Saturday, December 26, 2015

Noël: Plus ça change

Christmas has come and gone. The relief! First world problems, I know, but as I type the house has no water. The pump broke, the spring quit or the well ran dry despite all the floods. It’s been raining all day, all ever. I have to pee in the garden because we can’t flush the toilets. It’s OK, the driving rain is only mildly uncomfortable and the gale force winds tussle my hair playfully and make me feel at one with nature. I look up and the branches dance above my head, creaking and groaning through the roaring, the gushing wind. I have to be careful which direction I pee in, but the wind’s blowing in every direction. I squelch through the muck on my way back, trip over a rusty wheelbarrow, down an embankment overgrown by thorny brambles, try to avoid being decapitated.
So far this festive season I fixed a flapping window in a storm, been electrocuted by vintage Christmas tree lights, and balanced a ladder on a slippy roof with a brick to sweep the chimney in the rain. The goddamn rain. It was worth it. We had a fire afterward, unlike the night before, spent shivering in bed despite wearing a hat and jumper. My sister told me she had to wear her coat to bed. A fucking coat! It’s a big heavy coat too. She was shivering anyway.
I’ve just fixed the TV, literally, in between typing. The loud constant buzzing was driving me insane, I don’t know how it hasn’t driven my family insane. Maybe it has.
These are but trivial issues, I know, compared to what others are going through. We had food, drink, presents, a tree, even if it’s a fake one. Maybe it’s apt for Christmas to have a fake one. We had a row over the meaning of Christmas even as we tried celebrate what we were arguing over during the so-called Christmas dinner. Spuds, turkey and wine are real, at least we could agree on that. That’s all that matters.
Noddy isn’t here this year, leaving me and Sully to pick up the pieces. Whitechurch sure is quieter these days. We called next door and it was almost like old times, the young fella playing cards instead of Noddy at the table. This is his third Christmas in Whitechurch. He’s bigger now; it’s his first Christmas playing cards.
Whiskey, beer, a gun – he was offered everything but cocaine and he turned everything down but the gun, which he shot with frightening precision at the door before revealing himself as a card shark. Another Christmas has come and gone. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Monday, December 14, 2015

So much to be done

Just 204 refugees arrived this morning, none yesterday and 16 on Saturday. Numbers are dropping off, either because of the deteriorating weather or tightening borders, probably both.
Again most of them had clothes this time, though some were still needed. One baby just had socks, no shoes, and many of the refugees were coughing painful sounding coughs.
There was a lot more stuff for them today than Friday. New toys and teddies were delivered over the weekend and there was a greater selection of grub for them too, including muesli bars, fruit, cakes and the cream cheese sandwiches that we made again. They were laughing at my efforts to say jibneh or jibin for cheese, the only Arabic word I know, or don’t as it turns out.
They were all exhausted. It’s a long nine-hour overnight train trip from Freilassing on the Austrian border and of course they had all been traveling much longer.
One guy I was talking to came across the sea into Greece, then up into Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and so on. He was on his way to Finland. His companion was on his way to Switzerland. “You know that’s the other way?” I told him but he just smiled so I assume they knew what they were doing.
Then your man asked me which was better to get to, Finland or Switzerland, and I’d no answer for them, I didn’t know. I’m going to have to find out. (Not that I’d encourage anyone to do anything verboten!) But I guess it just shows they’re just following their noses, away from danger, anywhere toward promise.
Some of the kids looked shocked or traumatized. I’m no expert; maybe they were just tired, but they sure as hell didn’t look right.
A woman from Iraq was traveling with three kids, one with some sort of disability. He was a bit of a handful, kept running away, and the poor woman was at the end of her tether. He wanted a hug so I hugged him and then he ran away again.
“I could control him at home but not here, not since we started the journey,” the woman said. She was trying to reach her husband who’s been in Germany since April so we rang him and told him where the family was being taken. “I’ll be there in an hour,” he said.
Speak of the divil, he just rang me. He’s at the camp and can’t find them. I’m on the train back from Schönefeld so there’s not much I can do – unless I go on to Olympiapark where he is. Damn, I hope there’s a happy ending. I just texted him so if he needs me he’ll call again.
I made a few kids smile with teddies, a few adults smile with clothes and food, but still it’s not enough. It’s never enough. There’s so much to be done.

UPDATE – Three hours later. The Iraqi father rang me back. He managed to pick up his family! So they’re all very happy naturally enough. And so am I! A happy outcome!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Train of Uncertainty

Every morning around 8 a.m. a trainload of refugees arrives at Schönefeld. Some days there are more than others. This morning it was “only” 300, slightly more men than women and plenty of kids including babies.
Apparently it was an easy day because there are usually more arrivals – up to 700 or so – and most of this lot had clothes and shoes on. Other days they don’t and they arrive in terrible condition because they’d been sleeping eating and traipsing for days on end through bastard weather.
Knowing this, I couldn’t complain when I got up at 5.30 to help them. Myself and a saint on a personal mission to make the world a better place got there around 7 and started making sandwiches. They weren’t the kind of sandwiches I’d like to have eaten – pita bread with a glut of cream cheese in the middle – but we made them anyway and they were et by the refugees when they arrived an hour later.
Many were from Afghanistan, who apparently prefer the sandwiches with jam, and I guess most of the rest were from Syria and Iraq. Hellholes wherever they came from to go through what they’re going through. Some had Red Cross bags from being rescued at sea. The overnight train they were on was just the latest leg of their journeys.
The “welcome committee” was made of us volunteers, soldiers, police, fire services, medical services, train officials and representatives of LaGeSo, where all refugees try to have their applications processed only to discover the tortuous square wheels of German bureaucracy. Some of the arrivals were taken straight to hospital so they were evidently in worse condition than the others. There were weary faces, wary faces, kind faces, curious faces, friendly faces, worried faces, fascinating faces.
They were shouted at by LaGeSo people to get into various lines, one for the single men, who generally didn’t have any luggage, and another for the families with kids, which did. A nappy changing table is provided for those with babies whose nappies needed changing. We handed out the sandwiches and fruit and water and tissues and whatever the hell they wanted, anything as long as we had it. One of the girls gave out scarves and some of the kids helped themselves to teddies. There’s a storeroom out the back full of shit except underwear that people have given away, most of it in size don’t fit.
We turned our phones into personal hotspots so they could use our wifi to call relatives, check they’re still alive, confirm that they were. It was the first opportunity to do so for many of them. My phone could only take five callers at a time but still the month’s allocation of data didn’t last long.
The people were so grateful for everything. We weren’t shouting at them or beating them for a start. One woman came up to us and said, “You are all such nice people, thank you with all my heart.” The kids drew pictures and played. All wanted to blow soap bubbles but there were only so many bubbles to go around. Didn’t matter, they were grateful for every little lollipop and they showed it with smiles that would melt stone. The adults were gracious too. We wished them the best with their onward journeys, shook hands and said farewell before they boarded the buses waiting to take them away to uncertainty.
They’re gone now and we did nothing. Tomorrow the same thing will happen all over again.

This should be a happy, optimistic post – the train is called “Train of Hope” – but I’m tired, frustrated and pissed off. The only ones who can end all this misery are contributing more bombs and more suffering, fucking everything up even further. I took the picture on my way home. It seemed kind of apt.

For more on the “Train of Hope” and refugees in Berlin this a great read: http://berlinerdiary.com/

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Running for Syria: It's on

Since announcing my marathon task I’ve run 102 kilometers. Not at the same time obviously, I'm not crazy. Today my name was drawn for a place in the Berlin Marathon, it’s happening! I just have to coax my boss to delay or come out of retirement to cover it so I can run it.
I’ve been running 13K runs at an average speed of 13km/h, so I’ll need to step it up a bit if I’m going to win the damn thing. I’ll run it but I probably won’t win it.
Starting is the worst and my calves have grown into cows. The pain was bad in the beginning. I had to wait days between runs. Now it’s OK. I ran 13K yesterday and the same today. I feel I could do it again tomorrow. Actually no, my cows are still mooing.
Some days are better than others, usually the days after nights I don’t spend boozing in smoky pubs. Berlin’s nightlife is good for the soul, bad for everything else.
I’ve decided everything I raise is going toward Syria, everything. I’m going to make my own proper donation to Sergio Castro in Chiapas whenever I get paid for the book. Hopefully soon. It’s a personal thing. And people are aware of what’s happening in Syria, or at least I hope they are.
So please donate something, anything, if you can. If you can’t (I know what it’s like), please share this post with your rich friends. Better again, share it with your rich enemies. I don’t mind. I will thank everyone after I’ve run the thing and detail exactly where the money has gone.
The donate button is below or the IBAN is DE09500105175554452542 (BIC: INGDDEFFXXX). All donations gratefully received!



Heavyweight history

I was privy to a bit of heavyweight history on Saturday night as the Irish-blooded Tyson Fury reduced the great Wladimir Klitschko to the status of a mere man in Düsseldorf. Despite being told repeatedly what to expect in the build-up, Klitschko seemed as surprised as anyone else that it was happening. He looked bewildered, out of depth, humbled. It was fascinating to watch.
Fury is a bit of a lunatic but he’s an entertaining lunatic and good for the sport. It’s always nice when the underdog wins, though I suppose he’s the overdog now and all the other dogs will be snapping at his heels.
I didn’t see much of Düsseldorf on the latest foreign assignment. There was too much work: football games, football stories, football folly, Olympic referendums, bobsled races and skeleton races, as well as the boxing.
I had to go to Essen for the weigh-in and I didn’t see much of that place either. Certainly not why they called it Essen – there wasn’t even a sandwich to be had at the weigh-in.
Düsseldorf had been taken over by groups wearing Santa hats and reindeer antlers and the guy where I got my breakfast wished me a happy Christmas. I’d have told him it was 27 days away if I had known how many away it was – too many to know, that’s for sure.
The taxi driver after the fight said lots of Dutch and Belgians come to Düsseldorf for the Christmas markets because they’ve none at home. So they go mad on the Santa hats and antlers, even in November, and the Düsseldorfers are only too happy to cash in.
They’ve plenty of money, the Düsseldorfers. There were only fancy cars to be seen, no Trabis, and I only spotted one Späti, a “Trinkhalle” as it was called. I guess the locals have money to burn in pubs. Unfortunately I didn’t get to sample any of them, or even the Späti. By the time I was finished I was knocked out.

Thursday preview: http://www.bigstory.ap.org/article/775f0fce79644af79ce0367f73bb3f02/klitschko-out-silence-fury-prolong-heavyweight-reign
Friday weigh-in: http://www.bigstory.ap.org/article/5bf403d968c5431b8081927252ab71a5/fury-slightly-heavier-klitschko-ahead-bout
Saturday pre-fight: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/e53a5171313d4404968fdd7caaa75800/fury-could-pull-out-klitschko-fight-due-state-ring
Saturday fight: http://www.bigstory.ap.org/article/53a9a47125e74d3686522cb6d8b0c580/tyson-fury-ends-wladimir-klitschkos-heavyweight-reign
Sunday post-fight: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/1445e8228be741e093c4ff71e87d86e9/after-beating-klitschko-fury-wants-be-great-champion