Sunday, May 22, 2016

Marathon Sans Frontières: For Zahra and the millions like her

One thing’s for certain, I’m not going to win it. To recap for those who may have missed the news, I’m running the Berlin Marathon on Sept. 25 to raise money for Syria through the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) office in Dublin. Everything I raise, every cent, will go toward MSF’s humanitarian efforts directly in Syria or to assist Syrian refugees who have fled the country. MSF will know best how the money should be spent.
So far (April 28), I’ve raised €367.20 but I hope to raise a lot more. It’s nothing to us but every little contribution will help alleviate someone’s suffering.
And people are suffering in ways you cannot imagine. Another MSF-supported hospital was hit by an airstrike last night, at least 14 killed including three doctors. Five members of the Syria Civil Defence – volunteer search and rescue workers – were killed by a regime warplane attack on their facilities the day before. There have been more than 10 airstrikes already this morning. All this in Aleppo.
As I type I’m conscious that I have my life and limbs, so I’d like to put them to use for people working to save others’ lives and limbs.
I’ve never run a marathon before, I’m told they’re hard. It’s 42 kilometers. Training sure as hell isn’t easy. Rather than picking up speed, I’ve been picking up injuries, aches and pains. I wake up mornings with the feeling I’ve been run over by a train.
I might have been running too much, or too little, I don’t know. I got new runners, they might help, and a book on running marathons to add to the ever growing stack beside my bed. I’m going to start watching what I eat and what I drink. Less beer, less tea, more water.
I’m going to keep going, it’s my duty, I cannot fail. As I said before, 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.

UPDATE: Sunday, May 21, 2016 – It's now 18 weeks till the big day. I'm supposed to have a proper training program by this stage. Well, I don't. I've just been running whenever I get a chance, usually every second day. I ran 13K (and eight flights of stairs) in 57:42.71 last week, a personal best! I wasn't so quick today. These Berlin nights take their toll. I've run 537.2K and raised €442.20 so far. Once it reaches €500 I'll transfer it straight away to MSF. If you want a reminder of why I'm doing this, this is a moving account of the conditions MSF doctors are literally operating in.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Rayo relegated

Rayo were relegated from La Liga yesterday. I know it shouldn't matter, it's only football, but somehow it does. They won't be measuring themselves against Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atlético next season. They probably won't be coming to Neuruppin to play Hertha again in the summer. Five seasons in the top flight they lasted – the longest spell for the club.
Despite their precarious position yesterday I still had hope they'd escape by the skin of their teeth on the last day. They had done it before. They just needed to beat Levante and hope neither Getafe nor Sporting Gijon won their games. They fulfilled their side of the bargain but Gijon didn't play ball, or rather they did, clinching survival instead by beating Villarreal.
There were tears all round – Paco Jémez just stood there as they rolled down his face. But Rayo go to La Segunda with their heads held high. After worst fears were realized, supporters cheered and waved their flags as if they'd won. Vallecas is a proud neighborhood. Este barrio nunca se rinde.
I'd feared for Rayo's well being at the start of the season when it seemed all the concentration wasn't on football. There was the business with the jerseys for every cause with donations to charity (a noble idea tainted by the whiff of marketing), the club finally sorted out the shop on its website, and the owner went off and invested in an American club, Rayo Oklahoma, a ridiculous move betraying notions of grandeur. Rayo is not Real Madrid.
In a way it was as if the club forgot its roots, forgot its neighborhood, forgot its fans and temporarily forgot about the football. It's still the world's best little club but now the world's best little club plays in the second division. Maybe it's a good thing after all, for Rayo to be brought back down to earth. They'll be back, stronger than ever.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Angry Münchkins

People were very angry in Munich today – the Münchkins that is. Someone took a swing at me as I was running earlier. Just brushed me with his fist as I went past. He kept his head down and looked like a nutter so I just kept running.
Tonight, coming back from the game, there was a row on the train because some clown wouldn't put out the cigarette he lit. He and his buddy were mouthing off to another guy who asked them to put it out until another guy got up and told him to his face. The smoker tried head-butting him and there was a bit of a struggle and lots of name-calling. It was embarrassing really. But it was all sorted in the end.
When I got off the train another fella was shouting and roaring outside a bar or a restaurant. Two men were fighting and one of them was throwing stuff back toward the restaurant – his glass or something. I dunno, I didn't care, fucking idiots.
Bayern lost! Well, they won but they really lost so maybe that's why they were all drunk and bad-tempered. They're gloomy when they win so I guess losing is a catastrophic disaster for them. They're spoilt, the Münchkins.
Earlier I was thinking the show of wealth I could see everywhere was sickening – all the fancy cars genuinely made me feel ill, thinking of all the arms deals they'd concluded to buy them, all the people somewhere else that they're screwing over – but if they're not happy they're not rich at all. They know nothing.
I wore my Rayo top when I was running – 10K up to the English Garden and back – and every time I passed some Atlético fans they cheered and whooped. RAYOOO!!! I felt like a star, shouted back Aúpa Atleti and kept running. It's to raise money for MSF and Syria in case you didn't know.
I wore my Atleti top to the match but I don't think anyone noticed, they were all too focused on the game. Jaysus, what a game! Ein Krimi, as my neighbor from L'Équipe said.
I dared not write the lede until very late, and even then I was sure I'd have to write it again. Thankfully I didn't, but when they said five minutes of injury time, goddamn. The tension, the drama, the unlikeliness of it all!
I hope Atleti go all the way now. They've got a good chance. Every side to have knocked Bayern out since 2012 has gone on to win it. It's something to look forward to in any case. Sport is a great distraction from the real world, where some people get angry for no reason at all.

Friday, April 29, 2016


I brought the young fella to meet his new sister on Wednesday. She was born Monday night. Nothing to do with me, I hasten to add! But of course she'll be a niece or sort of weird cousin thrice removed or something like that on account of being the young lad's sibling.
Her name's Milena.
I'm not sure what he expected as we made our way back to the same hospital he was born in.
Do you remember?
No. Do you?
Of course I remembered, I'll never forget, but it was strange to be back again. We went in a different way it seemed, not familiar, and there I saw a plaque explaining that the hospital was once used for training by the Luftwaffe, including members of the Condor Legion that decimated Gernika all those years ago.
It was 79 years ago yesterday, I told the young fella. But they don't use it anymore. Now they bring lives into the world rather than taking them away.
He was all smiles when he saw her for the first time. Mad! A little thing of wonder. Sleeping soundly, with a little woolen cap on her head, arms out leading to tiny hands that she's yet to grow into.
She woke up later, blinked a few times, croaked a few others, and went back to sleep. She appeared to be smiling as she slept.
Of course the parents are very happy and very proud. Everyone's healthy.
The other half of the young fella's life is going to be a mad one. Three other kids in one house that they all recently moved into, and just me in the other. He's going through so many changes but he seems to be coping admirably, always in good form, happy, considerate. He's great.
As he was brushing his teeth that night he asked if the baby was a man or a woman.
She's a woman! Well, a girl. She's not a woman yet, I told him.
I'm a man, he replied.
All it took was a sister. How quickly they grow.

Congrats Jenny, Markus and Milena!

Friday, April 22, 2016

The shit they build in Berlin

This is the shit they’re building in Berlin now. “Das Gotland” – a development of 136 luxury apartments for sale at a price starting at €3,950 per square meter, presumably rising to much more, totally out of keeping with the rest of the buildings on the street.
There was a wine reception today attended by people in suits being served by waiters. A tent was set up for the purpose. They kicked me out when they saw me taking photos, literally pushed me out the gate. They also tried to stop me taking the photos, putting their hands in front my phone. I wonder what they’re so afraid of. Unfortunately I didn’t have my real camera with me.
The investors Hubertus Hiller and Harald Wengust, and Stadtrat Torsten Kühne were giving speeches to polite applause on the site where the Netto and Mittelmeer supermarkets stood until recently. They’ve apparently invested 60 million euros. I assume that covers the wine too, and the glossy brochure created by Eckel Presse & PR GmbH, and the huge sign advertising the complex that’s lit up like a Christmas tree every night. As if they were looking for buyers in space.
They might as well be, for they won’t find them in Berlin. It’s telling that you can browse the plans in English. The city doesn’t build for Berliners, hasn’t done so for a long time, despite all the crap spewed by politicians itching to build on Mauerpark and Tempelhof.
They’ve already started with the construction at Mauerpark, and they’re doing their best to undo the referendum on Tempelhof. Meanwhile the building previously home to White Trash Fast Food is still empty, years after they moved out, while the owner waits on the assumption some idiot will come along sometime to pay the increased rent. The luxury apartments at Cantianstraße/Schönhauser Allee (the ones that covered over the mural of the bear kicking a football) are mostly empty too. No one can afford them.
It’s Berlin’s housing philosophy – create the shortage, then wait to reap the reward. They deserve their polite applause.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Rayo Madrid

I used to come home from Madrid with Real Madrid jerseys. This time I came back with another Rayo Vallecano jersey and an Atlético Madrid top. I got the jersey because Rayo is the best club in the world and the top because Atlético are playing Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals and I’ll need something to wear for work.
We watched a helluva lot of football over the week. The young fella has gone mad for it. Mad for it! Madrid vs. Wolfsburg the day we arrived, Atleti vs. Barça the next day, and then all the Liga action at the weekend, culminating in Rayo – the best club in the world – beating fourth-place Villarreal in Vallecas on Sunday.
We were there of course, the young fella, my dad and me, wearing our Rayo colors and shouting from the last seats still available the previous Thursday. The stadium was packed, albeit easy to pack with only three sides, but it wasn’t only the Bukaneros who were making noise with everyone standing and waving their flags above their heads after Miku’s famous winner.
The young fella – who woke up Thursday morning to shout “Atletico won!” – is still beside himself with joy from the Rayo experience. We got our jerseys (matching) on the Thursday and he has only taken it off to sleep since. He’ll be putting it on again tomorrow, possibly every morning for the rest of his life. He knows Rayo is the best club in the world, though I’ve had to stress a few times they’re moral champions rather than champions in the vulgar sense of the word. It doesn’t matter. “Rayo won!” as he said more than a few times.
But there’s more to Madrid than football. We went to visit my parents, who were trying to escape from skies of rainclouds over Ireland. But there’s no escape from anything, especially the things in your head, whatever about the things over it.
“There’s the new airport they’re building, trying to build, they keep fecking it up. They’re not sure if they’ll ever finish it,” I told the young fella as we passed BER.
“I hope they stop, or give up,” he wisely replied.
He was a welcome if exhausting dose of enthusiasm for the whole trip.
“It’s a good day, the sky is blue,” he said on one of the first mornings, probably after Atleti won.
“The birds are singing,” I replied.
“The grass is growing,” he added. It’s always a fine day when the grass is growing. We’re all screwed the day it stops.
Hopefully it’ll grow over the dog shit. Madrid has the same old problem with dog shit. They don’t pick it up any more than the dogs pick up their owners’ shit.
Maybe the dog shit distracts them from the noise – it’s still the noisiest city I’ve been to, sirens, beeping, wailing, screeching, horrible noise, senseless noise, endless noise.
The food’s good and the wine’s good and the sunshine’s bliss. It makes you want to get outside and enjoy it. Many do. The parks are full of joggers and cyclists. But Spaniards cannot run unless they look the part with the fanciest running gear – no old t-shirts for them – and cyclists can’t cycle unless they’re dolled up like Lance Armstrong – inside and out  – with the shiniest bikes and outfits so luminous they can be seen from space. Fashion trumps fitness. Spaniards think fresh air is a catwalk.
I’d a good chat with Pablo, a friend through abandoned activities in Berlin, and he pointed out how little Spaniards have pored into their past, their prolonged brush with fascism, the civil war, or any of it, for fear of reopening old wounds. Apparently there are very few books about it all. Who killed who? Who profited from it? Who still profits from it? April 14 was the 85th anniversary of the proclamation of the Spanish Republic. A girl walked by carrying the Republican Spanish flag – I also saw one outside the stadium in Vallecas – and that sparked the conversation. History is written by the winners of course, but it seems there are now a few more asking awkward questions without fear of the answers they might get. As it should be.
On my way home on the metro that night there were three girls sitting on the floor singing Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, one playing guitar, another the spoons. They had already played Buffalo Soldier on the platform. Fellow passengers were enjoying the performance as the train trundled along. Then a security guard came along. I thought he’d tell them to stop but he just stepped past as he continued his round.
There’s security on all the metros now and Polícia with machine guns manning strategic corners around Madrid. Because the threat of being shot is really going to deter a suicide bomber from blowing himself up. But it’s the new normal, because everyone wants us to live in fear. France is doing its best to scare everyone away from Euro 2016. Power and the urge to control are a dangerous mix.
So are snakes and sharks, but thankfully they don’t collaborate too often, no matter how much anyone says they do to further their political career at the expense of taxpayers.
Damn, this was supposed to be about Madrid. I went running most mornings, good long runs, to the river and back, around the lake, around the zoo, past the attraction park, everywhere. I wore whatever t-shirt I’d slept in the night before. Then I’d get back and the day would start.
“We got a whole day full of time,” he’d say. And he was right. We did.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Bellejum and a lil trip

There’s something about Belgium I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a strange place, grabbing neighboring countries’ languages with no language of its own, fending off oppressors with chips and chocolate and beer.
It’s evidently worked, for they are still at it, independent, forging their own destinies and proud of it, gorging at the bosom of European bureaucracy. Or chips and chocolate and beer.
Greece’s misfortune was not to be born in Belgium. It’s where the birthplace of democracy meets its end. Faceless faces, nameless names, unknown suits, unaccountable decisions, mannekens pissing into a fountain. It’s enough to make you reach for a beer….
Belgium has chips and chocolate and beer. Fucking good beer! And fresh mussels drenched in garlic and cream. They’re lovely! All’s forgiven. EU don’t matter no more when there’s mussels and chips and beer.
I was in Belgium with someone a couple of weekends ago, Lille too, a lil holiday. Lille has “Le Comptoir Irlandais” – an Irish shop apparently – only it stocks English mustard, Scottish biscuits and Venezuelan rum. I’m all for diversity, me, but just because someone Irish eats and drinks shit from other countries doesn’t make that shit Irish too.
Otherwise Lille was great. I liked the French stuff. You wouldn’t catch them pretending foreign stuff was French. Of course there was some strike or something on, and a few demos on the main square, communists and the like. We got a baguette and tried to visit the citadel, only to find it still occupied by the French army and NATO. I assume they were having a party. Of course they were. There’s lovely beer in Lille too. And possibly the greatest bar in France.
Back in Belgium we found a nice abandoned house in Bruges, Spätis in Gent (they’re called Nachtwinkels!) and lots of friendly policemen toting machine guns in Brussels. They were genuinely friendly and genuinely machine guns. This is the new normal, better get used to it. Nothing to make you feel safe like a machine gun. Machine guns für Alle!
On a previous visit to Brussels in a previous life I bought a concrete elephant and a concrete hippo. They came with me to Berlin and are still firmly set, only here now. We found the same concrete animal stand this time. The only thing that had changed was the prices, which had doubled. Prices are never set in concrete of course.
I’ve blathered enough. Here are some pictures...