There’s something so aurally cheerful about the Spanish language. (Emily bumped into them again when wandering round Venice, and they greeted her with typical enthusiasm.)
But it was about to get worse. After trapesing the streets, churches and ferrybuses of Venice for 6 hours to fill the pre-check in time, we arrived at the hostel and I tried to pay my 60 Euro bill for the two nights… only to find my travel credit card rejected. Perhaps not a surprise – I had a rough estimate in my head of having around 100 Euros, but the mess of different currencies on the trip had ruined any plans for budgeting. It’s hard to keep track when you’re constantly trying to convert currencies in your head, especially when their conversion rates vary so wildly.
So I gave the woman at the desk 20 Euros and tried 40 on the card. When it was rejected again, I was taken aback. Less than 40 euros?? Christ. Time to borrow 20 off Emily, and try 20 on the card, before ringing home to get my finances supplemented….
Rejected again. SHIT. The woman on the desk glared at me as I flapped helplessly, completely unable to comprehend where all the money had gone, regretting the £18 bar crawls in Prague (especially the one that ended prematurely) and the overpriced Cream Coolers in Starbucks, before Emily nudged me aside to pay on my behalf while I frantically texted home and waited for reinforcements to my bank card. So this is what it’s like to have a card rejected, I thought.
It took a long and aggressive kerfuffle on the phone between father and bank to get more money on the card (we’d been misinformed when buying it – turns out you’re not allowed to get a third party to top it up), but it was eventually successful, while my search for notes in my bag was fruitful as I discovered a trove of 60 euros in one of the ‘safe’ pockets in my bag. 150 euros on my card, and 20 in my wallet, should have kept me going quite steadily on the fiscal front.
That is, until I reneged on my “let’s not go on a gondola, I can’t afford it” pledge the next day when Emily pleaded with me to go with her. Ah, the joys of tourist traps – the privilege of telling people I’ve done something entirely clichéd was worth 1 Euro per minute each. It was alright, but the cost made me feel pressured to enjoy it, which nullified what would otherwise have been a fairly relaxing experience. Now I’m down to my last 30 Euros (again), I have to say that I regret splashing out on it.
We’d been to the museum in St Mark’s Basilica on the Sunday after arriving, while a service was occurring downstairs; the sound of the congregation singing had really added to the experience. Everywhere else, however, was ludicrously expensive and suffocated with tourists, so we went to the island of Lido in order to pay a visit to Santa Maria Elizabetta beach, the only one in Venice. After initial reluctance, I unbuttoned the bottom of my dress, tied it up like a sarong and went paddling up to my knees. Emily went for a proper swim and, while getting changed afterwards, accidentally flashed a granny, who judging by her grin enjoyed the view.
We then got to the serious and mature business of drawing things in the sand with our toes. Having already paid tribute to DP on the night train with a biro-drawn heart tattoo encircling his name on my arm, we drew a heart in the sand and dedicated it to him. Emily wrote her name, while I strived for originality and artistic skill, opting to draw a sandy penis outline. (Some things never change.) We then moved on to writing ‘Interrail’ (Emily) and ‘952’ (me, in honour of my Countdown glory); on having the latter photographed, I thought it would be hilarious to spontaneously throw my dress up and give the camera a cheeky glimpse of my bikini bottoms. The granny who’d admired Emily’s errant cleavage grinned again at the sight of my swimwear-clad pudenda. I’ve had so little sexual attention on this trip that I’m inclined to count that as such.
Decamping to a restaurant soon after, I satisfied my craving for calzone on one the size of a very tall, thin baby. Although it hasn’t wiped out the memory of how glorious Zizzi’s calzones are back home, it was extremely nice. We planned to spend the evening on the canal, drinking wine. Yet it was not to be; the goodwill from both the calzone and a hysterical laughing fit on the ferrybus back to the hostel (caused by Emily taking a picture of me pulling the single most horrific face known to man) was ravaged by a fiasco with the Countdown series finals tickets, so I decided it was better not to inflict it on the outside world. As it turns out, we wouldn’t have been able to drink the wine we’d bought in any case, as we’d slightly overlooked the need for a corkscrew.
The gondola expenses wouldn’t have totally unbalanced my bank account had it not been for us being royally fucked by the Italian train ticketing system the next day. It turns out that, for the privilege of SITTING ON AN ITALIAN TRAIN, we had to pay a surcharge for the first time (night trains aside). 7 euros for a 5-hour train from Verona (our stop-off point) to Munich was reasonable, but 18 euros for a 1-hour train from Venice to Verona?! Fuck RIGHT off.* [*NB: You can tell that the whole money issue had made me quite grumpy.]
Verona was fairly pretty, but the postcards were terribly tacky; covered in gaudy love hearts and single-minded in their quest to promote the city’s legacy as the setting of Romeo and Juliet. We eventually found ‘Juliet’s house’ with its balcony, statue of Juliet and trails of ivy growing up the walls. It was nearly as busy as St Mark’s Square in this little courtyard, stuffed with people queuing to have a picture of themselves groping Juliet’s metal tit and grinning lecherously. We decided to forgo this classy and mature tradition and instead have pizza for breakfast instead – “When in Verona”, etc. It was all going so smoothly until a mysterious 4 euro charge for ‘coperto’ appeared on the bill. Fearing we’d been charged 4 euros for the breadsticks we hadn’t asked for or eaten, we asked the waiter who’d ignored us for ages what it meant. Shouting “Coperto, coperto!” and looking exceptionally moody, he gestured at the small print in the menu declaring a 2-euro service charge per person. If Italians could charge you money to breathe their air, they would do.
We encountered another grumpy man on the train, this one dressed in hideous waterproof camping clothes. He disappeared from our train carriage for around an hour but, having left his rucksack among us, we kindly saved his seat for him at the expense of seat-deprived youth who were far better dressed. His gratitude was manifested in snapping at Emily when he returned for her putting her feet up; I resisted the urge to snap back at him that his outfit was offending my eyesight, but we were halfway through a bingo-filled game of Scrabble and I didn’t want to fight him until I’d won. (I did, but by a slim margin.) In between Scrabbling, I heroically read over 300 pages of Rebecca (agonisingly, arriving in Munich with 5 pages to go), and almost accidentally decapitated people trying to get my rucksack down and get my iPod charger out.
The hostel was down a road opposite the station – highly convenient – and we prepared for the horror of what a 40-person dorm would look like…
…Surprisingly, it seemed ok at first glance. Although it was just one room, it had four ‘sections’ with 5 bunkbeds in each. The mattress was awful, but the other hostellees were well-behaved enough for me to sleep well after we returned from a steak restaurant where I had some cracking beef goulash (featuring what I’ve come to recognise as the best food ever – paprika). Embarrassingly, I was the noisy roommate who wakes everyone up this morning, as my alarm went off while my phone went for a game of Hide and Seek in my bag. Oops. At least it was Animal Nitrate blaring out and not Skrillex. The woken hostellees should consider themselves musically educated.
It was the showers, not the sleeping arrangements, which proved horrifying. In Venice there had been nice showers with the downside of being a) not particularly frosted on the windows and b) right in the middle of a communal bathroom shared by about 30 people. Fortunately my modesty was preserved by this smattering of frosting and people being thankfully absent as I showered. Munich’s showers, however, had no frosting, and you had to walk past them to get to the toilets. Water came through three jets and at blazing speed and force, and stopped every two minutes, meaning you had to press the hateful button again and subject yourself to further water torture. It was essentially like showering under a miniature water cannon, and about as effective and enjoyable as that sounds. The dressing room was also communal, hidden from those visiting the toilets by only a curtain, but with no curtains within to stop you revealing yourself to others in the changing room. I promptly took the chance to inadvertently flash an Australian girl, who I’d already made tentative about the experience with my tales of shower horror by assuring her it was one of the worst experiences of my life. First world problems.
Now I’ve finished my jasmine tea, and the moustachioed man in lederhosen and garters next to us has left, we’re about to flee to the station, again at the mercy of the weather.
A very soggy Jen
Later: Douche-Barn to Munich, 15:02
WE HAVE SEEN SOMETHING I NEVER EXPECTED TO SEE IN AUSTRIA. Something terrifying. Something unnatural. We have seen… Austrian girl-chavs. Clad in leggings of all sorts of hideous patterns and colours, hair bigger than Dylan Taylor’s ego and ferocious scowls at better-dressed females (i.e. us), it was just like being back in Tonbridge – especially with rain cascading all around us.
We wrote a special song for them to the tune of ‘Edelweiss’:
Austrian chav. Austrian slag,
You look unhappy to see me,
Leggings tight, make-up bright,
You look pregnant to me, to me!
Baby below, may you bloom and grow!
Your womb will grow forever.
Austrian chav, Austrian slag,
Leave your homeland forever!
On a not particularly nice Douche-Barn to München (the ‘munch’ of which has amused us nearly as much as the word ‘box’ did during our games of Crib), the toilet on which Emily fears she has contracted gonorrhoea from. Fortunately contracting an STD from an unsanitary toilet has taken her mind off sulking about losing to me twice at Crib, after a ridiculous amount of luck came my way.
View from train window is very pretty. Have concluded that Austria is allergic to both dry weather and ugliness (chavs aside).
Don’t really know what to do with ourselves now. Returning to the hostel and its rubbish Wifi doesn’t appeal, but neither does walking around Munich in temperatures of 9 degrees C and heavy rain, especially as our shoes are damp (Emily’s toes have turned a delightful shade of mouldy orange). We’re tempted to just stay on trains all day instead, but fingers crossed it doesn’t come to that.
Crib champion of the world Jen
19th September: Maccy D’s, Karlsplatz, Munich, 16:51
The end is nigh! They think it’s all over, it will be in 5 hours! And so on, and so forth. Our continental adventures are coming to a close. We’ve been in here for about three hours so far, killing time after our walking tour (led by the very amusing tour guide Diana) and before we find proper food, get the S-bahn to München Flughafen and enjoy Duty Free (without actually buying anything; I have 11 euros 50 cents left and need 2.60 of those for the train). We have spent our hours here being typically competitive; I’ve won out another hard-fought game of Scrabble 381-374, taking me to a decisive 3-1 H2H victory there, while Emily has reclaimed her Crib champion status and reinforced her devastating superiority at Speed (which I am useless at). We’re too evenly matched at Irish Snap and Rummy to declare an overall winner.
Yesterday evening was eventful to say the least. We played card games in the hostel lobby before being approached by two cute Italian guys. Sadly their plans involving us were not those of debauchery and bunk-bed-breaking passion (not that it would be easy to summon much passion in the depressing dorm, on a mattress like a crash mat with barbed wire snaking through it), but of playing Uno. They taught us the rules before swiftly regretting it, as I won twice and Emily won once. After three games of good-natured competitive banter and discussion, we regrettably required feeding, so tried out the Italian restaurant opposite the hotel.
There was a sense of déjà vu for us as its décor was Venice themed, maps of the islands and photos of an unrealistically empty St Mark’s Basilica. The pizza was nice, but the waiters, after initial pleasantness – calling Emily ‘madame’ and offering us wine and excellent breadsticks – grew suspicious of us, possibly because I had no drink with my meal. We haven’t had tap water in a restaurant since Berlin, so I thought I’d sneak down to the toilets to swig from my (very battered) Hungarian plastic bottle when thirst demanded it. The waiters, possibly telepathic, began watching us intently from then on: every word was heard, every mouthful of margherita pizza stared down. We were slightly unnervedm especially as none of the other youths dining there warranted the same beady-eyed watchfulness.
Eventually I snuck of for some water, multi-tasking by going to see what Emily promised was a rather unusual vending machine in the bathroom. Moutned on the wall there was, indeed, a vending machine offering – for the reasonable price of 2 euros – “sexy gags”. Why a ‘sexy gag’ would be required in the WC of an Italian restaurant I dread to think. It also offered ‘sexy slips, tangas and mehr’; Google reliably informs me that ‘tangas’ are underpants and ‘mehr’ simply means ‘more’. What more could a vending machine in a restaurant offer? What more would you want it to offer? So many questions, but no answers.
Afterwards, we returned to the dorm to pack our bags for our triumphant homecoming. We were interrupted by an American voice addressing us, uttering the words every woman longs to hear – “Should I wear a tank-top or a t-shirt?”. Assuring the voice’s owner that a tank-top would be wonderfully suited to the cold air outside, he thanked us and emerged, tank-top clad, arms emblazoned with tattoos, and clutching a bottle of ‘Olde English’ malt liquor, in direct violation of the ‘no drinking in dorm rooms’ rule. He proceeded to give us a lecture on the historical significance of this beer, as well as it’s ‘brass monkey’ form, in which it is mixed with orange juice. We misheard ‘brass’ as ‘breast’ and chose to refer to it thus from then on.
He disappeared to harass, in an inimitably aggressive manner, some poor American girl on her laptop in bed, while his friend Ginger Mike joined us, also swigging Olde English. He offered it to us and we duly tried it; Emily found it less awful than Mike had told us it was, while I winced so hard at the taste that Mike roared with laughter and encouraged us to drink not only more ‘breast monkey’ (even worse with orange juice than without), but also the full contents of the tiny Jaeger bottle we’d hardly touched since Berlin thanks to illness and abstention from drinking post-disaster night in Prague. He was far friendlier than his boorish friend, who with self-important zest shouted at Laptop Girl that he was about to tell her ‘the greatest story ever’ – a plan hindered by the arrival of a highly unimpressed security guard, who told them to bring their alcohol upstairs and stop drinking in the dorm. They assured him that they’d be upstairs in five minutes.
Tattoo Guy became more obnoxious when the security guard, who was of subcontinental origin, left. He ranted about his ethnicity, featuring some highly racist slurs, while Mike told us he loved us and that we were his favourite two people in the world. He had reached the state of drunkenness where kissing the top of random girls’ heads was the order of the evening, and literally tried to drag us off to meet him and Tattoo Guy’s friends, in between repeatedly trying to get us to drink breast monkey, though we refused multiple times.
We shifted towards the door, where Tattoo Guy began harassing another American, this time a native of Baltimore by the name of David. We immediately liked him for his good-natured humouring of the two drunkards, who by now had grown irritating; when Mike offered me the breast monkey for the hundredth time, I accepted it and, when he wasn’t looking, hid it behind the lockers, retrieving it only when Tattoo Guy berated him for losing it. Meanwhile Emily and I focused on bringing ‘grim’ and ‘grotty’ to the forefront of David’s vocabulary.
The security guard reappeared and kicked the lairy friends out, while giving us a sympathetic smile as Mike grabbed us and dragged us out the dorm, proclaiming that we were his ‘ladies’. Exchanging furtive glances on the stairs, Emily and I decided that meeting the random friends of a racist and an inebriate was a bad idea – especially as it would have involved getting into a stranger’s car. Once the others had released us from their grip and stumbled through the key-protected door separating the rooms from the foyer, we fled back to the room, waiting ten minutes before returning to the foyer to use the internet. Leaving the hostel to look for a club, we saw the backs of Mike and Racist Guy outside as they bothered a passer-by. Fearing they would turn round and try to force us to go with them again, we high-tailed it back to the room, where we bumped into David once more. We chatted to him about cheerful subjects including jobs, university and a heightened state of existentialism brought on by the breast monkey’s godawful taste. Finding him funny and extremely easy-going, we took him up on his offer of going for a drink before he had a Skype appointment with his ‘mom’ at 10.
Various seedy-looking casinos and extortionate bars were passed over before we came to a hotel bar with garish décor, including garish zebra-print seats and bright red walls and carpet, in which we settled. A misunderstanding led to me being bought a beer which, while still not to my taste, was at least drinkable and not wince-inducing, to the point where I finished it all by myself in between discussing accents, TV shows and David’s difficulty with finding a boyfriend in Europe due to the impeccable dress sense of continental European men. He dubbed this dilemma ‘Gay or European?’, a game that we enjoyed the idea of.
10pm rolled around too soon and, after imploring us to add him on Facebook, he departed for an internet dcafe. One of our other conversations – that of the ‘Essex girl on a night out’ look so favoured in England – had caught the ear of a nearby patron, who remarked to us that “You haven’t exactly given him the best impression of England, have you?”. Expecting him to rebuke us, he then continued, “Mind you, it is accurate…”
Despite having a perfect English accent, this middle-aged man was actually Dutch. We embarked on a discussion about the disparity in university fees and expectations between England and Holland, which may sound dull on paper but was actually really interesting – the Dutch pay 1150 euros a year for uni, but are perceived to have not finished their degrees if they don’t do a Masters, even though technically they have. He was shocked by our fees, as you can expect given the £8000-a-year difference between the two countries.
Admittedly my concentration was rather diminished by my being directly opposite a TV showing Napoli v Dortmund in the Champions League. On one occasion – a Dortmund chance – I gasped as it hit the top of the crossbar. Not seeing the TV, the Dutch guy thought I was gasping because the waitres hadn’t caught my eye as I looked in her direction, conspiratorialy whispering “She’s not the most attentive.” He seemed surprised when I told him the real reason, especially when I professed no real attachment to the game, save for a preference for Dortmund to win on a friend’s account.
We left around the 80-minute mark of the game, hurrying through the rain and back to the hostel. Emilt returned to the room first, only to be confronted by a very inebriated Australian who wanted to know her plans for the night. When she said she was off to bed, he eagerly responded, “Can I come? Let’s cuddle!”. While I’m sure a horribly ruined Aussie ‘cuddling’ with her would normally be top of her priorities (NOT), she surprisingly passed up the opportunity, preferring instead to sleep alone. The Aussie then got lairy with the room’s other occupants, including lovely David. Mercifully, security removed him and we thought we were free to sleep…
So we thought. More Australians were there to disturb the peace (I’m pretty sure that 50% of European hostellees are Australians). A group of three friends were in their beds, right next to us, making absolutely no effort to sleep, instead giggling loudly and shouting out the names of random foodstuffs. Eventually a heroic American girl shouted “WILL YOU GIRLS SHUT UP??” and, a few giggles aside, they did. I can sleep through most things, but their rowdiness was not one of them.
I also cannot sleep through multiple deafening choruses of the Champions League theme music, which some guy had set as his alarm and took an age to turn off. It was funny the first time, but the second time – at 5am – was a bit of a piss-take, as the annoyed mutterings from other beds testified.
More pressing matters were at hand, however; namely, the atrocious state of the already slovenly bathroom. It was flooded with an inch of water, the dressing room partition curtain had been torn down, one of the draining foot mats was upturned: a chaotic sight met our eyes. Not to mention that the two lit toilet cubicles were toilet paper-free and, while the unlit one did, it reeked of death and rotten things in there. For the first time in the five years since I concluded that daily showers are paramount to my well-being and personal happiness, I forewent a working, available shower and opted to look instead like an urchin with no access to hot water, soap or shampoo for the rest of the day instead. Even feeling unclean all day would be better than using those mouldy-smelling communal showers.
Then to the walking tour, where we saw the ‘Glockenspiel’ at Mariaplatz, the Old Town Hall (now a Barbie museum), a church that had been ‘built by’ the Devil, a major beer hall, and the Residential Palace, among other things. I wish I could have afforded a tip greater than 1 euro for our engaging and irreverent tour guide, but we quite literally couldn’t afford to, unless we sacrificed food and train tickets. It wasn’t THAT good.
And then onto Maccy D’s. Since we got kicked out the absintherie in Prague, I have a new-found appreciation for places that let you sit there for hours on end without being kicked out.
Scrabble champion of the world, Jen
Later: Plane to London Gatwick, 11:21pm (European time)/10:21 GMT
Home! We’re coming home! And we almost didn’t make it. The bane of our lives, finances, of course being the reason.
We’d been assured at the hostel that a train ticket to the airport was 2.60. We’d allocated this knowingly so we wouldn’t be stranded, penniless, in Germany for all eternity, even though this meant that when it came to paying the waiter in the cheapo Italian restaurant we’d ended up in, there’d been an awkward moment when he ‘jokingly’ (i.e. dead seriously) asked if he could keep the whole 10 euro note we’d laid down to pay for the 6.90 euro pizza we’d shared. I let him keep 50 cents, which he looked extremely unimpressed by – but if he wanted extra cash, why not increase the prices?
As it turned out, tickets were actually 10.40. I had a grand total of 5 euros left. Imagine the panic, especially when Emily’s card was rejected. Contemplating the possibility of being stuck in Germany forever – my parents couldn’t top up my card again – Emily then remembered she had her mother’s credit card at her disposal. While this too was rejected by the ticket machine, we knew it wasn’t because of a lack of funds: rather, the machine just didn’t like those particular types of card, and so after a deep breath we hurried to the human-operated tills and bought the tickets there. Bizarrely, the tills have a ticketed queuing system like the one at Clarks in Tunbridge Wells. Typical German efficiency, I suppose.
Hereafter followed a quiet trip on the S-bahn to the Flughafen (I was extremely shaken by the possibility of not being able to get home), during which a German guy with dreadlocks tried to coerce us to give him our tickets when we disembarked, and a fairly smooth trip through the airport. Although we were originally confused by the check-in guy’s insistence that we needed to dispense of our rucksacks in the ‘large luggage’ bit, for some reason hidden behind a flower shop, we soon found it. Duty Free held numerous wonders that, despite being tax-free, were still out of my budget, as well as a postcard of the Allianz Arena for Spanky (what Dortmund fan wouldn’t want a picture of their rival’s stadium?), the dinkiest bottle of Jaegermeister you’ve ever seen (half the size of our one from Berlin) for my baby brother’s 18th birthday, which I’m sure will have been much improved by my absence, and an extremely grumpy woman on the till. Excitement levels haven’t raised during an entirely uneventful flight, which was 10 minutes late leaving, but is now hovering over England. Bless my homeland forever…
Signing off for the last time,
A Jen who is really very cheerful to be entering British airspace, because for all its flaws I really do enjoy being able to order tap water in restaurants and fluently speak the native language
12th September: Train to Vienna, 12:56
=====Eek! Haven’t updated in an age; not so much from being super-busy than from not having a table/my journal to hand. Not much major news to update on. We’re currently on the train, which is sitting in Budapest Keleti station, and enjoying for the last time the irresistably jaunty announcement jingles they play in the station. Whoever composed them clearly has a love of old school video games, and is also a genius – it’s impossible not to be cheered by them.
=====So, major day-by-day update…
SATURDAY EVENING: Went to a very cheap Polish restaurant in the Old Town with two of the mardiest-looking waitresses known to man; admittedly my attempts to subtly decant water from the huge bottle we’d bought from the mini-mart into the glass of water I’d already drained probably made me look shifty, thus incurring their passive-aggressive wrath. Despite their sour expressions, the food was nice – the roast potatoes with garlic butter weren’t as good as I’d hoped they’d be, but the meat pierogi (another good Countdown word) were very tasty. Really enjoying Eastern European cuisine.
=====Still reeling from the kitschy ‘rustic’ decor of the place, we headed for an internet cafe so I could gorge myself on the delights of the World Wide Web and Emily could upload her photos. Little else of any consequence occurred that evening, except for a ridiculous sense of personal achievement gained by managing to get a huge bottle of fizzy water (yuk) down to a state of drinkable stillness through a great deal of endurance and perseverance (ie jiggling it constantly with the lid off).
SUNDAY: Took the opportunity to have my laziest day in a while by sleeping in til 11, reading fan mail (not an exaggeration – had a very sweet message from an Irish superfan, which I was very touched by) and eventually packing my bag, though not before taking a picture of the entirely unexplainable picture of a horse’s head on the bathroom wall.
=====Emily meanwhile was at the Human Body exhibition, featuring plastinated (no, me neither) bodies, which she came to the conclusion were East Asian judging by their height and, er, ‘length’. When she returned, we headed for the grassy verge by the river to bask in the still glorious weather for several hours, before getting Telepizza from down the road and finding cheap water and sweets to spend our last few (emphasis on few) zlotys. The water was imperative as our delightfully sociable Chinese roommates in Prague had, as a thoughtful leaving present, given me her cold, and my throat was beginning to take on a touch of feeling cheese-grated, while my nose was doing its best Niagara Falls impersonation.
=====Stuck for things to do, and not in the mood to explore the city – we felt we’d exhausted its daytime pleasures – we cracked out the hostel’s jigsaw (which later transpired to be of Budapest). After some initial struggle, we made it to 90% completion. It was in vain: our obsessive personalities were not obsessive enough to convince us that finishing the jigsaw was more important than catching the night train (though it was a close call). And catch it we did, after a tense tram ride to the station spent fearing a fine for not buying a ticket (we couldn’t afford it and were still yet to see a ticket machine).
=====I can confirm that sleeping on the bottom bunk of a night train is preferable to sleeping at the top. There were pros and cons to both (more luggage space at the top, but more effort to get it up there; less fear of the bunk above you collapsing at the top, but also more fear of falling out) but ease of bathroom access, the provision of a table on which to balance essentials and increased comfort of the bed itself meant that the bottom won out overall.
=====That said, I slept better on the top bunk to Krakow than on the bottom bunk from it, primarily due to my cold. Over the course of the day it had morphed from the beginnings of one, with a slight sore throat, to a full-on can’t-breathe-unless-I’ve-blown-my-nose-hideously-loudly, good-God-my-throat-is-raw killer cold, to Emily’s horror. She was petrified of catching it, but being in a claustrophobic room which was essentially hosting a game of Sardines, she didn’t have much choice in the matter.
=====Sleeping was fractious, fragmented and generally ineffective as far as making me feel better was concerned, especially since I woke up every time we violently thudded into a station (with the exception of Bratislava – meaning I can’t even tenuously count myself as having visited Slovakia. Damn!).
=====Thank god the train had a lot of paper towels, or we may all have drowned in my ocean of nasal mucus.
MONDAY: This lack of sleep made me into a grumpy arse when we arrived into Budapest – so grumpy I could only just appreciate the jingles. On finding that Hungarian buses are just as impossible to buy tickets for as Polish ones are, we yet again had to worry about being fined for not possessing a ticket (or, more accurately, for not possessing the arcane Eastern European knowledge of where to buy a ticket when there’s no provision for the sensible thing, ie buying a ticket at the front of the bus/tram). We got away with it again, but our sins were punished through the weather: a dry day at Keleti station suddenly transformed into a vicious rainstorm by the time we got off the bus, one stop further away than intended, in fabric shoes not best suited to the volatile weather.
=====A short, bad-tempered walk later and we were out of the weather’s caprices, and into a hostel with the most cliched hippy decor. The fact it was called Shantee House should have been a clue to its pretensions of free love, peace and vogue spirituality, but still the books about trekking in Tibet, Indian throws and beards/dreads (so many beards/dreads!) came as a surprise. I rather liked it though; it was bright orange, had stairs painted the colours of the rainbow, and a relaxed vibe that put us at ease where the slightly intense guy running our Polish hostel had unnerved me slightly. While the bright colours didn’t redeem the 3 hour wait to access our rooms, we had WiFi and books to pass the time – I got halfway through Emma, while Emily is soldiering through Les Mis.
=====When we finally made it into the room, it was time for a nap. Unfortunately, a shameless Australian girl and her hostel acquaintance of one day decided that being in a room with three people besides themselves was no deterrent to fornication, and indulged their primal urges there and then. Had I been more inured to listening to other people’s copulation, I may have been impressed that they’d managed to successfully negotiate the dimensions of the narrow single top bunk, but little did they know that the heavy breathing, creaking bed frame and sounds of unzipping travelling across the room were resulting in me losing my ‘listening to other people copulating’ginity. Thank God I slept through some of it – but sadly not all of it.
=====Emily had the good sense to flee as soon as the telling kissing noises began. Feeling like Hugh Grant in the cupboard in Four Weddings And A Funeral, I felt supremely awkward walking across the room to use the bathroom, especially on identifying the offending bunk courtesy of seeing a guy on his haunches with a blanket over him. Even me loudly padding about did not interrupt the act of coitus, but it wasn’t long before zipping was heard again, and my ears were free of violation once more. The girl sleeping (/pretending to be sleeping?) on the bottom bunk of that same bed, however, wins the ‘Most To Be Pitied’ award.
=====Emily went for a wander by herself while I slept, read and checked the Internet, before deciding to head to Buda Castle to meet her – though her going on a tour of a hospital in a rock gave me an hour to kill. On chatting to the offending Australian copulator, I ended up heading into town with her. We went searching for a place to buy tram tickets while she regaled me with tales of her copulating misdeeds from the night before (a churchyard was privy to those indiscretions), surprisingly frank about it all. Unable to find a ticket office, we stopped a native passer-by who, happily, was fluent in English. He had the oddest accent I’ve ever heard: predominantly Bolton, but with flecks of regional accents from all over the UK, as well as a hint of Kiwi.
=====Martzy, as he introduced himself, was a Hungarian student of Economics at the country’s best university for the subject. He was very friendly, directing us to the ticket office and ordering our tickets in his native tongue, making our lives immeasurably easier, before boarding the same tram as us so he could go to a lecture. He spoke of a corrupt government and politics that were driving his age group out of the country due to jobs being scarce and pensions unlikely in the future – it sounded a sad state of affairs.
=====By the time we arrived at the requisite tram stop, I was required at Buda Castle instead of the centre of Pest (Pest is the right hand side of the Danube, Buda is the left hand side), so bid the Aussie farewell before hopping back on a tram and returning the way I’d come. Getting off at the first stop in Buda, I was immediately accosted by a Hungarian woman begging for money so she could afford to feed her 6 children. Mindful of our attempts to be charitable in Berlin, I lied that I had no money, before heading off deep in the throes of guilt with only Julianna Barwick’s new album, Nepenthe, to stave it off. The album’s ethereality fitted a scene dominated by dreamlike white clouds and grand old buildings.
=====Finding the route to the castle was not an issue; finding Emily, however, was a saga that Tolkein could have written a trilogy about and Peter Jackson could have adapted into a series of widely-acclaimed, Oscar-winning films. Attempting to get through the castle – now a set of museums as opposed to a seat of royalty – to the funicular railway station involved continually being thwarted by building works and dead ends. I eventually made it to her before her phone died, having nobly struggled through its 1% battery life for so long.
=====We passed the Hungarian equivalent of 10 Downing Street and found our way to St Matthias Church, which is probably the prettiest building I’ve ever seen: it’s not too grand or ornate, but is enough so to be striking. Prettiest of all is the Lego brick-like roof, in a variety of colours that contrasted surprisingly well with the white walls. After slavering over it for a little whiel, we admired the lovely view over the Danube from a viewing platform and took some silly pictures before heading back to the Tesco near the hostel to buy up their selection of ready meals.
=====Tragically, the Tesco was tiny and had little choice available – not convenient given Emily’s, erm, selective palate. A few tours of it convinced us that a) to my chagrin, the only soup available was a horrendous ‘stir in’ packet, which I bought in case my urge for soup to soothe my throat proved truly insurmountable (it wasn’t – nothing could induce me to try it), and b) nothing that Emily liked or wanted was available for a main meal. Staples such as pasta and rice were a non-starter (see: ‘selective palate’) , while we’d done pizza to death. The only remaining option was to buy some chicken legs and seasoning, and cook them in the hostel’s busy communal kitchen.
=====Being a fussy eater is clearly no hindrance to being a good cook, as Emily’s cooking skills came up trumps eventually (they took an age to cook), while I overcame my squeamishness towards cucumbers to masterfully slice the vegetables (pepper for me, cucumber for Emily). Flicking the hot chicken off the oven tray was upsettingly farcical, however, and some Belgian hostellees laughed at me. Bet they wouldn’t have fared any better if they’d tried to flick HOT CHICKEN DRUMSTICKS off a HOT TRAY WITHOUT BURNING THEIR FINGERS.
TUESDAY: We’d been planning to visit the Széchenyi Baths when in Budapest for some time, pencilling in Tuesday as the day for it. Our loooong walk there took us past Heroes’ Square, among other important-looking buildings, but was forced on a detour when a coughing fit so violent I started crying convinced us to get me to a pharmacy for some throat relief.
=====We spotted a tiny pharmacy across the street and tried to ask one of the cashiers if the box to her right was cough syrup, which is what it looked like. Not understanding us, she passed us over to her colleague who, deadpan, responded, “No, it’s urinary tract infection medicine”. Explains why ‘urinal’ was in the name, I suppose. Strangely enough we didn’t buy it.
=====Loaded up with lemon and honey Strepsils, paracetamol and cough syrup with a childproof cap so secure that it was also adultproof, we headed on to the baths, where our ticket (roughly £12) entitled us to access 16 baths/pools as well as a whole host of saunas. Our lockers, we discovered, were in the men’s section – only a problem when some old codger came in and started shouting “MEN (pointing at the ground beside him), WOMEN (pointing away)”. I tried to explain to Mr Grumpy (as I unaffectionately dubbed him) that my locker was there, but he was still being lairy, so I took the hint to flee.
=====The baths ranged from 18•C (a post-sauna dunking pool that was FECKING FREEZING) to 40•C (a nice hot bath temperature), from salty to minty, outdoor to indoor. It was my highlight of the trip so far – so incredibly relaxing. Our favourite pool was the 38•C minty pool, which smelled and looked pleasantly like Listerine; we slobbed about in it until our fingers wrinkled and we were almost asleep. Better to slob than exercise, though – our go in the aerobics pool got us evils from the locals after we tried to rollerskate on the floating weights.
=====The sauna experience was a mixed bag (for me – Emily’s foray in lasted seconds as her asthma would not permit it). A minty sauna cleared my nose and throat wonderfully – newsflash: HEALING BATHS ACTUALLY HEAL! – but being in the sauna with 9 very sweaty fat men was slightly alarming. However, it was the non-minty sauna I tried that was more of a concern; when I left it, my towel had disappeared! Attempts to find out if it had been handed in to the staff were misinterpreted, as they thought I was asking about towel rental. At least I didn’t have any valuables stolen.
=====5 hours were spent there relaxing, swimming and pretending to lech on old men – except the tables were turned when one old man leched on Emily, and there was no pretence about it. He was very fat, and using two of the handrails by the stairs to rhythmically bounce up and down. As we rose majestically out of the pool, he briefly glanced away from his bouncing to unmistakeably feast his eyes on Emily’s rear. Every time we wandered past the pool he was lurking, like a hungry, sexually voracious hippopotamus. I knew there and then that he was the man Emily was destined to marry – if only we’d got his phone number.
=====Such a brief but moving encounter could simply not be topped, so we found a nice little restaurant nearby. Emily blew her budget on duck breast steak, which fortunately agreed with her ‘sensitive palate’, while I continued my quest to sample as much local cuisine as possible by trying chicken paprikas. It was very nice, but the horrid tap water rather spoiled it.
=====The evening was spent at a ruin bar – literally a bar set in ruined buildings. It was huge and very busy; we brought Daniel, our Australian roommate, with us to meet Hannah – an American (DEFINITELY not a Kiwi) we’d met in Prague – and her hostellees. Though the baths had seemingly cured my cold, I was still wary of drinking as it makes my throat balloon when ill, so remained teetotal. This was unfortunate: while the bar was exceedingly cool – totally shabby, with squat toilets and rickety chairs to show how super-authentic it all was – the hostellees were not so interesting.
=====After briefly meeting so many people, you cease to care about where they’re from, where they’ve been, where they’re going – why should you, when you’ll probably never see them again? I chatted to a guy from London who was soon to join the Royal Navy. He was fine at first, teaching card games to me, Emily, Daniel, Hannah, a sassy Swiss guy, and his travel partner Jamie, nut after the joys of me winning Irish Snap and losing at Cheat had dried up, we had to talk again, and found we had no common ground. He didn’t like football, and his only view on Countdown was the objectively wrong one that Carol Vorderman should never have left (a view that I scorned and rebuffed with stats), while his interests of aviation (nope), the military (of which, as a pacifist, I am deeply suspicious), and World War II (which interests me, but there are large gaps in my knowledge of it) held little promise. Luckily he too was bored, and sloped off, allowing someone else to steal his seat.
=====We then made for the exit to move on to another bar: bored, tired and ill, I wasn’t keen on the idea but was even less keen on the idea of getting/paying for a taxi back to the hostel by myself, plus had FOMO. Somehow me, Emily, Daniel and Jamie became detached from the trail of people that Hannah led and, after a fruitless goosechase around local bars in the rain, we settled in the empty but hilariously named Irish pub ‘PUBlin’. This proved far preferable to being in a huge group and having to yell pleasantries over a group of obnoxiously rowdy Italians, as we had at the bar, and were able to discuss the important things like music and TV. Jamie lost credibility points when he asked if ‘Summer Of 69’ was by Guns ‘n’ Roses, but regained it by being impressed by meeting a real life octochamp. We eventually called it a night at 2, bringing a loooong day to a close.
WEDNESDAY: My love of lie-ins had been trolled by my cold, and Wednesday began as no exception, an 8am wake-up giving me an opportunity to finish Emma. This great exertion tired me out enough to sleep in til midday, at which point Emily and Daniel went caving, leaving me with most of the day to myself. I spent it at first responding to fanmail (one Twitter admirer taking the novel approach of anagramming ‘We should go on a date’ to woo me, by which I was deeply amused, and almost convinced by the effort) for several hours and chatting to one of my roommates, and then by exploring the city.
=====I strolled about Pest for a while before deciding to walk up to the Parliament building along the river. By the time I was opposite St Matthias, it was dark; the sight of it along with the castle glowing in the dark across the river was possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. After some poetically-minded gazing, I set off for Parliament again, thwarted by building works. When we finally reconvened (all starving, the others exhausted), we slumped at a cheap Italian restaurant off the main shopping road, Vaci Utca, and engaged in hearty conversation. Topics of discussion included dickslapping, my arm being used as a doorstop post-taxidermy, and using a man’s skin as a coat (I had no jacket, and had been outside for 5 hours in the cold). Think we slightly alarmed Daniel, but he humoured us anyway.
=====Nothing much has happened since. Time to get off this Railjet train (easily the nicest train we’ve been on thus far, minus the shrieking noises when we leave stations) and find our hostel, the amusingly named Wombats, in Vienna – the Ultravox song named after which we had playing on a loop for an hour, until we realised that you CAN have too much of a good thing.
A hand-cramped Jen
13th September: Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), 16:43
=====We are busy being deeply cultured at the opera! Admittedly by ‘at the opera’ I mean ‘nearly into our third hour of queuing for the cheap standing seats at the big opera house’, but in a few hours we’ll be watching Carmen like true opera buffs.
=====The adults in the queue seem to know that all the interrailers and tourists are blagging it, judging by their glares; a couple diagonally opposite us in the line keep surveying the groups of rowdy youths and fizing them with judgemental stares, while a woman with fierce painted-on eyebrows and a frosty expression just walked past us to reclaim her place, passing the journey by giving each person on her route a look of poisonous disdain. Only an old man with an absolute belter of a combover directly opposite us seems unfazed; he gives us weary half-smiles, clearly unaware that I took several pictures of said combover for posterity while he was sleeping.
=====In between scolding me for trying to create my own snazzy combover (a failure – I have too much hair 😦 ) and struggling through to the halfway point of Les Mis, Emily keeps singing “La la la” in a foreboding way and doing her ‘creepy ginger child smile’. It is deeply unnerving and means I can’t concentrate on reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
=====Uneventful rest of day yesterday, mostly due to Emily’s cold-induced lethargy. We explored the touristy central bit of the city, amazed by the unrelenting beauty of the architecture and occasionally getting confused as to our location. As if the lovely buildings weren’t enough, Vienna has sealed its place in my affections by having more considerate cyclists than elsewhere (read: fewer of them). The relative calm of the place gives us frequent recourse to shatter it by giving tuneful renditions of ‘Vienna’ and ‘Edelweiss’. Surprised we haven’t been arrested yet but then this seems like a city immune to crime, along with poverty, want and strife.
=====Its musical heritage is stamped everywhere, from huge statues of Mozart and Goethe to the men dressed as Mozart, preying on tourists to sign them up to see substandard operas and symphonies. We’d been warned that Vienna had only a child’s colouring-book prettiness and a musical past to offer, but so far this has sufficed.
=====Exploration was halted in favour of food, as we got the U-bahn back to Westbahnhof station and ate at a restaurant near the hostel, whose business cards featured pictures of a disembodied woman’s bust, seemingly clad in traditional Austrian garb. Took one so I could let lechers like my brother and Spanky ogle it – they’ll appreciate the view more than I will.
=====Well-rested after an early night, we set out for the restaurant again for a proper meal at lunchtime, before killing time as a Starbucks near the opera house. The employee who made my drink was very cute, though my attraction subsided rather when, having made my frappuchino, he chucked the straw rather violently at me. Oh blond Austrian Alexander who works at Starbucks, what could have been.
=====We’ve been queuing here ever since 8 – at first outside, in the cold but mercifully sheltered from torrential rain, and then inside. The wait seems to be over, though – time to buy some tickets, watch some opera and attempt to not have my eardrums perforated by 3 1/2 hours of shrill singing…
A not very combed-over Jen
3rd September 2013: Hard Rock Cafe, Prague, 3:15pm
Been a bit lax on the journal front recently due to: tiredness, no table on the train to Prague, grumpiness, business, and having hostel computers WITH chairs (a step up from Berlin, even if the internet is several steps down due to having the speed of a dying snail. This outdated version of Firefox is enough to make me long for Internet Explorer. THAT’S how bad it is). Excuses, excuses – I know.
I’ll summarise each day individually:
SATURDAY EVENING (31st August): We finally made it to a pub crawl! Taking 4 days to get round to going on a night out would no doubt horrify more hedonistic 20-somethings, but Amsterdam was too expensive to go out on the lash in (20 Euros for a pub crawl populated by spotty adolescents labouring under the misapprehension that a pub crawl t-shirt is the epitome of cool? Fuck off…) and we were too tired the night before. Fortunately, the Berlin Alternative Pub Crawl had no spotty adolescent boys and there was not a commemorative t-shirt in sight. A snip at just 10 Euros, with free shots at every place en route (a route that included 4 bars and 1 club), we met people from all over the world: a German guy who seemed frightened by my love of classic tune ‘Moskau’ by Dschingis Khan (to be fair, I did shriek “I LOVE THIS SONG!” with alarming enthusiasm when it came on), a lovely Canadian couple who were off to London next and sought our advice about it, and a load of Americans including Anna, who we met up with in Prague last night.
=====The first bar was adorably kitsch. Its ceiling was adorned with ladybirds, mushrooms and flowers, and it hosted a kick-ass 60s playlist. Overwhelmed with joy to find cider at long last, I indulged in some while Emily opted for the dirt cheap beer (one Euro twenty!! For a proper drink!!). Several Euros were donated to the Jen Losing Her Pinball Machineginity fund, although it lacked the sound effects that make the Microsoft game so fun. Then the shots came out and, well, everyone donated theirs to me. Five consecutive shots and the dregs of Emily’s beer could have ended disastrously but the walk to the Ping Pong Bar thankfully remained chunder-free.
=====The Ping Pong Bar was a bit of a dump: self-consciously bare of decoration, instead a homage to harsh concrete walls, graffiti-filled toilets and leather sofas, it should have been crap – especially given my sheer incompetence at ping pong. A lengthy chat with the Canadian couple ensured that we avoided any pinging or ponging there. It was quickly followed by a trip to Rammstein’s bar, filled with “hardcore” Goth cliches like skeletons, skulls and, er, a giant dildo incorporated into the bannister – which Emily only realised after she’d put her hand on it. The confusion only heightened as the barwoman stood on the bar, wearing just a corset and tiny tutu, shimmying and spinning some glowing balls on strings. Wow, getting a ‘sexy Goth’ to table-dance – how very “hardcore”. Though not as hardcore as me being a reckless anarchist in the bathroom (i.e. somehow managing to knock over a bin that I didn’t even touch). The anarchy only continued when we got to the Rock Bar and I swaggered out the toilets after reapplying lipstick, shouting “DO YOU EVER HAVE THOSE DAYS WHERE YOU LOOK IN THE MIRROR AND THINK GOD, I’M A SEXY BEAST?? I’M HAVING ONE OF THOSE DAYS!”. How embarrassing. The Rock Bar one-upped the Rammstein bar by playing good music (i.e. not death metal), although there were no table-dancing Goths in sight.
=====We’d been informed at the beginning that we would end up at a club that was having an LGBT night. We gamely went along, not knowing what to expect. What to expect turned out to be a fairly underwhelming experience, with one exception: a group of us mooched about the place to explore it, and wandered into a dark room. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so dark that we couldn’t see a bed and “writhing bodies” (Emily’s description). Needless to say, we scarpered and called it a night soon after.
SUNDAY : Following all the educational wandering in the daytime and bar crawling in the evening, Sunday was a lazy day – just as well since I woke up with aching feet and could only limp about in the morning.
=====Eventually we ventured out and saw the East Side Gallery, before trotting off in search of a station so we could get to the Olympia Stadion and then Charlottesburg palace. Unfortunately it was about a mile to the nearest station and my feet began to ache again which, coupled with 4 hours’ sleep, meant I was in a hideous mood – a shame, as I’d been fairly chipper prior to this courtesy of a very nice €3.80 calzone from a local pizzeria (Emily’s margherita was just €3.30). By the time we reached Charlottesburg, I was incapacitated on a park bench in an utterly foul mood, and spent an hour scowling and being moody online while Emily explored the gardens.
=====We’d planned to go o the light show at the Bundestag, but couldn’t be bothered, instead heading back to the hostel to try some local cuisine, Emily having some disappointing wienerschnitzel to satisfy her craving while I tried the ubiquitous German delicacy currywurst. It was ok, but not something I’d necessarily try again. My mood was ok by this time but needed further remedy through sleep.
MONDAY: A four and a half hour train to Prague proved uneventful but had beautiful scenery from Dresden onwards, which I admired in between defacing Douche-Barn leaflets. Emily highly disapproved of my shameless enjoyment in drawing evil eyebrows, a moustache and a top hat on a fat-faced Aryan child, but nothing could keep me from being amused by it. Small things, small minds.
=====On arriving in Prague, we traipsed off to the hostel, accompanied by a cute Norwegian guy who smelled nice (mmm, nice smelling men) but sadly wasn’t staying in our hostel. However, when we went on a pub crawl that evening with Anna – the girl we’d met in Berlin – it turned out that he was staying in her hostel and had been coerced into joining a group that included a lot of Americans and an Australian. One of the American guys had a bottle of absinthe which we finished between us; I was briefly a hero for gulping a sizeable amount of it without wincing, before or after. Thankfully it didn’t sit badly with the 5 glasses of sangria I’d relieved of existence in the hour preceding this.
=====We went onto a labyrinthine bar, where Emily and Anna quickly became BFFs. Bored of being a gooseberry, I joined some of the others – though no sooner had we begun to bond than we were whisked off to the Vodka Bar and ‘treated’ to a round of tequila shots from Absinthe Guy. It had been so long since I’d had tequila – 3 1/2 years – that I’d forgotten the order of salt, tequila and lime, but the more seasoned drinkers gleefully reminded me how it was done, while Emily bickered with a Mexican guy about English history. I left her to it and engaged in football conversations with first the Norwegian guy (sadly a Man United fan who, curiously, was fond of Spurs) and then a group of Geordies, one of whom bore a distinct resemblance to Charlie Reams (he whose website, apterous.org, singlehandedly revolutionised Countdown). Geordie Charlie Reams and I chatted for ages, and I resisted all attempts to be dragged to the dancefloor by the others so we could discuss football, Football Manager and the North. My resistance to dancing paid off: there was apparently a lecher with wandering hands lurking on the dancefloor. Sadly Geordie CR disappeared at the last club before I could swap Facebook details with him: he redeemed what could so easily have been a boring, expensive, existential-crisis-inducing mess of an evening that nearby conversations such as “You’re so skinny!” “No, YOU’RE so skinny” “You’re skinnier!” did nothing to stymie.
=====By the time we reached this last club, my eyes literally could not stay open, even after rubbing them furiously. Emily bumped into a friend from uni by pure coincidence as I was trying to sleep on the stairs. She decided to stay out with him while I went back to the hostel.
Being alone in an alien city by myself woke me up slightly as you have to be on guard, so by the time I got back I was awake enough to gorge myself on some terribly slow hostel internet. Turned out my closely-fought (…or not, final score 112-19) second game on Countdown, broadcast earlier in the day, had earned me my first random Facebook add. Dragged myself away just as Emily showed up. I had to choose the lesser evil of waking everyone up by scrambling around in the dark to find my pyjamas, or freaking out our antisocial Chinese roommates by sleeping in my underwear. As usual, I opted for the choice that required the least amount of effort.
=====Oops, we’ve clearly outstayed our welcome here and the waitress clearly wants us to clear off. Update more later.
A Jen whose hand aches from writing all of that
Later: Mistral Cafe Restaurant, 17:50
=====Stumbled upon a cheap but spacious and clean restaurant that serves mostly Czech cuisine: far more appetising than the KFC up the road, and not much more expensive. I’ve ordered the ragout (a classic Countdown word) for about £3.50.
=====Lazy morning for me as I caught up on sleep and internet (pretty sure I have a clinical addiction to it) while Emily explored the city. We went out at 2pm, first climbing the nearby Clock Tower and then sampling divine milkshakes at the Hard Rock Cafe (even if they were more expensive than my ragout). We’ve wandered past some exciting shops en route including a marionette shop and several absintheries, which sell absinthe ice cream and slush puppies.
=====Haven’t written much about the city thus far. It’s full of beautifully ornate buildings that crop up in unexpected places, though also has its share of shabbier buildings. The square is home to two incredibly grand churches as well as the Clock Tower – whose scale and breathtaking detail clash rather with the tacky little souvenir shops dotted about, which are mostly blindingly white and stuffed with crystals.
=====Who knew that a meal heavily reliant on onions and mushrooms (two foods I’m very picky about) would prove so delicious? Turns out ragout is a potato cake, which sounds less nice than it was. Czech cuisine 1, German cuisine 0.
=====We’re off to the Ice Bar with Anna tonight, a venue recommended by my friend Tamsyn, who was here a few weeks ago. Should be good, though if there are any more “I’m so skinny” conversations, we may not all return from it…
A ragged-out Jen
4th September: Outside Petrínská Observation Tower, 15:59
=====We weren’t sure what the weather would be like when we left, but we took our blazers/jackets as a precaution because the clouds were lurking ominously. Turns out it’s boiling. Not necessarily what you want when climbing to the top of a massive tower.
=====From a viewing perspective, the panorama at the top of the tower is stunning: you can see how much bigger the city is than it feels at ground level. We got the funicular railway up the hill after fiascos with ticket machines that only accept exact change, station workers who had no change, and a poorly ventilated station which made me want to pass out. Change in general is a nuisance in Prague: staff scowl at you when you pay with a note because they rarely have change.
=====The ice bar yesterday was fantastic. We spent 20 minutes in temperatures of -7•C, drinking shots from ice cubes carved into glasses, surrounded by walls, ornaments and a bar made of ice. Afterwards we went to a pub in the square and discussed our lives, travels and men, during which I realised that Anna is in fact not American, but from New Zealand. Oops. I’m so useless at working out accents. I really warmed to her, possibly as a result of my 2-day bad mood subsiding. Shame she’s off to Austria today while we head to Poland tomorrow evening.
=====Off to the castle next – all downhill, thank god. Our legs are shaking from walking up and down the tower, but we will persevere, before probably returning to the restaurant from yesterday and pub crawling again (though I can’t be arsed to be out too long – I’m definitely prematurely middle-aged).
A jelly-legged Jen
5th September: Absintherie, Franz Kafka Square, Prague, 14:43
=====Stuck to my resolution to not stay out too late last night. Sadly this was less down to tiredness, boredom or misery than me being a menace to society and must after making significant inroads into the free bar. There were all the hallmarks of an embarrassing night out: crying in the toilets about man troubles (I really am Bridget Jones mk 2), asking an Australian if he had any family in the UK because he looked quite a bit like a smarmy git I know back home (he didn’t), trying and failing to mount a bar stool and, finally, submitting the 4 huge glasses of Sangria and innumerable free shots to the toilet bowl, turning it a delightful shade of purply red. This classy conclusion to my bar crawling also saw me accidentally rip a toilet seat off and shout, in between chunders, to a very amused Emily and some Irish girls (who were slightly starstruck to meet someone off Countdown) that they should feel privileged to watch a minor daytime TV star throw up. Jesus.
=====After this, Emily made the executive decision to drag me back to the hostel and put me to bed, though not until she’d spent an hour trying to coax me out of falling asleep on the hostel toilet through a variety of methods, among them slapping, singing and threatening to take photos. She has just informed me that I shouted at her for calling me Jen (I.e. the derivative of Jennifer that I’ve insisted on being called for the last decade), the direct quote being “My name’s not Jen! It’s Jennifer! People only call me Jen because I hate being called Jenny!”. Absolutely no recollection of this. Sent a few rambly messages when I woke up sitting up at 5am, before waking up again at 10 with a sober mind but tipsy body. Thank god Emily convinced the staff to give us an extra hour before checkout.
=====V grateful to her generally for looking after me, if guilty for cutting short her night. That said, she did get a free ride on a Segway on the way back, so it’s swings and roundabouts really.
=====Shame to end the day like that after an amusing afternoon. We walked past a couple on a park bench who were indulging in some heavy petting that was probably illegal in public – I’m pretty sure no woman in the history of the world has ever looked so unimpressed with a man licking her breast as the woman in the park – and having a serious discussion about the possibility of a wasp flying up a woman’s crevice and impregnating her. Relieved as I am to learn that wasps cannot impregnate humans, I am still never squatting outside. =====The palace looked more impressive from far away – we couldn’t afford to go in – and we made it back to the restaurant from Tuesday evening. On shamelessly using the restaurant’s Wifi, I discovered a randomer’s tweet referring to me as a slag. Highly amused, I responded, signing off as “the slag”; one apology from him and some rapport later, I had manages to convert him to what has been dubbed ‘Steadmania’. Offended and delighted many others with my errant cleavage in the same show – intrigued to watch and see exactly how much boob was on display. May have to use this dress in future if I want a favour.
=====It’s my knickers I’ve been flashing today though as we took advantage of the gloriously sunny weather to take a pedalo ride around the river, neither of us wearing tights with our dresses and probably offending passers-by. We weren’t bothered though: it was a relaxing way to see the city and looked good in our photos. We may have ruined the experience for others though by singing loudly throughout: we paid tribute to our churchgoing childhoods by signing some anthemic hymns, before celebrating the city’s Bohemian history by singing Bohemian Rhapsody and finally moving onto a lairy rendition of Hakuna Matata.
=====We have to leave the Absintherie now as, despite me barely having finished my absinthe ice cream (nice to begin with, nasty aftertaste) and the shop being otherwise deserted, the waitress has informed us that it is “not possible” for is to sit here unless we have a drink. Pretty sure she’s just holding a grudge after I paid for a 39 crown ice cream with a 200 crown note and she had to pay the other 161 crowns back in change.
=====We’re off to Krakow tonight on a night train – looking forward to it, as I feel we’ve outstayed our welcome here. It’ll be interesting to see what our £4.50-per-night hostel is like too…
A very embarrassing when drunk Jen
7th September: Old Town Square, Krakow (Poland), 16:11
=====Bit of a change in tone to go from frivolous tales of drunken debauchery and absinthe ice cream to the most horrific, systematic genocide in history, but I’m going to start this entry on Auschwitz where we spent the morning and early afternoon today. The princely sum of £26 for an adult ticket has scuppered my plans to recoup my budget from the jaws of overspending while we’re here, but it was more worth it than the disastrous pub crawl on Wednesday.
=====The blazing sunshine and blue skies as far as the eye could see seemed ironic for such a miserable place. The horrid, dingy little rooms where so many suffered clashed with the cheery weather outside, the total joylessness of visitors’ expressions seemed out of place on a day that would have suited a trip to the beach, and the whole scene of bleakness and vastness would have somehow been more believable with snow on the ground, instead of blades of the greenest grass glowing in the sunlight.
=====Not much would have made the sights seem real, admittedly. It was scarcely comprehensible to think that the room-sized bundle of hair and the enormous piles of shoes, bags and combs were just a fraction of the belongings stolen from the doomed inmates when they arrived, or that 4 to 5 people could have slept in a square metre standing block, or that three-tier wooden ‘beds’ designed for horses could fit more than 15 people. We went through the only remaining gas chamber with lumps in our throats. But sadness quickly turned to anger when some absolute twonk on our tour started chuckling heartily in the chamber and crematoria at some ridiculous comment by his wife. I’m rarely one to get sanctimonious, but when you’re at the site of mass genocide, can’t ‘hilarious’ comments wait a moment? I couldn’t see a single other person on the entire site who had the capacity to break a smile there, let alone laugh in the gas chamber.
=====The only other smile I saw there was a devastating one. One exhibit had hundreds of pictures of victims on the walls, along with names, birthdates, dates of arrival and death dates. Rows upon rows of sunken, despairing eyes stared out with hopeless expressions, which was haunting enough. But one woman was defiant: she smiled, a mischievous smile, as though she were both trying to keep her own spirits up and tell the Nazis they wouldn’t break her. But they did. It broke my heart.
=====It certainly put my night-training, foot-aching, Scrabble-losing, hand-washing woes into perspective. To begin with the night train. Ever since I can remember, I have been afraid of being on the top bunk of bunk beds. Ones with sturdy, thick ladders are fine, but the majority are as thick as matchsticks, and so most attempts to overcome this fear at friends’ houses have resulted in me screaming and either being paralysed by fear or clumsily trying to jump over the side rather than face the ladder. Imagine my joy on discovering I was on the top of a 3-tier bunk bed on the night train!
=====On scrambling to the top, I refused to get down until we got to Krakow, some 8 1/2 hours later. This wouldn’t have been too bad if I could have sat up on the bed. But, alas, even my infamously short self was unable to sit up, unless one counts ‘sitting up with one’s head on one’s shoulder’, which I don’t. Left with no choice but to lay down for the whole journey, I read the first 50 pages of Emma (which I’ve been meaning to read for years) and slept for 7 hours. So not all bad.
=====However, 7 hours was not enough to refresh me enough to make me relish the half-hour search for the relevant tram stop/tram proved unsuccessful and we trekked across the city for half an hour. We reached an unsavoury-looking area which was quickly dubbed ‘the ghetto’ and, wouldn’t you know it, was where our hostel was… A host we couldn’t check into for another 6 hours. My plans for sleep and a shower scuppered, we joined a free walking tour in the Old Town.
=====Much to our relief, the Old Town is lovely; up to that point we’d been distinctly unimpressed with the city. Our tour guide Gosia was incredibly personable and regaled us with folklore involving exploding dragons, cases of architecture-induced fratricide, and heroic bugle players shot through the throat. There were also true stories about football hooligans bonding over a dead Pope, and some sly social commentary – on discussing a local dragon’s penchant for eating young virgin girls, she told us that Krakovians say that these days, the dragon would starve. Enjoyed the tour immensely even if it made our feet hurt.
=====The rest of the day passed in a blur of seeing Scottish stag parties featuring men in dresses and romper suits, watching some miserable cow on Countdown after we managed to stream it from the hostel (I SWEAR I smiled more than that), £2.50 for a pizza at the local pizzeria, and a frenzied game of Scrabble which Emily won by a single point. It then occurred to us that we could restore our piles of laundry to a wearable state by doing some laundry. A lack of plugs in the bathroom sink, a grotty kitchen sink and no washing machine meant we had to get creative with a giant saucepan. The results are yet to be confirmed, but it gave us something to do while our roomies butchered Rihanna songs in the common room. Thankfully we were tired enough once we’d finished to sleep through the rest of their hideous caterwauling.
=====Still tired from our 7am start today though. Hoping to get an early night after having some dinner, finding postcards and seeing if we can find the ginger pigeon that is Emily’s pigeony twin. A man just muttered angrily at us in Polish. Time to go.
A fairly solemn and slightly sunburnt Jen