My life has not changed at all. As in the last ten years, it is blessed by the stars and eschewed by the men. Be not afraid if time passes and there is no word from me, be not anxious by the tram-station nor blue when you're playing, because I have taken my destiny in my own hands. I have thought in light-years and I have suffered in seconds.
Fucking hell. Took me ages to update. I've been busy like the devil in London, since I've been moving houses all over the place and trying to buy presents for Christmas. Apologies for the delay. I just wanted to throw down a post before the festivities because I've been building up this whole thing about me finding a house for so long that to leave you without the actual event would have been criminal. So! Here's the conclusion of the epic saga.
In my experience, finding housemates is not an easy task at the best of times, but that night in Martinique the charge looked remarkably daunting. Our group started moving early and we walked down the university's hill, left off the road, and in the middle of some tropical trees. This is surprising to me. I knew a night out in the city would have been inconvenient, but I didn't expect us to go ambling in the fucking jungle as a way of compensating.
We walk through the moonlit leaves. You'd think you could meet up with dinosaurs, in here. Eventually we cross a bridge and get to the house of a local, some weirdo who lives in a dump full of tractor wrecks with nothing but a hut, crates of beer and good deals of Marijuana. Talk about picturesque. Not that I was expecting an office with photocopiers and coffee-machines, but as far as exotic goes, I would have been less taken aback if we had ended up in a hut with Tarzan and Chita.
I was hoping to use the night to scout the group for housemates, but serious conversations were rather impeded by the fact that within twenty minutes they were all as high as a kite. I didn't particularly contribute to my cause by getting stoned like Babel myself. By the time we had also given the beer enough space for it to yield its effects, I had lost my house-keys, ripped my best shirt and was performing godawful improvised rap solos with the German students in the hopes that they would interpret my nonsensical slurring as an elaborate form of 'ghetto' English.
Stunningly, it worked.
Waking up the next day, I intended to look for an occasion of greater tranquillity during which to tender unto some kind soul my suggestions for domesticity. Unfortunately, an 'occasion of greater tranquillity' was about as liable to occur as a snowstorm down there. I spent the entire first week wading in bureaucracy, sorting out my module-choices and permissions until the sun went down, at which point all the Erasmus students got together like hounds at the sound of a whistle and partied every night. And I do mean every night: it took around three weeks before something took place like an evening in which the words 'nothing happened' could be registered in my diaries. After the fifth consequential three-hour sleep night I was beginning to feel like a reincarnation of Lot walking hungover out of the desert after he's shagged his two daughters.
Even in the rare times when peace was held, though, there seemed little opportunity for household symbiosis. It appeared that all of the students (almost exclusively English or German) had come in closed groups of threes or fours, so most of them were looking for (or had already found) a house for their own specific number, and they seemed generally restive to accepting outsiders in the bunch. The only exception to this rule was Jack, some kind of a smurf from Wales who happened to find himself in my exact same situation. Jack was a rather nice thirty-odd fellow who immediately drew attention to himself because he possessed the longest fingernails that any mortal was yet blessed with seeing on a man. They were particularly conspicuous since we were only ever wearing flip-flops and, in combination with his height, the toe-nails gave him the pronounced air of a rabbit.
At any rate, we were in the same boat at the time and we decided to undergo the difficult process together, looking for places in which to share the year without sacrificing the family jewels. I mean, family treasures. Treasures, not jewels. Whatever.
The buildings we visited were not impressive. Most of them were refurbished pig-sties and ruins of some kind of Polish prison left over from the colonial wars, furthermore they costed like you were spending the nights at a brothel for bank managers, so we were forced to look for something closer to our range.
Eventually here comes the day in which we find something seemingly more tolerable, at least on paper, and we call the land-lady, who sounds very jazzed up and even offers to drive us over to see the house. We accept, and she comes and picks us up. We are initially very happy because it does save us an ungodly trek up yet another perpendicular cliff (the topography of the Martinique island goes up and down more often than an Australian surfer who has just downed two bottles of Jack Daniels), but as the landscape passes us by, something slightly intimidating begins to come to our attention: we are entering the neighbourhood of the rich people. The houses here are enormous, with gardens and swimming pools. What the deuce? How can a place in these areas correspond to the prices she has given us? We were just whispering such things to each other when the lady drives us through a gate and, lo, the miracle! The house is a gorgeous, beaming villa, with a garden stuffed with palmtrees surrounding colossal white walls and a beautiful terrace. I am so awestruck I barely even manage to open my mouth.
We walk out into the garage. It is colossal: she can fit both her cars in there. 'What do you think?,' she asks. I tell her the frank truth: it is amazing! Then I ask her if we can see the rest of the house. She seems confused for a moment, so I repeat the question: 'Can we go upstairs and see the rest of our apartments?' After an instant, as though she is disbelieving my question, she throws her head back and starts laughing. It takes her fifteen minutes to calm down, after which she informs us that we're not going to live in the house of course, what a ridiculous idea, that's where she lives herself with her husband, parbleu. Rather, we can stay in the garage.
When we recover from the disappointment (and a bitter one it was), she opens a small side-door and reveals some kind of a trench basement, with a fridge, a tiny bathroom and a double bed.
'Wait a second,' I tell her, 'I'm not sleeping side by side with Bilbo here.' Jack is equally vocal in his resistance to sharing the sweat-pit (as we later came to call the beds, given what the nocturnal temperatures did to us) with me, so she concedes to bringing down a camp-bed from upstairs. I decide to take the camp-bed for myself in exchange for a lower share of the rent. So we go back to uni, stuff our things into our suitcases and bring them over. Then we sign the contract, settle our belongings, share a dinner and, happy but exhausted, go to sleep.
I close my eyes. I am feeling so tired that even the usual symphonic ensemble of insects outside my window seems to pass me by. But just as I feel myself sweetly drift into sleep, I am startled by an ungodly scream by my housemate, who yells 'Shit! Shit!' at the top of his lungs like the house was falling down or something. I leap out of my camp-bed, yelling 'What is it? What's going on? Where is the fire?'
In the moonlight filtering through the window, I see that he is still asleep. What the hell? Then his profile slowly rises from his bed. He looks at me sheepishly for a moment, like a particularly retarded brachiosaurus, then he grumbles something and turns back to his bed.
Thus am I introduced to the fact that my housemate shouts in his sleep (not even talks in his sleep, which would be annoying but tolerable, no, he shouts in it, as if every night he dreamt he were a coach in the NHL). Goddamn it.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that YADDA YADDA YADDA I was hoping to reel you in by using a trademark Jane Austen opener, but I'm getting bored just by typing it, so I'm going to go straight to the point instead. It seems I've lost myself in this cycle of writing how life was in the Caribbeans, so I'll just run with it for the moment. This post is about finding houses, and specifically, about how I found a house in Martinique.
So, since the University seemed intent on making us stay in tiger latrines for seven days, it became an ever too pressing matter to find a house to live in. The initial bitch-slap impact with the residences, it turned out, was only the tip of the iceberg in an encyclopaedic catalogue of discomforts to which the local students were subjected, the most burdensome of which was by far the question of water. To state it plainly, the water coming out of the tap in those residences tasted like it had been ran through a camel's urethra. Even when one came back from, say, a football match, red and capable of performing manslaughter for a drink, it was still impossible to force oneself to swallow that nefarious liquid. The only solution to the ignoble solution was to trek down to the supermarket and buy a box of water-bottles, a venture which always sent me nuts. Over and beyond the (considerable) expenses for a basic good, what really got to me was that the university had been placed - for reasons to me obscure, maybe it was planned as a military outpost before some inept architect changed idea - at the very top of the most unfriendly, unwelcoming, impervious mountain on the entire island short of taking a trip to the fucking volcano. Scaling it back up from the supermarket while carrying one or even two boxes containing nine litres of water each was a venture which filled one with brief deliriums in which you began believing yourself to be a mountain goat. The fact that you would shed more sweat in one day upon that island than with three monthly subscriptions to a national sauna and an orgie performed upon a working oven meant that you needed to renew your fluids faster than an lizard in a McDonald's kitchen. Six bottles would last you, what, three days? The trip, as a consequence, had to be repeated over and over again.
On the first day on the island, therefore, I swiftly decide to find myself new accommodation at once. Obviously the best way to do this, unless you make it a habit of throwing your money off a bridge, is to find some flatmates among your fellow Erasmus students. I enquire at the accommodation office where I may find them, since not many appear to be there at that precise moment, and the woman there tells me that they are scattered about the university, sorting out each their own things. This is not very helpful, so I ask an Erasmus colleague who happens to be in the vicinity of the office, and he tells me that quite a few people are planning on going out that night. He invites me to join them, of course. In other words, he is offering me the perfect chance to meet potential housemates.
Since I have to wait until that night to meet the people, I might as well go to town, not so much for tourism but to get some stuff sorted, from a new contract for my mobile phone to some shoes more befitting the beach atmosphere (at that moment, I was wearing some World War II relics which had seen everything from mud to snow in England and were keeping my feet inside a furnace). So, in my shorts and sunglasses, with nothing but my small bag slung over my shoulder (I am feeling very Hemingway-esque at that moment, really), I go to the bus-stop right outside the university.
It takes a while of waiting before something akin to a banana-truck starts puffing up the hill towards us. If I hadn't seen it moving, I would have thought it an exhibitional ruin. It is ancient, dilapidated, and there is an air of genuine concern upon the driver's face as the bus struggles up the slope; in fact, he looks frankly surprised when it reaches all the way to the top. (Transport, as I would find out over my stay, was in pretty dreadful conditions in Martinique). We take the trip, and I feel a fresh sense of wonder when I find that the driver does not close the door - he leaves it open all the time, as an extra window, letting a tender breeze enter the vehicle and spread like an underwater current over the occupants, who are pressed up in the crowd and sitting everywhere, from the seats to the floors and the steps. It is a beautiful day.
I do not wish to make too many negative comments about this because I was really enjoying myself and that island was breathtakingly beautiful, not least because of the amazing flora and fauna it could boast - I lost count of the birds I saw which I could not recognise, while gigantic and exotic flowers grew by the sides of the very road. Nonetheless, and with those qualifiers stated, I must declare the capital of that island to have been the ugliest abyss in which human being ever has set foot. Fort de France was in fact the only ugly place I saw in the whole Caribbean area: it was a flat expanse drowned in concrete, with low buildings and stuffed with McDonalds and clothes' shops, fully embracing (and indeed even boasting) the consumeristic culture of the tourists who invaded it. Compared with all the other things I saw there (and university accommodation aside), it was a tremendous underwhelment.
I come back home with already more tan than I'd had in two years in England, and in the evening I go to the meeting place to encounter my fellow Erasmus students. There's a good dozen of them planning on going somewhere. I put up my best smile, approach them, and ask which one of them is going to have the privilege of living with me in a few days' time.
It looks like I got really caught up with my Caribbean epic and I think I'm going to continue it, but just for today, this is a quick line to say bye to Germany. I've been here for a good two months and I've had the chance to make some money (the fact that my blog-posts have become rather few and far inbetween goes to show, I think, just how busy I've been). I've been writing like a bitch night and day, and at the rate I've been going, I'll have a work ready for publishing in a year and THREE ready in a year and a half total.
But that's if I keep this rate up. And that, to be frank, is more than improbable.
So I'm going back to London on Monday and I ought to enjoy it. I'll be looking for jobs for a while in a job market which is currently imploding, but it is, much like this particular blog post, just filler time while I wait for Christmas. Incidentally, I'm going to have to buy presents for my family. Ooh. Tough call.
I'll be posting some more because I wanted to tell about how I found my house in the Caribbeans, but for now it's bye bye and see ya soon - I've got a plane to catch! :)
The next day, I am woken by Pergolesi's violin concert in C minor sung at a blasting two-hundred thousand decibels by the colonies of critters which have settled right outside my window. I wake up bleary-eyed to find that there's a pleasant sun slanting through the window. It really looks like a wonderful day. And hearing the local fauna, despite their choral impetus, has an energising effect on my mood, so I get up and head for the shower, jolly. I step in there, turn the taps and I'm already about to join the critters in the morning-song rehearsals when a frightful, animalesque screech so loud you could have heard it through the bombings of Naples explodes right by me. I jump away in stunned surprise - it sounds like two Tyrannosaurs are fighting in the original King Kong movie - when it turns out to be the shower itself: prior to ejecting the water, the tubes are screeching and groaning in agony like the legions of Lucifer after they're thrown out of heaven. I wait a moment for it to subside, but that is to no avail. I take a shower which feels like I'm in an Iron Maiden concert.
Later, walking out into the sunlight, sunglasses and beret on my head, I am feeling a firm resolution take nest within my spirit. I meet the two Germans from the day before, and together we head towards the general office to get our academic bureaucracy sorted as the resolution evolves in form. We climb the stair and manage to avoid a cardiac arrest when it starts creaking middle-way, then walk on the stony streets, by the low white buildings, towards our destination.
When we get there, I take a look around myself before going in. Now that it is day, I have a moment to realise just how breathtakingly beautiful the island is. Despite the run-down conditions of the university which lend it the appearance of a pirate settlement abandoned after a successful assault, there is a thriving, natural atmosphere – in the palm-trees and the plants cracking through the cement – which the rows of neatly-trimmed trees in English universities have never managed to convey. The sun is blazing in the bluest skies I've ever seen, and the clouds fly by in a form which later turned out to be the only one available to them in the Caribbeans: no high-altitude sheets to interfere with the blue, no greyness, just soft, gigantic swirls of blinding white, constantly and rapidly floating away and changing shape. If ever there was a part of the world which a person could have called Eden, this was the one.
We're about to step into the office, when all three of us arrest ourselves to stare at the lane in front of us. The reason for this is immediately pointed out by the girl.
'Look,' she says, 'there's a rat.'
'That's not a rat,' I respond. 'That's a fucking bear.' As with all animals in Martinique, this particular rodent seems to have been on a strict diet of vitamins for the past five years. He could well be Hulk Hogan if he were only wearing a yellow shirt and looked a little more stupid. He stands on his hind legs - an imposing vision - until he sees us. He then assumes an expression not of fear but of polite shock: how can these people be so rude as to get in his way? Really no manners at all in this university nowadays, are there? It then scuttles - gallops thunderingly more like it - away in disgust.
The resolution I was feeling within me earlier has, by now, passed from being firm to becoming concrete. That's it, I tell myself. The bureaucracy is going to have to wait. I've got to find myself a house before anything.
Since I spoke about my plane-flight to Martinique, I'm now going to discuss what it was like to actually live there, down in the Caribbeans, for the year-abroad of study leave which I had. Let's pick up from the point we had left it, that is to say, my landing. That ok? Good. Glad we got that sorted.
Right. I had been offered a week's worth of accommodation, during which time I was supposed to look for a place to live - a full year on campus they couldn't afford to give to me, it seemed. I thought that was OK, and one of the reasons I took it in my stride so lightly was that I expected the campus rooms in the Martinique university wouldn't be that great. But as it turned out, my expectations came well short of the reality. I was expecting ill, yes, but what I was offered for that transitory week was something beyond that. To put it in the simplest of terms, it was the worst accommodation that any human being has ever had the misfortune to set foot in short of political prisoners walking into death-penalty wards in Italian prisons under fascism.
My first impact wasn't that bad – because it took place by night. This is what happens: at the airport, I take a taxi to the university and put my bags down. I then start looking around myself, wondering what to do next: it is deep into the night, and I can't see much or orient myself very well.
The immediate milieu around me looks more like a boot camp for Che Guevara's troops than a university, so I'm a bit afraid that I am going to get lost if I set off on my own to look for the accommodation offices. Fortunately, and despite the late hours, there seem to be quite a few people around. So I ask for directions to the first local I find. The student turns out to be very kind - which all the inhabitants of Martinique are, as I would discover later - and he personally guides me to the accommodation office. The place is not very encouraging in terms of providing an introduction: the lighting is intermittent and feeble, there's puddles in the corridors, and the doors are falling apart. It looks like a setting from Alien 3. As far as establishing expectations goes, this is right up there with setting barbed wire fences over a platoon of angry goats' horns and then placing them in formation right before you.
Though there were people walking around in every single place I've seen so far, the accommodation office is more deserted than Tutankhamen's tomb. Well, that's not entirely true – while we wait for someone to come over, I have the opportunity to make two acquaintances: 1.) A pretty pleasant German couple, standing there with a mountain-chain of suitcases in the exact same situation as myself, and 2.) a rather less pleasant grasshopper which must have been the Incredible Hulk of grasshoppers by its size and which flings itself in punitive raids against all the present, in the apparent conviction that the three corridors plus atrium and office in which we find ourselves belong to it by right.
Once the battle with the grasshopper is over (not to her defeat, alas, though I'm restive to say we didn't put up a good fight), a dwarfish Martiniquian finally appears and leads me out. In a classic example of disarming Martiniquian kindness, and despite my protestations, he carries my enormous luggage all the way. We walk out of the office and towards the accommodation blocks. We get to some sort of a cliff and, lo, my breath is taken away: the blocks are not campus blocks but in fact skyscrapers, huge things which would not look out of sorts in Manhattan! 'I'll be damned,' I tell myself, 'how can the rest of the university look like a such a wreck when the campus could well be a residence for Bill Gates?'
When we walk into them, I find out the answer.
I'll pass on the fact that, in order to get to them, we have to descend the cliff through the tropical foliage, on a doubtful iron staircase which seemed built by the Incas right after they discovered Spanish liquor. Rather it's the inside of the place which gets to me. My guide leads me through a ghoulish corridor not unlike the one we'd met in, then stops at what is meant to be my room for the next week. The moment that he opened the door, two gigantic cockroaches dashed off towards the corners with the air of someone surprised in the middle of something intimate - a little wounded even. (These may have been the Tristan and Isolde of cockroaches, so chances are I really did ruin something special). The room is sparsely furnished, but rather spacious, with light-yellow walls of a rather pleasant colour. Despite that, I walk in feeling decidedly nervous (when I say the cockroaches were gigantic, I do mean gigantic: if they had come out of the most primeval ages of the world, I wouldn't be surprised). It then turns out that the lights in my room aren't working – we might as well be in the middle-ages by this point – so I have to rely on a table-lamp to see anything. I'm beyond caring anyway, so I take the key from my friend, thank him heartily, and go to sleep.
I woke up and - but that's all part of Part II. Give me until Monday!
I'm gonna talk about airplanes. I've just realised they're really a rather considerable part of my life. What with having lived a bit all over the place, I seem to be taking planes something like a dozen times a year. No trip, however, compares to those which I took for my journeys to the Caribbeans. You see, I have lived there too - approximately seven or eight months, for my year-abroad program - and it took ten hours to get there.
I got to the airport with enormous advance. The trip had cost me half a fortune and it was one of those things you'd jump off the edge of a glacier to die with the penguins if you missed it. As a consequence, I got there so early you'd think I was a Viking planning a surprise attack on a nomadic camp before dawn. It was so early, in fact, that I had to spend forty-five minutes sitting on a bench and reading a book before they even announced it was check-in time, at which I point I got in line at the wrong queue to be asked, another forty-five minutes later, whether I was taking anything sharp to Sarajevo. Damn. So I rush to the other side, and find that by now a massive line has formed itself where I want to check in. In fact, it isn't even a line: it is the amalgamation of two queues which are so gigantic they can't even fit properly in the space of the airport, and they sort of fuse softly into one small crowd at the tail. I join the crowd, try to elbow my way through a few people, but am quickly barred by a Sturmtruppen of old ladies who pretend to be looking elsewhere while deliberately offering me an impenetrable wall of backs. I swear to God they must have belonged together to a semi-professional American Football team when they were young – no-one could be so naturally well-coordinated, not even old ladies.
So I sit there and wait. And wait. Eventually the queues get a little slimmer, and I'm making some progress towards the check-in point. Granted, it is progress to the extent that a herd of buffaloes carrying a set of caravans stacked with dead rhinos through a muddy swamp can be called progress, but it was better than facing the army of the ancient high priestesses. I finally get to the check-in.
'This suitcase is too heavy,' the clam-faced lady at the reception tells me (I'm sorry if this sounds odd, but it's just realism; she did have a face rather like a clam). 'You need to go and pay some charge.'
Some charge?? Do I look like I enjoy throwing my money from the window of the tube? But there's no point in debating of course, so I go to the desk for the payment of extra-weight. The gates of hell! At least a million people are drearily waiting in line with suitcases you could smuggle a dead elephant in, and I am last in the line. As I wait, I feel a faint dread rising in me: it is the dread that check-in is going to close while I rot my bones waiting for the suitcase to be paid for. I could ask some gentle soul to let me pass, but by the sweat running down everyone's foreheads and the tense expressions, I can tell they're in the same situation as I am.
Finally I pay my due and I recall sprinting like my life depended upon it, with a suitcase the size of a cow, to the check-in point, where the marine-faced girl had already closed, but where she made an exception 'just for me.' I don't know how it is possible to get to an airport with three hours of advance time and still have to get to the plane running like a sprinter at the Olympics, but that's exactly what I found myself doing. The first trip was to Paris, where I would change planes for Martinique, but it took me longer to cover the distance from the airport reception to the plane than it did from the capital of Italy to that of France.
By the time I got to Paris, I felt like a pair of scrambled eggs. I queued my way to the Martinique plane with an accuracy and an attention worthy of an espionage agency, so terrified I was of repeating my mistake, but this time there were exceedingly few people in line. Indeed, when I climbed onto the plane, it looked like the aircraft was going to Eastern Turkey rather than to the Caribbeans. There were so few passengers that we were being outnumbered by the hostesses.
I thank the gods for this and lay back in relaxation. Somewhere in an invisible distance, an old man is snoring. Behind me, two girls are having a chat. Outside of that, the aircraft is empty for as far as I can tell. The plane takes off.
It figures that the one night prior to me being closed in a box for eight hours would see me having one of the most grandiose sleeps of this century. I tried laying down on the three empty seats I was afforded, but I couldn't get a second of slumber for the life of me. I opened a novel, and by the time I got off the plane I had read 450 pages of it. The only times that I interrupted my reading were for the meals, which were plane-meals and thus are best left without discussing in the interests of good literature, and on two occasions to go to the bathroom. The first such trip was uneventful. On the second one, however, the moment that I pulled my fly down the plane started bouncing on the only case of turbulence to be recorded in thirteen-thousand miles of journey. I panicked and tried holding myself against the wall with my free hand while ropes of piss were sent flying against the walls and the sink. The exact moment that I was done, the plane stabilized itself. I spent what time I could spend cleaning with tissue paper for the one other passenger who was bound to use the toilet, then went back out.
I walked out into the airport of la Martinique, welcomed by the tropical night with a surge of warm wind, and suddenly felt myself teetering between tremendous psychological excitement and an equally overwhelming physical tiredness. I waited for my suitcase to come out, walked into the parking, and took the first taxi.
This takes a while to get going because it's the account of a really elaborate prank which went unpredictably wrong, but trust me it's worth it. It's so damn long it's going to have to count for something like a week and a half before I post again, but hell, let's begin.
It is astonishing where pranks can lead, sometimes. I told you guys about Alex and the 'monster in the closet.' I thought after it happened that it would have made for a good story, but that it would have been, mainly, a cute, one-off episode. Never have I been more dramatically mistaken! As it turned out, it was only the beginning.
Over our cohabitation, you see, me and Alex developed a habit of constantly lying at each other on absolutely all subjects that the human can embrace an on every single occasion that the opportunity presented itself to us. Imagine that one should ask the other a question, even a completely innocent one such as 'Where's my milk?'. In that case, the other would immediately think of something not true, then try and build it into something as elaborate and believable as possible: Oh, I forgot to tell you, Lorna ran out of it this morning and took yours. She asked me to apologize on her behalf and to make sure you didn't buy it again for tomorrow, because she'll have an extra carton and BLAH BLAH BLAH. You get the gist
The problem is that this domestic habit became so competitive that I started practising on people outside.
'Where are you from?,' some girl would ask at a party.
'Wierzbowsczy,' I would immediately reply. 'It's a small town in the North of Bulgaria. I've come here to study temporarily, then I'll probably get back to my country.'
'Oh. And what do you study?'
'Thermonuclear biomechanics. But it's not as complicated as it sounds - it's a compromise between astrophysics and mechanical engineering, really that's all it is.'
Admittedly these lies decreased significantly my chances of getting laid for all the time that I was living with Alex - not to say, erased them altogether (eventually the lies would get so outlandish the girls would suss me; one time I managed to get to a bit where I was supposed to leave the next month for an anti-gravity experiment in a plane in Missouri before the girl started laughing). None of these deftly-woven tales had ever had any serious consequence, however, until the infamous episode involving Lorna's cake. (Between this occasion and the time he lost his head because I forced him to wash my plates over a Sachertorte, it really seems that Alex has no luck with the sugary georginas).
The set-up: Lorna has a boyfriend, a balding guy who works in a cake-shop. Baldie, not the most romantical of lads, prefers not to bring bunches of flowers to his beloved, but instead to lump boxes of cakes in our house, on account of the fact that he's got so many he could put them on a ship and bombard the coast of Sardinia with them. To me and Alex, this is of course fantastic news. It's true that Lorna, for her own part, isn't particularly prone to sharing (no instinctive Mother Teresa is she, alas); but even the canteens of the Royal Navy's Boxing Club on the day after a tournament would be at hardship to exhaust all that sugary smack. So she occasionally shovels us a piece.
So this is how we get to our present situation. One day I'm in the kitchen struggling with some tomatoes to get them to form a coalition with the scrambled eggs in the pan without disintegrating into submolecular dust in the process, when Lorna walks in. There is a cake-box on the desk and she walks towards it. That's when I hear a sharp 'Oh,' the kind of 'Oh' you express when you've just asked for an ale and the barman hands you over a lager instead - disappointed, but not quite feeling it's worth making a fuss. I turn around: Lorna has opened the box, and it seems that a slice is missing from the round face of the cake. She turns towards me and asks:
'Did you have a slice of the cake?'
I am confused.
'I left it here intact, this morning, and it appears someone took a slice. Not that I'm flabbergasted, mind you, I'm just wondering who it was.'
I reason for a second. 'It was probably Alex,' I tell her. It was the logical conclusion. 'He must have seen the cake and assumed it was all right to take a slice.'
'Oh. I see. Well, I guess that's fair enough. I can't finish this on my own anyway, so feel free to have some yourself.' Then she left, with her mind completely absorbed by fairies or walruses or whatever it is that hippy-women tend to get absorbed by when they're walking so earnestly down the street.
Such event would have proved completely inconsequential were it not that, later in the evening, when I found myself again busy in the kitchen (not with the preparations for the same dish as in the afternoon, for the record, though I wouldn't put that beyond me), Alex walked in from university. He had his usual look, that of an astonished giraffe (I have no idea what that giraffe may have been astonished at).
'Hullo,' he said, stepping into the kitchen.
'Greetings,' I responded, still fumbling with the microwave (even that I had trouble working; I swear the kitchen is going to be my death-place). We exchanged useless information for a minute or so. At a certain point I turned and asked, out of simple curiosity (I swear it was just curiosity): 'Oh, by the way, was it you who took a slice of Lorna's cake this morning?'
'Yeah, why?', he said, furrowing his brow. 'Was she bothered?'
'Bothered?' I said, 'She was incredibly annoyed. I don't think I've ever seen Lorna so upset. I was so surprised.'
'Oh no!' he said. 'I didn't mean to steal. I mean, she's let us take slices in the past...'
Even for someone at times as astonishingly gullible as Alex, I couldn't believe how unquestioningly he had plunged into my lie. It's like I had been bathing in the open next to the rivers in Ontario and an adult salmon swimming upriver had suddenly leapt into my bathtub. I was like, what the hell? He was so duped I almost had trouble thinking what to make up next.
'Yeah, well, you did steal after all, considering you took something not yours without asking...'
'Oh gosh, but I didn't think she would be that fussed. Why is she acting so spongy, if she's never even cared that much about those cakes? Oh my gracious dear...'
'Well, apparently this cake was a special one that her boyfriend had made in person or something. She didn't go into the details. I think she meant to share it with him tomorrow night, but in any case, she was remarkably distressed.'
I left the kitchen, leaving Alex to mull over his sins, and not giving the issue much thought - I expected Alex to go and apologise the next morning (Lorna was not in that night), and the bluff to be revealed. When I walked into the kitchen the next day, however, it turned out that Alex had opted for an epistolary apology, rather than an oral one. On the white cardboard of the cakebox, in a handwriting which unmistakably belonged to Alex (it looked like an elephant had been holding the pen with its proboscis and scrawled the answer in his stead), was the following line:
Hi Lorna sorry I took a piece of cake without asking but I couldn't resist it.
It was a simple statement. But it barely looked serious, so I took a pen and wrote the following reply, with a jokish disposition:
Sorry Alex, but your apologies are tardive. I have already called my lawyer and legal prosecutions shall begin on the 12th. See you in court.
The next day I found another reply upon the cardboard cake-box. Quickly it became a regular verbal battle between me and him, the contents of which were as follows (ok, so this will not rival with the epistolary exchanges between Camus and Sartre, but it's how things went - there is no great exchange of witticisms when you're throwing down a line inbetween trips to the bathroom or to the kitchen, after all - and I'm not going to try and embellish it):
But Lorna, you can't do this, I've got a family to sustain, think of the children!
It's precisely the thought of those brats that makes me want to sue you.
What, and how do you know? I'd told John not to tell anyone!
John is far too intelligent to listen to your advice. He is also far too handsome, confident, manly, honest and smart, and said in short he is the only man not to have been created in God's image; rather he's better. Make him a cake.
Stop being so jealous Lorna - no matter what you say, you will never manage to break the love between me and John.
You are to John what Verlaine was to Rimbaud.
Ok, so I warned you - it's no Moliére.
What I didn't have the slightest idea of, was that Alex could be so spectacularly idiotic as to believe he was actually communicating with Lorna. I would have thought that the set of statements I produced were so dumb - particularly the one about how I was 'so intelligent' - that it would have been completely impossible to mistake my identity for that of someone else.
What I was also unaware of was that in the meantime Lorna had disappeared. She went on a trip with Baldie to the woods, presumably to celebrate the Sabbath of the witches or the days in which the butterflies leave seeds on flowers or whatever, and they slept in the car for a few days. For God knows what reason they did not bring their cellphones with them (or they simply ran out of batteries after the first day), so that when their car broke down on the way back, they found themselves stuck and without contacts. The police in the meantime started looking for them, and they came to our house to enquire on whether we'd seen or heard from Lorna at all in recent times. Me and Alex were out, but our other two housemates were in, and they told the police that they hadn't seen Lorna all week.
I learnt all of this stuff two days after it had happened, that is to say, on a Friday, when I stepped into the kitchen only to find Alex jumping back and forth like an extraordinarily irate kangaroo and calling me 'a fucking bastard,' with special emphasis on the 'fucking.' Before I could even say a word, he filled up a glass with water and launched it at me. Instead of trying to calm him down, I of course grabbed a pint in turn and splashed the fucker's face back. I knew I'd made a mistake when I saw him turn to the cupboard and extract the washing bucket from it.
I gallopped into the garden while he further elucidated the differences between me being not just 'a bastard,' but 'a fucking bastard.' I attempted to shield myself with the table but I might as well have been using it against a charging hippopotamus and two seconds later I looked like I had just walked out of a monsoon. This still didn't satisfy him though and over the next minute we find ourselves rolling in the mud under the pedantic and disapproving stare of the neighbours.
Once the swine-wrestling is over, I learn what's sent him off his head. Apparently, Alex had come home the previous day and found out through our housemates about the visit of the authorities. When he was told that Lorna was missing, he thought, 'This cannot be!' and he phoned up the police and told them how he had in fact been seeing her every day for the past week. The story sounded doubtful to the detectives, who called Alex in and start questioning him. Most people would reflect on what's going on before setting off on any serious statements; Alex, instead, stood by his story and even started adding, in some imaginative act of Freudian association, episodes in which he has been 'seeing her' in the house over the last week. Halfway through this recounting of how he had been exchanging writing with Lorna through the cake-box, the idea finally flashed into his head that it may have been me he was communicating with all along. He started laughing nervously, his heart went racing, he tried explaining this to the agents and of course messed this up completely, then he spent half an hour convincing the agents not to hold him there for the night (how he did that, knowing his usual eloquence, remains to me a baffling mystery), and eventually came back home.
That's where he met me the day after so he could start beating me up. By the time he had finished telling me this story I was laughing so hard I couldn't even fight back (he jumped me again when I started laughing), and I had to stay on the floor hooting while he clobbered my arm with a shoe. The next day, Lorna came back to the house. I thanked her.
So I had resolved to go out with my friends to celebrate the blissful absence of the Tragedian.
Now, I said that the offices were in Großostheim, but my house was actually in Aschaffenburg, a city nearby; because most of my friends lived in Großostheim, I needed to head down there myself. I checked the time for the last bus home on the internet: 22:45. Not ideal, but better than nothing.
So we went out and watched a football match of our beloved national team at an Italian bar (there seemed to be more of these in this part of Germany than in most Italian cities I've been to. It's hard to believe it, but we even outnumbered the Turks). In keeping with the Italian tradition of good organisation and tolerance, the place was akin to a particularly unpleasant bear-pit. The clientele consisted exclusively of Italian (or half-Italian) bigots as ugly as sin and with brains as substantial as the insides of a cloud. In addition, they were all from the South, and as a consequence, they hated Romans. This almost led to a fight when a Roman born-and-bred player lit up the stadium and led us to victory with two magnificent goals and I stood up and started chanting Roman stadium anthems and loudly commenting on how little this team would ever achieve if it weren't for the Romans.
Following a most distinguished exchange of opinions between me and the locals on the qualities of Roman football and on the identities of their respective mothers, we decide to leave. There are still ten minutes of the match to go, but it is already more than half-past ten, and I have to get going. When I get to the bus-stop, though, the revelation: the sign states that the last bus has passed at 21:30! Why on earth did the internet report it as 22:45 then? I start making further gentle comments on the quality of Großostheim's transport and on the occupation of the bus-drivers' mothers while my friends offer to help me out. They tell me there are more buses passing next to the supermarkets, and one of my friends, a short black-haired girl who worked at a nearby Pizzeria, leads me part of the way in that direction. She leaves me in front of a dark road, saying: "Just follow this to the end. It's all a straight road with no turns. Don't ever leave the walkway, and it'll take you about ten minutes."
I thank her heartily and leave.
I've barely walked thirty seconds when I get to the first bifurcation. Hullo, I say. Wasn't this supposed to be "a straight road with no turns"? She told me never to leave the walkway and never to cross a road. But now the walkway dies on my right into a path of grass and starts again across the road to my left. Starting to feel rather nervous, I take the path to my left. I walk for about a minute, then get to something like a central square with four roads leading into it. I walk straight forwards, and soon I am lost in a maze of alleyways and dark cobbled streets. I keep walking straight, in the vague trepidation that there may be something like a minotaur or a sewer-crocodile waiting for me to pass by. It's a new country, after all; who knows what I could find?
Now, Großostheim is not, as I said, a very big city. As a consequence, after ten minutes walking, I am already starting to reach its edge. The houses are progressively getting lower and the shops are getting sparser until I turn a corner and hey presto, I find myself in the middle of a God-forsaken cornfield! 'Where the fuck am I?', I wonder, hearing the whisper of the wind and the crickets singing in the night. Around me, not a soul; above the cornfield a sea of stars extends itself like I have ended up on a boat on a particularly clear night. Suddenly, a sound: a car is approaching through the mud-path that leads from the corn to the low houses. I'm about to raise a hand to ask for directions, when the car comes closer and I find myself confronted with a black vehicle which must have come from the nineteen-thirties at the very latest, with arching mudguards, vents for the motor and white tires, sputtering away towards my astonished self and, a second later, towards the houses. I am now starting to feel an edge of fear: Have I time-warped somewhere back there in the dark roads? Have I mistakenly stepped into some wormhole leading me to some other place in another time? I look around me, and what with the cornfield and the colonial houses, I could swear I've ended up in a scene from one of those American films about the Great Depression where the golfer or the lawyer what have you rises from the abandonment of his great countryside house to earn riches and glory which will brand him in the golden books of history.
I decide it is time to ignore my original advice and stop going straight (not a difficult decision, considering that to stick with it would now bring me to partake of a cultural soirée with the field-mice and the cobs), so I abruptly turn right, bordering on the sides of the cornfield in the hopes of finding something. It is so dark you'd think the lampposts themselves had gone to sleep. I'd like to call a taxi but, as is always the case in the times when you really need one, I don't have the faintest notion of what the number is.
Eventually I find two bus-stops, islands of modernity which assure me, if nothing else, that I'm still in the 20th Century. But they're not next to the supermarkets at all. This is looking dubious. I wait there for ten minutes, then take a look at the signposts and try to decipher the German. It appears that the last bus was at half-nine here, too.
And now it is beginning to rain.
I throw my head back and sigh. This is starting to get depressing.
It's become patently obvious by this point that the buses are not going to pass by here, so I conclude that I'm going to have to call a taxi. In order to do that, I need to ask someone the number, and that means finding a human being. I'm pretty sure that if I knock on one of the houses at these hours I'll get blasted down with a shotgun, so I take a look around me. Somewhere at my left, in the distance, there are some lights which might signal a highway. I put my hands in my pockets, steel myself and start walking in that direction.
I walk for a several minutes in the rain and cover most of the distance, when I see two headlights coming towards me and in the direction of the bus-stops. At first I think it must be a car; then, as it starts closing in, I see that the headlights are too far apart from each other, and the engine sounds much deeper and more potent. I stop and look at it. Then I notice it has other two small lights up there at the two top corners of it, revealing it is a much larger vehicle than a car, and my heart sinks: the bus is going towards the bus-stops only now that I have left them. Oh God.
I have at most half-a-second to make the decision. I turn around and see the bus-stops in the distance. I'm going to have to run the three-hundred metres in twenty-five seconds if I want to be at the road-signs when the bus gets there. I can make it.
I start power-legging it like a bastard. The rain is whipping on my face and my coat is fluttering on my back like a pair of wings. I am breathing hard. Two-hundred and fifty metres. Two hundred.
I hear the bus roaring behind me. It appears to be going comparatively slow; I'm guessing the driver has seen me running and decided to slow down to give me a better chance of making it. Bless the man!
One-hundred and fifty metres. It's still behind me. One-hundred and twenty-five. My lungs are imploding. I'm not gonna make it. Oh God, I'm going to have a stroke. I become thankful that the place is so deserted.
It is precisely while I'm in the middle of my last and most desperate dash that I hear the motors finally overtaking me, and I turn my head to find out that it's a motherfucking truck! Even as my legs go slack and I begin decelerating into a slow gallop, I am still failing to take it in. There is a very singular moment in which me and the driver cross gazes, and he must be wondering what I am doing there too, because we both seem to read the same perplexity in the other's face. Then the truck roars past, and I have the privilege of imagining him realising what had happened, then breaking into a grin, and finally cracking up like crazy, while I turn around and start raging against the cobs.
After a few minutes of curses, I start walking the road again. I reach the end and, lo, I get exactly at the supermarkets I was looking for in the first place (rigorously after all the buses have passed, of course). I find some people, explain myself after they take me for a mugger, then get a taxi number off them.
I've never been less talkative in a taxi-trip in my life. And if the driver was disappointed, he can go fuck himself.
I'm in a really jolly mood: yesterday I upped my record for oldest woman ever snogged, she must have been over the age of 45. (I don't know if that should make me happy, but hey, I'm not acting precious and fuck you to the aristocrats!!!!). But anyway, I was telling you guys what work is like here in Germany. So let me reprise my story where I left it: we were saying how our offices had been invaded by flies, and how we had to cope with the garbage, which was almost as bad as Frank’s eccentric sense of dress.
On a side note, though, I also began acquainting myself with the environment of the office. 'So this,' I told myself, 'is where mortals in the West spend their lives.' It was a fascinating ecosystem to be in. I suspected that what I was witnessing in there was not a random collection of individuals, but a very precise balance of personalities which worked towards inducing not the best conditions for work, but, on the contrary, by far the best conditions for slack. Everyone was always producing just enough chat to keep their fingers off the keyboard, but not so much that it would attract the attention of any higher authority. This equilibrium was obtained by a careful assumption of roles (by personality) when a new individual entered the group. For instance, I suspect that a common figure to all offices is what I came to dub the Tragedian. This is an individual of remarkably low intelligence, usually with very few interesting things to say, who complains about absolutely everything. In our case, of course, what with the garbage, the flies, the heat and the organisation of our bosses (with glossaries appearing or disappearing at utter whim and assignments being given and cancelled in the space of a couple of hours), the Tragedian had plenty to wax lyrical about. Our specific Tragedian was Paola, a woman with a nose like one of those potatoes which you see winning prizes at fairs, and a polemical instinct which could suplex Cicero. Not knowing her role, I of course went and sat right next to her. She began her acquaintance by drawing a line between my space on the table and hers like we were a divorced couple, and informing me that I was absolutely forbidden from killing any flies on her side of the table - because, apparently, it 'disgusted' her. How she could possibly prefer to have them festering around and settling on her hair and face is to me a mystery. She was almost more aggravating than the flies themselves.
And in all of this was Frank. He was a pretty incompetent if very good-willing leader, to be honest. I can't fault his generosity and good mind, and my experience would have been mightily less enjoyable if he hadn't been there. Aside from being ugly as fuck, however, he also had the most outrageous sense of dress that this planet or any other has ever witnessed. Well, perhaps the second most outrageous: I once had a Spanish teacher who competed with the guy, coming to class dressed up as a piano (I swear to God I'm not making this up. She was wearing a long black dress with a whole keyboard running down it and musical notes instead of laces on her shoes). I don't know if Frank beat her, but he sure as hell gave her a good run for her money. I personally think you should never wear a suit and a bandana at the same time, but why would you want to compound them with a quasi-phluorescent Spider-man T-shirt under it? Or what about the time he came in dressed in a sky-blue boiler's suit and we thought one of the workers from the thermoelectric complex had mistakenly stumbled into the office?
Then, on the morning of one of the most beautiful days since the fall of the Berlin wall, Paola announced that she was having her boyfriend over for the week and she would not be around at all after work (I'd realised something good was going on around her royal chambers because the gusto and the enthusiasm with which she had spent the whole day complaining had to be seen to be believed). We were free of the witch!
I was so happy I decided it would have been unpardonable not to organize something. So I called up my Italian colleagues and rounded them up for a night out.
Stuff happened there, of course – but once again, this story is getting too long to recount. I promise, the next part is going to be the last, but you'll get it all in Part III!
(ahem. Let's get serious. The guy above us is already frowning).
I've posted a couple of things about my past: my origins-story for how I became a man who never speaks the truth except, well, when it is completely and utterly inconsequential (aka: academia). My legions of fans on this blog will therefore be wandering what I am doing now. So I thought I'd devote a blog post to this: my current occupation.
I am presently working in Germany. I've got a few applications going for several interesting jobs, but while I wait for those to give fruit, I decided to sustain myself for a couple of months as videogame translator rather than suffering the shame of sitting on my ass in my parents' house. So when one of my many more modest applications gave fruit and got me a place for Nintendo in Germany, I took the offer at once. Apparently the translation project had already started by the time I applied, so I booked a flight for two days after I got the offer, and flew down.
I had been told that I'd get some help for accommodation and everything, so I needed to take a bus from the airport to Frankfurt, and there meet up with the guy who was supposed to show me around and who will be my future boss: Frank.
So I get off the bus at Frankfurt, half expecting a meek-looking, formally dressed old man to greet me with a smile. What I find is rather unlike my expectations: one of the ugliest men to have ever walked the earth is walking towards me from the other side of the walkway. "Who is this troglodyte?", I think to myself as he approaches. And he truly is unfuckable: aside from his mass and gait, which would be notable in the waiting room for a liposuction clinic, and aside from his horrendous pony-tail hairstyle which is all but highlighted by his iconoclastic bandanna, he also happens to have a face which suggests he has been beaten up the day before and could not be bothered to get medical attention. Grisly black patches stretch from his eyes to his temples, and his skin flabbers in the wind like a dead umbrella. I thought this was just a bad day or something - maybe the guy had been out the night before and was hungover like a beast, though by the looks of him he must have been drinking with a Grizzly bear or something - but as I discovered later, his appearance turned out to be chronic. All things considered, if it hadn't been for the lack of scales I could well have mistook him for a Stegosaurus.
So he took me to a bare-bones, mostly unfurnished apartment and I settled there for the night, looking forward to starting work the next day.
I was really rather enthusiastic about beginning the job, given how little work-experience I actually had. Nonetheless, and as the days went on, the local contingencies seemed to be doing every damn thing they could to suck away this sentiment from me. I'm not saying they succeeded - I still walked into the office most days with such a smile you'd think I was sitting down for a picnic (though that's partly just my natural charm) - but they did dampen a few of the most positive sentiments overall. For one thing, I'd been convinced I was going to work in Frankfurt, but it turned out the offices themselves were in Großostheim - a shithole of a town where the closing-time of the bars was so early you'd have thought the entire population consisted of garden-dwarves. I remember walking one of its roads one night at eight and wishing to God I'd see at least some rats on the street to keep me company. (As long as I was entertaining negative desires I could always have prayed for someone to mug me, of course, but that would have been wishful thinking. The most that could have happened to me in Großostheim would have been getting attacked by the lampposts).
Then there was the working site itself. Considering this was a German company managed by Japanese people, one was led to expect a staggering level of organisation, with employees doing one-handed push-ups inbetween office-work and the bosses coordinating the endeavour like a family of Jean-Luc Picards. Instead, the place looked like a war-camp. There was a single massive office where more than a dozen translators were packed around the cables of their own computers and the window gave direct view onto a mountain of garbage. This is not an exaggeration: Fußner, the company for whom I worked, only provided Nintendo with translations as a peripheral activity. Its main business was a thermoelectric station which - only too conveniently - happened to be located on the immediate outside of our office and which produced massive amounts of waste, all of which was deposited at approximately 500 metres outside of our window. The pong when we walked in was enough to double-up and start vomiting. We could always keep the windows closed, of course, in which case the glasses acted as greenhouses and the temperature on sunny days became magmatic. It got so hot on those occasions that even the flies started evacuating the place in great hurry.
The flies were, for the record, constant companions of ours during work. There were always four or five of them roaming around our airs, even when we kept our windows closed. The times that someone fainted and we had to surrender to the heat and open the windows, we'd get a fucking festival. Swarms over swarms of flies would bang their heads against each other in an effort to get into the office first. If on a very reduced scale, I was convinced I was witnessing Woodstock. All of this lasted for a while until, on the second week that I was there, Frank came in there beaming and claimed that he had 'the solution.' Placidly he produced two small green cylinders and stuck them to the ceiling. He then proceeded to unroll what were basically two gigantic boogers from them and he left them hanging over our tables.
It was fly-paper. I'd never seen it in person, but that stuff is simply disgusting. It consists of a brown string rolled up on itself and covered in muck (only an animal that eats shit could be attracted to that thing). It became no more salubrious with the passing of days as flies started getting stuck to it. For two days there were at least five flies wriggling right before me as I tried concentrating on the translation process. For the previous few days I'd been killing the flies myself by swatting them and throwing them off the right side of the table. The floor had become a common grave for flies of course but I still think it was better than this.
As days went by, I began getting accostumed to work. The hours were long, but after the mental rollercoasters some of my academic essays had forced me to take, I'd be hard-pressed to call it anything but incredibly relaxing. It was so pleasant that even my writing temporarily exploded, and I found myself throwing down sonnets and short stories almost every day when I came home.
There is so much more to be said about my insights into the world of work, but it’s going to have to wait until next time. I need another chapter!
It's time to go back to the business, and when I say it's time to go back, then the entire planet starts spinning in the opposite direction, because I say so! I'm in such a good mood at the time of writing this that I'm basically fibrillating. I don't know if that's a verb, but if it isn't, you're going to have to live with it - I refuse to take it down.
The matter at hand: I was trying to teach to you guys everything you need to know about pranks. And since I'm doing this, let me tell you one rule that you always need to keep in mind: pranks are for men. They're not something you ought to go sharing with women (much less doing to women, because they'll get offended like you've just ironed their cat with a Mercedes). The thing is, you see, that women have this sort of secret alliance going on within their sex. If anything, absolutely anything gets planned that involves some sort of conflict, and if this conflict happens to be polarised between men and women, they'll side with the women whatever the conflict is about, even if it's about rescuing the Holy Grail.
Me and Alex found this out because of our other two housemates, Lorna and Aiken, two short-haired blondes of remarkable wit. One night me, Alex and Lorna were in the lounge, and me and Alex were boisterously boasting (bloody hell I love this alliteration) about the 'monster in the closet' joke. So while we're expending all the hot paraphernalia of words necessary for any man to honour his testosterone, suddenly we hear the soft footfalls of Aiken descending the stairs and going towards the bathroom.
It took me and Alex about 0.6 seconds to decide to play the prank on her. It may have been getting old, but we were still feeling like exploiting every last drop of pathos there may have been in it. Lorna's presence was of course a tremendous source of compulsion for us, because even though neither of us were into her (and she already had a boyfriend to boot), the masculine instinct to show off anything, from your mother's ashes to your uncle's stuffed komodo dragon still smelling of the 1912 abandoned putrefactive loft where it was recovered by six kids playing the Scooby Doo adventures, such an instinct, I say, was enough to make us eat hot coals and dance on the backs of dragons.
Quickly the first matter of contention became evident: who's actually going to play the prank? Alex wants to get in as he claims he's the one who invented the joke, but I'm the one who first suggested doing it tonight, so I'm somewhat unwilling to back down on the opportunity. The matter is about to escalate into an (equally manly) fistfight, which given the two competitors would have been about as appealing to Lorna's eyes as a blind leukaemia patient slugging it out against Richard Nixon when he was seventy-five (didn't live that long? Precisely), but common sense prevails, and what we decide is this: we shall both go into the closet together.
Once inside, I figure that 'common sense' isn't really the expression to define this. I thought the place was tight when I was in it alone, but standing in there with Frankenstein is making it unbearable. 'Get your elbow off my neck, you git,' I whisper him. 'I can't,' he responds, 'it's jammed against the jam.' I'm about to tell him what I think about his puns being forced on me while I have my arms stuck still, when we discover that the door won't close - we're just taking up too much space.
'Lorna,' I call, 'could you give us a quick hand here in getting the door shut?'
'Sure,' she replies. She then comes to the other side of the door and starts pushing. The wood creaks inwards as me and Alex are practically having sex now, but as soon as it shuts, I hear an ominous 'click' coming from the key-hole and a mermaid-like laughter ringing outside: that bint has locked us in!
'Oh, very funny,' comes Alex's voice as my brain is still elaborating the new scenario. 'Lorna,' he calls. 'Lorna!' I try bending down to see if I can take a look at the lock from our position, but it's darker than the inside of Paris Hilton's head and I'm more constricted than if I'd been locked in there with a boa. 'Lorna!' Alex's voice now comes out as a sort of high-pitched wail and he's banging on the door.
'Will you stay still for half a minute?', I hiss to him. 'I'm trying to figure out how we can get out of here.' It may sound convenient that I'm painting myself as the one who managed to keep his head in there, but it's no flight of my own kite at all because, as I soon discovered in the minutes that followed, Alex is actually slightly claustrophobic. He'd obviously managed to cope with this closed spot for the thirty seconds it had taken him to wait for me, but the idea of being closed in there and with no exit is now getting to his head. He doesn't just lose his calm; he goes fucking berserk. He's banging on the door and screeching Lorna's name now with such terrified and distorted intensity that if you were standing outside our closet you'd probably think that someone was strangling a Pterodactyl in there. At a certain point he starts flailing his arms in that goddamn hole and within five seconds I've received at least three elbows in the mouth and have blacker eyes than a mongoose. I might as well have cheated on Margaret Thatcher while she was doing weights (I don't know if she did, but I'm sure she could have beaten me senseless either way).
The thing about that closet, though, is that it had two doors. One main door, on which Alex the Lionheart was banging (me) right now, and one lower door for the tiny space to the left where the owner has left his collection of old shoes. Lorna therefore has the brilliant idea of opening that smaller door and sticking her hand through it (in case it isn't completely obvious, I'm being sarcastic on its being a brilliant idea). As luck would have it, her hand ends up grabbing Alex's calf, at a moment when neither me nor him had realised there even was another door. To say that Alex 'jumped,' in that occasion, would not do justice to the magnitude of the event. Alex screamed and managed to leap four feet in the air without even having the space to bend his legs, and the tremendous 'thump' that I heard above me I assumed must have been him braining himself on the roof. After managing to hit the roof with his head, gravity kicks in so he obviously lands over me and I go down like a sack of potatoes, which I suppose makes me very apt to my location. But the thing is that as Alex comes down he grabs the shelves next to him in an attempt to regain his equilibrium and tears them down - straight onto us. There is something like a storm of tins and onions and the collective nutrients of a student household plane-bomb onto us. Alex hasn't managed to kill me yet, but these damn cans are doing their best to finish the job.
A few moments later we are both piled up in a ruinous burial of vegetables and tins, and the door opens above us to reveal Lorna standing there and laughing. How people could laugh at things like this is something which seriously infuriates me. Scaring and fooling people and getting them to risk their lives is not funny, especially when it's done to me.
'Grand,' I mumble, while Alex looks at her like she's a manifestation of the Virgin Mary. That's just like Alex. He doesn't consider for a second that it was her who locked us in here in the first place. The fact alone that she let him out is enough for him to consider her a goddess.
At that point, the door of the bathroom opens and Aiken walks out, seemingly indifferent. 'What's going on?', she asks - with a tinge of disdain, I believe. Admittedly the sight of me and Alex crumpled on the floor before Lorna, under a carpet of cucumber and tinned tomato passata, must not have been the most awe-inspiring of sights. But still.
Lorna laughed, and as for our reaction to the question, we did not reply. Our masculine spirit rebelled to the idea of telling her, 'We've been royally fucked over.' It's only funny when we're the ones doing it to other people.
I was looking back on some of my past writings, and I was surprised by just how many of them discussed pranks. I'm passing for a man of extremely unreliable character. But there is an explanation behind my initiation into pranks, you see. So I thought I'd expend a blog-post to declare more or less how I came to the point where I am.
It's all Alex's fault. Basically, that's what it comes down to. Alex is one of the four people who have signed a contract to stay in the house with me, a guy so tall and thin you'd think he's been bitten by a radioactive giraffe when he was young. As well as an ardent vegetarian and a committed philosopher, he is struck with the curious characteristic of being completely incapable of accepting defeat. He once challenged me for a piece of a cake I had made by stating that if I could beat him at a videogame he would wash my dishes for a week, while if I lost I'd give him a piece of the cake. He managed to win enough games in a row to get the right to three quarters of the cake - then lost it immediately after that by brashly challenging me further, losing three consecutive games in a row, and jumping in a fit on the sofa, meaning that not only he had none of the cake he had effectively won ten minutes ago, but he was also going to have to wash my dishes. He was so angry after that that when I locked my door he spent an hour and a half banging on it and kicking it while howling like an animal for the cake. We tried to discuss it 'in peace' the next day, and the subsequent argument almost came to blows. I don't think I'd ever seen him that incensed yet. After that episode, he put on a face like a pitbull looking at the man who just castrated him and didn't wear it off for the whole week. (Alex later described the situation by means of a parallel with Dostoesvski's novel The Player. I agreed with the choice of the author, though I suggested he might want to change the novel to The Idiot. At this he hit the roof again and started yelling).
So this one dark evening I go to the bathroom, I brush my teeth and everything, but as I'm coming back through the kitchen suddenly this ghastly form explodes out of the closet and assaults me. 'OHMYFUCKINGOD' I scream as I fall backwards on the pavement. I freak out: my heart seems to explode and I have to sit on the floor for five minutes just regaining my breath. Only when my life stops flashing before my eyes for ten seconds do I hear the sound of laughter, and I open my eyes to find that idiot Alex standing there hooting while his melon-shaped head swung back and forth in convulsions. The motherfucker had been hiding in the closet.
I don't know if he did it on account of the cake episode or just out of his own personal initiative, but he had decided to play a prank on me. And a very effective one at that.
Other people may have had a laugh about it and left it at that. But in my case, Alex's little jest had hit some special nerve in my system whereby all my cisterns of pride were being held together. I felt the cavalcades of the Walkyries rumbling inside me. When I stood up again, I perceived a steady surge of a primordial, masculine warrior spirit welling up within me. How dare this fucker pounce me? I'm going to take the roof of his cathedral down! I said nothing, for that moment, and he walked away laughing while I watched him with feline eyes.
All's fair in love and war and nothing says that the same trick can't work twice. So one evening, I am sitting in the lounge watching some TV when I hear his equine gait walking down the stairs and heading for the kitchen. Then I hear the sinks in the toilet starting to throw water.
I decide that the moment has arrived. I walk to the closet and shut myself into it.
It is not quite what I expected. It doesn't appear to have been thought out to accomodate a human, truth be told. For one thing, good God, is it stuffy! I have two cans of peeled tomatoes pressing against my face and there's a broom awkwardly hanging across my shoulders. I can hardly believe that Alex managed to get in here, giraffe-ish as he is. The door can't be closed from the inside of course so I have to keep it pulled against me with my arm, which makes the whole thing even more uncomfortable and, incredibly, even tighter. Plus it's dark like a coal-mine out of an Emile Zola novel.
As I wait for Alex to come out, I start rehearsing what to do. Alex had come out screaming like a raging rhinoceros. As I thought of doing the same thing myself, I was struck with an unexpected and very much unwelcome awareness of just how ridiculous I must have looked in this endeavour. What if another of my flatmates walked in while I was doing it? But then again, the idea of doing a silent pounce seemed idiotic. What on earth would be the point? Also, I'd have to wave my arms or something. But how on earth do I do that when I barely have the space to lift them? I'm going to bring half this closet down for my stupid joke.
In the meantime, for some reason, Alex is taking quite a deal of time in there. The sinks keep flowing and at a certain point it even seems like he's talking to himself. What the fuck is he doing? I've been closed in this mouldy hole for what feels like ten minutes now. I'm starting to feel like I don't have the air to breathe in here. For a moment I even experience a brief surge of admiration for Alex's capacity to stay stuck in here waiting for me - the brave fellow, undergoing deprivations and hardships just to play a prank on me!
From the kitchen, I hear the bathroom-door opening. My heart starts pounding. Hold on a second - why am I getting scared? Hell. What happens if he opens the closet before I decide to leap out of it? What am I going to tell him, that I needed some intimacy to look for the tomatoes?
Then his steps come close enough to the locker and I decide: to hell with everything. I blast the door open with my right arm and wave my left arm forwards while attempting something like a war-cry. I say attempting, here, because my sense of dignity and shame is rebelling to my actions as if I'd decided to beat up an old woman. The cry that comes out of my mouth resembles more that of a goat calling for some lost companion over the mountains than that of a Viking leaping out of his Drakkar. Further, I can't swing my left arm around too much or I'll knock stuff over, so I end up keeping it flexed by my ribcage and fanning it up and down like a spastic velociraptor. Overall I really look like an emu.
Despite the poverty of my contingent performance, though, I am pleased to see that its effect is nothing short of what it had been for me. Alex leaps so high that he almost bangs his head on the ceiling (not at all an hyperbole for a crane like him). He then collapses on the floor with his hands over his face like a grenade had exploded somewhere nearby. For a second I'm afraid I've killed him - the guy is as thin as a grasshopper and his constitution doesn't suggest a particularly robust cardiac system. Then his ragged breathing is heard and I realise he is alive.
'You fucking bastard,' he chirps. 'You scurvy, lousy son of a bitch!' This is another thing about Alex. When he's had it, he doesn't just refuse to accept defeat; he spends at least half an hour insulting you. In this he is very much like French football fans.
I had to take forty-five minutes of insults while we bitch-slapped each other virtually in a videogame. Sometimes I am thankful for videogames. If we hadn't had the chance to pound at each other like mad on the screen of our little TV, I fear we might have ended up doing it for real. Our debates on philosophy alone caused more shouting arguments between us than I've had in all my relationships with women put together.
This is only half the story though, but it's getting too long - it will need another fully blog entry of its own. See you in Part II!
Ok. I realise this is starting to look like the blog for an Alcoholics Anonymous group, so I absolutely promise that the next few posts will not be about drinking. But let me just get this pebble out of my shoe, because it’s a logical continuation of the previous post.
So. Getting back to how dissertations are handed in. The other night I am sitting in front of my laptop doing something productive (namely, playing mine-sweeper), when I hear a knock by my window. It's like, half-ten at night. I open the curtains and there's this friend of mine standing there with two massive bags under his eyes and in greater need of a shave than Charles Darwin, and I'm like 'What's up?'.
The guy has just finished his dissertation. He asks me if I happen to have any booze, because he is, quote-unquote, dying for a drink. I tell him to wait a second, and I go knock on my flatmate's door. Those of you who have read the blog entry just below this one will know this flatmate as the guy who passed me his gin, a fact which guarantees his entrance into heaven almost as surely as it guarantees mine into hell. I knew there was still some left, and I knew by direct experience just how horrible its taste was, but at that stage I had a friend in need. So I asked him if I could buy off him what was left of the gin - which admittedly wasn't much, considering the swig-fest I'd been undergoing the previous night, but he accepted and I got myself the booze.
I let my friend inside and we start downing. Goddamn. It tastes even more truculent than the night before. He doesn't seem to mind it but I'm going into orbit with how far it's kicking my ass. We take a look at the side of the bottle to see what the ingredients are. It turns out it's some kind of Indian gin made in the desert or God knows where, with so many ingredients in its recipe that they couldn't actually fit them all on the one side of the bottle. Almonds, lemon, blackcurrant, the roots of some wacky plant, something I can't pronounce, something else which I don't even know what the hell it is, it could be their name for myrrh for all I know... It's all stuff which tastes excellent on its own, but why it should produce such a lethal brew when combined into such a concoction is something which remains beyond me.
At all events there isn't that much of it, so we finish it around ten to eleven and start wondering what to do. We could either go to sleep early, considering that tomorrow we've got another event already planned, or take our bikes, make a run for Sainsbury's before they close at eleven, get hold of some Whisky and blaze our way through the night with that.
Well - not really a dilemma.
So we're speeding through this fucking cow-field in the middle of the night and half-way through my wheel hits a cow-shit and skids for half a mile in a direction at right-angles from the one in which is headed my body, which sees me thrown into the air like a Canadian goose on the day of its most glorious take-off. Suddenly I feel the ground. My friend, unfortunately, is going so fast that he barely even notices, and for a moment I am assailed by panic: I am in pitch black in the middle of a goddamn fucking cow-field, without the slightest idea of where's backward and forward and I can't see any lights signalling civilisation to me because there's all these damn trees. If I lose track of my friend, I am going to die here. I am going to be trampled by a herd of cows. I am going to be savaged by a tiger. I must get moving!
I jump on the bike and power-leg it like a maniac, probably hitting twenty-four shits at sixty mph on the way but frankly who gives a damn, until my friend comes back in sight.
'You alright over there?', he asks. 'Thought I'd lost you at a certain point.' I cannot deign him with a reply - my tongue is rolled out like a carpet and my lungs are contracting like the wings of a humming bird.
We get to Sainsbury. We buy ourselves a bottle of old-style Whisky and get back on the bikes (I make sure I'm letting him carry the Whisky, because I have the impression that if it's placed on my bike then something catastrophic is going to occur). Another terrifying ride through the fucking cowfield (I cannot say it without swearing now), and we're back in college.
It's Whisky O' Clock.
Shot one: We're doing well. Shot two: We're doing well. Shot three: We're doing well, but we decide it's time to get our young and glowing physiques moving, so we get hold of a football and we go outside. For a while, we just kick it around. Then the poor guy has the unfortunate idea of challenging me at football-based drinking games. Challenging an Italian at football-drinking games. Dude. You're either South American, or you'd better forget it, is what I'm thinking. This turns out to be utterly true, not only because he's now sucking Whisky from a straw but because he has the chance to directly experience the Italian defence - also known as the best, most refined, most powerful and most unsurpassable defence in the history of the game, an instinct for which runs into the veins of all us Italians and to the discipline of which we are trained from the moment we step into the agoge of our kindergarden football courts: I produce myself in a spectacular tackle which would have had all Old Trafford on their feet and clapping, and the guy goes down like the walls of the city of Byzantium when the Turks invaded it in 1453. This gets him so whoozy that within ten minutes that we're back to playing, we fuck around in our control and the ball is slung into the lake and lost forever except to the ducks. We spend the ten minutes of our lives throwing stones into the lake like idiots in the hope that the waves we produce will carry the (infuriatingly immobile) floating ball in our direction, an endeavour made completely hopeless by the fact that the stones we are throwing are the size of mild confetti produced for the wedding of a couple who has that bone disease which makes your skeleton frail like glass, so after quickly dismissing the idea of jumping into the lake (that place is not so much a lake as a latrine for ducks), we decide to go back inside, oblivious to the fate of the ball.
There, we start jamming. Holy shit. I know that when it comes to music I have been blessed with all the talent of a mildly retarded bloodhound, but how someone could reproduce the full screeches and screams of the Pearl Harbor bombardments with just the three basic notes of a blues is something I do not understand. I'm surprised the neighbours didn't come down and lynch us. Hell, I'm surprised my friend didn't just call it quits to sit down and weep. But apparently my castrated attempts at symphonic compositions were enough for him to solo over, so he did not complain.
In the meantime, the Whisky is quickly getting drunk. We're more than halfway down the bottle and I haven't even had dinner except for a couple of chips I scavenged off someone else's plate before the mould got onto them. At a certain point we decide to go and look for another friend of ours so he can share in our celebrations for the end of academic work. We barge into the computer room and almost get arrested for how drunk we are, then we go out and look for him elsewhere. Eventually we get him on the phone and he promises he'll be at my place in no time.
The day that they burn down the restaurant in Rome where I used to go with my flamboyantly constituted rowing team for loser-pays-all eating competitions, this guy I was calling will become the agent responsible for the most food I've ever happened to eat in one night alone. He's an American, and I followed him out, once, with his American clique; we were going to a Chinese restaurant, and we had one of the most delicious and massive meals of the year; everybody else couldn't finish their plate so they dunked their stuff into mine and I concluded theirs as well. We went out drinking after that, and when we got home a few hours later, I met my Portuguese flatmate cooking himself a meal, and he offered me some tortilla. I accepted as a way of being polite, left him, and went back to the American group in their flat. They happened to have some French liquor called Crounjon or something which was based on orange. It smelled like gentle heaven and tasted like flaming hell; the gradation was 40% and I was having it smooth. I downed what was left of that whole bottle, then hit the vodka for a bit, then went back home. As I went, I crossed this Italian girl I knew, and in the hopes of getting a shag, I started chatting. She invites me upstairs and I think, ‘Let’s roll!’, when it turns out she's got her boyfriend over and she was inviting me up to join them for pizza. Holy shit. I’m not hungry at all, but it would really look ill to leave now, and admittedly I could really do with some hot pizza to rid my tongue of the syrupy aftertaste which has been left by the Crounjon. So I accept. I get back down to my flat, and guess what I find - a whole congregation of Indians cooking a collective meal! 'Dude, join us!', they chant in a chorus. 'No, guys,' I tell them, 'I seriously couldn't have another bite.' Then they start getting really offended, one of them starts yacking something in Hindi, one of the girl looks really wounded that I won't stay with them, so I end up accepting. Nan bread and South Indian lentil puree with beans for all. It took me twenty hours to metabolise.
So anyway. This is the American guy I invite over; he's not bringing any food this time, but he is carrying an extra bottle of rum with him, which we open as soon as we finish the Whisky. Around that stage the guy who was really jolly about having finished his dissertation gets a little too jolly and it turns out he can't stand up when we go out for a smoke. This guy is like over two metres tall so that when he crumples down on me I end up going down with him onto the ash-tray next to the college door. Inside that ash-tray, it has rained, and the massive puddle of yellow water with ash floating on it is thereby dislodged and tidal-waved towards us – most particularly, towards me. I scream like a calf and leap out of the way, puma-style. My friend has an intervention by a squadron of guardian angels and doesn't get soaked in the stuff, so we lift him and carry him back to his room. We leave him with his bin next to his bed and his hand in it in case he wakes up and finds he needs to throw.
I do feel very manly when I walk other people back home.
Then there's me and the American guy. And the rum. There's still quite a bit to go of that, so we go back to my place and we start drinking it. En passant, I give a call to my Indian flatmate, who is always up for doing stuff. He comes into my room. As the swigging goes on, we decide to go for a smoke.
'Oh,' yelps the American, 'do you mind if I roll? I haven't rolled in years.'
'Yeah, no problem,' I tell him.
I wish I fucking hadn't. I thought I was bad with the guitar, but what this guy does with the tobacco surely ranks among the natural disasters. I swear to God by the time he even begins rolling, he has already spread a carpet of tobacco over my desk the circumference of which is broader than the length of his outspread arms. There is no way in physics he could have dropped the tobacco over such a half-stadium of an area if not with purpose. I'll admit he was smash-drunk as well as inexperienced, but hell. After twenty-five minutes he still hasn't even managed to close it.
We left the cadaver of his cigarette on the table, rolled a couple of other ones (properly), downed the last shot of rum, and stood up.
And suddenly, the world is spinning.
I sort of understand why the tall guy fell down earlier on. I understand even why leaves fall from trees in autumn. All of a sudden I notice a distinct malaise in my stomach, which appears to be spreading towards the other organs. Fortunately I'm highly resilient when it comes to throwing up (with some exceptions - I did wake up once to find that the shower-tent of that room's same bathroom was encrusted with dried vomit, but to date I have no recollection of how on earth that had happened, so it might even have been someone else’s for all I know).
We walk outside, smoke and decide to go to bed on account of the end of the booze. I wonder if the guy can make it back to his college on his own, so maybe I should walk him; then I remember he wasn't here for the gin and the Whisky part, and decide that he can find his room on his own.
I stagger back to mine, and fall asleep.
The only real reward in the next day's wake up, gargantuan hangover aside, is that my table was so iconic that I swear I would have taken a picture of it if I only had a camera. Three empty bottles of liquor in an almost perfect triangle surrounding the remains of some broken cigarettes and a dust-storm of tobacco evenly spread over papers and papers of hand-written poetry alongside books, pens and my (ancient) laptop.
Aesthetics of chaos. And witnessed when dying of a hangover, which I had to get rid of soon because I was going to go out for real that same night. As beautiful as it gets.
So I'd been watching movies with my British flatmate for a while, when this one night he suggests we do Starship Troopers. I have a very ambiguous relationship with that movie. I kind of love it for many of the things that it does right, but also hate watching it because it's so gory and awfully depressing.
Normally these are just movie-nights, but my Indian and German flatmates were invited, so the Indian guy asks, 'Are we drinking?'
We are going to purchase some vodka but I am busy with the application forms for the police service and I can't get out. I don't want to mooch my British friend's gin and besides we all know it tastes fucking abysmal if you don't dilute it into twenty-seven litres of mango juice or whatever, so I go and check what I have left: only two cans of cider. Might as well turn them into a power-hour.
Just before the beginning of the movie, however, I have the clever idea. I say, Dude, let's have a shot of cider for every time they say 'Sir.' Anyone who's seen the movie knows that this happens about two hundred and twenty million times over the course of the film, so the idea sounds like a blast. When me and my Indian flatmate begin, however, it turns out to be idiotic. For the first twenty-five minutes of the film they say 'Sir' about as often as I say 'thermonuclear biomechanics,' and when they finally get to the training scenes, they utter it so often and with such verve and gusto that we finish two cans of the cider in the space of four minutes.
Now what?, I ask myself, looking at my empty cans. 'I've got some gin,' says my British flatmate, jokishly suggesting that I'm going to keep doing the same thing with shots of gin. Obviously I take him up on it and I pour myself and the Indian a shot of gin.
The thing about gin is that it really tastes ghastly on its own. It has this sort of soapy backtaste spirited with a smatter of dirty frost. I take one shot and my taste-buds officially go on strike. (I guess that's to my advantage). After the third shot the Indian has to cop out because it is frankly beyond disgusting, and while I would do the same had we been watching any other film, in the case of Starship Troopers the movie turns out to be so goddamn depressing that I can't watch it without constantly feeling the need for a drink. We are at the scene when they undergo the first offensive and there are people dying all over the place and saying 'Sir' even as they die, so that by the time the battle is over I am lying on the bed alongside the scenes of the wounded like I were partaking in their agony. I am actually having fun though - the thing about gin is, it's really not that heavy a spirit. If I were drinking something like vodka, let alone absinthe, I probably couldn't stick to that rhythm, but things being as they are, I am downing like a restaurant sink. So much so, in fact, that eventually my British friend has to stop me. I accept it until he goes to the bathroom and I find myself with the bottle of gin accessible right next to me and a scene where fifteen year old kids are being sent into battle, and I think, what the hell. So I decide I'll try and see how many consecutive shots I can do while he is taking a piss. I have approximately just under sixty seconds, so I down one, two, three and by the fourth one he is out.
For that matter, so am I.
We walk out of there for a smoke after the movie was over and for some reason which has now completely escaped my memory I decide it would be a good idea to pull my trousers down and walk around the college in my underpants. The fact that I'm here writing it rather than in the office of the provost waiting for my turn to go in and bullshit my way through an explanation is testimony to the fact that no porters were around that night. After a while I pull my pants up and decide I am tired of walking and indeed of standing up, so I sprawl like a fallen star onto the grass and just lie there. I have some conversations with my mates while watching the leaves above me. Then I walk back to my room and after pondering whether to spontaneously throw up or not, I go to sleep.
The next day, I kind of wished I had thrown up whatever liquid hadn't yet been absorbed by my stomach. I had a headache which could have made it into a Virgilian epic, a backtaste on my tongue which felt like twenty lizards had taken a shit in my mouth and then used it as a cemetery for their oldest members, and most importantly, it was bloody half-seven in the fucking morning! I rolled over and tried to get that one extra hour of sleep I had before having to wake up and go send my police service forms (yet another reason I'm glad this blog is anonymous... I don't know if this story would help my application), but I couldn't. I just rolled over like a national government after a landslide election and couldn't get my brain to switch to unconscious mode.
I stood up and went to work. No love for gin now. Much prefer vodka.