Sunday, August 21, 2016

Frostsee: Baltic Bockwurst on the beach

Went to Ostsee for a few days, froze my arse off. It should be called Frostsee, it's bloody Baltic.
I went for a run and attempted a dip when I got back. Bracing myself, I inched forward, the water's icy tentacles trying to resist me, surging around me, warning me, taunting me, urging me back. Damn it, I dived in, and nearly died of shock. Alright Frostsee, you win. I climbed out again.
No matter how warm it is outside, the Ostsee is permanently freezing. It's best admired from the safety of land. Only nutters and FKK aficionados can withstand the shocking chill of its inhospitable edges, swimming with the fridge door open. I'm going to confine my sea-swimming to the Mediterranean, Atlantic and warmer seas of the Polar regions from now on.
Rügen is lovely though. It's impossible to get decent coffee on the island, or even coffee that doesn't make you gag, but then Germany's coastal regions are not known for their gastronomy unless you're a fan of Bockwurst on the beach. Maybe the Bockwurst wards off the wintry winds of summer. Maybe the only way to survive is to wave your heated sausage stick in front of your face much like people in normal countries use fans to cool down. Germany is a land of sausage swingers after all.
But Rügen, lovely, really, honestly. Soft golden sands, long grasses behind the long beaches, trees keeping the cruel sea at bay.
We were camping in Göhren: me, the young fella, Paul, and his young fella Luka. It was the first time me and the young lad camped together. We were lucky in that there was some sunshine between the clouds that alternate between doom and gloom.
The lads loved it, frolicking beside the water (kids are immune to cold until it kills them), kicking the ball around, playing soldiers, eating ice-cream, running for the sheer hell of it and just generally being kids. It was refreshing, possibly due to the bracing wind. But I know Paul liked being a kid again. There were times the young lad's exuberance was too much for Luka but then he'd wear anyone out. I was glad he was wearing someone else out for a change.
But I'm ashamed to say we did the trip without the Trabi. I wanted to be sure we'd get there so we took the train. I won't be doing that again, lugging a thousand bags, tents, sleeping bags, cooking gear that I didn't use, then contending with chemical warfare on the return as some mongo stood beside us with his arms raised to maximize the toxic stench of his armpits.
All in all though it was great. We have to go back, we'll go back, next time with the Trabi, our own coffee and heated wet suits for swimming, maybe hot water bottles, mittens and thermal hats. It was my third trip to Ostsee. I'm warming to it for sure.

Many thanks to Diana for the tip! :)

Marathon Sans Frontières: For Zahra and the millions like her

I won’t win it but I’m running the Berlin Marathon on Sept. 25 to raise money for Syria through Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. Every cent I raise is going toward MSF’s humanitarian efforts in Syria or to assist Syrian refugees fleeing the country.
Fundraising continues. I’ve raised €1,053 so far, including the $250 prize AP gave me for my work in Nice. I already lodged €600 in MSF’s Irish bank account, so that should be put to good use even before I run the first of those 42.195 kilometers.
Of course I hope to raise more over the next five weeks (only!) before the big day. Every little contribution will help alleviate someone’s suffering.
And people are suffering in ways you cannot imagine. MSF-supported hospitals have been constantly targeted by airstrikes, doctors and patients killed, while members of Syria Civil Defence, volunteer search and rescue workers, are also being killed as the barrel bombs, cluster bombs, napalm bombs, phosphorus bombs and simple regular bombs continue to rain down.
It’s just everyday reality in Syria. It’s hell. The world turns its back because it’s easier than dealing with the unending atrocity of indiscriminate murder, systematic starvation, wanton bloodshed, a cycle of bloody violence that feeds on death and nurtures extremism to keep the killing alive.
I’m lucky in that I still have my life and my limbs. So I’m putting them to use for people working to save others’ lives and limbs.
I’ve never run a marathon before. It’s not easy but I can’t complain. Today I clocked 1,001 kilometers altogether. Running gives me time to think about how lucky I am. I’ve a good life, the living is easy. The living. In Syria not even the dying is easy…
I cannot fail. As I said, I won’t be winning the thing but if I manage to raise a decent amount for MSF in Syria I’ll have won in a much more meaningful way. Please help me win! All donations great and small (small donations are also great) are very much appreciated.



Many thanks to AP for permission to use the photo above, taken by two-time Pulitzer winner Muhammed Muheisen, of Syrian refugee Zahra Mahmoud, 5, from Deir el-Zour. She’s at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. There are another 4.8 million like her and more who cannot escape. If you can call it an escape. I’m running for them all.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Trabitrip Poland

We made it to Poland! Unfortunately we mightn’t make it back. As I type the Trabi is spending the night in a strange garage after springing a leak. Petrol was gushing out at an alarming rate. 
I wouldn’t mind but I was so proud of it for getting us all the way here yesterday. I’d given it a wash and a polish the day before – reward for 43 years’ unapologetic service – and it looked 20 years younger. The chrome was shiny again, the dirt was gone, the windows gleaming and the dull white wasn’t as dull as before. I even got new seat covers! Though I didn’t have time to put them on. Damn it, there wasn’t a moment to lose if we were to make it all the way to Poland…
I got a speaker too so we could have music en route. David Bowie’s “Cygnet Committee” was blaring as we flew slowly down the Autobahn with the windows open. That was the life! Escaping the big city and heading for a few days to the seaside. It was to be our second Trabitrip and more exotic than the first. Another country!
High fives when we crossed the border. We’re in Poland! Unfortunately the roads in Poland are shit. I thought the EU was supposed to sort them out but evidently not. Pretty soon they were shaking the crap out of the car, causing me to wince with every bump. The Trabi’s used to DDR roads, I tried telling myself.
We were nearing our hotel – a castle in the middle of nowhere – when I’d to switch the reserve on the fuel tank. Still 10K to go, I wasn’t sure if we’d make it. Then we hit a dirt track for the final stretch. It was hardly even a dirt track. Only a fucking tank could navigate it properly. But we’d to keep going, bouncing up and down, zooming over bumps and down cavernous inclines only to shoot back up the other side. We were airborne at times.
Finally we made it but obviously the roads have taken their toll. The mechanic, who thankfully spoke German, said a screw or something must have fallen out. We’ll find out more in the morning.
The castle we’re in is lovely, albeit small, probably not a real castle, but it’s beside a lake and a forest. I asked someone working here how old it was. “1,800” she replied, making it very old indeed unless she was referring to the year.
There’s nothing else in the run-down village, a huge church like in every Polish village we drove through, lots of chickens and a few old mangy dogs that growl their displeasure when you pass. Maybe they think we’re German.
I wonder if they know that all the dogs here used to be German, and before that Prussian, and that it is only for man’s eternal greed and the trivialities of history that they are Polish dogs now.
The castle has a huge tower and narrow round steps that go up forever until you emerge blinking and dizzy among the clouds, looking down at the stork who foolishly built his/her nest on a chimney that’s still in use. There was smoke billowing around the nest this morning. Smoked stork on the menu this evening.
We also saw a snake, frogs, dragonflies, fish in the nearby lake, thousands of crickets, and there’s a cat and a dog that seem to like following us around.
The young fella thinks the king and queen used to live here and he reckons “it was even nicer” when they did. It’s a good thing they’re gone though. He’d have driven them mad by now, constantly asking to play football or badminton or to go fishing or to read books or go off in boats, or everything at the same time.
Really I wanted to bring him to the sea, half an hour away, and let him run off his energy there, but the Trabi’s injury has put that plan on ice. To console myself, I shall treat myself to a mojito for 14 złotys. Tomorrow is another day.

UPDATE: The next day – It wasn’t fixed this morning. The mechanic and his assistants had given up. The screw might have been a special screw and there was no way they could find it in Poland.
The guy from the hotel had given us a lift in and he tried talking to them but there was nothing they could do. We went to another mechanic only to be met by the same head-shaking, even after the hotel-guy told him we were Irish.
On the way he’d said that being Irish opens lots of doors in Poland and that we should have told him we were Irish before.
I apologized for all the trouble we were putting him to, driving around in search of Trabi parts.
“For the Irish we do it,” he replied. “Not for the English.”
Another lead turned dead – literally. His wife informed us he’d died a couple of years before and no amount of Irish was going to bring him back.
The hotel guy was running out of ideas. Internet perhaps? I looked up the parts but neither of us is mechanically minded and it could be anything. Another dead end.
Tomorrow we’ve to go back to Berlin – how I do not know – get to the local Autobedarf that has Trabi parts, get whatever’s required, and then I’ll come back to Gryfice so the mechanic can install it and hopefully get the Trabi going again. The sea will have to wait for another visit, possibly with another type of car. Trabi troubles are no ordinary troubles.

UPDATE: The night after the next day again – The Trabi made it back to Berlin! I know I shouldn’t ruin the suspense with the ending but what the hell, you know now.
I hired a car in Gryfice, drove back to Berlin, dropped the young fella off, went to the Autobedarf only to find it shut, diverted to the Trabi garage and there – after an hour of searching and poking around among parts that hadn’t been moved since the Berlin Wall came down – we finally found the elusive screw. It was so small and immaterial they didn’t want any money for it. I hopped back in the car (one that works) and drove the screw back to Poland. The mechanic put it in and the Trabi roared to life.
Unfortunately it kept roaring all the way back to Berlin. There’s something not quite right with it. I genuinely thought it was going to explode. The noise was incredible. I stopped twice to let it cool down. BANG! The exhaust both times. I confess impure thoughts about selling the Trabi, banished them, but they kept coming back. I dared not put any music on, just in case. Then I risked it after all. Radiohead, what else? I’m not here, this isn’t happening, I’m not here, I’m not here.
It was dark. A sea of red blinking lights rose to meet me as the Trabi roared past invisible windmills. Down the Autobahn at 100km/h – it wouldn’t go any faster. White lights zoomed past as cars whizzed by and left me chasing more red lights in their wake. I felt alone, sailing, floating along, unsure if I’d hit land or was destined to float aimlessly forever more. But I made it, I made it, or I wouldn’t be writing these words. A candlelit beer was awaiting me at the door. It’s so good to be home.

UPDATE: A week later – The Trabi’s been running fine since it got back to Berlin. Perhaps it was only homesick the whole time. And now the new seat covers are on! It hasn’t looked so fine since 1973. All is forgiven. There will probably be another Trabitrip after all.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Nice

Sonia and Ben left on their honeymoon today. I’m still in Nice. I got here Thursday when it was a different place, before some fuckbag changed it.
We were in a restaurant around the corner when it happened, finishing our desserts when hordes of people started running by and others burst in, looking for shelter. They were crying, panicked, in an awful state. You could see they were terrified. Restaurant staff tried lowering the shutters but they stopped. So many people, they didn’t want to shut them out.
There were lots of kids, one trembling like a leaf, another girl unable to stop crying. “Ça suffit!” her mother told her as if she could stop. The mother was also in bits.
I went outside. People kept running. They tried getting into the Hôtel de Ville opposite. It had big iron gates, there were police, it was safety. I asked people what they were running from. Some didn’t know. Others said stuff about a truck, gunshots, people killed.
Ben and Sonia came out, they’d settled the bill, it was time to go. We brought Mel home in the car. There were still people running, people panicking liked spooked cattle, running together in the same direction. I rang AP in the meantime, told them something was going on. Then I left Mel’s house to go back down to Promenade des Anglais, despite Sonia’s misgivings. I had to go, there was no option. On the way I met more people coming towards me, many of them crying, hands to faces, others being consoled with an arm around the shoulder. But they were only going one way and I was going the other, towards the sirens, counterintuitively. I thought of Fionn but I knew I’d see him again. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise.
When I got there soldiers with machine guns wouldn’t let me go any further. I argued with one, showed him my press pass but he was very obstinate, kept pushing me away. I didn’t push back. He had a machine gun and you could see they were all very jumpy.
I talked to a few people nearby about what happened and they told me what they saw. Carnage, guns, death, bodies, bits of bodies, blah blah. They were very excited. I got quotes, sent them to AP. Then I took photos, of cops, soldiers, ambulances, and I sent them to AP too. I had to go to a hotel nearby to use their wifi as my fucking internet stick might as well have been a wooden stick. It was in the hotel I met a French journalist from Le Monde or somewhere who told me 60 people had been killed. It was a shock, I couldn’t believe her, refused to believe her, assumed it was hyperbole. I went back and shot live video on my phone until the police told me to stop. “Ç'est interdit.” I didn’t believe them either, argued for a while. But they’re probably right. This stupid “State of Emergency” entitles police etc. to do and say whatever the hell they want. I didn’t think being arrested would be productive so I stopped filming.
I went around the corner to try and approach from the other side when soldiers started shouting at me to put my hands up. Other people walking beside me put their hands up. I was conscious that somewhere in front of me someone had a gun trained at my chest. I had a bag on my back, they probably thought it was a bomb. I reluctantly put my hands up. Like a fucking eejit. I was so pissed off. Who the fuck were these people? And who the fuck were the people who caused French soldiers to aim guns at civilians and force them to walk down a street with their hands up? They directed us where to go, one queue for men, another for women. The soldier who searched me was very pleasant. He smiled apologetically. “Photographe?” he asked when he saw my camera gear. “Oui,” I replied. So I’m a photographer now.
I went back to where I was and shot more video from a safer distance, away from the police. But my battery was dying, it was getting late, and quieter so I started heading home. The battery died so I’d to plug it into my laptop to charge as I walked. There were no taxis. The house was 5K away. On the way I’d time to think about what happened, the people who would never come home, the kids just mowed down. I fought tears. Anger, sorrow, helplessness, I didn’t know what to feel. I still don’t.
Ben let me in when I got there. I apologized. I’d only met the guy that day and here I was, waking him up in the middle of the night.
There were emails and messages and missed calls and all sorts of shit and I’d just worked through the lot, settled in bed, when the phone rang: AP in London. Two Egyptian guys in MacDonald’s had footage of the shootout with police and they needed someone to collect it. Would I go? It was 4:30. They needed it quick before anyone else got it. I had to think quick. It would have taken another hour to walk back down, there were no taxis, and Sonia had a car. I knocked on their door. Snores. I hadn’t the heart to knock louder. I took the keys – stole the fucking car – and drove down, but the whole place was blocked off.
To cut a long story short, I parked far away, ran to the meeting point, met the Egyptians, saw the video, the deal was agreed, and I pressured your man to keep it as he kept taking calls from other media outlets. In the end I lost patience with him, told him to stop taking other fucking calls and just stick to the deal.
It was getting late, or early, and I knew Ben and Sonia needed to pick Annie up from the airport at 8 or 9am. In the end I had to go, remember where I parked (it took a while to find the car again), and make my way back, where I found Ben already out on the road looking for what turned out to be his car. I’d thought it was Sonia’s. I apologized again and we went to the airport to pick up Annie.
I’d agreed to give TV interviews later that day so I couldn’t go to bed. Then I’d to go to the killer’s house, quick in case there was a police raid. I took Ben’s bike. But it was quiet, there was nothing going on and I’m not even sure if it was the right house. I took pictures, sent them, returned, did the interviews and got to bed, 15:15. I dreamed of the end of the world. A nuclear bomb. The noise was incredible. I felt myself turning to jelly and didn’t know if I was alive or dead when I woke up.
That was the end. Sonia and Ben were getting married the next day. That was it. The beginning.
The wedding: wonderful. Nobody forgot what happened, nobody will forget what happened, but nobody let it impact in any way on the day. As I told someone already, we celebrated their love, we celebrated life, and it was even more important to do so. We partied, love wins. It was very moving, literally – everyone was dancing – and I’ve never met such a group of good people, Ben (the first guy I kissed, on the cheeks, I had to after all I’d put him through), Romain (the second guy, and with whom I’d a great discussion about Corsican independence), Samy, Jen, Anne, Annie, Mel… you know, I’m humbled to meet these wonderful people, that’s all, new friends, a whole new world, and that’s what I’ll take home with me from Nice. Merci Sonia et Ben, Je vous embrasse tous les deux.

UPDATE: Saturday, August 6, 2016 – AP gave me and David, the guy who I was liaising with to get the shoot-out video, “Beat of the Week” and a cash prize of $500 for our work. I also got lots of praise from various well-meaning people. I’m very uncomfortable with it all. I don’t want to profit from this in anyway and I’ve done better work before, other work I can be proud of. I only did what I had to do, just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time.
I can’t accept the money so I’m giving my $250 share to MSF as part of the marathon effort, bringing the total raised so far to over €1,000. It’s a good figure but I’m still not happy. The atrocities continue. It’s only a token gesture. But MSF will be thankful and their patients will be thankful for any attention they get and for that I’m thankful too. There’s always hope.