Friday, 28 November 2008
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! :)
Sunday, 23 November 2008
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.
Friday, 21 November 2008
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!
Thursday, 13 November 2008
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.
Tuesday, 4 November 2008
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.
I still haven't told her what for.