Azerbaijan: Land of Fire, Land of Tolerance?


mike ormsby child witch kinshasa congo sorcery baku azerbaijan exorcism

I wrote the post below for Radio Free Europe in Azerbaijan, about a controversial local TV show featuring a ‘possessed’ woman; it draws parallels with media policy and ‘possession’ cases in D.R Congo, and explains the context of my novel ‘Child Witch Kinshasa‘.

CW Kin cover cleanThe post appears here under its original title: 

What happens when a journalist meets an exorcist? 

Baku-based British author Mike Ormsby says the devil is in the detail and has a squeaky voice. How does he know? Read on.

The title of my post might sound like a joke, but it’s a topical and serious question, given recent events here in Azerbaijan. I’ll answer in three ways, starting on a personal note.

In 2002, while training journalists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I met a boy named Kilanda who had been accused of witchcraft and horrifically burned in an ‘exorcism’. You can see the results in this short film. Catholic nuns tended his injuries, but Kilanda was in such agony he could not even speak.

I soon learned that brutal exorcisms happen frequently in DRC. The reasons are complex, but, in brief, kids are targeted as ‘sorcerers’ responsible for everyday misfortunes. Media’s reaction to the abuse seems ambivalent: a case such as Kilanda, that should have been prominently reported, was usually ignored by TV and radio, or buried among the small ads in a local newspaper. Even worse, journalists who did bother to report such cases seemed to prioritize the ‘religious’ and ‘moral’ concerns of adults accusing and injuring kids, as if the power of young ‘sorcerers’ was a fact of life, rather than a figment of overheated imaginations. So, in my journalism seminars around Congo, I urged my local peers to be less blasé and more objective; to report and investigate the abuse of vulnerable kids like Kilanda. Some journalists responded well. Some murmured, “You don’t understand our culture.” Some probably thought I was a witch.

I met a few ‘pastors’ conducting exorcisms for cash, and one invited me to ‘speak with the devil’. I can report that Satan has a squeaky voice. As for our intermediary, the pastor’s earnest sense of vocation was almost convincing but his ragged shirt-cuffs hinted at the real story: in war-ravaged Congo a proper job was about as likely as a visit from an angel, and exorcisms were a lucrative alternative.

I left DRC after five months, with deep concerns about the growing influence of such misguided individuals, some sweet memories of decent people I had met on my travels around that vast country, and an idea for a novel (more of this later).

Here in Baku, recent events provide a second answer to my question: what happens when a journalist meets an exorcist? Or rather, what happens when a journalist hears about a young woman who appears to be possessed?  In this case, the journalist does not turn a blind eye; he senses a story and invites the woman to participate in a TV talk show – Among The People –with several ‘experts’.

The show airs and the young woman sits passively in the audience, flanked by her brother who, at his wits’ end, had originally contacted the journalist. Occasionally the woman glares and snarls across the studio at one of the invited experts, who responds with mystical, hocus-pocus gestures, as if to hypnotize her.  She gasps, writhes, and eventually slumps, as if ‘exorcised’. The producers add dramatic music and the audience squirms or gawps transfixed. The broadcast is melodramatic in tone and I feel as if I’m watching some cranky, late 19th century double-act from American vaudeville. But two things that happen a few days later are even more interesting.

First, Azerbaijan’s media watchdog – the National Television and Radio Company – warns ANS for “causing damage to the physical, mental or moral development of minors, as well as reflecting sensuality and cruelty… which angered the public.

Second, a member of the public contacts the troubled woman and arranges to help her in private. Someone films their encounter and posts it on YouTube, where, it gets over 150,000 hits in a few days. The wobbly footage shows the same stern-faced young woman; she sits, as if in a trance, on a sofa, staring and hissing like a cat at the man who wants to help her. He yells at her, reads aloud from the Koran, slaps her shoulder, and stubs out lighted matches on her forehead and neck. The scene is disturbing and difficult to ignore, compulsive viewing even, like the scary bits of an irresistible movie; the difference being that this is apparently real life – the location looks domestic and a second, older woman appears briefly and hides her face from the camera, as if fearing for her privacy.

Inevitably, these events have created quite a stir in Azerbaijan and, according to a local reporter for the BBC, the young woman is now staying at the man’s home; she says she is ‘unwell’, that the exorcisms ‘help’ her, that she is ‘grateful’ and would allow him to ‘burn me head to toe, if he wishes.

The BBC contacted the public prosecutor, and was told that no charges can be filed against the ‘exorcist’ unless the young woman complains. This seems unlikely, perhaps because she feels better. Let’s hope so. On the other hand, what if she feels worse, and the exorcist takes her at her word? Azerbaijan promotes itself to tourists as the Land of Fire, Land of Tolerance, but does it wish to be known as the land that tolerates a troubled young woman being burned head to toe?

There are countless precedents back in Congo, where youngsters often agree they are ‘possessed’ and play along with those who ‘help’ them, often until it’s too late.

In Congo, however, any adult who accuses or hurts a young person, on grounds of ‘possession’, can face up to three years of penal servitude, which would presumably prove a considerable disincentive to zealous bullies, if more Congolese people knew of that law or were brave enough to invoke it. Is there a law in Azerbaijan to prevent cruelty during ‘exorcisms’, or only one to prevent such cruelty being shown on TV? I’m not qualified to answer, but perhaps someone should, before YouTube is awash with clips of other adults ‘helping’ troubled youngsters.

To conclude, I’ll offer my third answer to the question – what happens when a journalist meets an exorcist? In my case, I wrote a novel. It took me ten years to complete and was published in December 2013. In my story, a Congolese street kid seeks a home and a foreign journalist wants to help; the devil is in the detail. That’s all I’ll say about the plot.

The novel is based on my experiences in Congo and was inspired by Kilanda, the injured boy I mentioned earlier. The first part – Child Witch Kinshasa – was published in December, and the second part  – Child Witch London – comes out in March.

My story does not accuse ‘darkest Africa’, but shows how, when we point, three fingers sometimes point back, and how, in the right/wrong circumstances, such as civil war, we might all lose our moral bearings, even in faraway, leafy London.

Britain has seen horrific torture of ‘demonic’ kids, and even ritual killing, in recent years. My book is not a gruesome tale of murder  - at times it’s a comedy – and I hope it helps to illuminate, in some small way, a big and complex subject, not least because child welfare NGOs warn that the abuse of ‘possessed’ young people is spreading worldwide. That might make for controversial TV in Baku but it’s no joke.

CW Kin cover clean

Hit the Road, Cristian


"She purrs like a cat!"

“My baby is neat, clean and purrs like a cat.”

Spare a thought, this bitter winter, for lorry drivers my friend like Cristian Vlad, who will spend most of it on the road, a thousand miles from home. Cristian has been a trucker for six years. I asked him why…

"She purrs like a cat." Cristian Vlad with his Scania R440, Euro 6

Well, trucks have always fascinated me! I remember as a child, on my tricycle, pretending to be a truck driver, after seeing something about them on TV.

But in mid-winter, do you you ever wish for a different job?

Personally, I hate winter. The batteries die from frost. There is too much ice and snow, the days are short, the nights are long, the cold makes work more stressful, especially when you are cooped up, hour after hour in the cab. Really, I’ve had enough winter adventures to last a lifetime; they’re turning my hair white, literally!

As a driver, which country do you prefer and why?

I like France, because it’s so calm, has excellent infrastructure and plenty of parking. I really enjoy driving across France, it’s a real pleasure to work there. However, it’s also Europe’s most expensive country!

What sort of things do you transport?

Sheets of plate glass. My trailer is custom-designed for this, I can’t carry anything else. The work does not require a lot of physical effort, so that’s convenient. Loading and unloading lasts only a few minutes.

Truck driving often seems an adventurous, even romantic life – the open road, the thrill of new places, the freedom and independence. Does it ever feel that way to you?

Of course, especially on a good day, when the sun rises ahead and the morning goes well, you listen to good music, drink good coffee, you know you have 1,000 km to the destination, and your truck casts an elegant, even feminine silhouette as you overtake the cars. All that brings a smile. But, of course, it can also be the opposite. The point is, not to get stressed out, not to crack during the difficult or stressful times. It’s give and take, good and bad. I’m lucky to visit many places, and to get paid for it.

What truck do you drive?
Scania R440 , Euro6. I got it new and I love it, I care for it like a baby. It’s neat and clean, purrs like a cat, looks great, and has not let me down so far.

You like to cook, after work. How do you manage?
Since becoming a driver, I’ve learned to cook pretty well. I’m lucky because my trailer has a space in the front of the trailer, which I’ve converted into a small kitchen. It’s got all the implements I need and whenever I go home to Romania, I stock up on ingredients, especially Romanian spices.

But how easy is it, after a long day, to get a good night’s rest?
It’s fine, I have a comfortable bed in my trailer. The main thing is to find a quiet and safe parking place, away from potential thieves, otherwise you risk sleepless nights and cannot work during the day.

What’s your usual schedule?

I work nine hours then take by a eleven-hour break. Than I repeat the cycle. But, if I wish, I can work ten hours straight, twice per week, or take a nine-hour break. So, it’s quite flexible. On average, I drive 12,000 miles per month.

Does all this travel affect your personal relationships?

Yes, it’s never easy. I know many truck drivers who are separated or whose families broke up. Our schedules can be hellish.

It is easy to drive a twelve- or eighteen-wheeled monster?

Certainly not! We don’t learn much at driving school, either. Ideally, I think a rookie driver should have a more experienced companion for the first few months, to keep an eye out for danger. There are so many details you must learn, sometimes just in time to avoid trouble. I went out alone at first and, I admit, I made quite a few mistakes, enough to give me a cold sweat several times!

Every day is a winding road...

Every day is a winding road…

So how do you keep your wits sharp – do you try to stay fit?

I do push-ups, abdominal squats, all that. It’s essential as this job gives you very little exercise.

What makes a good driver?

It’s in your blood: a mixture of attention, patience, reflexes, technical skill and a positive mental outlook.

You’ve spent Christmas ‘on the road’, in the past; did Santa Claus find you?

He found me in France a few years ago, I had a nice Christmas Eve with friends. But, as for my birthday, that was quite depressing, because I arrived late in the parking area and couldn’t find any drivers awake. So, I poured a glass and toasted myself: cheers!

(This interview was first published in Playboy, December 2012, by MediaFax Group, Romania)

A Month in the Country


‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’

(Tennyson, 1850 )

DSCF1213 orig hens copy

Radu has a farmer’s tan, a lazy smile and forearms that could throw me over a wall. He stands in his courtyard sharpening a six-inch blade.  “Killed my first calf when I was ten.” He gazes at the mountains of Transylvania. “It was hard, first time. Come, you can help.”

 We lead a beautiful brown calf from Radu’s shed. He wrestles it to the grass, ties its legs and quickly opens its neck, ear to ear, with his blade. The calf makes no sound. The hooves kick, blood flows and the milky eyes stare at an inquisitive cat. 

I ask Radu why he did not first stun the calf. “Because it hurts,” he replies. “How would you like a kick in the head? Plus, a stun gun is expensive. Come, let’s skin it.”

We hoist the dead calf on a rope. Radu makes careful incisions with a Swiss Army knife, cutting and tugging. Soon the warm hide hangs like an onionskin. The cat sits below, lapping blood from the grass, its head speckled red like a Jackson Pollock painting. 

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 “You like veal, Mike?” Radu asks. I tell him I have not eaten meat for 33 years. He hands me the Swiss Army knife. “Try not to puncture the hide.”

I cut, tug and wonder what I’m doing here. Radu seems to be wondering the same.

 The answer is, I’m in this mountain village for my summer holidays, helping a British couple move to Transylvania. Radu‘s farm is nearby. His bubbly wife, Elena brings us eggs and cheese. When we need help, they help us; and vice versa. That’s how it is, up here. It’s a nice community, close to nature.

My Brit friend, Anna says, “It’s better to kill a calf in a yard than drive it 20 miles to an abattoir. Imagine the stress?” She’s probably right.

The removal lorry arrives from UK. The solo Romanian driver is 5 foot 3 and looks 17. We try not to stare. He grins, unlocking the back. “Think I’m a kid, eh? I’ve got kids of my own.”

The lorry contains 30m3 of furniture and boxes, well packed by a shipping company, which has also sent a team of quick, strong and courteous young men from Bucharest to help unload. I’m tempted to phone The Daily Mail in London and tell them to stop writing about lazy Romanians invading precious Little England. These guys are amazing. I ask about their work. The team leader tells me they travel a lot. “In Brussels, for some Chinese clients, we lifted an ornamental elephant that weighed 800 kg!”

A neighbour named Vasile comes by with his little dog, to see what’s going on. Vasile has a weather-beaten face, lots of wrinkles but not many fingers.

Vasile 2

“Because I’m a carpenter. My wife works in Germany. And don’t feed my dog. It kills chickens.”

“Because it’s hungry,” Anna suggests.

Vasile shakes his head. “Because it’s a sly little bastard.”

“Would you like a Kiwi fruit?” I offer a bowl of nice ones.

Vasile frowns. “No thanks. I heard those are aphrodisiacs. What if I eat one and get … you know?” he wanders off, followed by a sly little bastard with a waggy tail.

After three days, my friends’ house looks like a home. We work long hours – bed at 6 am, rising at 9 am. We’re exhausted and not happy with the 14-year-old local kid who keeps razzing on his motocross bike. Anna’s husband Tony ask why he revs so loud. “Because I like it,” the kid says.

Radu returns to clean the septic tank. He needs someone to help him, so we draw lots. Guess who loses. I don’t mind, honestly. I’ve never seen a septic tank and this is what holidays are for. It turns out to be a long plastic box, like a circular coffin, in a deep hole. It stops sewage draining into the land. Fascinating. I’ll stand over here, ok?

That evening, we chainsaw logs for winter, under a full moon. Our work is interrupted by howls, but not from wolves. The Motocross Kid has dislocated his shoulder playing Leap Frog. He’ll go to hospital, poor lad, and our long days will be peaceful.

A tiny grandmother dressed in black comes up the road. She tells us she can remember Russian soldiers passing this way in the 1940s. She was so scared she ran all the way home. But they were just local farmers. “And, do you need mushrooms?” she asks. We do. So she promises to bring some freshly picked, tomorrow. “But you mustn’t ask me where from,” she says. So we don’t.

Radu chainsaws a log, dead easy, as if putting a hot knife through butter. “I met a bear once,” he says, tossing aside the stumps. “It spat at me. Stinky spit. I was terrified. I roared at it. I never knew I could shout so loud. It ran away. You want to see a bear’s cave, Mike?”

It’s tempting, but maybe another time. Right now we have work to do, and I’m enjoying it. I pass Radu another log. He offers me a lazy smile. And the chainsaw.

[First published in Playboy by MediaFax, Romania, Sep 2013]

Photo of hens: Abbs Pepper

News from the frontline


In July 1995, some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica. Henry Peirse, a Londoner who reported from the Balkan wars, looks back.

2012-02-28 14.37.35

“I fear there is unfinished business and nationalism might overflow again.”

 

What took you to Yugoslavia?

I was 22, teaching English, in the right place at the wrong time. There were few journalists. I wanted to become a radio reporter.

 

When did you sense trouble?

In hindsight, there were many signs. Most people didn’t see them or just laughed. They knew war was inevitable but dark humour kept them going. When the Yugoslav army occupied the hills above Sarajevo, some said, “They’ve come protect us.”

 

What do you remember of the siege?

Driving fast down Sniper Alley, hoping not to get shot or hit a huge pothole. Also, how the local people, despite the destruction, stayed optimistic.

 

Did you consider leaving?

No. I had to report! Seven years passed before I thought, “Home to London?”

 

How did you learn to report?

On the job, taking advice from experienced journalists and my editors. They were helpful, but make the same mistake twice and you were finished!

 

What would be a typical day?

I would pitch a story, attend the daily UN press briefing, do interviews and seek sources in the field. Maybe a drink or two, if we could find anything, in the evening.

 

Which story or period sticks in your memory?

May ’95. Everywhere I went, trouble started, whether in the UN protected sectors of Croatia or Sarajevo. It was a pivotal month. I was in the middle of it, mainly by accident. Some events will stay with me forever but not in a good way.

 

Your worst moment?

The fall of Srebrenica perhaps; we all knew the town had fallen, but needed UN confirmation. I was with the AP bureau chief who broke the story. He was constantly speed-dialling two phones to UN Sarajevo and UN Zagreb. Finally the UN said, “You again? Bloody hell, yes, Srebrenica has fallen.” The AP man sent a news flash he had already written. It went global, in seconds.

 

Any bright days?

After December 95 we went to the beautiful Croatian coast every weekend. Four years of no tourists had allowed nature to regenerate. It was remarkable.

 

Who do you remember most?

A fast-talking American working for ABC News. He had two PhDs, a passion for bass guitar and impressed his future wife in Zagreb by drinking wine from her shoe in a gay bar. He was an influential reporter, holding court with the VIP ‘parachute’ correspondents. He died playing onstage a few years ago. I can’t bring myself to delete his phone number.

 

 

By the end of the war, you were Head of UN Radio in Sarajevo. What did the UN get wrong in the Balkans? 

A lot, but remember, it could only do what the Security Council allowed and governments around the world decide that. There was little agreement. A UN mission means the world can say, “We’re helping and the UN should do better.’” The UN is a convenient whipping boy.

 

Why did you launch eFM student radio in Sarajevo?

Because locals had little access to reliable news even after the war. A friend and I started eFM to provide information, work experience and good music for youth. It’s now linked to the university, but revenue is low.

 

Kosovo and Serbia – any comment?

I worry about the whole region, due to unemployment. A main reason for the war in ’92 was people felt they could make more money apart. I fear there is ‘unfinished business’ and nationalism might overflow again.

 

What would you say to Serbian General Ratko Mladic?

Are you proud of pushing people back 50 years?

 

You founded Global Radio News. What is it?

In Sarajevo, it was easy to see war as the ultimate high but I realised that starting a business in London might be similar – I would trust my judgement, take risks. GRN offers broadcasters rapid access to reporters in the field. We support journalists, camera-crews, photographers and fixers. GRN is unique.

 

You’re a member of London’s Frontline Club, started by journalists during Romania’s revolution. What does Romania mean to you?

Frontline is a forum for discussion; many members covered central Europe as the Iron Curtain parted. I learned about Romania from friends who went. Their stories about its beauty and changes were awe-inspiring.

 

Do you miss Bosnia?

I miss the excitement, but 3 children keep me on my toes. I still keep a grab bag (with emergency travel essentials). Not sure why and it drives my wife crazy! I often reflect how fragile everything is, how quickly war can start. I don’t know how I would cope if my children had to go through one.

 

Any tips for an aspiring war reporter, reading this?

Never see yourself as a war reporter. Travelling to a war zone in search of truth is a different objective and often necessary. Had I known what I would see I would have stepped away. I try to remember the positives. The rest is too horrible for words.

 

(First published in Playboy, July-August 2013, by MediaFax Group, Romania)

Puchi Puchi


Crina are un păr minunat; genul pe care mulţi îl admiră iar unele femei chiar îl invidiază.

puchi hair

“Ce-ţi fac puchi-puchi?”

Crina a râs şi mi-a răspuns, “Ai grijă ce vorbeşti. N-am avut niciodată puchi-puchi.”

to read more, click below. multumesc!

puchi puchi

Carpe Diem


 “You’ll be dead in 1-2 years. But don’t tell your parents.”

IMG_5324-1

In the 1980s, it became public knowledge that HIV and Hepatitis C were being transmitted to haemophiliacs through infected blood products, because source plasma gathered in prisons had been inadequately screened.

 So, 21-year old London architect Dirk, a haemophiliac who routinely injected Factor VIII from the USA, went for an HIV test.

 

But let’s start a few years earlier, in Dirk’s childhood…

 

When did you realize some people saw you as ‘different’?

At primary school my teachers decided I was spending too much time in hospital. They sent me to a ‘better’ school. I still spent a lot of time in hospital though!

What do you remember about hospital?

Parquet flooring, pain, nurses, making Airfix, boredom, more pain, cold milk at night.

Have services for haemophiliacs improved?

Yes. Back then Cryoprecipitate was kept frozen at the hospital. When I had a bleed, I had to wait for the ambulance, wait to see the doctor; wait for the cryoprecipitate to defrost. All that took 2 – 4 hours; the damage was done. Now, I have Cryo in the fridge at home. Half an hour after a bleed starts, I inject.

What is the biggest misconception non-haemophiliacs have?

That if I cut my skin, I will bleed to death. Actually, the problem is internal bleeding. Everybody’s veins split, all the time. Your veins seal themselves; mine need help.

Tell us about that blood test…

I took the HIV test because the press said haemophiliacs were at risk from ‘Gay Plague’. I went to the hospital in my lunchtime, Friday 13th September 1985. The doctors said, “You’re infected, you’ll be dead in 1 – 2 years but don’t tell anyone, even your parents, because of the stigma.” I was hard to believe. At 21, you feel invincible.

Your haemophiliac brother died from the same infection?

Yes, and I often wonder why him? We were genetically similar. Is it my lifestyle? For example, I drink and smoke; if I stop, will I die?

You recently underwent a debilitating 18-month trial of intense medication to eradicate Hepatitis C. It succeeded but at a cost. What are your memories?

Darkness, pain, being a shadow, a constant stress and worry to those people I love.

Your 20-year old son is very healthy, at university. Did he ever show traces of HIV?

No. The hospital complained when my wife became pregnant. Unprotected sex was frowned upon. She tested negative and our son was never in danger. Heterosexual sex is safer than some people think.

Last Christmas Eve, you had an internal bleed. I watched you weep in agony. You drank a vial of morphine with no effect. How come?

I’ve taken all sorts of analgesics over the years. Exposure makes you less susceptible.

If medical marijuana were more easily available, would it help?

I smoked marijuana when the pain was so bad nothing else could touch it. Marijuana works and is non-addictive. If it were more readily available, it would be helpful.

The British government gave you financial compensation for faulty checks on imported blood products?

Actually, they did not pay compensation or admit liability. Instead they paid, and continue to pay, ‘ex gratia’ payments from a moral (not legal) obligation. Whatever, I’m thankful. Had I been born elsewhere, perhaps I would have received nothing.

HIV can prompt fear. Are you ever tempted to ‘educate’ people?

Many people know my status; I’ve never encountered prejudice. I’m lucky. My wife and I decided not to ‘go public’ until our son knew. We only told him two years ago and now there seems less need than before to ‘educate’ people.

How do you feel when office hypochondriacs complain about ‘flu?

If you get a cold once a year, it’s a big thing!

You are always calm, never panic. What’s your secret, British beer?

My glass is half full. A lot of haemophiliacs with HIV are still angry. But if you are alive, celebrate what you have! I’m not religious but Desiderata is my bible.

Did you expect to meet such a kindred spirit, as your wife?

We met when I was ‘on the rebound’ from somebody who could not handle my condition. My wife is my rock, one in a million. I have given her 20 years of stress. She and our son are my reason for living.

What is your weekly medical intake?

One injection of 3 x 10ml syringes every third day. I have reminders in my calendar!

You travel the world with medical supplies worth over £20k. Any hassle?

I carry a medical letter translated in exotic languages, which helps. However, during a holiday flight in Vietnam, my Factor VIII was confiscated. At first, I thought they had banned me!

Do people see you injecting and get the wrong idea?

Never! I do it in a quiet place. They pretend not to notice. Perhaps it’s easier than asking questions.

You are renovating your 3-storey home. How do you find energy and focus?

Well, there is nothing more rewarding than standing back and thinking, “I did that!”

What’s your motto?

There is always somebody worse off than you. Enjoy your time, live life to the full.

[First published in Playboy, May 2013, by MediaFax Group, Romania]

Carpe Diem


IMG_5324-1

“Vei muri într-un an sau doi. Dar nu le spune părinţilor.”

În anii ’80, oamenii de ştiinţă americani au descoperit că virusul HIV şi cel al hepatitei C erau transmise hemofilicilor prin sânge infectat, întrucât plasma care se colecta de la cei aflaţi în închisori nu era îndeajuns de bine testată. 

Astfel, Dirk, un arhitect londonez în vârstă de 21 de ani, hemofilic care se injecta adesea cu Factor VIII, un medicament venit din SUA, s-a dus sa-şi faca un test HIV.

Dar să începem cu începutul, întorcându-ne în copilăria lui…

To read more, please click here > Carpe Diem

[First published in Playboy, May 2013, by Mediafax Group, Romania]

Travel Essentials


What to pack… and why 

b&w donkey pic for blog 

An old friend stayed with me recently in Azerbaijan. We chatted while he unpacked and I asked about the small tin of anchovies in his bag. “I always carry some!” he replied, smiling. “Essential for spicing-up a meal. You never know?”

Sure enough, next day we added anchovies plus some lemon juice to my sautéed courgettes and garlic: delicious. It was also food for thought. You know how to pack a bag, yes? Me too. But what do other gentlemen take?  I emailed some, for their suggestions. Here’s how they replied.

Edgar, a Romanian in Singapore, says, “I take my Magic Bag of pills, for diarrhea, ‘flu, aches and pains. I guess I’m a hypochondriac. I also pack the Confessions of St. Augustine. 600 pages. I never read it, but I feel smart and closer to God.”

Meanwhile, French diplomat Jerome writes from Africa, “My Romanian wife Dana never travels without ground coffee, coffee beans and instant coffee. She adores coffee. In her special cup!”

Jude from Liverpool suggests, “Two hooks with rubber suckers, a length of line and plastic pegs for drying clothes; neoprene bottle covers for keeping beer cool; a tri-band mobile phone for local SIM; an international driving license.”

Vlad of Bucharest suggests, ”Three silk shirts – smaller than a tennis ball when packed, they wash and dry in minutes with the hotel hairdryer, sexy too! A warm sleeping bag; a liquid gas Zippo to occupy and irritate personnel at airports, because security measures are absurd, inefficient and often abusively applied.”

Doug, an American in Ukraine recommends, “A headlamp for power cuts or walking at night. I’ll often take my hiking poles. I used them in Sibiu. And a compass for new cities.”

Rupert in Bucharest advises, “A good jacket in case the heating fails. And a pocket knife.”

British globetrotter Kevin says, “I used to carry a Swiss Army knife in case I want to slaughter the cabin crew and take the pilots hostage. However, last time I forgot to put it in my checked luggage and the guards confiscated it. Luckily I was in Switzerland and was able to buy a new one in Duty Free before boarding! I’m vegetarian so I pack nuts, soya beans and seeds. Indian Army boil-in-the-bag meals are good. I drop the sachets into my travel kettle and eat in my room. I hate sitting alone in restaurants or bars!”

Paul of Tel Aviv recalls, “Twenty years ago, I got a nasty infection in my eye. I have packed special eye drops ever since.”

Marketing guru Eddie from Yorkshire says, “I always take Pass the Pigs, it’s a great little game. Plus lots of business cards, diarrhea pills, spare underwear in hand luggage and a sewing kit.”

Tony in Adelaide recommends, “Small screw-top bottles for your favourite shampoo or shower gel, and keep your suit in the wrapping from the dry cleaners. It will fold without creasing.”

Brussels-based international business coach Peter recommends, “Hand wash in a small bottle; very hygienic and helps in conversation, ‘Hey, you want some liquid soap?’ Also, I travel with some empty plastic bags, for wrapping whatever necessary – worn socks or a new souvenir.”

Ascanio of Rome always carries a gift from his Kazakh wife.  “A glass hedgehog in a leather box (my nickname is Yozhik, hedgehog). Two tote bags for compulsive shopping; power adapters for 6 continents; 1 terabyte parallel hard disk with my laptop backed up; Ekhart Tolle’s ‘A New World’ or ‘The Power of Now’, to read if I get stressed. A mini USB loudspeaker because music is the answer.”

Dominic in Devon suggests, “A mosquito net for the tropics, some cigarettes (not to smoke but to grease the wheels of bureaucracy), and a smart phone with a solar charger.”

Several respondents insist on hand luggage only, like Henry, a London journalist who suggests, “Take half the luggage and double the money. When you arrive, buy what you forgot.” For example, the Confessions of St.Augustine?

First prize for travel essentials goes to my architect friend Dirk in London. He’s a severe haemophiliac and for a 2-week holiday abroad, he takes 21 vials of powdered Factor VIII, 21 syringes of sterile water, sterile adaptors for 7 intravenous injections, butterfly needles, alcohol swabs, a tourniquet and cotton wool. He’s also HIV+ and has to swallow 3 pills per day, for that. His 2-week mobile medical kit is worth over $40,000. No wonder we Brits are so proud of our National Health Service. Then again, the NHS owes Dirk, since it gave him HIV through infected blood products during the political regime of The Iron Lady, so-called, when profit counted more than people.

As for my essentials, I prefer to travel close to nature with a strong-minded companion. So, based on years of experience and many happy miles, I recommend a donkey, a carrot and a stick.

Bon voyage. Or, as they say in Romania, drum bun!

DSCN7013 copy

[First published in Playboy, April 2013, by Mediafax Group, Romania]

Esențiale pentru călătorie


Ce să împachetezi şi de ce

CLICK  > Esențiale pentru călătorie.pdf

THUMBNAIL PDF FOR BLOF VERS RO

[First published in Playboy, April 2013, by Mediafax Group, Romania]

An American in Shanghai


How’s life… behind The Great Firewall?

Eric best

 

For most of us, China means a faraway place with a big economy, big potential and little respect for human rights. For Eric Johnson, however, China means home. He moved there from Paris three years ago with his wife and young daughters. This American family wanted a change. But why choose Shanghai?

 

Eric: Because it’s the centre of the world, where the 21st century is being invented. My wife and I were bored after 10 years in Paris. She’s an arbitration lawyer and asked her firm if she could launch a branch in China. They agreed.

Playboy: China is also a place where life is strictly controlled?

Eric: Actually, it’s probably more anarchic than any country on the planet, right now. You can’t publish a newspaper but you can do almost anything else.

What do you do?

I work freelance, teaching cyber security to journalists. I help them to stay safe. I studied Mandarin for 6 months; it’s not much, but it’s enough.

Last year, the Chinese government briefly blocked Google and Gmail. Two months ago it cracked down on journalists from Southern Weekly. Weren’t we all hoping China’s new leaders would ease up in 2013?

They lifted the block on Google after a day although access is still restricted. You can search but when you click URLs, they’re often ‘unavailable’. Banning Gmail long-term would hurt trade because businesspeople use it.  As for the journalists, if you whack a mole it will pop up somewhere else!

How do your kids like Shanghai?

They love it. School is better than in Paris because parents are allowed more say. Our kids do many extra-curricula activities – trips, music and sport. They’re busy and independent with their own car and driver. My wife and I use taxis, public transport or bicycle; it’s cheap and easy.

What about pollution?

Jakarta or Moscow is worse. Shanghai’s air pollution is not so different now to Paris or London; it looks bad because it combines with humidity to create smog. Then again, like most ex-pats, we filter our drinking water six times.

Eric 2

How do you like Chinese food?

There are eight different regional styles, Shandong, Sichuanese and so on. We like hotpot. The menu has about 100 choices. You choose your meat, veg and noodles; you cook it at the table. I’ve never seen a Fortune Cookie, though!

That’s very disappointing. What’s the best thing about life in Shanghai?

It’s a great base for family travel. China has tremendous geographic, historic and social diversity. We travel a lot but have seen only 10 of the 34 provinces. It’s endless! We also visited Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Korea and Australia. We went skiing in northern Japan. Oh, and we’re going skiing in Iran!

That’s a good idea. Can the average person in Shanghai afford to ski?

Sure. They’re buying a flat worth $500,000; they have white-collar jobs and want their kids to study in the West. Shanghai has the same GDP as Switzerland.

What’s the worst thing about China?

The locals are not very welcoming and seem to think you’re there to pay homage or exploit them. They tolerate it knowing you will leave. You never feel as if you belong. It’s disappointing. It was different when we lived in Paris and Moscow.

What can you tell us about Chinese women?

Many are very talented, hard working and preparing to exercise rights that their elders never had. Change is coming. Many want independence more than marriage. According to local media, hymenoplasty is on the rise – young women having their hymens put back so they can be ‘virgins’ later, for Mr. Right.

How do Chinese youth regard the outside world, generally?

They seem increasingly aware of the constraints they face compared to youth in other countries. They are technologically literate and travel a lot for holidays or study. It’s only just starting and will be a massive change for the world. For example, every major store in Paris now employs at least one Chinese speaker and many airports around the globe are expanding to cope with extra flights. The Chinese are becoming less insular, which is good, I think.

How do you unwind?

Reading, swimming, time with the kids. Also, I visit factories with my ex-pat buddies. Access takes months because the Chinese factory bosses usually think we’re industrial spies but if we can get in, it’s fascinating – robotics, car plants, Coke bottling!

Sounds a bit nerdy, with all respect.

Hmm. Should I tell you I have 13,000 contacts in my address book and I’ve kept every email I sent and received, since my first in 1984? That’s over 1.4 million emails.

No, we won’t mention that. Let’s talk about Chinese beer instead.

OK. I like Tsingtao. You should visit and try it, sometime!

[First published in Playboy, March 2013, by Mediafax Group Romania]

Un american la Shanghai


CLICK HERE  > Un american la Shanghai.pdf

Viata in spatele Marelui Zid de foc Chinezesc

Un american la Shanghai

Eric 2

[First published in Playboy, March 2013 by Mediafax Group, Romania]

The Italian Job – love at first sight


lancia_hyena_big_91014

We’ve all seen a Ferrari, maybe even a McClaren. But how many of us have seen a Lancia Hyena? Only 23 exist. This one is worth around €111,000 and belongs to Mark, a Londoner.  

Playboy asked him for the inside story. Turns out, Mark grew up with cars in the blood…

Mark: My father was UK importer for some top marques, so my brothers and I would be excited at what he brought home. Mostly Mercedes or BMW, sometimes an Alfa. If we got really lucky it might be a Maserati.

Playboy: As an adult, you have a love affair with Lancia. How did it start?

20 years ago, I wanted a classic car. My legs were too long for an Alfa (I’m almost 1m 90 tall), so I bought a Lancia Fulvia Zagato – more space!

 

Where did u spot the Hyena?

In the showroom of Lancia’s UK agent in Yorkshire. They were servicing my bright yellow Delta HPE. I saw the Hyena and knew I’d have to have it, one day!

 

What makes a Hyena special?

It’s the ultimate version of the famous Delta integrale, which won the rally World Rally Championship 6 times (’87 > ‘92). Instead of the 4-door ‘hot hatch’, it has 2-seats and Zagato bodywork. That makes it lighter and faster.

How does this car compare to a Porsche 911, Audi TT?

In a straight line, not as fast a Porsche 911, but the Hyena is based on a 2-litre rally car; not a sports racer. However, the Hyena is amazing on corners, so, on normal roads, few cars would beat it and certainly not a normal Audi TT.

 

Do boy racers ever ‘challenge’ you?

No, they have respect! But in petrol stations, strangers will often ask me about the Hyena.

 

You limit your driving days in this car, why?

There are only 23 Hyenas in the world (there were 24, but one was burned in a garage fire), so I want to look after such a precious commodity. It’s probably doubled in value since I bought it but, more important than price, I love my baby and save her for special events like the Lancia 100 in Turin and rallies.

 

You like rallying?

Yes, but not hell-for-leather point-to-point dash – I don’t have that ability or aptitude. I prefer the classic ‘regularity’ rallies; it’s about getting to the right place at the right time, and having a spirited drive en route.

What is your favourite route or country, as a driver?

Probably France – you have miles and miles of unspoiled country roads without seeing another soul; I also like crossing north England via Hadrian’s Wall and the Alston pass.

 

What’s the most enjoyable car you’ve driven?

I love the Hyena, but it’s a standard 250BHP. I also have a Lancia integrale with 400BHP, suspension and brake modifications to match. That’s very enjoyable to drive. I drove it at Silverstone recently and easily beat an Aston Martin DB9!

What makes a good driver?

You have respect for your car, for the road and for other drivers – including any mistakes they might make. If you lose your respect in any one of these areas, things can quickly go wrong.

Your worst driving experience?

I failed my test a few times, as a teenager, but my worst experience was a ‘road rage’ attack: a guy with no legs tried to drag me out of my car!

How come you collect model Mercedes?

When I was a boy, my father went to Germany a lot, to source cars. He would often bring me a model Mercedes. I kept the habit going, whenever I see one in an antique toy shop or market. I have over 400, nicely displayed in a vintage pharmaceutical cabinet, wood and glass!

You have campaigned in local politics to preserve the environment. Shouldn’t we all be driving an eco-friendly Ford Prius?

I agree, to a large extent. I walk, cycle or use public transport in London if I can. My classic cars are for special occasions only. My ‘everyday’ car is a tiny eco-friendly low emission Lancia Ypsilon.

What’s the best-value car?

A second-hand Ypsilon! Low insurance, low or zero road tax, amazing fuel economy, 4 doors and 4 seats!

Most overrated car?

The Mini Countryman. What is that?! Too big for a Mini and too small for an SUV? I hate it, it looks like a Mini with a hormone problem!

You’ve been to Romania twice in 20 years. What changes did you notice, in terms of roads, traffic and life?

Bucharest has changed – now it’s like any other Euro city with heavy traffic, ill-tempered drivers and designer stores. The countryside is beautiful as you head north. One day, I’d like to drive the Hyena or an integrale in Transylvania!

[First published in Playboy, Jan & Feb 2013, by Mediafax Group Romania]

The Italian Job – dragoste la prima vedere


The Italian Job.pdf

Dragoste la prima vedere

lancia_hyena_big_91014

(First published in Playboy, Jan & Feb 2013, by Mediafax Group, Romania)

The Road to Rio


Image

Most of us nurture a goal – maybe to own a luxury car, attain enlightenment or find true love?

25-year old ALEX DIACONU is a pro triathlete and his goal is to compete for Romania in the Olympic Games in 2016. He took time off to tell Playboy Romania what it takes to reach the top.

Alex, what is your typical day in November?
I focus on volume. I wake up at 06:00 and at 07:00, I go to the swimming pool. I swim 4,000-5,000 meters (about 2 hours) then rest. I sleep for an hour, maybe ninety minutes. Around 13:00, I cycle 80-90km (3 hours), after which I run 15-20km, to simulate the race-day transition from cycling to running. My spring and summer program is similar but I vary the distances and intensity. I try to sleep about 10 hours. I am usually in bed by 21.30-22:00, all year round.

Don’t you you get bored staring at the tiles on the floor of the swimming pool?
No. I do this sport because I love it, not because I have to. I don’t get bored. Triathlon is liberty and diversity combined.

You hope to qualify for the Olympics. How many rivals do you have?
Romania has 55 Olympic  places but more than 625 contenders. The qualification process begins in 2014, I’ll start accumulating points then. My objectives for season 2013 are, to finish in the top 5 at the Half-Ironman in Israel (January), and top 10 at Abu Dhabi Triathlon (March).

It seems triathlon in Romania needs more investment. How should it be spent?
Many triathletes do other jobs to survive. More investment could help us and our coaches to focus on the sport.  Most days, after my own training, I work as a swimming coach. It’s difficult, doing both. All I need, to represent Romania at the Olympics as a triathlete, is better funding. Most pro athletes in other countries spend around € 40,000 per year on coaching, kit and competitions. If anyone reading this could help me, as a sponsor, I’ll be one step closer to Rio!

How ‘fraternal’ is the triathlon family – big buddies until the race?
Exactly. We train together, eat together, stay at each others homes sometimes. But we are fierce rivals and all expect to finish first. After a race, no matter who won, we all hug like children.

I first came to Romania in 1994 and when I was out jogging, I felt like a circus freak; some drivers would swerve at me for fun. But many people jog in Romania these days how come?
In recent years, sport began to grow in our country. People want to look good, be healthy, so they began to train.

At the Hungary Ironman in 2009 you competed well but spent the night on a glucose drip?
Yes, because I had given my last ounce to reach my goal: to finish in under 10 hours. I lost about 8kg in weight during the race and had problems at the end. When I was on that stretcher attached to that drip, I felt odd – both terrible pain but satisfaction that my efforts had been rewarded. I had reached my goal.

Why do you suffer mental blackouts, during some races?
Because I push myself to extremes. The lack of oxygen produces gaps in my memory.

Timex or Casio? Garmin or Suunto?
Can I pass on this one?! I prefer not to advertise anyone that does not sponsor me! So far, I have 8 sponsors who support me financially or in kind (kit etc)

What was the last book you read?
I’m here to win’, by Chris McCormack. He inspired me a lot.

Romania’s most experienced triathlete Russian Marius has been your mentor since your teens. Will you coach triathletes, one day?
Sure, when I retire I would be delighted to be able to do for others what Marius did for me.

Most people with the goal find it hard to ‘turn off’. How do you unwind?
A goal is a dream with a plan! As long as you really want something, you’ll do anything to achieve it. The key is not to get downhearted with hardships along the way, and try to remember: every effort will be rewarded…

[First published in Playboy, Dec 2012 by MediaFax Group, Romania]

Un ţel este un vis planificat!


Alex photo

Alex Diaconu şi drumul său lung către Rio

Majoritatea dintre noi îşi hrănesc un vis – poate acela de a conduce o maşină de lux, de a ajunge la iluminarea spirituală sau de a găsi dragostea adevărată. Alex Diaconu, un tânăr în vârstă de 25 de ani, este un atlet profesionist de triatlon, iar visul său este acela de a ajunge la Rio în 2016.  El şi-a găsit timp pentru a ne povesti de ce este nevoie pentru a ajunge în vârf.

Alex, cum arată o zi obişnuită din viaţa ta în luna noiembrie? În luna noiembrie mă axez pe volum. Dimineaţa, mă trezesc la ora 6, iar la 7 intru în bazin, unde înot 4000-5000 de metri (aproximativ 2 ore), după care obişnuiesc să dorm cam o or, o oră şi jumătate. De la ora 13 pedalez 80-90 km (3ore), iar imediat după plec la alergare, 15-20 km (simulez tranziţia din concurs de la ciclism la alergare). În general, dorm cam 10 ore pe zi; seara, la 9,30-10 sunt înapoi în pat. Vara respect acelaşi program, dar reduc distanţele, respectiv volumul, şi cresc intensităţile la care fac antrenamentele. .

 Te plictiseşti vreodată să vezi mozaicul de pe fundul piscinei? Practic acest sport pentru că-mi place, nu pentru că sunt obligat, drept pentru care îmi e destul de greu să mă plictisesc. Triatlonul înseamnă libertare de mişcare şi diversitate în antrenamente. Iar antrenamentele nu se repetă, aşa că nu devin plictisitoare.

Speranţa ta este să te califici la Jocurile Olimpice. Câţi rivali ai? În total sunt 55 de locuri la Olimpiadă şi peste 625 de pretendenţi. Acumularea punctelor necesare pentru calificare începe în anul 2014. Obiectivele mele pentru sezonul 2013 sunt acelea de a termina între primii 5 la Half-Ironman Israel (în luna ianuarie) şi în top 10 la Triatlonul de la Abu Dhabi (martie).

Triatlonul are nevoie de fonduri financiare în România. Cum ar trebui banii aceştia cheltuiţi? Pentru început lipseşte motivarea sportivilor, care sunt nevoiţi să lucreze, pentru a supravieţui, în timp ce practică sportul de performanţă. Dacă ar exista finanţele necesare, acestea ar trebui să asigure sportivilor posibilitatea de a se concentra pe sportul pe care îl practică, antrenori care să-şi facă treaba aşa cum se cuvine, şi tot din aceşti bani are trebui să se asigure şi deplasările sportivilor la competiţii. În majoritatea timpului, după antrenamentul meu, lucrez şi ca instructor de înot. E greu să le fac pe amândouă. Tot ce am nevoie pentru a duce România la Jocurile Olimpice la triatlon se referă la mai multe fonduri. Majoritatea atleţilor profesionişti cheltuiesc în jurul a 40.000 de euro pe an pentru antrenamente, echipamente şi competiţiile în sine. Dacă cineva care citeşte aceste rânduri mă poate ajuta, ca sponsor, sunt cu un pas mai aproape de Rio de Janeiro.

Cât de mare e fraternizarea în familia atleţilor de triatlon – prieteni la cataramă până la cursă? Exact. Deşi ne antrenăm împreună, dormim uneori unii la ceilalţi şi povestim toată ziua, la linia de start suntem cei mai mari rivali, iar la linia de sosire ne aşteptăm reciproc şi ne îmbrăţişăm ca nişte copii.

În anul 1994, dacă făceai jogging în România, se uita lumea la tine ca la urs; unii şoferi îi şicanau pe alergători doar ca să se distreze. Dar acum multă lume aleargă. Cum explici schimbarea asta?    În ultimii ani, sportul a început să ia amploare la noi în ţară. Mai apoi, fiecare dintre noi îşi doreşte să aibă un corp frumos, drept pentru care oamenii au început să facă mişcare.

Ungaria, 2009, Ironman – ai făcut o figură frumoasă, dar ţi-ai petrecut apoi noaptea pe perfuzii cu glucoză…?

Faptul că am dat şi ultimul gram de forţă pentru a-mi atinge ţelul, acela de a coborî sub 10 ore la un ironman, m-a costat mult. Am slăbit aproximativ 8 kg în cele 10 ore, şi de aici au apărut problemele. În timp ce stăteam pe targă, cu perfuzii în braţ, nu realizam mare lucru. Era un sentiment ciudat, care îmbina o durere cruntă şi mulţumirea că munca şi efortul depus au fost răsplătite prin atingerea obiectivului.

De ce, în timpul anumitor curse, suferi pierderi de memorie?

Motivul principal este acela că mi-am dus organismul la extrem în timp ce concuram, iar lacunele în memorie au apărut din cauza lipsei de oxigen pentru o perioadă îndelungată.

Timex sau Casio? Garmin sau Suunto?

Pot spune pas la întrebarea asta? Asta pentru că nu vreau să fac reclamă nimănui, atât timp cât nu mă sponsorizează! Până acum am 8 sponsori care mă susţin, unii cu bani, alţii cu produse.

Care a fost ultima carte pe care ai citit-o?

I’m here to win (Sunt aici să câştig), de Chris McCormack; o carte excepţională, care m-a inspirat mult.

Sistemul respirator este important pentru succesul tau. Eviti locurile unde se fumeaza?

Categoric! Intotdeauna.

Cel mai experimentat atlet de triatlon din România, Marius Rus, ţi-a fost mentor încă din adolescenţă. Vei antrena şi tu, la rândul tău, triatlonişti într-o zi? 

După ce mă voi retrage din activitatea competiţională, mi-ar face mare plăcere să pot face pentru alţii ceea ce a făcut Marius pentru mine.

Majoritatea oamenilor care au un vis găsesc că e greu să renunţe la el. În cazul tău, cum stau lucrurile?

Un ţel este un vis planificat! Atât timp cât îţi doreşti cu adevărat ceva, vei face orice pentru a-ţi atinge ţelul. Important este să nu te laşi niciodată doborât de greutăţile care apar pe drum şi să fii conştient că orice efort va fi răsplătit.

un tel este un vis

for blog

(First published in Playboy, November 2012, by MediaFax Group, Romania).

Cuvintele Magice


N-ai carte, n-ai parte…..

Please click to read >  cuvintele magice

(my column from Playboy Romania, Oct 2012, courtesy MediaFax Group).

No smoke without panic?


It’s late summer and I have a question.  Suppose we go on holiday, to a hotel.  We enter our room and drop our luggage, at last. What next? Check the mattress, mini-bar, TV remote? No, no and no.

According to an interesting document I received recently from New York, sent by my Romanian sister-in-law, the first thing we should do is turn around, leave the room and find the fire exit, because this might be our last chance.

OK, so now you’re thinking, “No way, Jose, I’m tired from travelling. I want to lie on the bed and watch TV.” OK, I hear you. Lie down. But read this, before you press the remote.

My sister-in-law works with firemen in Brooklyn. They assess the safety of buildings, including hotels, in terms of fire. They make recommendations to the managers, and advise them how to stick to the rules and stay safe. They have seen a lot of fires, and deaths from fires, many of them in hotels, and here’s why.

First, it seems most people who died in fires were unprepared, presumably because they thought it would never happen. But what if it does, in our hotel?

It seems we cannot rely on hotel staff. History proves some of them don’t even bother to call the fire brigade, until it’s too late.

Now a third point: despite what we see in movies, fire victims don’t usually get roasted like meat and die in flames. Most fatalities are caused by superheated gases (that means smoke) and by panic (that means us).  Those things can cause death, long before the flames reach our floor.

So, how do we avoid smoke and panic? Let’s start with smoke.

Smoke accumulates first near the ceiling, where we may not notice it, and despite the proverb, smoke does not always mean fire, at least not on our floor, because smoke can get transferred through the AC from below. If we see smoke, we should get out, but it stings our eyes, and very soon, they will close, and no matter how we try, we cannot open them. So, that’s one problem. Another problem is that thick smoke obscures the exit signs, in the corridor. Solution? We get on our hands and knees, where the air is fresher. Sounds easy, but here’s what happens if we are unprepared.

A fireman in the Brooklyn report says: “One hotel guest woke up at 02:30. He went into the hall. It was full of heavy smoke and he had no idea where to run. His chest hurt and his eyes stung. He got disorientated. He panicked. We found him dead at 02:50. What caused the smoke? A small fire in a room nearby, for spare mattresses.”

The fellow who died was near the fire exit; all he had to do was walk on his hands and knees, and count four doors. So, let’s make a habit of checking where the fire door is located: to the left or right? How many paces? Any turns, on the way? Could we find it with our eyes closed, people screaming and panicking all around us?

Next, let’s think about panic. It’s a natural but deadly response to a crisis, and once it starts, it seems to grow and can make us act irrationally. We panic and we die. However, if we understand what’s happening, what to do and where to go, we can avoid panic.

Suppose we smell smoke, in the corridor? We roll off the bed, stay low to the floor. We touch our door with the back of our hand, before we open it. If it’s not too hot, we leave, take our key and close the door (open doors help fires to spread). We do not go to the elevator. We go to the fire stairwell and walk down, using the handrail, to prevent people bumping us. If there is smoke coming up the stairwell, we do not try to descend through it. We turn around, grip the rail and walk to the roof, even if people are running down. We go to the roof and leave the top door open, so smoke can escape. This is the only time we should leave a fire door open. On the roof, we wait for the firemen.

But what if we can’t leave our room? If our phone works, we call someone and say we’re stuck. We open the window, if we can, to let out any smoke. We don’t wave and scream. We fight the fire: we fill the bath, wet some sheets and towels and put them around the door to stop smoke. We throw water at the door and the walls. If there is fire around the window we pull down the curtains and throw water around the edge. We don’t panic. We wait for help to arrive. We stay cool. Maybe we watch TV. Maybe we survive.

***

[First published in Playboy, Romania, September 2012. Republished with permission of Mediafax Group.]

Fum fără panică?


Stânga sau dreapta? Câţi paşi?

O găsim, cu ochii închişi?

To read more, please click > Fum fără panică?

[First published in Playboy, Romania, Sept 2012. Republished here by permission of MediaFax Group.]

În căutarea timpului pierdut


NU TE PUI CU GUSTUL OMULUI

„Cartofi româneşti!”

Cartofi?”, întreabă Nigel, în timp ce îmi ţine microfonul sub bărbie. Dau din cap şi spun: „Şi roşii cu brânză. Da, cartofi româneşti, roşii şi brânză, cele mai bune din lume. Vorbesc serios, dacă mă întrebi despre impresiile din primele zile, trebuie să includem şi mâncarea, te rog. Pentru că îmi evocă amintiri puternice şi emoţii.˝”

„Marcel Proust, probabil, ar fi de acord cu tine”, spune Nigel, şi are dreptate.

Prietenul meu, Nigel, are un proiect interesant – acela de a intervieva străini care vin în ţară, întrebându-i de ce au rămas aici şi cum văd ei lucrurile. Până acum a vorbit cu 35 de persoane, timp de o oră cu fiecare, şi speră să poată să le dea răspunsurile la radio, pe Internet şi să le pună şi într-o carte. Nigel este inspirat de Studs Terkel, istoric şi om de radio, care a intervievat peste 7.000 de americani, între 1930 şi 1940, pentru a alcătui o colecţie remarcabilă de istorie orală, păstrată pentru totdeauna în Biblioteca Congresului. Nu cred că Nigel are atât de mulţi oameni în plan, dar rezultatele vor fi, cu siguranţă, interesante. La terminarea interviului, îşi strânge echipamentul său scump şi îmi promite că vom ţine legătura atunci când va edita şi transcrie conversaţia noastră. Până atunci însă: „La revedere!”

În acea seară, fierb nişte cartofi, îi las să se răcească şi îi mănânc apoi cu brânză şi roşii, ulei de măsline şi ierburi, stând în balconul meu de unde se vede tot Bucureştiul. Este o masă perfectă pentru vara anului 2012, dar în mintea mea este toamna lui 1994 şi mă aflu aici pentru prima dată. Nigel a avut dreptate în legătură cu Proust: anumite mâncăruri au un efect miraculos.

Aţi auzit cu siguranţă despre Marcel Proust, dar, în tot cazul, vă voi explica legătura. În faimosul său roman În căutarea timpului pierdut, apărut în anul 1913, naratorul mănâncă o brioşă înmuiată în ceai, gustul acesteia făcându-l să-şi amintească de copilăria petrecută într-un sătuc francez, şi aşa se desfăşoară romanul care se întinde pe 7 volume. Proust numeşte acest sentiment „amintire involuntară” – opus amintirii voluntare, atunci când în mod conştient încercăm să ne aducem aminte de trecut – iar ideea sa a ajutat la popularizarea dezvoltării psihologiei moderne. În prezent, acceptăm bucuroşi faptul că gusturile sau mirosurile, sau o combinaţie a acestora, ne pot declanşa cele mai profunde amintiri, aşa cum s-a întâmplat în cazul lui Marcel.

La câteva seri după vizita lui Nigel, mă aflu la cumpărături în Cora şi iau nişte Cheerios, pentru că îmi place numele lor scris cu litere strălucitoare, şi chiar am uitat când am mâncat ultima oară aşa ceva. Întors acasă, după-amiaza, pun peste ei nişte lapte rece, bag o lingură plină în gură şi…wow, ce se întâmplă?

Nu mă mai aflu în Bucureşti. Sunt în Toronto, am 9 ani şi locuiesc împreună cu unchiul meu englez şi cu mătuşa canadiană. Aceştia ne-au invitat, pe mine şi pe fratele meu, să stăm două săptămâni la ei, mama noastră fiind internată în spital, în Liverpool, iar tata lucrând de noapte într-o fabrică. Canada este incredibilă, maşina unchiului nostru este mare, la fel ca şi frigiderul său, plin la orice oră cu suc de mere în ambalaje la fel de mari. Chestia aia maro, delicioasă, este unt de arahide, iar mătuşa mea stă în grădină şi comandă mâncare la telefon, adusă de un tip cu scuterul, în cutie, şi care se numeşte pizza. La micul dejun mâncăm Cheerios cu lapte. Cât aş fi vrut să fii şi tu aici, mami.

Probabil că această excursie în Canada m-a făcut să vreau să călătoresc, imediat după terminarea şcolii. Pe vremea aceea eram îndrăgostit de Franţa, iar în prezent, de fiecare dată când mănânc muştar de Dijon, am din nou 18 ani, stau în faţa unei cafenele din Lyon şi fac autostopul. Muştarul franţuzesc este mai puţin condimentat şi mai gustos decât cel englezesc, care îmi aduce aminte de carnea de vită friptă pe grătar şi de slujbele de duminică în care eram ministrant în biserică, îmbrăcat aidoma unui pom de Crăciun.

Desertul meu favorit în restaurantele indiene este Gulab Jamun, o prăjitură mică, rotundă, cu sirop de zahăr, după care, de fiecare dată când o mănânc, mă văd stând într-o cafenea în Lucknow, în pauza de prânz – de care beneficiez lucrând la o universitate din acel oraş, unde mă ocup de pregătirea tinerilor jurnalişti. Rajiv, prietenul meu indian, îmi arată peste drum o statuie veche, înfăţişând un bărbat îmbrăcat într-o haină lungă şi ţinând în mână o carte. Auzim râsete şi aplauze, întrucât un cuplu de tineri proaspăt căsătoriţi fac poze în apropiere. „Ca să le poarte noroc”, spune Rajiv. „Noi o numim Statuia lunii de miere. Uneori, atunci când îl omagiem pe Hanuman, zeul nostru hindus, o numim statuia Hanuman.”

Întreb plin de uimire: „Dar cine e tipul în haină şi cu o carte în mână?”

„Samuel Hahnemann, părintele homeopatiei. Neamţ, cred.”

După câteva clipe, spun plin de mândrie: „Mi-e cunoscut numele. Hahnemann a inventat homeopatia într-o pivniţă din Sibiu. În prezent, acolo se află un muzeu, Bruckenthal.”

„Sibiu, unde e asta?”, întreabă Rajiv.

„În România, ţara mea adoptivă.” Mă uit la cuplul de tineri şi mă întreb dacă ei au auzit despre Hahnemann. Acum este rândul lui Rajiv să-şi manifeste uimirea:

„Oh. Am crezut că locuieşti în Anglia. Şi, îţi place în România?”

E o întrebare bună, şi cu siguranţă îi voi pomeni despre cartofi. Poftă bună!

***

Please rate my story – see yellow stars, top left? Multumesc!

(First published in Playboy, July&Aug 2012 edition, by S.C. Mediafax Group SA, Romania)

Gettin’ Better


ABSENCE MAKES YOU WONDER: WHAT’S GOING ON?

You know how it feels, right? You’re leaving a place you think you know well; except maybe you don’t, not anymore, because the place and the people have changed, somehow. In my case, it’s the UK.

I’m sitting in a train to Manchester for my flight to Romania, listening to a song called Gettin’ Better, by Mamas & Papas, it’s perfect pop, you’d recognize it.  But Mama Cass is singing about romance in 1960s California, not about the people sitting opposite me in England 2012.

Mama Cass was, however, overweight, so there’s a link to what puzzles me: why are so many Brits obese, these days? That’s not better. it’s a health hazard.

Maybe it’s hormones, or too many calories? Whatever, the average Brit now resembles the average American and I notice it because I’m not here often. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but does presence – in the UK – make you more likely to get heart disease? Not to mention diabetes, gallstones and high blood pressure? In the airport I watch families queue for fries, doughnuts and ice cream.  Wake up, Brits!

I browse the BBC, checking the latest from Syria. But the top story says British women are the fattest in Europe, 24% are obese, and British men second on 22%. One in three British kids are overweight, or obese by age 9.  TV chef Jamie Oliver and footballer Steven Gerrard are urging our government to fight obesity through cookery teaching in schools. We Brits also win at binge drinking, above Finland and Ireland. Rule Britannia, and pass the aspirin.

Soon my plane is soaring over Transylvania and I ogle it like a lover because Romania is my adopted home and one day I’ll have a sheepdog. Bucharest’s Otopeni Airport glitters like some Vegas casino and even the taxi driver takes his time. Of course, there is no seat belt in the back, because the laws of physics do not apply here and his clients would presumably prefer to crash through the windscreen than sit on a buckle. But what’s this? The car in front just INDICATED. Another car SLOWED down.  It happens again, and my eyes pop. What’s going on, here? Has President Basescu put Valium in the drinking water?

But no, wait…I recall a recent chat with a Romanian friend in Azerbaijan. We were both complaining about Baku drivers (who are terrible) and I mentioned Romania being third in Europe for traffic accidents. My Romanian friend argued that the reason for this is not driving, speed or seat belts. “It’s roads,” he said, “Romanians drive well, now.”

If that’s logic I’m Aristotle, maybe but he has a point: driving here has improved and I notice it today, because I have been away for a year. Fewer cars? It doesn’t feel like it. Stricter driving tests? We’ll come back to that later. Or maybe Romanians have simply realized that life is not Formula 1, and death is just a kiss away?

The odd thing is, stats suggest otherwise. Accidents here rose by 20% between 2007-8, with 2000 killed. Between 2008-9, 2800 people died. In 2011, the number was 3,151*. And yet, from what I can see, drivers in Romania are more careful and less aggressive so I’m curious to see stats for 2012. I don’t own a car and I have not driven for seven years, but I hope I’ll be here to read them.

It’s good to be back in Bucharest, catching up with friends, including a bright young lady who works at the Parliament. Maria wears very high heels and very short dresses and reckons there are decent people in politics. She hopes to be a deputy. I tell her many Romanians think politics is all show. Maria disagrees and says: “It’s getting better, there are some good people in every party, and young politicians with smart ideas, there’s hope for us all, we have to try, see ya!”

She wobbles away on her heels and the workmen gawp and drivers beep and if those were votes, Maria would be PM.

My tennis partner Todd the businessman is also an optimist. He says the Romanians are hospitable, not xenophobic. He’s a black Canadian and has no problems here, except for when he wanted EU funds to create jobs in Bucharest. Some VIP asked him for 10% in şpaga (bribe) on a €5m grant. “That’s €500,000!” Todd says, “I told them where to shove it, and dropped my application.”  He flips the ball in the air and hits a serve that almost takes my head off. Game, set & match.

Over cold drinks, I ask Todd about driving in Romania and he rolls his eyes. His Egyptian wife had to pass 9 exams to get her licence, including a psychology test, a gynaecological test, and a blood test for syphilis. “I know Romanians adore their cars,” Todd says, “But do they **** them, too?”

We agree that the problem is probably outmoded bureaucracy, and that those guys who wanted 10% şpaga are dinosaurs and they’ll be gone soon.

Me too, back to Azerbaijan, by the time you read this. Damn! Summer is coming and I’ll miss Romania. But I know what song I will play in my headphones on the way to Otopeni in slow traffic, because…. believe it or not, there’s something groovy and good about whatever we’ve got, and it’s gettin’ better…

* from Eurostat & Radio Romania

First published in Playboy, June 2012, by S.C. MediaFax SA, Romania.

Romanian version:playboy jun

Va fi mai bine


 Absenţa face ca mintea să fie mai curioasă…

Ştii cum e. Pleci dintr-un loc pe care crezi că îl cunoşti. Dar s-ar putea să te înşeli, pentru ca lucrurile se mai schimbă. În cazul de faţă vorbim despre Marea Britanie.

Mă aflu în trenul către Manchester, de unde voi lua avionul spre România şi ascult ”Gettin’ Better”, hitul celor de la Mamas & Papas, un cântec care se potriveşte perfect cu momentul. Dar Mama Cass cântă despre dragostea din California anilor ’60 şi nu despre oamenii care stau cu mine în compartiment, în Anglia anului 2012. Cântăreata era supraponderală şi de aici şi legătura cu ceea ce mă frământă pe mine: de ce sunt atât de mulţi britanici obezi? Asta nu e bine. E un risc pentru sănătate.

Să fie oare hormonii sau prea multe calorii în burtică? Oricum, majoritatea britanicilor arată în prezent ca majoritatea americanilor şi observ asta pentru că nu mă aflu foarte des aici. Absenţa dintr-un loc face ca dorul să fie mai mare, dar oare prezenţa duce la o probabilitate mai mare de apariţie a bolilor de inimă? Fără a mai vorbi despre diabet, calculi biliari, infarct şi tensiune. În aeroport mă uit cum familii întregi stau la coadă la cartofi prăjiţi, gogoşi şi îngheţată, de porţii mari. Englezi, deşteptarea!

Caut pe site-ul BBC ştiri despre Siria. Dar în topul listei se află ştirea potrivit căreia englezoaicele sunt cele mai grase din Europa, 24% dintre ele fiind obeze, iar englezii ocupă locul doi, cu un procent de 22%. Unul din trei copii englezi pana la varsta de 9 ani e gras sau obez. Steven Gerard si Jamie Oliver au incurajat guvernul nostru sa lupte impotriva obezitatii prin lectii de gatit predate in scoli. Tot britanicii sunt câştigători şi la consumul de alcool, depăşind Finlanda şi Irlanda. Rule Britannia şi daţi-mi o aspirină.

În curând avionul meu zboară peste Transilvania şi mă holbez cu ochi de îndrăgostit, pentru că România este acasă pentru mine şi într-o bună zi voi avea un câine ciobănesc aici. Aeroportul Otopeni straluceşte precum cazinourile din Vegas iar şoferul de taxi nu se grăbeşte. Desigur, bancheta din spate nu e prevăzută cu centuri de siguranţă, pentru că aici nu se aplică legile fizicii, iar voi, românii preferati  mai degrabă să zburati prin parbriz decât să va legati cu o cataramă. Dar ce-i asta? Maşina din faţă semnalizează. O alta INCETINESTE. Se întâmplă din nou şi nu-mi vine sa-mi cred ochilor: o fi pus Băsescu valium în apă?

În acel moment îmi aduc aminte de o discuţie recentă cu un român în Azerbaijan. Ne plângeam atunci de şoferii din Baku (groaznici, dealtfel) şi am menţionat faptul că România ocupă locul trei în Europa în ce priveşte accidentele rutiere. Prietenul meu a susţinut că de vină nu este şofatul, viteza ori centura de siguranţă. “E vorba despre drumuri,” a spus el, “românii au început să conducă bine.”

Dacă vedeţi vreo logică în asta, eu sunt Aristotel, dar avea într-un fel dreptate: şofatul în România a făcut progrese şi am observat asta pentru că am lipsit de aici vreme de un an. Maşini mai puţine? Nu s-ar spune. Mai multă stricteţe în obţinerea permisului? Vom reveni la asta mai târziu. Sau poate că românii au realizat pur şi simplu că viaţa nu este un circuit de Formula 1 şi că moartea pândeşte la tot pasul?

Bizar este faptul că statisticile sugerează cu totul altceva. În perioada 2007-2008, procentul accidentelor rutiere a crescut cu 20%, 2000 de oameni pierzându-şi viaţa. În 2011, numărul lor a crescut la 3151. Şi cu toate astea, din câte văd, şoferii din România sunt mult mai atenţi şi mult mai puţin agresivi, aşa că sunt curios să văd statisticile pe 2012.  Eu nu am maşină şi nu am mai condus de 7 ani, dar sper că mă voi mai afla aici să citesc aceste cifre.

Mă simt bine înapoi în Bucureşti, mă întâlnesc cu prieteni vechi, îmi fac prieteni noi printre care şi o tânără inteligenta care lucrează la Parlament. Maria poartă tocuri înalte, rochii scurte şi consideră că în politică oamenii sunt decenţi. Ea speră să devină deputat într-o bună zi şi crede că cei mai multi jurnalişti sunt subiectivi. Îi spun că mulţi români cred că politica este doar un spectacol, nimic serios. Dar Maria nu e de acord şi spune că lucrurile merg spre bine, în fiecare partid există oameni capabili şi tineri politicieni cu idei bune, aşa că există o speranţă, nu trebuie decât să încercăm, salutare!”

Se îndepărtează clătinându-se pe tocuri, muncitorii de pe stradă se holbează, şoferii claxonează, iar dacă toţi aceştia ar vota, Maria ar ajunge prim ministru.

Partenerul meu de tenis, Todd este om de afaceri şi spune că-i place România. El crede că românii sunt ospitalieri şi nu sunt xenofobi. Este cetăţean canadian de culoare şi nu a avut probleme aici, poate doar atunci când a solicitat fonduri UE pentru a extinde afacerea şi a crea locuri de muncă în Bucureşti. Unii oameni importanţi i-au cerut un procent de 10% şpagă. “Asta înseamnă 500.000 de euro!” spune Todd, “le-am spus să-şi bage banii undeva şi am renunţat.” Apoi aruncă mingea în aer şi serveşte cu putere, gata să-mi reteze capul. Joc, set şi meci.

După meci, la un suc rece, îl întreb pe Todd ce părere are despre şofatul în România.  Se pare că încântătoarea lui soţie, şi ea tot cetăţean străin a trebuit să treacă 9 teste pentru a-şi lua permisul, între care un test psihologic, unul ginecologic şi unul de sânge, pentru sifilis.  “Ştiu că românii îşi adoră maşinile,” spune Todd, “dar fac şi dragoste cu ele?”

Suntem amândoi de acord că problema ţine probabil de birocraţia de modă veche şi că indivizii care au cerut 10% şpagă sunt nişte dinozauri care vor dispărea curând.

Deci, eu voi fi deja în Azerbaijan atunci când voi veţi citi aceste rânduri. La naiba! Vine vara şi îmi va fi dor de România. Dar ştiu ce cântec va rasuna în căştile mele pe drumul către Otopeni, în traficul care se mişcă cu viteza melcului, pentru că…. believe it or not, there’s something groovy and good about whatever we’ve got, and it’s gettin’ better…

* sursă Eurostat & Radio România

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

Original page from magazine: playboy jun

It’s only Eurovision but…


… I like it.

I’ve been based in Azerbaijan for the last 18 months and I write to you from the capital, a city with fever: Baku has Eurovisionitis. The bug is highly infectious, millions of people are affected and only large doses of international media attention will alleviate the symptoms across the country. As a Brit, I developed immunity long ago but am watching it spread swiftly, like a plague of Biblical proportions. Eurovisionitis zaps brain cells, causes palpitations of the heart and soul, and an irresistible urge to vote by SMS. You have been warned. If your toe is tapping as you read this, please contact a DJ and ask for a check up.

The crisis appears to have started with an outbreak of national delirium following Azerbaijan’s well-deserved win in last year’s Eurovision Song Contest, with the song ‘Running Scared’, probably one of the catchiest tunes since barefoot diva Sandie Shaw won with ‘Puppet On A String’, in 1967. Sandie was British and her success triggered chronic Eurovisionitis back home. Our illness was cured by the decline in the quality of British entrants, by a sudden increase in the contest’s kitsch factor and by the rather creepy politicization of the voting process. Nevertheless, Eurovision seems more popular than ever and now the stethoscope is on Azerbaijan.  Sorry, I mean the spotlight. Question is, what might be revealed?

If and when you watch Eurovision this month, you will no doubt enjoy impressive footage of a country in transition. Azerbaijan is changing and Baku is one of the world’s richest and fastest developing capital cities, its growth funded by lucrative revenues from massive reserves of oil and gas. An American geologist recently told me that one of Azerbaijan’s new gas fields “measures 6 miles deep, top to bottom”. That’s a lot of mamaliga, certainly enough to win friends around the world during a time of global austerity and high oil prices.

Closer to home, the social effects above ground are, of course, more visible – Baku has lots of flashy cars, designer shops and exclusive places to have fun.

Numerous reconstruction projects are underway, including a special arena purpose-built for Eurovision. Some of the buildings make your eyes pop, and at night Baku looks like the futuristic city in Blade Runner. My favourite one is based on the handwritten signature of Heydar Aliyev, the former KGB officer who became president after Azerbaijan split from the Soviet Union. Imagine a building based on your own signature, curling and poking into the sky like some giant meringue baked by Dali? Crazy but I love it.  Maximum points.

The existence of that building perhaps contradicts a recent news item on the BBC, which suggested that the authorities in Azerbaijan ‘lack a sense of humour’, although that reporter was referring to the controversial case of the ‘donkey bloggers’, two young men who posted on the Internet a video of a donkey giving a mock press conference in Azerbaijan. They went to jail for their cheek but were released after an international outcry.

The ‘donkey’ controversy highlighted one of the difficulties faced by a country in transition from Communism to democracy: when is free speech OK and when is it too provocative? More recently, some locals claim to have been evicted to make way for new construction projects, although the local authorities insist they were compensated. When animal rights activists claimed that local police were shooting street dogs in Baku as part of a clean-up campaign, their claims too were refuted.

Whatever the truth in such cases, the organizers of Eurovision hope to avoid politics before and during the song contest. Of course, they cannot hope to resolve the bitter animosity between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but they were probably encouraged to hear one of the ‘donkey bloggers’ recently urging foreigners not to boycott the contest, but rather to come and see it, and the country, for themselves.

However, my friend Kolea won’t be watching. Kolea was a homeless man who used to live in the alley near my block and survived on a few pennies from odd jobs. He visited Romania many years ago, as part of the Azerbaijan karate team, or so he told me in one our sign-language chats.  During the recent severe winter he slept in the snow, huddled in his polyester blankets. One day, I asked Kolea if there was a shelter for homeless people in Baku. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. I bought him some clothes and gave him some hot food in my flat, where he grabbed my guitar but seemed puzzled that could not play it. Maybe he had forgotten how? A few days after his visit to my flat, Kolea took ill and died, but not because of Eurovisionitis.  I’ll watch the song contest on TV but I’m not sure who will get my vote. The best tune, I suppose. Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

***

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

To see the original page from the magazine, please click this link: playboy mai 2012

Atenţie! Urgentă medicală



 E numai Eurovision, dar îmi place…

(Please click the link below… mulţumesc for reading : )

playboy mai 2012 eurovision

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

United We Fall


Things that bring us together can drive us apart.

I’m getting interested in fashion, these days. I like my Flemings jeans and my Gola training shoes. Most of all, I like my new Ben Sherman shirt with the button-down collar. I have waited months to get one and it’s a beauty – white with blue stripes.

Tom Allen has a Ben Sherman too, of course. We are best friends, although he lives in a better part of town. We met in infants’ school, became altar boys together and enrolled in the same secondary school, not long ago. At weekends we play football and tennis or go to watch Liverpool play at Anfield, wearing our Flemings jeans and Gola trainers.

Tom’s mum works in a bank, she’s quite posh, likes talking more than listening and can be a bit prickly if you cross her. She comes to our house to drink tea with my mum every Sunday after Mass and they agree we look smart in our Bennies. Tom’s is yellow and white check.

So far so good, but we need a special occasion to wear our new shirts and impress the girls in our class, show them there is more to us than they might think.  We are 12 years old when our chance comes: a school day trip to Stratford upon Avon, to see the house of William Shakespeare. He’s a dead guy who wrote comedies that you never see on TV but it will be a good day out.

I’m not sure who suggests we wear Bennies on the trip, probably one of the bad lads that live near me? Anyway, Tom agrees it’s a good idea. The only problem is, school uniform is compulsory for day trips: maroon blazers, grey pants and grey sweaters. The solution, we decide, is not to tell our parents that we are supposed to wear grey shirts too.

The morning of the trip, we line up alongside the school bus, clutching our packed lunches and wearing our Bennies with school ties (full Windsor knot, of course).

We’re feeling good until we spot our strict headmaster standing on the bus. We had no idea he was coming. He’s frowning down at the bad lads ahead of us. “Where are your school shirts?” he says.

“Mine got ripped,” says the first lad.

“Mine is in the wash,” says the second.

The headmaster scowls and lets him on the bus but his eyes pop when he sees Tom and me. He folds him arms and says: “Ormsby and Allen, why the hideous shirts? You know you’re breaking school rules, of course?”

We know it will sound stupid to repeat the lies of the bad lads but we don’t know what else to say because we’re not schmecher. We are altar boys with big ideas and wobbly legs so we remain silent and our headmaster says: “Silence is an admission of guilt. You are not coming to Stratford.” The doors hiss and the bus drives away and the girls from our class stare from the back window. “Now what?” Tom says and it’s a good question.

We could muck about in a park all day and go home in the evening and tell our folks Stratford was brilliant. Instead, we wander home in shock and tell our parents the truth, when they ask. Honesty seems a good idea but it changes everything.

Tom’s mother is very angry that we were punished while the other boys were not. A week later day she sends him to a different school, five miles away. We’ll never sit in class together again and soon he’s got new friends that I do not know. She also changes his church routine so we no longer serve Mass together. Does she blame me, somehow? She stops visiting my mother for tea and chat … have our parents had a row?

I never find out, because Tom and I drift apart and it hurts like hell, as if I lost an arm. We meet only twice a term when our school football teams play and he seems to delight in speeding past me as a striker and I delight in bringing him down to earth as a defender. We are not enemies but we’re not friends anymore.

Tom is 16 when his mother dies of a heart attack. I go to the funeral but he drifts past me like a ghost.

We meet by chance one warm summer evening aged 18, queuing at the bar in a pub. We chat briefly about our plans for college. Tom is wearing a Ben Sherman, I can tell by the stitching and the little loop on the back. They are cool shirts, always will be.

When I take my drinks back to my girlfriend, she says: “Who was that?”

I gaze into my beer and say: “Some lad I used to know.”

***

First published in Playboy, April 2012, by S.C. MediaFax SA. To see the original page from the magazine, please click this link: playboy aprilie 2012

Back to Africa: Four women in the hot zone


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 patternedpagne’ 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?

“I play tennis twice a week and I recently discovered a gardening class. I was having driving lessons too, but my instructor crashed the car!”

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)

*******

Viking on The Run


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 wearing a huge coat made of golden fleece who asks if I have seen any of his sheeps in the fields. Sheeps? I can hardly see my feets.

“Sorry, no,” I say. The well-wrapped shepherd chews his obligatory stalk of grass, gives me the once over and says, “So are you one of them crazy joggers from the West training for a marathon?”

I shake my head as I run on, but now I’m thinking: Maybe I am? Maybe it’s time for another one; number 6? I glance back at the shepherd disappearing into 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].

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).

Stoned


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)

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).

Someone Else



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.”

“Really?”

“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)

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.

Don Kee


My friend Don Kee applied for a job in the UN, hoping for grade P2. After a wait of 17 years, during which he filled in 265 forms, because he did not know anyone on the inside, he finally got unlucky. Here is Don at the office:

However, Don resigned from the UN when he saw the lunch facilities at Cafe Nosebag, and is now studying for his Masters in Maladministration at the University of Ears Anglia. He will soon be unleashed on some unsuspecting NGO, where he will bray about his past achievements with Ban Kee Moonshine.

Here is Don relaxing with friends (he has burned ears, because I am talking about him) :

Now, some tracking tips from Interpol. This is how you can tell if Don has been at your vegetable patch:

For comparative analysis, see below. This is not Don Kee. You can tell from his feet.

And finally, here is Don’s Uncle Black Beard, which is a bit odd if you think about it. I have no idea how he got in here. Probably on a rope.

Next week: ‘Don Kee Goes To Blackpool’ (and doesn’t come back).

Mia Far-Out offers to adopt Charles Taylor


Former Hollywooden actress Mia Far-Out has told the Special Court for Ford Sierra that she is willing to adopt former Liberian president Charles Taylor as long as he promises not to chop her up.

Charles’ tailor

Ms Far-Out is attending the court sessions this week in Freetown but is not sure why.

When the defence counsel asked if she was once married to Woody Pecker of New York, she replied: “Knew what?”

Woody Pecker

Mia Far-Out starred in several big films in the 1970′s, including ‘Rosemary’s Babysitter’ and ‘The Great Gas Bill’. She recently starred in the shampoo ad ‘Wash And Don’t Go Anywhere’.

Mia Far-Out has adopted 250 children, including Ann GolaSue Dan, Les Otho and Ken Ya.

Naomi Campbell-Soup ‘thought Charles Taylor was Elizabeth Taylor’


Top model train-set Naomi Campbell-Soup has told the Special Court for Ford Sierra that she thought former Liberian president Charles Taylor was former Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor.

Elizabeth Taylor

Charles Taylor

Here is Naomi’s testimony in full:

“I had never heard of Africa. I only went on that train because my assistant told me there would be a chance to meet Lord Nelson of Mandela.

“At the dinner the night before, I had been sitting next to a person called Taylor who offered me some diamonds.

“I thought that person was Elizabeth Taylor, who has got too many if you ask me.

“Only later did I find out it was Prince Charles of Taylor and he wanted to get his leg over. Now bring me some champagne.”

Naomi Campbell-Soup was raised in Streatham but not very well.

We will keep you misinformed on the latest fashions in Ford Sierra.