Monday, 15 December 2008

Man pulls funny faces; 24 years later another man is impressed

So if you're all very good this will be the last post I make about Talk Talk... BUT ANYWAY... I'd been doing a wee trawl through their synthpop stuff (pretty trite and cheesy compared to what came later, but still pisses over entire New Romantic movement... god Spandau fucking Ballet fuck me off, like, I get most 80s hits, but 'Gold' is terrible, like the theme from Record Breakers crossed with a wank) and I honestly don't think I've ever heard of the song 'Such A Shame' or, to the point, it's attendant video. WELL HERE IT IS, fresh off some weird German 80s internet channel:


No matter what you think of the song (I like it, definitely their best early track, uses synthetic sound for legitimate musical effect, rather than novelty/drama/because they couldn't afford real instruments), but I think this video is amazing.

Like, I'm a total sucker for over-stylised movement, but it's like he doesn't have any control of his face at all... I could come up with some sort of theory about what it all means and not even really believe it myself, but I'd rather leave it thinking it's sort of non-judgementally highlighting the grotesquery inherent in performance, but not directly making an actual statement. Think Talk Talk were too classy to be mocking the concept of music videos/lip-synching in general, but this must have shitted up yer average 1984 MTV fan. Either that or it's just about LOL-ing at the man with the funny face.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

My new girlfriend

Yeah, so I think I've finally met the girl of my dreams, she's really beautiful and well adjus- ah ha! Got you. Of course my life continues to be an empty, loveless shell, the booze and the tears locked in nightly combat over which - if either - will be the one to finally send me drifting off into a fitful void. Ha, you believed me - joke's on you, sucka. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahakillmenowhahahahahahahahahaha.
Erm, but anyway, below is a picture of Vanessa Redgrave, my awesome new combination record player/cassette player/CD player wot I bought off ebay. With her cherrywood body and dignified retro look, I decided she needed a name that evoked both redness and dignity and who is more red or dignified than Vanessa Redgrave? Nobody. Not sure I've ever seen the actual VR act in anything, but I think I get the point. And besides such matters are irrelevant - just yesterday evening me and my good friend Andy Field spend a good 15 minutes debating the pros and cons of Daniel Day Lewis as an actor, before both sheepishly admitting that the only film of his either of us had seen was Gangs Of New York. And it was probably the greatest most intelligent discussion ever, so there.


















Obviously if this blog had any sense of dignity I'd have ended with there, a simple way of sharing with you - my loyal, but dispersed readership - the joy that is my new toy. This blog has no dignity.
So the thing is I really fucking hate anybody who claims to be non-materialistic as if it was a virtue.
Frogs are non-materialistic.
Materialism is awesome.
And I'm obviously materialistic: I have a medium-large music collection and a laptop computer, both of which I'd have a stab at saving were a fire to trouble the leafy grandeur of Sefton Park Road. But it occurred to me that prior to purchasing Vanessa Redgrave, I didn't, y'know, particularly like anything I own. Not that I dislike any of it, just that there's no emotional investment; if somebody smashed my laptop up with a hammer, I'd just be quite irritated and buy a new one. I'd be annoyed if somebody threw all my clothes into a vat of acid, but not, y'know, devastated. Even my oft-stated love of Converse is basically laziness more than anything. If I loved them I wouldn't just buy a pair, wear them 'til they fall apart, and then buy another pair, I'd be building up a collection, limited editions, all that gubbins.
Anyway, I don't really know if this means I'm a sociopath, a hippie, a lumbering philistine who simply lacks the refinement required to appreciate the finer things in life, or a chimeric combination of all three.
What I do know is that I probably haven't been as pleased with an object I own as I am with Vanessa Redgrave since maybe an original Breakfast Club poster that I bought in Vegas eight years ago. Don't even know where that is now.
Anyway, blah blah blah, I'm sure I channel my materialism in other ways.
However, the acquisition of a record player that isn't the dilapidated monster in residence at Lukowski HQ: Birmingham has surely given me an inlet into becoming a vinyl junkie, and thus a route back to my discarded humanity. Limited editions, better sound quality... yeah maaaaaaaan.
So I played the various promotional 7-inches I've accumulated over the years. That was okay. The vinyl-only Organ and Fuck Buttons songs I'd been nursing for some time were a bit rubbish, but then again, I suspected they might be.
Then I went on a £5.50 spree on secondhand David Bowie vinyl (Young Americans, Low, Let's Dance, fyi). I was excited for the warmer sound quality. I probably haven't even heard real sound in years. I've just been emptily stumbling through life thinking I could hear music when really it was no more musical than a car screeching, a tramp vomiting. Sounded EXACTLY the same. Maybe Let's Dance was a bit better. Maybe. Probably not.
Then I put on my copy of In Rainbows, which comes on two LPs. Sounds fucking incredible. Genuinely, jaw-droppingly enhances it in a way that no digital remaster I've ever bought has ever done.
So I'm going to become a collector of double vinyl LPs of single albums. It's a small step, but I'm going to become a niche materialist at precisely the point capitalist society falls apart. Fuck you, the fall of capitalist society. I can hear some extra bleepy noises on a Radiohead album.
Customary concluding vid: as I've alluded, Let The Bells Ring by The Organ is basically a slightly meh early Smiths soundalike. However, it's collected on Thieves, an EP of their unreleased work that comes out Oct 13, and at least three of the tracks on it are so good they make me quite angry at the silly broads for massively, massively hating each other. Here are two of said tracks (plus a snippet of Love Love Love, odd editing, innit).

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Bestival via the texts of others; or, a bold and brilliant excercise in avoiding having any more original thoughts on the matter

FRIDAY

LH: Oh my god! Severe weather warning was true! Eek!
LH: Not really i'm actually stuck in my tent and i may blow away! And i'm not even drunk!
MP: Jesus. Your hot sauce is a lot more 'respectable' on the way out than the way in.
LH: Ok i'm on the new number now! Have a good journey over! My wellies have a hole in them boo!see ya later lucy x
RM: Hey dis bros its richard. I am so fkn glad i brought wellies!
RM: Hey mick, this is richard, andrzej said i should check with you where yr camping so i could try to get a spot near by, where is yr tipi located?
MN: Course it's cool. It's fucking wet and reports of mud swamps are widespread. But we're British. Fuck the weather. In the bum. Laters xxx
RM: Oops! Silly me sorry
MP: Got us pirate shit from toyshop on the G road. Mick texted&said it's minging
LM: By the way I'm coming. Xx
MP: Guh, Mick txted to say they've gone 'right to the back of Black'..that's,like,as far from the stage as you can get,and Black is 'quiet camping'..stick with em?
KP: Andrzej you cant! Are we allowed to take glass bottles to the camping area or am i on the cider? Please no! It sends me crazy!
KP: Don't let me near the mdma! I've sworn off drugs at the mo and mdma is the worst. Are you there yet?
KP: Na i'm nearly there now. Gimme a shout when you get there x
LM: Red zone next to Bagel Dude is our camp apparently. X x
MP: Yeah I got that too - that's pretty much as far from the main arena as Mick et al,just in the zone opposite..what to do,y'think? Also,the weather here is ok at mo.
MP: Erk,dunno,Mick just said she'll meet me when i arrive,so it sounds like she has made effort frankly..ain't gonna be far to Laura,think maybe we should be nice.
MP: Also,dont fret but if you can get to a cash point in S'oton,a short-term £20 loan to me would be good..realised i'll be down to £50ish after charity non-LOLZ.
MP: WOO FERRY ROFL. This sure ain't no Bothnian Sea playa cruise (not even a toilet LOL)..but holy cow, it goes like shit off a shovel. Speeding vessels ftw.
MP: Also,it takes 25min despite the alarming speed,&the sea is like a violent bogey-green/grey soup. I'm starting to realise what an AWFUL idea swimming would be.
NN: Whoo hoo! Mud's the new black. X
MP: Don't worry about the cash mate,there's a bank machine here on the island.
MP: Ya there's what seems to be a fairly minimal shuttle service running in a loop from outside the Co-Op,which is 3min from station up the hill.OHGODTHERAINCAME.
LH: I spoke too soon about the rain being gone! Boo! See ya later x
MP: Dude,you're gonna have to decant the whiskey or hide it very well - booze is fine but glass a no-no. There's a shop selling water etc when you get off the ferry.
KP: Hey i'm here but totally lost cos networks are all busy so i can't get hold of anyone to dump my stuff in their tent. If i don't ring you before i'll be waiting in the bit nex to the entrance with all the picnic benches & umbrellas ok? X
MW: Hey Andrzej, you coming to this Bestival thing? It's wet. I have combated this by taking nuff drugs.
KP: Ok i'm under a white umbrella near the cafe by the entrance to the festival. X
IHBM: Erm. I think you've got the wrong number.
MW: I'm watching Mary Anne Hobbs in the red bull speakeasy. S'good.
MJ: Nightmare mate. I can't drag the band through the rain. Come to the green room backstage, near artist liason.
LH: Oh yuck just had to buy new wellies! Give me a shout when your done we'll go for a drink and a dance!x
LM: Where will you be for mbv? X
TC: Sorry bad reception! My friends have my bad and are leaving, I might need to get them to drop my bag off with you, is that ok?
MJ: I'm sure that'll be cool. Do it through nileon if you don't mind. Cheers mate
MJ: God i've had enough of this!
LM: Where are you? Look for a clear dome umbrella with pink edge. Xx
LH: Hey where are you?
TC: I'm here, where shall I meet you?
TC: I'm on my own! Call or text when you can x
LH: Big top css next come along woo
SH: Hi- are you here yet / is there room in yr tipi? X
TC: Am in the tent for CSS, at the pillar at the back on th right facing the stage, where are you?
SH: We just got here n watching css so will meet u by the stars after the set
LH: We're right next to the pole
LH: Bottom end standing on some box thing!
LH: Where are you?

SATURDAY

LH: We're in skid row what's your plans for the day?
NN: Bit lost - on me way!
NN: There now! x
LH: Hello!i'm at the bandstand and going to watch think!what you up to?x
LH: Come to the wicker mushroom outside bollywood x
LH: Hotchip left had side on the white flooring by the shop!
RM: Hey have yall gone to bed or still partying?
TC: Where are you now? X
TC: If we don't get in touch beforehand, text me a place to meet you for Hot Chip x
CJ: Andrzej u fuck! where r u? x x x x x x x x x x x carlz x x x x x
SH: You watching Florence (1.05)
SH: Yawn. Will c u guys when it's all over. We're watching trapeze artisits in the Florence tent. C u at 2.30? Where?
LH: We're here where are you?
SH: I don't know where that is- we're at continental drifts towards the front on right, come find us fx
SH: Oh god, we r where pete n pirates are- area known as skid row just a bit further towards exit than big top...
SH: Oops sos, it's sut - meet u at the back of the bollywood tent
MW: Where are you now?
MW: Fuck I just left there, am walking to the campsite. You?
MW: I'm in the shelter that looks like a shark at the bottom or red. Find me here.

SUNDAY

LM: So... Sorry about yesterday. I basically drank some poison and KO'd for the entire day and night. My battery is very low. What you doing today? X
LM: Bagel dude noon. Nice. X
LM: I'm queueing for a baked spud, 2 up for the bagel dude. X
LH: Main stage down from the shop and the screen look out for a yellow flag! X
LH: Big top same place now!
LH: Big top pillar down from usual look for the big 'I' x
LH: Front right pllar now!
LH: Dada!
LH: Dada right side near the back!

MONDAY

RM: Hey i left pretty early this morning so didn't get a chance to say bye and thanks for super fun festival times! It was great to party with you guys


WOW I BET YOU WISH YOU'D BEEN THERE NOW

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

A fairly po-faced list about My Bloody Valentine

So I mostly went along to see one of MBV's reunion dates at The Roundhouse because it seemed like the type of thing I ought to do... as much as I'm a fan of Loveless and quite fond of Isn't Anything, I figured it'd ultimately be kind of lovely in a boring way.

In fact what happened was the precise opposite... as it turns out everyone (probably my mum included) apart from me - a music journalist - and Mark Dubya - a man whose nihilistic acceleration into the abyss is made only vaguely predictable by his in depth knowledge of all avant garde music made within John Peel's lifetime - knew that they end their gigs with something called 'the holocaust section', 20-40 minutes of white noise, the volume of which was alleged to be around 130 db, which apparently is about the same as a jet taking off from 100m away. Er, anyway, without being too gushing (I sent a text to Laura describing it as 'sound as beauty as fire as fire as fire'... ahem), it was incredible, so so much so I both went to see them a week later in Manchester with Mark P, but also naturally feel compelled to put up a list of things the holocaust section (by far the best but of the gig) made me think about. Groovy.


1. From a musical perspective, I totally don't know if what happened was any good or not. I mean, probably it was, My Bloody Valentine have one of the best guitarists, like, ever, but I sort of still wonder if it's more a case that the main set was 'music' and the holocaust section is 'art'. Like, could me and three friends do the same if we had the right equipment and Kevin Shields talked us through what to do? Probably not, but y'know... maybe.

2. It wasn't just a blank roar. I mean, I think actually it was just a blank roar, but the physical and psychological impact properly makes you hallucinate: when I saw them at the Roundhouse I thought they'd started up a slowed down version of the riff to Only Shallow, then at the Apollo Mark thought he heard singing... neither true. It's like, if this kind of Niagara of noise makes you imagine pretty things, does that make it pretty music?

3. Could you use music as an actual drug? Especially after the Apollo gig, which had a longer holocaust (about 35 mins) I felt really stoned by the end, while during it I'd found it really hard to tell where the band were on stage, even though they hadn't moved. Because if Kevin Shields actually found a note that gets you high, well, that's your explanation for what he's been doing for the last 15 years.

4. I've never seen any other band do anything like that, which makes me suspect I'm kind of vanilla... I mean, they can't have patented the idea and it's not like it's a song per se, so why wouldn't other people be doing shit like this all the time? Has this big venue reunion tour kind of served to turn something that was way more underground in 1992 into a kind of theme-park of the avante garde? And if nobody's exceeded them, why not..?

5. Given it was all old material it was basically a nostalgia date, but it didn't feel like one at all... is there a certain volume at which nostalgia no longer applies?

6. All reports suggest the section was in fact just as loud as it was in the early 90s. Which is lovely, but it almost saddens me they/nobody is doing anything harder... goddamn health and safety. Though I suppose it's not exactly at the top of most amp manufacturer's lists to design one that kills people. But I guess as a party piece it doesn't exactly have anywhere to go or develop, though I suppose it's not exactly the type of thing you could technically get bored of.

7. Some friends of a friend took pills to watch it. Can't decide if that was the best or worst idea ever.

8. It's going to be really, really funny when they play it at Bestival.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

What’s Guernésiais for ‘God bless England’?

So when I was, y’know, knee high to a grasshopper and family holidays were STRICTY a case of going to a desolate tin shack in Pembrokeshire, there seemed to be so little scope of going to an actual foreign country that the Isle Of White and, in particular, the Channel Islands exuded a certain El Dorado-like quality – exotic and isolated, yes, but surely their boundless mysteries were tangible, obtainable? Basically like all children, I was an idiot, and obviously now I am now a man of the world I scoff at such thoughts. I scoff heartily. Especially the ones about the Isle Of White, as I went there a couple of years ago and it were rubbish, like.

But anyway, my erstwhile housemate Jon Macrae got married last weekend, and thus after four years of mocking him from being from Guernsey, I ended up there myself. It’s not hard to trump the superannuated charms of the Isle Of White (which fossils do you prefer? The ones you dig up from the beaches or the ones wandering around in the streets), but Guernsey is far from rubbish, it’s very charming. Of course living in a charming place does weird things to your head, and Jon was ever a man possessed of somewhat rightwing attitudes. I’m fairly sure I now know why: despite the fact they spoke Guernésiais (a version of French) until the 19th century, nowadays Guernsey is basically 1950s England. Seriously, beyond a general lingering fondness for Maggie Thatcher, there’s almost no evidence of the last six decades having occurred. There are idyllic meadows, content townsfolk who say ‘hello’ when you pass, lolloping hordes of obese, docile rabbits, and St Martins, the hamlet or whatever that I stayed in, was so epically quaint that I couldn’t actually work out whether or not I was in the centre. There are apparently a couple of dozen Latvians on the island, which has upset people no end. There is no NHS. The cars only have four or five digit number plates. They have £1 notes. There is almost no street lighting. The main road is the one with the pavement. I didn’t see a single non-white person. The fact two of the hymns in the service – I Vow To Thee My Country and Jerusalem – were misty eyed peons not to Guernsey but England wasn’t so much an irony lost on people as one so glaringly patent there’s no point commenting on it. Oh, and my dress sense was apparently so garish by local standards that in the course of an afternoon wander into St Peter Port, the main town, I scored myself four beeps of car horns and, weirdly, a thumbs up off a pair of 12 year olds.
Anyways, it’s a bit like stepping into a sort of idealised version of England’s past, it made me fervently grateful that I grew up in ugly, cosmopolitan old Birmingham, and I’m actually surprised Jon didn’t actually turn out even stranger. But that’s just me, and it really is very nice; my hotel was the type of discreetly classy establishment that leaves me feeling like a fraud (I got a good online deal, y’see), but it was only a couple of minutes walk down to some lovely, wildflower-strewn cliffs, the sea was a perfect greeny blue, the weather was nice, I was a happy boy. I topped off my general outlandishness by sitting on a bench atop a cliff reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, thus potentially scaling a brave new height of pretentiousness.

Church weddings always kind of freak me out (well the two I’ve been to), I suppose because they’re these highly ritualised affairs that inevitably make you feel kind of hypocritical as a non practicing Christian. I mean, singing a hymn about how great God or England or England and God are... it’s just not what I’d come out with in real life. And I definitely wouldn’t sing about them. Except perhaps in the righteous arena of the karaoke bar. And I’m not saying I object to the principal of it all, it’s just that it’s a bit weird that the whole thing is kind of this performance designed to add gravitas to what is essentially a short legal ceremony in the backroom that none of us even get to see. I mean, it’s great for the priest and stuff, but Jon’s not a religious man (well, not a churchgoer), and I do kind of think that church weddings for non religious people are just a way of covering up the fact that the actual legal marriage process is kind of boring. Like, if the legalese required, I dunno, a trapezing bear or something then maybe less people would bother draping their day in religious ritual. Obviously a massive flaw with that argument is that plenty of practising types believe in God in some way shape or form, and even if they’re not regular churchgoers they want some sort of spiritual dimension to the wedding. Also two even if they’re vehement atheists (well, probably not if they’re vehement atheists), marriage is supposed to be lifelong love commitment, etcetera etcetera, and people want the chance to stand up in front of their nearest and dearest and be all in love. I suppose it’s just that I feel like I’m being a bad friend by singing a hymn about how much of a dude God is and not meaning it, like I’m going to jinx the love. Also, while fundamentally very moving, the bit where Jon said he would honour Alicia with his body was a bit, erm, well, I dunno, it could maybe have been a splash more street?

I know, I know, I’m a monster. Hey ho.

Anyway, everything went well, reception was basically dandy... best man’s speech involved copious jokes at the expense of the island’s Latvian population, which I thought was a bit awful, though I suppose somewhat ameliorated by the fact an obscure bailiwick having a grudge against an obscure Baltic state is pretty funny. Later on I sort of semi-started to confront him about it, but, erm, he clearly wasn’t up for a row and having a go at the best man/setting oneself up as a righteous champion of Eastern European feelings at what is supposed to be the happiest day of your friend’s life is kind of rude, so I just weakly changed tack after about 30 seconds. Go me.
I got chatting to the (English) wedding photographer, who was telling me she occasionally got taken for a Latvian because of her red hair, that not being part of the Guernsey gene pool. In fact the gene pool in Guernsey sounds fascinating – she was telling me that her fiancé often jokes(?) that the best thing to ever happen to the island was the German occupation, as it added some fresh blood, so to speak. He’s from Guernsey, so it’s okay for him to say that, au naturalle. She also asked me to plug her services on my blog. I don’t have the web address here, but I may add it later. After all, you never know when you might need to get married on a random British island. Anyway, good times, basically, I naturally ended up righteously drunk, not least because of my really wise decision to hoover up the remains of everyone else’s dessert wine. I don’t believe I’ve ever got pissed on dessert wine before, but I didn’t half have weird dreams – basically I was on the Palatine hill, interviewing a bunch of vampires about their new musical adaptation of an episode of Futurama. Interpret that, motherfucker.

On a final note, the wedding cake was entirely comprised of muffins. This is a very good idea, all take note, please.

Oh yeah, and Alicia Macrae (as she is now known) seems very nice indeed, happiness, fertility etcetera upon them both.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

The Swedes make amends, the Norwegians make a killing, we make an escape

So I've been back in the UK since Sunday night, essentially making this blog a complete farce. But whatever, and in any case I'm, not trying to make it seem like our second week was less eventful than the first, but, um, well it kind if wasn't, so one blog should sink this bee-atch...



Anyway, we lefrt the Arctic, we went back to Helsinki, and it was much the same as we'd left it save for a dusting of snow. We faffed around fairly effectively until the evening ferry back to Stockholm - me wandering around parks and continuing my mission to take pictures of waterfowl you can quite easily find in the UK, Mark sitting in a cafe and drinking pineapple juice. Good times.



There are several good reasons why the ferry back to Stockholm was less raucous than the one over. One, that would have probably killed us, or at least killed young Mark; two, you can't PLAN something like that; three we were probably less generally excitable, being both knackered and somewhat ferry hardened.



As a matter of courtesy we still packed away a crate of 24 beers between us, but without the hard spirits and crazy party vibes, it didn't appear to have the same impact as before. Or perhaps we were so used to being drunk by that stage we just didn't really notice. It was okay though - we amused ourselves by sitting in one of the ferry bars and watching an enthusiastic but not especially, y'know, good covers duo from New Jersey; I obviously wasn't completely sober, as when they asked for requests I did slur out 'anything from the 21st century', something they had the good grace to ignore. In any case, they apparently see Bruce Springsteen down their local DIY store, which basically makes them demi-gods at the least.

In fact we clearly were pissed, as we somehow ended the night sitting in the ferry's near-deserted club, hanging out with a group that consisted of a wealthy Mongolian who was an indefatigable bordering on heroic womaniser - yet was so cheerily crap at it you had to love him - a 17-year-old goth sailor, some utter gonk who wanted me to box with him for reasons I can't remember and was probably never given, and a 15-year-old. Who was perfectly normal, except she'd been born in 1992, which slightly weirded me out. I slunk off to bed around 2am, and slumbered undisturbed by blue dawns.



We really liked Gothenburg, which is kind of why there's kind of not a lot to say about it without sounding like an estate agent or whatever. To give the brief pitch, it's not exactly a dainty-looking town, but its got a lot of 19th century (I think. I dunno) brick buildings so well kept that probably look cuter now than was intended when they were built, very Dickensian. The fact that for much of the time we were there it was snowing in total Frank Capra stylee - big, floaty flakes that settled beautifully without being discernably cold or wet - didn't exactly hurt matters. Add to that a young, friendly population, and a really nice hostel in a really nice neighbourhood that reminded me more of something you'd find in a North American town than anywhere else we'd been to in Scandinavia and you've got somwhere that, well, nice. So nice that on the first night we didn't even bother going out in it. We sat in the hostel and watched The Simpsons. It's a social satire about yellow people. Pretty good. We did, however, go out the next night and got fairly twatted in a series of likable bars, culminating in our sitting in a rock pub with some locals, all of us ranting about how much we hated Stockholm. In fact Tobias aside I don't think we met anybody on the trip with a good word to say about the place, which spurred us on to going along with our kneejerk dislike of it and altering our plans so as to not spend our last night there. Thus based on approximately 12 hours experience, I would like to say Stockholm is the worst place in Scandinavia and should be bombed or exiled or thrown into the bear pit or something.

We'd been drinking so heavily on the trip that I'd kind of started to wonder whether or not I was really capable of getting properly, properly drunk. Turns out I most certainly was, and after more or less falling asleep in the bar I meandered the five or so kilometres back to the hostel in so unsystematic a fashioon it's wonder I didn't end up in some outlying village. I stopped to buy a panini and, for whatever reason, steal a Toblerone. I don't like Toblerone, I didn't want a Toblerone, and I felt fairly dirty about the whole thing the next day... I think in my head it was some sort of revenge on Scandinavia for being expensive. Hmm. Gothenberg wasn't even that pricey. I'm just a monster. Anyway, I fed it to Mark the next morning, it briefly stopped him moaning about how the hostel check out time was just some martinet fabrication of mine, designed to deny him sleep.

Anyway, it's a lovely town, you should go there. That is all.

Oslo, Oslo, Oslo... I think it's an okay place. But here's the thing: it's a really very ordinary looking city - I'm thinking Birmingham, Manchester - but it's freakishly, almost pyrotechnically expensive. I know this blog is essentially a series of uninspired variations on the theme 'Scandinavia is right pricey, like', but in Oslo it's actually so extreme it actually almost goes beyond being a negative and sort of becomes like a weird special effect - £10 for a sandwich? £6 to get the bus? Why not? It made for quite the talking point, and you got used to it but I mean... yeah... in other respects it was the most unremarkable city on the trip and it was charging £10 for a gosh darned sandwich. Surely there's something against that in the Geneva convention, market economics be damned.

But as I said, after a while you just accepted you were poor and used the cost as a talking point, no worries. However, we maybe felt a bit grumpy on the first night, something compounded by our bewildering hostel. It was a Hosteling International, and one thing I'd kind of forgotten is that they can sometimes be these big sterile things full of old people and, y'know, rules. Basically what I'm getting at is that alcohol was forbidden from the premises. Which was bad. Certainly the trip had sloughed some of its more, uh, Dionysian qualities since kick off, but the pre-consumption of store-bought alcohol (still almost £2 for a can of beer) was kind of necessary if one were to have a night on the Oslo tiles, and the hostel was doing its damndest to stop us. Maybe you're not supposed to drink if you're poor. Or at all. Which is possible - we never once saw any shops selling liquor or wine, and beer-selling hours are subject to some pretty draconian restrictions. Anyway they don't tell you at check in that you can't drink at the hostel, and signs forbidding you are discreetly tucked away, the net result being we bought a six pack, came back with it and got told off. What was worse was that once we realised the problem we simply went and drank outside with the smokers (cancer sticks being similarly verboten) and were ticked off by some supercilious twat with a beard. Given we just ended up drinking the cans in our room it wasn't a big deal, but I think it's messed up that drinking is treated as the worse habit.

Then again the Norwegians have some fairly odd taboos, it would seem. On the second morning we were having breakfast with our two roomies, a couple of okay New Yorkers. Three of us were wearing beanies... however only I had the pleasure of being sat next to a middle aged woman who was absolutely horrified at the fact I was wearing a hat at breakfast. I explained that my hair was really greasy and that I wouldn't wear headgear to dinner or whatever, but she remained aghast, saying it was 'making a noise' to do something as crazy as that, a point she wouldn't let go. At all. For ages. While I was trying to eat. Zack, one of the Americans, actually cracked and doffed his cloth to try and shut her up. Lukowski, however, don't take his hat off for nobody, and after several rounds of me assuring her I wasn't an anarchist and her not believing me, she then started accusing the British of being backward and violent compared to the Norwegians, and mockingly asked me if I was coping alright not having sausages and bacon for breakfast. Several possible comebacks occurred, but I really couldn't bothered and just mumbled something about how I prefer bran flakes. Unexpectedly she then complimented me on how polite I was and then mercifully departed.

Anyway, Norwegians: potentially a bit repressed, is what I'm saying.

So tourism. Was mixed. We went to see the National Gallery, home to Munch's The Scream and sundry other works by Norwegians of note, which was pretty good, though that said if I ever have to see another oil of a fjord/glacier/mountain range by moonlight it'll be too soon (I'm looking at you in particular, JC Dahl). Mark offered an interesting bit of art criticism by spitting a bit of cereal onto the exposed surface of Joachim Frich's no doubt priceless 1850 work Romsdalshorn, where it doubtless still lingers. It was probably an accident.

Inevitably we paid a visit to what was billed as possibly Oslo's cheapest pub. It was called Stargate, had horrible decor, stank powerfully of urine, and was more or less exclusively populated by very dangerous, very desperate men. But it was slightly less than £4 a pint, so...

Afterwards we went to see the Oslofjord. I think maybe the Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy got me unreasonably excited about fjords, but, um, yeah, I suppose I was hoping for a little more pizzazz. Again, I'm really not moaning, I'm just saying it's kind of an average city. And of course plenty of cities don't have fjords at all, the poor bastards

We actually located quite a cool rock pub in the evening, not ball-breakingly expensive either, and it was quite fun to observe the Oslo goth legions. Goth is probably wrong, it's more about the black metal, but it's quite interesting to compare them to the UK model - our bunch are kind of cliquey, but Oslo seems to have such a high number that the hairdye and make-up brigade hang out freely and amiably with the quote unquote normals. It's interesting, we actually went back there on our second night and got talking to a trio of local laydeez - I ended up talking to the one of them about music for quite a long time, and it's fascinating, she was a chic-ishly dress type, quite into her MOR-ish indie - Kaiser Chiefs, Oasis and the like - but she'd also been to Download last year and chattily enthuses about a quite bloodcurdling array of black metal bands. I do firmly believe the whole black metal thing is further proof of the fact all Norwegians are basically repressed psychopaths (well, mostly - if you've got the time to be really fucking disturbed by an account of the famous killing that happened on the scene some years back but the absolute nutterbutter wot did the murdering then go here: www.burzum.org/eng/library/a_burzum_story02.shtml), but that aside I think it's actually quite nice a society can be so accepting of such an extreme music form, not patronising it or humouring it, just unfussily integrating it. Though that said we could have done without the attentions of a guy who claimed his name was Hawkon. He appeared to genuinely believe he was a character in World Of Warcraft, which made for quite stilted conversation if you don't.

When we got in after our first night at the bar, we found the New Yorkers had changed rooms. They'd left an explanatory note, but we didn't really need one. We had a new roommate. He had the devil's own BO (it was actually soupy) and his snore sounded like a saw cutting through bone. It wasn't nice, but it was late and we just had to put up with it. He left around seven; his stench followed him earky afternoon type time. It could have been a lot worse for our US comrades - the previous night I'd offered a passionate argument as to why we shouldn't be paying for public transport and how the Norwegians were probably so monied and law abiding there probably weren't even any inspectors on their trams. I did firmly believe this, but for whatever reason I told Mark I thought we should buy travel cards the next morning, and thank christ we did - on the first tram we got the next day three very burly inspectors hauled a guy who hadn't paid his fare away bodily. From the look of desperation on his face as they pleaded with him, I would say they were probably going to rip his limbs off and make him eat them. At a guess.

Anyhoo, our last full day there was bitterly cold and wet, and we went to see a Viking museum that was okay but a bit brief considering it was selling a book called something like When It Comes To Vikings, Oslo Is, Like, Totally The Shit. Mark was frozen and not a little dispirited, so just stayed in a cafe to read. I didn't blame him, but I glad I made possibly my best decision in Norway and went to check out Vigeland Park. I know absolutely nothing about Gustav Vigeland. I'm too lazy to even Wikipedia him. But what do know is he was a sick sick sick puppy, and presumably some sort of genius. Vigeland Park is filled, I mean properly crowded with his massive sculptures of humans. They're ugly, man, humanity reduced to a grotesque rabble, cold, selfish and demanding. And in the centre there's this obelisk... it's like, totally fucking Mordor, a massive, massive column of twisted, ugly bodies, reaching towards the skies like a flue from the netherworld. It's an unbelievably impressive sight, pitilessly evocative and unrelentingly bleak (I'd left my gloves at the hostel and my hands were frozen raw, but it actually added to the ambience). It would never in a million years be allowed in the UK: Anthony Gormley looks like Rolf Harris next to this guy, I think if anything of the like was tried the tabloid witch hunt would be brutal. But I loved it, and I loved the fact the people of Oslo presumably loved it. I mean, I grumble about the Norwegians being uptight fruitloops (and that is a problem), but it's like I was saying earlier about the goths and the normals hanging out, this society had a remarkable toleration for the grotesque, the ugly and disturbing... it doesn't have to be romanticised into some sort of wanky outsider fantasy, and I think that's a wonderful and very healthy thing.

And on that note I'll wind up.

If you have enjoyed these wafflings and would yourself like to be featured in some one day, I kind of have a plan, which is to see some of the rest of Norway (on the basis of photographic evidence much prettier than Oslo), then get the five day long ferry from Bergen to Iceland... and when I say five days, you're deposited on the Faroe Islands (which look pretty cool) for a couple of them, it's not all being on a boat. But I think it would be interesting. An adventure. And indeed if you get a ferry over from Newcastle, it could be a sensationally environmentally friendly one, and it's good to feel smug about these things. So if you're interested (and let's face it, if you're reading this still you must be at least a bit interested) then let me know. Though that said, me and Powell do have plans to do a tour of Mexican border towns. Which is sort of a joke. But not really.

Hmm, somebody allegedly called Jum asked me to add this... http://www.touristclick.com/who knows what exciting realm of the imagination it will open, eh?

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Arctic Circle Jerks (finished)

I'm sure they're good people at heart, but sadly the overwhelming multitude who holiday in Rovaniemi are kind of square; lots of dour-faced families obsessively videoing the minutiae of a bus journey or whatever. Weirdly the first question every local seems to ask is a bewildered 'what on earth are you doing here?', to which the answer was invariably a puzzled look and an attempt to communicate something along the lines of 'we're here to take advantage of your flourishing tourist industry, dicksack. Also we've never seen snow before.' But then again, they may have just been confused that we appeared to be enjoying ourselves. Almost everyone in our guesthouse was a sour-faced video-obsessive, but we did fall in with a nice bunch of international students, who were more or less as up for mixing neat spirits and sub zero weather as we were. At one point I had a moment of vague horror as I realised I'd spent half an hour talking passionately to a Czech girl about how awful British booze tourists are, during which time I'd chugged back half a bottle of neat brandy. Class. But then she started passing round a bottle of 50 per cent Bohemian moonshine, meaning my self-image as a sort of Cary Grant for the 21st century was promptly restored.



Anyway, going out is going out, even when it's psychotically cold. We did not solely come to the Arctic so Mark could have a hungover lie-in in a town near to it. No, activities my friends, activities. We spunked a cool €80 each to go to a Sami (they're the indigenous people - lovely language incidentally, lots of rrrrrrrrolling rs) reindeer farm about 40km into the Arctic. We were off a-sleighing, and while it'd be ridiculous to come here and not do something like that, I was concerned it'd be typically hollow tourist gimmickry. However, I figured the farmer meant fairly serious business when he took one look at the winter wear me and Mark had spent the best part of a weekend assembling and decreed that we should lose it and switch into some heavy duty one-piece swaddling suits. Which would have been fine - and despite making us look like a rubbish hip-hop duo the onesies were as snug as you could ask for - it's just that there was a Finnish couple along too, and their relatively flimsy garb passed muster seemingly effortlessly. I blame everything on the way Mark looks, dresses and acts.



Though fun, the first task of the expedition didn't necessarily inspire confidence. We had to practise lassoing reindeer, which was fair enough, except the 'test' reindeer was essentially a plank of wood draped in bits of dead thing, hopefully reindeer. Anyway, despite being almost autistically bad at coiling a piece of rope, I was actually pretty good at the throwing, entangling the plank's antlers on two of my three throws. Nonetheless, it occurred to me that while I was truly impressive at chucking rope at a plank, the farmer was probably humouring us if we were supposed to believe ourselves now capable of collaring a live animal. I was a silly tourist, paying a day's wages to throw some string at some wood, in the cold, while dressed like a twat.



That all said, I was relieved when we were led to the reindeer paddock and it was confirmed that we wouldn't have to reel the beasts in ourselves. In fact I couldn't have entangled the antlers of my particular beast of burden, as he'd already shed them. Plus there was no need to forcibly drag him my way. Our first encounter went like this: I was watching Mark get paired off with some ill-tempered megastag, when through my inches of padding I dimly perceived a nuzzling sensation. I turned round to see that something that looked like a giant puppy crossed with a giant guinea pig was licking me. 'Ha ha!' I thought. 'What a ridiculous creature, wonder why- oh. Oh.' I named the cow-eyed dog-rodent n00bert, and had depressingly little problem hitching him to the sleigh. We were told how to steer, but I suspected he'd basically just follow the other sleighs and I would be but an idle spectator in this journey. It was just so.



However. My first thought was 'wow, you set quite a pace n00bert, appearances can be deceptive. This verges on exhilarating. Thankyou.'



My second thought was 'wow, n00bert, from a rear view you really do look like a puppy'



My third thought was 'OMFG I'M IN FUCKING NARNIA THIS IS AMAZING'.

Basically it's hard to sustain any level of cynicism, neuroses, or paranoia in the face of a pristine, unspoilt landscape with snow-heavy, magical thickets of firs, sweeping, frozen lakes, and a sense of utter isolation from what is commonly referred to as 'all that shit'. It was just us and the sublime, wordless winterscape, silent save for the tinkle of bells and the clop of our actually quite competent beasts. Though Mark later told me he'd got a text from his mum while in full flight. He felt suitably dirty.

We had a lunch by a campfire, where we toasted some absolutely repellent sausages (breaking veg cover again, but y'know, didn't want to look any more of a milksop than I already clearly did). Naturally the awfulness was depressingly justifiable: nobody even remotely concerned about being sued would possibly trust us to cook raw meat based sausages and not suffer bacteria-clagged deaths; these pre-cooked, vaguely penile-looking tubes of quivering, sterile flesh pulp were a danger to only the faint of heart. Fortunately the herder then proceeded to whip out some old skool iron tools and casually whip off two batches of damn fine pancakes. We were also treated to possibly the only decent cup of coffee in all of Scandinavia - by and large the caffeine nectar appears to have been a victim of the Nordic peoples' love-hate relationship with stimulation of any kind, but the Sami appear to have no such hang-ups, thank christ. Apparently they've been making judicious use of it since it became available to trade a couple of hundred years ago.

n00bert also got a snack, in the form of several handfuls of moss. He seemed dubious about accepting it directly from my hand, but that was okay. We were men. We had boundaries. We didn't talk much. But we had bonded.

Another half hour or so of blissful sleighing followed, and then that was it - game over, best €80 I ever spent. As a final souvenir we each received what honestly appears to be an official, five year reindeer driver's license. If it really is official you can bet it's issued on the not unreasonable supposition that the odds of us returning to Lapland, forking out for a reindeer and sleigh, then driving it down the motorway are pretty slim. Hell, I have no idea if you're even allowed to take them out onto roads. (probably not). You almost certainly don't need a license. But whatever the case, I will almost certainly use it as some sort of cack-handed seduction crutch at some point in the future, and for that I can only thank the nice Sami gentleman. Oh, and n00bert, natch.

The obvious problem with doing something so patently the trip's highlight just after the mid-point is that it does open the doors for a reality-induced comedown. This came at about 6pm that evening, when I almost had a mental breakdown over a really boring salad. Even at the time I realised how ridiculous this was, and I think I more or less managed to pass it off as a joke, but I definitely had a fairly dark moment when I decided that, starting with this salad, the entire trip was going to be horrible, and spent about a half hour just staring at it in abject horror and wondering what the hell had become of my life. Combined with a grump at Mark for (I suspected intentionally) spending so long getting ready after a shower that we missed meeting up with the Europeans for the night, and the evening ended up a slight downer, though also a much needed breather, as I believe it was the first night we didn't get drunk. Anyway, I perked up shortly afterwards. And cauliflower, cucumber and melon is a really horrible combination for, well, anything, but especially a salad.

We went wandering along the frozen Kemijoki river on our last day, which was pretty cool, ending up at the Arktikum, a museum of the Arctic that generally served to confirm my ambivalence towards museums as tourist attractions (I don't disapprove of them, just um, I dunno, you wouldn't visit a town for its library). Following that we wandered over the marvellously named Jätkänkynttila bridge and, on a whim, went for a pint in the first bar outside on the other side of the river. I still don't really understand what happened or why, but basically pretty much all the clientele were frighteningly shitfaced, a covers band were earnestly bashing their way through set that largely seemed to consist of latterday Bon Jovi, to which a sizable crowd was dancing. Oh yeah, and three quarters of the punters were wearing lurid wigs, while the barstaff were all in fancy dress. Elvis was toasting sausages on the patio. It was 3pm. We were confused. We asked a barmaid dressed as Obelix if this was some sort of esoteric Finnish Easter ritual, to which she replied that it's what they do every Sunday here. As we left, teams of fluero-wigged souses were taking part in some sort of masochistic contest that involved skiing on wood. We were only half-convinced the Jätkänkynttila was actually going to return us to our home dimension.

But it did, and it was time to get the train back down to Helsinki, and I felt a little sad... I could never live in Rovaniemi itself, but such climes do have a certain something... hippy sentiment of the day, but being surrounded and engulfed by this elemental white hugeness, indigenous farmers, camp reindeer, surreal landscapes, and merciless temperatures - it did make me think a little casual, day to day hostility on nature's part can be a nice thing. A splash more stimulating than suburbia, in any case. And with just as good network coverage.

PS - In response to, ooh, two queries - we didn't see the Northern Lights, and I'm now suing the Finnish government for false advertising. Nah, for some reason I really don't get why people get so excited about them. Like, I recognise it's quite exciting, but the common supposition that a green glow might constitute the highpoint of one's life has always baffled me a bit. So there.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Crossing The Finnish Line

So yeah, given my fondness for Byzantine micromanagement with respect to travel itineraries, you'd think maybe I could have worked something better out for my sweet score and seven that getting a boat to Helsinki, drinking very slowly for five hours in an overpriced Irish pub, then getting a train for 12 hours. But I didn't, so there.

And it didn't matter, because the train went to Rovaniemi, aka the capital of Lapland, aka the Arctic, aka the Entire Point Of Our Trip. Actually
Rovaniemi styles itself as 'the gateway to the Arctic', seeing as it is in fact located a tantalising but slightly frustrating 8km below the Arctic Circle. I mean, I don't have the first clue when the Arctic Circle was calculated or drawn up or whatever, but really, couldn't the mayor of Rovaneimi have slipped the scientist in charge of the calculation a small bung or something? I suppose you could argue there's no especial reason why anyone in Rovaniemi gives a shit, seeing as how that far north the Arctic and the not Arctic look fairly identical, but to a pie-eyed wander fresh off the train and now colder than he'd ever been in his life, it would be nice to have had the instant gratification of knowing he had stepped right off the train and into somewhere that came with the official, accepted-everywhere stamp of double-hard bastardness that was the crossing some sort of invisible line signifying, uh, something.

But yeah, it's cold
. Not 'I knew I'd die this way' cold, but certainly after a minute or so any area of skin not heavily swaddled feels a little like its been chewed by a wolverine. Of course, in winter it's probably just as bad in Montreal, and with a few layers deployed it was eminently bearable, though we weren't overly inspired when - making our way to the guesthouse across a slick, icy incline - we saw a local who was out walking his dog slip slap bang on his face. Later research would reveal that the drunker you get, the easier it is to walk on a frictionless strip of frozen death, though I suspect I intuitively already knew that.

Rovaniemi itself isn't so much a town as prosaic icy sprawl, snowmobile riders, cross-country skiiers and the ever-hilarious Nordic walkers* zipping between ice-encrusted pre-fabs and belching smears of heavy industry. But then, it's got a massive river running through it, and there's nothing more flat-out OMFG than a massive river that's completely frozen solid and is now being used by locals to take their pets for a wander. Also it snows so frequently and so heavily you can, in any case, barely see the ugly bits most of the time.

So naturally the first order of business was to visit the great man himself, ie. Santa Claus. He, er, like, officially lives in the Santa Claus Village, which is exacly on the Arctic Circle line. He really is official, too, it seems, as I think somehow the Finns have cunningly manipulated um, well, I guess everyone to order to establish their Christmas myth as the official one. Or at least the ones the Yanks are down with. Probably the penny dropped with everyone else a long time ago, but I guess due to the whole-hearted embrace of North America I
'd always thought of Santa Claus (as opposed to 'umble old Father Christmas) as an American creation. But when you really think about it, the story of a dude with a weird name and a beard living in a cave in the Arctic and being driven around by reindeer clearly has the Finns' trollish mitts all over it. Anyway, the village is a funny old place; in some ways it is, of course, nothing more than a gaudy capitalist edifice; at the same time (and contrary to some of the postcards I may have sent) it's a lot less horrendous than you'd expect, partly, I guess, because being at least modestly likable means it can continue to function as this self fulfilling prophecy of festive joy that'll keep packing in the punters for decades to come. Packing in the European and Asian punters, anyway; one pretty striking thing about this trip is that I don't believe we've met a single North American. I guess somewhat ironically they don't actually need to come see the real deal as they have North Pole, Alaska or whatever it's called. Also LOL the dollar.

Christ, this is getting a bit wanky. So even if there's not really much to do there other than buy souvenirs off elves, buy burgers off elves, buy horrible coffee off elves and feel mildly fulfilled by standing at a fairly confusing marker announcing that yes, this is the Arctic, well bloody done, then Santa's village is quite nice, and particular respect has to go to the absolutely colossal snowmen that dominate the place. One imagines that when it starts getting sunny they have to be brought down in controlled detonations to prevent them toppling unexpectedly and smearing some unfortunate child over the tundra like a hapless Arctic gnat. Or maybe they're cool with that, the Finns don't appear to be a people given to excessive sentimentality.

Anyway, the great man himself. So as I've said, my grasp on the Santa Claus myth as an overarching whole is not what it could be. However, Santa's grotto has, to my mind, always been a kinda cute, kinda magical place in which giggling gnomes frolic and skip through shimmering cascades of stardust and sweets, occasionally breaking off to hand-craft a 1940s style wooden trainset that'll clearly play amazingly with the wii and crack-addled youth of today. Tacky, but inoffensive-verging-on-heartwarming. Santa's 'official' grotto is a bleak mechanical hellsphere, a clangorous, cavernous waiting room in which the spooked punters stand in nervous anticipation of an audience with SC, their hushed conversations drowning under the grind of machinery and - I shit you not - the howl of wolves. Not real wolves, obviously, but as we stood near the imposing double doors that led to SC, a brick shithouse of an elf barring our way, a really disturbing Dali-esque image of a mechanised um, desert reindeer the only thing we had to look at, we did wonder if this was even supposed to be fun. Mark was so nervous he wolfed down a hefty slug of rum, and I can't say as I blame the man, I can't blame him at all.

Anyway, there was no reason to get worried, because you don't get to be the most loved person in, like, the whole universe by scaring the shit out of people, and once we were ushered in it was all fine - he's got the art of bantering with vaguely confused (in Mark's case slightly drunk) adult tourists down to a pat. I'm sure he basically waps out stock phrases, but it was fine, neither too silly or too po-faced, nor too brusque or so lengthy as to get awkward. The inevitable moment of disappointment came with the photo of our meeting, which has to be taken by a specially designated photo elf. Not really a snip at €25 for one or €30 for five little ones. Poor form Santa. It really was quite a funny picture but, um there are some demands you just can't give in to as a matter of principle.
I mean really, the guy's mythos is based on some sort of altruistic/meritocratic philosophy, and then two earnest explorers like ourselves travel WELL BEYOND OUR MEANS take the TIME and EFFORT to visit him and he does this? It's hypocrisy. Also shouldn't he be out supervising the elves or something? Spending all day MUGGING people to have their image taken may bring home the proverbial, but come on man: you're nakedly profiteering off the very thing that they love you for.And now, with no official document of the time I met the real Santa Claus, I suspect I'll die a bitter human being and horrible grandparent. And that last part's being optimistic. I'll probably never even have sex again now. So cheers for that Santa. You cunt.

Nah, he was alright. And they sold some stamps in the gift shop that were just adorable.

*it's like a keep-fit activity, the purpose of which seems to be pretending a street is a mountain. Or something. I dunno, you look like a dick, anyway

Monday, 24 March 2008

Telling Tall Tales To Tobias In Tallinn

So blah blah blah, the ferry from to Estonia was fun - too brief to mutate into a booze pickled carnage-fest a la the last one, thank fuck, but the two hours were merrily set off by a blizzard that made Helsinki and its surrounding islands look the height of picturesque bleak. The thing I've found about these parts is that snow being the norm - or at least normal - feels more exotic or whatever than going somewhere megawarm.



More blah blah blah, Tallinn is lovely, in many ways more like an Eastern European capital than a Scandinavian one. Mostly because it is (or a Baltic capital, anyway), but it's definitely got that Scandinavian air of chilly chic going on, combined with a compact, medieval old town, the semi-dilapidated likes of which you don't get so much oop north. I suppose in some ways we didn't actually interact with it all that much, other than a solid wander and to aimlessly gawp at old buildings, the providence and purpose of which we were never really clear of, but it was nice for that.



Tallinn also has a reputation as a haven for weekending Brits looking for cheap beer and a good vomit, and this trip's fearless descent into cliche continued unabated as we set eyes upon the nearest pub to our hostel. Dubbed Hell Hunt, the very prominant logo was of a naked woman straddling a wolf. Glorious. Actually it was infinitely nicer than that fruity facade might suggest, and while we didn't really do much for the rest of the day other than sit there and drink local beer at about a quid a pint, it was nice to be be able to do so with impunity. Well, more impunity.



We also got a-swigging with a Swiss chap from our hostel by the name of Tobias. Showing us up for the utter dilettantes we are, he's been travelling the world for two years in his 4x4, and has seen Things I Will Never See, experienced Things I Will Never Experience, I'm very jealous, etcetera etcetera. However, there is something ruthlessly efficient about him that sat a bit strangely with me... he genuinely finds the idea of public transport quite offensive, he carries a laptop with him everywhere, has a very spiffy website detailing his adventures (www.panmundo.com, should you want proof that this isn't all just in my head), and generally appears to have a business plan drawn up to kind of justify his entire trip as an investment in his future. He was telling us how he'd had to fly home to Switzerland to sort out a visa for Cambodia and I asked him if he'd felt a bit disappointed at having to breach the whole romantic illusion of being out in the wilds or whatever, and he looked at me like I was mad. I dunno, he wasn't really a nice guy, per se, but he was very interesting, and even if deep and meaningfuls weren't exactly in abundance, he was a wellspring of appropriately lurid anecdotes, my favourite being the time his 4x4 hit a cow in Argentina, causing said bovine to flip through 360 degrees, then just get back on its feet and pretend the whole thing had never happened in dignified Argentinean fashion.



On the second night we went for a meal at Olde Hansa, possibly the only medieval-themed restaurant in the entire world to not come across as kitsch-bordering-on-embarassing. The service is just the right side of hammy, it looks great, and the weird food (if you're ever looking for a good side of spelt...) and drink (ditto herbal beer) was either nice or such a demented failure that it was worth it anyway.

Largely at Tobias' urging we went clubbing afterwards, which wasn't entirely expected, but we weren't exactly opposed to it. The place was called Hollywood, it was a student night, the music was as dreadul as one might expect, and I've not seen so many people in one room since the start of this trip. It was fun. But yeah, clubbing is clubbing is clubbing...

Tobias, bless him, has spent the last two years clinically sleeping his way through much of the world's womenfolk with a supervillain's ruthlessness and a superhero's courage. That Cambodian visa? Well worth it, he spend a month getting chauffeur-driven around the country while he bumped uglies with the leader of the opposition party's daughter. Hell, you might have slept with him. He's a persuasive man, I wouldn't blame you.

Now while me and Mark have been having many deep talks about brilliantly deep shit and stuff, the game of 'call which one you're going to sleep with' has, well, possibly dominated our conversation to the point of obsession, not least in Tallinn where the ladies are, quite frankly, a comely bunch. However, in terms of putting our money in the region of our mouths... well, Mark has a girlfriend, and for reasons ranging from vestigial principles to old skool cowardice, wandering up to a strange girl and buttering her up with platitudes has never exactly been my style.

This is EXACTLY Tobias' style, and the collision of the two rather called our bluff, i.e
Me: Call her
Tobias: Yeah, she's cute. So you're going to go talk to her?
Me (thinks): Ah, the thing is, my Swiss friend, that while this whole 'calling' thing unquestionably has its roots in objectifying women as lust/sex objects in a way that - if I really think about it - makes me fairly disgusted with myself, the thing is, that, on a more significant level, it's ironic, both in terms of satirising the type of English blokes who wander around yodeling letcherous obscenities at foreign (and indeed British) women, but also in sending up mine and Mark's general inability to act as Casanovas in any given situation, even if we wanted to. Indeed, though there is a measure of hypocrisy in justifying it this way, there is a tenuous argument to be made in framing the whole thing as an elaborate in-joke about how pathologically respectful we are towards women. Now shove that in your 4x4 and park it.
Me (says): Um. Maybe later?

Shortly after midnight, I wryly reflected on the fact I was now technically 27, which - excruciatingly - spurred Tobias on to actually secure me a girl. Not as in hire a hooker, but to use his vastly superior powers of charm/confidence to secure me a sympathy pull. As you're all doubtless aware, after a few beers I'm happy to jettison the semi-progressive morals I oft espouse, but I still felt silly when more or less ordered to go talk to Christina, also 27, a stewardess for Scandinavian Airways. Her English was amazing, and she was a fun, vivacious person, but the type of rubbish I drone on about doesn't really translate especially well
to, well, anyone, frankly, let alone across a yawning cultural schism, and I could see Tobias looking at me in bewilderment as I yammered on about, I dunno, badgers or something. Anyway, we relocated to the wordless frug of the dancefloor, which toned down the awkardness a few pegs, but there comes a stage in a chap's night when he realises he's only flirting with a girl so as not to disappoint a random Swiss dude who he's never going to see again and probably doesn't really give a shit. That time was about 1.30am. I then danced like a bastard for two and a half hours and had a jolly good start to my rock'n'roll year of death. The end.

Well, not quite... I think lavish descriptions of cities the reader either won't go to or can make up their own minds when they do are a bit redundant, but I did in fact do a bit more sightseeing in Tallinn, I did enjoy it, and I don't want to give the impression this has been a total booze fest. Thanks to Mark's frail-bordering-on-childlike health and only tenuous curiousity with regards to other cultures, I took one of his many lengthy sleeps as an opportunity to potter outside of the old town on my own. I went to Kadriorg Park, which is big and well kept and dotted with nice old buildings dating back to Czarist rule; a really nioce place, but most of the fun came simply from wandering around a snow-strewn, pine-covered park. It stretched right down to the sea, and it was fascinating (if freezing) to watch what seemed like hundreds of apparently masochistic swans battle gamely against steel-blue, rock hard breakwaters just so that, y'know, they could hang out with the other swans. I thought that was nice.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

'Peter... Moses... welcome to Finland!'

So Helsinki is very pretty. I'd been expecting it to be rocking some sort of austere Soviet thing, which was terribly ignorant of me, as it was never part of the USSR, in fact seceding from Czarist Russia just after the Russian Revolution. I guess it's like a neater, friendlier Stockholm - the town centre is really impressive, in that everything's a couple of hundred years old and they've worked really hard to keep it looking just so, so that even if all the shops and restaurants are modern, their exteriors still look impeccably Czarist, and it's basically all the good.

I've heard lots of dire warning about how the Finns are all nasty drunks; it's a bit of a weird one, in that by and large they seem like polite, friendly people, but then every so often you'll come across somebody so epically loaded at, like, 11am, you could probably use their blood for lighter fluid. Then again, you could say the same about Mark, so it really doesn't seem like so much of a big issue.

In fact by far the most alarming person we met (in fact possibly the most alarming person I've ever met) was a fellow hostel guest, who'd come over from Estonia. His English seemed remarkably selective - he'd be speaking at an advanced level one moment, talking complete gibberish the next. We never actually got his name out of him, so bestowed the epithet The Honker upon his weirdo shoulders.

The mentalness started off with low-level eccentricity: he greeted me by offering his hand and then pulling it away; he asked me where the womens' bathrooms were (weird in itself, plus he was probably well aware all the toilets were mixed sex); later on, when I was wanting a nap before dinnertime, he kept talking to me, telling me such 'facts' as Estonia having no football team (er..?) and telling me he'd been captain of the Estonian ice hockey team in 1991 (he'd have been a teenager at the time, if not younger). He also insisted I took an iPod case he'd been wearing clipped to his belt, as he, er, didn't have an iPod and had been merely carrying it around. He also claimed that the case had been made by the Incas, which was remarkably prescient of them, if not exactly prosaic.

The point we realised he was off the Richter scale mental was when we went to bed in the dorm room we were sharing with him. All went well until just before 4am, at which point he sat bolt upright in bed and loudly and distinctly said 'Peter... Moses... welcome to Finland!' He was, we observed, fully dressed. There was precious little sleep on our parts for the next three hours as we were somewhat concerned that he was going to perform the full Charles Manson on us. He spent the time wandering in and out of the dorm, drumming rhythmically on the walls, leaning over other people in the dorm and poking their mattresses. He didn't actually talk that much, but every so often he'd address a sleeper directly, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Predictably he asked me for his iPod case back (I was only too happy to assent), but the real highlight came when he started informing a thoroughly freaked-out Brazilian guy in the bottom bunk that he could get him summer work and that they should go outside to discuss it. The Brazilian grunted something in the negative, and The Honker switched tacks, saying he should come outside because there were four parcels that needed carrying. This didn't especially enthuse the Brazilian, and to be honest we were all amazed that when The Honker went off to whatever godawful place he'd came from (my best guess would be that he's the advanced scout for some sort of spectacularly inept alien invasion, or an actual, proper, real-life village idiot gone on the lamb), we all had our limbs, faces, major organs etc still intact.

In terms of actually, y'know, doing stuff in Helsinki, I basically pottered around on my own while Mark lay in his chemical swoon. Though speaking of people in dark places, I ended up spending most of the afternoon hanging out in city cemetery. Which is arguably kind of creepy, and I guess it was, but it was also really stunning, a massive, wintry public park that goes down to the shore, covered in all sorts of headstones and tombs. There are some properly creepy old skool weeping angel statues and whatnot, but also some really weird stuff that's quite out of the box (geddit?) in terms of burial technology. I really liked one that was just a marble boulder with a little lantern burning next to it, it sort of had a feng shui thing going on (in fact for future ref, I'd quite fancy one of those bad boys when I shuffle off this mortal coil), but the funniest was probably one which sported a marble effigy of the deceased riding a donkey while looking completely shitfaced, seemingly having an absolute ball. Presumably it was meant fondly.

I roused Mark with an offering of some sort of unfathomable milk product I'd brought in a supermarket in a moment of misguided whimsy. It was really odd, just a sheet of curdled milk; to be honest I don't really want to talk about it, but just to say didn't really taste of anything, and had a disconcertingly squeaky, rubbery texture. I forgot to note the name down, but I think if you see one you'll realise it's to be avoided.

Later we went for food, and I continued my general policy of making sure I try new forms of meat (just to check I'm not missing out on anything, like), with some reindeer carbonara. It was by far the best thing I'd eaten on the trip, though that's mainly because it was the first thing that wasn't simply a large block of dairy product, and I wouldn't get too excited about reindeer eating as a lifestyle choice: it tasted kind of like a milder form of beef. So there you go.

Monday, 17 March 2008

The Voyage Of The Damned

So I'm possibly building it up a bit much, but the 16-hour ferry trip from Stockholm to Helsinki does feel like this monolithic thing that's somewhat loomed over the rest of the trip. Anyway...

3pm - We are waiting for our ferry boarding call, whiling away the time by playing the thoroughly enlightened game of 'call the female ferry passengers you're going to have sex with during the journey'. Um, yeah, irony... No, I feel dirty. Anyway a girl who, blessedly, we didn't comment on comes over and introduces herself. She is Australian! She is traveling alone! Her name is Nicole! We are a little concerned that she heard our previous conversation and is unaware that we are enlightened gentlemen, but hey-ho. In any case, we see why she came over, as I guess the combination of price, obscurity and chilliness means there seem to be barely any English-as-a-first-language speaking travelers around these parts.
3.01pm - Nicole is the most boring Australian I've ever met. I mean, yeah, once again, a blow against national stereotypes, but when your national stereotype is 'being fun' I'm not so certain that blow is particularly necessary. Anyway, she was harmless, but like how a benign growth is harmless - she just sort of sat there and didn't do or say anything and if it could be a lot worse, after a while you sort of figured that given a choice you'd rather she was not in fact there.
3.45pm - We board. Our cabin, located somewhere beneath the car deck, is smells like a tomb and looks like a tomb. Considering how little we paid for it, I don't suppose we can really grumble, and bonuses come twofold, in that the third bed is empty (christ knows where we're going to put our backpacks on the return voyage - and yeah, I said voyage, okay?), and also the room has an antique phone which can be tuned into a radio station playing even more antiquated Europop. Weird, but nice.
5pm - We have set sail. Hurrah! The plan is to take a bit of a kip, then later grab a couple of drinks and a bit of food. There's little chance of us getting drunk as the on-board bars are only marginally cheaper than those in Stockholm. The sun is going to go down soon, so before our sleep we head up on deck to gander at the view. The Swedish coast is lovely; lots of tiny, tranquil islands, not exactly bleak, but a sort of bucolic austerity, sporadically dotted with neat, brightly-coloured barns and houses. It's a bit weird to see that they don't really seem to be clustered into communities, just spread out at isolated intervals. Keeping oneself to oneself appears to be something of a national pastime here.
5.30pm - Oh yeah, Duty Free, forgotten that exists. We sack off the nap in favour of buying a bottle of mystery liquor, some sort of weird bread, a tube of smoked cheese, and a salami. Oh, and a crate of beer. In retrospect I'm not entirely certain what we thought was going to happen if we bought such frankly heroic volumes of booze, but the crate cost only a shade more than two beers at the bar and we figured we could take the left-overs to Helsinki.
9pm- We have drunk quite a lot of alcohol. It is going down very nicely, thankyouverymuch. Nicole is hanging out with us and seems much more agreeable when one is too tipsy to feel uncomfortable about the fact she isn't saying or doing anything.
9.30pm - We go out on deck. The full enormity of how cold this trip is going to be starts to trickle its way into our alcohol-fugged minds. Fear is tempered by awe at our own bravery. Truly we are heroes.
10pm - The mystery spirit is all drunk. The crate has taken some serious hits. It begins to dawn on us that we might actually finish it. Truly we are as the gods of yore.
11.30pm - The ferry makes its only stop between Stockholm and Helsinki at a little island town called Marielburg (?). Weirdly/ridiculously I hadn't expected to encounter any snow before the Arctic, but the stuff is coming down heavily and the town looks like a Christmas card-maker's wet dream. It's unbelievably pretty, and though my brain is now enshrouded in a blanket of purest drunkenness I am somewhat overcome. It's about my last coherent thought of the evening, so nice to make it a good one.
Midnight - Something very wrong is happening. It's called the California Show, it's taking place on the stage of one of the ferry's two nightclubs, and it seems to involve all my worst nightmares about circuses blended with all my worst nightmares about musicals. I more or less freak out for the entire duration. For some reason I decide the best way to cope is to line everyone up with outrageously priced shots of Jaegermeister from the bar.
Some time later - We are dancing in the boat's other club, which is mercifully free of cabaret from hell. I keep saying I want to go to bed, but my words are hollow, not least because I can no longer remember where bed is. Or what bed means. We're hanging out with quite a lot of other people, but I can't remember names, faces, or even if they spoke English. The fact the ferry requires two nightclubs to accommodate all the drunkenness does, however, speak volumes for the general atmosphere on board. It's like the Masque Of The Red Death, only with Eurodisco. It's amazing.
Maybe about half three, I dunno - I finally make it to bed. Mark does not. His recollections of this period are as hazy as they are probably fabricated, but I'm happy to believe the bit where he says the people he was drinking with tried to go to bed and more or less had to slam their door on him to stop him partying them into the grave. He finally gave up, but not before writing his MySpace address on said door. In eyeliner.
4.30am?- Mark burst into our cabin, raving about how my life would more or less be a dead loss if I didn't come up on deck and see the 'blue dawn'. I know I've joked about our heroism, but I think the fact I actually agreed is a more or less textbook case of going above and beyond the call of duty. Anyway, the position of the sun behind the clouds and the general blueness of the ocean made everything look a bit blue. I guess it was okay. I dunno, I was in a horrible state. I think Mark was under the impression that it was some sort of awe-inspiring meteorological phenomena up there with ball lightning and the Aurora Borealis. The cynic in me would suggest he felt this way because a) by now he was so far gone he'd probably have felt the same about running tapwater, and b) he was maybe paying a bit too much heed to the ramblings of a bandanna-wearing Finn, the self-styled weather expert who was the only other person drunk enough to be out on deck at that time in the morning.
9am - I wake up, somewhat disorientated, to my alarm. I feel HORRIBLE. I'm not really in any sort of state where I can feel things, as such, but on some level my brain registers mild relief at the fact a fully-clothed Mark is lying face-down in his bunk, snoring the vile honks of the damned.
10am - We dock. I try to rouse Mark. It does not go well. He curses my name. He claims to have pneumonia. He suggests that Finland is not one hour ahead of Sweden, and that its being on GMT +2 is actually a conspiracy cooked up by me to deny him an hour of sleep. Nicole swings by to leave the ferry with us. Proving that old adage about silver linings, Mark mopes around for so long that she decides to go on her own, after all.
11am - We arrive at the hostel in Helsinki. Our beds wont be ready until 2pm. We head out to chemist to buy things to counter Mark's alleged illnesses.
11.15am - He buys four different substances, none of which he is particularly certain as to the identity of. He balances them on a dustbin in the street as he knocks them back one by one, pausing only to drop a pill on the pavement and scrabble around to pick it back up, whereupon he crams it down his gullet. Around us the immaculate buildings of Helsinki's historic town centre are matched only by its pristine, elegant citizens.
Midday - We have sat down to have a coffee. With crushing predictability Nicole has stumbled across us. Luckily for Mark, the combination of sleep deprivation and the chemical cocktail raging inside him means he rapidly passes out, leaving me to talk to her. After swapping our general first impressions of the city we come to something of an impasse.
Me: So you're off to get some food then?
Her: Yup.
M: Cool. So I guess maybe we'll see you later?
H: Yup.
An awkward silence
12.05 pm
M: Er, so would you like to sit down and join us?
H: No, I'm off to get some food.
M: Cool. So I guess maybe we'll see you later?
H: Yup.
An awkward silence
12.30pm - She leaves
12.40pm - Mark wakes up and freaks out that Nicole has apparently vanished before his eyes. I tell him he fell asleep within one minute of her turning up. He gives me a weird look and tells me we have to get out of the coffee shop because he doesn't want to fall asleep here. I reiterate that he has already blissfully slumbering for a good half hour, but he doesn't seem to hear me. He gets up and leaves. It is literally the most motivated I have ever seen him.
1pm - We are back at the hostel. On the way Mark has not managed to put together a single coherent sentence, but from what I can piece together he is complaining about the sky being orange (when I point out it's not he compromises with 'yellow, then'), disconnectedly mumbles about how he's upset he can't pull his weight at the hostel and will later rectify it with 'broad shoulders... towels', and when I suggest this is so far more hardcore than our trip to Transylvania, he looks at me vacantly and says 'I'm sure that's really funny but I just don't understand anything anymore'. Mercifully his bed is ready early. As he gets into it, he asks if I can stay and keep talking to him so he doesn't pass out, as he's heard how people about to freeze to death get really sleepy before they die. I realise arguing with him over this is pointless, so ask does he want to stay awake, yes or no. His only response is to twist his face into a mask of bestial bewilderment as he stares at me, before mercifully falling asleep. I go off to have a nice day in Helsinki, more of which later. However, for those left worried, Mark has not met with a frozen death. Though I'm increasingly thinking it's only a matter of time.