Friday, July 31, 2009

Cheeseheads go camping

Campsites in Sweden are great places to meet Dutch. The one we stayed in a couple of nights was full of them. Käseköpfe (Cheeseheads) as they're known in Germany.
Paul had warned us beforehand, but still I was amazed by the sheer volumes of funny-sounding tall bleach-blond clog-wearing specimens we found roaming the campsite. No amount of warning could have prepared us. The place was full of them! Half of the "Netherlands" was there. They actually had wooden clogs and all! Madness.
These are the people who turned carrots orange. Listening to them talk was ridiculous. Oompa-Loompas with strange north-English accents for some reason known only to themselves. Straining their vocal cords to come up with possibly the most ridiculous sounding noises uttered by man by way of communication. Yes, the Dutch are certainly a funny sounding lot.
None of them wash their hands however. While brushing my teeth in the communal bathroom one night, one after another of the white-haired freaks came in to do their business. Whether number one or two, I don't know, but they all filed out again after zipping up their trousers without coming near the sinks. Not even a casual glance did they throw at the soap or water. The unhygienic feckers. Never shake hands with a Dutchman.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sweden

For such an advanced country, finding access to the internet in Sweden can be a right pain in the arse. This is the first opportunity in over a week I've had to update this ongoing collection of ramblings and ravings. Even here, in Stockholm, where we've been since Sunday night, there appears to be a genuine lack of places once can get access to a machine which will allow connection with the outside world.
However bad for internet access Stockholm is however, the countryside is even worse. Presumably the elk and reindeer have no particular need for such modern technologies. Sure why would they want to connect with the outside world?

For the last week we'd been in the ironically-named Värmland, near Råda to be precise, where we spent the time either enjoying the over-generous hospitality of Paul and Anna in their little cottage, camping in their garden, hiding from badgers; or canoeing in the rain through lake after lake, camping overnight on our own island in the middle of nowhere, hiding from the downpours being sent by the apparently angry Norse gods.

For some reason everytime I step in a canoe the heavens open up, and this time was no different, as it pissed on us for almost the duration of our six-hour rowing trip. I suppose I should have expected it, and at least brought a change of clothes.

It's on these trips however, that one appreciates the little luxuries in life. I did bring spare socks, allowing me to discover the sheer luxury of putting on dry socks in the morning, followed by the sheer misery of putting them into wet shoes immediately afterwards.

If it wasn't rain it was mosquitos. Apparently the local ones like a bit of variety in their diet, and they were happy to have non-Swedish-victims for a change. The little fuckers are incessant, biting even through clothes, and causing me to slap myself in the face on more than a few occasions.
And Jenny had wanted to go canoeing/camping for four days! Still, we made the most of our circumstances. It was nice to have a whole island to ourselves, even if we were too wet and exhausted to enjoy it. Breakfast was the highlight, sitting on a rock, wrapped in a sleeping bag while waiting for clothes to dry. The sun at this stage had seen our plight, and graciously attempted to assist us, rays dancing through the branches to assure us there was another world beside Wet.

Again, we could have planned it better. Apart from dry clothes, we didn't bring matches or anything to light a fire, nor enough food, nor stuff to eat it with. We did bring muesli and yoghurt, but no bowl or spoon. Never mind, Jenny ripped off the top of the yoghurt carton, threw the muesli in, and managed to eat it with a type of spoon which I had fashioned from a twig. Mad what living in the wild just a few hours can do to people.

Then there was the trip back, which probably would have been quicker if we managed to canoe in a straight line. We zig-zagged the whole way home. It was only after we brought the canoe back that your man told us I should have been steering the damned thing,

Of course, when we got back to civilisation, I found we had brought the bowl and spoon after all. Stuffed down the back of the rucksack. It was probably the first instance I noticed where late wasn't better than never.

The Swedish countryside is great for walks though. You can just eat all around you, Wherever you go there are blueberries, wild strawberries and other delights just waiting to be plucked and gulped down. I felt like Homer in Chocolateland just eating everything in sight.
I did have high hopes of catching sight of an elk. Apparently they are quite shy though. Not one did I see. Perhaps like Wildschwein they don't exist at all, they're just a gimmick invented by the Swedish Tourist Board in the same way leprechauns were invented for gullible Americans.
Now that we're in Stockholm, it feels like another world away. Hot showers, food, dry clothes: such luxury. I guess we can forgive the lack of internet access.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Den Irländsk Hurdy Gurdy

This is the last broadcast from Berlin for a while. The next will be from Sweden, where we're going tomorrow (now today), or Ireland, where we're going the week after next. Whether there'll be any broadcasts at all over the next couple of weeks depends on the availability of internet in the Swedish countryside, and of course the newsworthyness of what may be written. "When did that ever bother you before?" I hear you ask. Smart arses.
I was going to bring the laptop with me but I'm already going to be lugging a heavy tent and camping gear around. Feck it, nothing ever happens in Sweden anyway. I'm sure in Ireland it will be the opposite problem - there'll be loads to write but no time to write it. We'll see what happens. I'll be bringing a pen and notebook with me in anycase.

I may have to change the name of the blog actually. I'm not going to be in Berlin very much this year. San Francisco beckons once again after Ireland, and then in September we'll be heading to Perú to do some voluntary work up the mountains; teaching Peruvian kids that "grand" is the only answer needed for every question, while "Feck", "Arse" and "Girls" are the only other important words in the English language. God help the little feckers. We'll be in Perú until the end of January after which I'll finally make the blog's title an honest one - unless I go back to México then - but time will tell, as it is prone to do. One thing's for certain, when I finally do make it back to Berlin, I'll have to get a job!

From Den Irländsk Hurdy Gurdy to El Peruano Irlandés there are bound to be a few adventures and tales to recount, so be patient dear readers, they will be told, if not now or tomorrow, then soon and for the rest of your life. But I've got to go; I've to get up in four and a half hours. If that plane leaves the ground and I'm not on it...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

U2 sind zurück!

U2 played the Olympiastadion last night, taking 90,000 Berliners under their wing, elevating them with their beats. Sounds over the top I'm sure, but everything about this band is - it was fucking great!

I admit I was sceptical the lads could do it. Their latest album left me disappointed. To be honest I thought it was shite. No Line On The Horizon? Wishful thinking I thought, as the lads refused to acknowledge the horizon of their achievements behind them.

Gone are the days I would base a whole year's holidays around the tour schedule of my favourite band. The Vertigo tour (2005) took me to Gothenberg, Nice, and three times to Croke Park. Elevation (2001) brought me London (where only U2 could bring me), Slane in Ireland, and Berlin for the very first time (little did I know).
The previous tour, Popmart in 1997, also brought me to London, and twice to Lansdowne Road in Dublin. My cousin took me to my first concert when she brought me to U2's Zooropa shenanigans at the RDS in Dublin on on August 28th, 1993. Those were the days!
My maiden solo journey into Dublin came on my 15th birthday when I bought Achtung Baby, the album made in Berlin; while I was the first person in Gorey to get my hands on a copy of All That You Can't Leave Behind, after waiting in the shop for the clock to strike midnight.

I was thrilled to actually meet U2 on my birthday in 2006, when I won a competition to have their book signed. Queuing with a bunch of other over-excited schoolgirls, I could hardly talk to the lads when we finally did meet up. I managed to blurt out how happy I was. Bono ascertained it was my birthday. "Ciarán goes to the dogs on his birthday," he wrote after hearing we were going to Shelbourne racetrack. God bless his leather trousers. The Edge complimented me on my t-shirt. (I was canny enough not to wear a U2 t-shirt like all the other schmucks.) They tried interview me for MTV afterwards, but I was too excited to speak. Sad but true. You can read what I wrote about for The Echo at the time here.

So you can see I've been a bit of a fan! Something changed in the meantime however. I didn't even buy the latest album, instead acquiring it through other methods before it came out. I didn't like it after I hearing it, and only bought tickets for one gig this time around.
Despite buying t-shirts at each of the previous gigs I'd been too, I didn't last night. €30 is a bit much for an unemployed bum after all. U2 clothe me no longer. I didn't even get a programme!

The atmosphere in the Olympiastadion was amazing, but still I knew yesterday I wasn't as excited as before. I looked around and noticed how old everyone looked. "It's like Jurassic Park around here," I told Jenny.
I had worn the same Radiohead t-shirt which The Edge had liked before in the hope he would spot me and wave hello. Alas, however, he did not.

The first four songs were from the new album, and while better than I'd believed them to be before, still not great. Things really kicked off when they started the old stuff; the crowd roaring its approval. It just got better and better. The Unforgettable Fire, possibly U2's best song, condemned me to goose bumps. Incredible. After that they came at will. In fact, I'm getting goose bumps now just thinking of it.

At one stage I was just looking at the four lads on stage, thinking a beer would make my happiness complete. I think it was during With or Without You - an apt song for beer. Out of the darkness behind appeared a guy with a flashing light on his head, carrying a tray brimming with beers.
"Bier?" he asked.
"Bier!" I replied. What a country!

Towards the end, an Irish guy beside me got caught up in the whole emotion of the thing. He had obviously been looking around, surveying the magnificent Olympiastadion, pondering the past, when it suddenly became too much for him.
"Isn't it amazing to think Jesse James was here, sticking it up to Hitler during the Olympics?" he stated, tears in his eyes. "It's mad when you think of all that's gone on."
Berlin can do that to a man; the past can strike at any moment. I'm sure he meant Jesse Owens, but I wonder how Hitler would have fared in a shootout with the most famous outlaw of the American Wild West.

Bono is Bono of course, and he really does think the sun shines out of his arse. His boots just can't keep up with him. He charmed the pants off the crowd as only he can, threatening to go too far at times. "Ich bin ein..." But even he didn't dare go there - that would have just been too much.
He means well though, and his campaign for Aung San Suu Kyi is a noble one. Tomorrow will mark exactly 20 years since she was first put under house arrest. At the end we all sang Happy Birthday to Nelson Mandela. He probably heard us in South Africa.

Ultraviolet saw him (Bono not Nelson Mandela) emerge for the encore wearing a suit which fired off red lasers into the crowd. It was great! More goose bumps. "This was written in Berlin," he reminded the crowd, as he did before all the Achtung Baby songs. Yes, it was good to have them home.

We'd cycled to the gig (another first, 25.3 km hin und zurück) but as were leaving we collected discarded beer glasses which carry a €1 deposit here in Germany. Jenny, whose eyesight is better than mine, collected the lion's share. With only a little bit of embarrassment, we scoured the ground and under people's feet for plastic gold. Outside the stadium we found still more. €40 we made altogether! Even more than the Radiohead concert last year when we first stumbled upon the scheme. What a country!

It was a damned good night. As it always is with U2. I should never have doubted them. I've given the album another listen this morning. It's great! I wanna see them again...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mad about Berlin

Berlin seems to have more than its fair share of nutbags. Just yesterday I saw a guy sitting outside a café wearing curtains on his head. What worries me is that Jenny, a Berlinerin, seemed to think this was perfectly normal. She dismissed the notion your man was obviously a raving lunatic.
Everywhere you go in this city, you'll find scruffy has-beens ranting and talking away to themselves. Gesturing wildly, walking around in circles, yelling at imaginary foes. Madder than bags of mad badgers.

The U-bahn in the early morning can be a freak show. They all come out then. On my way to the airport last week there was a guy who boarded wearing nothing but a sack. He entered the carriage with a flourish, as if he was the king of Prussia. I'm sure trumpets were going off in his head. He bounded on anyway and then looked around as if waiting for his subjects to greet him or bow down with reverance. Of course, nobody batted an eyelid. Either because they were stone mad themselves or they'd seen this type of thing before.
The guy was followed by his girlfriend. Not so royally dressed as his highness, but actually wearing clothes. They apparently had been fighting and she looked quite upset. They sat down and continued their squabbling. Suddenly his royal madness stood up, put his hands on his hips behind him, cast his head back and launched into a speech, apparently aimed at her, but proclaimmed with gusto so everyone could hear. He looked around as if for approval.
I looked around too and realised the whole carriage was full of freaks, all either pissed, stoned or generally mad themselves, all with fashions from the circus. Nobody but me paid any attention to the nutbag in the sack. Just another U-bahn journey.

I suspect Berlin has more nutbags per capita than anywhere else in the world. Nowhere else have I seen so many verrückte Leute. Jenny disagrees but I'm pretty sure of it. I just hope it's not an inevitable outcome of living here. I may be an Ire, but hopefully never völlig Irrer.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Madrid (Part II)

Madrid isn't a city for vegetarians. One particular establishment is Museo del Jamón, now a Madrid institution with a chain of "Ham Museums" all over the city. Countless numbers of pigs' legs hang from the ceiling in all of them, decorating the place with piggishness while the meat is cured in the dry air. Cañas (small beers) and copas de vino are flung over the counter at thirsty Madrileños at a ferocious pace, along with tapas of jamón, olives, tortilla etc.
The best thing about Madrid's tapas bars is that you simply throw your rubbish on the ground when finished. In fact, the dirtier the place the better, as it's easy to spot which places are popular with the locals. They do provide bins under the counters, but I feel it's doing the place a disservice to use them: better the fling the stuff with a flourish onto the floor.
Bocadillos (rolls) and raciones (rations) are served for those who want something more substantial. For €2.50 on Sunday I got a Bocadillo de Calamares, a squid roll, which tastes a hell of a lot better than it sounds. It was delicious!

Another option is a Menú del Dia, a three course meal including wine and bread for about €10. These are served in all restaurants during the day (some at night) and are the sole reason my dad believes Madrid is one of the cheapest cities in Europe.
Eating like a king for a tenner is grand, but if you want to drink like a king, Madrid can be quite expensive. Poor Delphine got stuck paying for three mojitos at €9 each - a €27 round for those of you who aren't good at maths. That's about a month's salary in Berlin.
Better to find a quiet bench, buy €1 beers from smiley Asian walking off-licences, and watch the Madrid night go by.

Chueca is Madrid's notorious gay district. Not notorious enough that Gavin knew about it before Delphine booked their hotel in the middle of it. A huge rainbow flag hung from the establishment next door, but to be honest there was no need for it - there was no mistaking the fact this was a gay district. Flamboyant characters wearing vests and arse-straps pranced and paraded about, pink fluff, studs, feathers everywhere. It was quite a show!
Despite Gav's reservations over Delphine's reservations for their "Gay Hotel", Chueca turned out to be the best place to find the €1 beers from the handy smiley unofficial off-licences.
On the day that Northern Ireland's Unionists traditionally antagonise Catholics with their annual marches, Gavin was telling us of their efforts to be less antagonistic with their antagonism.
"It's like gay pride for Orange bastards," he noted, perhaps inspired by his local surroundings. Little good it did in the end.

Madrid is known as the "City That Never Sleeps" (like Berlin, New York and no doubt a few others) but apparently its buses and trains do sleep between 2 and 6 a.m. Better to stay out all night, as most of the locals seem to do.
Night buses apparently do run, if you can find them, but on Monday morning I had to walk 7 km home. There was no way I was getting a taxi. No way! Vermin of the roads are all taxi drivers.
While I was at San Fermin in Pamplona, I thought it was great not to have a place to stay for the night. Like a snail carrying its house on its back, I thought I could make my home anywhere, just lay my head down where I fell to wake up refreshed and resuscitated in the morning. Of course, that didn't turn out too well...

But wherever there's bad shit there's usually good shit too, as I'm sure someone learned once said. Unfortunately the reverse applies too. Nowhere's perfect. Unlike in Berlin, where thieves are mostly only interested in bicycles, (with the odd notable exception), los ladrónes de España have an unhealthy interest in wallets, as Gav found out last week.

This is nothing new. A couple of years ago when I was here with Noddy, we also ran into would-be banditos (as well as being shot at by riot police, but that's another story).
Leaving a watering hole on our way to another, we were approached by two fellas who claimed to be "amigos". They tried show us a new danza which involved locking their legs in front of ours and jiggling them as we walked down the street. Suddenly Noddy stopped dead. "Take your fucking hand off me phone," he growled. The two lads stopped, looked at each other, and quickly withdrew, no doubt to find another couple of dancing buddies later on.

On Puerta Del Sol a group of women used target unsuspecting visitors by throwing their babies at them. The surprised tourist would instinctively grab the child, allowing the woman quickly rummage through their unprotected pockets, before the woman would quickly grab her baby back and disappear with her takings back into the crowds. God help the baby if the tourist was a bad catch.
My parents also had bad experiences here, as did my aunt, while a handbag was stolen on another occasion, so it's definitely a city in which the unsuspecting visitor would need to keep their eyes peeled, meaning of course, they wouldn't be unsuspecting anymore.

I noticed while in Madrid I seem to go to bed at a time I would normally be getting up at in Berlin. (Apart from today when I somehow managed to sleep until 4 p.m.) Germans are mad for getting up early and getting things done during the day. The Spanish on the other hand have the good sense to take siestas and long dinners during the day, perhaps why they can then stay out all night. I like to combine the best of both worlds wherever I am. I shall be taking a siesta shortly.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Madrid (Part I)

Madrid's a great city, no doubt. Pulsing with life and excitement, it's another on my long list of "home" towns, the one I nearly moved to last year (before I became enamoured with Berlín).
It's the essence of Madridismo which makes this city so great: the unapologetic passion for enjoyment to the max; the appreciation for beauty, style, good food and wine; the sense of optimism; the unabashed confidence; the locals' unshakable belief they're living in the best city in the world.

At its centre, on Puerta Del Sol, is Km 0, the marking point for Spain's national roads and the point from which all distances are measured. As Madrid is geographically and politically (whatever the feckin' Catalans say) the centre of Spain, and Spain that of the colonised world (at the time of the Spanish colonies), and the world the centre of the universe (at time of writing), then Puerta Del Sol - Madrileños would have you believe - is the very centre of the universe! Perhaps it's this unapologetic presumption which gives this city the air it has; that it's literally at the centre of everything.

I always smile as I land at Barajas airport; the air on arrival somehow comforting, warm, sweet, fragrant, rich, almost hinting of the possibilities, and it was the same last week.
On the Metro into the city, I noticed the locals use their hands to speak, even while speaking on the phone, gesturing crazily like mute translators. The futility of this exercise was highlighted by the fact the train was even louder than normal. You'd think if people are using sign language there wouldn't be much need for volume but not in Madrid...

In fact, within the space of two days, I heard from two different people, totally unrelated, and one without knowledge of the other, that Madrid was second only to Japan for being the loudest city on Earth. Whatever about Japan not being a city, they both said exactly the same thing.
The first was Dave Mooney - the guy who apparently organised a job for me in a pub in Madrid when he heard I was moving over last year, but neglected to tell me of the job. In fact, he never even asked me if I wanted a job. Needless to say, as I didn't know of it, I never told him I wouldn't be able to take it. Maybe he still expects me to. I don't know - neither of us mentioned it last week either.
The very day after Dave told me about Madrid coming second to Japan on the loudness charts, my dad told me exactly the same thing. "Where'd you hear that?" I asked him, amazed, and wondering where I'd heard it before. He couldn't remember, and later (after I did), he assured me he didn't know Dave Mooney, nor did he meet him to arrange an elaborate hoax. They must have heard it from the same source. Bollocks, it must be an elaborate hoax.

It is loud though. Jesus, the noise! On my way into the centre on Friday night to meet Gavin and Delphine, the metro was stuffed with Madrileños on their way out - all excitedly yabbering and chatting like parrots on speed. What all the excitement was about is beyond me, but the noise was incredible! My ears actually hurt. I had to console them with a mojito later on.

Even in the idyllic mountains to the north of Madrid, where I went for a day trip with my parents, the locals can't talk to each other without bellowing at each other. They must all be deaf. We had gone to Cotos, and the Natural Park of Peñalara, hiked up the side of a mountain to a remote lake, where the only sounds that could be heard where the chirping of some small brown birds, the odd distant cry of a hawk high overhead, and the gentle ringing of cows' bells. (While not loud per se, it hasn't escaped my attention that even Spanish cows need noise. They'd be lost without their bells. Irish cows, on the other hand, are happy to recite literature and ponder the meaning of grass.)
We were so remote there was still snow on the mountain peaks, not that high above us. In July! Meanwhile the sun warmed us gently through the clouds which teased us with their presence. It could only be described as idyllic.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, comes a fella walking along with two little girls, all roaring at each other at the same time. ROARING! Laughing, screaming, shouting, aaaaagghh!!!
"Will yis ever shut up?!" I felt like shouting at them, but then, of course, I would have been as bad as they were. We waited instead until they'd walked the 10 miles out of earshot. The Spanish wouldn't know quiet if it bit them on the arse.

It's not just the people either. Apparently Madrid has seen an increase in the number of parrots in recent years. Little green fellas they are, (nothing to do with Darby O'Gill), cawing and squawking loudly like Madrid metro users.
"They've come here from Argentina," my dad explained. "Escaped pets I suppose."
He suggested their owners let them go because they couldn't put up with them anymore. Escaped parrots fell in love with other escaped parrots, raised second generation escaped parrots and are now taking over from the local bird population.
My dad isn't a fan, but I saw a kind of poetic justice: 500 years after the Conquistadores went to Latin America, the parrots are returning the favour.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

El último bandito

It was 40 degrees when I left Madrid yesterday. Things heated up the night before too. A night of cañas and tapas with Gav and Delphine ascended to one of tasty but expensive mojitos at the usual Cuban place near Puerta del Sol.
It was as we were leaving things got pretty heated. Gav went to return some of what he'd been drinking while Delphine and I waited outside, just a short distance from the door. When he came back out, he looked around for us, I waved, and he saw us. Then a guy from across the laneway approached him and they talked a bit. What about I don't know. I presumed your man was looking for a light or something. The mannerisms seemed friendly and cordial.
Suddenly I noticed the guy reach and take something from Gav's back pocket. I shot up the laneway and grabbed the fucker by the throat. "Give it back!" I roared as I pinned him against the window behind. "Give it fucking back!" Delphine ran up behind me. Gavin shocked beside me. Pandemonium broke out. I was aware of people behind me. I held the guy by the throat with one hand, tightening my grip. "Give him back his wallet!!" Whether he spoke English or not was immaterial; he knew exactly what I wanted. He gurgled and gasped for air. But no effort to hand anything back. I tightened my grip, banged his head against the window. "GIVE BACK THE FUCKING WALLET!!!" Jesus, I was furious! With my free hand I grabbed the cigarette from his mouth, went to stick it in his neck. Sparks flew everywhere. His opened his eyes wider, gasped, wheezed for air, gurgled, struggled. Still didn't hand anything back. I tightened still further, banged his head against the window again. "GIVE IT BACK!!!!" Thankfully Delphine reached behind him and grabbed the wallet from his hands.
"You got it?" I asked. She nodded. Gav confirmed he had everything. Meanwhile your man's buddies from across the lane were over. "Leave him alone! He's a bit simple. He doesn't know what he's doing." Simple my arse. He knew exactly what he was doing. They pulled him off. Not before I gave him a parting slap in the scuffle. I was so fucking angry.

Nobody was happy. The thief was pissed off after getting choked, burnt and slapped. I don't know what happened him in the end. Nor do I care. Gav directed his anger at the security from the Cuban place. "You did fucking nothing! You just stood there and did nothing. He took my fucking wallet!" They didn't care. Just more stupid tourists. We weren't the first, won't be the last.

I surprised myself. I don't know if I would have actually killed your man. Immediately afterwards I thought I could have. I don't know if that's good or bad. Gav seemed to think it was good, and insisted on buying celebratory beers in La Fontana de Oro nearby. It pisses me off that one little incident can have such an effect, and this would have cast an unwelcome shadow on their time in Madrid, so I didn't really feel like celebrating.
It seems there are people everywhere just trying to shaft others, where directly or indirectly, rip them off, rob them, fuck them over; predators and victims, winners and losers.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pobre Karim

Poor Karim. Only 20,000 came to welcome him to Real Madrid on Thursday night, a bit of an anti-climax after the 90,000 for CR9 (as everyone's now calling him) three days before.
They had been expecting 35,000 for Benzema, as if 1,000 show up for every million you spend, but I guess it was a good welcome nonetheless.
Better than poor Raúl Albiol anyway, for whom only a miserly 9,000 bothered showing up despite his €15 million bill.
So far, Real have spent €213 million on four players. Ah sure, it's only money. What good is it unless you spend it?

Karim, as I'm allowed call him, looked happy with the turn out anyway.
"On t'aime Benzema" wrote five pretty local girls on a French flag. Sure why wouldn't the 21-year-old be grinning from ear to ear?
He said he was a Real fan since he was 14. Sounds impressive until one realises that's just seven years ago! Jaysus, he wasn't even born when Hugo Sanchez used to perform his famous somersaults after every goal.

Radio Marca asked me for the Irish take on the shenanigans but my Spanish wasn't up to interview standard. So much for my lessons in México. "Mi español es muy malo," I told your wan. She evidently agreed.

I thought Zidane might have shown up. It was exactly eight years since he was presented here himself, and I wanted to show him a few tricks. Apparently he didn't get my messages though.
Benzema, from the same stock, has a lot to do if he is to live up to the legacy of Zizou, the most galactic of them all.

Now being camera-less, I used my phone to take pictures of the ceremony. Jostling with the paparazzi to get into the best position in front of Karim, I can't have done much for the worldwide image of the Irish press. At one stage Florentino Perez looked directly at me, and you could see he was thinking: "¿Who's your man taking pictures with his phone?" Feck it. It was fun.

At least I made a better impression than when I was here for El Clásico (Real v Barcapigs) in 2006. At the time I had no camera at all and only a shitty phone, so I bought a cheap plastic disposable thing. After getting soaked in a torrential downpour, the cardboard started to peel away from it.
Who knows what Florentino would have thought had he seen me happily standing there among the television cameras of the world, clicking and rewinding with gusto, a trail of cardboard hanging from my laughable yellow camera. Again though, it was fun.

I can be spotted jostling with the paparazzi (who deserve the same contempt as solicitors and taxi drivers) at Benzema's ceremony here. You have to click past the advert and then I'm wearing the yellow t-shirt.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Muerte en el encierro

Just saw while waiting for the Metro that a young man was killed during the bull-run today. San Fermin's first fatality since 1995. I thought it unlikely it was either my camera thief or one of the English stag party, so there was no feeling of bull's justice being done. Well, unless the bull, the innocently-named Capuchino, took any pleasure from it.

Apparently he caught the guy in the neck with one of his horns. Your man had jumped feet-first under the wooden barricades to escape him, and they're saying now he should have jumped head first, as any "experienced bull-runner" would know. Coulda, shoulda, woulda...

Capuchino wasn't satisfied with that, and went on the rampage afterwards, turning back just before the end of the run and charging left and right at more runners behind. Apparently 11 were injured altogether in today's run. But at least they survived, unlike the unfortunate 27-year-old Daniel Jimeno Romero from just outside Madrid.

The non-fainthearted can see the whole encierro here. It's fucking mad. Seriously, not for the fainthearted.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Galáctiloco en Madrid

Ninety-thousand came to the circus. Only 80,000 got in, 10,000 stragglers left outside to imagine what wonders were being performed inside.
On Monday night, Real fans were presented with the world's most expensive footballer in a scarcely-believable ceremony of pomp, extravagance and fantasy. It would have befitted the return of the messiah.
Even Cristiano Ronaldo looked overawed by the whole thing, the €96 million man temporarily stunned at his reception as the latest Galáctico to have finally landed at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
It was incredible! Such a show of excess. But that's Real Madrid. Nothing else would do.

The din was unbelievable as we waited expectantly for the arrival of Madrid's latest hero. Tension building, hearts beating faster, eyes popping wider. A mexican wave rippled around the stadium as the crowd roared down the blaring speakers. And still people poured in. Half an hour to go, they announced the stadium was full, prompting another roar from the delirious crowd. TVs showed more still pouring out of the metro and running to the stadium. Running! Mass hysteria all round. They were left to run around like disappointed headless chickens outside.

Inside, the former greats were lining up to share in the glory. The "mythical" Eusebio who was welcomed by club president Florentino Perez to see his countryman's big moment, and of course the legendary Di Stefano who was given a thunderous reception. The 83-year-old is still held in such esteem for his exploits in the 50s and 60s which helped establish the prestige of Real Madrid. An ear-splitting roar greeted his arrival. I confess goose bumps. Young Cristiano, who inherits Don Stefano's number 9, has some big shoes to fill.

A child was picked from the crowd and invited on the presentation stage. Asked who his favourite player is, he refused to follow the script. "Kaká," he replied without hesitation, much to the delight of the fans.

A video of greats, past and present, was played with Pavarotti providing the soundtrack. Casillas, Zidane, Figo, Raúl, Roberto Carlos, Champions League triumphs, wonderful moments. The crowd worked into a frenzy, everyone going bananas. More goose bumps. It was madness!

Perez, the man responsible for bringing the Galácticos to Madrid, thanked the crowd for helping to make dreams become reality. Perhaps a subtle hint to go buy a Ronaldo shirt. He needn't have bothered; 2,000 were snapped up from the club shop within the next two hours.

Suddenly I realised I was hungry. Unlike in Berlin, there were no Brötchens und Bier laid on for the press. I guess in Madrid they don't need to butter up the journalists.

Hunger was forgotten when the man of the moment finally emerged from the bowels of the stadium. Aaaaagh! The crowd went wild. Pandemonium broke out among the delirious supporters. Photographers scrambled and fought to get the best shot. Ronaldo, meanwhile, stood and smiled, caught like an expensive rabbit under the bright lights of the Bernabéu and the world's press.

It could have been me, I thought. I shouldn't have concentrated so much on the studies.

"It's been a dream of mine since I was a child to play for Real Madrid," Cristiano gushed, saying all the right things. He smiled, waved, put his thumbs up, and kicked a few footballs into the crowd, prompting more fighting.

Girls screamed, men roared, the paparazzi bayed: "Cristiano, Cristiano, aqui, aqui!"
He must have been hounded by them all day. While looking at the photographers with contempt, he somehow managed to smile for their cameras. He posed with the Real's record nine cups. One nine giving a thumbs up to the others.

A man in a suit gave him directions, pointing towards the still-not-satisfied photographers. Poor Ronaldo looked lost for a moment, and looked to Perez for support. He was left disappointed however: Puppet master Perez confirmed his €96 million star's duty to the cameras.

Chaos broke out at the end when sections of the crowd broke through a security presence ill-equiped to deal with the sheer numbers. Kids kicked up dust as they ran from police, and enamored girls screamed as they ran towards their hero. He was hurredly whisked away to safety.
What an introduction! Welcome to the world's greatest pantomime Ronaldo. It promises to be quite a show.

Tonight it's the turn of young Karim Benzema. Next Galáctico report to follow shortly!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Banditoro

There'll be no pictures from Pamplona. Sleeping under the stars carries its risks, and one of them was having my camera stolen. I woke up 30 minutes before the start of the second encierro to find it had left me without saying goodbye. The fuckers took it from my backpack which I had been using as a pillow.
It's a sickener. Whatever about the cost of the camera, the pictures are irreplaceable, and I had taken plenty over the previous 24 hours: the scenes of carnage on arrival in Pamplona, the first bull-run of the festival, the bands, celebrations and shenanigans of the day, and the people and new friends I made last night.
It was about 4 a.m when I couldn't keep my eyes open anymore. Apart from a couple of hours on night buses and an afternoon siesta, I'd been awake since Monday morning, and I just couldn't fight off the tiredness anymore. I probably slept where I fell, as if in a coma, and the banditos must have sensed my weakness and struck then.
They also took my washbag for some reason. Evidently hygienic fuckers.
Earlier, my new glasses, the ones I collected last Friday and had worn once, were stolen too. That was my own stupid fault though. They were in the outer pocket of my rucksack, just waiting to be plucked out. Again, maybe if I had been wearing the damn things, I would still have them now. These lasted even less time that the ones I lost in México. I don't think I'll be buying anymore.
There are six more bull-runs to go. I'm back in the safety of Madríd now, but I'll be hoping the bulls exact revenge over the next few mornings. Go toro go!

(Naturally these pictures were not taken by me. The ones on the right are actually from July 12th, 1936, the last encierro before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The other is from yonks back too.)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

San Fermin! (Running of the bulls)

Pamplona is a scary place on arrival during San Fermines. The scenes of devastation could be surveyed from the bus on the way in. It took ages to actually get in because drunken idiots were just standing around, staring ahead, as if in a trance, stupefied with drink.
Hundreds of people milled around, all wearing the traditional festival garb: white trousers and t-shirt, with a long red belt and a red bandana tied around the neck. Where everyone was going I don´t know. I don´t think they knew themselves, wandering aimlessly like zombies. Others lay around like corpses, littering the bus station with their bodies, passed out from excess, sleeping where they fell.

The station itself looked like it had been hit by a bomb. Broken glass everywhere (worse than Berlin), and more litter, rubbish and shite everywhere else, I mean EVERYWHERE. It spilled out onto the streets, where the scene of destruction continued as far as the eye could see. I had to wade through the shite to get through the town, crunching my way through a tide of plastic glasses, half eaten bocadillos, and Jaysus knows what else.
Walking was actually quite difficult on account of the stickiness, a cocktail of beer, wine, cider and Kalimotxo (a Basque drink made by mixing wine with coke). My feet just kept sticking to the ground, making a comforting shlurping sound every time I lifted a foot.
Drunken revellers still standing spilled around, all absolutely shit-faced drunk, their white costumes stained purple with wine and all the other shit they'd been drinking. I'd never seen so many drunks in one place before. Not even in Ireland. The Spanish seem to go cross-eyed when drunk. All of them. Every single one. The cross-eyed loud feckers.

Amorous couples wandered around too, staggering along, holding each other up for support. Love was definitely in the air. Everywhere I looked arses were being grabbed, bodies locked together in drunken love embraces. I wonder how many babies will be called "Fermin" in nine month's time. In fact, I might have observed one being created in the park.

Of course, everyone is really here for the bull-run! Love in the park and all-night partying are just convenient bonuses. At 7 a.m. brass bands marched through the littered streets, making an almighty racket as they sought to rouse those who had fallen victim to the excesses of the night before. Drums and trumpets their alarm call to get up for the first encierro of the San Fermin festival.

From 7.30 a.m. the site of the bull run was a sea of panic. Everyone crammed together, pushing, fighting and cursing to find non-existent vantage points. Others, desperate to run with the bulls, ran and pushed and tried to get into the course. Again, it was in vain - well-prepared runners had been here hours previously, jumping and warming up in anticipation of six giant wild toros charging behind them. Meanwhile, the tension and excitement kept building... Even if 95 per cent of the onlookers couldn't see a thing, they could feel the drama about to unfold.

Then the run! An firework explosion marked the start at 8 a.m. sending onlookers into a state of frenzy. The bulls were out! Then another explosion. The last bull was out! Screams. Shouts. Yells. Aaaagh!!! "They're out! They're out! Run! Run!" As if they needed the advice.
A thundering of hooves went pounding past. Those who could see gave the soundtrack: "Ooooh... aaaahh.... oooooooaaaahhh!" Their grimaces told the story as some poor unfortunate was getting trampled or gored down below.

Two minutes later it was over - the bulls had charged off down the street towards the bullring. The runners relived their experience, excitedly telling their friends of their heroic exploits. Describing every step, every duck, every tumble. "And the bull just missed me by this much," said one holding his fingers a centimetre apart. "I swear, if he was any closer I was a dead man!"

Others weren't so lucky. It was time to tend to the injured. I saw two people seriously hurt, one girl holding her face as she was led away on a stretcher. She was loaded into an ambulance and whisked away for attention. All around, in fact, ambulance sirens could be heard as the maimed and injured were carried away from the mayhem.

Down in the bullring itself, those who didn't run with the bulls got another chance - young bulls chased participants around the ring for the amusement of the crowd, a particularly blood-thirsty lot who seemed to particularly enjoy the sight of a drunkard getting flattened by the enthusiastic bull. The poor drunk got a few stabs of the horns too, before his colleagues managed to distract the sadistic bullock.

Unfortunately, an English stag party were still standing after all the commotion. I had noticed them earlier, with their purpose-made white shirts, complete with bull's head and their names printed on the back, just causing offence with their existence. I comforted myself at the time with the thought they would almost certainly by gored, trampled on or worse, but alas, it wasn't to be.
Still, today's was just the first encierro. Bulls' justice will be served.

I must say the authorities are looking after me very well. I was too late for accreditation as a journalist, but they´ve given me use of their offices for the internet, free tea, coffee, biscuits, water etc. and one of the girls keeps checking on me to make sure I have no wants.
She just told me that an Irish guy was killed here last year. Not by a bull, or even a gang of bulls. He was "mui borracho" apparently, (very drunk), fell asleep on one of the old town´s ramparts, fell, and then plunged to his death below. Poor fucker.

Today's San Fermin encierro can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77z3JenQOC4

(The pictures here are not taken by me. The pictures I did take unfortunately disappeared forever after some fucker stole my camera while I slept in the park that night. Instead I've taken pictures of pictures in the newspapers and added them here posthumously for your viewing pleasure. I dedicate them to the memory of my short-lived camera.)