Quite possibly the best series ever. The top 3 seeds are the 1st, 3rd and 5th highest-scoring contestants ever, while all 6 octochamps scored over 750 points (averaging over 90 points per game). And that’s not even touching on the contestants who DIDN’T make it; Zarte Siempre was on for a 900-scoring octorun until he was paired against the now highest-scoring contestant ever, while several other contestants fell after a clutch of impressive century-scoring performances. Every finalist has been practising frantically since they finished filming… so it’ll make for an interesting series finals to say the least.
1st QF: Dylan Taylor v Gemma Church (12th December)
2nd QF: Jen Steadman v Callum Todd (13th December)
3rd QF: Glen Webb v Jonathan Liew (16th December)
4th QF: Bradley Cates v Alex Fish (17th December)
1st SF: Winner of 1st QF v winner of 4th SF (18th December)
2nd SF: Winner of 2nd SF v winner of 3rd SF (19th December)
Grand Final: Winner of 1st SF v winner of 2nd SF (20th December)
PREAMBLE: Finally! The long-awaited finale that everyone’s been waiting for.* (*Forgotten about because I got employed pretty much as soon as I got back, and as a result haven’t got round to copying it up until over a month after we got back.) To jog your memory: we have been followed through parks in Amsterdam by strange men who want to show us something, almost mugged in Berlin by people pretending to be mute, pulling off toilet seats in bars in Prague, watched on the toilet by an entirely unexplainable picture of a horse in Krakow, leched on by fat men in the baths in Budapest, and probably banned from Vienna for the rest of our lives due to our terrible singing of ‘Vienna’ and ‘Edelweiss’. I left our heroes at the Opera House in Vienna, with just 5 days of their trip left, but several cities still to see. But first they must remain alive in Vienna, where a terrifying presence awaits them later that night…
14th September: Kebab-Pizza Palace, Maria Hilfer Straße, Vienna, 17:33
Last night saw both extreme enjoyment and extreme fear. The former came in the shape of the opera, something I never thought I’d be converted to – how wrong I was While female opera voices are still a little shrill, Carmen’s absolutely banging soundtrack meant that it was not only bearable, but enjoyable, while the costumes, scale of cast (there must have been about 50 people singing on the stage at certain points), and voice control left us awestruck. It’s a great story, too; even though the typical virgin/whore dichotomy with Micaela/Carmen and the moral of the story that being a saucy wench will end badly are now outdated, post-Sexual Revolution, that’s not really the point, is it?
Turns out you genuinely can reserve your standing spot with a scarf (or a ribbon, in my case) – an excellent tradition that I don’t think could be successfully implemented in England. The provision of little fold-out translators underneath the bar in front of you was useful not only for hanging these on, but also for, y’know, translating the lyrics so you can follow the story. We were standing in the centre at the front of the parterre, and probably had better views than some of the viewers who’d spent a hundred or so Euros on their seats – those 3 hours of queuing paid off nicely. We were joined by a man with the deepest voice known to man; a voice so deep I giggled whenever he squeezed past and growled “Thank you” in a way that would well befit a villain. Sadly, Combover Guy must have been standing elsewhere.
However, later that night at the hostel, a presence less adorable than Combover Guy and more chillingly villain-like than Mr Deep Voice awaited us. At 2am, as we were settling down to sleep, a rattling key in the lock heralded his coming, followed by a slam of the door, a clink of keys as they landed at my feet and the pressure of a book resting on the bit of duvet over my foot. I had something he thought was his – my bed.
The bed I lay upon. The bed I’d strewn with my belongings before we’d left that morning, so that no-one could usurp it. The bed he’d removed everything from, and replaced with a bag of reeking clothes and a Bible. The bed he seemingly hadn’t realised I was trying to sleep in, having thrown his belongings on an unoccupied bed by the window in a fit of pique that someone should steal my bed.
Fearing his obliviousness would linger until he tried to climb into that same bed, Emily alerted him to my being there: “Excuse me – my friend’s up there!”. I stirred, to see a man in a green t-shirt much older than us, as he purred “Sorry – I was told two British girls left this morning.” He spoke quietly, and paused between sentences, in a vaguely unsettling way. Finding my courage, I brusquely replied, “Well, we haven’t.” Worried he would stake a claim to the bed I’d slept in the night before, I prepared to defend it. Yet he made little fuss and so, out of politeness, I responded to his questions. They were questions we’d heard from travellers in every city we’d been to – at first, at least. His name was DP, apparently, and he came from Bromley. Emily ruined my plan to give him false names, though he seemed to think her name was Amy anyway.
After these relatively normal beginnings, the conversation went off at random angles, into a series of haphazard topics including Princess Diana, free press, and the abundance of psychotherapists in Munich. These subjects began to loop, to our sleep-deprived confusion. Was he really asking us for the second time in five minutes if we’d been to Munich? Did he think we’d teleported while he wasn’t looking? Was he really oblivious to the fact that, with one eye open, head lolling on the pillow and feigning my best ‘tired’ voice, I was trying to sleep, and really couldn’t give a toss about Princess Di?
But these questions went unasked, as we listened to his steadily more crazed ramblings. “There are people from all over the world, downstairs,” he said, “Is it a UN conference?”. We pointed out that, in a hostel, you tended to meet people from every continent. This was not to his liking. “I’m not being paid to talk to foreigners,” he spat, “I’m not an MP.” We soon found out that this was the tip of a xenophobic iceberg. His quiet, venomous mutter of “Should’ve been a Nazi” convinced us that we were sharing a room with a psychopath and would be lucky to see daylight again.
The thought of sleeping near a Bromley-born Hitler was too much for Emily’s constitution to bear, so she played dead. This lumbered me with the sole responsibility for fending off the questions of a madman, my pulse throbbing with fear all the while. “Have you got boyfriends in Venice?” he asked. “Do you want to see a weird text I received the other day?” Reminded of the guy who’d followed us in Vondelpark in Amsterdam, wanting to show us something, my fight-or-flight mechanism kicked in. “No thanks, I’m off to sleep now. Goodnight!” I told him quickly but firmly, before rolling over to face the wall. And, as Emily turned off the light, that should have been the end of that.
Except DP did not like the dark, and was reduced to ripping open the curtains and staring out the window. As a siren wailed in the distance, he murmured, “So many illegal things going on in this city.” (Laughable – Vienna is the safest city I’ve ever been to.) Bored of his musings, he proceeded to bang, crash and wallop about the room, attempting to make his bed, and furiously, repetitively muttering, “Where does this go? Where does this go?”. After five minutes of his insane rambling, I was tempted to shout “UP YOUR ARSE, YOU INCONSIDERATE PRICK!!”.
His customarily noisy walk to the bathroom only got noisier once he’d reached his destination, as he began to shout “I’M NOT A JOURNALIST, I’M AUSTRALIAN!!” to himself. Emily and I instantly, simultaneously looked out the side of our bed, looked at each other, and whispering “OH MY GOD, HE’S CRAZY!” in terrified unison. As the door unlocked, we flopped back into feigned sleep again as he started a new cycle of “Where does this go?”.
Emily, who clearly had some kind of deathwish, took pity on him and made his bed for him. I meanwhile was busy fearing for my life and working out a self-defence plan. This primarily involved genuinely contemplating sleeping with my rape alarm in my hand, lest he forget which bed was his and try and get in mine. Decided against it in case I rolled onto the chain and pulled it off in the night, treating everyone to a chorus of noise.
Bed successfully made, the light was once again turned off, and we prepared to actually sleep. Of course, this was merely wishful thinking. He offered us water, which from anyone else could have been a pleasantry, but from a man whose face I suspected could be the last I ever saw before being SAVAGELY MURDERED, it was simply terrifying. He turned the light by his bed on, and – proving that ‘DP’ rhymes with ‘creepy’ for a reason – proceeded to sit bolt upright in his bed, watching us.
My terror had nullified my need to sleep for about an hour now, but finally I heroically gave into slumber. Emily, a far lighter sleeper, was not so lucky, and had wait for DP to briefly leave the room so she could ssprint to his bed, turn the light off, and dash back to her own bed lest he catch her. When she woke, he was sitting in the bed, still upright, still watching us.
Opening your eyes to find someone else’s staring at you, inches away, wide-eyed and manic, is the stuff of poor horror movies. It was also the stuff of the next morning, when – upon opening my eyes – the first thing I saw were DP’s eyes, peering at me through the slats of my bed. “Have you seen my socks?” he hissed menacingly. Stifling the urge to scream, I squeaked out a no, fearing that I would pay for ignorance with my life.
Emily also experienced this rude awakening. For when she opened her eyes, minutes later, she too saw her life flash before them as he crouched, leaning threateningly close to her, and desiring an answer to that fateful question. “Have you seen my socks?” Although I was too afraid to get out of bed, I was heartened to see that the other beds in the room were occupied by some Australian boys – who, it later transpired, had been snubbed by DP as he didn’t like their accents.
He left not long after this, apparently having found his socks in his suitcase, and having filled in a feedback form which he’d left on the table. Emily kept it, as its text was proof of his madness. In addition to stating, for no apparent reason, that he was part of the ‘humane race’, he answered the questions thus:
What was the best part of your stay?
“Unsure but as if [sic] lost a pair of socks in transit from one dorm bed to another, but ‘found’ them again in my suitcase, without having recall of sequence of events fully surrounding this matter.”
What could be better?
“Unsure exactly if press free. UN, MP, MEP would really be interested in this matter. I have prayed for good outcomes.”
To be fair, Emily thinks he probably had Aspergers, and I don’t want to further stigmatise mental health. But even if that was the case, he was still bizarre. (And hilarious – we’ve spent the whole day staring at each other ominously and whispering “HAVE YOU SEEN MY SOCKS?” on public transport, much to the confusion of fellow travellers.)
We worked off our remaining terror by taking shelter from the pouring rain in Starbucks again (more beautiful employees were working there today, none throwing straws though) and copying up my blog/updating our journals. When it dried up, Emily went for a free cycle and got pulled over by the police for cycling in the wrong lane. Naturally, I did not take up the offer of a free cycle – partly because it would have made me a huge hypocrite after spending half the trip planning new and unusual forms of torture for the many cyclists who’ve tried to prematurely end my life, and mostly because I haven’t cycled since some hellish misadventures at Center Parcs in 2010, with a bike whose chain seemed determined to fall off at the most inconvenient of moments.
After this, we headed off to Stephensdom Church (very pretty) and Schönsbunn Palace (utterly gorgeous). Mid-jumping picture outside Schönsbunn, I became aware of another tourist jumping with me. Amused by their daring, I turned to see what my new friend looked like. Imagine my surprise when it actually turned out to be an old friend – Adam, who had been one of my co-holidayees on my post-A level results trip to Croatia three years ago!
Following a long catch-up that relayed the horror of our DP experience in full, ghoulish detail, we bid him and his travelling companion farewell and sat in the gardens so I could hastily scribble out a postcard to my parents (I’d kept their postcard from Budapest to myself), before heading back to Westbahnhof to find cheap food. The only downside of my pizza was that a glob of extremely hot mozzarella fell on my hand and SCALDED IT.* (*Emily would like to state that this is an exaggeration, and it just made my hand a little bit red for a few minutes. But it hurt 😦 )
Time to go – the guy on the till looks grumpy that we haven’t paid and left yet.
A Jen who HASN’T seen your socks
18th September: Café Bazar, Salzburg, 11:15am
Since my last update, I have run out of money, been to a beach (at last!) and caught hypothermia. Ok, the last one is a slight exaggeration, but barely – since coming north from Venice to Munich and Salzburg, it has become bitterly cold. Not to mention it is currently raining on a scale that suggests a Biblical flood is nigh, and those treasuring their lives should find an acquaintance with an ark.
We are in Salzburg for a day trip at Emily’s ‘Sound of Music’-loving behest. I’ve seen enough of the film to surmise that it consists of a bunch of singing children, a singing Julie Andrews and some edelweiss. However, this is precisely why it is not at the top of my ‘To Watch’ list – children are bad enough, but SINGING children are on a whole new level of evil. (Though I’ll make exceptions for Aled Jones and Michael Jackson.) Emily pranced about at the scene of the ‘Do Re Mi’ song while I tried to negotiate a camera and an upright umbrella simultaneously, which is more difficult than it sounds. After she took a few photos of me looking grumpily sodden, we decided that we would have to decamp to a local café or succumb to frostbite. I miss my winter coat.
As ever with foreign trips lasting over a week, the closer we get to going home, the keener I am to get back. Living out of a backpack with 4 outfits on rotation is not a lifestyle I could lead for much longer. I long for a room to myself, solitude, my laptop, my lovely gerbil, my wardrobe and being able to ask for tap water in restaurants without causing offence. I especially long for being able to go a day without spending any money; Venice cleaned us out.
The trip to Venice started well; we slept well on the night train, in a compartment we shared with a group of very friendly middle-aged Argentinians. Their English was very limited, and our Spanish virtually non-existent, so we communicated in single words and, when that failed, gestures – but even if we didn’t always understand them, we enjoyed their rowdy, excitable chatter. There’s something so aurally cheerful about the Spanish language. (Emily bumped into them again when wandering round Venice, and they greeted her with typical enthusiasm.)
But it was about to get worse. After trapesing the streets, churches and ferrybuses of Venice for 6 hours to fill the pre-check in time, we arrived at the hostel and I tried to pay my 60 Euro bill for the two nights… only to find my travel credit card rejected. Perhaps not a surprise – I had a rough estimate in my head of having around 100 Euros, but the mess of different currencies on the trip had ruined any plans for budgeting. It’s hard to keep track when you’re constantly trying to convert currencies in your head, especially when their conversion rates vary so wildly.
So I gave the woman at the desk 20 Euros and tried 40 on the card. When it was rejected again, I was taken aback. Less than 40 euros?? Christ. Time to borrow 20 off Emily, and try 20 on the card, before ringing home to get my finances supplemented….
Rejected again. SHIT. The woman on the desk glared at me as I flapped helplessly, completely unable to comprehend where all the money had gone, regretting the £18 bar crawls in Prague (especially the one that ended prematurely) and the overpriced Cream Coolers in Starbucks, before Emily nudged me aside to pay on my behalf while I frantically texted home and waited for reinforcements to my bank card. So this is what it’s like to have a card rejected, I thought.
It took a long and aggressive kerfuffle on the phone between father and bank to get more money on the card (we’d been misinformed when buying it – turns out you’re not allowed to get a third party to top it up), but it was eventually successful, while my search for notes in my bag was fruitful as I discovered a trove of 60 euros in one of the ‘safe’ pockets in my bag. 150 euros on my card, and 20 in my wallet, should have kept me going quite steadily on the fiscal front.
That is, until I reneged on my “let’s not go on a gondola, I can’t afford it” pledge the next day when Emily pleaded with me to go with her. Ah, the joys of tourist traps – the privilege of telling people I’ve done something entirely clichéd was worth 1 Euro per minute each. It was alright, but the cost made me feel pressured to enjoy it, which nullified what would otherwise have been a fairly relaxing experience. Now I’m down to my last 30 Euros (again), I have to say that I regret splashing out on it.
We’d been to the museum in St Mark’s Basilica on the Sunday after arriving, while a service was occurring downstairs; the sound of the congregation singing had really added to the experience. Everywhere else, however, was ludicrously expensive and suffocated with tourists, so we went to the island of Lido in order to pay a visit to Santa Maria Elizabetta beach, the only one in Venice. After initial reluctance, I unbuttoned the bottom of my dress, tied it up like a sarong and went paddling up to my knees. Emily went for a proper swim and, while getting changed afterwards, accidentally flashed a granny, who judging by her grin enjoyed the view.
We then got to the serious and mature business of drawing things in the sand with our toes. Having already paid tribute to DP on the night train with a biro-drawn heart tattoo encircling his name on my arm, we drew a heart in the sand and dedicated it to him. Emily wrote her name, while I strived for originality and artistic skill, opting to draw a sandy penis outline. (Some things never change.) We then moved on to writing ‘Interrail’ (Emily) and ‘952’ (me, in honour of my Countdown glory); on having the latter photographed, I thought it would be hilarious to spontaneously throw my dress up and give the camera a cheeky glimpse of my bikini bottoms. The granny who’d admired Emily’s errant cleavage grinned again at the sight of my swimwear-clad pudenda. I’ve had so little sexual attention on this trip that I’m inclined to count that as such.
Decamping to a restaurant soon after, I satisfied my craving for calzone on one the size of a very tall, thin baby. Although it hasn’t wiped out the memory of how glorious Zizzi’s calzones are back home, it was extremely nice. We planned to spend the evening on the canal, drinking wine. Yet it was not to be; the goodwill from both the calzone and a hysterical laughing fit on the ferrybus back to the hostel (caused by Emily taking a picture of me pulling the single most horrific face known to man) was ravaged by a fiasco with the Countdown series finals tickets, so I decided it was better not to inflict it on the outside world. As it turns out, we wouldn’t have been able to drink the wine we’d bought in any case, as we’d slightly overlooked the need for a corkscrew.
The gondola expenses wouldn’t have totally unbalanced my bank account had it not been for us being royally fucked by the Italian train ticketing system the next day. It turns out that, for the privilege of SITTING ON AN ITALIAN TRAIN, we had to pay a surcharge for the first time (night trains aside). 7 euros for a 5-hour train from Verona (our stop-off point) to Munich was reasonable, but 18 euros for a 1-hour train from Venice to Verona?! Fuck RIGHT off.* [*NB: You can tell that the whole money issue had made me quite grumpy.]
Verona was fairly pretty, but the postcards were terribly tacky; covered in gaudy love hearts and single-minded in their quest to promote the city’s legacy as the setting of Romeo and Juliet. We eventually found ‘Juliet’s house’ with its balcony, statue of Juliet and trails of ivy growing up the walls. It was nearly as busy as St Mark’s Square in this little courtyard, stuffed with people queuing to have a picture of themselves groping Juliet’s metal tit and grinning lecherously. We decided to forgo this classy and mature tradition and instead have pizza for breakfast instead – “When in Verona”, etc. It was all going so smoothly until a mysterious 4 euro charge for ‘coperto’ appeared on the bill. Fearing we’d been charged 4 euros for the breadsticks we hadn’t asked for or eaten, we asked the waiter who’d ignored us for ages what it meant. Shouting “Coperto, coperto!” and looking exceptionally moody, he gestured at the small print in the menu declaring a 2-euro service charge per person. If Italians could charge you money to breathe their air, they would do.
We encountered another grumpy man on the train, this one dressed in hideous waterproof camping clothes. He disappeared from our train carriage for around an hour but, having left his rucksack among us, we kindly saved his seat for him at the expense of seat-deprived youth who were far better dressed. His gratitude was manifested in snapping at Emily when he returned for her putting her feet up; I resisted the urge to snap back at him that his outfit was offending my eyesight, but we were halfway through a bingo-filled game of Scrabble and I didn’t want to fight him until I’d won. (I did, but by a slim margin.) In between Scrabbling, I heroically read over 300 pages of Rebecca (agonisingly, arriving in Munich with 5 pages to go), and almost accidentally decapitated people trying to get my rucksack down and get my iPod charger out.
The hostel was down a road opposite the station – highly convenient – and we prepared for the horror of what a 40-person dorm would look like…
…Surprisingly, it seemed ok at first glance. Although it was just one room, it had four ‘sections’ with 5 bunkbeds in each. The mattress was awful, but the other hostellees were well-behaved enough for me to sleep well after we returned from a steak restaurant where I had some cracking beef goulash (featuring what I’ve come to recognise as the best food ever – paprika). Embarrassingly, I was the noisy roommate who wakes everyone up this morning, as my alarm went off while my phone went for a game of Hide and Seek in my bag. Oops. At least it was Animal Nitrate blaring out and not Skrillex. The woken hostellees should consider themselves musically educated.
It was the showers, not the sleeping arrangements, which proved horrifying. In Venice there had been nice showers with the downside of being a) not particularly frosted on the windows and b) right in the middle of a communal bathroom shared by about 30 people. Fortunately my modesty was preserved by this smattering of frosting and people being thankfully absent as I showered. Munich’s showers, however, had no frosting, and you had to walk past them to get to the toilets. Water came through three jets and at blazing speed and force, and stopped every two minutes, meaning you had to press the hateful button again and subject yourself to further water torture. It was essentially like showering under a miniature water cannon, and about as effective and enjoyable as that sounds. The dressing room was also communal, hidden from those visiting the toilets by only a curtain, but with no curtains within to stop you revealing yourself to others in the changing room. I promptly took the chance to inadvertently flash an Australian girl, who I’d already made tentative about the experience with my tales of shower horror by assuring her it was one of the worst experiences of my life. First world problems.
Now I’ve finished my jasmine tea, and the moustachioed man in lederhosen and garters next to us has left, we’re about to flee to the station, again at the mercy of the weather.
A very soggy Jen
Later: Douche-Barn to Munich, 15:02
WE HAVE SEEN SOMETHING I NEVER EXPECTED TO SEE IN AUSTRIA. Something terrifying. Something unnatural. We have seen… Austrian girl-chavs. Clad in leggings of all sorts of hideous patterns and colours, hair bigger than Dylan Taylor’s ego and ferocious scowls at better-dressed females (i.e. us), it was just like being back in Tonbridge – especially with rain cascading all around us.
We wrote a special song for them to the tune of ‘Edelweiss’:
Austrian chav. Austrian slag,
You look unhappy to see me,
Leggings tight, make-up bright,
You look pregnant to me, to me!
Baby below, may you bloom and grow!
Your womb will grow forever.
Austrian chav, Austrian slag,
Leave your homeland forever!
On a not particularly nice Douche-Barn to München (the ‘munch’ of which has amused us nearly as much as the word ‘box’ did during our games of Crib), the toilet on which Emily fears she has contracted gonorrhoea from. Fortunately contracting an STD from an unsanitary toilet has taken her mind off sulking about losing to me twice at Crib, after a ridiculous amount of luck came my way.
View from train window is very pretty. Have concluded that Austria is allergic to both dry weather and ugliness (chavs aside).
Don’t really know what to do with ourselves now. Returning to the hostel and its rubbish Wifi doesn’t appeal, but neither does walking around Munich in temperatures of 9 degrees C and heavy rain, especially as our shoes are damp (Emily’s toes have turned a delightful shade of mouldy orange). We’re tempted to just stay on trains all day instead, but fingers crossed it doesn’t come to that.
Crib champion of the world Jen
19th September: Maccy D’s, Karlsplatz, Munich, 16:51
The end is nigh! They think it’s all over, it will be in 5 hours! And so on, and so forth. Our continental adventures are coming to a close. We’ve been in here for about three hours so far, killing time after our walking tour (led by the very amusing tour guide Diana) and before we find proper food, get the S-bahn to München Flughafen and enjoy Duty Free (without actually buying anything; I have 11 euros 50 cents left and need 2.60 of those for the train). We have spent our hours here being typically competitive; I’ve won out another hard-fought game of Scrabble 381-374, taking me to a decisive 3-1 H2H victory there, while Emily has reclaimed her Crib champion status and reinforced her devastating superiority at Speed (which I am useless at). We’re too evenly matched at Irish Snap and Rummy to declare an overall winner.
Yesterday evening was eventful to say the least. We played card games in the hostel lobby before being approached by two cute Italian guys. Sadly their plans involving us were not those of debauchery and bunk-bed-breaking passion (not that it would be easy to summon much passion in the depressing dorm, on a mattress like a crash mat with barbed wire snaking through it), but of playing Uno. They taught us the rules before swiftly regretting it, as I won twice and Emily won once. After three games of good-natured competitive banter and discussion, we regrettably required feeding, so tried out the Italian restaurant opposite the hotel.
There was a sense of déjà vu for us as its décor was Venice themed, maps of the islands and photos of an unrealistically empty St Mark’s Basilica. The pizza was nice, but the waiters, after initial pleasantness – calling Emily ‘madame’ and offering us wine and excellent breadsticks – grew suspicious of us, possibly because I had no drink with my meal. We haven’t had tap water in a restaurant since Berlin, so I thought I’d sneak down to the toilets to swig from my (very battered) Hungarian plastic bottle when thirst demanded it. The waiters, possibly telepathic, began watching us intently from then on: every word was heard, every mouthful of margherita pizza stared down. We were slightly unnervedm especially as none of the other youths dining there warranted the same beady-eyed watchfulness.
Eventually I snuck of for some water, multi-tasking by going to see what Emily promised was a rather unusual vending machine in the bathroom. Moutned on the wall there was, indeed, a vending machine offering – for the reasonable price of 2 euros – “sexy gags”. Why a ‘sexy gag’ would be required in the WC of an Italian restaurant I dread to think. It also offered ‘sexy slips, tangas and mehr’; Google reliably informs me that ‘tangas’ are underpants and ‘mehr’ simply means ‘more’. What more could a vending machine in a restaurant offer? What more would you want it to offer? So many questions, but no answers.
Afterwards, we returned to the dorm to pack our bags for our triumphant homecoming. We were interrupted by an American voice addressing us, uttering the words every woman longs to hear – “Should I wear a tank-top or a t-shirt?”. Assuring the voice’s owner that a tank-top would be wonderfully suited to the cold air outside, he thanked us and emerged, tank-top clad, arms emblazoned with tattoos, and clutching a bottle of ‘Olde English’ malt liquor, in direct violation of the ‘no drinking in dorm rooms’ rule. He proceeded to give us a lecture on the historical significance of this beer, as well as it’s ‘brass monkey’ form, in which it is mixed with orange juice. We misheard ‘brass’ as ‘breast’ and chose to refer to it thus from then on.
He disappeared to harass, in an inimitably aggressive manner, some poor American girl on her laptop in bed, while his friend Ginger Mike joined us, also swigging Olde English. He offered it to us and we duly tried it; Emily found it less awful than Mike had told us it was, while I winced so hard at the taste that Mike roared with laughter and encouraged us to drink not only more ‘breast monkey’ (even worse with orange juice than without), but also the full contents of the tiny Jaeger bottle we’d hardly touched since Berlin thanks to illness and abstention from drinking post-disaster night in Prague. He was far friendlier than his boorish friend, who with self-important zest shouted at Laptop Girl that he was about to tell her ‘the greatest story ever’ – a plan hindered by the arrival of a highly unimpressed security guard, who told them to bring their alcohol upstairs and stop drinking in the dorm. They assured him that they’d be upstairs in five minutes.
Tattoo Guy became more obnoxious when the security guard, who was of subcontinental origin, left. He ranted about his ethnicity, featuring some highly racist slurs, while Mike told us he loved us and that we were his favourite two people in the world. He had reached the state of drunkenness where kissing the top of random girls’ heads was the order of the evening, and literally tried to drag us off to meet him and Tattoo Guy’s friends, in between repeatedly trying to get us to drink breast monkey, though we refused multiple times.
We shifted towards the door, where Tattoo Guy began harassing another American, this time a native of Baltimore by the name of David. We immediately liked him for his good-natured humouring of the two drunkards, who by now had grown irritating; when Mike offered me the breast monkey for the hundredth time, I accepted it and, when he wasn’t looking, hid it behind the lockers, retrieving it only when Tattoo Guy berated him for losing it. Meanwhile Emily and I focused on bringing ‘grim’ and ‘grotty’ to the forefront of David’s vocabulary.
The security guard reappeared and kicked the lairy friends out, while giving us a sympathetic smile as Mike grabbed us and dragged us out the dorm, proclaiming that we were his ‘ladies’. Exchanging furtive glances on the stairs, Emily and I decided that meeting the random friends of a racist and an inebriate was a bad idea – especially as it would have involved getting into a stranger’s car. Once the others had released us from their grip and stumbled through the key-protected door separating the rooms from the foyer, we fled back to the room, waiting ten minutes before returning to the foyer to use the internet. Leaving the hostel to look for a club, we saw the backs of Mike and Racist Guy outside as they bothered a passer-by. Fearing they would turn round and try to force us to go with them again, we high-tailed it back to the room, where we bumped into David once more. We chatted to him about cheerful subjects including jobs, university and a heightened state of existentialism brought on by the breast monkey’s godawful taste. Finding him funny and extremely easy-going, we took him up on his offer of going for a drink before he had a Skype appointment with his ‘mom’ at 10.
Various seedy-looking casinos and extortionate bars were passed over before we came to a hotel bar with garish décor, including garish zebra-print seats and bright red walls and carpet, in which we settled. A misunderstanding led to me being bought a beer which, while still not to my taste, was at least drinkable and not wince-inducing, to the point where I finished it all by myself in between discussing accents, TV shows and David’s difficulty with finding a boyfriend in Europe due to the impeccable dress sense of continental European men. He dubbed this dilemma ‘Gay or European?’, a game that we enjoyed the idea of.
10pm rolled around too soon and, after imploring us to add him on Facebook, he departed for an internet dcafe. One of our other conversations – that of the ‘Essex girl on a night out’ look so favoured in England – had caught the ear of a nearby patron, who remarked to us that “You haven’t exactly given him the best impression of England, have you?”. Expecting him to rebuke us, he then continued, “Mind you, it is accurate…”
Despite having a perfect English accent, this middle-aged man was actually Dutch. We embarked on a discussion about the disparity in university fees and expectations between England and Holland, which may sound dull on paper but was actually really interesting – the Dutch pay 1150 euros a year for uni, but are perceived to have not finished their degrees if they don’t do a Masters, even though technically they have. He was shocked by our fees, as you can expect given the £8000-a-year difference between the two countries.
Admittedly my concentration was rather diminished by my being directly opposite a TV showing Napoli v Dortmund in the Champions League. On one occasion – a Dortmund chance – I gasped as it hit the top of the crossbar. Not seeing the TV, the Dutch guy thought I was gasping because the waitres hadn’t caught my eye as I looked in her direction, conspiratorialy whispering “She’s not the most attentive.” He seemed surprised when I told him the real reason, especially when I professed no real attachment to the game, save for a preference for Dortmund to win on a friend’s account.
We left around the 80-minute mark of the game, hurrying through the rain and back to the hostel. Emilt returned to the room first, only to be confronted by a very inebriated Australian who wanted to know her plans for the night. When she said she was off to bed, he eagerly responded, “Can I come? Let’s cuddle!”. While I’m sure a horribly ruined Aussie ‘cuddling’ with her would normally be top of her priorities (NOT), she surprisingly passed up the opportunity, preferring instead to sleep alone. The Aussie then got lairy with the room’s other occupants, including lovely David. Mercifully, security removed him and we thought we were free to sleep…
So we thought. More Australians were there to disturb the peace (I’m pretty sure that 50% of European hostellees are Australians). A group of three friends were in their beds, right next to us, making absolutely no effort to sleep, instead giggling loudly and shouting out the names of random foodstuffs. Eventually a heroic American girl shouted “WILL YOU GIRLS SHUT UP??” and, a few giggles aside, they did. I can sleep through most things, but their rowdiness was not one of them.
I also cannot sleep through multiple deafening choruses of the Champions League theme music, which some guy had set as his alarm and took an age to turn off. It was funny the first time, but the second time – at 5am – was a bit of a piss-take, as the annoyed mutterings from other beds testified.
More pressing matters were at hand, however; namely, the atrocious state of the already slovenly bathroom. It was flooded with an inch of water, the dressing room partition curtain had been torn down, one of the draining foot mats was upturned: a chaotic sight met our eyes. Not to mention that the two lit toilet cubicles were toilet paper-free and, while the unlit one did, it reeked of death and rotten things in there. For the first time in the five years since I concluded that daily showers are paramount to my well-being and personal happiness, I forewent a working, available shower and opted to look instead like an urchin with no access to hot water, soap or shampoo for the rest of the day instead. Even feeling unclean all day would be better than using those mouldy-smelling communal showers.
Then to the walking tour, where we saw the ‘Glockenspiel’ at Mariaplatz, the Old Town Hall (now a Barbie museum), a church that had been ‘built by’ the Devil, a major beer hall, and the Residential Palace, among other things. I wish I could have afforded a tip greater than 1 euro for our engaging and irreverent tour guide, but we quite literally couldn’t afford to, unless we sacrificed food and train tickets. It wasn’t THAT good.
And then onto Maccy D’s. Since we got kicked out the absintherie in Prague, I have a new-found appreciation for places that let you sit there for hours on end without being kicked out.
Scrabble champion of the world, Jen
Later: Plane to London Gatwick, 11:21pm (European time)/10:21 GMT
Home! We’re coming home! And we almost didn’t make it. The bane of our lives, finances, of course being the reason.
We’d been assured at the hostel that a train ticket to the airport was 2.60. We’d allocated this knowingly so we wouldn’t be stranded, penniless, in Germany for all eternity, even though this meant that when it came to paying the waiter in the cheapo Italian restaurant we’d ended up in, there’d been an awkward moment when he ‘jokingly’ (i.e. dead seriously) asked if he could keep the whole 10 euro note we’d laid down to pay for the 6.90 euro pizza we’d shared. I let him keep 50 cents, which he looked extremely unimpressed by – but if he wanted extra cash, why not increase the prices?
As it turned out, tickets were actually 10.40. I had a grand total of 5 euros left. Imagine the panic, especially when Emily’s card was rejected. Contemplating the possibility of being stuck in Germany forever – my parents couldn’t top up my card again – Emily then remembered she had her mother’s credit card at her disposal. While this too was rejected by the ticket machine, we knew it wasn’t because of a lack of funds: rather, the machine just didn’t like those particular types of card, and so after a deep breath we hurried to the human-operated tills and bought the tickets there. Bizarrely, the tills have a ticketed queuing system like the one at Clarks in Tunbridge Wells. Typical German efficiency, I suppose.
Hereafter followed a quiet trip on the S-bahn to the Flughafen (I was extremely shaken by the possibility of not being able to get home), during which a German guy with dreadlocks tried to coerce us to give him our tickets when we disembarked, and a fairly smooth trip through the airport. Although we were originally confused by the check-in guy’s insistence that we needed to dispense of our rucksacks in the ‘large luggage’ bit, for some reason hidden behind a flower shop, we soon found it. Duty Free held numerous wonders that, despite being tax-free, were still out of my budget, as well as a postcard of the Allianz Arena for Spanky (what Dortmund fan wouldn’t want a picture of their rival’s stadium?), the dinkiest bottle of Jaegermeister you’ve ever seen (half the size of our one from Berlin) for my baby brother’s 18th birthday, which I’m sure will have been much improved by my absence, and an extremely grumpy woman on the till. Excitement levels haven’t raised during an entirely uneventful flight, which was 10 minutes late leaving, but is now hovering over England. Bless my homeland forever…
Signing off for the last time,
A Jen who is really very cheerful to be entering British airspace, because for all its flaws I really do enjoy being able to order tap water in restaurants and fluently speak the native language
3rd September 2013: Hard Rock Cafe, Prague, 3:15pm
Been a bit lax on the journal front recently due to: tiredness, no table on the train to Prague, grumpiness, business, and having hostel computers WITH chairs (a step up from Berlin, even if the internet is several steps down due to having the speed of a dying snail. This outdated version of Firefox is enough to make me long for Internet Explorer. THAT’S how bad it is). Excuses, excuses – I know.
I’ll summarise each day individually:
SATURDAY EVENING (31st August): We finally made it to a pub crawl! Taking 4 days to get round to going on a night out would no doubt horrify more hedonistic 20-somethings, but Amsterdam was too expensive to go out on the lash in (20 Euros for a pub crawl populated by spotty adolescents labouring under the misapprehension that a pub crawl t-shirt is the epitome of cool? Fuck off…) and we were too tired the night before. Fortunately, the Berlin Alternative Pub Crawl had no spotty adolescent boys and there was not a commemorative t-shirt in sight. A snip at just 10 Euros, with free shots at every place en route (a route that included 4 bars and 1 club), we met people from all over the world: a German guy who seemed frightened by my love of classic tune ‘Moskau’ by Dschingis Khan (to be fair, I did shriek “I LOVE THIS SONG!” with alarming enthusiasm when it came on), a lovely Canadian couple who were off to London next and sought our advice about it, and a load of Americans including Anna, who we met up with in Prague last night.
=====The first bar was adorably kitsch. Its ceiling was adorned with ladybirds, mushrooms and flowers, and it hosted a kick-ass 60s playlist. Overwhelmed with joy to find cider at long last, I indulged in some while Emily opted for the dirt cheap beer (one Euro twenty!! For a proper drink!!). Several Euros were donated to the Jen Losing Her Pinball Machineginity fund, although it lacked the sound effects that make the Microsoft game so fun. Then the shots came out and, well, everyone donated theirs to me. Five consecutive shots and the dregs of Emily’s beer could have ended disastrously but the walk to the Ping Pong Bar thankfully remained chunder-free.
=====The Ping Pong Bar was a bit of a dump: self-consciously bare of decoration, instead a homage to harsh concrete walls, graffiti-filled toilets and leather sofas, it should have been crap – especially given my sheer incompetence at ping pong. A lengthy chat with the Canadian couple ensured that we avoided any pinging or ponging there. It was quickly followed by a trip to Rammstein’s bar, filled with “hardcore” Goth cliches like skeletons, skulls and, er, a giant dildo incorporated into the bannister – which Emily only realised after she’d put her hand on it. The confusion only heightened as the barwoman stood on the bar, wearing just a corset and tiny tutu, shimmying and spinning some glowing balls on strings. Wow, getting a ‘sexy Goth’ to table-dance – how very “hardcore”. Though not as hardcore as me being a reckless anarchist in the bathroom (i.e. somehow managing to knock over a bin that I didn’t even touch). The anarchy only continued when we got to the Rock Bar and I swaggered out the toilets after reapplying lipstick, shouting “DO YOU EVER HAVE THOSE DAYS WHERE YOU LOOK IN THE MIRROR AND THINK GOD, I’M A SEXY BEAST?? I’M HAVING ONE OF THOSE DAYS!”. How embarrassing. The Rock Bar one-upped the Rammstein bar by playing good music (i.e. not death metal), although there were no table-dancing Goths in sight.
=====We’d been informed at the beginning that we would end up at a club that was having an LGBT night. We gamely went along, not knowing what to expect. What to expect turned out to be a fairly underwhelming experience, with one exception: a group of us mooched about the place to explore it, and wandered into a dark room. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so dark that we couldn’t see a bed and “writhing bodies” (Emily’s description). Needless to say, we scarpered and called it a night soon after.
SUNDAY : Following all the educational wandering in the daytime and bar crawling in the evening, Sunday was a lazy day – just as well since I woke up with aching feet and could only limp about in the morning.
=====Eventually we ventured out and saw the East Side Gallery, before trotting off in search of a station so we could get to the Olympia Stadion and then Charlottesburg palace. Unfortunately it was about a mile to the nearest station and my feet began to ache again which, coupled with 4 hours’ sleep, meant I was in a hideous mood – a shame, as I’d been fairly chipper prior to this courtesy of a very nice €3.80 calzone from a local pizzeria (Emily’s margherita was just €3.30). By the time we reached Charlottesburg, I was incapacitated on a park bench in an utterly foul mood, and spent an hour scowling and being moody online while Emily explored the gardens.
=====We’d planned to go o the light show at the Bundestag, but couldn’t be bothered, instead heading back to the hostel to try some local cuisine, Emily having some disappointing wienerschnitzel to satisfy her craving while I tried the ubiquitous German delicacy currywurst. It was ok, but not something I’d necessarily try again. My mood was ok by this time but needed further remedy through sleep.
MONDAY: A four and a half hour train to Prague proved uneventful but had beautiful scenery from Dresden onwards, which I admired in between defacing Douche-Barn leaflets. Emily highly disapproved of my shameless enjoyment in drawing evil eyebrows, a moustache and a top hat on a fat-faced Aryan child, but nothing could keep me from being amused by it. Small things, small minds.
=====On arriving in Prague, we traipsed off to the hostel, accompanied by a cute Norwegian guy who smelled nice (mmm, nice smelling men) but sadly wasn’t staying in our hostel. However, when we went on a pub crawl that evening with Anna – the girl we’d met in Berlin – it turned out that he was staying in her hostel and had been coerced into joining a group that included a lot of Americans and an Australian. One of the American guys had a bottle of absinthe which we finished between us; I was briefly a hero for gulping a sizeable amount of it without wincing, before or after. Thankfully it didn’t sit badly with the 5 glasses of sangria I’d relieved of existence in the hour preceding this.
=====We went onto a labyrinthine bar, where Emily and Anna quickly became BFFs. Bored of being a gooseberry, I joined some of the others – though no sooner had we begun to bond than we were whisked off to the Vodka Bar and ‘treated’ to a round of tequila shots from Absinthe Guy. It had been so long since I’d had tequila – 3 1/2 years – that I’d forgotten the order of salt, tequila and lime, but the more seasoned drinkers gleefully reminded me how it was done, while Emily bickered with a Mexican guy about English history. I left her to it and engaged in football conversations with first the Norwegian guy (sadly a Man United fan who, curiously, was fond of Spurs) and then a group of Geordies, one of whom bore a distinct resemblance to Charlie Reams (he whose website, apterous.org, singlehandedly revolutionised Countdown). Geordie Charlie Reams and I chatted for ages, and I resisted all attempts to be dragged to the dancefloor by the others so we could discuss football, Football Manager and the North. My resistance to dancing paid off: there was apparently a lecher with wandering hands lurking on the dancefloor. Sadly Geordie CR disappeared at the last club before I could swap Facebook details with him: he redeemed what could so easily have been a boring, expensive, existential-crisis-inducing mess of an evening that nearby conversations such as “You’re so skinny!” “No, YOU’RE so skinny” “You’re skinnier!” did nothing to stymie.
=====By the time we reached this last club, my eyes literally could not stay open, even after rubbing them furiously. Emily bumped into a friend from uni by pure coincidence as I was trying to sleep on the stairs. She decided to stay out with him while I went back to the hostel.
Being alone in an alien city by myself woke me up slightly as you have to be on guard, so by the time I got back I was awake enough to gorge myself on some terribly slow hostel internet. Turned out my closely-fought (…or not, final score 112-19) second game on Countdown, broadcast earlier in the day, had earned me my first random Facebook add. Dragged myself away just as Emily showed up. I had to choose the lesser evil of waking everyone up by scrambling around in the dark to find my pyjamas, or freaking out our antisocial Chinese roommates by sleeping in my underwear. As usual, I opted for the choice that required the least amount of effort.
=====Oops, we’ve clearly outstayed our welcome here and the waitress clearly wants us to clear off. Update more later.
A Jen whose hand aches from writing all of that
Later: Mistral Cafe Restaurant, 17:50
=====Stumbled upon a cheap but spacious and clean restaurant that serves mostly Czech cuisine: far more appetising than the KFC up the road, and not much more expensive. I’ve ordered the ragout (a classic Countdown word) for about £3.50.
=====Lazy morning for me as I caught up on sleep and internet (pretty sure I have a clinical addiction to it) while Emily explored the city. We went out at 2pm, first climbing the nearby Clock Tower and then sampling divine milkshakes at the Hard Rock Cafe (even if they were more expensive than my ragout). We’ve wandered past some exciting shops en route including a marionette shop and several absintheries, which sell absinthe ice cream and slush puppies.
=====Haven’t written much about the city thus far. It’s full of beautifully ornate buildings that crop up in unexpected places, though also has its share of shabbier buildings. The square is home to two incredibly grand churches as well as the Clock Tower – whose scale and breathtaking detail clash rather with the tacky little souvenir shops dotted about, which are mostly blindingly white and stuffed with crystals.
=====Who knew that a meal heavily reliant on onions and mushrooms (two foods I’m very picky about) would prove so delicious? Turns out ragout is a potato cake, which sounds less nice than it was. Czech cuisine 1, German cuisine 0.
=====We’re off to the Ice Bar with Anna tonight, a venue recommended by my friend Tamsyn, who was here a few weeks ago. Should be good, though if there are any more “I’m so skinny” conversations, we may not all return from it…
A ragged-out Jen
4th September: Outside Petrínská Observation Tower, 15:59
=====We weren’t sure what the weather would be like when we left, but we took our blazers/jackets as a precaution because the clouds were lurking ominously. Turns out it’s boiling. Not necessarily what you want when climbing to the top of a massive tower.
=====From a viewing perspective, the panorama at the top of the tower is stunning: you can see how much bigger the city is than it feels at ground level. We got the funicular railway up the hill after fiascos with ticket machines that only accept exact change, station workers who had no change, and a poorly ventilated station which made me want to pass out. Change in general is a nuisance in Prague: staff scowl at you when you pay with a note because they rarely have change.
=====The ice bar yesterday was fantastic. We spent 20 minutes in temperatures of -7•C, drinking shots from ice cubes carved into glasses, surrounded by walls, ornaments and a bar made of ice. Afterwards we went to a pub in the square and discussed our lives, travels and men, during which I realised that Anna is in fact not American, but from New Zealand. Oops. I’m so useless at working out accents. I really warmed to her, possibly as a result of my 2-day bad mood subsiding. Shame she’s off to Austria today while we head to Poland tomorrow evening.
=====Off to the castle next – all downhill, thank god. Our legs are shaking from walking up and down the tower, but we will persevere, before probably returning to the restaurant from yesterday and pub crawling again (though I can’t be arsed to be out too long – I’m definitely prematurely middle-aged).
A jelly-legged Jen
5th September: Absintherie, Franz Kafka Square, Prague, 14:43
=====Stuck to my resolution to not stay out too late last night. Sadly this was less down to tiredness, boredom or misery than me being a menace to society and must after making significant inroads into the free bar. There were all the hallmarks of an embarrassing night out: crying in the toilets about man troubles (I really am Bridget Jones mk 2), asking an Australian if he had any family in the UK because he looked quite a bit like a smarmy git I know back home (he didn’t), trying and failing to mount a bar stool and, finally, submitting the 4 huge glasses of Sangria and innumerable free shots to the toilet bowl, turning it a delightful shade of purply red. This classy conclusion to my bar crawling also saw me accidentally rip a toilet seat off and shout, in between chunders, to a very amused Emily and some Irish girls (who were slightly starstruck to meet someone off Countdown) that they should feel privileged to watch a minor daytime TV star throw up. Jesus.
=====After this, Emily made the executive decision to drag me back to the hostel and put me to bed, though not until she’d spent an hour trying to coax me out of falling asleep on the hostel toilet through a variety of methods, among them slapping, singing and threatening to take photos. She has just informed me that I shouted at her for calling me Jen (I.e. the derivative of Jennifer that I’ve insisted on being called for the last decade), the direct quote being “My name’s not Jen! It’s Jennifer! People only call me Jen because I hate being called Jenny!”. Absolutely no recollection of this. Sent a few rambly messages when I woke up sitting up at 5am, before waking up again at 10 with a sober mind but tipsy body. Thank god Emily convinced the staff to give us an extra hour before checkout.
=====V grateful to her generally for looking after me, if guilty for cutting short her night. That said, she did get a free ride on a Segway on the way back, so it’s swings and roundabouts really.
=====Shame to end the day like that after an amusing afternoon. We walked past a couple on a park bench who were indulging in some heavy petting that was probably illegal in public – I’m pretty sure no woman in the history of the world has ever looked so unimpressed with a man licking her breast as the woman in the park – and having a serious discussion about the possibility of a wasp flying up a woman’s crevice and impregnating her. Relieved as I am to learn that wasps cannot impregnate humans, I am still never squatting outside. =====The palace looked more impressive from far away – we couldn’t afford to go in – and we made it back to the restaurant from Tuesday evening. On shamelessly using the restaurant’s Wifi, I discovered a randomer’s tweet referring to me as a slag. Highly amused, I responded, signing off as “the slag”; one apology from him and some rapport later, I had manages to convert him to what has been dubbed ‘Steadmania’. Offended and delighted many others with my errant cleavage in the same show – intrigued to watch and see exactly how much boob was on display. May have to use this dress in future if I want a favour.
=====It’s my knickers I’ve been flashing today though as we took advantage of the gloriously sunny weather to take a pedalo ride around the river, neither of us wearing tights with our dresses and probably offending passers-by. We weren’t bothered though: it was a relaxing way to see the city and looked good in our photos. We may have ruined the experience for others though by singing loudly throughout: we paid tribute to our churchgoing childhoods by signing some anthemic hymns, before celebrating the city’s Bohemian history by singing Bohemian Rhapsody and finally moving onto a lairy rendition of Hakuna Matata.
=====We have to leave the Absintherie now as, despite me barely having finished my absinthe ice cream (nice to begin with, nasty aftertaste) and the shop being otherwise deserted, the waitress has informed us that it is “not possible” for is to sit here unless we have a drink. Pretty sure she’s just holding a grudge after I paid for a 39 crown ice cream with a 200 crown note and she had to pay the other 161 crowns back in change.
=====We’re off to Krakow tonight on a night train – looking forward to it, as I feel we’ve outstayed our welcome here. It’ll be interesting to see what our £4.50-per-night hostel is like too…
A very embarrassing when drunk Jen
7th September: Old Town Square, Krakow (Poland), 16:11
=====Bit of a change in tone to go from frivolous tales of drunken debauchery and absinthe ice cream to the most horrific, systematic genocide in history, but I’m going to start this entry on Auschwitz where we spent the morning and early afternoon today. The princely sum of £26 for an adult ticket has scuppered my plans to recoup my budget from the jaws of overspending while we’re here, but it was more worth it than the disastrous pub crawl on Wednesday.
=====The blazing sunshine and blue skies as far as the eye could see seemed ironic for such a miserable place. The horrid, dingy little rooms where so many suffered clashed with the cheery weather outside, the total joylessness of visitors’ expressions seemed out of place on a day that would have suited a trip to the beach, and the whole scene of bleakness and vastness would have somehow been more believable with snow on the ground, instead of blades of the greenest grass glowing in the sunlight.
=====Not much would have made the sights seem real, admittedly. It was scarcely comprehensible to think that the room-sized bundle of hair and the enormous piles of shoes, bags and combs were just a fraction of the belongings stolen from the doomed inmates when they arrived, or that 4 to 5 people could have slept in a square metre standing block, or that three-tier wooden ‘beds’ designed for horses could fit more than 15 people. We went through the only remaining gas chamber with lumps in our throats. But sadness quickly turned to anger when some absolute twonk on our tour started chuckling heartily in the chamber and crematoria at some ridiculous comment by his wife. I’m rarely one to get sanctimonious, but when you’re at the site of mass genocide, can’t ‘hilarious’ comments wait a moment? I couldn’t see a single other person on the entire site who had the capacity to break a smile there, let alone laugh in the gas chamber.
=====The only other smile I saw there was a devastating one. One exhibit had hundreds of pictures of victims on the walls, along with names, birthdates, dates of arrival and death dates. Rows upon rows of sunken, despairing eyes stared out with hopeless expressions, which was haunting enough. But one woman was defiant: she smiled, a mischievous smile, as though she were both trying to keep her own spirits up and tell the Nazis they wouldn’t break her. But they did. It broke my heart.
=====It certainly put my night-training, foot-aching, Scrabble-losing, hand-washing woes into perspective. To begin with the night train. Ever since I can remember, I have been afraid of being on the top bunk of bunk beds. Ones with sturdy, thick ladders are fine, but the majority are as thick as matchsticks, and so most attempts to overcome this fear at friends’ houses have resulted in me screaming and either being paralysed by fear or clumsily trying to jump over the side rather than face the ladder. Imagine my joy on discovering I was on the top of a 3-tier bunk bed on the night train!
=====On scrambling to the top, I refused to get down until we got to Krakow, some 8 1/2 hours later. This wouldn’t have been too bad if I could have sat up on the bed. But, alas, even my infamously short self was unable to sit up, unless one counts ‘sitting up with one’s head on one’s shoulder’, which I don’t. Left with no choice but to lay down for the whole journey, I read the first 50 pages of Emma (which I’ve been meaning to read for years) and slept for 7 hours. So not all bad.
=====However, 7 hours was not enough to refresh me enough to make me relish the half-hour search for the relevant tram stop/tram proved unsuccessful and we trekked across the city for half an hour. We reached an unsavoury-looking area which was quickly dubbed ‘the ghetto’ and, wouldn’t you know it, was where our hostel was… A host we couldn’t check into for another 6 hours. My plans for sleep and a shower scuppered, we joined a free walking tour in the Old Town.
=====Much to our relief, the Old Town is lovely; up to that point we’d been distinctly unimpressed with the city. Our tour guide Gosia was incredibly personable and regaled us with folklore involving exploding dragons, cases of architecture-induced fratricide, and heroic bugle players shot through the throat. There were also true stories about football hooligans bonding over a dead Pope, and some sly social commentary – on discussing a local dragon’s penchant for eating young virgin girls, she told us that Krakovians say that these days, the dragon would starve. Enjoyed the tour immensely even if it made our feet hurt.
=====The rest of the day passed in a blur of seeing Scottish stag parties featuring men in dresses and romper suits, watching some miserable cow on Countdown after we managed to stream it from the hostel (I SWEAR I smiled more than that), £2.50 for a pizza at the local pizzeria, and a frenzied game of Scrabble which Emily won by a single point. It then occurred to us that we could restore our piles of laundry to a wearable state by doing some laundry. A lack of plugs in the bathroom sink, a grotty kitchen sink and no washing machine meant we had to get creative with a giant saucepan. The results are yet to be confirmed, but it gave us something to do while our roomies butchered Rihanna songs in the common room. Thankfully we were tired enough once we’d finished to sleep through the rest of their hideous caterwauling.
=====Still tired from our 7am start today though. Hoping to get an early night after having some dinner, finding postcards and seeing if we can find the ginger pigeon that is Emily’s pigeony twin. A man just muttered angrily at us in Polish. Time to go.
A fairly solemn and slightly sunburnt Jen
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.
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.
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!
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.
A very diva-ish Jen
31st August 2013: PLUS Berlin Hostel, Berlin, 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.
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…
A very paranoid Jen (still in possession of a phone)
Back by popular demand, this is pretty much the only blog on the internet to provide in-depth analysis of the Countdown series finalists – because I really am that sad! Featuring a finals broadcast schedule [objective], contestant analysis and a round-up of series bests [both subjective].
. My first and previous one of these, for series 65, provided a few more Google hits than expected whilst also stirring up a bit of controversy. You see, I rashly decided to air my slightly exaggerated views on the #2 seed and eventual winner Graeme Cole, suggesting he had potential to be a serial killer. What I didn’t intend was for Graeme (and, later, his mum) to actually read this. Although he took it like a pro, finding it funny, several of Graeme’s fan club didn’t – understandable, as Graeme’s one of the loveliest people you could hope to meet, hence the added disclaimer on the article. About ten apologies later, all accepted, I still feel terrible about this. (SORRY AGAIN, GRAEME. AND GRAEME’S MUM.) …However, I don’t apologise for my opinions on runner-up Carl Williams, who is apparently even more of a douche in person than previously thought possible. (NO SORRY FOR CARL. OR CARL’S MUM.)
. So, onto the present series. To be honest, Series 66 has been a bit of a disappointment. Fewer octochamps, fewer dislikeable characters inviting a rant-fest, fewer potential serial killers who are actually awesome. Plus there’s been the change in host to adapt to; Nick Hewer started very woodenly but has improved, despite still making acerbic comments which sit badly with the show’s nature. Still, there have been some great octochamps, even if none have bantered their way into a huge Jen-bias for the title. This means I have to assess their actual game performances. Boo…
Broadcast Schedule [winners in bold]
QF1; Thursday 21st June: #1 (Jonathan Rawlinson) v #8 (Rob Gibney) [101 – 77]
QF2; Friday 22nd June: #2 (Jack Worsley) v #7 (Mark Murphy) [75 – 52]
QF3; Monday 25th June: #3 (Peter Lee) v #6 (Victoria James) [80 – 73]
QF4; Tuesday 26th June: #4 (Suzi Purcell) v #5 (Nick Hall) [80 – 86]
SF1; Wednesday 27th June: Winner of QF1 (Jonathan Rawlinson) v winner of QF4 (Nick Hall) [108 – 54]
SF2; Thursday 28th June: Winner of QF2 (Jack Worsley) v winner of QF3 (Peter Lee) [91 – 88]
Friday 29th June: Winner of SF1 (Jonathan Rawlinson) v winner of SF2 (Jack Worsley) [70 – 80]
1. Jonathan Rawlinson (8 wins, 850 points)
Opinion: He’s sung in Notre Dame! He plays piano to grade 8! He’s almost at the same level on the violin! He’s off to Cambridge to do Maths in the autumn! He looks like he could be in One Direction! And, somewhat sickeningly, he’s rather good at this Countdown lark too. But before you start rooting for his opponents, “the Kid” [© Nick Hewer] is really quite sweet, with a disarmingly big grin. Yet this just masks ruthless efficiency at the game, casually declaring words like ‘TARTUFO’, ‘SENECIO’ and ‘ACUPOINTS’ like he’s been injecting pages of the dictionary into his arm. However, towards the end of his run he was less impressive [Less impressive = under 100 points in 2 games! Quelle horreur!] – and, with his quarter final filmed immediately after his eighth win, tiredness could affect his performance. When on form, though, he’s outstanding – he was one round away from a perfect game in not one, but two performances [his first and third shows]. Plus he’s only the sixth contestant in the show’s history to have solved all eight conundrums in his heat games… As my mum said, “Is there anything he can’t do?”.
Highest score: 120 (3rd show, against Stewart Calver)
Biggest win: 119 – 24 [95 points] (4th show, against Max Eyre)
Nines spotted: UNDERGOES (3rd show), ACUPOINTS (4th show), ANODISERS (5th show)
2. Jack Worsley (8 wins, 818 points)
Opinion: The last heat game champion of series 65, and of Jeff Stelling’s tenure as host. But fast forward to January and his next seven shows. Much of Nick Hewer’s pre-game chitchat centred on Jack’s university dilemma; should he study Criminology or Accounting? As soon as he took to the numbers rounds of his games, however, it became apparent that he could probably teach most accountants a trick or two with numbers, getting full marks an incredible 23 times out of a possible 24. His letters weren’t shabby either, getting several good nines, shorter but still impressive spots like ‘NEUROMA’, ‘SLEAZING’ and ‘MONETARY’, and inuring Hewer to the joys of amusing declarations along the way (‘FANNIES’ and ‘TRANNIES’). Only short of a century on one occasion, in his eighth game, he’s certainly in with a shout of winning that dictionaries/laptop/OED online life subscription prize package. (Just what every teenage boy wants, eh?)
Highest score: 110 (3rd show, against Catherine Green)
Biggest win: 110 – 44 [66 points] (3rd show, against Catherine Green)
Nines spotted: INDURATES (3rd show), TERMINALS (6th show)
3. Peter Lee (8 wins, 801 points)
Opinion: There’s nothing like a suave Irish accent to add a little va-va-voom to the dreary consonant/vowel picks (apart from Rachel Riley, if you’re that way inclined). Flying over the Irish Sea to return to the show ten years after his first appearance (a loss to eventual Series 47 semi-finalist Kevin Thurlow), he proved his patience had paid off as he stormed to an average of 100 points per game, despite arguably a harder draw than Jonathan and Jack. Cracking words like ‘BRESAOLA’ and ‘OTHERWISE’, one of his four nines – more than any other finalist – made up for occasionally missing a very doable numbers round or two. Should he have rectified that, he could definitely overturn higher seeds – especially if they underperform. Failing that, he should at least charm a good section of the show’s older female viewers.
Highest score: 120 (5th show, v Kieran Bray)
Biggest win: 105 – 15 [90 points] (8th show, v James Belshaw)
Nines spotted: OTHERWISE (5th show), CREMATING (5th show), MORGANITE (6th show), INVENTORS (6th show)
4. Suzi Purcell (8 wins, 686 points)
Opinion: It’s always refreshing to see a female octochamp, and Suzi was the first since Jayne Wisniewski some eight months ago (herself the first female octochamp for two and a half years). Down-to-earth and likeable, she proved that you can get great words and scores without fitting the traditional finalist demographic of young, nerdy male. A few lapses in concentration prevented her from breaking the 700 barrier – her fantastic spot of ‘VINEYARD’ was only marred only by her failure to pluralise it for that elusive 9, while other good spots were misspelt (‘pewits’ instead of ‘PEEWITS’) or misdeclared (‘RACIER’ for a 7 instead of a 6). I’m not sure her flashes of brilliance will be frequent enough to derail those with octo-totals of 800 and above, but it’s not inconceivable.
Highest score: 106 (2nd show, v Jamie Lock)
Biggest win: 98 – 36 [62 points] (6th show, v Paul Magson)
Nines spotted: None, but she made up for it with several stunning eights – ‘VINEYARD’ (4th show), ‘MANPOWER’ (4th show) and ‘MEGASTAR’ (6th show).
5. Nick Hall (6 wins, 588 points)
Opinion: Dispatching his first competitor sadly deprived us of the most interestingly attired contestant since, well, ever – Kerry-Anne Alcock won her first game dressed as a cavewoman, but lost her second game against Nick by a point. Yabba dabba boo. Still, he’s the highest-placed non-octochamp of the series, lifted up to the #5 spot courtesy of spots like ‘FORAMINA’, ‘INDOLENT’, ‘TARPON’ and ‘INPUTTED’. Could be capable of a quarter-final upset, but overturning the top three seems unlikely.
Highest score: 96 (6th game, v Luke Spencer)
Biggest win: 87 – 40 [47 points] (4th show, v Fiona Owen)
Nines spotted: None, though ‘FORAMINA’ for eight was a spot arguably better than some nines!
6. Victoria James (6 wins, 567 points)
Opinion: Robbed! Robbed of at least one more win and a higher placing by the incredibly dubious decision to disallow ‘SEDATIONS’. Apparently ‘SEDATION’ is a mass noun – and the rules state you can’t pluralise mass nouns. Really, though? Can doctors not administer ‘SEDATIONS’ to their patients? It’s a debate that’s been raging long and hard between… err, a few Countdown viewers. ‘SECLUSION’ was allowed though, along with good declarations like ‘MUSTANG’, ‘RAREBITS’ and ‘EQUATOR’ to spur her onto six wins. It’s just a shame that a dodgy dictionary call prevented her from potentially being another female octochamp. She’s probably used to missing out on glory, though – she does work for Arsenal FC…
Highest score: 97 (3rd game, v Aliraza Alimohamed)
Biggest win: 94 – 59 [35 points] (6th game, v Ed Barker)
7. Mark Murphy (5 wins, 454 points)
Opinion: You may not recognise the name, but you probably read about one of his declarations. Every so often, the letters selections offer nothing more – or, at least, nothing more obvious – than a naughty word (with this surely being the best example). And so, in his first game, Mark found himself in the situation where ‘WANKER’ was the longest word he could see. Blogs and websites that should know better breathlessly documented this, and the Facebook generation loved it. Take that, Mary Whitehouse! I didn’t actually see his games due to uni commitments, but I read about ‘WANKER’. It’s certainly more obvious a spot than ‘REAWAKEN’, the maximum from that round, and far funnier too. [This story featured in The Mirror, The Huffington Post, The Guardian and The Telegraph.]
Highest score: 98 (1st show, v Nick Evans)
Biggest win: 98 – 34 [64 points] (1st show, v Nick Evans)
Nines spotted: None. ‘CRAYONED’ and ‘QINTAR’ in his fifth show were his most inspired spots.
8. Rob Gibney (4 wins, 486 points)
Opinion: Exploding onto the scene with a century against the returning victor John Bird, despite declaring an invalid word in his first round, he looked promising as he consistently declared sevens and solved a conundrum in 1.75 seconds (EXPLETIVE – that’s the solution, not me swearing out of rage or amazement at how good this was while not being courageous enough to express actual swear words). He managed another century in his fourth game, but was derailed by a point in his fifth game against Nathan Steggles. Better than his position suggests, but a win in his quarter final would be an almighty upset.
Highest score: 105 (1st game, v John Bird)
Biggest win: 52 point advantage (4th game, v Spencer Taylor)
Nines spotted: None. ‘ASSUAGED’ for 8 in his second game was, in my opinion, his best spot.
Bests and Predictions
Highest score of the series: 120, shared by Peter Lee [episode 5433] and Jonathan Rawlinson [episode 5505]
Biggest win of the series: Jonathan Rawlinson 119 – 24 Max Eyre (95 points) [episode 5506]
Best contestant spot of the series: ‘BRESAOLA’ by Peter Lee in his 4th match. An outstanding 8 from a horrible letters selection, and tricky to spell correctly. Trust me, it took a few attempts!
Best Dictionary Corner spot of the series: While none were as jaw-droppingly brilliant as CUNJEVOIS (in series 65, ep 5344) or QUODLIBET (in a 2010 special), honours from this series are shared between GENDARMES (episode 5446), AIRSTREAM (5401), SEPTENNIA (5467) and CERASTIUM (5494).
Best bit of contestant banter: “What do you want?” asked Rachel Riley, numbers lady and nerds’ pin-up, anticipating that contestant Niall Seymour would ask for one of the numbers round combinations of 1, 2, 3 or 4 large or 6 small. “A whisky on the rocks, please,” he replied instead. This unexpected bit of hilarity was rightly rewarded with a mention on TrueLad.com. [Incidentally, this featured in the same match as the ‘best contestant spot of the series’, episode 5432.]
Best Dictionary Corner guest: Doctor Phil Hammond – always unrivalled for the Steadman household. Expect to see him back in DC to propel next week’s finals games on with crudeness and hilarity.
Prediction for the winner?: Despite the former flagging towards the end of his run, I’d still plump for an all-male gap year student final of Jonathan Rawlinson (#1) v Jack Worsley (#2). Picking one of the two as a winner, though, is intensely difficult; Jonathan has the edge on letters, but Jack proved more lethal on the numbers in his heats. On conundrums Jonathan stands undefeated, but Jack managed a 0.25-second solve during his second show (Jonathan’s fastest was 0.75 secs) – and it’s all about speed. Time to sit on the fence, then…
As Band Aid once so famously sang, “It’s Christmas time…”. As they did not sing, famously or otherwise, this means it’s time for the press to get moist over the upcoming TV series finals of the likes of the X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, I’m A Celebrity and every other prime-time autumn reality show you can think of. You can look forward to seeing half the tabloids stuffed with analysis of those finalists, including their odds to win, high points, low points and probably some sort of bitchy comment about their dress sense. Maybe you’ll even get a soundbite from the contestants/future D-list celebrities themselves, trumpeting self-belief and clichés whilst showing all the personality of a beige wall! Something to look forward to, indeed.
But, being the primetime-shunning nerd I am, I couldn’t give a toss about dancing/jungle-inhabiting G-list celebrities or a bunch of over-emotional, autotuned goons. My finals of choice are those of series 65 of Countdown, my not-so-secret televisual vice. Seeing as these series finalists have been cruelly neglected by The Sun et al., I thought it only fair to give them a similar sort of coverage; whether or not they decide to descend into alcoholism and end up in rehab/dating one of the Cheeky Girls hereafter is entirely up to them. So, in order of seed:
1. Mark Deeks
Stats: 8 wins, 824 points
Opinion: It’s totally unfashionable to vouch for the #1 seed, isn’t it? You’re supposed to go for the underdog, stick pins into your voodoo doll of the number 1 and cackle like a Disney villain every time Dictionary Corner gets a longer word than them. But hell, you don’t need me to tell you that I’m generally an unfashionable person (I’m writing an article about Countdown – what more do you need to know?), and I’m not even going to pretend I am here – any #1 seed who plays ‘SCATMEN’ as a word on daytime terrestrial television is worthy of respect, even if it is invalid in the Oxford English Dictionary. Some found him smug, but I thought he was more ‘endearingly awkward’. In any case, Jeff Stelling clearly loved him after their little bit of banter and so did Casa Steadman. You should too.
Housewife’s Opinion*: “Looked like he might wet himself with terror, but we were in awe of his mental capacity.”
Highlight: Absolutely mullering his opposition in his last game, winning by 126 points to 44, for the highest score of the series.
2. Graeme Cole
Stats: 8 wins, 813 points
Opinion: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (June, Kent), we saw Graeme become the first octochamp of the series. Unfortunately, as it was so long ago I can’t remember much about his performances, but I remember the following things:
1. His squeaky voice annoyed me.
2. Jon Culshaw, the impressionist, was in Dictionary Corner during his octochamp run and made him do an impression of Jools Holland. I can’t remember how good it was because I was too busy wondering if he was a eunuch.
3. He was very good at Countdown and introduced ‘GIAOURS’ to my vocabulary. (It’s an offensive term for non-Muslims, I think.)
4. There was something about him which, to me, suggested he had the potential to be a serial killer. The sort that would kill you in a dark alleyway if you beat him at Countdown. The sort who would stare at your corpse after beating you to death with a dictionary and laugh squeakily about it before running home to read that same blood-stained dictionary…
…However, I have it on good authority that he is, in fact, very nice in real life and isn’t actually a potential/actual serial-killer. So there we go. (Though it’s always the nice ones.) On a non-libellous note, he’s definitely in with a good chance of winning the series. Though his task may be easier if he just kills the other finalists.
UPDATE: I can from first-hand experience confirm that he is actually lovely and, if imbued with any inclination towards homicide, hides it marvellously.
Housewife’s Opinion*: “Squeaky voice. Err…” [She clearly doesn’t remember getting annoyed when he won on a crucial conundrum. I, however, do.]
Highlight: Spotting ‘NURSEMAID’, a fantastic spot which gave him 18 of the points he racked up in a 125-19 win – the second highest score of the series and the most crushing (if we define ‘most crushing’ as the biggest difference between scores).
3. Paul Keane
Stats: 8 wins, 744 points
Opinion: Ok, I admit it. I haven’t actually got as far as his octochamp run. I’m about a month behind on watching Countdown. This is the problem with not having a TV and having to do uni work occasionally. I’ll just have to go with the housewife’s opinion on this one.
Housewife’s Opinion*: “Nice.”
Highlight: In the two minutes since I typed my opinion of him, I haven’t had a chance to watch his episodes… so I dunno. Presumably any one of his four centuries would’ve been a highlight for him.
4. Carl Williams
Stats: 8 wins, 708 points
Opinion: Ever wonder what David Cameron would have ended up like if he’d taken up weightlifting and Countdown? Wonder no more. This smug, orange buffoon is a less-posh, more-muscly (but still-a-twat) incarnation of DC, something that the world really didn’t need. If you like your octochamps trying to blag the numbers by staring at them for a few extra seconds after the timer runs out, remaining stony-faced and refusing to clap when Dictionary Corner found a weird and wonderful word or Rachel solved a ludicrously complicated numbers round, or just generally looking like he’s a bit in love with himself, you’ll love him. If you possess a modicum of sanity or taste, you probably won’t.
Casa Steadman rather disliked him, in case you hadn’t worked that out.
Housewife’s Opinion*: “Who’s Carl?” [after jogging her memory – poor old dear’s getting on a bit and needs a bit of help sometimes] “Oh, HIM! My self-preservation mechanism had obviously cut in and deleted him from my main-frame memory. Ugh.”
Highlight: My highlight of his shows was the end of his eighth one, because I wouldn’t have to look at his slimy orange face for another four months. But, attempting to be impartial, probably spotting two nines in a match to win 116-43. Although one of them was ‘RELATIONS’, which is the most common 9 to spot. But still, others have faltered before it.
5. Jayne Wisniewski
Stats: 8 wins, 705 points
Opinion: Someone, call David Attenborough! We’ve got a rare species here. The Female Octochamp hadn’t been spotted on Countdown in two and a half years prior to Jayne’s run. But just as all aspiring future female octochamps (ahem) had given up hope of ever seeing a female contestant string eight wins together, Jayne came along and, with the help of a few nines, finally did our gender proud. For that reason, she’s now my Countdown heroine.
Housewife’s Opinion*: “Seemed nice, and nice to see a female octochamp for once.”
Highlight: Her game against teenager Ophelie Humphrey, which she won by 102 points to 79 – the best all-female game of Countdown for some time.
6. Dave Taylor
Stats: 8 wins, 691 points
Opinion: Dave’s the sort of contestant who you’d want to be your granddad – he seemed friendly and had an amusing habit of saying “Probably the same” before declaring his word – and when the other contestant declared, it usually wasn’t the same word! Haha, what japes!! (You can tell I don’t get out much.) Not to mention he was quite good at the game, despite missing ‘PALINODES’ twice during his run – even I spotted it the second time. But he was so adorable I’ll forgive him. Can’t see him getting to the final, but maybe he’ll surprise us all.
Housewife’s Opinion*: “Affable old codger. Slightly iffy teeth.”
Highlight: He made up for failing at ‘PALINODES’ by spotting ‘FOCALISED’ in his sixth game.
7. Nikki Roberts
Stats: 7 wins, 655 points
Opinion: After the rare sighting of the Female Octochamp just weeks before, we nearly saw another one in Nikki as she racked up win after win. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be as she came unstuck in her last game, but despite some nervy performances she came across well, managed several centuries and had some impressive spots in the shape of ‘CAROTID’ and ‘GIRASOL’.
Housewife’s Opinion*: “Unlucky not to win her last game, as she did really well.”
Highlight: Spotting a 9 in ‘UPLOADING’ – not the most obvious –ING nine to find in her second century game. Though she probably thought another opponent being unable to make 493 from a selection including 50, 10 and 7 was a highlight!
8. David Butcher
Stats: 7 wins, 620 points
Opinion: If he’d won his eighth game, he would have been the lowest-scoring 15 round-era octochamp ever… but he didn’t, so let’s forget about that and focus on what did happen. Considering how nervous he seemed to be from his first show to his last, seven wins is an achievement in itself. That said, he had some quality spots (‘DOCTORATE’) and can’t be totally written off. Just mostly.
Housewife’s Opinion*: “Smiley and looked like he was enjoying himself.”
Highlight: Spotting ‘DOCTORATE’ from the selection in his first game, which even Dictionary Corner didn’t spot. An excellent declaration by any standards.
Who wins? You decide! Actually, that’s a lie, it has nothing to do with you. It’s all up to them now. You’ll just have to wait and see…
*A real-life housewife** provided the opinions here. Her identity will, of course, remain anonymous. Thanks for helping, Mum! (Whoops.)
**Ok, so technically she has a job, but she is someone’s wife and lives in a house. Jen Steadman bends the dictionary at will.
So, my first year of university is over, and for my troubles I got a nice 2:1 as a reward. It’s not really a surprise when you consider that I’ve spent the year improving my word skills and vocabulary. Except that these improvements haven’t come through the bleary-eyed 9am lectures, or from frantically leafing through thousand-page bricks trying to understand postmodernism. In fact, they’re not really anything to do with my degree at all. Instead, they’ve come from a 7-month obsession with Channel 4’s long-running daytime show Countdown, now in its 29th year. I may still be baffled by postmodernism, and I can’t talk about the ‘Penelope’ chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses without frothing at the mouth, but if you want to find GODETIAS, GIAOURS or ASTROIDS, I’m your go-to girl.
…well, alright then. In all honesty, that’s a huge overstatement of my anagram-unscrambling activities. While it’s true that I’ve seen ASTROIDS recently (nothing to do with their similarly-spelt space counterparts, apparently), I’m often befuddled by the conundrums and somehow always manage to miss words ending in ‘-ATION’ in the selection. But it can’t be denied that if, like me, you become addicted to this simple yet brilliant show, your knowledge of the 75-times-table will improve exponentially (unless, of course, you’re already a maths genius) and your vocabulary will begin, slowly but surely, to widen. You’ll forget the meanings immediately, but who needs meanings when you can chuck ‘ARBORISTS’ into conversation with that desperately attractive man/woman at the bar? The other person will be so awestruck by your nine-letter skills that they’ll be jumping into bed with you before you can say ‘18 points’.*
Of course, as with any daytime TV show, Countdown comes with its own perils. With Jeremy Kyle, you run the risk of losing brain cells; with Deal Or No Deal you’re in danger of losing all your friends (if you had any in the first place). Countdown’s imminent threats are mostly to your health: your blood pressure is sure to rise when the incumbent champion only spots a five-letter word when there’s a bloody obvious eight in there. The shouting at the television that follows is likely to convince your friends, family and flatmates that you’re barking mad, possibly resulting in you being committed to an institution. Ah, well. As long as you’re near a TV, you’ll at least be able to continue to mock the contestants who didn’t see that blatantly obvious way of making 138 with two tens, a three and an eight.
Imagine my dismay on discovering that, contrary to the myth, not all students are obsessed with the show. In fact, I’m the only student I know who watches it. For my money, it’s far better than the other required student viewing (discounting Jeremy Kyle), University Challenge. Aside from the fact that I’m absolutely useless at Uni Challenge and my sheer incompetence makes me think I’m better suited to a career flipping burgers at McDonald’s than spending several years chewing the academic fat, Countdown isn’t usually stuffed full of pretentious, smug-looking nerds. Certainly Countdown is less elitist – the winner of a programme could ply their trade as a dustman or a burger-flipper, and the format itself isn’t impossible to all but the most fervent Wiki-trawlers. The notion of a Scouse street-sweeper potentially becoming a daytime hero courtesy of his impressive vocabulary is far more romantic than a university student knowing the name of a particular French obstetrician. Essentially, Countdown is just a whole lot more inclusive than UC, from format down to host (Jeff Stelling also hosts my other daytime television favourite, Gillette Soccer Saturday, the show to which I attribute my conversion from nominal Chelsea fan as a toddler to vidiprinter-obsessed child). And, on a classically shallow Jen note, there are some distressingly attractive series winners amongst the chaff – not to be sneered at, considering the show’s considerable pensioner fanbase. Obviously there’s the occasional non-deformed, rather good-looking contestant on UC, but night-time TV listings are packed with alternative totty-fests. Three o’clock in the afternoon, on the other hand, is not the most fecund period for televisual ogling.
Yes, there’s a sense of joy when you get an answer right on UC – the same sense of joy you get when watching Countdown if you get a nine, or beat Rachel Riley on the numbers round. But the austerity of UC and Paxman’s tiringly withering glare makes it far less fun than the occasional banter between Countdown contestants and the amusing Dictionary Corner guests (my mother and I are most fond of Dr Phil Hammond, a hilarious if perverted doctor-turned-comedian). Even if Stelling’s opening gambits are often hackneyed and/or predictable, it adds a delightful cheesiness to proceedings; a necessary pick-me-up in the mid-afternoon when you’re exhausted after a particularly grinding seminar or in need of some respite from a brutal essay about post-structuralism. It’s also got the element of luck. Choosing a vowel as your last letter instead of a consonant could be the difference between the eighteen points from JUDGESHIP and a feeble six from JUDGES.
And so that’s my paean to my daily 45 minutes of words, numbers and occasional babes. At the end of the day, though, I’m glad I’m not doing a degree in Countdown aptitude – because if an octochamp automatically qualifies for a First, I’d be scraping a Third. Until I’ve improved enough to spot SHMEARING when I see it, I’m not going to be applying to sit in the challenger’s seat. So don’t expect to see me up there any time soon.
* This is pure hyperbole on my part, so please don’t get angry if your conundrum-inspired chat-up lines fail to impress/get you laid. There’s a reason why ‘REJECTION’ is also nine letters.