, so I roll them up past my calves, Alpine
yodelay-yoo-hoo-style] for a cycle to Szentendre. Hot sun, beautiful
route along the Danube, much pain in thighs, major thirst. We chat about
fitness, and they both have masochistic tales of "hitting the
anaerobic wall", "going through the pain barrier", "forgetting how much
it hurt last time". I start to conclude that some
insensitivity to pain is crucial to getting fit.
As we sip beers and look at the river, Mystery Friend 2
Sea Monster, a giant, once top-secret, Russian troop-carrying aircraft
designed to fly only a few feet above water.
Hot & sunny. In the late afternoon, join Politics Judit &
Eva P in the Gerbeaud
coffee house where we watch some kind of disturbance of public order on
Vorosmarty Square over coffee & cake. Later, back at my flat, we drink
wine, do Tarot readings, and Judit kindly helps me rehang my landlady's
Sacci/Draco mentions this:
restaurant in Peru where you can zoom in and turn the image through 360
degrees. Try full-screen mode. Or...
Last night, drinks with
Today, a last coffee with
before her flights to New York & Boston tomorrow.
of nature meeting man.
Sacci on the
talkboard has a dream about sheep with telephone heads, then finds
photographs. Lovely dinner at
Franc's. We talk about
Curry with Nathalie. We chat about Andrea, among other people, now apparently
living in Nice. Over a cup of the fiery herbal tea I play her the seemingly ironic Laibach
cover of 'Life is
Life', somewhat undercut by this creepy
interview. Not to mention this
interesting but equally unsettling documentary:
Early to Montelimar
to catch 9am train to Lyon, then Geneva, then Milan, to
connect with flight to Budapest. Bit of a long day, with a tight connection at
Milan between the train and the airport. Eat a "croissant" in Geneva, and
there is immediately apparent a Protestant Pastry Problem. Just a few miles
from Lyon, and the item was more like a British Rail Cornish Pastie,
hard, stale and salty, than any French croissant. Why is this? Perhaps
among the watch-assembling burghers of the Swiss Alps no talented craftsman
will take up the pastry-making trade - too much else is well paid in an
advanced economy? The Swiss French ticket inspector speaks to us in a sing-song
dialect that at first sounds like a funny voice from a comedy skit. Gradually
we grasp that he is speaking a dialect, but is also playing it up, and rather
enjoying our embarrassed bafflement. Some wonderful sights from the train.
These include a station in northern Italy where a couple of fluffy clouds hang
motionless on a pine-covered mountainside above the station, like cotton wool
snagged on green velcro. Later the train goes alongside a big lake with narrow
islands clustered with red-tiled roofs of villas, a lake so huge that sometimes
I cannot see the far side and it could be open sea. Kind
Federica on the train assures me
that I can get a bus to the airport from Milan station, but once there I find no
information desk, just vast halls of chaotic, wrongly signposted chaos. I run around
and the driver kindly lets me onto the right bus out to the airport, just as
he is pulling away from the car park. As we weave through traffic, I take off
my jacket and prepare to sit down, overwhelmed with relief. My shirt is soaked
with dark patches of sweat. Two very pretty girls three seats back look at me
with well-groomed disgust and pointedly move right to the back of the bus. I
collapse into my seat and become aware over the next hour that the driver has
the coach tuned into an Italian radio station that plays exclusively British
pop music. My flight back to Budapest crackles with lightning on all sides,
and heaves with thundery turbulance, so the stewardesses never get to sell me
any crisps or fruit juice. Back in my flat close to 1am.
To Jean-Claude & Mette's rocky fastness in a former Cathar village built on
a mountain ridge, where we look at the photos of doorways Sasha & Jean-Claude
are making into a book, and eat wonderful quiche in the shade on their roof garden
looking at the hills around. Then coffee & cakes with Sasha in the small but
chic town of
with its enormous old trees lining the streets,
hot sun obviously and later another swim with Jean-Claude & Mette in their pool.
Breakfast to the sound of the bells on the neighbour's EU-grant-earning sheep
just under the balcony.
In the afternoon Sasha & I go swimming in the pool up the hill belonging to
Jean-Claude & Mette, who join us later for dinner. Jean-Claude mentions the
richness of the Occitan language. Sasha tells me that black
& green olives are not different types, but the same type picked at different
stages, something I had never heard. Excellent views - lots of
fields here are devoted to
farming. The precisely planted clumps
fuse into fuzzy rows like giant lilac caterpillars. A large wheeling bird in the
sky might be one of the local eagles, or perhaps one of the vultures reintroduced by
biologists who toured the valley in helicopters dropping dead snakes to help get the
Go to the Paris Apple centre and they are charming, but have not had time to
replace the sickly hard drive, so I take away the laptop as is.
I make it to the
and catch my fast, air-conditioned train
south to Lyon. On the journey, I try to put my impressions of Paris in order: the city's
wide range of pouting, leggy brunettes waiting, even if a bit irritably, to
be kissed, sticks in the mind. So does the halfwitted habit of putting separate ticket-operated
turnstiles on each platform on the metro, thereby costing twice as much as if they put
one machine down the corridor before both platforms, and inconveniencing passengers who
go down to the wrong platform and so have to pay again to change train direction. Even
London transport planners can work that one out. Also noticeable is the habit in France
of always stressing the feminine even in sound: television advert breaks, PA systems
in transport centres, radio call signs
repeatedly use high, soft, girlish sighs or giggly gasps in light rising notes to ask
for attention, instead of the blunter, instrumental notes or bells of most airports or
At the cluttered, 70s-ish station complex of
Dieu in Lyon,
I change trains for Montelimar, home town, apparently, of
a distinct kind of nougat-based sweetie. Sasha kindly drives out from near Nyons
in the afternoon heat to pick me up from Montelimar station. This is Provence:
hot, dry, with cloudless blue skies, intense sun, noisy crickets, and scrubby
but vigorous vegetation in a range of olive greens. For an hour or two it seems as if Isabel
& her friend Marta, driving across France to return to Spain might drop by this evening, but they
stay the night in Lyon instead. Sasha & I talk until late -
she tells eerie stories of the peasants in the valley, and their dark outlook on life.
These include the peasants whose ramshackle electric fence around a vegetable patch was
trashed by a wild boar who ate all their veg because they were too mean to switch the
electricity on. Two brothers who share a double bed in their seventies, and used to
tie their strong mother into a chair by day and a bed by night [right under a light bulb
always left on, which they failed to connect with her habit of not sleeping]. Another fence, about
20 feet long, which took 12 years to build, despite the fence-builder owning a tractor with a
fence-post/pile-driver fitting. This fence keeps a handful of mangy, partly-bald sheep in
merciless sunshine all day only yards away from some shade. A seller of
an outhouse who frantically demanded payment weeks ahead again and again and couldn't even
wait on the morning of the legal transfer at the notary without repeatedly demanding his
money before the meeting, like a stuck record. A goatshed with a decades-old
mound of fossilised excrement so high that
goats inside had to tilt their heads to fit under the ceiling. A large
and sinister villager, who disliked his sister-in-law until she was found floating
down the Rhone, minus her head. Sasha's charming former etching tutor from art school, Richard,
and his apposite phrase "early men". Two sisters who refused to speak for the decades until their
death because one had moved a fence several inches into the other's territory. What Sasha
describes as "the most beautiful girl in the world", serenely making jam with her glossy
tresses of hair held in place by a pencil. Another neighbour who has been going into the
mayor's office week after week for many years to demand action on Sasha's unauthorised window that
looks onto a foot-wide strip of his land. He is now sueing the mayor for negligently giving
permission for the window. Her troubled brother, who died a few weeks ago, who was a copywriter for
J. Walter Thompson in the 1960s and 70s, so might have worked with or for Cressida's father.
A lively, noble community of people in Derbyshire living in the world's first workers' housing.
Sasha's time in the West Indies in the 1980s, noting the sharp racism between islands, and the
frank corruption and broken families. The jumbo jets full of white Canadian women who used to
fly out for holidays of having sex with black men. A striking beach scene on a Caribbean island,
when her son and her late husband spot a man swimming out into the bay
straight towards the boat they've hired to get there [and get back]. In a Bondesque moment,
Sasha swims out, beats him to the boat, and stands on
the prow in her swimsuit with a machete. Whereupon he turns around and swims away.
On my way back from Gare de Lyon at midnight last night I am wandering through
floodlit tiled metro-station hallways and corridors. A slightly rough young couple
with two dogs are hanging around the deserted electronic gates that only open if
you put a ticket into a machine. I head for a gate, and behind me I can sense the
girl scooping the pale brown dog into her arms and suddenly coming up right
behind me. The three of us shuffle through the fierce electronically-operated
sliding gates as one organism. She thanks me. I wander on through the complex.
Somehow the man with the larger dog got through a different gate, although I
saw no-one else about. Suddenly, another set of gates ahead and they are by my side
again. I find myself sighing dramatically as I approach the
new gate, ticket in hand. Behind me she says "Thanks again in advance" and we
shuffle through again as one. Somehow I can feel I am becoming pompous &
bourgeois, as if I might give her a little lecture about getting her
life in order. I don't, not least because my spoken French isn't up to it.
Today I return to the
complex to buy my tickets for Lyon tomorrow.
A blonde woman pushes in front of me in the general queries queue, and demands
in accented English where she can recharge her phone. I offer to help and
start telling her where I recharged my phone last night. I say she should go
three blocks and she interrupts me, snapping "What does that mean?" I say 7
or 8 minutes' walk, and she sneers "Impossible" and struts off while I'm still
talking, without even thanking me. Russian nouveau riche is my guess - but
undoubtably an East European.
After a salady lunch, Mateus takes us, the rump of the weekend group (Selma,
Kate, & me), to another esoteric bookshop where he knows the owner.
The bookshop has an emphasis on astrology and geomancy, though
the range is broad. Paris turns warm & sticky.
My Apple Mac is definitely sick. I take her to a
shop behind the unpleasant-looking
Pompidou Centre (it
really isn't ageing well close up). Sounds like my Apple's hard drive is
dying. Finally locate an internet cafe near the Gare de Lyon.
Day. Refreshed, get up and wander around in bright morning sunshine. Up
and down the Boulevard Saint Germain are parked military vehicles, with
good-looking young officers in uniform leaning against them with studied
casualness. At the junction of Rue de Sevres and Boulevard Raspail I count
five jeeps and one small truck, all in sandy olive, yellow and brown
camouflage colours (to blend in with the avenue of fashion
shops obviously) and eleven soldiers, all immaculately dressed in freshly
laundered camouflage fatigues to match their vehicles, white elbow-length
gloves, medals, criss-cross white strap and sash things, pillbox peaked caps,
and a kind of flush, tight white shirt that goes right up to the throat
with no buttons or openings. One man is in a cement-coloured suit, white
shirt & black tie, though also with medals, ribbons, pillbox cap - so he
must be in charge. All the men look smart, relaxed, alert, and ready to
slot me at fifty yards if I shout something seditious like "Vive le roi!"
My feeling that modern France still has a vaguely fascistic undernote lingers
through the day. Afternoon drinks with Selma & her Moroccan friends - it is
her birthday today, so she could pose for La France. After dark I doze and
wake to the sound of helicopters above the hotel, disturbing the quiet.
After over an hour of this, I go outside. Despite being too far out to see the
fireworks (though one does land in the street with a fizzing noise) there
is a helicopter overhead watching the non-existant traffic just in case for a total
of two hours. Back in my room, I switch on television
and the news is taken up with some big military
parade involving tanks, fighter jets, and nine different kinds of uniformed
men marching in central Paris.
Breakfast with Thomas, Giane, and Stephanie - all of whom are heading off home via
airports and railway stations. I promise to contact Gaia, who came by train from
Milan with her poodle, had lunch with Mateus & Stephanie on Friday and when her
poodle vomited in the restaurant explained that she did not seek mediumistic
powers but had them thrust on her. She then disappeared. I then sleep much of
the rest of the day, starting to read my
texts between dozes.
Mateus takes us to an esoteric bookshop, and urges me to buy three titles. I do. We
are looking at the gargoyles outside Notre Dame when a remarkable wind, strong,
gusting, dark with promises of storminess almost sweeps us off our feet. Laetitia
& Selma join us for a leisurely lunch. Thomas leads a breakaway group (Stephanie,
Giane, and me) on an afternoon cycling tour of central Paris. Renting the bikes
involves lengthy negotiations with a machine that takes handsome deposits off our
bank cards before liberating the bicycles from electronic locks. Apart from a couple
of slightly chunky moments mixing with traffic on the Place de la Concorde,
an excellent cycle. Dinner at a restaurant reminiscent of Eastern Europe: Mateus
remarks on the waitresses looking tarty, the waiters make fun of us, and the
decor involves giant shapes painted gold. My main course turns out to be
shepherd's pie, albeit a very good one.
Absolutely superb pudding, quite different to what I expected, but divine.
The cosy (though no-nonsense)
Stephanie & I are staying in just off Saint Germain
is wonderfully quiet, though it is odd to hear seagulls
all the time. Obviously Paris is a port in 13th-century terms, but why
do I never hear these birds in London?
to Paris. Paris turns out be rainy. Manage to meet up with Stephanie & Mateus, the
two organisers: both very jolly people. At dinner meet Giane, Jaime, Evelyn, Katrin, Kate, Thomas.
Katrin is very enthusiastic about Continental butter, and I urge her to open a specialist butter
shop in London.
Afternoon drinks with Martin - he tells me
McLellan has written about how
Washington's anti-Iraq-War whistleblowers were punished. We move on to what
cities vibrant: eg. Barcelona in the mid-1990s.
Briefly meet Piera &
at Istvan's where he is making dinner as I rush through. Sadly,
no report back yet from Tamas about the alchemists' conference in Szeged earlier this week.
Last visit for a few weeks to gym with
& Gordon. Jim mentions to me that Max Mosely's interest in
according to something he saw in the news, began in some oblique way while training with the
Serbian fitness coach who prefers his
fruit & veg raw.
Tea and then evening feast with
More weight-training with Jim.
The two counter girls in the local roast-chicken place greet
me like an old friend. Someone has parked a circa-1900 tram carriage on two short strips
of rail almost outside the meat shop, on the
of the 32nds.
Cool breezes relieve the heavy heat of the last few days.
After gym, Jim &
I drink coffee with Gordon & Rodney in hot sunshine.
When I grumble about storage space for books in Manchester
(for example, these
people charging four times per cubic foot what Pablo
pays for storage in Zurich), Rodney gamely
offers to put a postcard up for me in a post office in
the day after tomorrow. He also suggests I advertise for storage space on
so I do. A hundred yards away as I leave, I bump into Michael, who tells
me that Saturday's Gay Pride march in Budapest was heavily attacked by
stone-throwers. Later, during an impressive, pounding downpour
at dusk, we all meet again for beers on the same street, joined by Tim.
Wake up at Robin's and get ready for our afternoon drive to the Fot Ball,
Fot being a town with an attractive country house. Tamas cannot come with us
because he is going to Szeged to attend a conference of alchemists. Out on
the lawn at Fot, Zita P
points out I am wearing a woman's straw hat, so I put it on her, which forces me
to flee for the shade with Eva B, who used to be a film journalist. Politics
Judit, bubbly as ever, introduces me to Szilvia, her classmate studying
agricultural tradition in Hungarian ideology, and Isabel introduces me to
Eva P, another dramatic Spaniard. Jose, a Basque, generously answers my daft
questions about Basque
verbs. Laszlo the Count joins us, puffing on his pipe, and slips
into what Isabel says is flawless Spanish to match his flawless
English. She kindly takes Eva P and me back to Budapest at dusk. During
drive after dark we talk about crowds in financial markets and how the moon
Get morning train to
for Zsuzsi & Bela's joint birthday party. Piera is
there in the hot sun, and we photograph each other rather manically in a field of
enormous, triffid-like sunflowers. The conjuror is back for this party, better
than ever. It is still the ripping-newspaper and the interlocking-steel-ring
tricks which impress me most. Afterwards, Rita tells me how she and her horse
fell together some weeks earlier, concussing her badly for an afternoon. This
is while her boyfriend plays music on the turntables for children's games like
musical chairs. I meet Piera's writer friend Genevre from Rome. Film-maker Peter
is there, and I can chat to his girlfriend Agi at last, hearing about her Phd
on Spencer's Faerie Queen. Istvan, Tamas and two friends of his turn up later,
and the company drinks late while I sneak off to sleep in Robin's studio.
Curious morning working at the Internet cafe. I get there early, and the
soft-spoken French-speaking Arab chap, more doltish than the others, is in charge.
He is driven to a quiet,
helpless despair by the fact that, despite today's sticky heat, I still wish him to scan
some drawings for me. He and his sweet-natured but also not-very-quick-off-the-mark
struggle together to operate the scanner that - he tells me - he uses about ten times a
week. Of course, it has never crossed his mind to download or print out the instruction
manual for this machine. He simply waits as the hours and days pass, hoping to somehow
avoid or ride through the next wearying ordeal of having to do this hard thing, like a
lazy child surviving school a lesson at a time. I know I annoy him because I make
him repeat what he says to me (he mumbles badly in all of Hungarian, French, and
English) and because I point out he shouldn't close an hour early at night and open
20 minutes late in the morning. He squirms when I reveal that last night I came and
saw he had closed two hours early: he obviously hoped no-one regular would know. He
is slim, anxious, and perhaps in his late 20s or early 30s. His whole mood is one of
being overwhelmed by the difficultness of everyday life. I've seen him unable to help a
customer attach a document to an e-mail, unable to transfer a document between two
terminals, unable to locate an incoming fax, unable to remember to write down
the time a customer comes in and starts using the internet. I've had to translate
for him between his confused Hungarian and the Hungarian of a local trying to
communicate with him. Everything is a struggle.
He and his Algerian friend (I redid his English-language CV as a goodwill
gesture so I know he's from Algeria) simply cannot
understand in either Hungarian or English what I mean by "picture resolution". When I
carefully spell out I mean how much information there is in a given area of picture, they
think I mean the physical size of the picture. The dolt steps aside, in a silent agony
of humiliation, while I take over the cash desk to work out how to operate the scanner
for myself. Thinking I cannot understand, he speaks to his friend, using the word
'Wahabi', while facing me with a simpering smile of submission so I
won't realise he is talking about me. Giving the Wahabist reputation as flinty puritans,
sticklers for the letter of the law, I would roughly translate his remark as
workaholic zealot". This is fair enough, really. It describes
pretty accurately how I feel whenever I'm in his presence. Later, he gives me a
reduction in my bill. It would be nice to take this as a sign he graciously concedes
his own inability to do his job, but it is more likely to be his shrewd knowledge
I'm friends with his boss. Like many of the quasi-dim, he has enough village wisdom to
stay out of trouble, stay in circulation, and so carry on being a nuisance
to all around for several more decades. Cunning and thick, interfering and
lazy, all at the same time. So where do all these hard-of-thinking people come from?
Much as I like the sound of having several beautiful
brides at the same time, there is a worrying side to polygyny or polygamy. For many
years I've wondered if cultures pay some kind of long-term genetic
cost if a few rich men have several wives each. Might 20 or 30 generations of
stable polygyny make a society somehow rich in sly dullards?
In the afternoon, a vivid "relative"
experience lasting about fifteen minutes. The sky has an intense blue. I feel the
curious romance of living in a language textbook, full of archetypal families entering
comfortingly dated shops. Vast sense of power and cheerful calm.
I bake my two letters of the alphabet on
suggestion, and the flat fills with the aroma of savoury biscuits, cooking.
Visiting a hardware shop in search of rubber glue,
I am leaving because I cannot find any and the woman is busy with other customers. She
calls me back, asking what I wanted. I answer clearly and she at once transfers
her attention to another customer, like a harassed mother punch drunk with distraction.
I wait another minute. Then she looks at me, blank-faced, puzzled I am still in her shop.
I repeat my request and she snaps that of course they don't have any, acting as if the
assistant who asked me what I wanted two minutes earlier was a completely different person
from her, someone she has no memory of. For a lot of Hungarians, even minding a small
shop with two customers in it at the same time
is beyond them intellectually. Round the corner, I pass
a greengrocers and see some passable cherries. The assistant is dealing with a
previous customer, so I wait. Then she asks what I want. I say the amounts I'd like,
and she tells me to wait a minute longer as she walks out past me and potters round
some other boxes of fruit a few yards away, clearly doing nothing but adjusting the
positions of some peaches. I've seen this before: as a Hungarian she is ashamed to have
to do a job. So she asserts her superiority over the customer to reclaim some of
the dignity she feels she loses by serving others instead of having them
serve her. I wait thirty seconds and
walk on. She yaps after me that I should come back, indignantly adding she just had
to do something else. They're like a society of broken former slaveowners, who've
never recovered from losing the people who did all their work for them.
Later on, a lovely dinner with
in excellent spirits. He is over from Zurich, visiting
Hungary for a wedding, and we meet
some Italian and French friends of his who happen to be in the restaurant.
Meet a jetlagged Mystery Friend 2 for afternoon coffee. In a strange mix-up,
we arrive late on
boat with rude bartenders for an event involving
Zita P just as it finishes, then meet Edit at Iguana, and twice fail to cross
paths with Robin
Mystery Friend tells some anecdotes about Gloucestershire in
the 80s and 90s. He is sure that 'chav' comes from the Gypsy
word 'csavo' (geezer/lad/bloke). He cites how Gloucestershire farm labourers
20 years ago, long before the word 'chav' came into use in Britain, used to
dismiss some people as "mali chavvers", a Slavic-sounding expression
they probably picked up from Travellers or Gypsies. When he criticised a local labourer's
slightly run-down car, the man indignantly replied "He goes, dun'im?", sounding
wonderfully Hardyesque for the rather late 20th century.
Then came some stories of a time working at a dressage
yard in the mid 1990s, sharing a cottage with an ex-gamekeeper called Sean.
Sean had a
dog called Piper. He would whisper in the dog's ear after
breakfast "Come on Piper, catch me something nice for lunch" and when they came
back from work at midday, there would be a dead hare or two outside at the door
with the dog resting inside. Sean had apparently been disqualified for five years
from gamekeeping after getting a little too enthusiastic at the job. Determined to
nab some Pakistani poachers who used to drive down from Birmingham in a transit
van to shoot in the woods on a big scale, Sean used his tracking skills to find
where the van treads used to go in the forest. Then he built an elaborate,
Ninja-style hide in a pit, equipped himself with ten double-barrelled shotguns in case
he was outgunned, and waited three or four days in his hole in the ground until
the Pakistanis turned up. Then he "slotted them", filling their buttocks with
birdshot, and causing the local magistrates to hand down his ban. Since Sean
had free board & breakfast along with his 80-pound-a-week cash-in-hand salary,
three battered unlicensed cars, some growing lamps to assist his indoor herbal crop, and
bartered some of his crop for food and drink at a local hostelry, he lived
entirely outside the formal economy. Britain clearly needs more people like him.
back with intriguing stories from Belfast.
Mark Griffith, site administrator /
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