Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Trabitrip Poland

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


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

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Fleeting return

Since I got I back I haven’t really landed. I’m still in observation mode, floating above it all, taking it all in without being seen. I’m invisible, here but not here, just watching, hesitating before I plunge back in.
Days with the young fella have been brilliant, my only reality. We went to Mauerpark on Sunday, kicked a ball around, drank a beer, et an ice cream, watched a grown man walk past stark bollock naked, listened to South American music, kicked the ball around some more, and then I had to bring him home because his face was literally black with muck. Not that anyone gives a damn what you look like or if you go around naked.
We went to the Späti for the football final after he washed his face. I was delighted Germany failed to make it as it meant I had a whole day off, and the young fella was delighted Portugal won. He had his carton of milk and kept refilling his glass as if it were a bottle of whiskey. There were some Portugal fans in front of us and he was hi-fiving them all.
On Saturday I said “bonjour” at another Späti, got a funny look. There was a disconnected concert, Beirut, followed by deep philosophical discussions once the sun went down, the kind you can only have behind the sun’s back when the mind is free. Or when it thinks it’s free. It’s never free.
Euro 2016 ended on a sour note for Germany, not that any of the German journalists were complaining after a month of press conferences. France won 2-0 in Marseille and suddenly Germany were out, not welcome anymore, everyone left to make hurried plans to get home. Everyone said their goodbyes and scattered away. I got a flight the next morning, via Brussels, before finally landing in Tegel, the best airport in the world, Friday evening.
The Syrian family were gone by the time I got home but they’re still looking for a place. Now they shuffle from one temporary abode to another. I think they’ll be looking for a while. I hope they find something before they give up.
There was a Kita party yesterday. Some kids are leaving and starting school so emotions were running high. If it’s not football it’s something else. People were forced to sing. But there was food and it was free so I et as much as I could like a proper journalist. I tried not talking to anyone but a few people found me despite me being invisible and forced me to converse. A father of some kids I’d never seen before was actually very nice, I was happy he tried talking to me. But the rest of them! Jaysus, I hope I’m not like any of them. I’m not sure if it’s German parents I have an aversion to or all of them. Probably all of them.
Tomorrow I go back to France, to Nice for Sonia’s wedding. Sonia’s the last person I ever thought would get married so I look forward to seeing why I was wrong. I haven’t really landed and I’m taking off again.

UPDATE: Tuesday, August 9, 2016 – Only updated with photos now. The hurling ones and the one of the young fella looking at the juggler in Mauerpark (he looked at him like that for 45 minutes) were taken after I got back from Nice.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Endspurt: Last evenings at Euro 2016

It’s four weeks exactly since I arrived in France. They’ve gone in a slow blur, a long flash, a bewildering array of trains, planes, hired cars, and various cities punctuated by football games. I don’t know where the hell I am anymore.
Well, I do. It’s the last night in Évian-les-Bains. Tomorrow we go to Marseille for the semifinal after Germany’s last training session here. Then there’s the pre-match presser before the day of the match itself.
Match days are the easiest because all the previews are done and it’s time for the real business of the match itself. Easy, because you just write about events unfolding before your eyes. Easy, though it can get late – 3.30am before I finished after Germany-Italy went to penalties in Bordeaux on Saturday.
I had my first Feierabend beer afterward – I went 26 days without touching a drop! – and the second followed shortly after that. I haven’t had any since. I amaze myself sometimes.
I know I said I’d update the previous post with pictures but I’ve just needed to switch off. I’ll update it, and this, soon enough.
I’ve been running like a lunatic, training like mad, in between the traveling. It’s a good way to see the place. I’ve been running around Lac Léman here, swimming in it too – it’s glorious! – and running in Paris, Lille and Bordeaux.
You know what I think of Paris, I love it, and two subsequent trips there didn’t change my mind. There wasn’t much time for sightseeing on either occasion but I got lost in a bookshop and bought a book by Haruki Murakami that I’m enjoying a lot. Someone had recommended him to me but it was only after I bought the book I remembered, or that I realized I remembered. I also went for a wander through the cemetery in Montmartre, said hello to the unhabitants.
I really liked Bordeaux too. It’s full of old crumbling buildings, worn out, disheveled, with lots of rubbish on the streets awaiting collection because the bin men were on strike. The day France stops going on strike is the day France stops being France.
I had a car in Bordeaux, a Fiat 500 convertible, so we let the roof down and drove to one of most magnificent beaches I’ve seen. It was great, swimming, getting battered by the Atlantic, then recovering on the sand. I got sunburnt on my stomach. The rest of me is fine. Guess I need to go topless more often.
The previous week I was in Annecy for the Iceland team again. Annecy is enchanting with the Alps as a backdrop, its azure lake just inviting you to dream, to forget everything, especially football, and lose yourself in the beauty of it all. I did that for an hour before I’d to return to Évian again, itself not too shabby either.
But I don’t belong here, this place isn’t me. Nowhere do you see graffiti with “Refugees Welcome” or any graffiti of any kind, there are no Spätis, the people are filthy rich, privileged, yacht club types with more money than appreciation for the things that matter.
The cities are better, there are real people there, friendly people, kind people. After getting back to my Bordeaux hotel late one night and asking the guy in reception if there was any food – I was hungry – he gave me half his lunch, a chicken salad, bread, and a peach for dessert. I told him no, it was alright, but he insisted I take it.
It wasn’t the only act of kindness I’ve encountered. Today I wandered into a bar in Évian for a coffee and a drunken nutbag apprehended me at the bar. He was pretty intimidating but I answered him and played along. He was roaring and shouting and banging the bell. The barman said he was mad. But when I was leaving the nutbag insisted on paying for my coffee and wished me all the best. I wished them all the best too.
It won’t be long now till I’m home, back in my familiar bubble, and I’ll be able to see the young fella again. I’ve missed him a lot and I know it’ll be weird when we do meet, but I don’t care. We’ll have a party. I can’t wait.
First there’s Marseille, where most of the German journalists are hoping Germany lose so they can go home too. Four weeks is a long time.

UPDATE: Tuesday, August 9, 2016 – Finally updated with more photos, including some from lovely Avignon on the drive down to Marseille. The picture file names will tell you where they were taken.