Friday, August 31, 2007

The Last Gasp

The end of August. Exactly a year since I returned home from China. Only seven more days before I'm due back at work.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Change of Plans

For want of a car this week's camping expedition to Northumberland National Park has been called off, cancelled, or just plain knocked on the head. Fortunately there are other plans in the pipeline: next Monday I'm off to Aviemore and the Cairngorms for three days of mountain walks, late-night drinking, Munro bagging and shivering under canvas (or flame retardant polyester).

Monday, August 27, 2007

Tuesday: Vienna Next Time

The morning news forecast more thunderstorms; CNN was an unbroken mass of blue from Berlin all the way down to Budapest. I stuck an umbrella and a waterproof jacket into my rucksack and wandered around Bratislava's Old Town. There wasn't a drop of rain all day.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Warsaw to Bratislava

Glazed, speckled floors, hard orange seats and a brown arched roof. Next to me, surrounded by their luggage, an American couple were breaking up. "I always thought you were a special person." "What are we gonna do about the hotel?"

I must have fallen asleep on the train because I was woken by doors sliding open and the light clicking on. Wearily, I handed my passport over to the Slovak border guard, then sat by the window watching dawn break as we rolled into Zilina.

Later that afternoon, we took a tram to the end of the line and hiked two and a bit hours up through the woods to Devin Castle. It was closed, as the briefest of glances at my guidebook would have told me from the start.

It wasn't our day: on the bus ride back to town there was a sudden rumble and the skies opened up. We hid under a concrete bridge for half an hour while the rain lashed down. Cars forded the main road and the castle was barely visible up on the hill, hidden under diagonal streams of rain, like dust falling down a mine shaft. It stopped as unexpectedly as it had begun.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Warsaw Rising

Eighteen years after the fall of communism, Warsaw remains a city of glaring contradictions. The city centre, with its wide boulevards, gleaming new shopping malls, noodle bars and coffee shops, is strikingly familiar to downtown Tokyo or the swankier parts of Shanghai and Seoul. Flashing lights scroll across glass and steel rectangles adorned with multi-national brand names; the Old Town has been meticulously restored with even more care than the Nazis took in smashing it apart; even the underground passageways have been tarted up. But the grubby apartment blocks are still there too, with views of broken down walls and cracked-up pavement. Under concrete balconies, dusty shop windows display washed-out jars and discoloured boxes. Here, everything, and nothing, is possible.

My Polish friend Hania showed me round all the main sights: the Uprising Museum, Nowy Swiat and Warsaw University, the Palace upon the Water, hot chocolate at Wedel's, bus rides out to Wilanow and beers in the park. In some ways a weekend wasn't enough, but it was all either of us had to spare.

The Food Revolution

Meanwhile, on another continent.

Friday: To Warsaw

The beauty of travel is not so much the places you visit as the chance connections you make along the way. In Olomouc I learned the rules of ice hockey from a French speaking Canadian and discovered the ethnological link between my ancestral heritage and the shape of my face. "You're very Saxon," said the Austrian, butting uninvited into a conversation about Czech women. Mishearing the final word, I took it for a different kind of compliment.

The following afternoon, on the train ride to Warsaw, I spent two and a half hours - or the entire section of track between Ostrava and Katowice - playing cards on upturned suitcases with bleary-eyed Australians born in Istanbul and Mumbai. When they changed for Krakow I had the whole carriage to myself, watching the flat, forested countryside move slowly past as I finished Sciascia's The Moro Affair and the last of the beers.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Pick of the Crop

Yesterday's catch: a quick growing courgette, half a dozen spring onions, a handful of basil, a dwarf carrot and a couple of sprigs of mint. Against the glass, plump green tomatoes make shapes like the folds of a fat man's stomach. Aubergine plants with chewed-up leaves grow slowly in the late-summer heat. The runner beans - neglected for too long? - wither on the fence.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

One Week Ago: Olomouc

I arrived in Olomouc right at the end of the hottest part of the day, numb from five and a half hours in a worn-out metal box that ideally would have sufficed for no more than a quick trip to the shopping centre or an edge-of-town housing estate. The air-conditioning was a couple of slide open windows towards the back of the bus, behind the tiny luggage rack where my backpack lay buried like a hairpin under rubble. A thin strip of curtain blocked out the sun. The space between seats was barely enough for me to stretch out the soles of my feet, let alone my aching legs.

Navigating from memory, I reached the Poets' Corner and a minor brush with fame: Greg, photographer, blogger, hostel owner and fellow IgoUgoer recognised me from a profile snap and a few dozen pictures of the Czech Republic. After a healthy dinner of goulash and beer we headed around the corner to the ice hockey, watching the local team thrash an abysmal Slovak select side - composed of overweight teenagers in tight-fitting uniforms and their father's ice skates - nine goals to two. I finally fell into bed at half past one, semi-drunk and totally exhausted, kept awake by Dutchmen snoring and an amusing case of pumped-up Austrian patriotism.

The Dangerous Edge

I came back to a country on the very cusp of crisis: murderous teenagers have seized the streets, migrants bleed the economy dry, hundreds of thousands flee abroad to escape rain clouds and Human Rights Act despotism. No matter how long you're away, in Daily Mail land all is bleak and nothing ever changes, except perhaps for the worse.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Farewell Bratislava

I was woken before six by the sharp metallic clang of construction work and the worrying sound of raindrops drumming on balcony tiles. Out of the hotel room window, across the office blocks and football stadium floodlights, the sky was a pale shade of scarlet, like a crayon brushed against tracing paper. I braved the busy road one last time to say my goodbyes to Frank and buy breakfast at Billa, then set off for the bus station, Prague and home.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Leaving Warsaw

I'm in a poky, cigarette smoke darkened internet cafe, attached to the side entrance of Warsaw Central Station, killing time before the overnight train to Bratislava. I arrived here on Friday evening, after a twenty-four hour stopover in Olomouc and a cross border railway journey. Bohemia and Moravia lie behind, ahead are Slovakia's capital and a Third Man homage through Vienna's big wheels, sewer outlets and ill-lit doorways.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Sort of Home

So here I am, back in Liberec. Sitting with Henry and Rob and Stevie and Milan in front of Plzenka, talking football at the top of the sloping, cobbled street between the town hall and the bus station. Pints of beer arrive unordered at the table. I wash them down with fried cheese and crinkle cut chips and catch the last tram home. It feels as if I've never been away.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Off Again

With uncommonly perfect timing I'm clearing off on holiday just as Britain turns into an etch-a-sketch blob of blue and green on the weather forecaster's map.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

New Season

Football's back, as hyped-up and predictable as ever. Either Chelsea or Manchester United will win the title, depending on who suffers the fewest injuries. Liverpool and Arsenal will hold off the rest of the also-rans for the last two Big Cup places, but neither will seriously threaten for the league. At the bottom, Derby are this season's Watford, Birmingham might just about keep their heads above water, Wigan won't score enough goals to survive, Fulham should pull clear right at the end while Sunderland - who've paid over the odds for a load of Championship standard players - will hopefully get dragged straight back down where they belong.

Friday, August 10, 2007


This morning I started cleaning up the garden, pulling out weeds and rotting vegetables, clearing hanging baskets of dessicated remains, dead-heading roses and trimming back herb bushes. The rest of the time I sat out on a deck chair, drinking tea while re-reading Lord of the Flies and mentally sketching out my route through Central Europe.

This Sceptred Isle

Britain's greatest views. More reasons to holiday at home.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Slow Life

It seems as if I've been very far away for a very long time. I was so utterly immersed in the summer school routine that it's not at all easy to get back to how things were before. I'm planning much but achieving little: my bag still sits unpacked by my bedroom door, scraps of paper are strewn across the chest of drawers and a half completed funding application lies on the table next to my laptop. Trying to ease myself back in I went out running after tea, on a half-paced, twenty-minute loop around the beach with my brother. Tomorrow I'll do better.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Sunday Evening Stroll

Home Again

Normality is eight and a half hours sleep in a bed big enough to turn over in, flicking through a newspaper with the TV turned on in the background, reading in the bath, digging up potatoes and watering the greenhouse, finding letters on the doormat, tea and toast for breakfast and rifling through cupboards trying to find something to eat in the middle of the afternoon.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

People I Have Known

All Things Must Pass

I left Barnard Castle straight after dinner, slightly sad but mostly relieved. The morning dragged: I rearranged desks, posed with students for photos and waved departing coaches away. The last of the Spanish were the first to leave, seen off by drunk and emotional staff at half three in the morning; the Romans and Sardinians followed eight hours later. Only the Sicilians remained in the dining room, calling out 'See you Michael' as I said my brief goodbyes to the dozen or so people who have almost entirely comprised my world for the past month. It ended as these things always do. Eventually you get used to it.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Bailing Out

I bailed on the teachers' trip to Whitby. After a whole month of seeing the same ten faces one hundred times a day, I've lost all sense of myself. I need some time to reconnect.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Last Weekend

Another late night. I sat with a glass of wine, eyes closed, hearing the voices around me, physically and mentally drained but still too wired for bed. I woke up five hours later with a cricked neck and Sahara-dry mouth for a relaxing trudge around Whitby with tired out Spanish teenagers.

Friday, August 03, 2007

In The Bubble

Four nights of drinking has begun to take its toll. This morning I made it to bed at 4am, then was back up at 7 for an observed lesson and an afternoon by the window of a pub supervising Italian teenagers on a town trail. When this month ends I'm sure I'll fall like a stone.