Day 402: Don’t Stop Believin’

06.02.10:

The last two blogs aren’t true. I just made them up.

Sorry, it would have ruined the surprise.

Here’s what really happened…

When I was in Cyprus last Tuesday, I discovered that it would take two weeks from the date of application for my visa for my next country (Libya) to come through. I had not been made aware of this earlier (annoyingly enough) – I thought I was just going to pick it up at the border. This meant that no matter what I did in the next couple of weeks, I couldn’t continue with my journey. I might as well pick up the visas for Libya, Algeria and Central Asia from London myself.

I might as well…

Why the hell not, eh? It’s still part of the journey, it’s still in the spirit of The Odyssey; I can’t enter the kingdom of the nightwatchers without first gaining the magic amulet of visa. If I’m going to live my life as though I’m in a 1980s text adventure game, I might as well go the whole hog.

Home… a hot bath, fresh new clothes, a Full English and a roast meal… my family, my friends. It’s just too tempting.

Sod it.

Let’s go!

I cooked up a scheme which would see a bunch of my mates teaming up at the Fact cinema in Liverpool on Saturday night and my family gathering around the table for a Sunday roast – I told nobody I was coming home – and hit the road.

I did honestly go to Istanbul on the overnight coach on Tuesday night, but that’s about as far I went without telling fibs. From there, I went to Bucharest, the capital of Romania (€50), and on Thursday night I headed over to Budapest, Hungary on another night train (€50).

Budapest was a bit of a headache, I arrived yesterday morning to find that the Eurolines bus to London was full and so I had to concoct some kind of plan B that wasn’t going to cost the Earth. If I got the train to Paris via Munich and Metz it would cost me in excess of €250, which is way out of my budget. Damnit – the days of buying a through-ticket from Istanbul to London are OVER. Nice to know that Europe had a better grasp of logistics back when Victoria was sitting on the throne and we all hated each other.

I headed over to the bus station to see if I could blag my way onto the London bus… no way, Jose. But there was a Paris bus that had a few seats left. That’d do – as long as I got to London before 6pm, I could get back to Liverpool in time. I got online and tried to buy myself a ticket on the Eurostar from Paris to London. Simple, eh?

No.

It took me longer to buy the ticket than it takes to actually get from Paris to London on the damn train. Sitting on the floor of the skanky Budapest bus terminal, I came close to HULK SMASH levels of frustration. WHY DOES IT TAKE 10 DIFFERENT SCREENS TO GET YOUR DAMN TICKETS? Not everybody in the world has super-duper, fast fibre-optic asymmetrical data lines. Is there a low data-rate version for us poor souls hacking into someone else’s lousy wi-fi? Is there buggery.

Grrrrrrr!!

I got to the final payment screen on 4 separate occasions only to be told there was a problem with the blah blah blah. I was in Budapest, it was covered in snow – I wanted to go out for a walk, see the place, do some filming, but no, the Eurostar website wouldn’t let me. It’s easier to get Glastonbury tickets.

In the end, I had to call the man of the hour, Stan Standryt, in London, blow my cover and get him to book my ticket for me (what a guy!). Eurostar, YOU SUCK. Hope you go bankrupt and the Channel Tunnel gets turned into a very long art gallery with moving walkways. Or, even better, a ROAD.

Well, my day in Budapest well and truly wasted. I scampered onto the bus to Paris and shut my eyes, hoping to open them in the land of red and white stripy shirts, black berets, old bicycles and garlic necklaces.

But the bus driver had other ideas… is it an EU regulation that buses have to stop every two hours and wake everybody up? Ha! Man, the buses in Turkey ROCK MY WORLD and the buses in the world’s two biggest economic superpowers – the US and the EU – SUCK! It’s a sad fact that public transport in Europe, while not as bad as Africa, is not much better. Having said that, at least in Africa you get what you pay for. Why does it seem to cost more to operate a European train or coach than it does an airplane?

So we stopped and started all the way through Austria, Germany and then through Strasbourg into France. By 9am on Saturday, we were passing Metz and well on our way to Paris.

The coach got in a whopping 20 minutes early (nice!) and so I had time to do a couple of things… one of which was to get a shot of me standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. It took a good hour negotiating the Metropolitan to get there, and once I did the top was covered in cloud! Bah!

Oh well, I got the shot I wanted and then legged it to Gare du Nord, the railway station for the Eurostar, hoping against hope that they would have a shower there – after 6 days on the road and no shower, I was beginning to smell worse than a Gregg’s pasty that’s been in a tramp’s pocket for three weeks. Nice!

Luckily for me, indeed there is a shower in Gare du Nord, unluckily for me it cost €7 and (being French) it smells of effluent. What’s that joke about French plumbers again? But any port in a storm – I don’t want to be turning up in Liverpool after all these months (and two spells in jail) smelling anything less than utterly delightful..

Attention Eurostar trains: not only is your website PAINFULLY difficult to use, your trains are dirty. Clean them. If they can keep my Merseyrail carriages sparkly clean when I’m only paying £1.50 to use them for an hour, then you can totally afford to scrub your rolling stock down once in a while? Got that? Good. I wanted to film out of the window, but it would look murkier than a Mike Leigh movie and I don’t want to depress the hell out of anyone today, thanks.

Soon enough, I was whisked through the Chunnel and arrived at the rather spankingly refurbished St. Pancras station although once again was impressed that the Victorians (bless their cotton socks) saw fit to use beautiful arching cast iron and plate glass to constitute a roof whereas the lazy drunken hacks that pass for architects these days opted for what looks a lot like plastic.

At St Pancras, I met up with Dan Martin, an old chum of mine from back in the day.. He writes for the NME and has been blagging me into gigs and festivals for free for most of the past decade, the top bloke that he is. After a couple of beers and catch-ups, I went to the Euston Station concourse to play the Euston Station Concourse Game. This is where a bunch of hapless commuters stand for the best part of an hour looking up at the information board which will… at any given moment… tell them what platform to run to with all their bags.

The platform used is allocated by ERNIE, the random number generating computer from the 1950s that they used for the football pools. The platform will be allocated 5-10 minutes after the train is due to depart and will only be valid for approximately 90 seconds, after which time the train will depart leaving behind the less athletic members of the great unwashed and anyone who got bored waiting and stupidly went to WHSmith to buy a paper.

This is the Euston Station Concourse Game and it gets even more fun EVERY TIME YOU PLAY IT!

Being somewhat of a public transportation expert these days, I did manage to cadge a place on the big empty train (well, with 99% of the population priced out of this glorious British institution, what do you expect?) and in just a jiff and a jaff, I was back in my beloved Liverpool. Cyprus to Liverpool in four days – without flying. In your FACE, Palin!!

I hurried through the crisp scouse night to the Fact cinema, a architectural carbunkle in the centre of my hometown, but the wi-fi is free and the bar is always empty (perhaps because it is about as aesthetically pleasing as a concrete box) so it was a good place to spring the surprise.

I took the lift to the top floor, took out my laptop and hooked myself up to Skype. There, I got in touch with Anna, my top mate who teaches girls how to pole dance (I only hang in Bohemian circles, darling). I had told everyone that I was in Italy, but we were going to have a virtual night out with me via the internet and Anna’s webcam – the idea being that a bunch of my mates would take the laptop out with them to the streets and bars of Liverpool. Of course, I was really in Liverpool – one floor above them… giggidy…

About thirty of my wonderful mates had turned up, but Anna’s tinny little Mac speakers were not up to the task of broadcasting to so many people, so I suggested they might hear me better if I came down stairs..

It was awesome. HELLO LIVERPOOL!!

So after many, many hugs and beers, we all set out into the night in search of magic and adventure. The Merseyside Derby (that’s when Everton plays Liverpool to you Johnny Foreigners) had taken place that afternoon and so the town centre was more jam-packed than usual with drunken scousers and by Jove, I had forgotten how much I missed this place. We managed to get chucked out of the Heebie-Jeebies, went to the swanky new Studio 2 in Parr Street, got into a fight with the bouncers at Magnet and ended up in a utter dive called Ko Samui wondering where the hell we were.

Well, the answer was simple – I was home.

Day 418: Paris When It Drizzles

22.02.10:

Woke up at Stan’s gaff at some monstrously early hour, but Stan was good enough to not only make me a cup of tea, but to drive me to the nearest Tube Station. I’ve had mates in London now for years, negating the need to ever stay in a hotel or backpackers. But now I’ve got mates from Buenos Aires to New York City, Nova Scotia to Brazzaville, Pretoria to Iraq, Sierra Leone to Cairo, Reunion to Antigua and Tunis to Melbourne; this is possibly the most exciting thing to come of The Odyssey – I’ve left a trail of mischief from one end of the planet to the other, and I’ve always got somewhere to stay. Hooray for CouchSurfing.org!! I might have gone a few weeks without singing its praises, but by-eck, it’s BLOOMIN’ MARVELLOUS!

The plan was simple: Get to Rome. Go to port of Civitavecchia. Get boat to Tunisia. Visit Libya and Algeria. Back to Italy. Boat to Greece. Bus to Istanbul. Continue with The Odyssey. How long is that going to take? Two weeks? Okay…you’re on.

I got a little worried that I was supposed to check in for my coach to Rome an hour before departure and in typical Odyssey style, I was checking in ten minutes before departure, but there was no problemo, and before long, we found our bus clambering onto the train (which was a little weird if you think about it) that shuttles you through the Channel Tunnel. Well beat my breeches and call me Mary, having never gone through the unfortunately-named Chunnel before in my life, here’s me going through it twice in one month. Bizarre!

Arriving in Paris, I had a couple of hours stopover and had made arrangements to meet with Michelle Hoffman, a journalist from the Associated French Press, who were interested in doing a piece on little old me. So I had to walk about with all my bags (looking quite hilariously chubb after all that damn fine home cookin’ of the past fortnight) while she filmed me…and I wittered on about African jails and visa formalities and the general flotsam and jetsam that has a tendency to drop out of my clanging manhole every time I open it.

It was a fun way to pass the time, but time, tide and buses wait for no man. Soon, I was back on a coach thundering through the night towards Italy. The lethargy of the past couple of weeks was infectious and I have to admit to sleeping pretty much all the way.

Day 419: Roman Holiday

23.02.10:

At some disastrously early hour, I was roused from my slumber by our rather impertinent arrival in Milan, which necessitated a change of buses. Didn’t get to see too much of the place, but there’s something about just the name of these places – Verona, Genoa, Venice, Napoli that gets my pulse racing… old school, you know? It’s the same thing that affects me exhausted, bladdered and half-awake watching the sun rise after the last night of Glastonbury – a sense of history, that damned feeling of belonging to a world that’s gone that’s nagged me for years now.

All these countries I visit, most of them are shiny and new (comparatively), they don’t have the weight of millennia baring down on them, there are no layers to dig down through. Yes, I find the Kingdom of Benin interesting, Manchu Picchu is sweet-as, and you could keep me happy for weeks teaching me the ways of a tribe of Aussie Aboriginals or Native Americans, but compared with the achievements of Athens and Rome, the mysteries of ancient India and the technological prowess of Confucius-era China, I can’t help but see them as a bunch of Johnny-Come-Latelies.

Yes yes, I’m sure you have some interesting bits of broken pottery and maybe a beady necklace or two, but you’re really not going to drag me away from playing Bioshock 2 to look at them. Yes, you new-worlders will see this as old-Europe snobbery, but I can’t help it, I like the old stuff. It will outlive us all.

After a few hours I had arrived in Florence. There wasn’t much of a chance to grab something to eat (and for some reason, once in Italy the bus driver decided not to stop at any service stations) before the bus pressed on towards Rome. However, by now there were just three people on the bus, which kind of negated the point of, you know, us being in a bus. We would have fitted in a mini. The driver must have noticed this as he proceeded to drive us to a depot somewhere in the middle of nowhere and make us wait for an hour while they decided what to do with us. In the end, we were put on another bus and taken to Rome. It was all a little odd, but don’t ask me, I only work here.

Arriving at Rome at sunset, I headed over to the hostel where I stayed last May when all of this Odyssey stuff was relatively still shiny and new, the Pop Inn by the station. I checked in for a whopping €21 (bit pricey for a dorm bed, but when in Rome, bring a tent) and set off to find internet and cheap food. I was directed to a restaurant that had ‘good, cheap pizza’ only to find (once I had sat down and ordered a beer) that it had no pizza, good nor cheap. So I (reluctantly) ordered a lasagne (big Garfield fan as a kid) only to be given the measliest portion since Oliver asked Scrooge for more pudding.

Damnit. I headed back to the station and got a decent slice of pizza for a couple of Euro and headed back to the hostel. The last time I was in Rome, I was awestruck and spent most of the night wandering around. This time a black cloak of tiredness overcame me like a tidal wave and I found myself crashing out early.

VIDEO: Last Exit To Serbia! (2007)

In the summer of 2007, myself and Stanley “Stan” Stanrydt, two grown men with the mentality of 13 year olds, set out on an epic journey across the heart of Europe in search of music, beer, broads and a decent sausage.

In a Mazda sportscar we christened ‘Traci Lords’ (she was underage but could still squeeze us both in), we shot through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia and Croatia in order to arrive in Novi Sad, Serbia, for the rather epic Exit Music Festival, held in an ancient fort on the Danube river. There we watched the likes of the Beastie Boys and many other bands that I vaguely don’t remember.

After four days of drunken debauchery, we sobered up and decided to take the long way round back to the UK. So we went to Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dubrovnik in Croatia, rattled through Montenegro, got scared by the scary road in Albania, opted to take Traci out for a spin around the streets of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, before dripping our toes in Macedonia, skirting the city of Sofia in Bulgaria and crossed back over the Danube into Romania.

After a spooky trip around Bran castle in Transylvania (where Dracula was supposed to have lived), we thundered hell for leather back to Liverpool via Hungary, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and France. A music festival and about twenty countries visited for no good reason other than we could? Now that’s MY idea of a holiday!!