Category Archives: Life

In Memory of Polish and Pepper Steadman (September 2010 – 29th November and 21st May 2013)

Polish and Pepper

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.

IMG-20130724-00257

Polish prepares to try to headbutt the hatch open.

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…

Polish dives headfirst into the foodbowl.

Polish dives headfirst into the foodbowl.

…They were extremely inquisitive, and enjoyed peering out the windows in their viewing tube to see what we were doing, both individually…

Polish watches us from the viewing tube.

 …and together…

Pepper and Polish watch together. (Pepper did not have red demon eyes in reality.)

Pepper and Polish watch together. (Pepper did not have red eyes in reality. I don’t notice this bit of the picture any more but other people always do 😦 )

…They also liked their corner tube, whether standing on it…

Pepper on the upright tube.

Pepper on the upright tube.

…or hiding in it…

Polish plays Hide and Seek. She's not hiding very well.

Polish plays Hide and Seek. She’s not hiding very well.

…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…

FOOD FIGHT

FOOD FIGHT

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.

Polish being sassy.

Polish being sassy.

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).

Polly's favourite: apple oats. When she finished them, she would look meaningfully at the bowl and then watch my dad until he looked at her, before looking at the empty bowl and sitting in it as a protest. It always worked. Gerbils can be skilled manipulators.

Polly’s favourite: apple oats. When she finished them, she would look meaningfully at the empty bowl and then watch my dad until he looked at her, before sitting in the bowl as a protest. It always worked. Gerbils can be skilled manipulators.

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…

oh, and one more thing

…and the two of them together with this one.

Yup, the red eyed one again.

Yup, the red eyed one again.

RIP girls. You were wonderful xxx

The Interrailing Adventures of Jen and Emily, Part 4

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…

Part 1 [Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin], Part 2 [Berlin, Prague, Krakow], Part 3 [Krakow, Budapest, Vienna]

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.

Signing off,
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.

Signing off,
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.

Signing off,
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.

Signing off,
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

The Interrailing Adventures of Jen and Emily, Part 3

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.

Signing off,
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…

Signing off,
A not very combed-over Jen

The Interrailing Adventures of Jen and Emily, Part 2

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.
Signing off,
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.

(After food)

=====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…

Signing off,
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).

Signing off,
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…

Signing off,
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.

Signing off,
A fairly solemn and slightly sunburnt Jen

The Interrailing Adventures of Jen and Emily, Part 1

Warning: Not for the easily offended. Contains casual profanity (in English and Dutch), crude humour and references to all the things the Dutch are more liberal than you about.
=====It’s a cliche to go travelling to ‘find yourself’ when your life hits crisis point. I realise this. But I succumbed to it anyway. In terms of ‘crisis points’, one that involves being dumped by a wonderful man and graduating but realising you’re woefully ill-prepared for employment is not perhaps comparable with crisis points that find people homeless, terminally ill or bereaved, but it’s one that nonetheless inspired me to escape to Europe.
=====I convinced Emily, my hometown friend of 16 years, to come interrailing with me for three weeks. Starting last Wednesday (August 28th), our route is taking us via Brussels (briefly), Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Venice and Munich. During the trip, we’ve both kept journals of our adventures, which will be written up onto this here blog twice a week, featuring anecdotes, opinions and idle musings (particularly on my Countdown adventures, being broadcast while we’re away). Enjoy…

28th August 2013: Train to Rotterdam (Netherlands), 15:44
=====The Eurotrip has commenced! We’ve only been on the continent for 6 hours, but already there have been triumphs, defeats, tears and bloodshed. And that was just over a game of Scrabble. (Ok, that is a slight exaggeration, but I did win a closely-fought game 347-310.)
=====We’ve already been to Brussels, albeit briefly. We visited the Port de Hal by virtue of the fact it was the only vaguely noteworthy building we encountered on our aimless ramble from Brussels Zuid station. After a 15-minute sit to recover from the shock of lugging our enormous backpacks around (and also to be leched on/mocked [not sure which] from afar by some Belgian guys), we headed off rather less aimlessly- courtesy of Emily’s masterful Google Maps skills – towards Grand Place, the gorgeous city square. The city up to that point had a sort of faded charm, but nothing else of note apart from some devastatingly handsome men (which, admittedly, is quite a note). We took a well-earned half-hour sunbathe there before moving onto sample Belgian cuisine (Belgian waffles!) and not-so-Belgian cuisine at Subway. Non, je ne regrette rien.
=====We’re now on the train to Amsterdam via Rotterdam for a changeover. Can’t help but think that Dutch place names would rack up a lot of points in Scrabble – not that anyone would be able to spell them correctly. Our objectives in Amsterdam are to visit the Anne Frank House and, less solemnly, the Hemp and Sex Museums. I am ready and willing to be educated in these topics. My other personal mission is to use the word ‘kutkabouter’ in casual conversation with a Dutch citizen. I am reliably informed by our half-Dutch friend Amber that this word means ‘cuntgnome’ in Dutch.
=====On that insightful note, I shall end this entry here.
Signing off,
An excitable Jen (not a kutkabouter)

29th August 2013: Dam Square, Amsterdam (NL), 14:27
=====In the middle of a very sunny, very busy Dam Square in Amsterdam at the moment, opposite the Royal Palace (whose bells sound like a Pantha du Prince and the Bell Laboratory song), having just been to the, erm, enlightening spectacle of the Sex Museum. Emily emerged from it educated but scarred, whereas my tendency to research the more sordid corners of Wikipedia was revealed by my relative lack of shock. That said, the exhibit on ‘male reproductive fluids’ did ruin my appetite and remind me why mayonnaise makes me feel nauseous. Although not as nauseous as Emily felt when she saw this particular exhibit.
=====Yesterday post-hostel-finding/settling-into was spent finding food (€8 for a tagliatelle carbonara so huge it defeated my usually bottomless stomach!), gazing at impossibly pretty canals, touring the Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum (a rip-off), and – of course – the Red Light District. It sounds ridiculous, but there’s something jarring about seeing ACTUAL PROSTITUTES on the game, with absolutely no discretion save for the door/curtain that hides them in flagrante delicto. Virtually everyone on the streets gawping at the perma-tanned women in their glow-in-the-dark underwear was a tourist, something also discernible from the pervasive smell of weed in the air. Some of the hookers were so bored they were sitting on the bed texting instead of preening, something so mundane it was faintly amusing amongst the surreality of everything else.
=====What’s also surreal is the sheer number of bikes about. I know Amsterdam is Cyclist Central, but the quantity of both parked and active bikes is ridiculous. I’m constantly fearing for my life whenever I accidentally end up walking in a cycle lane, which hasn’t helped my general dislike of cyclists (the unfortunate consequence of both immensely enjoying running them down on Simpsons Hit & Run for Gamecube as a child, and dating an overwhelmingly enthusiastic cyclist who constantly wore Lycra and tried in vain to get me to ride a tandem). That said, I am impressed by how space-efficient mass-cycle parking is compared to car parking.
=====The hostel is alright; any mess comes courtesy of our French former room-mates, who we never actually met because they returned to the room after I fell asleep and left before I woke up. However, we could infer certain things about them from the detritus they’d strewn across the room – innumerable cigarette butts piled on the desk, boxers scrumpled in the bathroom, and no less than 10 (!!!) empty plastic packets that held remnants of weed.
=====Time to move before we get sunburnt [update: too late 😦 ], and finish this entry. We plan to visit the Anne Frank House and a ‘coffee shop’ (although we’ll ‘just say no’… hi Mum and Dad!) and ingest our own body weights in paprika crisps (the greatest foodstuff you can’t really get in England) for the rest of the day, not to mention finally shout ‘KUTKABOUTER!’ at some poor unsuspecting Dutch citizen. We did play a game of ‘Bogies’ (where you shout profanities gradually louder in public) using ‘kutkabouter’ instead yesterday, though.
SIgning off,
A typically mature Jen

30th August 2013: Train to Hannover (Germany), 11:02
=====Ich bin on the Deutschbahn! (Or the Douche-Barn as I have affectionately nicknamed it.) And so we leave behind the city of free (well, €50) love, liberal drug laws and impossibly thin houses, towards the land of Kraftwerk, bratwurst and lederhosen.
=====Yesterday was, for the most part, a resounding success; we did indeed go to the Anne Frank House (dingy, cramped, insular – all the things you’d expect it to be), a ‘coffee shop’ (but we ‘just said no’… hi Mum and Dad!) and ate enough paprika crisps to turn our insides orange. The failures included the lack of kutkabouter conversations and an Ethiopian guy following us through the poorly-lit Vondel Park after dark, having lured us (read: me) in by talking about Chelsea FC. Having made awkward chit-chat until we reached a well-lit exit, we thought we were free. Him ominously telling us he had something to show us was not what we wanted to hear. Emily suspected he was going to whip out his manhood – clearly the flasher exhibit at the Sex Museum left a lasting impression on her – while I suspected a knife. What he actually did was less terrifying, but more weird: he showed us how he could contort his hands behind his back, and came up close to show us a picture of him with his Indian ex-girlfriend. He may have been harmless, but we didn’t wait to find out, and wandered off abruptly vowing to never wander through dark foreign parks at night again. Speaking of lechers, Emily actually saw someone go into one of the windows in the Red Light District last night. I guess not all the tourists were there just to gawp.
=====Our plans to make a cool, hip interrailing playlist (featuring noted cool, hip artists including One Direction, Miley Cyrus and Steps) and generally get lairy in our room were hampered by finding several new roommates. Not wanting to disturb them, I settled for using the free WiFi to remind everyone on Facebook that I’m going to be a minor daytime TV celebrity tomorrow. A weird thought. We woke up this morning to two more roommates. After our scare with the weird guy in Vondel Park, it was slightly unnerving to be the only girls in the room. Undoubtedly the worst thing about being female is that you frequently have to assume that everyone is a potential rapist-murderer.
=====Sent postcards to grandparents (consciously leaving out mentions of our museum trips), parents/brother/gerbil (consciously leaving out mentions of our trip to the Hemp Museum – my father, so anti-drugs that he likes to pretend Bowie isn’t a human skeleton on the cover of Diamond Dogs because he was coked up to his eyeballs at the time, would disown me for even looking at such things), and Spanky (who got none of the boring stuff about canals, and all of the cheeky details). Slightly regretting my decision to mention ‘banana shows’ in a footnote to my brother.
=====6 hours on the Douche-Barn should be fun (sarcasm), especially when our food supplies consist only of a quarter of a French baguette each, Nutella, orange TicTacs, half a pack of chewing gum and half a packet of plain crisps. We’ve had no breakfast so this is basically a highly nutritious brunch.
=====Onwards to Berlin!
Signing off,
A slightly hungry Jen

Later: Train to Berlin (GE), 15:51
=====I
‘M ON BRITISH NATIONAL TV IN TWENTY MINUTES AND WHERE AM I? SITTING ON THE FLOOR OF A CROWDED DOUCHE-BARN, RIGHT OUTSIDE THE TOILETS, HAVING TO INHALE PISS FUMES EVERY 30 SECONDS WHEN SOMEONE GOES IN THERE. THANKS, LIFE.
Flouncing off,
A very diva-ish Jen

31st August 2013: PLUS Berlin HostelBerlin, 01:16
=====Hectic few hours of mostly internet-using. Turns out that if you win convincingly on Countdown then you send friends/family/complete strangers into raptures. A LOT of messages to respond to.
=====However, I did drag myself away for long enough for us to go out and experience East Berlin. We walked past a hefty stretch of the East Side Gallery and admired the graffiti, spent an age wandering the supermarket aisles (we’re both fascinated by foreign supermarkets) and buying essentials such as Pom Bears, Red Bull and a tiny, adorable bottle of Jaegermeister, and having cocktails at a nearby bar. Emily didn’t enjoy her Melony cocktail (turns out it’s not a good idea to choose your friend’s cocktail based on it being an anagram of her nickname), so I selflessly drank it for her once I’d finished my Baileys Colada, which took all of two minutes. You can’t beat a Colada.
=====Haven’t seen enough of the city to judge it, but I like it so far. It’s less picturesque and more industrial/grimy than Amsterdam, and the buskers are far superior to English ones thanks to their preference for amps over acoustic. But we’ll find out more tomorrow, when we’ll spend a busy day visiting all the World War II/Cold War monuments, going out on the lash in the evening, and no doubt making more colossal discoveries about life in general – though none can be as eye-opening as today’s revelation that the German title of ’99 Red Balloons’ isn’t, as I thought it was for so long, ’99 Luftwaffe’. Proof that you can win Countdown, but still be a blithering idiot.
Signing off,
Minor daytime celebrity Jen (though not minor enough to meet the invite requirements for Celebrity Big Brother)

Later: McDonalds by Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, 15:05
=====Bit of a disastrous day. It started off small (plans for an early morning swim in the hostel pool impeded by it not opening until 10, and my water bottle proving to be incontinent in the day bag I borrowed from my grandma), but intensified at lunchgtime as we ate lunch in a park opposite the Holocaust Memorial. Our plans for a peaceful meal descended into chaos as a wasp started stalking us, at first taking a liking to Emily and, after she’d run around in a circle screaming, using me as a rebound. No sooner had we decided to risk the wrath of its family by swatting it (they release pheromones that attract their relatives) than it thankfully disappeared, possibly to ogle a nearby woman who was sunbathing naked.
=====Just as we’d settled back down, two deaf and mute guys waved clipboards in our faces that informed us they were raising money for a deafness institute. We signed and, feeling awkward that previous entries had listed €20 and €30 Euro donations, handed over 50 cents (Emily) and €1 (me). They wandered off to bother other parkgoers, leaving us to bask in the glow of our good deed for the day.
=====Minutes later, more guys with clipboards came along. We tried in vain to signal to them that we’d already signed and donated, but they were persistent; I signed it again to get rid of them, but gave no money, while Emily wavered awkwardly, not keen to go through the rigmarole of signing again. She then noticed that her bag had mysteriously opened, and that her purse was empty of notes. The boy bothering her – who surely hadn’t yet reached adolescence – had been slipping notes out of it while she was distracted by the clipboard. Fortunately she noticed his fistful of notes, and snatched at them, at which point he dropped them on the ground behind his back and made absolutely no show of repentance. She gave him the ‘Ginger Look of Death’ (even I was scared) and shouted at him until they both nonchalantly mooched off, leaving us feeling very unsettled and desperately double-checking that all our valuables were intact. (I briefly descended into hysteria on being unable to find my phone, but it was – to my immense relief – buried under all the rubbish in my bag.) A kind German woman came over to warn us, slightly too late, that their disabilities and petitions were a con. We couldn’t relax and left soon after, clutching our bags with iron grips and treating just about everyone with some amount of suspiscion.
=====Aside from that, a productive day. We’ve wandered a long way from our starting point of Friedrichstraße station: passed the Bundestag; circled the Reichstag; seen both the Sinta-Roma and Holocaust Memorials (the latter, in spite of its solemnity, would make for a fantastic game of Hide and Seek); traipsed round the Brandenburg Gate; looked at the exhibition at the Topography of Terror; and, most recently, got touristy pictures at Checkpoint Charlie. All in all, a very educational few hours – it’s easy to quickly condemn Hitler and the Nazi Party but forget how truly despicable their laws, ideology and atrocities were. I do admire how the Germans don’t try to gloss over or whitewash such a destructive era in their history, though – the Brits (regarding our ‘glorious’ days of Empire) and any other country whose belligerence has inflicted scars on so many could learn a lot from this.
=====The hostel has good facilities, but the common room closes disappointingly early and the toilets in the room don’t have locks on them. I suppose it means you have to communicate with your roommates (currently three girls from Reigate and a Spanish boy) even if you don’t want to, lest they walk in on you.
=====Off to Bebelplatz (where the Burning of the Books took place in 1933) before returning to the hostel for some much-needed R&R. Hopefully we’ve fulfilled our disaster quota for the holiday, but somehow I suspect not…
Signing off,
A very paranoid Jen (still in possession of a phone)

God May Bless America, But The English Certainly Don’t

            The ‘Napoleon Complex’, more commonly known as ‘Short Man Syndrome’, is the alleged psychological predilection of short men towards aggression, named after the diminutive Emperor of France. (Psychologists are divided over whether it’s a genuine phenomenon or a baseless stereotype but, being below average height myself, I find it plausible. People constantly making jokes about how they’re always looking down on you/you’re always looking up to them is incredibly annoying.) Whether or not height is one of them, it’s a concept that applies universally to most scenarios in which one party with ‘less’ is jealous of one with ‘more’.

A whole host of less/more dichotomies – of land mass, economy, and cultural dominance to name a few – come into play with the example that inspired this train of thought. The example? Well, judging by the frequency with which I see Facebook statuses sneering about Americans, and am directed to half-baked blogs protesting that the Brits are superior to the Yanks because we ‘gave them’ The Beatles, you have to come to the conclusion that the English* are gripped by a Napoleon Complex whenever we consider our enormous ally across the Atlantic.

It’s been well over two centuries since the United States was a British territory, and about a century since they became the dominant world force in just about everything, yet we still seem piqued that they had the temerity to surpass us on the world stage. This has led to a general attitude of “if you can’t beat them, insult them”. And insulted them we have, until the insults have become the central traits of our archetypal American stereotype. If we believe that stereotype, then Americans are stupid, crassly jingoistic, gun-loving, humourless, conservative, hyper-religious, devoid of any significant cultural history and either too thin (if they’re famous) or too fat (if they’re not).

When phrased so bluntly, even those who snipe at Americans online can see that this is intensely reductive. Of course, negative cultural stereotypes are nothing new – The Mail essentially exists to imbed stereotypes about Polish immigrants into its readers’ minds, while the French are joke fodder for a broad section of society. However, in my experience, the ‘us v them’ mentality is most prevalent and competitive when discussing America and its population. While the USA is home to horrors such as Fox News, Rick Perry and the Black Eyed Peas, it’s also responsible for innumerable scientific and technological advancements. Not to mention that while it’s rarely the first country to embrace liberalisation, when it does accept progressive measures it’s arguably more influential than when any other country does, as the subsequent worldwide press attention undoubtedly provokes debate and discussion in other countries. The idea of America inspiring less developed countries to civilise themselves (i.e. conform to a Westernised ideal of acceptability) is unhealthy, but if Obama openly supporting gay marriage means some of the Caribbean islands consider repealing their laws against male homosexuality, then maybe it has some currency.

There’s no smoke without fire. Some of the stereotypes are largely true – a third of the American population is overweight, another third is obese – but some are clearly not. Despite YouTube videos appearing to show the opposite (remember, there are obese religious fanatics who don’t know how many sides a triangle has in the UK too – the difference being that the US, having a far greater population, has a few more of them), and despite the continued influence of the Republicans seeming to imply the stereotypes have a point regarding ‘American stupidity’, it’s clearly something of a myth: over half of the population has a degree, while American universities utterly dominate worldwide university rankings. For all the history that English people pride themselves on having – and look down on Americans for not having – there were only two universities in England by 1800 (Oxford and Cambridge). America, by contrast, had over 20, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton. We may have an interesting national history stuffed with turbulent monarchies, but the American settlers were clearly far more pragmatic with regards to investing in the country’s future.

And so on and so forth. Countering every individual argument is beside the point. As ever when wisdom is needed, I defer to the words of Mean Girls: “Calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter… All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you.” That is: condemning America and Americans doesn’t make England any more a paragon of virtue. Essentially, the problem is that countries are just kids in a playground, each trying to be the most popular so they can dictate the way the world runs. England, the little kid who somehow managed to be the top dog for a while, can’t cope with having her place at the top of the pecking order usurped by one of her former minions. So to make up for losing our influence in the playground, we either try to claim the credit (“I, like, invented her!”) or discredit them (“You’re a home-schooled jungle freak, who’s a less hot version of me!”).

Newspapers such as The Mail contribute to our pique, making sure to emphasise England’s downs more aggressively than its ups, in order to make the population feel like they’re in terminal decline from some mythical Golden Age of the British Empire. By mythologising the era when we had most influence as a Golden Age, perhaps we begin to believe that America, now the most influential player on the world stage, is experiencing her Golden Age – and we’re jealous. Of course, what the newspapers fail to note is that, while we held domain over huge swathes of land, this was only achievable through the poverty and subjugation of millions. America, at least, is not guilty of that (even if it is guilty of secret internet surveillance. Swings and roundabouts).

Next time you feel the urge to sneer at Americans because they “can’t make tea” properly, wonder why you’re sneering at them as opposed to, say, Canadians. Is it because you’re subconsciously subscribed to our national Napoleon Complex? Think about it. Maybe you don’t need to sneer at anyone.

*I refer to the English and not the British because, while researching my dissertation, I came to the conclusion that the British Empire is really a misnomer – it should have been the English Empire. If anyone wants to have a lengthy quibble about this, quibble away. Just thought I’d clarify that.

You May Not Like Justin Bieber, But He’s Not The Antichrist

.     Isn’t it great how social networking sites and blogs give platforms to anyone and everyone’s opinion? It’s forced people to educate themselves into having an opinion – or, at least, reading someone else’s opinion to carry it off as your own. The problem here lies in the latter, as people have increasingly ceased to formulate their own opinion, instead jumping on righteously outraged bandwagons left, right and centre. Twitter especially boasts something of a gang mentality against certain singers, who receive intense amounts of adoration from fan girls, but also equal measures of ire from their detractors.
.     While I’m not a fan of Justin Bieber’s music, I feel that as the anti-Bieber brigade becomes increasingly rabid/sadistic, it becomes more akin to bullying, which is apparently justified because Bieber is rich, famous, has millions of pubescent girls fawning over him, and spawns deeply unimaginative pop music. These are not reasons that should excuse or justify bullying. Universal revulsion should be reserved for cases where justice needs to be brought against horrific acts that contravene others’ human rights. You’d be forgiven for forgetting, amid all the articles besmirching him, that Bieber isn’t an operator of mass genocide, a serial rapist or the head of a brutal sex-trafficking ring – he’s a slightly bland, seemingly undereducated pop star. (And no, much as you’d like to exaggerate, listening to ‘Baby’ doesn’t actually violate your human rights.)
.     Yes, it’s a shame that more creative music is routinely ignored by radio stations, music television stations and large swathes of the record-buying public. Yes, it’s almost as worrying that millions of teenage and tweenage girls deify a young man who, living his entire life in the spotlight and under the control of his record company’s management, probably has his entire image, sense of self and interview answers constructed by other people, and definitely has aired dubious views on abortion following rape – though it’s been stated that these comments were taken out of context. Yes, it’s just plain annoying when his fans, the self-styled ‘Beliebers’, make him trend daily on Twitter – and verges on chilling when they consider his cold to be more important than the death of a child with leukaemia.
.     But let’s get things in perspective here. If frenzied loathing Bieber has elicited from the public were instead used to rally against serious human rights abuses, what damage could be done there? Are the repetitive, soulless lyrics of “Baby, baby, baby, oh” (…because “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” is so much more poetic…) really more pressing an issue than the fact that homosexual activities in 8 holiday-worthy Caribbean nations are still punishable by prison sentences of over 10 years (in Barbados, it entails life imprisonment), or the fact that rape victims in the US army – where an alleged 19,000 incidents of rape are recorded annually – are denied abortions? Is it, indeed, not more worrying that Bieber, among others, has been the victim of a death hoax which, apart from being desperately irresponsible, is upsetting to the star, friends, family and fans, and downright cruel?
.     Evidently not. The crime that tops all crimes these days is writing a pop song without lyrical nous or creative orchestration. Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ became a joke and its singer a figure of fun last March. Not a problem – the video to ‘Friday’ was absurd, unintentionally parodic and amusing as a result. What was unacceptable was the way that the responses to its 13-year-old chanteuse – who didn’t even write the song, conceive the video or its non-sequiturs, or choose to Autotune her voice into oblivion – became more poisonous and personal as its YouTube views spiralled into the millions. The most vicious trolls told her to cut herself and “get an eating disorder so [she]’ll be pretty” [revealed here]. Less extreme, but very common, responses were that she was smug for smiling during the video and was ugly, with many responses taking a violent tone. Surely it’s infinitely more disturbing that adults judged – and criticised – how a 13-year-old girl looked on a sexualised scale, or were threatening violence towards her for enjoying an experience her parents had paid for her to have, than the fact the lyrics and video were stupid? So many people were casually saying they’d like to punch her that others did too; as it became normalised, it became acceptable. With bullying a more pressing issue than ever, now cyber-bullying has the power to attack behind closed doors, it seems irresponsible to promote and normalise it.
.     You don’t have to like rubbish pop music. By all means, dislike it. Dislike what it stands for, dislike the AutoTune, dislike the lyrics, generic beats and the artist’s management-constructed, conservative interview answers. But know that jumping on an anti-artist bandwagon is often the ultimate hypocrisy – by constantly squawking about how bland and boring Justin Bieber is, does that not make you bland and boring as well? More importantly, at the end of the day, Bieber’s music might be crap, but he’s not a woman-beater who wallows in his own martyrdom and makes young girls think that domestic violence is OK. The anti-Chris Brown bandwagon, at least, has something important to say.

Facebook Timeline: What Nobody Wanted, Nobody Needed, and What Everyone’s Going to Get

There’s an unwritten rule that the only acceptable way to celebrate a new Facebook layout is to complain about it. They change ‘become a fan’ to ‘like’? Time for a moan. They bring in that stupid sidebar to tell you that your friends are commenting on posts by people you don’t know? Post a furious status threatening to delete your account. They fiddle around with the privacy settings, claiming to make them easier to use but actually just making them more complicated? Back in a moment, just getting a pitchfork and joining the lynch mob that’s headed for Mark Zuckerberg’s house. [There’s an Oatmeal cartoon that accurately describes these events here.]

But Timeline is different. Whereas most Facebook layout changes are relatively small, so that users can adapt to them with minimal effort – and forget what the ‘old’ Facebook looked like within 15 minutes of their profile making the change – Zuckerberg et al. have taken a huge gamble by changing what it is people use Facebook for. Although the original aim of the original site, Facemash, was to serve as a Harvard ‘Hot or Not’ application (as shown in 2010’s Best Picture Oscar-nominated film The Social Network), it evolved into a broader social network with the mission statement “Connect with friends faster, wherever you are”. Timeline’s name says it all – it’s looking to make the Facebook user profile into a timeline of their life. It’s a huge departure from merely being a social networking tool; Facebook is now asking you to record your life story on there. It wants to know everything, be your autobiography of sorts and, courtesy of the ‘cover’ picture at the top of the page, individualise your Facebook experience a little bit. It’s a cool idea. In theory.

…Unfortunately, cool ideas in theory aren’t necessarily good ideas. The electric tricycle, The Sinclair Research C5, was a cool idea. Concorde was a cool idea. Smell-O-Vision, a 1960s cinema ‘add-on’ of sorts which released odours in conjunction with what was on the screen at the time, was a cool idea. All of these ideas failed commercially. Although Timeline’s situation is not really comparable to those of any of these examples, its advent is a strange and dangerous move by Facebook’s management, particularly considering that 7 million North American users – nearly 1% of the site’s entire users – became inactive in May 2011 alone. Will a hefty site rejig really stop the rot?

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought that Facebook was on thin ice courtesy of changes. The last ‘big change’ previous to Timeline was the installation of the sidebar that I mentioned in the first paragraph; despite promising improved privacy settings, a sidebar that tells everyone in your friend list what you’re saying to anyone if you don’t have tight privacy settings was hardly upholding the mores of personal privacy. Although it’s easy to tighten your settings, it doesn’t tell you beforehand that your information is being publicly displayed if your privacy settings extend further than ‘Friends’. Even as a bit of a Facebook stalker myself, I find that amount of information being readily available to my stalking senses deeply uncomfortable. And don’t get me started on Subscribers…

…But, still, the gamble might be paying off. Certainly, the majority of tech websites and blogs have been having geekgasms over it since it was released on December 15th. The Guardian released a startlingly sycophantic article in support of it, including gushing over the fact that you can jump back to the day you were born on your ‘timeline’. In all honesty, I can’t think of anything I’d require less on the website. With most of Facebook’s 800 million users yet to adopt the new layout, the wider public’s opinion is yet to be known.

However, speaking as someone with little knowledge of computer complexities, over 4 years’ worth of Facebook experience and the Timeline installed for a fortnight now, I’m going to make the bold prediction that 2012 is going to be Google+’s year, and (eek) the beginning of Facebook’s downfall. Industry analysts predict that Google+’s user base will reach 400 million – half of Facebook’s – by the end of this year, and a radical change of Facebook profiles is almost certainly going to lead to that number increasing. A quarter of Google+’s users signed up in December 2011 alone – the same month that Timeline was released. Especially considering that users aren’t being given the option to revert their profiles to the ‘old’ layout, I doubt that’s just a coincidence. Let’s just say that, given the choice, I wouldn’t have kept my profile in that state, and – had I not already been on Google+ – I would have signed up for it there and then.

Essentially, with Timeline, Facebook is asking too much of its users. Sure, it was fun having a play around with the map feature when I realised I was stuck with the damn thing. I tagged where I’d been in my life – which came to disaster when I somehow, embarrassingly, managed to tag friends as being in Abu Dhabi airport with me right at that moment (despite entering the date of this visit as July 2009) – and had a cheeky stalk of myself from years past (result: oh Christ, the embarrassment of being an angsty 15-year-old…). But – maybe I’m too old to spend ages arranging my profile into a specific order, maybe I’ve grown out of the website, or maybe it’s just jumped the shark now – it all seems forced, unnecessary and, to keep their information on the site to a minimum, alienating. Many users keep their profiles merely to keep in touch with distant friends, share articles (cough) or remain on the social radar, to be invited to events. What exactly does Timeline do for them?

Other parts seem to be overkill even from the most avid stalker’s perspective. What does knowing when someone liked a page do for anyone? The only use for it that I can think of may be a misguided assumption in any case; assuming that someone started liking a band at a certain point because they became a fan of them in October 2009 could be wrong for any number of reasons. Over the years I’ve cut back my musical Likes on my page either out of embarrassment, lapses in support or by mistake (alternatively, just to cut back the sheer number), so if you’re assuming, for example, that I only became a fan of McFly in 2008, you’re so wrong. (February 2004, actually.) While some of the information you can dredge up from your history on Timeline is interesting, enlightening or amusing, there’s no point having it if it’s plain wrong or utterly useless/tedious.

On a more serious level, the option to add sensitive life stories to the profile such as ‘Death of a Loved One’ seems like a serious misjudgement on Facebook’s part. Sharing Likes was one thing; sharing deaths is quite another. Perhaps I’m being old-fashioned or over-analysing things here, but I was under the impression that family or friend deaths aren’t the sort of trivial things that one would want to share with the world, or even your whole friends list. Sure, you can decide not to put it on there, or you can hide it from certain people you wouldn’t want to share it with, but the fact that it’s even an option lends the disturbing conclusion that Facebook wants to know all your secrets, including the most painful and traumatic ones. In my opinion, that’s the sort of information that people should have to earn through trust and proper friendship, not just from being a casual acquaintance that boosts one’s numbers. In the days of yore, when it was just Likes that one could flaunt, Facebook’s sharing facilities meant that people who didn’t know each other that well could base a friendship on a mutual interest, or at the very least discuss it. Sharing deaths turns Facebook from being a refreshing, light-hearted opportunity to socialise into a potentially solemn and awkward experience. After a frenetic stalking session, I once discovered a friend’s father had died several years before we’d met; it leaves you feeling guilty, overly-intrusive and puts you off stalking a little bit. And without stalkers to read your life story, Timeline is utterly redundant.

Sometimes Facebook’s changes are for the best. Who can really say that they miss Superpoke! or Gifts? But I honestly don’t think the new layout is more attractive than the old one; two columns of links or comments overwhelms the user with an overload of information where the previous layout’s single column neatly presented information at a digestible pace. The ‘cover’ idea is alright, livening up the top of the page, but I can’t help but be reminded of MySpace’s garish backgrounds and HTML stars falling down the page when I see it. The jumbled and random placing of activity boxes, recently listened to music and recently read news articles is incredibly confusing, as are the privacy settings; ok, you can decide how private each speck of information is, but more options leads to more confusion. Admittedly, I do like the fact that it has incorporated news applications into the site – although a lot of the articles I find myself reading on there are utter trash, some of them are quite interesting or informative and it’s never a bad thing to know that a supposedly ignorant age group are educating themselves on world affairs in between stalking.

I think the main problem here is that Facebook’s monopoly on social networking has made its directors want to incorporate the USPs of every other social networking website into it so that it fulfils every purpose and continues to be a necessity in modern life. It copied the ‘what’s on your mind?’ question in the status box after Twitter got big (though both have now changed this), introduced a Spotify-merger music profiling system that rips off LastFM (to a less successful extent – there’s no way of combining it with one’s iTunes listens, making its catalogue of music plays unrepresentative for many users), and has the option to ‘tag’ one’s location that Foursquare provides. The one thing that it doesn’t provide is a comprehensive search engine; this gives Google+ a major advantage.

Google is the only website higher up in the Alexa rankings (detailing the most visited websites in the world) than Facebook, and is ubiquitous to the point where it has its own verb in the Oxford English Dictionary (“To google (2): 1. intr. To use the Google search engine to find information on the Internet.”), something that Facebook has yet to achieve; as such, it reaches an even wider target audience than Facebook. But what really gives it the edge is Google+’s USP: it strips back most of the excess that Facebook has accumulated in trying to be everything to everyone, and instead gives you a clean, uncluttered interface. It provides a similar service to that which many people originally signed up to Facebook for; connecting and interacting with friends. There’s none of this Timeline nonsense, except your birthday, schools and jobs – if you want to share them – and there’s no ‘share the death of a loved one’ obligation. It’s simpler, nicer to look at and is comfortingly ‘old-school’, but simultaneously fresh. At the moment, it gains over half a million users per day; that number looks set to increase as other social networks drive out their users with unnecessary changes.

Of the people I know who have explored Timeline, the overwhelming majority dislike it. When it becomes a compulsory layout for all, they won’t be alone; surely this will tie in with a surge of people deactivating their accounts and leaving the website, maybe in their millions. After all, how long until the next set of changes? How many times can people watch their profiles being messed around with? Somewhere in Los Angeles, Tom Anderson from MySpace is sitting on the sofa of ex-social network overlords, cackling at the schadenfreude of it all, and getting the popcorn out as he watches the drama unfold. He’s waiting for Zuckerberg to join him.

A Guide to Facebook Etiquette, Part 2

I tried my best to educate the online masses with my original article on Facebook etiquette, informing them that their overly sentimental/dull/posing ways were an annoyance to society and, more importantly, to me. Unfortunately it seems that not only have they ignored me and continued in the same vein, they’ve found new ways to exasperate the virtual community. Readers of the original blog related their other Facebook-related gripes, and as a result I’ve made a sequel. Here’s to hoping that those committing these grievous online crimes will repent of their social-networking sins this time…

1. Just because you don’t have anyone to say goodnight to in real life doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for you to wish a website goodnight. IT REALLY ISN’T.

Maybe it’s understandable on Twitter. If you’ve been Tweeting incessantly for three hours and people have been responding in real time, it’s only polite to suggest that talking time is over and that you’re off to bed. This is acceptable because you are effectively having a conversation. Facebook, on the other hand, provides several means for conversations with people; wall posts, private messages, Facebook chat. Ergo, you can say goodnight to people individually if you’ve been talking to them. You don’t need to say goodnight to your ex-milkman, father’s uncle’s cousin’s pet mouse Snuffles or that kid from your class who wet himself in assembly in year 3.

2. Hilarious as you may be, if you’re really that funny then other people will like your own status. You don’t need to.

The ‘like’ button is great; it’s an instant way to feel popular or express approval/amusement, and a simple way of distinguishing the good statuses from the chaff. But you should NEVER click that button on your own status, even if it is absolutely spray-your-orange-squash-over-your-keyboard-from-laughing-so-hard hilarious. The minute you press ‘like’ on your own status is the moment you go from hero to zero. No longer are you the Oscar Wilde of the internet; you’re a self-congratulating egotist. Worse still, because you’ve probably liked it before anyone else, you look like a self-congratulating egotist with no friends: given Facebook’s function of being essentially a social competition, it means you lose big time.

Of course, being a self-congratulating egotist myself, I have to state that there’s nothing wrong with the occasional bit of self-appreciation. It makes a change from the desperately insecure people that plague the internet. But there’s a line, and when you click the button, you cross it. Trust me on this; you come across as being inordinately lame whenever you do this.

3. No, Farmville users, I don’t want to sow your sodding seeds. Why don’t you go and do that in the Biblical sense so you don’t have to bother me about it?

Karma got me on this one; a friend complained about this particular issue to me and, for a laugh, I added the application just to send her a ‘sow my seeds’ notification like the person she’d been criticising. [Ed: I’ve just realised the potential for this as a chat-up line.] Unfortunately, this then meant that I was exposed to the threat of being notified by the three remaining Farmville players on Facebook, all of whom I seem to be connected with (including the original offender), and soon the red flag began waving at the top of the page with Farmville requests. Playing Facebook games isn’t a crime in itself, or I’d be guilty as charged with Tetris Friends, but it’s the minute you start bothering people you don’t know very well to help you out. You wouldn’t ask someone you knew briefly at a party to look after your gerbils (and if you did, I fear for the wellbeing of your gerbils), so why would you ask them to look after your crops? Obviously this allegory doesn’t quite work, because the gerbils are living, breathing animals and the crops are fictional pixels on a screen, but it’s still asking the other person to devote time and energy (ish) to something that probably isn’t top of their priorities list. In some ways it’s worse, because it won’t benefit them at all – at least with looking after one’s pets they can enjoy the company and the hilarity that comes with watching animals. With Farmville, as I understand it, watering someone’s plants helps the other person to be better than you. Unless you have an altruistic streak, why bother?

So, to the Farmville requesters; there’s a reason why no-one is sowing your seeds in the virtual world, and that reason is that everyone has blocked your notifications. I hope your pixel plants die. (Did I go too far there?)

4. If you’ve fulfilled your biological duties and popped out a sprog, well done to you. That doesn’t justify your posting hundreds of pictures and statuses of and about your spawn.

This is similar to my point in the original article about couples with their soppy statuses and millions of ‘happy couple’ photos – but it’s worse, because unlike couples, the mother and baby are unlikely to break up. It’s the beginning of a long road ahead.
It begins during the pregnancy, and it’s bad enough then. There comes a chant of “I cnt w8 4 ma bb gal 2 b born I luv u so much darlin frm mummy xxx”* every week – no, to-be mother, your baby cannot read your Facebook status, and neither can anyone with a modicum of literacy. Ultrasound photos begin cropping up. Then they squeeze the infant out. “Ma bb gal ws born @ 3 37am xxx” – fair enough; the mother has earned it after the pain of giving birth. The first picture appears of a chubby pink prune with a face. Again, fair enough; they want the online community to know that it is definitely their other half’s baby (unlike that couple on Jeremy Kyle), and want their self-esteem boosted by people telling them that your DNA hasn’t produced a mini-Eric Pickles lookalike.
As the weeks go by, the mother posts more and more photographs of her offspring, and never fails to miss an opportunity to talk about breastfeeding, nappy-changing or complaining about the rigours of motherhood. In any case, you begin to wish that Durex had sold an extra box of their stock nine months earlier. In the same way that there are only so many photos you can see of make-up-drowned caricatures preening in the mirror, or of couples attempting to eat each others’ uvulas, there are only so many photos you can see of a miniature Voldemort-with-nose that cries and craps for England. Eventually you begin to hope that the mother is so hormonally-screwed that she removes you as a friend, fearing for the safety of her much-promulgated child because people she wouldn’t trust as a babysitter know every detail of Junior’s life through her statuses. And whose fault is that? Precisely. If you’re going to add to world overpopulation, please don’t add to Facebook’s problems by complaining about your leaky nipples. Thanks.

*I’m not suggesting that all mothers are keyboard-illiterate. I’m just drawing on my own experience of Facebook mothers™ and their heinous News Feed-clogging and English language-anorexia [by which I mean that they slim down their words to an unhealthy size].

5. ‘Click the link to be GUARANTEED a free diamond-encrusted iPad 7 with Pippa Middleton attached, valued at £1,603,845.59!’ Thanks, but no thanks – I’m not as deficient in the brain department as you are if you thought this offer was genuine.

If your account was hacked, no problem. That doesn’t reflect badly on you. What does reflect badly, however, is when you like these sort of pages, click these sort of links, or most annoyingly, naively watch ‘This video where a baby gets beaten with a kebab skewer – SHOCKING!!’. This affects my life because it immediately starts posting said video on everyone’s wall – yes, including mine. I don’t want to watch a baby being beaten with a kebab skewer, and quite frankly it disturbs me that you did. It’s not dissimilar to the frustration of having ‘___ ___ answered a question about you! [‘Does [your name] have an fuzzy rainbow merkin?’] Click here to see how they answered!’ plastered on it every time I log on. I do not know or care if someone thinks I have a fuzzy rainbow merkin. [Ed: Incidentally, I don’t.] Anyway, the chances are that you’re not that computer-naive if you can use Facebook and tag people in your statuses, so how can you be stupid enough to think that you’ll get a free iPad if you click the link?

Besides, Pippa Middleton’s an absolute dog anyway. I’d rather have a Prince Harry attached…

The Dos and Don’ts of Gig Behaviour (From the Point of View of a Short Female)

Indulging in primitive aggression is sometimes the best way to relax. Once you’ve let out all of your stresses via the medium of lashing out at innocents, you’re no longer a Mr/s Angry but a serene nice guy/girl who wants to pet cats instead of kicking them. But where to unleash this wave of hostility? You can’t just walk around attacking people on the street; you’d get arrested and thrown into jail, which would just make you even angrier. There’s the option to go and participate in crowd activities at Millwall FC, but then you’re just reinforcing a stereotype. Plus you might get arrested anyway. This leaves only one place for you to be as violent as you want, with no regard for chivalry (well, this is the age of equality after all) or lawfulness, with the added bonus that it comes with a soundtrack that you’re presumably prepared to pay a little extra for. Welcome to the world of gigs, and the microcosm of the mosh-pit, where if you’re six foot and thirteen stone you can have the time of your life throwing shorter/lighter/less belligerent music fans around with no care about their wellbeing – hell, if they break a few ribs, that’s even better! It’ll make them more resilient in the future, right?

Except that when you’re the shorter/lighter/less belligerent music fan being thrown around, it’s not so much fun. At five foot four, it’s difficult to see the gig at all due to the wall of six-foot men in front of you, and due to your vertical disadvantage you spend the entire gig with your head in the sweaty six-foot men’s armpits – not a pleasant experience, I assure you. But when morons are trying their utmost to clobber your skull with their elbows so they can get closer to the front (when the five rows in front are absolutely impenetrable, and no amount of left-right-left-right shoving that occurs can alter this – it just results in a few people in the sixth row nearly falling over, namely me), that’s even less of a pleasant experience, and it somewhat detracts from the actual music. So here are my dos and don’ts of gig attendance, to make the gig world a better place for everyone.

 

DON’T take your shirt off. Please. I implore you. Why do I ask this? Normally I’d be overjoyed to see a caramel-hued six-pack in front of me, and I’d die from it being in such close proximity to me. But when you’re behind said topless man at a gig, and are constantly being thrust into his sweaty back by the crowd behind you, it’s more than enough to long for the damp stench of someone else’s t-shirt that you were being shoved into earlier. At least that way the sweat is diluted, a kind of sweat squash. Not particularly enjoyable, but still far better than the pure sweat fountain you accidentally imbibe when forced up against the sweaty man. No-one should ever have to have their face covered in someone else’s unmitigated sweat unless it involves carnal occurrences at the Equator.

 

DO go with the flow. By which I mean, don’t fall behind with the crowd’s jumping direction – if you jump down when the rest of the crowd jumps up, you’ll end up biting your tongue and owning the swollen evidence for the rest of the week. Uncomfortable.

 

DON’T crowdsurf. You might think you look like the bee’s knees, and you’ll probably get closer to the band than if you obey the rules, but if you forcefully launch yourself on my head again I will squish your privates into oblivion. Less an eye for an eye than a head for a head.

 

DO check that other people are ok. Love thy neighbour when the rest of the crowd seems intent on killing them. Karma will reward you well, and you’ll earn their respect.

 

DON’T be afraid to stand up to the more irritating moshers. I may have been half their height, but I snapped when the crowd of moshers who were intent on forming their own ‘hilarious’ personal mosh-pit clobbered into me for the fiftieth during the encore at Weezer and made full use of my elbows; the two men next to me looked impressed by my karate skills and the moshers didn’t clobber me again. Result.

 

DO wear the most secure shoes you own. Or you’ll lose one of them and have to hop around the mosh-pit for the last half an hour, frantically trying not to fall over when the crowd surges the other way, anxiously leaning your vulnerable foot on top of your remaining shoe lest it be trampled into oblivion.

 

DON’T let the idiots get you down. Feel superior that you can have fun without wanting to take lives, enjoy the music and envision them getting a roasting in Hell, where an army of giant hedgehogs moshes at their expense. If you can’t do that, you should probably try the seated section next time.