Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Marianske Lazne: Thursday

Punctually at nine, the train pulled away from the allotments and headed south through the forest on a track raised between streams. Thick patches of snow lay all about like white-sand golf bunkers, and spruce firs grew between railway sleepers on abandoned lines. We stopped every few minutes at a succession of sheds, each no bigger than a bus shelter, that served a few houses and a minor road. There were small towns, too, with red-spired churches and stations the size of a semi-detached house.

We arrived at the grim little station and walked the half hour into town, passing smoke-filled pubs smelling of yesterday's food, pokey shops selling printer ribbons and rock hard bread, and drab panelaks in different shades of grey. It felt as if the air had been slowly let out of the place. Then right in the centre were the big hotels and currency exchange rates, and German tourists sitting outside cafes drinking expensive cups of coffee. We walked through the colonnade, trying the foul smelling, eggy water and then through fallen trees to the top of the hill behind the Nove Lazne, where we climbed 100 steps up a look-out tower and saw almost as far as the border.

We came back down through the Ski Area, walking on the grass a few metres from people practising their slaloms on what was left of the snow. It seemed an apt metaphor for the three times traumatised spa: try as they might, things just aren't what they used to be.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Karlovy Vary: Wednesday Afternoon

Karlovy Vary reminded me a lot of Taormina: cities with the same relationship to tourism as a plant to sunlight. The posh city centre, split straight down the middle by the River Tepla, throngs with coach parties, spa groupies and daytrippers, all sucking tepid, salty water through the spout of ridiculous looking Becher cups; the locals make do with service jobs or the suburbs.

I wondered where all the visitors came from, and found the answer on the window of the Becherovka factory, which advertises three tours a day in German, two in Russian, and just one for both English and Czech. We got back from Loket just too late for the English guide, so headed instead for the hills above the Grand Hotel Pupp. I realised later we'd retraced exactly the route I'd taken three years before, twisting right and left up the yellow-marked path to the Peter the Great Memorial, then down and along to the blue and white, onion-domed Russian church.

The pub emptied as soon as the early evening news finished, then filled slowly like a bowl placed under a leaky tap. We stayed to watch Liverpool beat Barcelona. A group of men with southern English accents were singing Flower of Scotland by the toilets.

Loket: Wednesday

An early start for Loket, a picture postcard one-street town huddled on a hill avove a bend in the River Ohre. A fourteenth century castle perched precipitously on the rocks above, resembling Edinburgh in minutiae.

A concrete bridge took us over the river from the graffitied bus stop. For the longest time it seemed as if we were the only two people in town. There was a yellow Skoda Favorit parked up empty in front of the castle, two women talking in low voices outside the post office on the main square, a small group of men waiting - for what? - at the start of the alley running up the steps to the left of the Hotel Goethe, a truck delivering beer and a Vietnamese shop advertising Textil, Cigarety, Alkohol, Napoje. I swapped Dobry dens with a man walking his dog by the riverbank; two middle-aged couples were going the other way along a narrow street. We wandered up and down in circles, looping round the centre like a ball of string, until we passed the U Svejku pub for the fifth time and went inside for lunch.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Karlovy Vary: Tuesday

We left Liberec for Prague on the 10 o'clock bus, then swung back west through Florenc bus station for Karlovy Vary: spa town, James Bond set, and where German tourists go to pretend they speak an international language. We tried four bars in the evening but there were almost as many waiters as customers, and everywhere closed at ten. Back at the hotel, we watched the end of the football and had an early night.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Liberec: Blue Monday

The clouds hung low and damp, so that only the snow-streaked lower slopes of Jested were visible, and the main square was wet and grey with a salt covered, dirty white mound in one corner. We took pictures of the town hall; passers by walked English-style against the weather, in silent forebearance with heads slanted forwards to the ground. As usual there was nowhere to buy breakfast except for the hotels, so we had a quick sandwich in the car park by Tesco, surrounded by orange walls and Chinese snack stands, and then took the up and down, round and round tram to Jablonec, where we'd arranged to meet Milan and his family for lunch. We visited all the old haunts: Ex Club for beers, Paolo's Pizzeria for food, the streets where I used to dodge between lessons in glass factory offices.

Later, after potato soup in Husa, we met Henry, Rob, Colin and Dave in the Irish pub. They came and left one by one, going home early to children and pregnant wives. Then there was just the two of us, kicked out of Le Coque Noir at twenty past twelve.


I woke early to deceptive light and the sound of heavy rain splattering concrete, gurgling insistently out of drainpipes, and soaking the few yellow crocuses that had come up through the border while I was away. Getting up, I ditched my plans to go for a run.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Back There: Sunday

It was not quite a feeling, more like the cumulative effect of several conflicting memories interlocking subconsciously, so that I was constantly, in fact, sensing the presence of one set of experiences while thinking of something completely different. It started as soon as I saw the tower on top of Jested, lit bright against the uncommonly clear night sky. My stomach tightened walking up the cobbled street where I used to work, and my mind fogged like a man who returns to a childhood home and recalls that he was not always happy there. Things were only very slightly different: a new block of flats and a Lidl where I used to take the short cut to the bus station, an oversized branch of C & A at the bottom of Moskevska, and a just opened Interspar right by the swimming pool. Supermarkets, not religion, now the opium of the people.

We met Stevie in Plzenka, around the corner from the town hall. His wife had had a baby boy two nights before and he was drunk and tired and happy, but mostly tired. He took us to his old flat and then went home while we wandered around looking for a late-opening pub, finally ending up in the kebab shop. Gersende, a French teacher at a now bankrupt private school, and her boyfriend were at the next table, disguised by low lights and cigarette smoke. I talked to her for a while, skirting certain issues, then left.

Home Newcastle

It's dark and cold outside and the pavement is covered in puddles. I'm too tired to open my bags, there's hardly anything in to eat, Sunderland got a last minute winner to go fourth in the league and I'm back at work in just over 36 hours. Still, much as I enjoyed the six days away, I can say without any sense of irony that it is really good to be home.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Claim

There are precious few absolute truths left in the modern world, but the Inland Revenue is proof that organisations which demand the quickest payment of money owed to them are always and without exception the slowest to act when the process is reversed. So far it has taken four months and as many letters for me to get a simple £100 refund, and I doubt I'm any closer to receiving the cheque than I was when I started. I've filled in two sets of forms for two different tax offices, provided copies of payslips from Japan to prove that I'd already paid tax on my earnings there, and then converted everything from yen into pounds because the witless fools couldn't manage it themselves.

This morning I sent off another letter. God only knows what I'll get back this time.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Up and Down

A day for wrapping things up. In the morning, my last class with the Entry 3 group. In the afternoon, two hours filling in new registers and exam entry forms until my head and hands ached. It was also, potentially, a day for new directions. When I arrived at work I was asked if I wanted to take two classes with the local council, starting a fortnight tomorrow. I'll decide when I get back from holiday.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Nothing Much To Do

A truly dismal weekend. Incessant rain from Friday evening until late on this morning, a damp, bone-chiller of a wind and a mountain of work to get through before Monday. To say that I'm looking forward to my holiday would be something of an understatement.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Shopping and Sleet

Sleet showers all day. I went out just after twelve and came back with a Japanese wok and a load of half-price vegetables, then sat in front of the fire until dinnertime preparing Monday's lessons. I've also been planning my week-long break in the Czech Republic - I leave a week on Sunday, staying two nights at a mate's in Liberec, then heading west via Prague for three nights with the rich frauleins and Russian mafia in Karlovy Vary, a city I last visited on FA Cup Final day in 2004. I end up with an overnighter in Plzen so I can do the brewery tour and drink lots and lots of Pilsner Urquell.

I No Longer Hear The Music

At the risk of sounding cold-hearted, I feel as if a small but cumbersome weight has been lifted since that final exchange of emails with Katka. I realised months ago that there was nothing I needed from her, the only reason I kept in touch at all was to make the divorce as easy and stress free as possible. The simple fact of the matter is that I don't like her as a person: I was sick and tired of her cloying self-indulgence, the thoughtlessly self-pitying emails. Why are some people unable to give up things that they no longer want? Only a lack of self-confidence, I suppose. She wanted me to make her feel special because she fears that she isn't. I didn't want to have to spell it out, but I just couldn't be bothered to pretend any longer.

If that makes me cruel, then so be it.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


It wasn't just the weather that had changed overnight: from the week after next my teaching hours are being cut in half, leaving a chess board timetable that alternates between mornings and afternoons four days a week. A new full-time teacher is starting and my hours were the only ones she could take on to make up her timetable; unluckily for me, she's getting my favourite class and I still have to work Monday mornings.

On the plus side there's a chance I could teach two classes every Friday for South Tyneside Council, which will take my hours back up to three quarters of what they are now, and might end up being much more permanent than the work at the college. As surprises go, I've had a lot worse.

The First Snow of Winter

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

At The Match

Pictures of Catania on the ten o'clock news. The funeral of a policeman, murdered after a football match; the elephant statue and the cathedral; tight, sooty streets made of black lava rock.

It was late March, almost four years ago to the day. A few weeks after a comedy riot at Siracusa, a couple of months since Inter Milan supporters had smuggled a whole scooter into the upper tiers of the San Siro. Catania were fighting to stay in Serie B back then. I sat behind the goal with Johan in the cheapest part of the ground. A sunny afternoon, a young girl bounced a ball off the concrete steps while her father watched the game through marijuana smoke. Triestina scored twice in the last five minutes, the atmosphere turned completely and grown men hurled themselves against high perspex screens built to keep them off the pitch. The away supporters were caged in and protected by nets above and on both sides. Someone told me a Messina fan had been killed by a missile the previous year.

It shouldn't have taken another death to finally wake people up. It's been coming for a long time.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Too Many Monday Mornings

The scarf and gloves came back out again this morning. Standing on the breezy metro platform, waiting for the delayed train, was like opening a fridge door just as the motor kicks in. The students drifted in ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes late, and slumped half asleep in plastic chairs. Lunchtime came not a moment too soon.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Moving On

Derek and Jo are off to ńĆakovec, a train stop between Budapest to Venice in northern Croatia. They leave in a fortnight's time, on a four-month contract. I'd been out watching the football on Arab TV so we met late in the Prince of Wales; Dave was drunk, Roger and Hazel had booked a flight to Beijing, Lithuanian fishermen played pool in the back room, and a pint of bitter cost £1.26.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Spring In The Air

This morning brought a final email from Katka: "You're poor" was all it said. I assume she means emotionally, though I laughed remembering that one of her main reasons for leaving was that I didn't make enough money to buy a car. "I'm materialistic, sorry," she said, listening to music on a new £250 mobile phone. It seems a fitting end, words without meaning, weakness mistaken for strength. In her head she's always had someone else to blame - her parents, her step-father; she never learnt that sometimes you just have to hold your hands up.

So moving on, a more positive image for a sunny Saturday morning. The daffodils cost 50p from a supermarket at the end of last spring. I noticed them yesterday, flowering in an old wheelbarrow in a sheltered part of the back garden.

Relapse, End

An argument by email: the same one as always. It was a minor thing, some direct debits she'd set up in my name and hadn't bothered to sort out, but indicative of our whole relationship. The reply pissed me off and I sent an angry response before I calmed down. Her presence in my life, no matter how small, is wholly negative.

Last week she'd sent me another, more conciliatory email, the first time we'd been in touch since before Christmas. When life doesn't turn out to be what we hoped for we paint fresh pictures of the past, adding details that were never really there at the time. She'd been reading my blog, crying when she remembered the places we'd been together. She said she couldn't understand why "you've wiped me out of your life". I sent a polite reply but I couldn't bring myself to lie: nothing she does, or did, has any value to me anymore.

Yesterday I told her I didn't want to talk to her. Not now, not ever. And I meant it.

Friday, February 02, 2007


A watercolour sky, pale blues and reds daubed across the bare winter canvas, the back garden apple tree and next door's asbestos ridden shed. January came and went with just that single day of heavy frost; even the snow missed us out completely.