Friday, 17 December 2010

Oh Felicia...

NB this post was written in early September.

(Picturesque Belgium)

(Historic Germany)

I got back last week from trolling through what felt like most of northern Europe with my friend Dan, in a kind of harried road trip. Dan had been taken on to transport all the worldly goods of his friends Hattie and Sam from Felixstowe to Helsinki (Sam is a Swedish-speaking Finn, and they were moving to Finland with their two small children), via Holland, Copenhagen and Stockholm, in a very large white transit. Dan's mother went along to share the 2000+ miles of driving, and then flew back from Helsinki; Dan crossed by ferry to Estonia and drove down through Latvia to Kaunas, the second city of Lithuania, where he collected me off a cattle-class Ryanair flight. We then wended our way to Vilnius for the night, on to Gdańsk, then Berlin, then Luxembourg, then home to my parents in Kent. By the end, poor Dan had driven well over 3,500 miles.

I was unprepared, in these jolly EU times, for the sheer grimness of post-Communist eastern Europe. Lithuania seems to consist largely of nothing much---huge forests of pine and sodden bog, with occasional silver-weathered clapboard houses. When we were inevitably stopped by the police on the motorway, communication was a problem. They spoke no English and we speak no Lithuanian. (I can give you a lovely discussion of the language's Indo-European archaisms, but being able to decline výras is of little help when a uniformed officer is pointing at his clipboard portentously.) In the end, Dan found that he and the police officer could both speak Russian, and then that we had not paid a motorway toll, fine €300. Under the circumstances, the guy let us off and said we could buy one at the nearest petrol station, which we did. The full moon rose over central Vilnius as we limped in, lost and exhausted: parking a vehicle that is 3.2 metres high and 6 metres long was not always easy, in the dark, in a foreign city. But we managed it eventually, and collapsed in our hotel. The next morning, Day 2, we set off for Poland, glad to be getting the hell out of a country whose chief contribution to European culture seemed to have been the pogrom and a corpus of 1500 folksongs about geese.

Poland also was largely forest: great echoing acres of pine and broadleaf woodland. This was the deep tanglewood of the central European imagination, of fairytale and nightmare. The archetypal overtones of the deep dark wood as a place where, in stories, terrible things can happen, were overlayered for both of us by the uneasy knowledge that it was in woods like these that terrible things had happened, not 70 years before. We both sat thinking about it in the van (now christened 'Margot'), as we travelled through endless miles of shadowy resinous gloom over crazily potholed roads. Little old ladies sat by the roadside selling mushrooms and jars of amber-coloured honey; every few miles heavily-made-up, leather-miniskirted Ukrainian prostitutes plied their wretched trade in the woodland tracks for passing truckers. 'You can really see', quipped Dan after a thoughtful few miles, 'how a few death-camps must really have cheered this place up.'

But Gdańsk, beyond its smokestacked industrial hinterland, was a city of great charm and beauty. Gracious 17th century merchants' houses lined the streets of the old town, usually with bars in what had once been their cellars: the whole place had that characteristically self-confident grandeur-in-practicality that one sees in the architecture of Hanseatic ports.

By the time we arrived were starving hungry, and Dan decided that we had to eat Kashubian that night. Kashubian, I learned, is a small West Slavonic language that is spoken around Gdańsk---basically a kind of titivated Polish dialect posing as a language in its own right. Following the guidebook, we arrived at this ethnic eatery, which was a kind of shuttered wooden hall with animals made of straw hanging from the ceiling. A crazy-looking straw pig circled slowly above my head for the entire meal; a louche koala grinned from over Dan's left shoulder. The menu was in Polish and Kashubian; I read neither, so Dan ordered for me with a glint in his eye, as we were serenaded by an elderly man with terrible body odour and an equally terrible accordion. After my pickled herring in a cold mayonnaise and raisin sauce---thanks, Dan---and some rather better meat and potato patties, we headed back to the hotel, away from the eerie stares of the grass menagerie.

Day 3 took us 600km to Berlin, and there was a real sense of returning to the familiar as we crossed into Germany. (Even Dan, who speaks Polish and lived in Kraków for six months, had found Poland a bit gloomy.) That night we went round for dinner at the stylish flat of my friend Stripey Mark---so-called because he had a great fondness for Breton tops as a student---and Julien, his unbelievably hot French boyfriend.

Still vibrating with stress from the long drive, Dan and I were unprepared for the leisurely pace of a Berlin night---dinner was dished up at 11pm, which I ravened down, having had nothing to eat since the pickled herring, and we finally went out at 2am, much fortified with goodly wines. Now, normally 2am is the kind of time when I think about getting up to write a 9am lecture, rather than going out, but off we trolled to some club called 'SchwuZ'. By this time, I was feeling the poverty of my skills as a modern linguist: whilst I do read and just about speak French (and understand it fine) I can read German only on a very circumscribed number of topics: basically, if conversation isn't about linguistics or die irische Helden- und Königsage I'm mute. Chatting someone up in German, you understand, is therefore beyond me at present.

Only Julien came out with us: Mark had to finish some work for a deadline the next day, and so the three of us tottered off in a taxi. SchwuZ is a cafe at the front---all rattan chairs under and awning and nightlights in red glass bowls on spindly little tables---and then inside, it opens out into a series of interlocking bars and subterranean dance areas. It was all very Otto Dix that night, as one would hope for in Berlin: the sequinned doorbitch taking our cash looked like a cross (or perhaps a collision) between Matt Lucas and a demented budgerigar. The boys of the town were rather good, I thought, tending to the dressy and lissom with a bit of well-kempt facial hair going on in a way that I find very attractive (see Jonas Armstrong for the idea). Knowing Berlin's reputation I'd come wearing my butchest scent, Andy Tauer's campfire/leather 'Lonestar Memories', and had been wryly turning Lewis Carroll's amnesiac Baker over in my head:

He would joke with hyaenas, returning their stare
With an impudent wag of the head:
And he once went a walk, paw-in-paw, with a Bear,
"Just to keep up its spirits," he said.

No such luck, alas, so at 5am or so, we left, having to begin the drive again at 11am.

* * *

A few hours of sleep later, we were motoring along various excellent German autobahns----'fine, big roads', as my Ayrshire great-grandmother once said when she saw a motorway for the first time. Berlin to Luxembourg is about 800km, and we careened into the transistorized Grand Duchy at around 10pm, in lashing rain and a particularly Mittel-Europäische kind of mungey blackness. Margot (the van) was very low on petrol. I myself was very low on gin. Luxembourg city seemed to have no petrol stations: as we crept closer and closer to having nothing in the tank, we had to stop in increasing desperation at a series of random hotels and ask for directions. We eventually filled up when poor Margot could have gone barely another mile. Having parked the van on a main street, with ticket paid and displayed, we fell headfirst at around midnight into the peculiar, poky hotel, then into the minibar, and then finally into our beds.

Much refreshed, we had breakfast the next morning---me having my usual nourishing cup of black coffee and health-giving bowl of air---and went to retrieve the van.

Which had gone.

We discovered from the hotel that yes, that street did indeed normally have parking, but that this one day of all the year there was a jolly street-fair, and so parking had been suspended. Signs announcing this fact had been helpfully placed around the street at ankle-height, in Luxembourgish.

Down the copshop, we explained the situation to the actually very nice and helpful receptionist, paid the eye-watering €258 fine (along with the legions of other tourists who had made the same mistake) and waited two hours to be driven to the vehicle-pound near the motorway. The dismal situation was improved by the fact that every one of Luxembourg's policiers could have moonlighted as a male model; and further because one of our fellow-sufferers was an extremely glamorous tranny, who had, as Dan observed, 'come Done', in an expensive black pencil skirt and expert maquillage. Her vertiginous shoes looked as though, by some mysterious contrivance of the cobbler's art, they were on backwards---the stiletto spike lay horizontally flat along the ground, extending backwards from the toe rather than downwards from the heel. We were as impressed by the shoes as by her gravelly, non-nonsense manner.

Later that day, nine hours and 400km later, we finally arrived at my parents' house, having been through the Channel Tunnel. More relieved than I could say, we parked Margot outside the house and reflected, with Guy Davenport, that travel is very narrowing.


Suem said...

I enjoyed that post and was rather entertained by the rather grim quip about death camps. I shall avoid pickled herring this Christmas.

Bo said...

Do!! Merry Christmas.

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