Saturday, February 28, 2015

going south

Tomorrow, my career as a detectorist will begin.  Tonight, fashionably late and enveloped by the darkness of a painful farewell, I hopped onto the train to Basel.  Thanks to the poster with schematics of every long-distance train from that platform, I had waited in the right place and got straight into the restaurant car, the best aspect of railroad travel.  Before the train had even left the station, I had ordered dinner and a beer.

Dining on the train is a pleasure from a different age.  Sitting on a proper table with a white tablecloth, a meal served on a porcelain plate and eaten with silverware, beer in a glass, and space for arms and legs – this degree of luxury can be achieved in the air only at irresponsible financial expense.  On the train it is within the reach of even those not traveling on expenses.  I opened the Borges purchased in Mannheim and waited for my order.  The train rolled through the night.

The man at the neighboring table wolfed down a bowl of chili con carne in a manner that belied his appearance.  He was tall and lean – and, in brown nylon pants and orange sneakers, dressed in the way of those who value their physical shape over the elegance of their appearance.  When he was done with his chili, he ordered rolls and Nutella in a curious two-two-three ratio.  I leaned back and glanced around, securing the beer against the kicking of the train.

In improv comedy and other jocular banter, there's a rule for the maximization of humor:  Never dissent.  Whatever the other person says or asks, agree and take it from there, inflating the ridiculousness of the initial proposal if possible.  Social interactions follow a similar paradigm; they are fueled by agreement.  When my neighbor stated with interrogative inflection that the car was rather hot, my reply that I didn't find it disagreeable at all killed our nascent conversation at once.  At this point, my meal arrived.

My neighbor wasn't fazed.  He picked up the telephone to speak to what I deduced to be his nutritionist, a late-night call out of the ordinary made necessary by his binging.  The conversation was brief and cordial, but not all was good.  My neighbor seemed thrown off-balance by words or actions unseen.  He pulled a book from his bag, leaned over to show me the cover of it, big and blue, and opened a page for me to inspect.  Sections were highlighted in neon yellow, the entire page glowed.  Then he stood up and pontificated, for everyone in the restaurant car to hear, about the tribulations of a recovering alcoholic, starting with the fact there is no such thing as a recovering alcoholic.

Alcohol never loosens its grip.  Its memory sits in your brain, ready to come back and bit at every opportunity.  And even if you're strong, even if you drink water when your neighbor enjoys a cold beer, the obsession within you might get out, making you pig out on carbs as if they were vodka-colas.  He wasn't embarrassed in the least about his performance or his confessions.  He was used to speaking up from countless AA meetings.  I was less experienced and not sure how to react.  I nodded and asked a couple of hushed questions but felt a bit out of place.  In Freiburg he got off, saying goodbye as if we had just chatted about the weather for five minutes.  The train continued south for another half hour.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Swiss German

Approached from the north, Switzerland looks a lot like Germany.  It's not as close as Austria, which came into its own only 150 years ago, but still, Switzerland shows more similarities with Germany at first glance than differences.  Radio, TV and street signs are in German, trains leave from platforms shown in the timetable, thus avoiding the scrum when they are finally announced, five minutes before departure, at Victoria Station or Gare de Lyon, and bakers sell tasty bread that the locals proceed to have for dinner with cheese and cold cuts.  To a German, it looks as if it could double for home.

The Swiss would probably disagree.  They are known for their independence and the pride they take in their idiosyncrasies.  Their love of local specialties and a good meal out couldn't be further from the German cheap-is-good mentality.  What they speak among themselves is probably more distant from German than Dutch and certainly more than Yiddish.  It is entirely incomprehensible to me.

The border region is intertwined to such a degree that it's hard to discern what's one country and what's the other.  On my trip to my future home this morning, I had to change trains in Basel.  Basel is in Switzerland, but one of its train station is on German territory.  I hopped onto another train that noisily rumpled along and up the thinning Rhine, on the German side.  I was in Germany all the way until the last regional train, a commuter towards Zurich, but the border patrol checked passports before Basel already.

Plenty of Germans work in Switzerland but reside on the German side, never mind the suffocating taxes and mandatory insurances in Germany.  Cheap rent and money saved on groceries make up for that.  The Swiss, in contrast, come to Germany to have their cars repaired or their teeth.  The recent revaluation of the Franc has only intensified that.  To foreigners, prices in Switzerland are extortionate.  Paying the largest coin in common circulation for a double espresso is all right in the EU and a bargain in the US, but if that coin is worth nearly five euros, it hurts.

Once I've lived in Switzerland for any amount of time – I presume a few days will suffice – the differences between Germany and Switzerland will come into focus.  But for now I cling to what I read in Swiss Watching,  a collaborator's parting gift in which an Englishman describes his impressions after living in the country for a few years.  Almost every time he contrasts Switzerland with England, I feel at home – because I've contrasted Germany with England in the same way.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

last day

On Monday, the population of London rose to its highest value in history, 8.615 million.  On Tuesday, it was one fewer.  I jumped onto a plane towards the continent and was gone.  As the plane rose over my former home, I felt relieved, probably mostly due to the dissipation of the tension of previous day.  When East London came into view and then, increasingly distantly, the Thames Estuary, a pinch of loss spiced my farewell, but my heart wasn't heavy.

The day before had been exhausting.  I didn't do much all day, but I had never been so tense over such a long time.  I'm not one to grind teeth, but when I sat in the pub at the end of the day with the last Doom Bar in front of me, my jaws hurt.

In the morning, I carried a third of a metric ton of belongings down to the ground floor and stored them in the hallway that is the building's fire escape.  Collection was promised to take place between 9 and 5:30.  That window was a bit wide for my taste.  Around ten, I called the local office of the shipment company to see how they were getting on with the job.  The lady was responsive to my predicament but of little help.  I'd like to have the collection time narrowed down a little because I have no food in the house and need to step out to eat, I explained.  She said 1 to 4 but there was doubt in her voice.

In the morning I had to stay in the flat anyway.  I needed to finish cleaning kitchen and bathroom.  According to the gospel of Perl, laziness is a virtue.  The desire to minimize work makes one efficient, leading to better code and a better life.  I see the value of laziness, but my philosophy is procrastination.  Doing things the last minute avoids unnecessary work.  Something done prematurely might be superseded or become obsolete.  Something done when it's due is done at the right time.  The later one starts with a task, the less time it takes to finish it, simply because more time isn't available.

I had finished taping up all the boxes only the night before.  I had hoovered the living room and the bedroom, but the rest was a disaster.  At noon, the property administrator was supposed to stop by to inspect the flat and give his verdict on the likely distribution of the deposit between me and the company.  In the half hour before noon, I started seeing real progress.  The bathroom came to life, the kitchen looked better.  With ten minutes to go, all was done.  It would have been a wasted ten minutes, except I had nothing else to do but wait.  And then the admin was two hours late.

Neither cleaning nor the admin had anything to do with my tension.  The tension came from the slow ticking of time and the immobility that this forced me into, waiting for something to happen while hoping that it hadn't happened yet.  The tension was then exacerbated by what I saw outside my front window.  North End Road runs a market every day except Sunday, with fruit & veg stalls all the way from the Lillie Road roundabout to St. John's Church.  With the stalls, wheelie bins, rogue parking and deliveries to local businesses, there's hardly any parking in the street during the day.  Where would the lorry fit?

I had booked the move on the cheap, through a third-party company that collects payment and then tenders the shipment to companies more suited to the task.  I was told that the driver would not carry a phone.  Be by the door at all times, I was warned.  If the driver cannot get to you, if the driver cannot park, I understood, he would abandon the collection.

My doorbell was broken, but I had left a note on the door with the request to bang hard and my phone number just in case.  Upstairs, I left my door open and got worried every time I turned the vacuum on or the hot water with its explosive boiler.  When the cleaning was done and the admin had come and gone, all that was left for me to was pace between door and window like a tiger in a cage.  Looking outside was not uplifting.  Parking spaces opened up from time to time, but only momentarily.  And with every minute that passed, I got more convinced that I had already missed the collection, that the driver had gone by and seen that there was no way of stopping in front of my building and just continued driving.  It was way past two, five hours into the initially specified collection period.

It got so late that I made peace with the failed collection attempt.  No need to get worked up, I told myself.  Won't change a thing.  Better come up with a plan B.  I dug up my car sharing membership card in case I'd needed a van to move the boxes myself.  It should be possible the next morning to find storage and leave the boxes there before rushing to the airport to fly out, I schemed, before running back to the window to not miss the collection lorry, should it drive by that very moment.  The fruit sellers were praising their produces by the price, as always.  A pound a bowl, a pound a bowl.

By three o'clock I couldn't take it anymore.  I went outside and stayed there.  It was cold, but there was no point staying inside.  I remained a tiger, pacing from the Goose along the bus stop next to it on one side of the road and back on the other in a neat rectangle, watching traffic, counting vans and buses but never getter further than one before abandoning the task due to preoccupations and fogginess of mind.  By half past three I was getting cold.  By four I started to shiver.  Then I got a call.

It was the driver, who had just driven by.  I directed him back and occupied a double parking spot that had mysteriously opened just a few moments earlier.  It was the only time during the day that this much space was available, and it was dearly needed.  When the driver arrived, he didn't do so in a van.  It wasn't a moving van either.  It was full-size lorry, and it barely fit into the spaced I had claimed.  I moved a wheelie bin into the road, which was half blocked by the parked truck.  Five minutes later the boxes were loaded and the driver on his way.  All worries fell off.  I needed a beer.

In the Goose, the late afternoon crowd was having a good time.  I got my last Doom Bar and joined two tiny octogenarian ladies who bantered and laughed, a wheelchair parked inconspicuously next to the table.  One table over, a rough-and-tumble couple, with stained clothes, wild hair and an acrid smell, were having their beers like everyone else.  Further back, three Chelsea fans in blue garb a few days away from the next game had their eyes on the TV screen that followed the inaction of the closing of the winter transfer window live.  The ubiquitous loner with a smartphone, a pensioner with white hair in this case, couldn't care less.  He stared at his little screen as if mesmerized.