Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Why Most Banks Will Survive The Meltdown

Abbey National PLC
PO Box 1109
Bradford
BD1 5ZJ

25th September 2008

Dear Sirs,

Re: Account 12345678

I doubt you’ll remember me but I last wrote to you on 3rd September 2007. My knickers were all in a twist over your excessive bank account charges. In fact, I got so wound up by your habit of fining me hundreds of pounds over several years (although you might consider it my habit of going overdrawn by dozens of pounds over the same period) that I wound up being interviewed on Channel 4 news, vindictive little bastard that I am. You may also like to refer to The Times of August 2007 where I was afforded the opportunity to bitch about Abbey like one of those blonde LA valley girls slagging off their girlfriends.

Anyway, let’s get to the point. I no longer bank with you. We used to bank furiously together but you took advantage of me so I left in disgust. Nonetheless, I kept my account open in case of an emergency.

That emergency appeared this July. I had dared to treat myself to a holiday away from my desk, and needed to buy a return ticket from Eastern Europe. The Easyjet website seemed to dislike my current visa card, so I was forced to blow the cobwebs off my Abbey card and transferred the princely sum of Fifty Pounds Sterling into my dormant account. To my infinite pleasure I discovered that the card was accepted by Stelios. I believe I even allowed 24 hours to elapse before booking this ticket, but I can’t be sure. Yes, I’m aware that this little titbit of information will be all you need to justify your exaggerated spiteful charges, but what the hell. I’m an honest kinda guy.

So… bought the ticket, went on holiday, now bitching to you.

I received my monthly statement from Abbey tonight. It says:

14th Aug; Balance brought forward from previous statement: -£0.58
4th Sep; Unauthorised overdrft/ Overdrft monthly fee: £25.00
Instant overdraft request fee – Paid item card
Payment to Easyjet Air EDN5TZF000000: £35.00
13th Sep; Balance carried forward to next statement: -£60.58


Needless to say, I was a little shocked, so I immediately called Abbey’s call centre in India. (As an aside, I was actually able to cook - ok, warm up - then eat a foul Tescos meatfeast pizza throughout my time spent on hold. I dearly wish I could tell you I ate a green salad followed by grilled chicken and vegetables, but I was hungry and skint, and the pizza was cheap. I’m sorry.)

The first lady I spoke to, post-cheese on disc, cut me off. I didn’t swear (cross my heart and hope to die) but I did raise my voice a bit. The increase in decibels occurred when I said Abbey’d fined me £25 and she pointed out that I'd missed the £35 charge too.

So I set the phone back down and ran off to check this account online. Clear as day, it showed that I’d transferred £50.00 into this account, and that Easyjet went on to deduct £50.58. I’m still not sure how. A hidden charge, maybe? Nonetheless, I had gone, blindly unaware and unknowingly, 58p into the red. So you've fined me £60.00.

To recap: I accidentally get overdrawn by 58 pence, and you charge me SIXTY POUNDS. That’s one pound per penny, plus a pound for each finger you’re sticking up at me.

Anyhoo, I get back on the phone to India for a second time where I spoke to a charming young lady. She sympathised about as much as a young women in the Asian subcontinent could with irate British folk 8,000 miles away. But sympathetic she was. She even rescinded the £35 fine as a ‘goodwill gesture’ but sadly she could do nothing about the other £25; that would have to be filed under ‘Tough’ - I had broken the rules, and thus I had to pay. She also advised me that if I didn’t cough up the remaining £25.58, I’d be fined another £25 in a week’s time.

So to recap again: I accidentally get overdrawn by 58 pence two months ago. I discover this today and in eleven days time, had I not called, I’d be EIGHTY-FIVE POUNDS in the hole. Eighty-five pounds, because of 58p.

That’s £85 in fines.

Due to being 58 pence overdrawn.

So here’s the deal: Remove this final £25 charge. Promise not to add a new £25 charge come a week on Monday. Then give these ridiculously over-the-top charges to Ms Ambika Babu at your Indian call centre. She is probably paid a pittance anyway (value for money for Abbey though). She deserves it for having to deal with Brits made puce with anger by Abbey, and who are hopefully Guardian readers and don’t get all disturbingly Daily Mail down the phone.

And finally, I want an apology. I don’t want a pre-printed letter of generic contrition. I want a proper apology, a sincere and earnest one, for fining me so extortionately over pennies - and don’t you dare mention ensuring I have the correct funds in my account, or that these are standard charges for breaking your rules. Seriously. Don’t. I’ve heard it all far too many times before and I’m well aware of it. Need I remind you that it is due to the unfairness of these standard charges that this matter has gone to court in the first place?

I shall be sending a copy of this letter to Banco Santander Chief Executive Antonio Osorio for a laugh. He can set fire to it so he can light his Havana whilst reclined on his yacht as it bobs idly in the warm waters of the Caribbean.

In summary:

It was an accident.

It was 58 pence.

You should be ashamed of yourselves.

Yours sincerely,

Blah blah blah.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bastard Bloody London

I'm home, if that isn't obvious, and I've already done a day's work. That would've been bearable if my boss hadn't got through the week-or-so without me by stockpiling a hillock of paperwork to shuffle, or if my arch-nemesis, the owner of a certain restaurant who ABSOLUTELY REFUSES TO KNOW WHAT THE FUCK HE BUYS FROM US hadn't called.

My heart sank, actually sank in my stomach - I felt it - when I heard his voice, because I knew what was coming.

"I want as last order," he said in his near-impenetrable accent.
I sighed.
Loudly.
He does this every time, then completely ignores what I tell him, information I have to down tools to find because he'd rather waste our time once a month rather than pick up a fucking pen.

Three times, he asked me a box quantity of a particular product.
"How many in box?"
"Ten per box."
"Yes, and in the box there is...?"
"Ten. There are ten in the box."
(Makes shuffling sound with phone, mutters in Arabic) "I want four boxes. How many in box?"
"TEN! I TOLD YOU! THERE ARE TEN IN EACH FUCKING BOX!"

I was shouting now. I didn't care if he never called back and we lose him as a customer, because he's an inept cunt who has us dancing through hoops. I tell him stuff, he doesn't listen, and when he arrives (five days after he says he will), he changes his mind on the spot.

I'm finding it hard to believe that yesterday I was in Budapest. I'm also finding it hard to believe that Martin's still there, as he had more work-leave than me. It's only 3 hours from Vienna, and vastly more interesting. The train station left a lot to be desired though. I'd been to the city twice before, but Martin was a Hungary virgin. It was my first time arriving via the station however, and it unsettled me. For one thing, we arrived amid frenetic scenes of hostel touts and black market money changers, all jostling for business among the seriously paralytic who staggered around benches and studied us and our enormous tourist rucksacks enviously.

The money changer took an instant dislike to me. He was holding a wad of Forints and a calculator, and blocked our passage to the Bureau de Change where he stood openly plying his trade.
"Look, I give you better rate," he said as he punched some numbers into his Casio. It didn't seem like such a bad idea, but then I'd had a bad experience in Budapest once before. It had been on my first visit, accompanied by Hippy Dave and Swedish Rob. (Luke had pulled the night before and was snogging someone by the Danube.) Some burly men had enticed us into their small, neon strip club with the words, "Cheap entry, only 300 Forints". Thinking one pound was a great bargain to see women naked, we went inside. We were then offered a bottle of Heineken at five pounds each, approximately 250% over the odds, so we tried to leave. I say 'try', because the Russian bouncer stormed over and barked the one English word he knew at each of us... "Hospital... Hospital... Hospital." We were then forced to pay the not-divulged-on-entry minimum fee of thirty pounds a head. For some reason, I was the one sent out to the ATM to fetch it. (I did seriously consider leaving Hippy Dave and Rob to their fate, such was my frustration at being nominated Group Banker.)

So when the money changer offered us a seemingly good deal, I thought better of it. Surmising that he may be holding a wad of now defunct old Forints, I asked to see one. I examined it and said, "Nah, forget it." The (admittedly tall and burly) money changer bore his eyes into my soul, not unlike that earlier Russian meathead, and I made a mental note to avoid Hungary's tourist prowlers.

We got to our hostel, on first sight, a dump, and panicked when I saw the owner. He looked Russian. He was burly. And the hostel was virtually anonymous and looked like someone's flat. Nonetheless, all was forgiven once we made our way out onto Erzsébet Krt. Those grand familiar avenues were back. Hello, trams. Greetings, family-owned shops. Good day, gorgeous women.

This post is becoming unnecessarily large, so I'll get to the point; we hit the town (initially with some difficulty. Vienna had given us ferocious hangovers). We discovered the Greatest Bar on Earth, Szimpla. It felt like a vast, cavernous factory, perhaps because it once was. It had alcoves. It was bohemian. It was almost pitch black - the best lighting for me - with a few kitch lamps providing a pleasant glow. And it was heaving. For some reason, it seemed full of Americans (one of whom seemed bemused that I wanted him to vote Obama), and guys with guitars and accordions (It was a bloody accordion, Martin!) would turn up and entertain a room. We stayed as long as we could, then popped upstairs to use the bathroom only to discover a second floor.

It was on my last day when something happened. Regrettably, it wasn't sexual, but it felt scarily intriguing. We had walked past an estate agents to see their flat prices - they averaged out at about £80,000, some were even in the 50s and 60s - and I comforted myself with the thought that if this were London I could easily get a mortgage and buy a place, even in these dire times. Then a second thought occurred to me; if I could buy a flat in Budapest, why don't I? I'm 34. I have no girlfriend. My prospects at achieving even weight loss are at best (ahem) slim. I have actually made my life rather boringly mundane and easy. I would actually own somewhere, actually have property that I could say was mine. In someone else's country mind you, but then my Grandma was Hungarian so technically I'd be going back to my roots.

Thus, all day at my desk, I numbercrunched. I looked at websites that offered British TV abroad (crass, I know, but I've stayed in a Spanish villa watching Channel Four news and it was strangely comforting to see the same programmes at the same time as my family, 1,000 miles away in the rain.) I tried not to think of the colossal expense and effort of this project, and instead enjoyed the idea of renting out a Brit-ready apartment (NO stags) that would pay off the mortgage.

In Budapest.

One of my favourite cities on earth.

With gorgeous summers.

And gorgeous women.

Who still ignore me.

But I bet they'll be keen when they see my huge bastard flat that I could stay in once or twice a year.

And why not? After all, I'll never be able to afford a place in Bastard Bloody London.

And with that circling of the square, thereby ends my travelogue of Eastern Europe.
Normal whinging shall now resume.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Oh Vienna

"It means nothing to me". Not my words, but the words of Midge Ure.

Rather shamefully, we amassed something like 19 hours total in the Austrian capital, sleep included, then got the hell out rather quickly. Vienna, it has to be said, is rather charming. Around almost every corner is yet another white-painted statue with a gold kopf, and you're only ever a few goosesteps from another vast, impressive building that boasts of a greater past, of kings and Empires, of grandeur and pomp and blah blah blah.

It was particularly exciting to be on the move again, and this our Prague to Vienna train was more British in feel; the carriage was open-plan as opposed to being re-partitioned into compartments with a corridor outside running the length of the wagon. You know, like those old Cold War movies. But this train felt as if we were headed back into the West, mainly because we were.

We took the D-line tram around the Viennese ring road and up to the hostel Porzellaneum, which was tremendously exciting. For a couple of pounds more, Martin and I had booked our own private rooms. Granted, they were shit and looked like student accommodation (because they were), but private it was too. I might've even been able to squeeze in a bit of bodily self-abuse.

Austria, our third country, uses the Euro. In addition to this, the prices are not dissimmilar to London. So why we ended up hitting Vienna for a huge binge is a bit of a head-scratcher. Perhaps because it was Saturday night. Perhaps it was because we had been too exhausted to cut loose in Prague with its 80-90 pence beers and plethora of bars, and strip-clubs on every corner. So we did it in Vienna instead.

Vienna, where there aren't that many bars.
Vienna, where beer is as pricey as Britain.
Vienna, where nightlife seems to mean 'sleeping'.

Don't get me wrong. Vienna is lovely. Very lovely. The scores of tourists and middle-aged American ladies with dewey-eyes staring at the splendidness of it all testifies to that. But in embarking on a tour of 'the Sex Capitals of Europe', as Hippy Dave is convinced we're doing, Vienna struggles to compete with our previous destinations.

We ended up having a couple of drinks in the Bermuda bar (actually a pub) where oddly, most of the patrons seemed old and greying and were far more boistrous than everyone else. A gang of large blonde women were drinking heavily and getting random men to sign their t-shirts, causing us to surmise that they may be a British Hen night on the prowl. When they headed in our direction - and they had remarkably been eyeing us up - Martin bolted for the toilets to leave me to it. However, they'd spotted his fleeing and decided to give us a wide berth, which I found really irritating. Far be it from me to suggest that I'd like to be stuck in the middle of a gang of drunk British women, but I'd like to be stuck in the middle of a gang of drunk British women.

Which counted for nothing anyway as we were now marked down as 'Massive blonde bird dislikers'. We fled there for the cocktail bar opposite which seemed to double as an Indian restaurant and got befriended by an Austrian anglophile called Tomas who was hideously hammered, laughed a lot at his own jokes, and seemed convinced that Pol Pot was a singer who recently won Britain's Got Talent. I then spotted a nearby table with an absolutely gorgeous girl on it and said to Martin, 'That's girl's absolutely gorgeous.' All the girls immediately turned round to see who said that, I went red, and we had to leave.

The next bar was more Austrian in that the staff were wearing Bavarian costume and they were playing awful german folk-techno. We also got served by a man in drag who looked like a miserable pantomime dame. There didn't seem to be any reason for this. We then moved on to the next bar (bearing in mind that they were all virtually next to each other more or less on the only road in Vienna where you can 'party'). We stayed here for the duration drinking bottled beers and deciding to go upstairs to the club to drink more expensive cocktails and dance in the direction of women who didn't want to be danced at. Somehow, one of us had the extremely sensible suggestion to call it a night, and move on the following morning to Budapest. Vienna was proving to be too expensive, and - not that we're alcoholics, mind - one road doth not a party town make.

One hot dog later, some pizza slices, a cab journey back to the hostel, and a desperate booking for somewhere to sleep in Hungary, and we are now in Budapest which I bloody love. I fly out from here tomorrow, so the circle is almost squared and the trip is nearing its end. Regrettably, I didn't get to meet up with Elif, occasional commentator here and Viennese resident, but then she doesn't reply to my emails in time, so that would explain it.

But then that's probably no bad thing. She'd end up actually having to meet me.

Next post: Wandering aimlessly around Budapest, finding the Greatest Bar in the World (on a Sunday), and deciding to buy a flat here.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Trapped?

To say I was in pain last night would be an understatement. For the second night running, Martin and I decided not to go nuts in Prague's bars and clubs, mainly because we weren't getting much sleep, and because we were shattered from walking around all day.

Prague, I must admit, is beautiful. Above the street-level shops and houses are impressive European facades and around every corner, more avenues and history and statues than you can shake one of those sticks at. Sadly, it seems, the citizens of Prague know what a hidden gem their city is - or rather was - and as such their tourism drive must have gone full pelt. Virtually every member from all corners of the globe seem to be visiting, even including those rare animals the American, with passports. As such, Prague has an inflated entrance fee for everything, so we employed the cheap student trick of walking around aimlessly until our knees splintered.

By the time we got back to our hostel/ place for Brits to yell in at 4am, we'd be unable to function and felt the desperate urge for an early night. Regrettably still, my neck spasms have got worse. I think I have a trapped nerve or something. I spent all of last night unable to move into any of the three standard sleeping positions (on the back, on the left side, or on the right side), and I had to fight not to scream out loud. Several times in the night, I did, yelling out in pain against my best efforts to Take It Like A Man. This wasn't so bad for Martin as I'd lent him my earplugs earlier. Apparently, I'd snored so violently on Thursday - despite even the strange nasal strips I've taken to wearing for his benefit - that he only got a couple of hours sleep. I am told I also make submarine depth charge pinging noises when unconsious, which is news to me.

At one point in last night's torture, it even took me half an hour to coax my neck and the rest of my body out of bed so I could go to the toilet. Thankfully, I'm feeling much better, but then I've been sat on a train with my fat head balanced out evenly on my sore neck, and not lying on a pillow and relying on said neck for movement.

So now we're in Vienna, and very pleasant it seems thus far. I have the barest smattering of German so I feel a little less like a drunk monolingual wanker from Leeds exploiting a country for its cheap booze. Vienna thus far seems rather regal and fun too. We've decided to buy our first travel pass, so will put it to good use on their trams and metro. It's Saturday night and frankly, I'll be amazed if there are any large groups of male Brits around drinking heavily. The German language tends to scare them off.

Auf weidersehen.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Praaaaaargh

We are now in the quite charming city of Prague having travelled some 7 hours by train from Krakow. We were slightly befuddled due to getting only 3 hours sleep at our hostel as we had to wake up at 5.30am to ensure we made it in time. We just had to spend one last night in Krakow's wonderful bohemian bars.

Regrettably, we'd made the mistake of assumuing that, with as much energy as a crackhead who'd just been jogging, we'd easily pass out and sleep the whole train journey, waking up refreshed in the Czech Republic at 2pm. We hadn't bargained on
two men who joined our carriage after a couple of stops, two motherfuckers who didn't Stop Talking throughout every single one of those seven hours, in Czech, whilst popping open beer after beer after beer.

As a consequence, any sleep we did get was of the fleeting variety, our heads lolling around like one of those nodding dogs at the back of cars. Consequently, my neck is fucked and now I can't turn it without moving my entire upper body. I did have some pleasant apple strudel on the train though, courtesy of a lovely Irish physiotherapist from Vancouver because I helped decipher her ticket and carried her enormous bags onto her carriage. We'd had a pleasant conversation too, an intelligent and thought-provoking debate on everything from the current financial crisis, American politics, and our favourite novels. In fact, it was all rather nice until I popped the last piece of strudel into my mouth and looked out of the window to find us pulling in to Auschwitz.

The conversation descended back into gutter once Martin and I had walked back to our carriage and we no longer had to pretend to be polite. The conversation had become even more blunt and mono-syllabic upon entering Prague. We looked like shit and had had about four hours sleep over a 28-hour period, not to mention the task of negotiating with heavy rucksacks a new city in a new country amid a new and indecipherable language.

Prague at first glace seems lovely, a maze of European avenues and promenades, and grand, ancient museums and civic buildings dotted with statues and fountains. The language is increasingly unfathomable; not unsimilar to Polish but with a handful of new dashes and lines above and below letters, and a rhythm that sounds part Russian, part Romanian, part Inuit.

Our hostel is - what's the word? - shit, and I am currently listening to the assembled cacophany of loud bollocks coming from the beerholes of a party of northern English idiots somewhere behind me. I'm not sure if they're a stag group, or just a party of morons who've come here to drink as much beer as they can and be hideously, nausiatingly ignorant and obnoxious. Martin and I decided to sacrifice last night to get to bed early, just to catch up on sleep and hopefully see as much as we could of Prague tomorrow.

However, we hadn't anticipated on being woken up by British trash at 3am as they bellowed - properly bellowed - for the receptionist to hand over their key, then ran en masse up the stairs to their rooms being as loud as they possibly could (which included making ape noises) so everyone would be woken up to hear their triumphant return from binge-drinking and being fucking cunts abroad.

They make no attempt to learn at least one phrase such as the Czech word for 'Thank you' (It's Dêkuji, which is fairly similar to the Polish Dziekuje - a lot easier to say than it is to read), they shout out their ignorant little thoughts as frequently as possible, they interrupt (in English) all hotel staff regardless of who they're serving at the time, and their life's goal is to drink as much as possible for as little as possible.

They are absolutely the wretched scum of the earth, human detritus, an all-encompassed bunch of bastards, and we're not sticking around to be anywhere near them. So that gives us one day to check out Prague, then we're off to Vienna for the Saturday.

God, those bastards make me ashamed to be British.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Auschwitz

Right, let's get this abomination over with.

Martin was set on going. I really knew enough about that hole to not warrant actually visiting that place, but visit we did, this afternoon. We took the cheap option there, forgoing a guided tour to take a local train from Krakow to Oświęcim, it's Polish name (Auschwitz being its German nomclemature.)

The train didn't help. It was slow and ponderous, and it would always leave stations with a sudden jerk that felt disturbingly 20th century. It added to a vibe I didn't want to experience. And when we got there, my worst fears were confirmed. Oświęcim is an ordinary, functioning Polish town with bus stops and locals and restaurants and car dealerships. Everyone seemed so very bored, and it had been raining. Part of me wanted the place condemned, with no-one having what could be described as an everyday life. I wanted at least a ten-mile exclusion zone around it, but then I guess the town came first, so tough.

I felt myself getting nervous. I wasn't scared as such, just apprehensive. It felt odd to be asking for a train ticket to Auschwitz when we were buying them at Krakow station, and even odder to have the lady behind the counter not blink an eyelid.

Once we were in the town itself, I wasn't sure what to ask the taxi driver, so I asked for Auschwitz Birkenau, as if that would be more specific, but there is more than one complex. He specified the destination more accurately by saying 'Auschwitz One?', to which we nodded. The taxi drivers seem to do a roaring trade in their home town, ferrying silent and fidgety tourists to the biggest mass-murder site on the planet. I didn't feel like haggling. I shouldn't imagine many people do.

I felt sick when we got to the site. Several tourist groups were already milling about, and it felt rather unpleasant to be yet another gawper. That said, it had to be better than just ignoring it and pretending it never happened. I tried to avoid looking at Martin. Tears were forming in the wells of my eyes just being stood there, and I wasn't looking forward to seeing what inevitably followed; the rows of red-bricked barracks, that fucking Arbeit Macht Frei gate, the barbed wire.

I calmed down once I went into one of the barracks that had now become an exhibition detailing the fall of Poland. It could've been anywhere on earth; The British War museum or somesuch, and I was genuinely shocked to walk past a window to see another barrack outside. I had forgotten where I was.

We made our way further into the camp and walked below ground, down some steps, and into a vast cellar. I squeaked a little when I spotted a small shrine with an Israeli flag on it. When I walked into a neighbouring anti chamber and spotted two ovens, I moaned and had to walk outside to chainsmoke. A member of staff spotted me and told me to put it out.

We had organised this badly and had to take a cab to Birkenau about 3k's away, so we'd make it for our connecting train back to the real world. Birkenau was the camp proper, where the large gate, since renamed the Gate of Death, with it's overgrown train track, resides. There wasn't much to see, just more barracks off into the distance, a cold, damp room with holes over a cement pit - the toilets, and a chance to walk into the guardhouse over that track to look over the fringes of the camp entire.

How anyone would want to extinguish millions of lives here at vast expense, men, women and children who had effectively done nothing to anyone, boggles the mind. And not just Jews, as if this was news to anyone, but other Poles, and gypsies, and POW's, and a myriad of other undesirables. As other lands were conquered and as Hungary gave the opportunity to ship in further units in their thousands to be processed on the spot, I left feeling sick. It was all about gathering as many people from as many far-flung lands as could be invaded, taking them from their homes, and killing them in this hell on earth.

I was overjoyed to be leaving. Martin and I took pictures on the train back to Krakow. We were jumping about and laughing. It seems macabre, but it was a totally natural reaction. We wanted to go home. Tomorrow, We're getting a ludicrously early train to Prague in something like 3 and a half hours, during which I'll try and sleep. And when we get to the Czech Republic, it'll be yet another country devoid of a certain segment of society, ditto Austria, and ditto Hungary, where we'll be in the next couple of days.

I'm finding it rather creepy seeing the physical evidence of genocide in these countries by its very absence of people who today would be eating chocolate cake in cafes with us, and wandering about minding their own business, and actually living in Krakow's Jewish district, which may as well be called the Martian district. And I could've done without the large group of bored German children laughing and shouting their way around Auschwitz in their own little bubble.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Krak Ow.

I am sat here with a hangover so intense that I have forgotten my email password. I seriously can't remember it, after having used it for several years. I am definitely buying some cherry wodka before leaving Poland.

I am now in Krakow, and I cannot recommend it more. It is so much better than grey, dull, soulless Warsaw, and we've only been here one evening. The only notable thing about Warsaw was the charming American lady in our hostel. She was playing cards with her friend when I asked her if she knew how to play 52 card Pick-up. (She did which is a shame, as I was looking forward to taking the pack and throwing it onto the floor.) She, in turn, asked me if I wanted to be in the Pen Fifteen club. Being bored, I said yes. She then wrote PEN15 on my hand with a biro. It took several showers and several hours to finally rid myself of it.

We left yesterday, having walked to Warszawa Centralna with our gigantic rucksacks looking very actually like tourists. We were both pleased to leave. Monday morning, I spirited off to the Warsaw state archives to get the birth certificate of my Great-Grandfather Yacob Ebolavitch, who was possibly born in the city. I say possibly, because all I have to prove it is the British 1901 census, where it states his parents having come from there. So this was all terribly exciting for me. If anything was going to make me feel special and make this shitty little planet of wankers in cars and imploding banks and Russians seem unworthy of worrying about, it was walking through the chocolate box tourist hell replica of Old Warsaw, negotiating with gruff security, and walking off ten minutes later with a huge piece of my family history.

Unfortunately, nothing works like that. It was more like two hours, and I hadn't reckoned on Polish fucking bureaucracy. I had my passport. They had the documentation I had to fill out and send them via email several days earlier back in London. I signed various bits of paper for no particular reason. The real fun didn't begin until I requested the birth certificate of a Jew over a century ago. No fewer than 6 microfilms had to be requested, which meant 6 forms to fill out. 10 minutes later, they arrived via a gruff Polish lady who seemed to resent having to do stuff for a living. I also caught her staring inquisitively at my hand, which still had a very visible 'Penis' on it. I looped the first microfilm into the large east Berliner machine and immediately realised what a fruitless task I had in store. The every page of the hundreds of ledgers that had been used for the express purpose of recording Jewish births in the centre of Warsaw were there. I wasn't even sure if my great-grandad was born in the centre, or indeed if the family weren't just near it and saying 'Warsaw' just made things easier when talking to British census officials.

Plus it was all in fucking Russian. Poland was effectively owned by the Russian Empire at that time, and it didn't help matters that a) this unintelligable cyrillic script was cursive too, block capitals seeming to have been invented in 1976 and, b) I couldn't actually see any names of any babies. Every paragraph seemed to start off with the same words, making me think that perhaps all every entry said was 'In the city today in the vovidship of Mzwarzwyzcszhazyc was born to Jewish rabbits another bawling infant' and all this was merely evidence of 19th century eastern European pen-pushing.

So I gave up and got the train south. The train journey unsettled me considerably. As I looked out on very British looking green rectangles and trees, and not so British rows of purple root vegetables and flat steppes and stalled tractors and skulls of disused factories and suicidal looking hamlets, it dawned on me that my anonymous Warsawvian family who remained in Poland may have been forced to take this exact train journey down south to that 'A' place.

So that was fun. Nonetheless, Krakow does seem at first light to be wonderful, even if it was raining when we got here. The town square is enormous, apparently the largest in Europe. There is an atmosphere in the air. We actually visited bars and were spoilt for choice - and this was on a rainy Monday. The reason for our rather excessive hangovers was that we had too much fun. We ended up in a charming rustic bar with a lady called Anna who served us too many wodka's to accompany our £1.50 beers. Then the last customer left and it was just the three of us, until I went to the toilet and returned to find the place heaving. I got talking to an attractive lady and her mute friend, both of whom suddenly realised they were talking to me and suddenly bolted for the door.

I don't quite recall how or when we left, or how we came to be watching a mediocre live band in another bar later. We got our first Polish taxi ever last night as, by then, we were totally confused and disorientated and looking for strip clubs. We awoke a short while ago having had a massive 13 hours sleep, our room trashed with clothes and toiletries, and now we're going for a wander.

Martin had just appeared in some distress, complaining that he had 200 Zlotys on him last night, and now he's only got 60. I reminded him that, 140 Zlots being the case, his mammoth evening of dinner an debauchery had cost about 35 pounds. God, I love cheap countries.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

War Sore

Am I the first person to come up with that? If so, Yay me.

I am in Warsaw, Poland, and am quite disturbed by the fact that I am obsessed with the idea that I could've smuggled in a gram of narcotics had I bought any in advance.

Nonetheless I didn't, and here I am blogging in an empty hostel living room, slightly drunk. Martin is with me because he didn't break his ankle after all. He got a misdiagnosis; It's a chipped bone, and is currently sat behind me listing capital cities that don't suck. Ergo, he is reeling off every other city on Earth because Warsaw is duller than Gordon Brown giving a fiscal synopsis of the current world crisis in the midst of a black fucking hole.

We arrived earlier this afternoon. Martin was late getting to Luton airport, on account of just being late. I stayed at my Mum's in Watford and slept on her sofa (for 4 hours because I ironed my clothes til 3am and for the first time ever), which was interesting if only for the fact that she's aged since I last saw her and her dog, Baxter, which she mothers to distraction, is now fucking enormous due to not being walked. Ever.

But then Mum is in a wheelchair and can't walk herself, so Baxter's non-perambulation can be forgiven, I think.

I've been here only a half a day, the first Ebola to set foot back in the Mother Country for 133 years, and already I've fucked up. I helped myself to a crisp from an enormous bowl of crisps at the first bar we went to, a matter of minutes after arriving. I thought they were generic bar crisps left for greedy patrons, and not 'dinner' that had just been bought by the Polish customer on my left.

Hilarity ensued for about 3 seconds.

That was the high point. The rest of the evening was spent with us wandering around aimlessly, wondering why (a non-existant) God would create a capital city so devoid of anything fun to do on a Saturday night. But that was very much by-the-by. Warsaw is the Ebola ancestral home, the place from whence my family fled to London over a century ago. And as such, I am finding myself somewhat fucked up.

Imagine if you will a place of purple people. A famous, world-renowned place of jolly, fiddle playing, beard growing, alleged money hoarding and planet controlling purple people, who had lived somewhere for generations. Let's say London was once 10% purple; 3 million souls out of a 30-mil populace. Let's say they lived there for hundreds of years but today, for some Nazi Genocide reason, they have completely disappeared, and all that remains is a street name, and a bookshop, but Absolutely No-one Purple At All. Nothing hammers home the fucking Holocaust more than going back to the country that was most affected and finding no-one of that ilk around. In the slightest. It's fucking eerie, like a tourist attraction that isn't actually there.

I have been British, British and proud (just), for 133 years (not literally). And flee my family did, leaving behind their brothers, sisters, and parents. And while those fleeing ancestors grew up and assimilated into our new tea-drinking, bad teeth having, proper-pronunciation-of-English-having ways, their family of old continued to plod along Polishly.

Now call me fucking stupid for not seeing this a mile off, but Martin wants to go to somewhere called Auschwitz. I don't want to go to Auschwitz, because my family were almost certainly murdered there, and if not there, then in any vast number of Polish death camps, or roadsides, or forests in the country. I don't know this for certain mainly because my direct line arrived in Britain in 1875 and it was too far back for any names to remain in our familial subconsciousness. Needless to say, it's pretty fucking unlikely that said names, my third-or-so cousins, survived, because 20th Century Polish Jewry was virtually 100% extinguished.

I don't want to walk alongside that fucking overgrown traintrack. I don't want to walk through that fucking 'Arbeit Macht Frei' gate. This is a holiday, a wheeeeee-look-at-where-I-came-from! break. I don't want to fucking go.

I sincerely never saw this coming. But if Martin goes, I have to go too. Martin's not a Four-By-Two, a Front-Wheel-Skid, a Kike, a Heeb, a Red Sea Pedestrian, and he's showing an interest in a fundamentally dire historical event. After all, we'll be too near not visit. If I don't go, I'll just be a family-ducking coward.

But I don't think I can take it. It's not that it's more 'special' for me. It's not as if that place is more tragic, more profound, and more goulish. But it's deeply irritating. I've been to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I've visited Berlin's Holocaust museum. I've interviewed a survivor of that thing when I was a student and watched enough films and documentaries to know about everything as an objective, impartial observer. But I don't actually want to go to the 'A' place. I will almost certainly cry, and I haven't cried since 1984.

This wasn't in the fucking brochure.


Still not had sex.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Stag. Mouse. Holiday.

I am sat in my pit, paper strewn over my bed and clothes rakishly dumped on the floor, when our resident mouse shot under my closed bedroom door and behind my desk. I stood up to see what the speeding black blur was when it decided to shoot back under the door and into the sanctuary of under our fridge. I'd estimate that he propelled himself at about 60mph.

That motherfucker's been here for a year, and he's still not paying any rent.

In non-mouse related news, am pleased to say I've completed my seventh stag of recent times. I would also like to add to any would-be Phils reading that this is in no way a snubbing of your status of Stag, or indeed of the event itself. It's just that I've had my fill, Phil, of obscene drinking and £100+ nights out.

But it was fantastic. Friday night was spent in a rock pub where we all wore rock t-shirts. (I looked suitably incorrect in a baggy black Skid Row affair). We all moved on to Nandos where I got the shits, then on to the Intrepid Fox, formerly an old haunt of ours when it used to be a bog-standard bar called the Conservatory until it became a lesbian hangout (which was also great fun.) Now it is full of rather angry looking people with chains in their thoraxes jiving to Thrash and Death and Vom-Rock who were strangely polite when you talked to them.

Yet it was all rather bewildering as I thought that night was just a quiet precursor before the Saturday Stag, and not actually Stag Part 1. I avoided the Saturday morning football to get my haircut (I was called 'Cunt' several times for this) and headed back out to town on the Saturday where we went bowling. I managed to get a strike which counted for something. I also managed about four gutterballs and punched a wall. We then moved on to an O'Neills to watch England play Andorra (population: 4) where we made it look as if we were struggling against Brazil. Hippy Dave left midway because he felt sick, and never returned. We moved on again to Karaoke where I once again felt the urge to yell 'If I Were a bloody Rich Man'. We finished up in the LA2 nightclub where we had the misfortune to watch Rhys Fucking Ifans and his Sodding New Band (I have no idea of their actual name, but I would like to suggest that.)

We got a cab back to West London (from Tottenham Court Road via Buckingham fucking Palace), and Phil threw up out the window. Mission Accomplished.

I have no desire to calculate how much that debauchery cost me. I have a holiday in five days that I'm supposed to be saving for, and I regret to say I'm in an overdraft warzone already. I am going to be well and truly fucked (non-sexually) when I return.

And on that note, Martin, he of the would-be-joining-me-on-holiday-if-his-ankle-wasn't-broken camp, will be seeing a specialist on Wednesday. If he gets the thumbs up, he will indeed be joining me on a romp through Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest - or a slightly scaled back version if time is against me/ us.

But at this stage, I will either be going it alone and feeling uncomfortable as I become an unwilling tourist (and I hate being a duck-out-of-water, where-the-hell-am-I? I-look-confused-and-naive unwilling tourist), or else not caring so much that I'm lost and being stamped on by the Polish mafia, because my mate's with me and he's getting stamped on too.

Don't get me wrong, I've travelled extensively on my own before - ahem - but this time it's all become a tad unplanned. I'm sorta excited though. Besides, the mouse deserves a little break.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Me, Myself and I

I can happily use a De La Soul album as a title, because this blog is about me, and not some bloke out there called Martin. You see, Martin is a mate of mine and if he had a blog, he would no doubt bemoan his misfortune at having broken his ankle a couple of days ago and fucking up his holiday plans.

Nonetheless, this isn't his blog; it is mine, and I can crowbar some personal angst at his hobbling expense as that motherfucker was to be my compadre in arms in 9 days time when we had (past tense) a holiday of a lifetime in Warsaw and Krakow, Poland; Prague, Czech Republic; Vienna, Austria; Bratislava, Slovakia and, to round the trip off, Budapest, Hungary.

This morning at work, I received an email. It was in that email that I discovered that Martin had managed to break his ankle fleeing from a speeding car and cannot now attend this glittering holiday. I am therefore about to take a break from sodding work, sodding life and sodding me by accompanying myself and myself alone as I traverse those six fine cities on me Jack.

Yes Martin, if you're reading this, and chances you are, I feel for you man. It's a pisser. A real, unpleasant pisser. It's a double whammy pisser too, as it's impacted on your holiday.

But needs must, because I am a stubborn, obstinate fuck. I will bankrupt myself going it alone and effectively paying double for hostel rooms and cabs and the like, but go it alone I shall, wandering streets by myself, looking at women from a gathering of one, and drinking in bars like a forlorn lonely twat.

Because I'm going abroad - on my own, y'know - I will still miss the wedding of my close friends Phil and Natalie, and my seventy-eighth nuptials of the year. I did consider staying in Britain so I could attend, but the flights are booked, I've been looking forward to this trip for months, and barring one fantastic, emotional day, I would only waste the rest of my time in front of the TV above a chemists in west London.

So that's that. It could be a wonderful adventure, and that's my main reason for sticking to my guns. Plus I'll have more time to spend in Warsaw researching my paternal family, the Ebolaviches, as they were Poles; Polish born and bred, then gassed by the fucking Nazis.

Tomorrow is the beginning of Phil's two-day stag extravaganza in London, my five-billionth stag of 2008. I can't wait. Even better is the fact that my boss is going on holiday himself next week and we have to work til 10pm on Friday night to get up to speed.

Hooray.

Coming Soon: The Adventures Of A Pale Fucknut Tourist Wandering Aimlessly Around Foreign Cities Looking Lost And Not Having Sex.

***This post was brought to you by the opposite of schadenfreude (Joyful Shame?) and is dedicated to Martin, the hobbling, malingering, car-dodging Northern fuckbugger.***

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Some Things

I am...

1 ~ Shattered. This is because I don't bother going to bed until I can feel my internal organs collapsing through sheer exhaustion, right now being a case in point.

2 ~ Astonished that today my London Paper post came in at 100% More, 0% Bore. I've never seen that before. Mind you, only a couple of people might have voted.
Yes, one of them was me.
Pathetic.

3 ~ Ecstatic, because I've discovered that you can make MP3s from Youtube. Have you seen how many Old School (correct spelling) house tunes are on there??? Oh, and this beautiful tune from Nick Cave, of whose poetic warblings I'd rather pour molten lava into my ears lest I caught a note. That track's pretty good, mind.

4 ~ Going to bed. But not before posting a clip of the British Army on acid....



Goodnight.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Dating Websites: In Print

Commuting home tonight, you may spot in the London Paper a less foul-mouthed version of my Dating Website post below. Yes, I was bored and submitted it for publication.

Now I understand how it feels when real journalists bitch about people fucking with their copy. I am fine with my words getting tweaked, will allow someone to change what I’ve written for clarity’s sake, and accept that that’s all part of the game.

But when you have within the actual story an absolutely atrocious profile written by Christ-knows-who to highlight the poor quality of grammar/ people on site and that too gets re-written so that it's no longer atrocious, you've lost the whole gag that it may have been created by bored male teenagers or a Russian crime syndicate. I mean, tweak, yes, but DIDN’T YOU READ THE ARTICLE FIRST AND GET THE FUCKING POINT???

I also notice they chose not to publish my awful 6-year-old me photo. Probably wise.

Still, thanks for publishing, London Paper.