Thursday, January 21, 2016

Life is peaceful there...

"Churn" the word I used, and so far it's described things perfectly. The van was speeding along the North Circular, and things had already happened which shouldn't have, and not happened which should.

"It's all just churn, it'll be forgotten about in a few weeks," I declared, waving away the weeks until life was to resume some semblance of normality.

And there has been no shortage of churn in the last three days. It's only now that I've finally got enough time and brain-space to write some of it down so that the second half of my prediction doesn't come true.

First things first: I've left a house after three years, in which I loved and was loved. That sounds pretty sentimental written down, but it's also true so there's no point being shy about it. I was really happy and at home in Evershot Road, and closing the door without keys in my pocket felt like a ceremonial moment:

The packing had gone more or less to plan, which is to say that I'd done all "the hard stuff" (by which I meant "the easy stuff", by which I meant all the chunky easily-categorised stuff like my stereo, and my computer and the main body of my very limited clothing selection) which left me only with EVERYTHING ELSE, which meant a thousand tiny things I'd never have thought of and could categorise only under "Misc." My fellow packers were patient and generous with their time, help and advice as I grew increasingly slapdash in my approach to sorting and packaging. This process ends in the only way it can, with me stuffing a rogue pair of socks found down the back of a cabinet into my coat pocket as I shut the door for the last time.

The van was packed and I decided to use my hard-won local knowledge one last time before embarking for a place where I had none. I decided to turn the van around instead of hitting the busy junction at the south end of my road. This led to the inevitable misjudgement, and Austin Powers-style multi-point turn with impatient onlookers, culminating in me reversing the van into a pole:
 Putting this merrily down to churn we pointed the van westward. It later turned out to be a long scratch and a flapping piece of bumper, the kind of damage I'm sure will end up costing all my £500 excess.

Spirits were lifted by a trip to the services: I don't know what it is about these places but I always leave feeling strangely elated. It's probably nothing more than being full of Burger King additives and Costa caffeine, but I love it and it always makes me feel like holiday.

The rest of the move has been pretty smooth. I have felt London impatience rise up in me every time something is moving at less-than Zone 1-velocity but my stuff is safely in storage, and the van has been safely collected, despite some nervous moments when we thought we'd be charged an extra day for missing the collection rendez-vous. But I'm sure this rising impatience will disperse over time, and I'll return to what I think is probably my natural state: that of being lit by a powerful Bristolian sun while taking all the time in the world to drink my Bristolian coffee.

Quick summary for the everything-else stuff:

So far I've stayed in, and moved out of a lovely but cold AirBnB with a handsome musician in his early 50s, who had a songwriting session with his floaty songwriting pals the night I arrived, and we all had vegan soup and oohed in harmony to songs about dragons.

I've been to see my new office (!) at the University. It's up two flights of a grand old staircase in a converted Victorian house, then up a further narrow "mad sister in the loft"-style flight, right up in the eves. I'm a bit worried about how out-of-the-way it is, but the kitchen is just one floor below so hopefully there'll be hanging out with my new colleagues.

I'm living with some very kind friends now until possibly the end of the month, at which point I'll have at least had some flat viewings. Until then I'm happy and well and looking forward to the first task of my new career: marking exams. Hmmm....

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The first five hundred words

To the nation at large, today will only be memorable for one thing: the 2015 General Election (I'm giving both these words caps. Seems to be right somehow.) is, as I write these words, in the process of being "decided at the ballot box" as the pundits love to say. There's been much talk of this being an unpredictable election and a lot of the usual anthropomorphism around the British people (can a people be anthropomorphosed? I say yes.) with absurdities like: if the result is a hung parliament then this is a clear message from the British people that they want their politicians to work together. Actually I'm pretty sure that a hung parliament is the exact opposite of a clear message from the British electorate, but it makes one feel like a part of some cool opinion-having club, so I'm going to let it ride.

But this is not the way I'll remember this day when I'm looking back from my better-off, more yogic, less beardy, more multilingual and distinctly more employed future; no, today will only ever be the day on which I finally started writing my PhD thesis in earnest.

I came to this small cottage in Harwich (Google it. Harwich I mean, not the cottage.) now a full FIVE days ago, and have thus far been going through what can probably most generously described as "settling in".

I had people to visit for the first three days, leaving really only two days on which I've managed to achieve so very little. But the experience has so far been an interesting and not at all unpleasant one. I'll relate some of it here.

First, the domestic low-lights of the week's anecdotery: I've very much enjoyed the kind of elevated status which domestic tasks take on usually only when you're camping: cooking, laundry, wiping a surface and washing up are all very much part of the day's vital and memorable activities when you're camping, presumably because (a) there's a kind of Blitz spirit which kicks in when the pots, pans, spatulas, expensive washing up sponges and laundry baskets to which one becomes accustomed in the course of opulent urban life are not available to you, and you're left with a single steel pot with an ill-fitting lid, and a brush (shudder) for washing up with, and (b) because there's so little else to do. As a little list for some light relief from all the florid prose which seems to pour forth whenever I write one of these blog posts, I've: hung out washing outside, on an actual washing line, cooked a curry exclusively with products bought from non-ethnically specialised supermarkets (yes, this happens. This is why my parents are able to buy gefiltefish from their local Sainsbury's), washed up while listening to Radio 4 (there's no stereo system of any kind here) and eaten dinner on the sofa (there's also no dining table.) These are the things that make up an actual life, but they're rarely commented on or remembered apart from, as I've said, when there's not much else going on.

I've also played my beautiful guitar by candlelight (a romantic-sounding evening for one), lit an actual fire, read quite a lot of the only vaguely appealing novel on the bookshelves here (it's almost exclusively chain-thrillers like Jo Nesbo and Dragon Tattoo whatever the fuck), slept a fair amount and strolled through the seemingly uninhabited old town of Harwich. More excitingly though, I've started a morning running routine, trotting pathetically (in the old-fashioned sense, hopefully) along the sea-front listening to a podcast designed to get incurable lazies to become striding Mo Farahs in just nine weeks. I've also semi-inadvertently joined a choir. Upon Googling "Harwich events" half in hope, and half in preparation to scorn the inevitable cultural desert, I found a reference to a choir with the absurd name of "Harwich Sings". I also found out that they were rehearsing that very evening, so decided to go along.

When I got to the majestic but crumbling building where they rehearsed (This doesn't narrow anything down by the way. Both adjectives fit almost any building around here perfectly) I listened in at the door. I came extremely close to turning around and never returning again, until I realised, through the yelping and groaning that sounded more like a military field hospital than a choral society, that they were singing Get Lucky by Daft Punk. Those of you who know anything about me at all will know that I was therefore bound by a sacred bond of trust, love and mutual respect between me and that band, not only to go in, but to sign up to sing alongside the distressed-sounding and very possibly mortally wounded singers inside.

Despite my efforts to slip in unnoticed, the woman in charge who, if slimmer, could have been described as larger than life, proceeded to announce my arrival to the whole choir, and made me sit right in the middle of the front row, as I grinned apologetically and tried my best not to look insane with my hi-vis cycling jacket and wild beard.

Anyway, the choir was pretty fun but utterly awful, which is probably the average choral experience in Britain anyway. Curiously, they have no tradition of going to the pub after rehearsals, but I'm sure it's something which I can work into the routine once I've established myself as a good egg and in no way a snobbish London literato out to scoff at their vain wheezings.

But this is supposed to be a blog post about my having started work finally, after much procrastination. (The previous thousand words might have already gone some way towards painting a picture of why I never get anything of substance done, if via no other medium than the sheer number of words itself.)

I received some excellent advice from a man who, despite apparent tendencies towards procrastination, gets more done in a day than I have in the last three years. He said not to worry about writing anything complete, accurate or good. Just write, and leave noticeable placemarkers for all the things that can be filled in in a second round of writing. This advice found its perfect target in me, and was particularly timely as I'd spent the day doing what, in various forms, I spend all days doing: a side-project which I imagine will take a minute and ends up consuming me for so long that I no longer have any concept of what the original project even was. The day before yesterday it was this graph which was intended to accompany the very first sentence I had written and ended up taking me all evening:
A close-to-pointless graph
And yesterday it was the task of remotely logging in to my computer on my desk, since I discovered that my trusty laptop is a teeny bit slower than the growling behemoth bought for me by my employers. This seemingly innocuous task took me a whole day, and ended with me completely reinstalling my operating system. It seems there is no task in the entire world of tasks for a computer which doesn't end eventually with me doing this. I must just be genetically predisposed to tearing up perfectly good work on a whim and gleefully and wilfully reinventing wheels.

But not so today! Today I invented no wheels. Today I merely wrote some words. (And did what for any normal human would be an insane amount of dicking around but for me seems comparatively little.) In fact I wrote five hundred of the bastards.

Now, that's not exactly the daily tally I need to be clocking up if I'm going to be finished by July, but it IS a start, and it means that tomorrow, there's no blank slate to be stared at, no operating system to be reinstalled and nothing standing between me and total victory.

Unless, that is, I end up staying up all night to watch the election results trickle in. Then, tomorrow will be just another day in bed.

My view as I write this

Sunday, July 21, 2013

I'm away on my own = crazy stuff happens

Whenever I travel alone, I feel instantly like a dressing-gowned Bill Murray wandering disconnected and dead-pan through a bizarre Pan's Labyrinth of odd coincidences and semi-believable goings on.

Which is odd, because whenever I'm with anyone else, life tends to drift by at the speed of a lazy river, and I'm either placid and serene, or leaping with inanities and fun.

But this is a story of the former variety: one in which things have happened to me, and I have steadfastly refused to bat an eyelid through the whole, deeply-eyebrow-raising affair. It begins thus:

My flight to Boston for a two-day conference, for which 6 nights in a swish hotel had been booked by my absurdly generous research project, was scheduled for 12.30 on Saturday afternoon. I was delighted with the booking, blithely using words such as "civilised" and "appropriate" to describe the non-RyanAir style departure time.

I was pushing the casual arrival thing a little far when I arrived at Terminal 3 at 11.40, but was concerned to see that the flight I was booked on was reading "Scheduled to leave at 08.30" on the slow-scrolling departure screen. I couldn't divine whether this meant that it had left at 8.30 that morning, or that it wasn't going to be leaving until 8.30 tomorrow morning. Either way, the traditional racing pulse, that accompanies a realisation that, in my slow-paced flaneuring, I've actually fallen genuinely foul of deadline which can't be talked around, accompanied my hurried visit to an Air Canada representative.

It turns out that the sign had meant to say "Scheduled to leave at 20.30". (I enjoyed the thought that some well-meaning operator had gone to the trouble of adding a zero to the start of the time on the screen, hoping to make things look more official, but actually giving a definite indicator that this was to be read as a 24-hour clock system time.) The friendly woman behind the desk said that I could either take a couple of meal vouchers, and enjoy LHR for the next eight hours, or that I could take a "day room" at Air Canada's expense. Thinking of the kind of 'day cabins' you get on cross-channel ferries (little more than prison cells with the locks operable from the inside) I asked what facilities precisely were being offered. It was in fact a room at a Holiday Inn just round the corner. She phoned and was told that because the flight 'would have already closed' by the time the phone call was being made, there would be no day room avaialble after all. I glumly accepted my meal vouchers and began trying to imagine eight hours of terminal unwellness. I took the precaution of asking to speak to a manager, just in case they were able to turn the seemingly arbitrary decision around. After around nine seconds of telling him what had happened, he disappeared into his office and returned brandishing a day room pass. So I, triumphant, left the concourse of Heathrow for the imagined golf courses of complimentary hotel living. The reality was significantly less impressive and I spent a deeply bored six hours reading my Margaret Atwood, listening to the radio and eating complimentary, but close to inedible, pub-style fish and chips in the hotel 'brasserie'.

Finally the flight was boarding and I was told that, although we'd all missed our various connections out of Halifax (where's that I hear you ask? I didn't know either. Canada, apparently), there would be a representative of Air Canada to meet us off the plane and smooth our troubled ways to Boston with complimentaries, apologies and rebooked flights.

When we arrive in Halifax at around 2.30 in the morning London time, the Air Canada representative chosen was a lone guy in a baseball cap, surrounded by anxious travellers with tired children, all trying to get an answer where none was forthcoming. He had tickets for a shuttle bus, and nights in a nearby hotel to give out. As for the connecting flight to Boston: Give 'em a call, he said, they'll sort you out.

We arrived at our hotel, this one far plusher than the London effort, at around three thirty in the morning (11.30pm local time) vaunting our dinner and breakfast vouchers and our free hotel rooms. I checked into my palatial room and called Air Canada. After around 20 minutes on hold, I spoke to a very friendly woman who told me cheerfully that the next direct flight to Boston was on Monday. Recall that this is currently Saturday evening, and that my conference started on Monday. The best she could offer was an indirect flight via Ottawa, leaving Halifax at 06.15. (Leading zero deliberate this time.) This would mean getting the 04.30 shuttle bus and the time by now was half past midnight (half four in body-clock terms.)

I decided to make the most of my very, very short time in this nice hotel and went for a swim in the pool. It had officially closed hours before, but the woman on reception had a twinkle in her eye and said "just swim quietly and I'll turn a blind eye." So I turned a few lengths in a gorgeous, completely empty hotel pool and retired, hungry but ready to sleep. As it turned out, dinner had already finished by the time we'd arrived, and breakfast didn't start till six, so the vouchers went unsoent, we went unfed and it was back to the airport for the whole sorry lot of us. (In an amusing side-note, an elderly Indian lady had broken her glasses and she and the friendly receptionist who let me swim were trying to fix them. I stepped in cavalierly and manhandled the lense back into its wire casing. All were jubilant, until the lady put the glasses back on, and the lens came flying out in spectacular fashion landing on the floor with a scrape. Ah well.)

A deeply boring 90-minutes at the departure gate at Halifax airport was leavened only by a fun Canadian couple, the male of which told me that there's no good coffee to be had in North America, and that the best he'd ever had had been in New Zealand where he'd drunk something mysteriously called a "Flat White". I reassured him that no one in London knew what it was either, but that we were willing to pay $5 for the experience. He also informed me that "oatmeal" is a synonym for "porridge". Thus was my Sunday morning spent.

Upon arrival at Ottowa at around eight in the morning local time (I was no longer keeping track of what the time really was: I just knew I was overwhelmingly tired and very hungry), I was told that the flight to Boston I was booked on had in fact had been overbooked by three whole passengers and that the next flight wasn't until 16.30 that afternoon, a spookily similar eight hours to the eight hours I'd just spent in and around Heathrow. But there was hope: perhaps I could go down to the gate anyway, and see if anyone didn't turn up. I'd then be next in line to hop to the US. I was given a further meal voucher (a measly 10 Canadian dollars, which wasn't enough to buy me an omlette) and sent on my way. I sat nervously waiting as happy Boston-bound customers chatted light-heartedly with the staff and made their way onto the plane. As the last one filed on, an announcement was made: "Jim Smith, this is your final call for flight 123 to Boston. Please present yourself to the gate immediately." Hope surged in my heart. An second announcement a minute later: "Jim Smith, if you want to board the flight to Boston this is your last chance." I made myself known to the gate staff. We traded nervous glances. The woman said, let me just check he's not already on the plane; he might have slipped past me. I thought this a laughable eventuality and prepared to show my boarding card for the very last time.

After a period spent peering out of the window, in dark conference with a colleague, she returned to tell me that, yes, Jim Smith had indeed manage to evade her security checks and was already on the plane. The taxiing had already begun. I felt like I wanted to cry.

Instead of crying I sat and waited to be escorted back though US customs and back onto Canadian soil, where I'd never wanted to be in the first place. I was passed around several members of staff, who told me first that there was another flight via Toronto, my third unwanted Canadian destination, and then that that flight was full. Finally I was booked, like the inevitable sentencing of a kangaroo court, onto the flight leaving for Boston at four thirty in the afteroon. I was given a further meal voucher, written a cheque for $100 Canadian (about 60 quid) and told to wait for the flight. I said that it was probably time for me to see someone from customer services or a manager, and a concerned looking man with a clipboard was duly summoned. I recounted to him the whole unhappy tale, about how I'd barely eaten or slept in 24 hours and how far away I still was from my destination and he said, well, I never do this, ever. And if I do it, you've got to promise not to tell anyone. But I'll take you to the Maple Lounge, the kind of Chris Huhne-style low-security prison with perks that the Daily Mail gets wound up about, and you can wait out the rest of your sentence there.

And so it came to pass. I'm now a mere five hours away from getting on a plane that, in principle at least, is going to a place I actually want to be, and I'm enjoying the free internet, comfy chairs and UNLIMITED DRAUGHT BEER which the Maple Lounge is proud to offer its Gold Star customers.

The moral? 1) Don't fly Air Canada. 2) Don't get a flight that's going via somewhere, even if you save a hundred quid, and finally, the closest to my heart: 3) Don't just put up with the crappy first answer people in authority give you. Push a little harder and you too could be drinking unlimited draught beverages in a low-security wing for the rest of your pointless little days.

Your ever affectionate travelling correspondant,

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The last days

There is no wind in Frankfurt. Something about the way the land lies, or the skyscrapers are arranged, means that when it's hot in town, the relief of a cool breeze enjoyed by city-dwellers of other more normally laid-out cities is denied to residents of Frankfurt, making the summer experience a potentially punishing one. The heat sits on you like a sweaty rucksack, and your shirt clings and exposes parts of you you hadn't planned to have on show. Today was an archetypal sweltering and windless day here. My back was throbbing from a sitting marathon that had lasted days and I was lonely, as the top few pals were all variously with partners, in home cities or working. I flip-flopped glumly between computer and piano, neither of which offered me the refreshment I really needed, and eventually decided to stroll aimlessly. The nostalgia is finally starting to set in, as it's hammered home to me by the double-figures-into-August date that I'll be leaving my beloved kitchen in my beloved flat and Frankfurt and Germany in just 10 days. It's not the kind of number of remaining days which can breezily be laughed off; brushed from the conversation with a merry turn of phrase like "oh, it's a couple of months yet". No, I'm really starting to have to work out exactly what's happening with each remaining evening to make sure I see everyone and do everything One Last Time. Anyway, to cut a very long story only moderately long, the stroll turned into the kind of wonderful evening that makes you shudder at the thought that you could have instead sat on Facebook or watched TV or whatever, and that every moment where you do choose to do those things is potentially a great time missed (my mind is always cast back, in self-reflective moments like these, to a particularly punishing scene in the mouse-based epic Fievel Goes West in which his whole family, whom Fievel's been desparately searching for for the majority of the film walk underneath him as he walks across a plank of wood, bemoaning his unlucky lot. This made a huge impression on me and a child, and I've since then had regular moments of thinking as my life as having some kind of audience with a better perspective on things who are screaming at the screen to get me to just turn around, or not log on to Facebook or to go to that party after all or whatever it may be.)

My stroll featured the following happy/fortuitous things which I would have otherwise missed out on, and which will help me to think fondly of the city I'm currently calling home once it's no more than a few folders full of digital photos, and a fast-fading recollection of the German language. The evening seemed to be no less humid than the day had been and I was glad I was myself as I said my traditional friendly hello to the chef working in the restaurant downstairs. It was hard to tell whether he was drenched in dishwater or sweat, but in either case, his job looked unenviable from the position of a man with rolled up trouser legs and a faint scent of sun cream. However hot the city may be, the banks of the river are always a welcome five degrees cooler. People were draped languidly along the length of the bank of the Main (it's pronounced 'mine' by the way, for those knot in the no) and the hushed calm atmosphere of an outdoor classical recital reigned as it always does in Germany when the people come together to enjoy a public space (I could never understand why no one rode their bikes through the middle of such crowds calling people wankers and spitting chewing gum at them. Apparently the young people haven't learned how to do that here.) As I crossed one of the beautiful bridges heading south I came across a jaunty couple of Americans busking some proper old-school rock and roll. I stood casually by with my hands in my pockets, trying to make it not look like I was having such a good time that I'd feel obliged to give them anything generous, when a young girl came leaping up to them and asked in a strong scouse accent if the gents knew any Beatles numbers. The Americans asked where she was from and she replied "Liverpool of course!" with a shriek. They played "Get Back" and she hopped from foot to foot in front of them in crazed excitment. I flipped them 50c as I left and told them I'd had at least 50c's worth of fun.

American Buskers : the Frankfurt skyline looks on aloofly

A young man riding haughtily upon a vehicle changing lightbulbs along the banks of the Main. Only in Germany could this be someone's job.

The sun was pretty low by this point and I headed west along the south bank of the Main and felt jealous of the endless groups of well-prepared folk sitting on comfy rugs and smoking shisha. I treated myself to a doner from a floating kebab shop to make up for it, and felt somewhat better about things. I walked down past the Staedel museum and saw a beautiful restaurant I'd never seen - a huge glass front with pink lights inside, making things look deliciously seedy. I walked though the gate and thought I'd just have a look in at the diners. As I stood there gawping, a tiny child ran up to me out of nowhere making a kind of throaty deep humming noise. He stopped as he got to my legs and looked up at me, my face peering back at him from what, from his height, must have looked like beyond the clouds. He contemplated me silently for a moment and we looked at one another. He then started to run around me in circles laughing with delight as he ran. The Maitre D' turned out to be his mother, and she came running down the front steps embarrassedly and said "Oh I'm sorry. He doesn't normallly do this. I think he likes you!" I remained staning like a grinning maypole for a few more revolutions and then the little boy's orbit slingshotted him off to his mum where he pressed his face into her thighs. I wished her a pleasant evening and walked off, thoroughly delighted.

As so often happens in this city, I discovered some unusual and fantastic architecture hidden unboastfully away around an otherwise familiar corner. I used to maintain that this happened every time I ventured out into the city, but there are physical limits to even the most secretive city's hidden gems. This particular corner of town consisted exclusive of enormous old buildings (this means properly old, not the favourite reconstructed old of these parts). I wandered open mouthed throughout the area and as I looked up at the rickety 3rd story bay windows, bats flew silently from tree to tree.

I crossed back over the river, back into the cooking-pot heat of the city proper, and got the tram home. I picked up my bike and headed to Sachsenhausen, a party-friendly bar part of town where you can always see amusing groups of marauding stag/hen party-goers dribbling kebab sauce onto the cobbled streets or eyeing up the ludicrously proportioned waitresses at Hooters. I went to a favourite little bar of mine, where there's a piano in the corner and patrons are encouraged to entertain. I was disappointed by the fact that there were only about 6 people in the place and no one was playing the joanna, but I needn't have been, since that's precisely what made the ensuing musical feast such a wonderful and intimate affair. It turned out that all the punters were musicians, and we were particularly dazzled by an Irish guy (in Frankfurt since 1987!) who played the guitar and sang traditional Irish stuff most beautifully, and a gruff, broad german man, who turned to a cheeky Puck when a fiddle was put in his hand, and he crept sprightlily about playing the most fantastic fiddle to our Irish friends guitar activity. I pulled out a few of my party pieces and people sang along and said I was good. I left the place at one with a couple of beers in my belly, and a warm glow of music, merriment and a growing nostalgia for a city that's soon to become my ex-place of dwelling. Goodbye Frankfurt, it's been fun.

The kind of silly stuff we often got up to: Flatmate Marcus planing the feet of our kitchen chairs with a hunk of stale bread wrapped in sand paper. What else?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Today is a whole new world

I've been down in the dumps lately. In actual fact, as an opening statement that's fairly redundant, since I pretty much only write on here when I've been down in the dumps (is this true? -Ed).

A confluence of factors has led to a vicious circle of not really wanting to get out of bed or do very much with my days: the easiest to explain of which is most probably my lower back. It's been giving me grief now continously since early April. I've since had an injection into my back muscles (a cure which seems only to exist in Germany!) which numbs the muscle forcing it to relax, thereby giving the affected area time to pull its socks up and sort itself out. The doctor who pressed the plunger failed however to tell me what to do while I was in my little window of suffering-free heaven. Needless to say, I abused the privilege of being able to move freely by proceeding immediately to leap about, play table tennis, chop wood, drive to the countryside and, most flagrant of all, to sneeze in my hayfeverish fashion without first clutching my back in self-defence. What a hussy I was these 4 days, the very epitomy of Sodom rebuilt in Europe's banking heart. When the drugs wore off though, as is so often the case with drugs, my world came tumbling down. I managed to convince myself for an entire day that the imperceptable, gradual onset of cripplement was just a phase in the healing process and that my best course of action was to keep moving. The reality was soon driven home though, and I was driven miserably home while those around me had house-warming parties and enjoyed their youth.

Since then the situation has once again improved, and I'm going to get another injection (delivered under the counter, for free, without a waiting list, by a local plastic surgeon: I know his assistant!) on Wednesday and this time I will show my physical weakness the respect it deserves, and do nothing but stroll and sit up straight in cafes.

Additionally to my back based blues, I've come a cropper in my quest for the knowledge of all things, in that I had a most unproductive meeting with my Thesis supervisor, who told me, when discussing the mini-paper I'd written for him over the previous few months that I need to "do something else". This is as discouraging a piece of advice as one could hope for, and I suddenly felt like the end of the world (by world I mean my Masters) was nigh, and I was never going to be able to get it all done in time.

Secondly and most boringly (I put this in the middle to hide it away: always begin and end well) I've got a lot less money than I'd thought. It turns out that the concept of looking at your bank balance and remembering what you've got works about as well as remembering that Michael Owen is only 19. He may have been only 19 when you first heard about him but now he's a right old bastard and no one outside of his immediate family wants to know - and so it is with my bank balance. I've been safe in the knowledge that I've got x amount of money in my account (don't worry, those of you who don't like maths, I'll keep the equations to a minimum) for so long now that I've actually got x - y euros, where y is a number greater than zero. This discovery shocked me and made me realise that crossing the English Channel on the high seas in a hired van filled with my possessions is not going to be one of those financially neutral activities you hear about like picking grapes in the rainy season.

This, coupled with a long time in Zimbabwe followed by a short pause and then a quite long time in England has left me these past two weeks feeling completely unlike a student and even less like a human being, as I've lain uncomfortably around in my shorts, waiting for my back pain to disperse, and my dissertation to be written. I hadn't seen campus for what seemed like an age, and the thought of me still being part of the great knowledge machine I vaguely knew was still pumping away as I stayed in and drank coffee seemed to be absurd.

But nothing ever lasts forever (to quote Echo and the Bunnymen) and I'm sitting here in the relative paradise of the House of Finance computer room (I refuse to call it a lab: where are the guinea pigs that are supposed to be wasting their hours striving to run in what is really just a wheel leading nowhere... Oh wait) which indicates that several things have changed.

Firstly I'm able to sit for extended periods. This is a major step forward in the slow lumbering healing process of my lumbar and I'm already remembering what it feels like to be a person. Secondly, I had a long moan to my flatmate yesterday about all of the above, even though I knew that, being a man, he would try and offer me advice, which I wouldn't want to hear, and I would just add to the list of people I don't want to talk to. It turned out, in fact, that I am also a man, and heard his very sensible advice with very sensible man ears, and have today acted upon that advice which led me to the radical change in outlook which has allowed me to talk of being down in the dumps in the past tense. Or at least in the present perfect continous (but that doesn't have the same ring to it somehow).

The advice had two parts to it, and was as follows: a) you can choose to change your situation if you want, and b) your situation is easy to change and you could do so tomorrow. That was it: just stop feeling sorry for myself and go to university and get something done. And what a difference a day has made. I'd been in the House of Finance on campus for about one minute forty when a man I vaguely recognised came up to me and asked me if I remembered meeting him one day last year. I didn't but I didn't tell him that, and he went on to tell me that he was writing a paper for an important conference and would I be interested in earning 20€ an hour correcting the English. I told him I would be very much interested.

The next person I spoke to asked me what I'd done with the brilliant idea I'd had for a research project. This is the same brilliant idea to which my professor's response had been "do something else". He told me the idea was great and I should pursue it nevertheless. When the third and final person told me I should ask Prof X, who seems nice and is running a course on the very subject, I could have kicked myself for not having thought of it first. I emailed him a brief summary of my idea and he got back to me straight away saying it sounded "extremely interesting" and could he have a copy of my first draft. Yes Mr. Professor. Yes you can.

What's the moral of this story? I'm damned if I know, but one things for certain: I'm not as happy sitting on the sofa at home as I think I am, and I'm going to try and remember that, the next time I don't feel like getting on that U-Bahn.

See you soon, England.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Going without

The traditional blog diatribe begins with two seemingly unrelated events, and brings them together with some more or less relevant narrative device. Let me here be no exception to that formula:

A random stumbling upon an advert online for Earth Hour, an hour in which the lights of cities across the globe are supposed to be switched off in a reminder of the supposed power of the people to make a difference, led to us sitting in our kitchen lit only by candles and the staunchly not-switched-off street lights outside ("what's a few dead due to road accidents in comparison to a ruined environment?" said somebody). This led us quite naturally to the idea of reading aloud to one another what each had been reading privately in the cosy story-telling shadows. This is a trend that has, to some degree, been extended into our normal electricity consuming lives. We've read newspaper articles, poems, short stories and bits of novels to one another, and I find it to be totally brilliant. It has that same appeal as has watching episode after episode of Family Guy on the laptop, in that you're entertained without having to do anything yourself, but it's somehow more... well, it's definitely different anyway. There's something necessarily communal about it, which seems to lend it a legitimacy that watching TV seems to lack.

Also this week, I've had one of those things that men seem to have, where their back suddenly decides it's had enough of doing whatever it is a back normally does, and is going instead to shoot the empty beer bottles of ones nervous system with the Colt 45 of unexpected twinges and seize up in the process, forming some kind of unbending kebab skewer of hot, slicing pain. To cut a long story short, I've done my back in. This has led to previously unscheduled periods of lying on the sofa, standing aimlessly in the kitchen, and walking gingerly about clutching my lower back, like a late-in-the-term pregnant woman. This has had various unexpected pleasant consequences however. Firstly and foremostly, I've been forced to think of things to do that don't involve going anywhere or moving in any serious way. I've read the Süddeutscher Zeitung from cover to cover, and also a great deal of my hilarious novel, always either standing propped up against the fridge or lying on the sofa with the afternoon sun shining through the window. I've also found the time to finally paint letters in the German Scrabble distribution on the back of my Bananagram tiles (see photo) and in the process have discovered that the name of the game is supposed to be pronounced with an american accent, making it rhyme with "anagrams", making the name a rather clever pun, rather than the confusing nonsense it is when said in a British accent (try it yourself!).

The fruits of my labour. The nail polish remover and filthy rag were used to correct the many mistakes.

Anyway, the point of all this rambling, is that sometimes going without something (electricity, motor skills) can lead to inventive ways of having fun. And no one can accuse me of not being interested in that.

Yours stiffly,
What does RL stand for? Because he can't sit down: me writing this blog entry

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Scientist

With the first proper feeling of having really acheived something since the start of this long and sometimes tortuous route through the ins and outs of political economy, the moment has finally arrived where I can call myself something new: I'm officially a scientist.

When I say officially I am, of course, referring to a decision made by the governing body of my own body and self, myself: I have written and sent to the relevant professor a scientific paper in which a new and previously undiscussed theory is outlined, data found for the proof or otherwise of said theory and analyses are made on said data the results of which are presented in serious-looking tables in black and white with enormous margins, double-spaced type and a small number at the bottom of every page, preventing the bewildered and overwhelmed reader from losing his very sense of self and location as he gazes in barely credulous fascination at the argument laid out in words of greater than one syllable in incontrovertable font-with-serif seriousness before him on the leather bound pages.

Ok, I may be exaggerating somewhat for dramatic effect, but the point still stands. I've written a paper. It's not an essay, nor is it a project. It's neither a worksheet nor a take-home test. It's a paper and I know this because it starts with an abstract not an introduction. This is how I know I'm now officially a scientist.

Today, in the style of a Roman emperor, I have lain on the sofa reading a book and drunk two coffees in my tracksuit bottoms, with ne'er a thought that I should have a shower or deal with the serious issues of the day. It's the first time I've been rid of that horrible student sense of having something very important to do which hangs over every moment of unending free time, spoiling the mood but not quite being forceful enough to convince you to leave the lilo in favour of the library. And it feels good. I'm geniunely very relaxed.

Inspired by a book I have been reading in which it is mentioned that an English woman learns French via the Langenscheidt method - by which one learns by heart a minimum of 30 pages of a foreign text - to learn a German poem by heart. It's the kind of thing that, caught in the struggle for higher position (J. Mitchell's words), it's easy to forget to do. Since I was a wee teenager I've wanted to be able to recite at least the first few pages of STC's 'Ryme of the Ancient Mariner' but just kind of assumed that you either can do that sort of thing and hurrah for you, or you can't and so must it ever be. It never occured to me that if you want to be able to do something like that, one option is to just sit down and learnt how to do it; it's just always seemed to somehow take a back seat to the driving desire to write CVs and get a job sitting at a computer all day. I'm sure that by tomorrow this feeling will have left me and I'll once again throw the poetry book into the corner in favour of Facebook and job applications, but today, just for a day, I'm going to use my hours in the service of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and I will do so today for as long as my consitution allows...

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Edward St. Aubin

They say that the more entertaining your life is, the duller your dreams. This also works in reverse: the last few months have been a nightly rollercoaster of nuclear apocolypse (a few weeks ago now), heart-breaking betrayals and tsunami-based obliteration (last night). These dreams play themselves out in such insanely vivid detail and technicolor that waking up each morning is like being pulled back into one universe having spent an exhausting few days in an alternative one. That period in the morning where it still feels like you have a choice between continuing in either of these two universes, completely unalike but both equally real, seems to be getting longer and longer each morning. I'm bringing my dreams further and further into my waking day.

And the effect seems to be leaking into other parts of my life, too. I could understand it if, after two consecutive hours of watching The Wire (I always watch them in groups of two!), it took me a few moments to realise that Greggs was not really in danger, or that McNulty was not actually drinking himself out of custody of his children, but it's starting to happen now with significantly dummer TV shows like Arrested Development or Futurama. When the episode's over I look around the room, blinking with surprise that the world is still as it was in that seemingly other existence when I switched the episode on in the first place.

The lastest example of this, however, is actually something a little more artistically plausible. I'm reading a book at the moment that, within as little as half a page, can launch me into a world at least as real as this one but with the added benefit that the monologue providing the commentary (a) is not my own, and (b) completely understands the world he's commenting on (a rather unfair advantage a narrator has over an internal monologue). It's the first book I've read since reading George Orwell where I've been consciously reading for the fabulousness of the prose, rather than to find out what happens. I get to the end of the chapter and look up, feeling surprised to find myself still in my room.

Am I slipping into some kind of half-waking netherworld from which I'll never escape, or am I just reading a really great book at the moment?

Damned if I know...

Monday, August 16, 2010


Today I felt, for the first time since I got here 11 and a half months ago, that I'd had enough of being a foreigner. I'm tired of every conversation being either an effort of one kind or another (a choice between the pain of speaking error-ridden and inelegant German and the pain of listening to a similar form of English) or being prey to the fickle whims of the Skype gods, who seem to control the bandwidth I'm allowed to enjoy with the jealous meanness of someone handing out tiny slivers of expensive cheese at the market. Enough to get the taste buds going but not so much that you take advantage and really start enjoying yourself.

Yes, it's true. I'm feeling in need of a break. The small slivers of hugely enjoyable English-speaker-based fun I've had over the past six months or so have only served to sharpen the need to sit and talk with a group of pals in a medium in which I'm not totally lost the minute I stop concentrating, or anyone dares to express themselves in a novel or, heaven forfend, regionally-specific way. My inability to understand anything outlandish, local or lyrical leaves me with only the workhorse parts of language which get the message across. Don't get me wrong, it's wonderful to be able to say "Having forgotten, once again, to take the bins out, our landlady is now threatening to kick us out" or "did anyone remember to buy toothpaste, or shall I pick some up while I'm here?" without having to grope around for the basics, and to be able to laugh along with the jokes of the humourously-challenged folk at work (unexpressive and slow-witted people make the best of friends for a language learner!) But to be able really to let loose and just talk about something and listen with pleasure and without a constant worry that it's about to get too complicated or interesting to understand, would be a wonderful thing.

This is why it's such good timing that I'm planning a proper trip back to the UK in September. Not just a quick nip over to enjoy the Cheddar and be appalled by the Ryanair, but a proper few weeks of drinking chalky water and playing Scrabble with those who mean the most to me.

You know who you are.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Germany disappoints

One coffee too many, and one bird-shit-free pair of trousers too few is making me do that thing I sometimes do where I grit my teeth unconsciously in an uncomfortable and unnerving fashion. A day of highs and lows unfolded as follows:

A physio appointment which I'd for some time been anticipating would get, once and for all, to the root of my wobbly ankles and ungainly gait, turned to hours of total tedium in a waiting room full of magazines in a language I couldn't be bothered to understand. It was ten past nine and I was sitting uncomfortably, and hung over, in a suit and tie, trying to find pictures of hot camping chicks in Das Outdoor Magazin, a German magazine for people who hate attractive women but love to read about the specs of an 800 quid sleeping bag. After an hour in this waiting room limbo, goggling in amazement at the enormous and groteque forms of people twice my age and thrice in need of physio than me, I was finally admitted to a kind of anti-room with a cheap-looking physio's couch (bed? bench? You know what I mean). Following another 45 minutes, thirsty and alone, watching the Windows XP screensaver ping around the screen turning from cube to sphere to a kind of siamese conjoined-testicles arrangement, I decided I'd had enough. I left the room, went back to reception and gave the receptionist a piece of my mind. My heart wasn't really in it though because she (belatedly) told me that one of the doctors was ill and the other had had to foreshorten her holiday to come and reinvigorate the fat lumps still in the waiting room. I left with a new appointment for 7:40 in the morning next friday. Apparently I'm "only the second patient" that day. I had no idea German doctors offered a night-service.

I wobbled into work at around noon and was almost immediately invited for lunch. Quizzed Chinese colleague about what Chinese communism is really all about (disguised capitalism, but without the unions or the voting) and how it feels to know that the feeble Europeans around him will soon be slaves to his people (apparently we won't).

I was then told, confusingly for those who like their tales to be either all bad news or all good news, the emotional thread here becomes a bit tangled. My boss took me to one side (over one of the aforementioned one-too-many coffees) and told me that following a discussion with his boss, he'd not only managed to agree the extra money I'd insisted on having for my labours, but he'd managed to more than double what I'd asked for. No idea if this is some kind of German custom whereby I'm supposed to politely refuse and, in exchange, offer a basket of beef sausages for his wife. Anyway, if it is, I missed the politeness boat and went instead for the quids. Nice.

Having missed this opportunity to feel triumphant and wonderful (opting instead to not quite believe what I'd heard) my bike started acting up on the way home from the office. This is something I really can't bear, and it always fills me with thoughts of how all beautiful things must, eventually, fall to bits. (Incidentally, I always say that one of the nice things about going bald early is that you get all the aging-phobia and existentialism out of the way earlier, and can from then on go merrily into decrepitude without any further shocks to the ego.) I flipped the bike upside down to indulge in an in-depth bit of scrutinising exactly which link in the chain was not correctly settling into the gear, an exercise as pointless as my insistance on always trying to look at a spot on the back of my neck, or peer into my mouth to look at a bleeding gum. As if seeing the thing will somehow allow me to do something about it.

Anyway, this particular pointless exercise led me to have grease on my hands, bird-shit on my finest (only) tailor-adjusted work trousers, and the afore-mentioned clenched teeth that my dentist and I so despise.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that, even in the face of a massive pay rise, life has a way of making you kneel in bird shit that no amount of unexpected cash can protect you from.

Having said that, I'll see how I feel about it when I hand my trousers, guilt- and overdraft-free to the dry cleaners for them to sort out the mess.

Until next time loved ones,