Archive for July, 2010

Travel

I had no idea I was related to so many Dutch people. We have just completed a ten-day family odyssey through Holland and, important and illuminating as it was, Mum and I are exhausted. Discovering ones roots can really take it out of you. I have been about as polite as I can for as long as I can and I haven’t been drunk with people my own age for far too long. Mum has repeated the same stories and explanations so many times she’s forgetting the words.

Friday night, though, and we fly to Barcelona. Friday and we can relax, have our own space, talk without thinking about who’s listening. Spain, Catalonia – a beautiful place we hear, with ocean and sun, hot like home with brilliant food and sangria and the bronzed, attractive peoples of the Mediterranean. “Uh – Barcelona!” people say when I tell them I’m going there. “Now there’s a city.”

Our plane lands just shy of midnight and we take a bus into the city and lug our bags to our hostal, which is like a hostel, only for grown-ups. The streets are drunken and celebratory and I immediately sense a menace to night-time Barcelona and know that, unlike Prague or Vienna or Budapest, or even Berlin to a certain extent, this is not a place I should walk around alone at night. Checked in but hungry, we find a kebab restaurant around the corner and sit upstairs, eating drunk food stone sober among the Friday night revellers.

In the morning we discover how far we are away from everything and use the hostal’s puttering wireless to look up something closer. I haven’t seen the ocean in five very long landlocked months and that’s most of what I can think about. We start walking. We walk and walk through the heat and get frustrated with our ridiculous map and Barcelona’s confusing street plan. I get a glimpse of the harbour.

The new place is as small as the last, and its idea of heat repellent is one small, badly positioned revolving fan, but the guy at the desk is nice and at least we’re central. Mum naps while I go in search of the sea. Mapless, I walk and I walk and I walk, find the harbour again, follow it in the wrong direction to see where it will end. Eventually, I find a great big bridge leading to a breakwater and there it is – that long, unbroken, perfect blue horizon and I am calm in a way that only the sea and writing can make me.

The next day we move again. Mum feels bad. She wants to stay in a place where I can hang out with people who aren’t my mother. We pay too much for a twin double in a youth-hostel but it’s huge and air-conditioned and has a hotplate (though no pots), so at least now we have a place to cool down and spread out a bit. Unfortunately, the hostel itself one of those meat-market, planned activity, pub-crawl kind of places, and besides, I don’t really have the energy to go through the whole meeting randoms process anyway.

Five months away from home and I am exhausted in a way that has nothing to do with physical exertion and everything to do with the lack of it. Travel is hard. Not because of the constant movement or the living out a duffle-bag – I’m good at these things. I can survive easily on three t-shirts and a pair of jeans, a few toiletries and my label-maker, and I sleep on moving buses better than I do in my own bed. No, what I am exhausted by is the lack of purpose.

Once the novelty of foreign places and no responsibility and beautiful freedom wear off, you’re left with just that – no ties in a foreign place. Freedom is hard – much harder than captivity. More than anything else, I crave work. I crave routine, doing something that is contributing to something else, physical activity that isn’t just aimless, exploratory walking.

Travel can be broken down into the acquisition of necessities – food, shelter, internet – followed by basic exploration. It is waiting and making bookings and spending money and looking out the window. It is (furtive, hidden glances at) maps and tour brochures and maybe some rudimentary history. It is beer in different currencies, streets you can’t pronounce the names of, figuring out how to work ticket machines in metro stations, your toothbrush on someone else’s sink.

Barcelona in July, as Mum and I soon discover, is hot and way overpriced and full of tourists. It is a big, dirty city. The Beaches are so crowded it’s hard to find a patch of sand big enough for your towel, the water is human soup. Swim a little ways out and it’s better though, and I live by the doctrine that a swim in the ocean makes the whole world better, but even so, Barcelona in July is not at all what we had hoped for.

Mind you, I’m sure it’s a very different place in a different season, or if you’ve got the money for it, or when you’re not travelling with you mother, or your insanely restless and travel-weary daughter.

We think about going somewhere else, a little town outside Barcelona maybe, but the thought of walking through all those degrees of heat to wait in line at a tourist bureau, then figuring out a way of getting there and accommodation and then getting back – it’s all just too hard.

So we stay and enjoy ourselves whether we like it or not. I swim out beyond the band-aid rafts and small children, Mum people-watches from the beach. We sit and talk and drink sangria anyway. We walk for ever and ever through the streets, we stand outside the things Gaudi made (look at the hour-long lines and double-figure Euro entry fees, decide to just enjoy the exteriors and go into the tourist shops to look at pictures of the inside), we eat too much icecream.

I think about home. I don’t miss home, I decide. I miss the ease of home. I miss being able to land in a city, look for a sharehouse in my own language, find a job without having to worry about a visa. Going home would be so easy. I could go to Brisbane, move in with friends, get a bar-tending job somewhere, some publishing or even writing work. I would be a functioning part of society again. I could go to Woodford at the end of the year, do set-up. I even have a return plan in that job I have in the Arctic in June. So it wouldn’t really be giving up. I would come back. It would just be a postponement – time-out, a quick rest.

On the morning Mum leaves, I wake up wishing I had made more of an effort to be a better travel buddy. I fly to Prague for a few days to meet my brother and then take a bus to Berlin, where I plan to live until my job starts next June. A part of me is still thinking very seriously about home, but it has a strong adversary in the determination that has allowed me to achieve everything I have so far, and which is insisting that I man the fuck up and at least give it a go.

I have about 10 hours to kill before the girl whose place I was supposed to be staying at returns home from London, so put my stuff in a locker at Alexanderplatz station and wander around the city. I take the underground to Kreutzberg and find a cafe with wireless, play around on the net trying to find a place to live. Then I buy myself a beer from a corner store and lie around in a park reading for a while.

After a while, a group of kids walk by, all around my age, and speaking English. From the snatches of conversation I catch, I can tell they live here. I hesitate for a minute, then get up, walk over, and ask them what it is like living in Berlin. How easy is it to get jobs? Is there cash-in-hand work or do I needed a visa? They aren’t very optimistic.

“I play music on the streets for money,” one of them says. I’ve heard that Berlin has a 40% unemployment rate, so I’m not all that surprised.

“Are you hungry?” one of them asks suddenly.

“Uh, yeah,” I say. “I’m pretty hungry.”

“They’re putting on a dinner at this place around the corner at 8 if you want to join. Vegan potato salad. Only a euro-fifty, but if you say you have no money they’ll probably give it to you for free.”

“I reckon I can spare a euro-fifty.”

They give me directions and a couple hours later, at 8pm, I follow them to the courtyard of this massive, dilapidated apartment building. Someone later explains to me that it is what is known as a housing project, which is like a squat only they’ve worked out an agreement with the owner. The place is covered from head to foot with graffiti and people sit around on sofas or cross-legged on the ground, eating, drinking and talking. I get myself some food and find the group I had met in the park. They are different from the sort of people people I am used to hanging out with but they are friendly and interesting and easy to talk to. The food is magnificent. To my left a couple of heavily tattooed German guys play a violent game of ping-pong. Dogs wrestle on the concrete, music plays from somewhere and people talk and laugh openly. A girl tells me about an open bike-building workshop on Fridays. Someone else starts talking about the gigs all over the place.

I could live here, I think to myself. Yeah – I could live here. Easy.

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Mate

Appologies for the long silence, though I don’t have much of an excuse beyond too much travel and not enough motivation.

Here’s something I wrote a few months ago and just went back to and polished up now. More (new) stuff soon. Promise.

* * *

It’s not too late, maybe midnight, closing in on 1am, and even though it’s a Friday night,  the night tram heading in the direction of Vršovice  – which is the direction of the suburbs and home, rather than the next pub – isn’t too full. In a couple of hours, it will be packed with passengers either half-asleep or singing. Those who don’t make the seats will be dangling from the straps and swaying with both tram movement and booze. After 3am the night trams are Prague’s refugee camps. Strangers are jammed into other strangers’  personal space, all with the air of communal understanding that comes from a common affliction and a common goal – a whole shuddering, jerking vehicle jammed to the rafters with people just trying to beat the sunrise home.

But at 1am I get a seat easily, and only one or two people have fallen asleep, and everyone’s being pretty civilised. The off-key tone sounds to announce the stop, then the familiar female recording: “Ruská. Příští zastávka: Vršovické Náměstí.” I slip my book back into my bag and get off. Several others get off with me – maybe five or six – and we all start in roughly the same direction down Kodaňská street, towards our flats and beds.

Two fairly drunk guys jostle each other to the left of me. They are speaking something that I don’t recognise as Czech, though they’re not saying much – mainly communicating in a series of grunts that could be any language. It’s cold, and I’m wearing a beanie with this kind of bobble thing on top of it. The bobble must have a similar effect on one of the two that a cat toy has on a cat, because he decides to make a lunge for it. I pull back and shoot him a dirty look.

It’s a look that is supposed to be as preventative as it is withering. With it, I am intending to communicate something along the lines of, “Really? You’re trying to pull my hat off? What is this – primary school? What are you – six years old? You’ve lost a great deal of dignity with that move, and certainly my respect, but the best strategy from here would be to quit while you’re only a little bit behind, forget that it ever happened (which includes forgetting me as well), and go back to jostling and grunting with your friend over there.”

But I guess through the blur of streetlight and alcohol, he instead reads, “Oi! Ya wanna fuckin’ go mate?” – or whatever his cultural equivalent. So he makes another lunge at the bobble. Althogther, the two lunges form a swinging movement. An initial lunge, a falling back towards his friend and then a pendulum swing back towards me and my beanie. I dodge him again, and then, as a reflex, without thinking: “Fuck off mate.”

And with that, I engage. With that, all the childhood lessons of a younger brother vanish. I am back on any one of innumerable long car trips, reacting to subtle, parent-proof provocations with squirms and a stream of “Stop it! Stop doing that! Mum – Mum, Eamon’s being annoying!” instead of the much more effective ignoring tactic, while he giggles and giggles and giggles.

And Mum’s terse reply of, “Doesn’t sound like my problem,” is the three or four other people who got off the tram with us disappearing into side streets, until it’s just me, an empty 1am, and two guys drunk enough to be lunging at a bobble on a stranger’s beanie. Who I have now just told to fuck off. Mate. Who I’ve just told to fuck off mate.

“Why you say this word?” I must have been right about the language – their accent doesn’t sound Czech either. “I do not like this word – ‘fuck off’. Why you say this to me?” He’s from somewhere else, I think – probably one of the many booze tourists who come to Prague to take advantage of the $2 beers and herna bars and the many other darker traditions this city keeps.

“Hey! Hey! Why you say this word?”

I mumble something lame back, something about leaving me alone maybe, in a tone that betrays my anger, probably some of my fear too, and keep walking towards my flat. The last of the other people from the tram swerves up Estonská Street and we three are left alone.

“What about: Fuck of bitch!” He yells after me. “To make it the same, huh? Fuck off bitch!”

I fumble with my Mp3 player. I just want to get something loud in my ears to block them out. Maybe if they see I can’t hear them, they’ll leave me be. But they’re following me, I can tell, and I realise that by blocking my ears I’m blocking a fairly important defence, so I pull my headphones out again and rest them on my shoulders.

“You should not say this word – fuck off.”

Strangely, I am not all that scared. I’m more angry, I think, and there’s another emotion that must be my female ration of testosterone rising up in blind, combative defence. Pride, probably. Most of me, though, is engaged in the concentrated focus of obliterating, as quickly as possible, the distance that separates me from the space behind the lockable door of the lobby in my block of flats.

I turn left into Finská and hope they don’t follow.

“We are coming after you mate. We know everything about you. We know where you live.”

The last sentence is such a perfect imitation of that timeless Hollywood phrase, and it is followed by a sloppy bout of laughter. In my pocket, I have moved my sharpest key into position between my right middle and pointer fingers, with the rest of the chain gripped in my fist as a handle. I turn into Bulharská and up my pace.

There is impact of something wet against concrete beside me. It sounds like an egg or an orange or something like that. There are excited cries of protest but I can’t tell what they are saying because I bolt, I stop this walking pretence of calm and fucking bolt – up and around the corner to Mexická and my door, which I shove my key into, slip behind and double lock behind me.

Upstairs in my flat, I switch my light on and dump my bag, pull my jacket off and leave it on the floor. I go and open the window to see if I can still hear them. Realise they would know which flat is mine by the light. Go turn the light off. Pace over to my window. Lean out.

I can’t tell if they followed me around the corner to Mexická but everything is silent outside. As it should be in Vršovice at night. As it has been on the countless occasions I have walked home alone at much later hours. Walked home through this suburb, my suburb. My safe, uneventful, inoffensive suburb.