Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Paying to work

Well, we made it to Hauncayo. I'll write more about the journey to get here and the town itself later on.

Plans have changed already. It seems we won't be teaching the little Wankas for three months as originally planned. After being picked up by our hosts at the bus station on Sunday evening, the ones for whom we volunteered, for whom we said we'd sacrifice three months of our lives to work and teach kids skills which might help them out of the poverty trap they find themselves in, we found out from other volunteers there was a charge of $85 per week to do so.
Our hosts, Netto and Elli, took us in for a meeting, during which they expressed their delight at having us for the following three months. Wonderful, we replied, but you never said anything about us being charged $85. Stunned silence. Didn't you see our website? they asked. We did, but we didn't see anything about fees. (It later transpired all the information about fees is under "contributions", a term which I had taken up to now to mean voluntary or optional.)
So for 12 weeks work, we'd have to pay $2,040!!!
Jenny had written to Elli, to tell her one of the reasons we were accepting the program was because we didn't have money to pay fees. Elli noted in the meeting that she thought "it was a bit strange". Not strange enough to reply to say, actually, there ARE fees.
The money apparently covers our accommodation and breakfast. $170 a week. We asked if we could stay somewhere else, an hostal or pension, but no, that's not allowed. The money also goes to fund the program, scholarships for the kids, expenses etc.
A double room with shared bathroom in a hostal in Huancayo would cost us $6 a night.
So we're staying just two weeks. We've come this far, we may as well do that at least. I'm not happy about it however. We're actually paying to work! It's usually the other way around.
From now on I refuse to use the term "volunteer", but shall be using the term "sucker" instead.
Jenny's very disappointed. I'm too pissed off with the whole thing to be disappointed. The organisation itself is a joke. In fact, organisation is a misnomer; there is none. Everything takes three times longer than it should, and I've no confidence at all that our money is being utilised to the maximum potential. Promised hot showers are non-existent, and breakfast consists or two teeny bread rolls which wouldn't feed an ant.
The other suckers seem nice however, and despite being unorganised and hapless, I'm leaning towards the impression that our hosts' intentions are good. It's close though. The jury is still out. If I was on my own it wouldn't have had time to deliberate.

The whole shambles means we'll have to pay for accommodation somewhere for three months, something neither of us had budgeted for. Money is tight. I'm not sure if we can even last that long, and an early flight back to Berlin is still an option.

Today we went to the orphanage where we'll be working for the two weeks. First impressions were good. We met Gonzalo, the head honcho, and he was very interested when he heard I was a periodista. So, I've been put in charge of a class of budding reporters, to teach them how to write articles, find news, conduct interviews, put a newspaper together etc. It's the first time since we arrived in Huancayo that I've had a positive thought about this endeavor. Maybe I can do some good after all. The first lesson is in two hours. A pity then, they will only be for two weeks.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lima

It was dark when we arrived in the Peruvian capital. Chaos at the airport. Taxi drivers fighting over our fare after we were left stranded by the "safe and reasonable" bus which didn't exist anymore. Presumably it met an untimely end. Pobre Urbanito.
We settled on the least dodgy of a dodgy-looking lot. Only one scar on his face. We waited for his promised taxi to turn up, and when it eventually did, battered and bruised, we plunged into Lima's traffic. Soon we learned where the car got its battle wounds. We surged forward, traffic to the left, traffic to the right, in front, behind. Cars, trucks and buses all jostling for position, beeping like crazy, a manic wave washing over the potholed and broken streets.
"En Perú this is normal," our driver laughed as he banged on the horn. Beep beep! Beep beep!
He pushed the car forward into minuscule gaps. One car mounted the grass verge to overtake a line of traffic, all beeping like mad. Red lights disregarded, as was a policewoman frantically waving at the madness going on around her, her shrill whistle drowned out by the car horns. Incredible noise. On we went. Clouds of dust obscured the view as we bounced over the broken streets. Broken buildings, ramshackle brick huts, half-built and falling down. Faded dusty adverts for products no one remembers anymore.
Suddenly spot lights appeared through a cloud of dust ahead. Like an alien spacecraft ascending over the brow of a hill towards us. Beep beep! Just another Lima motorist.

Motorists in Lima hit the horn more often than they do the accelerator. I'm not sure they even look where they're going. They just beep at stuff to get out of their way. Which it does not. It just beeps back. The horn is king. All cars carry scars of previous collisions, as if proud of their battered longevity, as if stronger for having survived. Lima's motorists are fucking mad.

The city itself is a dump I'm sorry to report. The aforementioned ramshackle brick huts do not look better in the daytime. Rubbish lines the streets, and acrid fumes from the city's manic traffic chokes the streets. Trucks, buses and taxis (which make up one in seven cars) belch out black fumes at will.

Only the city's colonial monuments are afforded a degree of pride. The Monasterio de San Francisco, despite the best efforts of various earthquakes to topple it, gave a glimpse of the city's former glory. Fittingly for a monastery dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, it was home to a squillion pigeons.
It was also home to a squillion bones, buried in three levels of catacombs beneath. Skulls were neatly arranged in circles with femurs completing the designs. Some 80,000 people are estimated to have been buried here. People wanted to be close to God so they were keen to be buried under the church. Sure they were dying to get in!

Today's inhabitants thankfully have different pleasures. They lined up in groups outside shops on the Plaza Mayor, watching TV and laughing at candid camera showing some poor fecker getting hit by a bull. The next shop had a smaller group gawking at a music video. It was hilarious to look at them. Their entertainment providing ours.


More pictures from Lima can be seen here: http://picasaweb.google.com/faheyc/Lima02#

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Prerúlude

'Tisn't a good start. Jenny's wallet departed company from her somewhere between Berlin and Madrid. Lost or stolen it doesn't matter; it left without saying goodbye.

Our flight to Lima was only 13 hours 45 minutes late. Nobody bothered telling us so they put us up in what claims to be Europe's biggest hotel. El Auditórium. Sounds good but with a name like that it's bound to. The free buffet was great though. We made pigs of ourselves. I probably made three or four pigs out of myself. But fuck it, it was free, and no Irish or, apparently, East Germans ever turn down something if it's free.
I deliberated long and hard about stealing the towels but decided against it. Free or not, I didn't wanna have to cart them around the Andes.
Anyway, we eventually made the plane, but only after negotiating one fuck up after another. They even neglected to tell us when the plane was leaving after it was delayed the second time, leaving us just 15 minutes to get to the airport before it was boarding.

As I type on this handheld device I'm not sure I'm allowed use, I can tell you we're now 11,164 metres high, 6,523 km from Lima and somewhere to the left of Mauritania. I can also tell you we are sitting directly behind a row of babies, all screeching and screaming as if Guantánamo inmates. The noise is unbelievable. Their lungs must be bigger than their bodies. The guy in front is actually changing his little monster's nappy as I write this. On the seat! The stench of shite is unbearable.
Never fly with Air Comet if you can help it. Such a bunch of incompetent half-wits I've never come across before. No tickets, no meal options bar one which was shite, no communication, no on-time flights, no clue. You even have to pay to watch the onboard films or access the entertainment. €7! On a transatlantic flight!

Enough. On Madrid itself, where we spent the last couple of days, I can tell you nothing I haven't written before but that there is an overabundance of statues of fellas on horseback in the city. Why they need so many stone horses is beyond me.
I was gobsmacked to find the statue of the bear leaning against the apple tree, the very symbol of the city, was ripped out of Puerta del Sol, apparently to make room for the hordes of pedestrians who trundle through the city centre. For me, that bear is Madrid so to uproot him like that is unforgivable.

At least the parents were happy to see and spend time with us. My mother even joined us as I brought Jenny on a rowing boat in Retiro. Very romantic. Later we had time to ourselves as we sat under the old lamps in Plaza Mayor. Classical music spilled out towards us over the cobblestones as we took in the ambience of the 17th century grand square. (Of course, there's a fella on a horse in the middle of it.) Suddenly Jenny leapt up. A couple of friendly cockroaches had nudged her thumb. So much for romantic notions.

But now, despite the incessant wailing and screeching going on around me, it's time to finally look forward to Perú. I've been doing research, and found out all the important facts. Firstly the country is home to almost 4,000 varieties of native potato. I look forward to trying all of them. Also on the menu apparently is roast cuy (guinea pig) and monkey soup. Yum!!
I also learned bird shit (guano) accounted for 80 per cent of the country's income in the mid-19th century. Presumably now they have other exports. I suggest they start with their screaming babies, at least for the duration of our trip.

Obviously, if you're reading these words, it means we survived the flying screaming crèche and landed safely in Lima. More news in due course. Just too much to write and too much to explore to get into all that now. All in its own good time. Which, I'm happy to report, we've been having since we got here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Leaving Berlín

It's time to leave. Less than 12 hours to go. There are mixed feelings to be honest. I could quite easily stay. I finally landed a bit of work (work ironically I had no time to do. I'll have to write en route); I'm finally starting to feel my German is reaching a respectable level; and it was very hard to say goodbye to the Theresas Mütters and the other friends I've made and become closer to here.
I won't find it hard to say goodbye to the bureaucratic small-minded bullshit of Germans behind desks, the pettiness of the motorists who I've established are all arseholes, or the bell-happy cyclists who aren't much better.
I certainly won't find it hard to say goodbye to Umzug after Umzug after Umzug, or the running around like a headless chicken with a grenade up its arse.
I certainly won't be sorry either to see the back of Stefan "The Leech" Solicitor, whose latest letter arrived today. This time it was registered and threatening all sorts of legal action if I don't cough up the €100 he wants for doing nothing back in June.
Leech is actually a compliment for that fucker. Extortion and blackmail is all it is, but he won't be getting a Pfennig from me. I'd sooner go to prison. Apparently he reads the blog, so he'll probably take that as encouragement to threaten further legal action.
My Zwischenmieter would certainly be happy if I went to prison - she needs a place to live for two months after we get back. Hédi, who I'd mistakenly been calling Heidi, will be looking after my strawberries while I'm gone. She and all the other Swiss I met since I wrote all that bad shit about them last January have done wonders to help me change my perceptions. I don't think even Perú will help alter my perceptions of solicitors.
So this is the last broadcast from Berlin for at least four months. I guess it's good to leave on somewhat of a bad note. More of an escape. But now I've to run out the door for more Auf Wiedersehens. People are already waiting in the Kneipe my angry mobile phone is telling me. I've a feeling I won't even be allowed the bad note to leave on.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Taming nature's forces

I sneezed this morning while brushing my teeth. I tend to walk around the house while brushing my teeth. It staves off boredom in the bathroom. So, not wanting to spray a shower of toothpaste all over my lovely clean room, I clamped my mouth shut. No matter. One way or another that toothpaste was coming out. My nose, unfortunately, bore the brunt. An explosion of minty white snot. Sometimes nature's forces are just irrepressible.

My hair is also irrepressible it seems, but I'm doing my best to repress it. Yesterday I got a haircut! I finally made it to Friseur Kaiserschnitt which Jana had recommended for "sehr gute, coole Haarschnitte". A trendy non-threatening punk with long black and pink stripey socks greeted me at the door, and ushered me in to meet Jessie, my Haarschneiderin for the occasion.
She was just as friendly, despite all the metal in her face, and was very curious to find out where I came from and what I was doing in Berlin. "Did love bring you to Berlin?" she asked. Straight to the point these Germans are.
"Wow. Dein Haar ist so dick!" she exclaimed as she ran the chainsaw just above my ears.
"Ja ja!" I roared above the din. "Ich bin wie ein Schaf. Deshalb bin ich hier!"
I told her to make sure I didn't look ridiculous anymore, and most importantly, to make sure I don't look like something from the '80s. The day before, in the latest of an ever-lengthening list of insults, I'd been told I looked like MacGyver. I wouldn't mind if I could make a helicopter out of paper clips, an apple core and an elastic band. Jaysus, I used to love that show. But that doesn't mean I want to look like him. Not anymore in any case.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Alcatraz

I said I'd write about Alcatraz, so I will. The facts are still fresh in my mind despite the passage of time. It was 18 nights ago to be precise. The boat was to leave at 6.45 p.m. and we were late. After kindly getting us onto the tour which had been booked out weeks before, Tegan had warned us not to be late. No matter. We were anyway.

I legged it down to the pier ahead of Jenny who was waiting on a pizza at North Beach, so called despite it being on a hill and nowhere near any beach. Crazy San Franciscans. The pizza was in uncooperative mood, taking its time as if daring the boat to leave without us.

Thankfully the boat was late too, and by the time I collected our tickets Jenny arrived at the dock with the pizza. We boarded, took our seats, and wolfed it down, putting on a show for the other passengers who looked at us curiously as we all bounced over the waves. We didn't care, we were starving, but the irony of looking like real Americans wasn't lost on us.

Soon "The Rock" loomed into view with its distinctive tower and a cloud of seagulls above and around it. "You picked a wonderful night to come to Alcatraz folks," the captain drawled. "We're in for a beautiful sunset this evening." I bet he says it every night. To all the tourists. But for a moment we felt special.

I was excited. I was particularly looking forward to meeting Al Capone and the rest of the lads - Alvin "Creepy Karpis" Karpowicz, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and, of course, the "Birdman of Alcatraz", Robert Stroud. It was Alphonse in particular though, that I wanted to see. Scarface would be the perfect candidate for advice on how to make a few bob in these times of depression.

"Did you ever hear of Al Capone?" I asked Jenny. (I've come to learn East Germans had different heroes to Irish kids when they were going up.) What she said startled me. She told me she had Al Capone jeans when she was growing up. Al Capone jeans! She got them in Turkey apparently, but they were very fashionable in the GDR. I was struck speechless. Dumb with shock. I had no idea Mr. Capone was into haberdashery. Hack-and-dashery perhaps, but definitely not haberdashery. Now I had another reason to speak with him.

Imagine my surprise when I found none of them were home. We were 46 years too late apparently. Forty-six years! No wonder Mr. Capone didn't reply to any of my emails. I thought he was just being cagey; a natural reaction to being incarcerated. But no, apparently the last prisoners left on March 21st, 1963. Capone himself left in 1938 before unhelpfully dying in 1947. I may have to look elsewhere for my advice.

Despite the lack of prisoners, we were shown around the former prison facility by very friendly park rangers. Wherever park rangers are Yogi and Boo-Boo can't be too far away. Or so I thought. But no. They don't live on the island either I was told. "Does anyone live on this Godforsaken island?" I wondered.
Seagulls. Thousands of loud squawking and cawing seagulls who did their best to prevent the wardens from divulging any secrets of The Rock's shameful past. As if laughing hysterically at their futile attempts to share the burden of an overbearing past.

I would dearly have loved to meet Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo, possibly even more than I would have liked to meet Al Capone. Any animal who can get away with wearing just a collar must be worth meeting. Even Capone never dared try that.
Anyway, after determining there was no one worth meeting left at Alcatraz, I made do with the audio tour provided to visitors. With the voices of former wardens and prisoners in my head, complete with impressive sound effects, I imagined the horrors of life behind bars in one of the world's most notorious federal prisons.
Not too bad I thought actually. Compared to the shit the Stasi and their predecessors put people through at Hohenschönhausen, Alcatraz was a holiday camp. Security may have been tight, but the food was good and the livin' was easy, although visitors were kept to a minimum.

Some inmates did try escape however. The park rangers took great pleasure in telling us all about the failed attempts, laughing at the poor souls who must now be further tormented at the thoughts of being tourists' laughing stock. Although, I guess if they were in Alcatraz to begin with they were no angels. Maybe they stole a camera at the Pamplona bull-run. Maybe they deserve to be laughed at.

No one is laughing about the Anglin brothers who escaped with Frank Morris in the famous "Dummy Head Escape" of 1962. They dug their way through the walls of the cells, climbed out through ventilation shafts, and made their way off the island on rubber rafts. The dummy heads which they made with paper, soap and real hair fooled the wardens long enough to buy crucial time before the alarm was raised.
The rangers took great pains to tell us no one ever escaped Alcatraz, and the three escapees are presumed drowned in the icy waters of San Francisco Bay, but I don't believe them. No bodies were ever found. Proof enough for me.

The captain wasn't lying about the sunset. It was glorious with the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay before it. Afterwards the stars and moon came out to play, and the American flag fluttered seductively before the twinkling lights of San Francisco across the bay. Picture perfect. The way the American dream would have it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Na und?

Na seems to be a very important word in the German language. No one told me this on any of the courses I've been doing, but having observed Germans at close hand for the last year and a half, I can safely say Na is very important among members of the species.

When two Germans meet, for example, they will often simply greet each other with the word Na.
"Na?"
"Na."
The intonation can vary, as you may have noticed from the above.

A dinner party I was at recently was a veritable Na-fest as I greeted guests wĥo got there before me, shaking hands and hugging with dwindling levels of enthusiasm as I made my way around the table.
"Na?"
"Na."
"Na?"
"Na!"
"Na?"
"Na!!"

By the time you finish greeting everybody, you just don't want to talk to them any more. Consequently, I may have stumbled on the real reasons Germans are always on time: They don't want to be caught up in a never-ending cycle of Nas. Far better not to be the last to arrive - you can space out the Nas and conserve some energy for eating, drinking and talking, surely the main point of any dinner party.

I'm not really sure what Na means, but I presume it's a leftover from some sort of Hanseatic chant or spell uttered to dispel evil spirits from the room.

Na is not just for greetings however. This is where the addition of the word Ja comes in. Na ja has a variety of uses. It's used quite often to cover up awkward silences in a conversation. "Na ja," you would say when someone tells you something and you don't know what else to say. It's particularly useful for bad news.
"Mein Hund war Heute getötet." (My dog was killed today.)
"Na ja..."

It's also particularly useful for ending conversations, particularly phone conversations. When you hear "Na ja" you know the other person wants to get off the phone; they have something better to do. This is an ideal time to introduce a completely new topic, preferably an inane one. When you hear "Na ja" again, introduce another topic, preferably even more boring than the one before. That drives them mad altogether.
My golden rule is not to let the other person off the phone until I've heard at least five Na jas. Then I'll politely excuse myself by telling them I don't really have time to be yakking on the phone, and that I actually should get going with all the things I have to do. You never hear Na ja after that.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Oktoberfest!

It's Oktoberfest! In September. I know, it doesn't make sense to me either. Very un-German to get their dates mixed up like that. I presume they just couldn't wait anymore. All that lovely beer just waiting to be guzzled down to the accompanying sounds of yodeling and Alpine folk music.

Normally left to the Bavarian beer-swillers of Munich, this year Oktoberfest has come to Berlin thanks to a giant tent set up in the shadow of the Fernsehturm outside the Rotes Rathaus. As if to tease the red rats inside. Oh, how they'd love to get their little paws on all that lovely beer!

I wandered into the tent by mistake today. Not realising where I was going or how I suddenly ended up in a giant tent with chandeliers hanging from a stripey ceiling. The Hippodrom, as it's called (clearly hippos the target market), had hundreds of tables and wooden benches full of raucous revellers boisterously cheering and clapping to the happy clappy sounds of music which could only be made possible by a band in Lederhosen. Ah, you gotta love the Münchkin music. No one else does.

Waitresses bustled around with big jugs, not just their own; great pitchers of beer too. The traditional costumes are great, known as Dirndl. They display frontal assets proudly for all to see. Some of the girls only displayed their breasts to take attention away from their faces though. Although I'm open to correction on that point; I didn't see any faces.
Waiters wore ridiculous costumes featuring short Lederhosen, clogs and suspenders. The less said about them the better. (To be honest, I spent more time looking at the waitresses.)

Whatever one says about the Bavarians, their beer is damn good. My favourite in fact. It was €7.50 for a one-litre Maß (stein) which is a bit pricey, but I guess the Münchkins want the Berliners to pay München prices.

Their music on the other hand, is awful, but it was still good fun. A giant fat woman, who has clearly consumed far more Schweinsbraten, Würstel (little sausages), Knödeln and Käsespätzle than can be healthy for a normal human being, got up and yodeled her way into the hearts of the happy clappy revellers. A tent full of happy Germans. The best Germans of all.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Donald Duck gegen Hitler

A couple of nights ago we went to see Donald Duck versus Hitler. "Now there's a fight worth seeing," I thought as I made my way to Kaffee Burger. The Feathered Fighter versus the Quack. I was curious to see how they would face off in the ring, but it turned out to be a misnomer. Instead it was a discussion evening on cartoons being used as propaganda during the second world war, Walt Disney's cartoons in particular.

It opened with the Oscar-winning "Der Feuhrer's Face" in which Donald is a Nazi in wartime Germany. I won't ruin the ending for you (you can see it below), but the lyrics alone are great.

When der Führer says: "We ist der Masterrace"
We Hail! Hail! Right in der Führer's Face,
Not to love der Führer is a great disgrace,
So we Hail! Hail! Right in der Führer's Face!

Are we not the Supermen?
Aryan pure Supermen?
Ja, we ist der Supermen,
Super-duper Supermen!

It's interesting that Donald Duck never wears trousers but he covers up his nether regions when stripped naked. I've heard he also wears a towel around his waist whenever he comes out of the shower. Maybe his bulging belly prevents him from noticing his own lad dangling freely as he walks down the street, or maybe it's an evolutionary hangover from when all ducks used to sit in water with their nether regions below the surface and out of sight.

Other wartime cartoons featuring Donald Duck ask the American people to pay their taxes on time, while Minnie Mouse and Pluto the Dog showed how kitchen grease should be saved for making shells and explosives for the war effort. Poor Pluto was upset to miss out on his leftovers at first, but was an enthusiastic supporter by the end when he is told his sacrifice will help fight tyranny and preserve liberty. Guns were featured a lot. Guns, guns, guns!

Wartime propaganda is one thing but today's general media, in which government and big business influence weighs heavily, is no angel either. You've been warned! A healthy dose of cynicism should be applied to everything you see, read and hear. Trust no one. No thing. Especially when it comes to journalists!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Nein zu Mobbing!

I was outraged to read mighty Germany "sent a signal to Ireland" yesterday ahead of the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty next month. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/world/2009/0909/1224254135724.html
Revised laws were passed by a large majority in the Bundestag to allow the treaty's ratification. It was Merkel's spokesman on European Affairs who then described it as a "signal to Ireland". Mafiaesque advice considering the timing - three weeks before the Irish go to the polls for the second time. A clear attempt to bully a favourable answer this time from a nation which has already said "No". What a fucking nerve. How dare they interfere in another country's affairs!

If there was ever a reason to vote "No", there is now. Thankfully there is a legal requirement in Ireland for such a referendum, or the spineless Irish government would have obliged Merkel and Sarkozy by passing it already, regardless of the will of the people.

This really makes me sick. It's laughable that voters are being asked a second time at all. Will they be asked again and again until a favourable answer is given?!

If I could vote in the October 2nd poll I would vote a thousand times "No". No! And fuck off while you're at it.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Frisky Frisco (Part III)

The Saloon is probably Frisco's most famous bar, definitely the oldest, and it claims to have "the best of the blues in the Bay Area". It withstood the 1906 'quake due to its strong timbers and was subsequently saved from the flames which devastated the rest of the city when firefighters did their best to save the prostitutes who operated upstairs. If they let the hookers burn, chances are they might have saved the rest of the city, but who's to know these things? I'm sure they weighed up all the pros and cons.
An old guy with two hairs for an eyebrow and a long bushy beard stopped us for ID on the way in, refusing to let us in when we had none. "I'm 31!" I told him. "I don't carry ID around with me anymore." (It's true. In Ireland the only people who carry IDs are those who are too young to drink legally. The only people who have ID proving they're legally allowed drink are, in fact, not. Once you're 18 you don't need to carry fake ID around with you anymore.)
Eventually, after telling him we were on holidays, and after he tried catch us off guard by rapid-fire asking us our dates of birth, (I hadn't had that since I was 17!), he let us in. "Okay, go on in, but if the cops come you have to tell them you lost your ID, you had it out here, okay?"
Jaysus, I'd say it was a long while since anyone asked him for ID.

San Francisco bookshops are wonderful places to spend a bit of time. After The Saloon we wandered over to City Lights bookshop where Jack Kerouac used to spend a lot of time which they reciprocated when the alley beside it was renamed in his honour.
I hope one day to write a book better than Jack Keruoac and have a street named after me. Even an alley would do. Instead of coffee though, I'll probably turn to tea as I thrash out a novel in three weeks. Three weeks? Better make it four if not four more.
Every book I touched in City Lights begged to be read. For some reason every time I'm in the US I end up buying books, and this time was no different as I splashed out on two. I had to leave quickly before I bought anymore.

Fats brought us to The Audium the next day, for a far-out experiment with sound where some crazed scientist in a tweed jacket plays mad shit through thousands of speakers embedded in a giant egg. Sitting in this giant egg, you're enveloped in complete darkness as your man plays DJ with sounds from space and beyond. Or so I thought.
Sitting there in darkness, weird noises pinging all round me, I imagined what kind of mad shit I should be thinking of. "Dreams and impressions" I was told. The only thing I could think of was what kind of mad stuff I should be thinking. When I realised I wasn't thinking any mad shit at all, but was thinking of what mad shit I should be imagining, I was actually disappointed with the lack of mad shit. Weird noises continued to ping and warble around me. I guess that was when I fell asleep. Maybe I dreamt mad shit.
Immediate impressions did not make themselves immediate - we didn't know what to think afterwards. I know Fats was disappointed with our lack of enthusiasm. He'd been three times and is a huge fan.
Three nights later I told him I wanna go again. Maybe a seed was planted. It demands further exploration. Preferably awake exploration. Mad shit is always worth exploring.

Fats (sometimes known as Captain Cabbage) was once told one never knew what type of car he was driving - it was always a different shape whenever he arrived. He's recently bought a new swanky car, one he'll be afraid to scratch until there's nothing left to scratch. I was afraid to get into the damn thing.
He's possibly the most un-politically correct person I know. He told us a story of passing a Japanese gym just the week before and seeing a black fella running out like the clappers, his jocks around his ankles, with a sack-full of cash in hand and "five little kung fu fuckers running after him in their pyjamas".
Asayo, his Japanese friend, rightly interjects at this point. "They're not pyjamas!" she protests.
It didn't matter. The alleged thief obviously wasn't in the right frame of mind for out-running ninja-wannabes and so they chased him, as Fats explained, "to kick five dans of shite of of him".

I've been introduced to Woody Guthrie thanks to Fats. Just his music obviously, not the man himself. What's that? I hear you say. You didn't know Woody Guthrie? No, I didn't, but I do now, and just for that alone, it was all worthwhile.

Fats doesn't particularly like people who want to save the whales. I, on the other hand, would never wish a whale any harm, not even a British one, although Sellafield is of course taking care of those poor fuckers. There are plenty of Save-The-Whale people in San Francisco, although I'm not sure how smoking copious amounts of marijuana is going to help.

On our last night in San Francisco I had a Bloody Mary. Jaysus! They should call it a Bloody Awful. Or I'll be Bloody Sure Never to Order Such a Disgusting Drink Again. I'll be sticking to mojitos from now on...

Alcatraz is fantastic, and deserves a post on its own, so I'll not be saying anymore about that for the moment, but the Golden Gate is overrated like most things pandered to tourists. It's not even the longest bridge in the bay! There are nice views of the city and all that but that's about all that can be said for it.
Far more impressive is the Bay Bridge itself, which is so long and impressive they're building it again. They'll be sick if an earthquake knocks it down but I've been assured they thought of that already, and are taking appropriate action. Always taking action these Americans.

America is the land of superlatives. Everything is the biggest, best, most wondrous, awesome. I don't know how many times I overheard the word awesome from passing cell-phones. An awe-inspiring number of times.
The enthusiasm is great. The can-do attitude is very much an American trait. It doesn't matter if can't be done, or if can only be done badly, America will say it can do it, and expect to do it, even if a blind fool with no sense of hearing, touch or smell can tell there's no way it can be done.
Perhaps this enthusiasm is best epitomised by the gold seekers who flocked to a sleepy little-known pueblo called San Francisco in 1849 in search of fortune. Gold prospectors without enthusiasm are doomed to failure. There's gold in them thar hills! The guy who said "so what?" sure as hell didn't find any.

I'll leave the last word on Frisco to these guys. After all they're locals. They know what they're talking about.
video

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Frisky Frisco (Part II)

San Francisco's Bart is probably the coolest public transport system in the world. The trains themselves look liken they come from space. Sleek, long, groovy curved angles. Fast as fuck. They zoom under San Francisco Bay at frightening speeds. Seats are cushioned sofas which come out from the side, no legs at all, as if hovering above the carpeted floor. Yes, carpets on the floor! The comfort is unbelievable. It's almost impossible to prise yourself back out of the seat once you've sat down. The drivers are cool as milk. They announce upcoming stops in a long lazy casual drawl, also giving details of connecting trains at transfer stops, not without a keen sense of humour.
"The Richmond train is across the platform on the other side. That's the big white thing over there."

Oakland, where we stayed with our gracious hosts Fats and Tanya, is just across the bay from San Francisco. It has a bit of a bad reputation - people looked at us in awe when we told then we were staying there (much like Dubliners when they hear you're from Bray) - but we didn't have any hassle. We weren't shot, mugged or killed, and once we negotiated out way past the bums who hung outside the store at the corner of Broadway we were grand. "Welcome to the 'hood man," Fats said on arrival.

We were surprised by the lack of recycling options to householders. Everything fucked into the one bin. In Berlin there are about 40 bins in the kitchen and you need a mathematician to figure out which rubbish is supposed to go where. While bemoaning the lack of recycling options in America - "Jesus, isn't it terrible the way they don't recycle anything?" - I was secretly delighted to be able to just throw everything in one bin. "It's shocking alright, but what can you do?"
It was only the last couple of days when we asked Fats and Tanya what the story is with recycling.
"Of course you can recycle," retorted Tanya. "This is where the cardboard goes, this for the plastic bottles, glass..."
She showed us a load of different bags for various items under the sink. Ah well! I guess our prejudices from Dubya's America prevented us from even imagining there might be recycling facilities available. Typical Europeans. Polluting America and then giving out about American pollution.

The packaging on everything is frightening though. Even the fruit at JFK in New York was individually wrapped in cling film. Individually wrapped! We bought an apple which turned out to be the shiniest apple I ever laid eyes on. So shiny it could be seen from space, obviously genetically modified. I presume they bound it in cling film to protect the fruit vendor's eyes from the glare.
Everything is disposable. Everything. Coffee cups use half a rain forest worth of cardboard. (Some proudly proclaim "made from 25 per cent recycled material" so I guess they only use a quarter of a rain forest.)

America is obsessed with the chase for the dollar. Tips are expected by everyone for everything. Even beggars want to be tipped if they feel they've done a good job begging. That means if you give them anything at all, they expect more as a tip.
It's also the reason waiters are falling over themselves to be nice to you. They'd wipe your arse for money. They can't let you eat in peace, but are constantly hounding you and cracking jokes to make sure you're enjoying your meal. I'd enjoy it a lot more if you fucked off and let us alone!
We wandered into a church by mistake. Even there, Grace Cathedral, visitors were invited to leave a donation. Not just any donation, but a donation of $5 was suggested. $5! To walk into a church! Needless to say they got nothing. I was tempted to steal a book out of retribution but I have no call for a heavy book of hymns.

We were asked on a few occasions if we would consider living there. Not an invitation as such, but more a point of interest. I think I may have offended Tanya when I said "no". The truth is I'm actually quite happy living in Berlin. Probably because I've been spending so little time here.

Japantown is a mad place if ever there was one. Full of teapots and porcelain cats with their arms up in the air. As if in surrender to porcelain dogs. But I didn't see any porcelain dogs. The teapots only had their spouts in the air of course. They don't have arms, not even Japanese teapots, despite their madness.
It was where I managed to eat a whole meal with chopsticks. It may have taken me 17 times longer than usual to eat a meal, and chopstick aficionados like Fats and his Japanese friend 麻代 金村 (Asayo to you and me) may have been laughing at me, but I still managed to eat it, whatever the hell it was.

At Pier 39 on Fisherman's Wharf the sea lions were put on quite a performance for us, as if jealous of the porcelain cats. Coughing, sneezing and barking like old men. Like a pause in an orchestra performance. The noise was incredible. Hundreds of them bobbing on the wooden pier, bodies crammed together like a Berlin orgy. But coughing, spluttering. One suffering sea lion before us was sneezing like an allergy, sending a shower of snot flying across his comrades. They all lay there as if on their sick beds. Evidently not healthy animals. We didn't hang around too long.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Frisky Frisco (Part I)

Despite too short a time in San Francisco, I was there long enough to form some rash, ill-advised, biased and contradictory impressions of life in the US, and California in particular. It was actually my second time there in less than twelve months. The city hadn't changed much since last November, if at all, but the fog had lifted. Mark Twain did not actually say the coldest winter he spent was summer in San Francisco, but that won't prevent me repeating it. Someone said it.

Enough about the weather. To the mis-informed observations. Everything in the US is bigger than in Europe, and that includes the fruit, which is huge, although I suspect that has more to do with genetic modification than anything else. At the farmer's market on Fisherman's Wharf the strawberries were the size of apples, the apples the size of watermelons. Fuck knows what the watermelons look like. Presumably they were too large to bring to the market. Cranes would have to lift them from trucks onto the pier.

This genetic modification/manipulation business worries me. If you are what you eat, does this make me genetically modified? Have my genes now been modified? My jeans definitely have anyway. When in San Francisco, it is almost obligatory to buy Levi's for half nothin' in the city of their birth. $32.99 in Macy's. (€23.13 approximately.) They're about €80 here in Berlin! I bought two pairs.

I also bought a fleece but that was more on account of the aforementioned cold. The Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park was feckin' freezing, despite the sun splitting the stones elsewhere in the city that day. Of course we arrived in shorts and t-shirts. People were huddling together for warmth in the evening.
Although I didn't notice any pigs, I thought it best to not to take any chances with flu and I paid more for a fleece than I normally would. Despite being fleeced I remained cold when Jenny promptly took to wearing it. Women are colder creatures than men and she's no exception. I wasn't going to be fleeced a second time so I took to clapping enthusiastically to The Mars Volta. I couldn't wait for them to finish their songs just so I could clap again. I clapped with both hands and feet.
Unfortunately Dave Matthews took to singing the same lyrics over and over while his band indulged themselves with never-ending solos. As if trying to stretch their show the requisite two-and-a-half hours for a headline act. Not much opportunity to clap. They promptly finished up just before 10pm without even playing their one hit.
Imagine a festival ending at 10pm! Probably why the organisers had a hard job getting decent acts to play. There was no camping allowed either, despite it being a three-day event. Then they had the cheek to have a VIP section for those foolish enough to pay more to hear the same stuff.
Delinquents had to show ID at the ID tent before getting a wristband permitting them the privilege of paying $7 for an under-sized beer. It was the first festival I was ever at where I didn't buy a beer. I wasn't going to be fleeced again.

Neither were other festival-goers judging by the smell of marijuana which wafted everywhere throughout the park. It was inescapable. In fact, it could be described as the smell of San Francisco. It was everywhere! Not just at Outside Lands (where I can see the ironic sense in stupefying oneself against the cold), but all over the city.
Of course, marijuana was made fashionable by the hippies in the Summer of Love but today's lot are a sad reflection on that. Scruffy, smelly fuckers, sitting around Haight/Ashbury (where the hippies of '67 used to hang out), hands out looking for freebies like moochers.

We did see one survivor from the original hippy era, with flowers painted on her cheeks. Driving a Mercedes and shopping in San Fran's most expensive supermarket though, it's debatable whether one can still call her a hippy. At least she was buying organic food and wearing a pretty flower-print dress. She did cause me to wonder about hippies. Does a successful hippy negate their own hippiness by being successful? What does it actually mean to be a hippy?
In any case, it seems the hippies of '67 are either dead and gone, or ripping-off tourists by selling over-priced incense and sweat-shop laboured garments from India. It seems hippiness is full of contradictions, but that's to be expected when the Summer of Love occurred in an area called Haight.

Meanwhile San Francisco has been taken over by bums. Everywhere you go there are moochers looking for spare change. Old wasters or young drug addicts on their way to becoming old wasters.
Some of them were completely fucked. Downtown San Francisco is Bumtown. The streets are littered with bodies at night. We saw one girl walking around like a zombie with her head down, obviously oblivious to anything going on around her. Only a matter of time before she wandered out in front of a car. We actually had to step around others as they were sprawled across the pavement, faces pressed against the concrete, dead or alive, who knows? Who cares?
The City of San Francisco doesn't, it seems. These living dead were just around the corner from City Hall. Apparently they turned off the fountains last year to prevent the bums from bathing in them. We also noticed a lack of benches, presumably so the bums have nowhere to sit. I'm not sure how that will help if they're using the pavements as beds but there you go.

We'd been offered drugs so many times and had so many moochers approach us, that we were probably a bit wary of anyone talking to us. As we were going for a Bart in Oakland, a woman talking on a payphone suddenly called out while we were on the escalator up to the platform . Our immediate reaction was evidently cagey, sending her into convulsions. Hearty laughter only a black woman could laugh.
"You thought I was some crazy one, callin' y'all for money!" she laughed. "I just saw you lovely couple and wanted to wish y'all a wonderful holiday!"
I guess there aren't too many white visitors to Oakland, just across the bay from San Francisco.
"Hee hee hee!" she laughed again. "I outta bring you home and give y'all some of mah home cookin'!"
She probably was crazy after all.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Four-legged fliers

Who brings a dog to the airport?! Apparently Berliners do. They bring their dogs everywhere. Tegel was full of them when we landed back this morning. 'Twas the same when we were leaving last Wednesday. Four-legged furry fliers everywhere. Although I presume they weren't actually heading off anywhere - I didn't see any doggy-rucksacks, (doggy-bags as they're called in restaurants).
They must have come to see their owners off at the gate. Waving their paws as they watched their masters fly off into the heavens, eyes reverting to puppy-dog, fighting back the tears, choking back the muffled barks.

Dogs, of course, are great for smuggling drugs in and out of a country as Billy Connolly once pointed out. The required quantity should be placed up the pooch's arse, and when the airport dogs are sniffing around said area suspiciously, the security wardens will simply presume a canine attraction. No one ever asks a dog if they packed their own bag or if they're bringing any illegal weapons or substances. They'll be waved right through security - unless, of course, you happen to be a particularly suspicious-looking dog, wearing sunglasses and sweating profusely.

Hedonistic nightlife and mad parties, perhaps it's no coincidence Berlin's airports are frequented by so many dogs.