After all the excitement of yesterday, I slept like a baby. By that, I mean that I woke up every two hours and started screaming. Although my laptop and camcorder were safely by my side on the train to Budapest, the charger for my camcorder and my spare battery were not. And I had about 20 minutes left of power. This would not last until next Sunday.
It would not last until the end of today.
I arrived in Bucharest around lunchtime and headed to the coach station. A political rally was taking place in the park between – I gave it a wide berth. I’ve never been one for mob mentality; I prefer to operate under the radar, subverting people’s opinions by means of stealth, cunning and outright ridicule. The bus took me to the town of Galati on the border of Moldova and Ukraine. If my timing was right, I could hop across (no visa required!) in about an hour and then head back to Bucharest in time for the 20:03 to Sofia in Bulgaria.
Eastern Europeans man, they are a breed apart. First up, I couldn’t cross the border unless I was in a car, so I had to get in a car. To be fair, the border guards were quite helpful in this matter and put in me a car. Whether the driver wanted me in the car or not was another matter.
Then I had to get out of Romania. There was NOBODY else at the border. It took over an hour. Quite what they were doing with my poor old passport, I’ll never know. I just had to sit on the concrete and wait it out.
Then I had to get in to Moldova. Again, it took about an hour. They scanned my passport with UV, IR, REM and OMD – seemingly convinced it was a fake (seemingly convinced they wanted a ‘hurry-the-hell-up’ bribe, more like) even though it’s been stamped on more times than a western journalist in a Turkish prison.
Maybe the cunning Moldovans would spot something that the Americans and the Chinese missed…
THE FACT THAT I’M CARLOS THE JACKAL!
Anyway, there’s about two kilometres of Moldova before you hit the Ukraine, so I walked over to border number two. They liked to keep me waiting half an hour as well. Maybe they were just bored. Once into the territory of the Ukraine, I tried to get a stamp, just to make things extra official. Got shouted at by a grumpy Ukrainian border guard as though I was wasting his time. The fact that there was NOBODY else at the border didn’t seem to phase him. Perhaps he was in the middle of particularly tricky Sudoku.
Oh well, no stamp, but at least I got my GPS reading. That’s Ukraine off the list. By the time I got back to Galati, it was dark. I had spent a whopping FOUR hours getting over the borders. I had missed the last train back to Bucharest, so I settled down for the night in a big old concrete hotel, built in the 1970s. I was the only one there.
The girl on reception was nice though. She made me sandwiches.
I’ll tell you what was funny – on the bus up to Galati, there was a guy who crossed himself three times every time we passed a church. As there are a LOT of churches in Romania, he was doing it pretty much constantly – although what cracked me up was after each time he had done his little routine, he would sniff his fingers.
The lovely girl in the hotel reception made me a packed lunch and before I knew it, I was on the 5am train back to Bucharest.
Once there, I went on a MISSION to find a charger for my camcorder… and it was mission successful! Got to drive past Ceausescu’s ridiculously big palace in a taxi – yep, it’s kinda ridiculous, but I guess I’ve got some begrudging respect for the fact that the bonkers mad dictator what got shot on Christmas Day, didn’t go for your typical concrete shopping-mall affair that Eastern Europeans seem to love even more than us idiots in the West.
Righty-right, onto a train and got to spend the day in a carriage with a Romanian guy called John who was on his way to Athens. I, on the other hand, was on my way to Thessaloniki in Greece, passing through the conveniently placed land of Bulgaria on the way. I’m making good time.
Later we got chatting with a Romanian couple who were in the compartment next to ours – and check this out – the guy was not only from Romania, not only was he called Vlad, HE HAD SHARP POINTY CANINES!! Serious! I slept with my pillow around my neck.
Now I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment…
One of the best books I have read in recent years is Bad Science, by Dr. Ben Goldacre. In it, he dissects the way the media and the infernal and impossibly childish ‘new age’ movement has conspired to make people distrustful of doctors and science in general, in favour of hippy-la-la woolly alternative therapies and ‘Doctor’ Gillian McKeith ‘PhD’ inspecting the poo of the underclasses like some nut from the Victorian age.
It’s a little bit embarrassing that in the 21st century, people in Britain prefer to take ‘natural’ remedies – (ignoring the fact that heroin (poppy), aspirin (willow root) and mercury (Freddy) are fairly ‘natural’ as well) than actual proven medication. As if the ‘natural remedies’ available from your local Holland and Barrett are prepared by some lovely flower children in white dresses sitting in a stone circle in Somerset singing ‘Scarborough Fair’.
They’re not. They are prepared by them thar huge multinational corporations. You know, the evil ones. Just like real medicine.
Anyway, for fat, rich, western women in their 40s with too many cats (Derren Brown’s words, not mine), this isn’t much to be bothered about, they can take their ineffective claptrap herbal cures, dance around naked in the woods and insert magic crystals up their rear ends, I don’t care (they are only ‘alternative therapies’ because they don’t work any better than a placebo – if they work, they become just plain old ‘medicine’, AND YAWN TO THAT I SAY).
But when people in South Africa start taking vitamins instead of proper AIDS medication, and the bodies start stacking up, and when the government gets in on the act and a silent genocide happens under the noses of the western media (who chose to ignore it, ‘Black People Dying’ is the equivalent of ‘Nothing Happened Yesterday’ in terms of headlines that won’t sell your paper), then I think we can all agree it’s gone a little too far.
Dying of AIDS is torture. Just imagine if F.W. DeClerk’s government had openly tortured and murdered 300,000 blacks in the 1980s? Or injected a quarter of the population with a deadly disease? The western governments would have chased him up a tree and set fire to it. What difference does it make if you murder someone through action or inaction? They are still just as dead. But that’s what the South African government under fruitcake number one Tambo Mbeki has done. And they have done it with the whole-hearted support (and guidance) of a certain WHITE, multi-millionaire vitamin pusher called Mathais Rath.
This Rath creep unsuccessfully sued Dr. Goldacre and the Guardian paper for calling him up on his crimes against humanity. The court case was still going on when Bad Science went to press, so this chapter was not included in the first edition. But now it’s available, free, online here –
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!!