< please click link, multumesc : )
[First published in ELLE magazine, February 2009, by S.C. Edipresse A.S. SRL, Romania.
Photos: Mike Ormsby & Jerome Le Roy].
< please click link, multumesc : )
[First published in ELLE magazine, February 2009, by S.C. Edipresse A.S. SRL, Romania.
Photos: Mike Ormsby & Jerome Le Roy].
We’ve all heard how our world is ‘a village’, where time and distance matter less and less, and where many of us can connect online, like now. But it’s one thing to sit at home checking a country on Wiki, to visit it on holiday, or to pass through on a business trip. It’s quite another to live and work abroad, long term.
In this report for ELLE magazine, two women from Romania and two from Moldova talk about the years they’ve spent in Africa. How does it feel? What are the pros and cons? How do you get a job there?
1. DANA LE ROY
We’re in an SUV, driving on a long, wide and very straight stretch in downtown Bamako. It’s chaos out there: honking lorries, swerving cars and buzzing motorbikes. Dana Le Roy points at the road ahead: “Guess what this used to be?” she asks. I shrug, clueless. She explains with a smile: “An airport runway.” In the front seat, her husband Jerome chuckles and turns to face me. “How’s that for improvisation?” he says. “Welcome to Mali.”
The Le Roys know a few things about improvisation. Jerome is a French diplomat who juggles big EC budgets; Dana is a Romanian medical doctor who drifted into media. They’ve just arrived after four years in Rwanda where Dana produced documentary films for Internews, an American NGO that uses media to boost development in emerging democracies.
Dana has a quick mind, bright eyes and a naughty smile. She enjoys living and working in Africa, even if it is a challenge at times. She talks fast, hardly pausing for breath as she answers my questions. Her enthusiasm is contagious.
What brought you to Africa?
“Jerome’s first job with the EC, as senior accountant in Rwanda. We arrived in 2004 and I first got involved with Save the Children, a UK charity promoting children’s rights. Often, I was the only foreigner so I had to think on my feet and learn a few local phrases to get through the day. Plus, I did a lot of travelling around the country, living in containers. That was tough!”
“Then I moved to Internews. Initially, my job was to close it down, since its public education film-making project, Justice After Genocide, was complete.”
Except being stubborn and determined, you soon had other ideas?
“Yes! The previous manager trained twelve local staff to international standards and installed AVID digital editing suites. They had made thirty-five films about post-genocide justice, shown around the country on mobile screens and in prisons, with public debates afterwards. This made me feel that our bosses in Paris and the USA had the wrong idea. It seemed a waste to close such a project and I wanted to keep it open, to find different subjects for more films that would contribute to Rwanda’s stability and development.“
After a bit of head scratching, networking and lobbying, it paid off. Over the next three years, Dana helped to secure almost €1m from diverse funders including the EC, World Bank, UNDP, US embassy, UK government and Rwanda’s tourism office. During this time, she produced seventeen new films on range of issues such as the demobilisation of child soldiers, a dance festival, and how football helps peace. One of the most powerful is a film about an EC-backed construction project in Kigali, where local people worked for five years to repair a dangerous ravine that had sliced their neighbourhood in two.
I watched the film at Dana and Jerome’s cool marble-tiled home in Mali. Needles to say, the bridging of the ravine – a geological divide – provides a perfect metaphor for peace and reconciliation.
Onscreen, you see Hutus and Tutsis, former killers and genocide survivors, sweating side-by-side in mud and rock to rebuild their community with their bare hands. One couple even fell in love on the project and were later married. “When we showed the final film, people were in tears,” says Dana, with a sigh of professional satisfaction.
But her favourite film is the one about the fabrics. She and her team got the idea when looking for a story about reconciliation in a huge refugee camp near the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo,
“Those two countries share a long troubled history. In one IDP* camp there were more than 100,000 people living in tents. These were not poor people, but well-fed farmers with large families, who had escaped from conflict. Now they were living on thirty grams of flour a day. Sheer hell.”
Of nearby Goma in Congo, Dana says: “The town full of volcanic lava from recent eruptions, everywhere looks gray and depressing. But we noticed a tailor in the camp, making clothes from the brightly patterned ‘pagne’ fabric that is so popular in so many African countries. Men buy romantic patterns for sweethearts and vice versa. Socially, it’s important to look smart. We said: look, that’s our story! Because pagne represents a shared culture, not conflict or difference.”
How did the locals react?
“They loved it. We filmed in both Congo and Rwanda. They said politicians, not ordinary people, cause conflict. The Rwandans cherished the pagne fabric imported from ‘our friends across the border’. Most of these women have seen terrible times, horrific violence. It’s hard not to get sad when you talk to them. We wanted to tell a happy, uplifting story for them. I think we succeeded.“
As a wife and mother, how do you balance work and home?
“I don’t travel so much since we had Theo. It’s not easy hearing your 2-year old son on the phone: Mummy you promised, when are you coming home?’
And how do you feel about Romania, these days?
“Hard to say. I love my country and it’s not so grey anymore, people in airports are happier, first impressions are better. But Romanians are beeping their cars all the time, nervous and stressed and for what? Coming home from Africa, that’s very bizarre.
2. VIOLETA COJOCARU
Violeta Cojocaru sips her mineral water and smiles, shaking her head and staring into her glass as if puzzled by something. Then she tells me why.
“A local shamen will mix a traditional concoction for a new baby, to honour the spirit world. The mother gives it to the baby to drink. The baby gets diarrhea from the dirty water. Sometimes it will die. That’s what we are up against. That’s why this work matters. That’s why I like my job.”
We are sitting in the outdoor café at UNICEF in Niamey. It’s cool under the large conical roof of thatched grass, but scorching hot in the courtyard beyond, where fat lizards watch us, heads tilted. Violeta is Programme Communication Specialist with UNICEF Niger. She has short brown hair and a serious look. But when I make a comment about the lizards doing press-ups, she laughs hard and loud. You need a sense of humour in Africa, especially in a serious job.
“We target mothers, fathers, grandparents, community leaders, health staff, any sort of caregiver. We try to change specific behaviours and practises, within families and communities.”
What kind of behaviour are you seeking to change?
“In Niger, our main concern is child survival. Our research identified seven essential family practises and eight essential services that need to be provided if a kid is to have a decent chance of a healthy life. For example, birth delivery in a safe and clean environment; exclusive breast-feeding to prevent babies drinking dirty water, hand washing; proper drilling of wells; proper use of rehydration salts; access to vaccinations; use of mosquito nets and so on.”
But how do you transform theory into practise?
“That’s the hard part. It’s not enough for us to have the information, we have to get it to people in a way that resonates with them, so they will engage, become curious, adopt new ideas, change how they live and know why.”
What works best?
“Radio is the most powerful method, it’s popular and well established. Print is only strong in cities and TV has a small audience. But when talking about health issues, anywhere in the world, the most effective communication is interpersonal, either one-to-one or in a group debate. This requires a visual element too, something interactive. If people feel their questions are being addressed, if they can see or hear about other people who changed their own behaviour and benefited, then they are more likely to follow that example. It’s not enough just to say ‘This is what you must do’. So we use drama and sketches and discussions and broadcast the results on the radio.”
But Niger is a massive rural country. Where do you start?
“We have two methods. First, we create a network of local community animators who each have their own area with a specific number of families they are supposed to visit and organise public discussions on specific issues. This is quite hard work for us because we have to monitor them and make sure the work is done properly. The second method is on a larger scale, where we link the community animators to several big international NGOs and work through radio.”
How do you measure your results?
“We use KAP studies to monitor Knowledge, Attitudes and Practise. We have a big evaluation going on right now, to assess our reach. Next month we’ll find out who listens, what they like, how much they learned.”
The friendly waiter clears our table and the lizards dash for cover. Violeta sighs and sits back, perhaps wondering what the assessment will reveal.
It sounds like important work. How did you get into it?
“I was a print journalist in Chisinau with Basapres, the first independent news agency in Moldova. Then I was a stringer for Deutsch Welle, social affairs. When UNICEF opened in Moldova in 1995 I covered their activities. The more I learned, the more interested I became. Plus, after eleven years covering the same beat in a small country like Moldova, I needed a change. I got a job in communications at UNICEF then began to specialise in Behaviour Change. In 2003 I attended a 3-week summer school hosted by New York University and the World Health Organisation. It was a real eye-opener, I learned so much, notably from Everold Hossein, a communications guru with the WHO.”
Do you enjoy living in Niger?
“Yes! The people are friendly, Niamey is a very calm city, I don’t feel any aggression. It’s not crowded or polluted. Plus there are animal reservations, local markets and very rich traditions. It’s interesting. It’s a bit hot in summer and I miss my husband and daughter, but she’s grown up now and we’ll all meet soon.”
How do you relax?
And you have a kitten for company?
“Yes, Tigrusa. She runs up my door and stares inside the house.”
Perhaps she’s wondering what brought you to Africa?
Violeta laughs aloud as she poses for a photograph. Then we say goodbye and she strides back to her office. She knows the answer.
3. CEZARINA TRONE
Cezarina Trone brings a salad and cold drinks onto the quiet terrace. She has a deep tan and wears loose linen with her long brown hair swept back. She has the graceful moves and tight skin of a yoga practitioner. A local gardener sprays lush green foliage nearby, the arcs of water glint silver in the late afternoon sun. Sitting on this idyllic, shaded spot, overlooking a swimming pool while exotic birds chirp in the trees, it’s hard to believe we are in one of the poorest places on earth.
The Republic of Niger is a huge country, almost 500,000 square miles, dominated by the Sahara desert and scrubland. It has a population of over 14 million. It also has a lot of goats grazing any patch of green.
In the north, a low-level military insurgency simmers among ethnic Tuareg rebels, who want a greater share of political and economic power. Some observers say the place could slide into serious trouble. But for now, it feels safe enough. It’s also home for many ex-pats, including my host Cezarina, a Romanian based in the US, who is currently working in Africa as a teacher.
Cezarina seems happy with life in Niger but knows it’s not so easy for others. We’ll come back to that later. For now, I’m curious to find out what brought her here. Her eyes sparkle as she chats, her infectious laughter echoes around the garden walls.
“I moved from Romania to the USA in 1996, aged 20, to marry an American. My Romanian teaching degree was not valid there so I studied at Southern Illinois University and qualified to teach in elementary schools. Later I got divorced and moved to Ohio, where I began teaching. One day, still trying to find myself, I asked God or the Universe to help me. A minute later, by telephone, I was offered a job teaching in Africa. It was totally unreal, like divine intervention, but just what I needed. So I came. It’s been a challenge, but fun!”
You say you have a creative, artistic approach to your teaching at the American International School of Niamey. What do you mean?
“I teach young children and to me that’s a big responsibility, because they’re tomorrow’s adults, right? So, I feel we should empower them as much as possible. When I first arrived, their lessons followed the classic US model, which is OK. But after I noticed they responded very well to creative activities after school, I began to weave those elements into the normal teaching day, using ideas I had developed as a teacher in the US. The response has been amazing.”
What do you add, specifically?
“Creative dance, finger painting and yoga, things like that. I consider yoga both an art and a science. It’s been proven to be very effective with kids. I integrate the physical exercises with poems, songs, dances and poses… whatever works.”
Since AISN charges fees of $10,000 per child per year, parents presumably expect progress. As a teacher, how do you measure success?
“I truly can see and witness the changes in the children as they get a chance to express themselves. It builds their self-confidence, deepens personal relations within the class and at home too. Kids come to me saying: I sang the yoga ‘getting-up’ song this morning to wake my parents and they got up and did yoga with me! And I’m sitting there smiling because it’s just really beautiful to hear that. Little by little we added more elements, such as a website where the kids and their folks can contribute and see photos of our activities. It’s great!”
Judging by the comments of two pupils, Cezarina’s approach is popular.
Vanessa from 1st Grade says: “It’s fun to come to our school because you can learn new things and fun stuff like math, spelling, yoga, arts and crafts, painting, dancing, reading, show and tell, listening to stories, having visitors come over, making new friends, singing, going to the library, gardening!”
Little Khadriana from Kindergarten adds: “I love school because I learn how to read and write. I like our reading cave where Ms. Trone reads books to us. I like when we have Native Amercan names; mine is Dancing Star. I like singing and yoga.”
And the grown ups? ASIN Director Ms. Debba Robinsnon clearly approves:
“Cezarina brings an energy and enthusiasm to every activity. With her thoughtful motivational quotes, web sites and a spirit of love and acceptance, she touches all our lives and brightens up the corridors of the school.”
We finish our salad and it’s time to say goodbye. On the dusty street outside her home Cezarina mentions her plans to teach yoga at a local Muslim school in 2009. But she seems troubled for a moment when she spots a couple of local kids playing in the dirt nearby: “I’d like to do something for these little ones too. That’s my dream. The kids at ASIN are privileged and have everything. But poor kids need empowering too. Tomorrow’s adults, right?”
4. LILIA GHEORGHIU
Lilia Gheorghiu looks tres mignon, as usual, with a reserved manner and a big, friendly smile. Her husband Ben towers beside her. He’s quick-witted with bright blue eyes like Paul Newman. They’ve been on the road since 1998, living and working in Armenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Kosovo, Rwanda and now the USA. We last met in Kigali, June 2005. Tonight we’re in a Thai restaurant in Washington and I’ve forgotten my tape recorder. How professional.
Lilia is from Moldova, an accountant with a PhD in maths. She’s got a new job here in DC, as ‘Grants Finance Compliance Officer, International Programs’. She’s with an American NGO: Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Cool name, but what does your NGO do?
“We have a number of departments in the US and overseas. We mostly lobby for changes in legislation on tobacco control: more taxation, smoke free zones, banning ads and so on. Overseas we issue financial grants to other NGOs who share our goals. We discuss the best ways they can tackle similar problems in their own countries. For example, how to get the laws changed on taxation.”
What is the link between taxation, tobacco and kids?
“Research shows that the more tobacco costs, the less accessible it is to kids and the less they are exposed to it. Also, more people begin smoking as kids than they do as adults. We don’t tell people to quit smoking, we make it difficult for kids to start smoking by reducing their exposure to it.”
Who started the NGO and who funds it?
“The campaign was started twelve years ago by people who were passionate about tobacco control. They lobbied for donations and it grew, becoming part of a larger body. Bill Gates contributed and Michael Bloomberg, the New York billionaire, gave over $125m. He has specific aims and that’s why we don’t campaign for smoking cessation, it’s too costly and hard to evaluate. Instead we focus on four or five priority issues in priority countries, where smoking is a problem and kids are vulnerable due to a lack of legislation.”
How do you measure success?
“It’s easy. By checking whether or not a country has changed the laws on taxation, advertising, sales of tobacco, tobacco lobbying etc. For example, India recently went ‘smoke-free’.”
But why would a government listen to your NGO?
“Because higher tax generates more money for them; smoke-free zones prevent illness, which boosts productivity and reduces the financial burden on health services; a visible commitment to the health of children wins votes at election time and helps politicians get re-elected.”
You’ve lived and worked in Rwanda. How do you find it?
“Good and bad. From a professional point of view, I was successful because most of my colleagues lacked higher education or good accountancy practise. On a personal level, I found it a shock to live among black people, but I adapted and enjoyed the attention. It can be drawback when you wish to blend in, but that’s how a black person would probably feel in an all-white place?”
You spent time in Nigeria too, how do they compare?
“Nigeria is huge, you meet a lot of educated, well-informed people. I felt like a small fish in a big pond. Nigerians say whatever they want and it feels like a real democracy. But Rwanda doesn’t and unless it becomes more open and democratic, I feel there could be another genocide.”
What might a Westerner learn from living in Africa?
“At the local, practical level, Africans have a remarkable ability to improvise and make the most of what they have, they are not wasteful. On a spiritual level we can learn from people who have survived massacres but talk about it in a very calm and dignified way, without tears or anger. How would we react, in their shoes? We should also learn from how some Africans react to foreign aid: they feel it’s their right. We are building too much aid dependency. I don’t know how to change it but I’m not comfortable with it.”
Is Moldova changing?
“Yes! People used to have a Cold War mentality. I used argue with them. Now we have the same old discussions but they agree with me! They see I was right about the rise of China!”
Will people in Eastern Europe ever reduce their tobacco habit?
“For sure, our campaign is very effective. Turkey went smoke-free last year. It just requires a government to see the advantages and change the laws. Russia might take longer, though.”
Do you ever feel envy towards you, among people back home?
“Yes. Some people think I married an American then I got good jobs. But my career was already on track when I met Ben, because I had always worked hard. Sure, he broadened my horizons, but I got those jobs because of who I am, not because of who he is.”
How do you relax?
“I like balancing our accounts, I like knitting and I dream of a nice home with a big garden.”
If extra-terrestrials exist, will we use maths to communicate with them?
“I don’t know, I never thought of that!”
(First published in ELLE magazine, February 2009, by S.C. Edipresse A.S. SRL, Romania. Photos by Mike Ormsby & Jerome Le Roy)
VENI, VIDI, PERDITUS…
The email is short and smug: Do you want to run the London marathon next year? It comes from a friend who has just finished this year’s race in 4 hours 38 minutes. He raised £5000 for the Red Cross, including a small donation from me. I think about his proposal and then I write back: I’ll think about it.
I hesitate because I ran the London marathon in 2001 and, despite the hype, I found the route disappointing: – dismal suburbs for fifteen miles and no historic sights until the last four miles, by which time I was too knackered to enjoy them. But the real reason is that my last marathon, in 2007, which was my 5th, did not go to plan. It went haywire, frankly, and I’m not sure I’ll do another. Want to know why? Got your shoes on? Good, let’s go. Back in time.
One cold January day, I’m jogging through thick fog around Faurei, rural Romania, when I meet a shepherd in a big woolly coat who asks if me I have seen any sheep in the fields. Sheep? I can hardly see my feet. I tell him no, sorry.
The well-wrapped shepherd chews his grass, gives me the once over and says: Are you a crazy jogger from the West, training for a marathon?
I shake my head as I run on, but now I’m thinking: Maybe I am, and it’s time for another one, number 6? I glance back at the shepherd, who has disappeared into the mist. Was he sent to prophesy? Or am I going mad, out here…?
Next time I’m online, I check my options and choose the Anglesey marathon, nine months off, in late late-September. Let me tell you about Anglesey, because I know it well from summer holidays as a kid.
Its an island off North Wales with stunning views of mountains, a remote and desolate place. The Romans conquered it, in 78 AD, but the hard-ass Vikings failed, in 900 AD. Local Welsh warriors chased them while Druid priests chanted in victory. This is highly relevant, I feel, because my family has Viking roots, so maybe I should go back and avenge my scaredy-cat ancestors? Conquer Anglesey alone? By Odin, it would be about time.
Come spring, back in Bucharest, I increase my weekly mileage and monitor my heart rate, all that technical stuff, doing well. But something unexpected lies ahead: by mid-July, Bucharest is baking at 46C. Global warming, maybe? Long runs become tricky unless I start them at 5 am. I run a few 20 milers, but not enough.
Late in August I get another surprise: I have to go to India for a month to work, which compromises a crucial period of my training, especially as I fly back from India to Europe only 24 hours before my marathon. I can hear the Druids chuckling down the centuries: Viking, you stupid or what?
Time to focus. After my 9-hour overnight flight from Delhi, I land in the UK at 7 a.m and take a train from London to my mum’s place in Liverpool, planning to eat lots of carbohydrates and other relevant goodies when I get there – pasta plus broccoli, and some pomegranates. But due to circumstances beyond my control, when I arrive in Liverpool. I have to settle for sandwiches and a cup of tea. And another cup of tea, chatting away with my mum, the way you do, the PG Tips flowing like wine. Time is tight and so is my head.
An old school friend has offered to drive me to Anglesey but we depart into a setting sun that dips over over Penny Lane with a fiery glow, beckoning me forward to North Wales, if I dare.
It’s 9pm by the time we reach Anglesey, where the chef of my pre-booked hotel refuses to cook me a hot meal because it’s too late, mate. I tell him I’m running the marathon, mate. Try the pub, he says, taking off his apron. He’s had a long day, poor fellow. I don’t tell him about my long flight and that I am, well, starving,
The pub has a sign outside that says Warm Welcome Guaranteed and a sour-faced landlady inside who says: come again? But I don’t think I will, somehow, because she will not cook me any pasta either. Why?
Perhaps she can tell I am one of those Vikings, here to rape and pillock. Perhaps my fleecy hat has sprouted horns? Should I axe her politely? There seems little point and so, instead, for my pre-marathon carbo-load dinner, in a chilly corner of the pub, I eat a bag of roast peanuts and a bag of crisps. The locals give me the kind of chilly looks I remember as a kid on my summer hols: you’re not from round here, are you? My friend sips coffee, on edge. I drain my juice and we head back to the hotel. I need sleep. It’s time to get to bed.
Problem is, the hotel is overbooked so my caffeinated driver settles in a chair in my room to watch Hits of The 80′s on MTV. I lie in bed a few feet away listening to Nik Kershaw and wishing I was in Spandau, at least it would be quiet. I drift off eventually, but I swear I can hear the Druids laughing at me: welcome back, boyo.
I rise, zombie-like, at 6 am, tired and hungry. En route to the race, I get a weak coffee and two granola bars from a garage, but I know from five previous marathons that this will not be enough. And I’m right.
The Anglesey Marathon 2007 starts under a brooding sky at 10 am with 500 runners, all looking fit and happy, and me, feeling like shit. I shuffle along half asleep. My first 5 miles feel like 10, but somehow, my feet wake up and I reach the halfway point in 2 hours and now entertain giddy delusions of success: I can finish in under 4 hours, my target? Have I discovered a whole new Hindi-based training system – The Red-Eye Rocket?
No! The Welsh hills wind fight back with windy vengeance. Mile 22, I hit the infamous ‘wall’, and it feels like it is made of Welsh slate. My heart rate is sky-high and I sense that if I don’t slow down, I will perish like my barmy Viking ancestors. So, I take it easy and crawl to the finish line on 4 hrs 34 minutes – aching with disappointment, my training wasted. Ironically enough, by some twist of fate, the beautiful young Welsh woman giving out the medals slips not one, but two of them into my quivering paw. She vanishes and I’m too tired to go after her and give it back. Plus, I feel as if I have run 52 miles, not 26. I’ll give it to my nephew in Liverpool. He likes athletics. It might inspire him.
Anyway, enough mistakes, let’s finish on a wise note. Voltaire once said every misfortune brings a privilege, and he’s right, because I’m privileged to be able to run at all. I also know, more than ever, that no matter how well plan our lives, even 9 months ahead, they can unravel in 24 hours or less. That’s a lesson I won’t forget.
What else? Next time I train for a marathon, it will not be during summertime in a boiling city. And next time I take a long haul flight, I will not run a marathon 24 hours later.
If you’re a runner, you know why you run. If you’re not, give it a try – it might change your life.
As for Anglesey, some people probably enjoyed those steep, howling hills, but, if and when this skinny Viking ever goes back, he will take more supplies and ask Mr. Kirk Douglas to drive him.
[First published in FHM, July 2010, by S.C Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL].
Snowflakes are mesmerizing, tiny cold kisses from heaven. I’m watching them dance across Romania as I talk to my mother by phone. She’s in the UK, boasting about a blizzard, the worst for 18 years:
“It’s a major problem,” she says, “roads blocked, people stranded.”
She sounds pleased that British weather is finally worth talking about. After we say goodbye I stand at my window, watching the wispy whiteness and smiling to myself. Because her words remind me of another major problem, years ago.
In 1997 I was working in Yekaterinburg, central Russia, just east of the Ural Mountains. Founded in 1723 and named after St. Catherine, it’s where the Bolsheviks executed Czar Nicholas II and family in 1917. Under Communism it became an industrial centre – Stalin based his munitions factories there and tested anthrax. In 1960, an American U2 spy plane was shot down over the city. In the mid ‘60s, local boy Boris Yeltsin wooed his lady behind the marble columns of the Technical University and in 1991 was elected first president of the Russian Federation. In short, Yekaterinburg is Russian, heart and soul. However, by 1997 it was also full of gangsters, prostitutes and pissheads. For example…
The Major lived in my bloc. He had a big belly, a loud voice and a passion for vodka. Every morning, he would settle in the yard in his wooden chair and tell tales of Afghanistan. He had a few of those but only one leg: “Left the other one in Kabul, damn it!”
We’ll come back to him later. For now, let’s get to work. It’s 08:15 and I have a 40- minute walk in temperatures of minus 42, through snow-bound streets where stretch limos with black windows splash muddy water on pensioners selling potatoes by the side of the road because we are all democrats now.
I arrive at BBC School where twelve young Russian journalists are eager for training. “Let’s watch a British documentary about Stalin,” I suggest, slipping a video in the machine. They grin from ear to ear. “It’s British,” I add. They look puzzled.
Soon they are all glued to the screen as the documentary explains how Stalin transformed Mother Russia into Mother F****r. He helped stop the Nazis; he built cities; he dug canals; he collectivized the land; he deported 3 million citizens; he starved the kulaks and sent you to the Gulag for 20 years if you stole a loaf.
One of my trainees – a chunky blonde – leaves the room. She seems upset so I follow her into the corridor. She paces about, weeping now. I offer a tissue and comfort.
“Tanya, I know history can be painful, but focus on the journalism, how it balances the story: national progress plus state terror, yes?”
She lights a cigarette and snarls at me: “How dare you show anti-Soviet propaganda! Stalin is our greatest leader. He won the Great Patriotic War! What is your problem?”
My eyes pop as I consider my reply.
“Tanya, think! As journalists, what should we say about the Gulag?”
She sucks her Kent and replies: “Crime deserves punishment!”
“How are old you, Tanya?”
“Nineteen,” she snaps, her pretty blue eyes devoid of doubt. I pass another tissue. “You don’t have to watch it,” I say, walking back to my class.
“Good,” she grunts.
It’s dusk and dark and bitterly cold when I reach home. Snow falls thick and fast in a wild wind. As I approach the bloc, two of the Major’s drinking buddies stumble past in the opposite direction: “Good night, English!”
Then I spot the Major lying in the snow, face down, dead still. I roll him over. He is unconscious, snow on his beard, his breathing quick and shallow, smashed out of his skull. I watch his friends disappearing into the blizzard. There’s no one else around. This is not good.
Because the Major lives with his ancient mother and she rarely leaves their flat. He has no wife, no kids, and perhaps no help. He could easily freeze to death here. It happens all over Russia, every winter. His face is no longer alcoholic red. It’s turning corpse grey.
I shout for his friends. They return and we lift the Major up and prop his crutches under his arms then frogmarch him into the bloc and up three flights of slippery steps. There is no elevator. He weighs half a ton and keeps falling down. It takes us twenty minutes. He wakes up en route, tells me he adores Winston Churchill, then blacks out.
His mother opens the door. Their tiny flat has fruit crates for cupboards. I point to an old bed but she points at the linoleum floor: dump his ass there. Then she makes a puking gesture: she doesn’t want vomit in the bed.
Next morning at 08:15, the Major is back outside as usual, drinking vodka. I smile and say Good Morning. He stares at me with pink eyes as if to say: who the f*** are you?
In December 2008, Russians voted Stalin their third greatest countryman ever, above national literary hero Pushkin. I know two people who would drink to that, no problem.
(First published in FHM, April 2009, by S.C. Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL).
The radio newsroom is quiet but busy, reporters hunch at computers. One of them scribbles in her notebook, cradling a phone. Two guys in jeans huddle in low chat. I walk towards the News Editor who sits checking documents and tapping his teeth with a thumbnail. As usual, Marin wears only black. He rises and shakes my hand, all smiles, long time no see.
His window offers a panorama of the city. We stand for a while watching rush hour traffic. The blue sky turns purple. A big road stretches across Bucharest like the Milky Way, an endless stream of twinkling headlights.
We sit and he serves coffee in plastic cups. On his desk I notice an old china mug with a broken handle, embossed with a colour photo: a group of well-dressed young women, packed together, all smiling. Every picture tells a story.
“Nice girls, who are they?” I ask, sipping my ness. Marin offers a cautious grin and says: “My staff. Some left, some are still here.” He picks up the mug.
“See this girl? She was a reporter who liked celebrities. She took seven friends to a pop concert and tried to blag them in for free on her Press Card. But the Security guy phoned me. I told him no way. She resigned soon afterwards.”
“See the next one, the blonde? Told me she had a friend at a rival station who was well paid for little work and knew VIPs. So, she demanded a pay rise and glamorous stories. I told her not to be silly: her friend was obviously paid for connections whereas she had none. She resigned too. Went to our rivals.”
Marin pauses to take a call then continues his tale, still holding the mug. “This brunette, with the tan and wild hair? She loved environment stories and dreamed of working for an eco-NGO. So, I asked a friend to chat with her.”
I glance at the TV above us. Breaking News: Killer Snails Attack
“Which friend?” I ask, turning back to Marin.
“Someone who worked for an NGO in the Delta. He told my reporter to be wary. Take her time. Find a good one. Many NGOs are just a way to make money. Naturally, she resigned next day to work for an NGO. Guess where?“
He smiles and makes a funny face.
“Six months later, all three reporters phoned me: Can we come back?”
Marin gets up, patting pockets. He needs a cigarette. We move to a balcony, the air is cold. He lights up and we swap career stories: good times and bad times. He saves his best until last.
“In 1993 I was young and idealistic. I joined an NGO, the best I could find: human rights. I had good colleagues, tough assignments and big doubts.”
“We were cramming Somali refugees into accommodation for chickens, feeding them peanuts and charging donors like it was a five star hotel.”
He sees my eyes pop.
“At the same time, we monitored other Romanian companies to prove they were exploiting people, abusing rights. We put those documents in a safe.”
“Until the court case?”
“Until the companies paid up. If not, we published.”
Marin sucks his cigarette. I can’t tell whether he’s proud or disgusted.
“Did you complain?” I ask, folding my arms against the chill.
“First, me and some junior colleagues told the Somalis, tough people who had survived weeks in open boats on the ocean. God knows how they ended up in Romania but when they heard about the donor scam, they went nuts. Then they went on hunger strike. Then we called the press. They gobbled it all up,” laughs Marin, blowing smoke.
“I’ll bet. Then what?”
“Then we got sacked and charged with Bringing The Reputation of Romania into Disrepute. That’s fifteen years in jail. But the case collapsed and the NGO closed down. Don’t get me wrong – some NGOs are good. But some are rascals!”
Back in the office, a shy attractive redhead asks Marin to check her script. He reads quickly, scribbles a few changes and hands it back. She frowns, apologizes and waddles away in her Converse, duck yellow. She looks familiar. I look again at Marin’s mug. She’s there, grinning from ear to ear.
“Well-spotted,” says Marin. “She came down from Moldova for a job interview. I liked her CV, her answers and above all, her honesty. I offered her a position. She was in shock, almost fainted, poor girl.”
“Seems her Dad had told her she would have no chance because she was from the sticks, didn’t know anyone and would have to sleep with the boss.”
“Is that true?” I ask, teasing.
“Not here,” says Marin, flashing his wedding ring. “After the interview, she asked me if she could make a quick call. She dialed and said four words: Dad, you were wrong. Then she put the phone down. She’s one of my best reporters.”
“News? Sport? NGO stories?” I ask, but Marin is watching TV.
“Look at this bullshit,” he says.
(First published in FHM, March 2009, by S.C Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL)
I need air. There’s not enough in this claustrophobic downtown bar. So I leave and sit on the steps outside to watch the purple midnight sky. Jakarta’s tropical heat hits me like a sandbag, but the crickets make a nice change from jaded rock tunes and beery bonhomie.
“Why the long face, birthday boy?” asks my friend Mario, following me out for a smoke. I shrug and mumble platitudes about how birthdays bring bigger questions. Below, the red and white lights of endless traffic wink like glow-worms, as if to cheer me up. Street kids loiter in ragged T-shirts, hoping for a handout. We oblige with a few coins and they whoop off to buy late night rice from the wheeled kiosks of the kaki-lima men.
“Want something a bit livelier?” Mario offers, stubbing his cigarette, dark eyes shining with Latin mischief.
“Like where?” I ask.
“Trust me,” he says, turning up his stylish Italian collar, even though it’s not cold. And I do, just about. He’s an engaging mix of very intelligent, accomplished and falling apart. He’s been on the cover of Forbes mag: a canny young venture capitalist, who moved to Asia after the Thai baht collapsed. He mopped up, got rich. Now his marriage is on the rocks and he spends most days staring at his art collection, wondering why. But he sure can party.
We head for Kota – the old town – and a huge old nightclub called Stadium. Dark and a little dangerous – you want it, they got it. Four floors high: opera-house-meets-Victorian- brothel. It opens Friday afternoon and the techno beats don’t stop until Monday at 8am. It boasts the best sound system in SE Asia – bass bins the size of a bus. A transparent dragon hangs from the ceiling and appears to be breathing fire. This is no place to consider your past or future. You’re too busy trying to make sense of the flashing present, having fun. Most people are on something. They dance in a daze, eyes like fish. Out of it. Wacked. Stoned.
I arrive home around 4 am and stumble to bed, still smiling. That Mario is something else. But soon I’m woken by strange noises: shouting, screaming and splashing through water. From my window on the twelfth floor, I track the source though the gloom below.
On the far bank of the canal around my tower block, a crowd is gathering: men, women and children in vests, baggy shorts and flip-flops. They’re from the kampung beyond, a crowded community of low shacks and considerable poverty. They seem angry, shouting and hurling rocks across the water. Some make little pyramids of ammunition. To chase a rabid dog, a mythical urban crocodile, a python? Whatever their target, it has taken refuge in a culvert, out of my sight. After ten minutes I give up and return to bed. I must rise soon for a working weekend. They’re still screaming as I fall asleep. I’m older but none the wiser.
At 08:30, I’m downstairs in the elegant marble lobby, heading out for the office. Two policemen are quizzing the receptionist, who gives me a curt nod instead of his customary grin and wave. He stands to attention in his crisp, spotless uniform. One of the cops is taking notes.
Outside, the air is scorching. Lizards are doing press-ups in the neatly clipped grass. As usual, the stink of sewage and garbage from the canal wafts towards me. But also noise. Because there is still a crowd of people from last night, and more cops too trying to keep order. How come?
They’re looking at something on the embankment. Guys in business suits stop to take a peep. School kids dump their backpacks and burrow through to find out. I wander over, wondering at the fuss. I stand on the edge of the crowd, waiting for a gap in the tight mob of shoving, muttering Indonesians. Soon enough, I see for myself.
He’s about twenty-five. He’s lying on his back, staring at the sky, dead. His clothes are wet and filthy, covered in a stinking muddy slime. His skin is wax grey. There is a deep gash on his head, dark with blood. His black hair is matted to his skull. His faded T-shirt is shredded. His hands and arms are covered in cuts and bruises, as if from protecting himself.
“What happened?” I ask. One of the cops explains. The guy had tried to steal a bicycle from the the kampung, the neighbourhood, but got caught red-handed. He escaped, jumped into the canal but didn’t realise it was a dead end. The cop gives me a bored look: now do you get it, sir?
Eventually, I get it: the angry yells, the splashing, the mob hurling rocks. While I was trying to sleep, the guy at my feet was fighting for his life. He lost.
“Stoned?” I ask the cop, incredulous, “For stealing a bike?”
“Ya, so they say,” he replies, pushing the crowd back. Most of them look concerned or just curious. But some are grinning, apparently satisfied. No more birthdays, sucker.
(First published in FHM , Oct 2008, by S.C Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL. Photo by Ascanio Martinotti)
September, 2008, Bucharest. I’m checking email when I see a newsflash in the corner of my laptop screen: 5 bombs in Delhi. 20 dead, 90 injured. Quickly I click the link, fearful for my friends in India’s capital. Bloody images swim before me and I read the details, gawp at photos of carnage amid plumes of smoke. As it clears, I’m drifting back in time, trying to remember something that an Indian colleague told me when I was in New Delhi, five months ago. Some sort of warning. Is there a connection, to what just happened?
It’s April 2008, Delhi. I’m in India for two months, advising academics and training journalists. I’m sitting in a cab with Raj, a colleague from a local TV station. He’s tall and wiry with pressed shirts and shiny shoes. He’s helpful and witty, speaks fast, caffeine coursing through his veins, 24/7.
The scorched streets are jammed with traffic, horns blasting. Skinny guys pedal rickshaws through impossible gaps. Hawkers sell glossy magazines, phone chargers and plastic toys. Beggars swamp our car in threadbare clothes and worn out flip-flops. Some are old and blind led by kids with messy hair. Some are middle-aged amputees. But most are young and quick, eager to charm us. It’s bedlam out there, a daily fight for survival. So much for the Indian economic miracle. Raj catches my eye and shrugs.
“When you see this every day, you become hardened. Soon, you don’t see them anymore. Or, you see them as subhuman.”
The sweet smell of sandalwood incense hangs in the humid air. Florists spread dazzling bouquets on their stalls. A beautiful young cow ambles past, glassy eyed and chewing. For all the mayhem, India is weaving some ancient spell on me. And subhuman doesn’t sound good.
I’m wondering how to reply but Raj changes tack. Now he’s talking context, bigger picture and complaining about capitalism:
“It fractured our middle class. The top half jumped to the upper class. But the lower half is sliding into the slums. And we’re part of the problem, you and me. We feed this inequality.”
He may be right. But the more he squirms in our hot car, the less he convinces me. It’s a familiar campus mantra: Left is good, right is bad. I offer the only solution I can think of:
“Stop beating yourself up, Raj. We’re not shoving toxic dust down the throats of migrant child workers. We’re training journalists. That’s our professional contribution and media calls politicians to account. But if you want to get personal, just give these guys some change.”
I poke a few tatty banknotes through the window. Fingers snatch them, gone in a flash. Mucky kids press for more, their dark gaze drilling me: Where’s mine, firang?
Raj seems vaguely amused, perhaps by my naivete? Then he tells me that he and his flatmate employ a maid. She came to Delhi from a dusty village, seeking a better life. She scrubs their clothes, cooks their food and cleans up.
“We pay her 400 Rupees per month,” he adds.
Conversion: €6. If that’s a better life, her village must be hell on earth.
“It’s peanuts,” admits Raj, “But if we pay more, people in our block will say we’re lunatics.”
“So what?” I ask. “A little extra would mean a lot. Can’t you give her a rise?”
“I could,” Raj admits, “But… my flatmate gives her old clothes and stuff. Payment in kind.”
“And what do you do?” I ask.
“I watch,” says Raj, looking out at the bustling street. He asks the driver to boost the AC and shakes his head: “Such traffic, every day.”
The memories fade and I’m back in Bucharest, scanning the Internet, focusing again.
The Delhi bombs were downtown in Connaught Place, a busy spot. And as shrapnel does not discriminate, it seems the victims ranged from underclass urchins to upper class shoppers. I remember Raj saying he couldn’t afford to buy stuff there. So he’s probably safe.
But the stats make grim reading: more than 400 people have been killed in a series of bombings across India since October 2005. Some people blame Hindu extremists, some blame a Bangladesh-based militant group, Harkat-u-Jihad-al-Ismlami. But this time, a group named Indian Mujahideen emailed local news media before the blasts, apparently to claim responsibility. Stop us if you can.
Less than a month ago, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said terrorism, extremism, communalism and fundamentalism would be the major threats to India’s unity. I can’t help thinking that whichever ‘–ism’ was responsible this time, someone has underlined his point.
Chetan Bhagat, a popular author in India, reckons the country is controlled by greedy septuagenarian megalomaniacs who forget the average Indian is 25 and has different needs.
I finish browsing, dazed. Near my laptop sits a small statue of Ganesh the Hindu deity, the boy with an elephant’s head. A goodbye gift from a friend who said: “He will protect you.”
Finally, I remember. Something else Raj told me after a long silence in our slow taxi, in a city of 14 million people, in a country where some 260 million live below the poverty line:
“One day, this place will explode. Real violence. I’m surprised it hasn’t already.”
I turn Ganesh in my hands, wondering if Raj is right. And hoping he is wrong.
(First published in FHM, November 2008, three weeks before the Mumbai attacks, by S.C Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL, Photo by Salman Usmani).
The young Romanian barmen are quick and polite. They’re also sharp-witted and funny and they know their football. Every week, we trade jokes and hope for goals. I enjoy coming to this Bucharest bar, a short walk from my home, to watch Premier League.
But then Andy turns up. He’s Scottish, 45, with beard and beer belly. He works in construction and arrived in Romania a few months ago. He can’t decide whether to stay. He loves to talk but tells me the same thing, every time.
“There is so much potential here, but I’m fed up with rip offs! Should I set up a business, or leave? I just can’t decide.”
Andy scratches his beard and lights a cigarette and tells me a long story about a company that owes him €10,000. I’ve heard it before and I wish he’d change the subject. So I ask him if he thinks that England will win the World Cup. He orders his third draught beer and stares into the foaming head.
“Drives me mad, this place: scams at the airport, scams at the exchange house, and scams on contracts. Jesus, I’m trying to help, I want to create jobs!”
I feel sorry for the guy but I’m trying to watch the match. At the end, when I pay my bar bill, I notice that Andy doesn‘t pay his, even though he’s had several draught beers. He winks and tells me has a tab running, and they trust him. “By the way, did I tell you about the taxi scam?” Yes Andy. Goodnight Andy.
A few days later I return to the bar to watch a big European game. There’s a terrible storm over Bucharest. The TV picture is jammed. The barmen apologize. I tell them it’s not their fault, that’s life. Andy waddles in and spots me at the bar. I try to look pleased. He orders draught beer and groans.
“Did you watch that Romanian match the other night? Saw it in my hotel in Bacau. What a fix! Someone bribed the ref. This country is a such a scam.”
“Not like our British Parliament, eh?” I reply, and we try to laugh as the screen freezes again. Later on, Andy beckons the bar manager. They’re big buddies. I can tell from the guy’s grin and his eagerness to serve.
“How much is my tab?” asks Andy.
“About 60 or 70 lei?” says the manager, with a shrug.
“Call it 50,” says Andy and passes a folded fifty over the bar.
The bar manager puts the cash straight in his pocket. Something does not add up, and it’s not just the maths. Andy seems to read my thoughts and gives me a wink. “If they bring me a proper bill it goes through the system. This way, it doesn’t. Cheap beer for me, big tip for him! Win-win!”
“So that’s why you drink only draught, not bottles?” I ask.
“Correct, have you seen how these guys pull a pint? They have no idea, lots of waste. He writes mine off as spillage. Same with shots, who’s counting?” Andy smiles. Life is good. “First time I did it, I forgot my wallet. It was an accident.”
“A convenient one,” I suggest. Andy grins and moments pass. Then he whispers to me like a naughty uncle admitting sins. “That’s how it works, everywhere you go. But, hey, I did not invent the system!”
Two minutes ago it was an accident. Now it’s a system
“Besides, that poor that barman only earns €200 a month,” says Andy.
“So give him a nice tip on top of your bill,” I suggest. But Andy looks at me as if I’m nuts. He lights a cigarette, sucking deep and blowing a smoke ring.
“I’m just trying to do the guy a favour. Did I tell you about my contract? I can’t decide whether I should stay or leave. Someone ripped me off, €10,000. ”
“I know, you told me three times.”
“The problem is corruption, scams, it’s a game. But who makes the rules?”
It’s a good question. Someone should ask it in the British Parliament.
“I think you should stay, Andy.”
“Yes, because I’m sure you’ll figure out the rules one day. Win-win?”
Andy looks half happy and half puzzled. But I’m more concerned about the TV picture, which has popped yet again because of the storm lashing down outside. Rain hisses past the window like huge silver curtains, opening and closing. Andy summons a junior barman and barks at him.
“What the fuck, you call this a bar? You charge me the earth for a damn beer and I can’t even watch my fucking team? I want a refund!”
I tell Andy to leave the kid alone, but he won’t. Perhaps he’s taking the mickey, it’s hard to tell. But the junior barman looks like he’s seen a ghost. He presses buttons on the remote and pokes the satellite receiver.
“Sorry Domnul, it’s the storm, it’s the service provider, it’s not my fault…”
Andy groans and rolls his eyes. “No, of course not. It’s someone else.”
(First published in FHM, September 2009, by S.C Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL)
I was nine years old when I realised how smart I was. I was ten when I discovered I was a fool. Perhaps you know the feeling. Let’s start with smart.
My new football boots were something special: Gola with white polyurethane soles and ‘screw-in’ studs, not black moulded rubber like my previous pair, now too small. I added tartan inner soles for a snug fit and also devised a simple way to prove the boots were mine – a premonition perhaps? But more of that later.
School closed for summer and I played in my precious boots every day for six weeks in the local park. In Liverpool, where I grew up, ‘footy’ is not a sport, it’s a religion: you play morning, noon and night. Win or lose, you don’t go home until it’s dark and your kit is black with muck. Paradise! Unless you lose your boots. Even today, I’m not sure how it happened, but this is how it happened.
One afternoon after a hard game, I was sitting with my mates. We unlaced our boots and tossed them aside while we inspected our blisters and watched the pink sky turn purple over the city. Near me sat my best friend Simon – our winger who ran like a cheetah; his brother Martin – midfield dynamo in a Brazil shirt, and Steve Sweeney – our brave skinny goalie who was always getting hurt. Altogether there were about twenty kids, including a blond stranger who had made my life hell that day. I played central defence and not many people got past me, but this newcomer had, more than once. I could only hope he would attend our school in the new term and play for our team, but alas, my enquiries revealed he was a not a Catholic like most of us, which meant he would go to a different one. Oh well.
At home time, I stood up and was stunned to discover that my boots had vanished. “Maybe someone pinched them,” said Simon, as darkness descended.
Definitely, maybe. I spent the rest of the summer playing in a pair of worn out tennis pumps, slipping on my ass in the grass. I pleaded with my parents for new boots but money was tight – my dad rode a bicycle to work night shifts in a factory. Lost your boots, son? You’ll lose your head, if you don’t screw it tight.
Summer ended and classes resumed. I was captain of the school team and scrutinized our autumn fixtures: one game per week against other schools in north Liverpool. I wondered which school that new striker would attend, and how I was supposed to stop him without boots? My parents made me sweat until the last minute but when I led my colleagues out for our first game, I had new ones: cheap with black rubber soles. My fault for not being vigilant, right?
The weeks passed. Some games we won, some we lost. Simon scored a sweet volley. Martin scored an own goal. Steve broke his thumb. We were kids for whom every game was a cup final. I soon forgot about that clever striker until the day I spotted him warming up for our local rivals, a big Protestant school. His hair was longer and he did not return my greeting. By half time he had netted two goals, a hero to his colleagues. Like I said, I was central defence so you can blame me, but here’s my alibi: his unusual boots with their floppy tongues and classy white soles distracted me. Gola Europa? Definitely maybe.
We lost 0-4 and Blondie scored three. I changed quickly and was waiting for him in the school car park when he emerged with his grinning teammates.
“Well done,” I said, blocking his exit, “And nice boots.”
He played dumb. “Thanks, now can I leave?”
“After I see them,” I said, with my hand out. He gave me a dirty look, told me to get lost and tried to push past. I grabbed his bag and we scuffled, surrounded by our peers, all happy to see a scrap. A teacher yelled and pulled us apart, demanding an explanation. Blondie pointed at me.
“He took my boots, because I scored three!”
“Is this true?” said the teacher, steaming. I told him about my missing boots and reached into Blondie’s bag. The boots inside it had tartan inner soles.
“Just like mine,” I said. The teacher stared at me as if I was mad.
“Doesn’t prove they’re your boots!” howled the blond kid. So I lifted the inner soles to reveal a slip of sticky tape, stuck to each boot, with my name on it.
“But this does,” I said and watched his face fall. Simon, Martin and Steve patted me on the back as my indignant young rival vanished from the car park.
Smart eh? I found my boots and the ace striker lost his reputation as a cool dude. That’s all from the sports desk. Next month, I’ll tell you about the time I discovered I was a fool.
(First published in FHM, October 2009, by S.C Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL)
According to Wiki, the word cowboy derives from the Spanish word vaquero, which comes from the Latin vacca, and vaca, as you may know, means ‘My sister is a right bitch’, in Romanian. It’s a small world.
However, when I was 8, it was a big world, cowboys lived on the other side of it and I wanted to be one. Didn’t you?
In those days, a cowboy was a cool guy on a white horse, or a baddie on a black one. Today, in English, cowboy also means someone who cannot be trusted, the smecher* who promises but doesn’t deliver: a real cowboy. More of him later.
For now, I want you to imagine you are a little boy, aged 8. When you are not sitting in school, you are out with your mates, playing football or galloping on an imaginary horse, chasing invisible Apaches (Note: Computers do not exist yet).
One day, your life changes. A new boy arrives at school. He has no friends, because he is pompous, wears old-fashioned clothes, blows his nose into a cotton handkerchief with ‘PF’ embroidered in the corner, and has curly, carrot-colored hair. Sometimes, he even wears a tartan bow tie. I mean, let’s face it, Peter Fogerty is weird. Ah, yes, but, oddly enough, despite all that, you rather like him.
The reason being, Foghorn is very intelligent (that’s his nickname but you call him Peter); He plays violin instead of footy, chess instead of cowboys; he knows things you don’t and he doesn’t care what people think. You discover that sitting listening to Peter in a quiet corner of the playground makes a pleasant change from ripping your knees on concrete. He has lived in America; he has lived in France and other amazing places in the big fat Atlas that nobody looks in except him, and you. Soon, he’s your special friend and you don’t care what anyone says about him.
“Do you like cowboy films, Peter?” you ask. Peter looks sad. “We don’t have a TV,” he replies. “Mummy prefers books.” A heavy silence falls. However, Peter has something even better than a TV, and when he tells you, you cannot believe your ears. “Why don’t you come and ride my horses, sometime?” he says. “Horses, Peter?” you ask, staring at him. “Yes, my friend,” says Peter, we have four, on our farm. Come if you like.”
That night, you lie in bed, sleepless. Perhaps this is a reward from God. Have you done anything good lately? No but never mind. Perhaps God is glad that you have befriended the outcast, the creep. With four horses. Thank you, Baby Jesus. When at last you drift and dream, you’re a real cowboy and you hear Peter’s posh voice, calling to you across the prairie: “Soon, my friend.”
Eventually, you nail him down to next weekend, and, because you cannot keep a secret, you ask if you can bring Carl and Kenny Caxton too, because they have fine cowboy hats and gun-belts and such details count. Peter agrees, of course.
Soon, it’s Saturday. The walk to his farm takes longer than expected, way beyond your grim housing estate and the boundaries of parental approval, but worth every step, lads.
“You sure he’s got horses?” The Brothers Caxton have lots of freckles and lots of doubts, which are cruelly confirmed when Peter leads you up the garden path of a rambling cottage in the middle of nowhere and says: “Not here, in that big field over the way! Ask the farmer! Bye, then!” He scrapes his boots on the old doorstep and vanishes inside for tea. Kenny Caxton picks his nose and says: “Thought so.” Carl Caxton, who is older, pulls out his little green penknife and threatens to scalp you.
Since you don’t possess a pipe of peace, you offer bubble gum, which cost you half your pocket money but buys you time. You walk to the stone wall across the road and look into the big field. There are no horses just a smell of pigs, but from what you’ve seen on TV, cowboys don’t lasso pigs. If they did, they’d be pigboys.
“We’ll ask that farmer”, you say, climbing over and walking through the field.
The farmer has a thick black beard, a greasy waistcoat and no horses. “Now get off my land or I’ll fetch my gun,” he says. So, naturally, you run for your life.
It takes you two hours to walk home, at the end of which, your two friends promise never to speak to you for the rest of their lives, which seems reasonable. However, they do speak to the rest of the class, first thing Monday morning, and before long, your new name is not Tex or Doc Holliday or Billy the Kid, but Pinocchio.
The next time you see Peter, you call him Foghorn, among other things. You don’t know it then, but Foghorn is your first real cowboy. He walks away quickly, patting his hair, and replies in his posh voice: “I said we used to have horses.”
(First published in FHM, November 2009, by S.C, Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL)
*smecher = Romanian slang for smart ass, wise guy, diamond geezer, cowboy. Pronounced sshh-mekka. A very evocative word and now its all yours. Try it on your Mum? Mike.
(…and the one that wouldn’t leave)
I spot her on the ferry. Or maybe she spots me. We’re standing at the rail a few yards apart. I’m looking at the horizon towards France. I’m going to find a job there soon, if I’m lucky. She’s looking back at the white cliffs of Dover, England.
I reckon she’s Latino – olive skin, dark eyebrows. The clothes look expensive – her red silk scarf flaps like flames and her dark hair blows like smoke around her beautiful face. I like that black coat, leopard collar. I can smell her perfume despite the November wind. She’s everything a woman should be, sexy and mysterious. And I’m a teenager with pimples, looking for adventure, whatever comes my way. She’ll never come my way. I’m 19 and she’s what, 35? I watch the grey sea. Why is the English Channel never blue? How quickly can I get to the Alps?
I’m feeling sick by the time the ferry docks in Cherbourg. I stash my rucksack and skis in an empty compartment on the Paris train and settle in. I’m tired after a long trip from Liverpool and I close my eyes to sleep. I want peace and quiet, not tourists with guidebooks or strangers with questions. The glass door slides open.
I smell familiar perfume and open my eyes. The leopard woman peeps in and asks if she can join me. I can’t believe my ears.
“Sure,” I say, “It’s nice to have company.”
She has lots of shiny leather luggage and gives the sweating porter a tip. He touches his little cap and gives me the eye: lucky you.
The train pulls out and we watch France whizz past our window. The woman tells me she is Vienna. She has a sexy accent and her English makes me smile.
”You’re going to Vienna?” I say.
She frowns and says: “God, no, boring place. I am Vienna. That’s my name. What’s yours?”
Turns out she’s not a leopard. She’s a Brazilian translator and speaks five languages. And she’s not sad, just exhausted, moving to Brussels. I tell her I’m on my second gap year before college. I’m going to Val d’Isere. If I’m quick, I’ll find a job as a waiter, ski all day and work all night – but not as a dishwasher like last season.
Vienna says: “Why not wash dishes?”
“For six months?” I say.
We share my sandwiches and my Johnny Walker and by the time we reach Paris we’re giggling. “Perhaps,” says Vienna, “You could help me to my hotel?”
I glance at her luggage and say: “Sorry. I need to get to Lyon as soon as possible. But it was nice meeting….”
I’ll never forget the look she gives me. Her bedroom eyes say: we were just getting started. A porter comes running and Vienna strides out of my life like a catwalk model. But I’m thinking ahead. I don’t want to wash dishes.
I’m in the Alps eighteen hours later, tramping through deep snow, knocking at different hotels, asking for a job. I pause for a drink and spot BJ, the Australian ski instructor that I first met last season. He’s 27, tanned brown as a nut. I tell him about my summer in England, and about Vienna.
“You bloody fool,” he says, “She was the one that got away!”
He’s probably right. Or maybe I was the one that got away? BJ buys me a Johnny Walker and says: “Look mate, drink up, this will help you forget.” But he’s wrong.
Mid-December, a funky chambermaid comes to work in the hotel where I wash dishes. Lucy is English, good-looking, same age as me with a posh accent. She has short hair, wears Dr Marten boots and dungarees; she might be a Lesbian, I’m not sure. She wants to go to Art College and shows me one of her sketches, which is entitled ‘Man Fighting Evolution’ but looks more like an octopus fighting a hedgehog. Lucy fucking hated boarding school and she fucking hates cleaning rooms.
However, she seems to enjoy fucking me, until one night when she almost bites my tongue off. I sit in bed, groaning in pain, wondering if Lucy is crazy. She pulls my duvet up to her pixie chin and her eyes sparkle in satisfaction like a naughty kid. She reaches for her book: Nana by Emile Zola, it’s about a woman who destroys men.
After two weeks and two-dozen disputes about everything and nothing, I want Juicy Lucy out of my life. She disagrees – no surprises there – and since she lives down the corridor from me in the warm basement of our hotel, separation is going to be rather tricky. But I’m determined.
One night, we argue about Picasso and soon Lucy is screaming but not with pleasure. I open my door and ask her to leave, to go home, back to her own room, down the corridor. She sinks her teeth into my bare arm like a dog with a bone and won’t let go.
The purple bruise lasts a week and looks like a love bite. BJ spots it and says: “Enjoying Val d’Isère?”
I sip my scotch and wonder about washing dishes in Brussels.
[First published in Playboy, March 2012, by S.C. Mediafax Group SA]
playboy march 2012 < click here to see the original page from the magazine.
Am remarcat-o pe feribot. Sau poate ea a fost cea care m-a remarcat. Stăm sprijiniţi de balustradă. Mă uit la linia orizontului către Franţa. Îmi voi găsi în curând un job acolo, dacă am noroc. Ea se uită înapoi, spre stâncile albe din Dover, Anglia.
Cred că e hispanică – piele măslinie, sprâncene negre. Eşarfa ei din mătase roşie pâlpâie ca o flacără iar părul ei lung, negru pare un fum ce îi încadrează frumoasa faţă. Îmi place haina ei cu guler leopard. Îi pot simţi parfumul, în ciuda vântului de noiembrie. Este sexy şi plină de mister iar drumurile noastre nu se vor intersecta niciodată. Eu am 19 ani, iar ea, cât să aibă, 35? Mă uit la marea în nuanţe gri. De ce apele Canalului Mânecii nu sunt niciodată albastre? Cât de mult mai am până să ajung la Alpi?
Am rău de mare în clipa când feribotul acostează în Cherbourg. Îmi depozitez rucsacul şi schiurile într-un compartiment gol din trenul către Paris şi mă fac comod. Sunt obosit după lunga călătorie de la Liverpool. Vreau linişte şi pace, nu am chef de de străini care pun întrebări ciudate.
Uşa din sticlă a compartimentului se deschide uşor. Simt un parfum cunoscut şi deschid ochii. Femeia leopard mă întreabă dacă poate să mi se alăture.
“Desigur”, îi răspund, “e plăcut să ai companie.”
Are multe bagaje din piele strălucitoare şi îi strecoară un bacşiş hamalului transpirat. Acesta duce mâna la sapcă în semn de mulţumire şi-mi aruncă o privire complice: norocosule.
Trenul se pune în mişcare şi privim Franţa care rămâne în urma noastră. Femeia îmi spune că ea e Viena. Are un accent sexy şi engleza ei mă face să zâmbesc.
“Mergi la Viena?” întreb eu.
Ea se încruntă şi spune: “Oh, Doamne, nu, plictisitor loc. Eu sunt Viena. Aşa mă cheamă. Pe tine cum te cheamă?”
În cele din urmă se dovedeşte că este braziliancă, lucrează pe post de translator şi vorbeşte cinci limbi străine. Iar acum se mută la Bruxelles. Îi spun că merg la facultate, dar am luat doi ani de vacanţă înainte să încep cursurile. Merg la Val d’Isère. Dacă sunt rapid, poate îmi găsesc o slujbă ca ospătar. Schi ziua şi muncă toată noaptea, dar nu ca spălător de vase, ca vacanţa trecută. Viena spune: “De ce să nu speli vase?”
“Timp de şase luni?” îi dau eu replica.
Împărţim sticla mea de Johnny Walker, iar când ajungem la Paris deja râdem în hohote. “Probabil,” spune ea, “m-ai putea ajuta să ajung la hotel?” Mă uit la bagajul ei şi îi răspund: “Îmi pare rău, trebuie să ajung cât pot de repede la Lyon. Dar mi-a părut bine…”
Ochii ei îmbietori par să spună: ăsta e abia începutul. Un hamal a venit în fugă şi Viena a plecat din viaţa mea cu mersul unui model pe podium.
18 ore mai târziu mă aflu în Alpi, înotând în zăpadă, bătând din uşă în uşă pe la hoteluri, intrebând dacă au vreun loc de muncă disponibil. Mă opresc să beau ceva şi îl văd pe BJ, instructorul australian de schi pe care l-am întâlnit anul trecut. Are 27 de ani şi e foarte bronzat. Îi povestesc despre vara petrecută în Anglia şi despre Viena. “Eşti nebun,” spune el, “Ea te-a părăsit, nu tu pe ea!” Îmi cumpără un Johnny Walker şi îmi spune: “Ia amice, asta te va ajuta să uiţi.” Dar se înşeală.
La mijlocul lunii decembrie, o cameristă “cool” se angajează în hotelul în care eu spăl vase. Este englezoaică, arată bine, e de aceeaşi vârstă cu mine. Are părul scurt şi poartă salopete; pare a fi lesbiană. Vrea să studieze la Colegiul de Artă şi-mi arată una dintre schiţele ei care arată ca o caracatiţă luptându-se cu un arici. A urât pensionul ca naiba şi urăşte ca naiba să facă curat în camere.
Oricum, pare să-i placă să facă sex cu mine şi într-una dintre nopţi, aproape că îmi smulge limba din gură. Stau în pat, gemând de durere şi întrebându-mă dacă nu cumva Lucy e nebună. Îşi trage pătura peste bărbie iar în ochii ei se citeşte satisfacţia. Se întinde după o carte: Nana de Emile Zola. În ea este vorba despre o femeie care distruge bărbaţi.
După două săptămâni şi multe dispute, îmi doresc ca sălbatica Lucy să dispară din viaţa mea. Ea nu e de acord cu decizia mea – de ce oare nu mă miră – şi colac peste pupăză stă şi pe acelaşi coridor cu mine. Aşa ca e destul de complicat, dar sunt hotărât să fac asta.
Într-o seară ne certăm pe tema Picasso. Ea începe să ţipe, dar nu de plăcere. Deschid uşa şi îi spun să plece, să se ducă “acasă” la ea, în josul coridorului. Îşi înfige dinţii în braţul meu dezgolit, ca un câine care se repede la un os şi nu-i mai dă drumul.
Vânătaia nu dispare timp de o săptămână si urma arată în mod evident ca o muşcătură din dragoste. BJ o remarcă şi spune: “Ei, te distrezi la Val D’Isère?” Sorb din whisky şi mă întreb cum ar fi să spăl vase în Bruxelles.
playboy march 2012 < to see the original page from Playboy, please click. Multumesc.
[First published in Playboy March 2012 by S.C. MediaFax Group SA.]