Thursday, January 31, 2008

On the perils of shoestring travel

I hate to complain. After all, travelling on a budget – abandoning every last vestige of comfort and dignity, throwing yourself to the merciless winds of cheap supermarket leftovers and brothel/crack-den based accommodation – can be an endearing experience. Certainly, it beats cruising from one city to the next in air-conditioned, plexiglass opulence, dining on predictably fine food an
d wine and staying only in the most drearily luxurious of hotels. Yet as with all human beings, I have a tolerance threshold, and after recent events this threshold is rapidly in danger of being breached.

Do not think me some kind of thin-skinned, lily-livered moaning minnie. I said nothing when, rather than throw away the last few shavings of salami we had in our possession after a hearty Serbian breakfast, we hid them in a disused locker in the foyer of the Economics Faculty of the University of Belgrade, which was conveniently located nearby. Nor did I wrinkle my nose when we returned a day later to collect our package, by which point the corridors of this hallowed institution were smelling a tad pungent. And I emitted not a peep of discontent after a Belgrade barber, after an hour of careful attention to my scalp, left me looking like a young Bob Dylan who, somewhat improbably, had signed himself up as a cadre in the Serbian nationalist movement. Yes, I could have gone to a hairdresser whose English skills extended beyond the occasional muffled obscenity, but that would have cost at least two pounds more. So I was happy with my lot, despite the looks of contempt and horror I now receive when walking past young children on the streets.

No, my real concerns lie – as ever – with my travelling companion, whose fortitude and temperament are, sadly, no match for mine. I am fearful that the lack of creature comforts and enforced hardship our journey is inflicting upon us is beginning to addle his fragile mind. An isolated example: desperate to avoid spending any money on water whilst out and about, we generally carry around a bottle full of cloudy, chlorine-soaked tap swill with us to sate our thirst. To pass the time we are prone to throwing this bottle around in a playful manner, perhaps even attempting a few slightly audacious ‘tricks’ with it. Yesterday, however, in the midst of such japes, Josh proceeded – with no word of warning – to hurl this heavy bottle over the walls of the venerable ruined citadel that overlooks the city. There was no word of warning, only a grunt of mania. His victims included, but were not limited to, an elderly Serbian woman who was making her gentle way up the steps below us, and several local cats. At such moments of crisis, our true character shines through, and so it was with me. I did the honourable thing and hid behind a pillar whilst Josh attempted to reacquire the battled bottle and apologise to the now comatose grandmother.

Despite this early display of neurosis on Josh’s part, the alarm bells only really started ringing later that night. Once again in the interests of a healthy bank balance, we have turned our back on taxis, buses, trams and indeed any form of transportation that might involve handing over a few dinars. Instead we tend to let our feet do the work, which would be fine if we were equipped with either a map or a guidebook to direct us. Needless to say, these amenities have also been sacrificed on the altar of prudence. The result is that most nights we can be found, slightly drunk, wandering incomprehensibly through the dark suburbs of any number of central European cities, pleading in vain with passers-by for sympathy. To date, these nocturnal rambles have passed in thoughtful silence, each of us calmly brooding in our own private hells. Recently, however, Josh has begun to view these periods as an opportunity to showcase his not inconsiderable talents at gangsta rap. For those that know Josh, this may come as a surprise but I kid you not – there was more than one moment at 4am last night when I felt the physical and spiritual presence of Jay-Z beside me as we stumbled back from a club. The problems only arise in the presence of innocent bystanders that are helpfully telling us the way home. In such circumstances Josh generally feels it necessary not just to continue his lyrical odyssey, but to intensify it, with the result that the directions are regularly drowned out by strains of “99 problems”.

For all these reasons, I am reluctantly staging an intervention. The era of budget travel and second-rate hip-hop is over. Should anybody need to contact us, they will henceforth find us in the Presidential Suite of the Hilton-Marriott in Sofia.

Friday, January 25, 2008

the old Euro City trains' compartments contain what can only be described as two long red high-backed benches, each scarcely twenty centimetres wide. They can be slept on, but not very well. My slightest movement or even the train accelerating invariably resulted in my sleeping-bag clad body rolling off the "seat" and onto the floor, where it landed with a painful thud. If falling to the floor punctuated my dozing in the eerie half light of the compartment and contributed to a growing certainty that the world was a horrible place, this insight was confirmed at 5:03 when the conductor entered the compartment, his face threateningly lit from below by the glow of his ticketing device. An unpleasantly high-pitched, whiny voice issued from the thin lips an unkind creator had streaked across his doughy face. The stream of Slovak, German and English words issuing from his mouth seemed to imply that we had done something horribly wrong. Our ticket wasn't valid. We had stumbled unwittingly onto the wrong train. We were lucky he didn't kill us on the spot, but we would have to transfer at 5:40 in Bratislava to the 8:43 train to Budapest. The small man grew increasingly agitated as he spoke and in his eyes glowed profound empathy with our unfortunate situation. When after a moment of silence he began speaking again, the sweet honey of temptation dripped from every word. If we paid him for an additional reservation to cover our Bratislava to Budapest journey in the train we were already on, this problem could easily be resolved. After angrily dismissing our suggestion that we pay him with the two beers we had bought in Prague, the conductor insisted we get off the train in Bratislava. Sleep deprived, ill tempered, we began packing and disembarked red-eyed, dry-skinned and cursing. In a moment of genius Jack set off on wild dash down the Bratislava station to a different part of the train where a kinder conductor welcomed us heartily. And so we arrived in Budapest.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The 4pm photo

Wherever we are, whatever we're doing, every day. Almost.

Sunday, Dresden

Monday, Prague

Tuesday, Prague

Wednesday, Budapest

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

In search of Zion

"(From the darkest corners of the web): Zion is the greenest, dirtiest, smallest, rasta-reggae bar this side of what once was the Iron Curtain. No place in Prague is smaller, more comfortable, more ratty, more personal, more rundown..."

Through book-dust and ivory
I went in search of Zion

Through eight by eight fields of marble
Where wizened warriors locked horns

Through silently mugged glances at fellow drinkers
Mazy tenticles groping their way
Across a cigarette haze dank with Leska

And up, up through Zizoskvy
Basking in the concrete-glow of cloud-dicing towers

Eyes poring, brain fumbling
Ligaments rubbered and taught
We pounded those streets.

Wading through urban jinns,
Hovering in pools of neon-shot blackness
Watching as we sought our own realities
Out of the old and the new
Jostling each other in the frost

Through silence and song
Through solitude and company
(But he was grizzled, and drunk, and lost)
Under stern balconies and winking balustrades

We only found a Zion-shaped hole
Shivering in the Vinohrady night

Monday, January 21, 2008

Prague. or: skillful nighttime illumination of monuments will invariably attract masses of offensive britons

after Jack gracefully reduced the rich tapestry of our Berlin experiences to three commonplaces about Teutonic efficiency, militarism, kinky sex, and poor taste in music, I'll try to similarly encapsulate the first step of the journey for me.
The Brandenburg countryside unfolded dreamscapes of orange fields and purple broccoli trees through the strangely tinted window of our Euro-City: it began, the sky lourding low, weighing down forest and towns and electricity lines running overland along long cleared pathways, buzzing with the low hum of high voltage, powering our electric steam engine; twitching frog legs.
It's good to be on the road, beginning to trace our trail on an imagined map, red lines straight out of Indiana Jones criss-crossing terrain that blends from the familiar imperceptibly into the mysterious, undulations of unknown coastlines and towns bristling with consonants.
With Saxony came the hills, vineyards, baroque residences on hilltops overlooking terraced slopes, with Prague arrival in the industrial outliers of Holesovice.
Wearied by the last night's discussions with Polish dissidents in White Trash, the alarming lack of beautiful people in the Rote Salon, and the presence of Hackney youths in Berlin's seedier parks, Prague came on slowly like an energy saving lightbulb. After headcheese and pivo you find me typing here. \goodnight.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

If we had push-pins...


When a city so ruthlessly conforms to its own bone-weary stereotypes, the discerning travel writer is made somewhat redundant. All he can do is offer a few meaningful snapshots, couched in a haze of superfluous language. And so...

Prenzlauer Berg, Wednesday, 10pm

We begin our epic journey as we mean to go on: in a darkened alleyway, slammed up against the glass of a gloomily deserted cafe, being assiduously groped by several representatives of the local police force. The reason for our sudden incarceration in this godforsaken corner of the Holy Roman Empire is not clear, and – despite several stammered protestations as to my British nationality – no explanation seems to be forthcoming. Josh and his friend Mortiz, both being German natives, have the distinct advantage of being able to understand the chief police officer’s barked orders to us. I, in the meantime, basking in blissful ignorance of this most soft and loving of languages, am left trying to decipher our fate from the twisted expression on our captor’s face. He may have been reciting Disney quotations for all I know, but from the sounds of the words coming out of his mouth, a night in some hitherto anonymous Stasi torturing-chamber awaits us. After an overly-optimistic attempt at escape on my part ends in predictable humiliation, Moritz grudgingly hands over a pile of weed from his pocket to our uniformed friends. With smiles on our faces, a song in our hearts and a 24hr banning order from the local area in our pockets, we are sent on our merry way.

Mitte, Thursday 4am

My first real flirtation with the Berlin transport system ends acrimoniously. Night-buses in London are glorious affairs, crammed to the rafters with the dregs of society puking and shagging and shouting all over each other at the back, all riding for free because the terrified driver dare not step out of the safety of his glass capsule and challenge the outdated-travelcard wielding hordes. Moreover the night-bus connoisseur, once aboard the vehicle, is assured of a refreshingly swift journey home, as a minimum speed of 60mph is assiduously observed by the aforementioned terrified driver, desperate to get home as quickly as possible. Sadly, early morning travel in Germany is of an altogether different hue. Immaculate double-deckers glide seamlessly across autobahns, radiating order and cleanliness; unshakeably methodical metro trains criss-cross the city powered by little more than their own sense of insufferable rectitude. We board a bus home; with empty streets around us, by any normal measure of common sense it should take us no more than twenty minutes to complete the journey. But this is a land where common sense has become bastardised by rule-making. And the rules in this case state that, as the bus timetable stipulates a daytime journey on this bus should normally take an hour (due to the traffic), a journey at night must do exactly the same, even though the roads are now devoid of traffic. Accordingly we crawl our way from bus stop to bus stop, slavishly waiting for several minutes at each, staring groggily at the completely deserted vista around us, at the mercy of a driver intent on making his own personal contribution to the regulated discipline of the Fourth Reich. It makes one long for the N73 from Tottenham Court Road.

Kreuzberg, Friday, 1am

With twenty minutes to spare before the dreaded night-bus returns to ruin my mood for the second consecutive night, we retire to the reassuring climes of a nearby bar. It is not our wisest decision. Although the vast numbers of vampire and ghoul-like plastic sculptures littering the doorway should have set alarm-bells ringing, the first real harbinger of the terrors to come is the lifesize painting hanging on the far wall of the establishment, which features what appears to be some sort of troll, giving a blow-job to what appears to be some sort of motorcycle-riding lizard. Mildly concerned, we retreat with our beers to the safety of the pool room, to pass our time in wholesome fun. It quickly emerges, however, that for the punters of this particular watering-hole, the dusty pool table is not the key attraction of the pool room. That honour belongs to the benches around us, which are at present occupied by two hideous-looking leather-clad individuals having sex. Upon our entrance, the pair considerately remove themselves to the toilets and resume normal service in there. Our game of pool is played with haste.

Police brutality, excruciatingly painstaking efficiency, Goth-fuelled orgies. It’s everything I expected and feared. Bring on the next stop.