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 E numai Eurovision, dar îmi place…

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First published in PLAYBOY, May 2012, by S.C. MediaFax SA, Romania.

Major Problem



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).

This Place Will Explode



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).

Paradise Lost


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)

A Real Cowboy



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.

 

The one that got away…


(…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.