Postcard from Venice

Friday 28 July 2006

I came here in my young youth
and lay there under the crocodile
By the column, looking East on the Friday,
And I said: Tomorrow I will lie on the South side
And the day after, south west.

Ezra Pound, Canto XXVI.

Germany is like Australia: Exhibit A

Monday 12 June 2006

I really like Berlin; so much so that when I came back to Australia from visiting there six years ago and people asked me what it was like, I said “It’s a lot like Melbourne.” This did not go down well with my German or otherwise-Europeanny friends.
How!?” they demanded to know. I give you photographic proof.

In Germany, as in Australia, Sport = Ideas.
Honestly, Australians: can’t you just imagine a sign saying “Victoria*: Land of Ideas” in front of a giant, non-functional footy boot? Really though, this should belong in Queensland, spiritual centre for Big Things. “Don’t miss THE BIG SHOE, 2km west of Beaudesert.”
This was outside the new central train station in Berlin, a week before (duh!) the World Cup.

* Or one of the other states. But never “Australia”.

Paris: local colour

Thursday 11 May 2006

One of the satisfying things about going to Paris is seeing all these people acting the way the French are supposed to, just like you’ve seen in the movies. You can be confident that within an hour of stepping off the train at Gare du Nord that you will have seen several people walking around carrying baguettes and at least one truck driver yelling at a policeman.
My first French conversation, of sorts, was with a crone in the gutter. I was going to say she was begging, but I’m not sure that screaming abuse and obscenities at passersby, or even people across the street, technically constitutes proper begging. She had nevertheless accumulated a small pile of coins, so perhaps there is a distinctly French attitude to commerce that extends all the way from their winos to their international trade negotiations.
Despite the strike the Metropolitain was still running, although on a reduced schedule, apparently. Over a year of living with the, uh, eccentricites of the London Underground, I have heard people on numerous occasions sniff that the Paris Métro is infinitely superior. Those people would not be pleased to hear that on my first Métro trip this visit the train broke down, stranding us about 10m out of the station for about half an hour, before they backed the thing up to the platform and kicked us out.
Also, for all their faults, London stations generally do not feature drunks passed out on the platform, let alone drunks passed out on the platform after employing the delivery chute on the vending machine as a urinal; nor do they put up enormous posters hawking le nouveau album de Tina Arena.

It’s worth paying for the climb up the towers of Notre Dame, if only because it lets you see the world’s most overrated bookshop without having to go in or near it. Unfortunately, I had to push my way past a mass of wine-quaffers loitering outside for a new sudoku book launch or something, to get to the Bang On A Can gig.
Once up the tower you can also enjoy the weathered old plaques prohibiting you from throwing stuff off the roof, writing on the walls and ringing the bells.

The trees around the Eiffel Tower are very dangerous and are fenced off for your protection in enclosures that replicate their natural habitat. Do not approach the trees!

The Parisian romance with cigarettes continues. The Left Bank couple at the cafe table next to me flaunted their French sense of style with a packet of Winstons and a disposable plastic Che Guevara lighter. The price of booze makes drinking in Paris less fun than it should be, although the bars are still better for people-watching than English pubs. This is my favourite place, somewhere in Montmartre that reminds me of my preferred haunts in Melbourne because (a) it’s frowsy and (b) I can never remember the name of it, so I call it the Brown Bar.

See America! Go to Paris.

Wednesday 10 May 2006

Old news, thanks to my being offline for most of last month. Today: the Bang On A Can All-Stars from New York, who were playing in Paris when I visited. Later this week: LA artists at the Centre Pompidou. My next visit to Paris: to see the Rauschenberg retrospective. Is there anything French worth seeing in Paris?
Like Parson Yorick, I spent several days wandering around Paris in a state of blithe obliviousness, with the consequences just as negligible. Every service I needed just happened to be one not affected by the general strike; and whichever part of the city I visited, the protesters had either moved on or not yet arrived.
I did see some very cheerful students with banners and facepaint walk into a bar in Montmartre for a well-earned drink after a busy day rioting, and was almost approached by a heavily armoured policeman when I was photographing the nice big wall they’d put up around the Sorbonne. That’s pretty much it. If you spend all your time in the centre of the city you’ll mostly meet Americans and other tourists like you, anyway.
By a fluke, I managed to get into the Chatelet to see the Bang On A Can All-Stars, who restored my faith in a couple of things. Firstly, they played Philip Glass’ Music in Fifths, one of his most relentlessly single-minded scores. After suffering Icebreaker’s travesty of Music With Changing Parts I began to wonder if Glass’ earlier music, which rarely specified instruments, could ever be as effective in arrangements other than the composer’s own ensemble of amplified winds and electric keyboards. The All-Stars’ performance was on non-traditional grand piano, clarinet, cello, marimba and electric guitar. It was fast, it was tight, it’s meagre musical material needed no further embellishment to make it compelling listening from start to finish.
(It was only during a talk by one of the musicians to the audience between pieces that I learned there was a strike on. Either my French had really sharpened up after a couple of days in town or he was speaking in English, I forget. If it was the latter then Parisians certainly understand English very well when the speaker is saying nice things about their city. Either that or the audience was full of Americans.)
After the interval, they made me take back a lot of what I’ve said about crossover*. The second half of the gig featured the Czech singer and violinist Iva Bittová, who at first came on stage alone, playing with apparent urgency, impatiently slipping and sliding from Slavic folk music to louche cabaret to cod avant-garde histrionics, violin melody turning to noise, turning to ecstatic vocal gibberish. She’s an exhilarating musician, but the cynical part of my brain kept worrying at what would happen when she was joined by the All-Stars, for a suite of peices she had written for them and herself.
Great, I thought sarcastically, the soloist is either going to have to tone down her natural exuberance, or else look out of place amongst the other musicians. Her music will become stuffy and mannered as she tries to write something with gravitas appropriate to the occasion. The musos will miss the shifts in musical styles and not understand their playing attitude needs to change with them. Stand by for 45 minutes or so of dreary cabaret defanged by the concert-hall atmosphere.
Amazingly, none of this happened. The set of songs and instrumental passages held together: they were fun, and they were moving. Bittová’s performance, part chameleon-like chanteuse, part concertmaster and part ringleader, had the whole audience entranced (although you could tell by their reaction there were a number of converts and diva-worshippers in the hall); her adopted band could both follow and lead her abrupt changes in mood. The sense of the music kept taking unexpected turns, whipping up tumultuous noise before just as suddenly burning out into sullen melancholy; the performers knowing how to shade the slow, unravelling melody to make it bite and not meander in muzak.
It was one of the best gigs I’ve been to for a long time, something I haven’t experienced for a long time, partly because I’ve been jaded and reluctant to expose myself to it: a happy and completely unexpected surprise.

* Not on this blog, just incoherent ranting after one vodka too many after disappointing genre-crossover gigs.

Jesus owes me 80 Euros: a voyage to Italy

Friday 28 April 2006

While I was offline I got bored hanging out at the laundrette and so went to Italy instead. Here’s a few highlights apart from the bits everybody knows about the great food/climate/art/pickpockets etc.
My girlfriend can arrive in any country and in less than 12 hours get involved in a loud conversation on the pavement with a local who’s spent enough time in Australia to discuss, in exhaustive detail, the acceptable usage of the word “cunt“.
If you’re too tight or broke to stay in Venice, you can stay over in Padua, which is a 30 minute train ride away. It’s much cheaper, unless you go on Easter Sunday and no-one tells you that’s the night they cancel the last train out of Venice and you have to catch a taxi back to Padua.
If you like Italy but aren’t so keen on Italians then go visit some ruins, which are all full of French; or else visit Florence, which is full of Americans who are unnervingly familiar with the place. The Germans will be waiting for you at the bar afterwards.
The only truly archetypal dopey American tourists I’ve seen were all in Rome: if you overhear some of them wondering aloud if there are any good restaurants around the Trevi Fountain, recommend to them a little place nearby called I Cazzi Gabinetti – they can ask a local for directions. Hilarity guaranteed.
You can also amuse yourself at dinner by watching your waiter attempt to translate “osso bucco” into English, before telling her the correct term is “osso bucco.”
Over dinner in Rome we sat next to two Italians chatting away about places they’d travelled to, from Vegas to Nepal. They were very enthusiastic about Melbourne’s Federation Square.
Having foiled a pickpocket in Riga, my girlfriend also managed to thwart another kid in Rome, just as he was about to make off with someone else’s bag. Later that night she celebrated by shortchanging a bartender over the price of a cognac. Note to self: never, ever attempt to double-cross the girlfriend.

Italians either really like coconut, or think that tourists really like coconut.

We went to the Vatican to look at the pope, but when we visited he was curled up asleep at the back of his enclosure. The Holy See was disappointingly light on duty-free shopping, and although they do a nice line in stamps their range of postcards only extends back to the last pope, so you can’t send your Star Wars nerd friends back home a card of Pope Lando.
Also disappointing was the Vatican bookshop’s lack of publications in Latin; however, they do stock an Italian translation of Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Unlike at Montserrat, there were no crazy menopausal women at St Peter’s who wanted to punch on with us.
Italian TV is less batshit insane then I remember it, but they still hire just that one shouty baritone guy to overdub everybody from Mr T to Woody Allen. Woody pops up in phone ads with someone else speaking his lines so I must conclude that Italians consider him eye candy, a thought which is alternately distressing and inspiring.
From the way you’ve heard everyone talk about it, you’d think that Naples was a filthy shitheap of a city swarming with petty crooks.
I might put some photos up on Flickr, but I didn’t take that many while I was there. It seemed kind of pointless. Everyone knows what the Colloseum looks like, but on the other hand you feel like a total wanker if you stand outside it facing the other way, trying to photograph a packet of Fonzies in the snack stall parked out front.
Besides, if you really want to experience what a visit to the Colloseum is like, just watch Double Team.

Two things I forgot to mention about Riga

Wednesday 12 April 2006

I’m not good at list-based stuff, so here’s two things that got left off the “Signs that Latvia isn’t quite fully touristified yet” list.
You can get a cheap double room at a hotel for 17 Lats a night. “Double” as in two planky single beds, with a bathroom down the hall. And next to the bathroom, a toilet with a sign above it asking you not to put toilet paper in the toilet; instead, please use the little plastic rubbish bin sitting on the floor. Eww. When booking a hotel room, ask for a non-smoking room, and ask about their toilets.
Riga has the world’s slowest, clumsiest pickpockets. My travelling companion was walking past the train station when she lazily reached back and grabbed the wrist of an indeterminately-sexed teenager, whose hand was halfway into her bag and was awkwardly fumbling with the catch to get his/her pudgy mitt further inside. She/he stood gawping like a bunny in the headlights while my dear, sweet confidante pinned him/her/it to the wall and went through its pockets until satisfied that nothing had been taken. A friend/sibling/parent/guardian/other of the teen-thing stood by and watched without objection.

I go to Riga

Thursday 23 March 2006

I went to Riga for a long weekend (a) because I could, and (b) having spent a mild, dry winter in England I wanted to see some serious snow and ice at last. The latter was not a disappointment. Also, I had to get across the channel because I was desperate for a decent cup of coffee. Anywhere in Europe will do for that, and in Riga coffee is good, cheap, and plentiful; as is beer, vodka, cognac, and smallgoods.
The old town is picture-postcardy, the sort of European town you see in old movies about vampires. Steeples abound.

Further out is a large Art Nouveau precinct, which was how Riga started out the modern era until the 20th century intervened. Much of the historic part of the city is remarkably intact, given that Latvia was unfortunate enough to be caught between Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, who took turns invading and occupying the country before the Soviet Union took over, apparently for good. It’s worth visiting the Occupation Museum to find out what has happened to this place since 1940. No wonder so many of the older couples around town were enjoying cream cakes and cognac whenever the opportunity arose.
The other must-visit place is the huge produce market behind the train station, a series of former zeppelin hangars overshadowed by a huge, somewhat crumbling, Stalinist edifice (think Moscow University), stuffed with every possible type of food. No cameras allowed – a hangover from black market days? – so sadly no picture of the bloody great fish that made a break for it when I walked past.
Despite all the culture, for me the high point of the trip was walking across the surface of the Daugava, the main river that leads out to the ports. It’s March, and it’s still frozen over.

As you can see, it’s pretty wide. This is the sort of thing you don’t get to do on the Thames. Or the Yarra, for that matter.

Signs that Latvia isn’t quite fully touristified yet

  • It only costs 20p to catch a bus to the airport from the centre of Riga. However, there is no obvious signage at the bus stop to point out which bus goes to the airport.
  • Riga International Airport is small. There were four flights out of town the night I left. Apart from some merry Germans, all the other travelers seemed to be on a first-name basis with the airport staff. Out on the tarmac, two baggage handlers were pulling donuts in the snow with their motorised baggage carts.
  • The tourist information office gives away a weekly english-language newpaper listing events, restaurants etc. The two main stories at the front of the paper: taxi drivers in Riga smell bad and try to rip you off, and building standards in the Latvian construction industry can be pretty dodgy.

“What did you do at Oxford?” “I bought a tie.”

Saturday 11 March 2006

By a strange coincidence, “Opium Den/RAF Whores” is my favourite Fall B-side.

How to get ahead in London

Thursday 23 February 2006

There’s a shallow dent the size of a pound coin on the front left fender of my girlfriend’s new car. She’s just come inside from another session of squatting in front of the parking bay and glaring at the indentation with furrowed brows, scrutinising the bodywork for any other damage. She swears the dent wasn’t there when she bought it.
(Regular readers may have gathered the accurate impression that she is a woman who takes cars seriously. Personally I am agnostic, fitting the definition of a poet as someone who cannot drive.)
Of course, it is not really a new car – she did not track down the late and mysterious Mucho Maas of the home counties for a shiny new Kia. A friend of hers was leaving the country and needed to dispose of his slightly thrashed Fiat Brava in a hurry. He was doing a postdoctorate in Plymouth, and so had done his fair share of driving at high speed around blind corners on those hedge-lined, one-lane backroads that zigzag across Devon and Cornwall. He was more than happy to demonstrate his skills to us when we went to visit.
Plymouth’s claim to fame rests on the number of illustrious former inhabitants who made a point of leaving it. Apart from Drake sailing out to take on the Armada, and the pilgrims leaving to settle America, much of the civic bric-a-brac erected for public enlightenment proudly reminds you that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle briefly lived there. He hated the place, and moved away as soon as possible, but it seems Plymouth has to take what little celebrity it can get and be grateful.
More recent history has done nothing to increase Plymouth’s allure. The place was bombed flat in World War II by German planes returning from raids on Bristol jettisoning what remained of their payloads. Postwar rebuilding was done with all the style and quality for which modern Britain is famous around the world. Plymouth today is a small, ugly city of bad 1960s architecture, littered with unemployed men with bad haircuts and eating pasties, so for me it was just like coming home to Adelaide and taking a bus out to Elizabeth.

There are two big things in Plymouth’s favour: the excellent gin, and everyone there talks like a pirate. In Cornwall, every day is 19 September. We went around asking older guys for directions all day.
It was in Plymouth that I first experienced that venerable British culinary stalwart, the inedible meal. A harmless-looking Italian-type bistro served me a carbonara consisting of a pile of overcooked spaghetti half-submerged in a milky broth, disrupted by clumps of bright pink spam. I should have been warned off the place by the fact that they had one of those collections of signed and framed celebrity photographs on the wall, except in their case there was only one “celebrity”: Gus Honeybun.
We agreed our friend would drive the car up to London en route to the airport in a few weeks’ time, and drop it off at our place. This was harder to achieve than it seemed at the time we planned it. Everything went fine until he reached the outskirts of London, and then attempted to navigate his way from Slough to Hackney without a map. His success can be gauged from the diagrams below, accompanied by his text messages reporting his progress towards the Bunker. For your convenience, Jeremy Bentham’s location in Bloomsbury is marked as a reference point.

6.30 pm: in hamersmith cu in 1 hr

7.30 pm: wo6ps at heathrow xrong turn c u so6nish

9.00 pm: ic wembley stadiun am i close??
We thought it best to take a tube to meet him at Wembley. The drive back to the bunker started out simply enough along the North Circular Road, but ran into trouble when we made the turn south toward the bunker. One of the amazing things about London is how you can follow the streets, diligently alternating left turns with right turns to keep on some sort of tacking course toward your presumed destination, only to find yourself driving in the opposite direction past the landmark you left behind half an hour earlier.
“This is hopeless!” I yelled. I’m constructive like that.
Our driving friend sighed. “Looks like I’ll have to get the street directory out after all.”

The bastard had a street directory, but preferred to drive in circles around London for five hours rather than admit defeat and reach under the passenger seat for the A-Z. We had no choice to kill him once he got us back to the bunker at last.

Mind you, he could have achieved this without our help. At midnight, about an hour into the journey home, he exclaimed, “Aha! That’s why everybody’s been pointing and waving at me! I just thought all the drivers round here were really aggro.” He pressed a button on the dashboard and switched the headlights on.

Come round to my place for a look through my holiday slides

Wednesday 15 February 2006

I didn’t get very far in telling about my trip to Spain; about as far as the car rental office, in fact. Now that conditions at home have settled into a sub-Melburnian level of greyness, I guess it’s time to get back to remembering warmer weather abroad.
As I was saying, we were up in the Cerdanya, straddling the French/Spanish border, staying in cabins in a camping ground in Estavar – a tiny village on the French side – along with a gaggle of other Australians who had congregated for the wedding. The bride was from Melbourne and had done her best to ensure her side of the church would be well populated. The greatest effort made to attend was by Trevor, who was acting as father of the bride. He came to Estavar by train, which was a good test of character considering that the train didn’t stop at Estavar, the station having been closed and converted into someone’s house ten years ago, and that Trevor didn’t speak French. He was duly found waiting outside the former station, on time.
After several months confined to central London it was good to be out in the countryside again, listening to the peaceful sounds of country life: the wind in the trees, the nearby creek, the bleeping of everyone’s mobile phones as they switched back and forth between the French and Spanish services whenever they were moved more than 10 metres in any direction.
The groom’s family is Catalonian, so the wedding took place over on the Spanish side of the border, the next village down the road. Actually it was two villages down the road: the family didn’t like the priest in the first village. So we ended up in the church of Santa Maria de Talló, a 12th century landmark perched above a village called Bellver, despite the efforts of the group in the bus who were supposed to be leading us. They decided they couldn’t wait an extra thirty seconds for us to fasten our seatbelts and took off without us, leaving our car to find its own way there via a lengthy detour following a very similar looking bus that was contentedly trundling to Andorra.
The church was one of those very Spanish-looking buildings, an unadorned vault of bare stones, with only the altarpiece as ornamentation.
The service was conducted in Catalan, except for a couple of English readings in Australian accents. Various musicians from round the area were stationed in the church alcoves, accompanying the groom’s dad who led the small choir through enthusiastic versions of some hymns, Catalonian folk songs, and a Bob Marley number that careened into chaos after the local singers ran into disagreements over the scansion of Jamaican English along the way. A didgeridu popped up without explanation in one song.
It didn’t occur to me that this was the first time I’d been at a Catholic religious ceremony until I wondered why some people in the congregation were walking up to the altar to take communion, something I’d never seen for myself. Apart from the bride and groom, only the locals joined in, although I suspect this was because the Anglophones didn’t realise what was happening until too late.
(In fact, I’d been to the start of a Catholic ceremony once before, by accident. A few years ago I went to Venice and, because Ezra Pound wrote about it, was inspecting the Romanesque church of Santa Fosca on Torcello when a christening suddenly broke out. They all started singing the only hymn I know the tune to, so I found a pew up the back and joined in for a bit before quietly slipping outside without anyone noticing.)
I have many photographs of red-faced, smiling women in elaborate frocks, huddled in small groups outside the church, wearing sunglasses and looking weepy.
The reception was in Llívia, the Spanish enclave halfway between Bellver and Estavar, and celebrated in a traditional Spanish orgy of alcohol, tobacco and meat. Sometime after coffee the choir, still seated round the table, were led by the groom’s dad into a second crack at the Bob Marley. This second rendition was much improved by rehearsal and cava, and followed by an impressive attempt at “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. There’s nothing like an African-American spiritual sung by a bunch of Catalonians who learned it from Scouse football fans.
The bride graciously mingled with the guests, hobbling around on her dud leg from a moped accident some months earlier, the groom handed out the time-honoured gifts of cigars (Partagas) for the guys, and packs of Camels for the girls. My table companion, who had flown over from Melbourne with her complete extended family, had lied to her parents about quitting smoking and was thus in need of many “toilet breaks” throughout the day. She dragged me along for company, standing outside the smoke-filled building, away from any inquisitive relatives, where we’d smoke and look across at France, over in the next paddock.
My girlfriend, meanwhile, had fallen in with the bride’s ex-girlfriend and some of her mates. The ex had given a lovely reading from The Song of Solomon earlier in the church, and it turned out that Trevor was her dad.
“I turned the bride!” She raised her glass in a toast to her own prowess.
“How come she just got married then?” her new girlfriend scoffed.
“She kept turning. Bitch pulled a 360 on me.”
My own girlfriend, not exactly drunk, offered them a lift back to the camp; which they accepted enthusiastically until they got inside the car. “What is that smell?” they asked, sensing the presence of the half-eaten goat’s cheese and xorico we had stashed in the glovebox since yesterday morning. We rolled down the windows and set off home.
Unfortunately, even in a small town like Llívia we managed to make a wrong turn and get lost. When we saw a sign pointing to the “town centre”, Australians that we were, we dashed towards it, forgetting that it would be a medieval maze of twisting, narrow, cobbled laneways. Our driver, emboldened by having clipped someone’s rearview mirror in a backstreet in Barcelona without marking the rentacar’s duco, refused to slow down and I can only compliment her agility in avoiding scraping walls, bottoming out or killing two or three very surprised-looking families discovered on their Saturday evening promenades around blind corners in the street.
“Why aren’t you all in bed yet?” she yelled out the window as we hurtled past. We finally found the main road out of town again, but not before dissuading her from taking a short cut across the village placa and down a small flight of steps.

Hope I die before I look old

Wednesday 26 October 2005

To die of the cigarettes, that is a misfortune, no? But to have one’s skin look not so young before one’s time, that is the real tragedy.
The French have their priorities straight. The real mystery here is that this photo was taken in Estavar, where a 5-minute drive into the next village will see you over the border into Spain, where a packet of Camels will set you back only €2.50.

The Remise Door. Calais

Tuesday 11 October 2005

“Hey,” I said, “There’s another car salesman sticker in the back window of that car.”
My companion grunted unsympathetically and shifted the red Mégane we’d hired up into sixth. After two hours at the wheel, she’d gotten the hang of driving on the wrong side of the road and felt ready to overtake trucks and schoolbuses just as the dual carriageway ran out.
“You’re supposed to be describing the scenery to me,” she said, reaching over and fumbling around in the glovebox. She’d found that the Mégane felt most comfortable cruising at about 150 and was reluctant to let it drop to too low a speed because “it’s a diesel and they like being revved up.”
We were driving north from Barcelona up into the Pyrenees to be at the wedding of a couple of friends: she’s Australian but has lived in Barcelona and nearby mountains for years, he’s Catalan. Right now they’re living at his parents’ place up in the Cerdanya, a place I’d never heard of before.
I was expecting lots of hillclimbing and general cragginess, but once you’ve got up into the mountains you go through a really long tunnel (you folks at home think it’s a long haul from Southbank to Burnley – ha!) and once you come out the other side find yourself in this pretty green valley with meadows and cows and little villages dotted around. Then someone stops your car and relieves you of 9 Euros for driving through their shiny new tunnel and when you wind down the window realise it’s suddenly 15 degrees cooler outside.
What you can’t see amongst all the picturesque countryside is the French border which runs diagonally across the Cerdanya, and has done for 400 years, just to be difficult. Then, to be even more difficult, once you’re over the border into France you’re suddenly back into Spain again, a tiny little island of it called Llìvia which has also been that way for about 400 years, before heading back into France again. And because we’re dealing with France here, they speak French on one side of the border, then revert to Spanish 100 metres down the road. The family we were staying with was Catalan but lived on the French side – I suspect most of the locals speak Catalan but you’d never get the Francophones to admit to tourists like me.
My companion had just finished a bout of Italian lessons in London and so was pronouncing what little Spanish she knew as thought it were Italian. I suspected I was lapsing into a ropey Catalan accent when attempting to pronounce anything non-Anglophone.
“How do we order coffee again?” she asked, finally finding what she wanted in the glovebox.
Dos tallets, si us plau,” I said as she bit into the large xoriço we’d bought before heading off. We’d grabbed the sausage and a large, strong goat’s cheese from a market before picking up the car in Barcelona and had been taking chunks out of them from time to time along the way. By the time we returned the car it was going to be very stinky.

Not that we cared too much. We had actually reserved a small, cheap 3-door to get us out of town but we got traded up, which was a nice result after arriving at the car hire office to find a hot, grumpy queue spilling out onto the pavement. A tall Australian in front of us was talking into his mobile phone, “typical Spanish fuckup.”
This wasn’t quite fair: progress had been blocked for some time, and would continue for the next hour, by three idiots camped on the front counter. The first was a dense, leathery German girl loudly complaining that they had lost her reservation, despite paying in advance. Funnily enough, she didn’t have a receipt or booking number to show them, either, and the staff were too polite to call shenannigans and throw her out (hint for readers: try hiring a car and see if they’ll take your money up front).
The second was a hapless Frenchman who had managed to prang his VW while trying to get out of the car park. The third was an insane menopausal 4’0″ Spanish woman (FORESHADOWING!) in a denim jacket that had fallen into a Bedazzler who spent a solid 45 minutes complaining about the car she’d ordered, the slightly better car she actually got, the nib of the biro with which she had to fill out the paperwork, the pot plants in the car hire office, her shrivelled-up husk of a husband slouched lifelessly next to her, homogenised milk, and how the country in general had gone to hell in a handbasket since Franco died and the hippies took over.
When my companion reached the counter (sorry! as a non-driver I had to leave all the dirty work up to her) the staff were so relieved to have a customer with real, tangible documentary evidence of a reservation and a valid driver’s license that they immediately traded her up to a better auto, then invited us to cross a nearby eight-lane highway to the car park…
…where the exact same process was repeated as we waited to collect the car. The Frenchman was gingerly backing out his newly-distressed VW – almost ramming a concrete pillar in the process – despite his girlfriend assisting him by dancing in circles around the car and flapping her arms.
Meanwhile, the insane menopausal 4’0″ Spanish woman (FORESHADOWING!) was pacing back and forth, sequins dimly flashing in the subdued light, haranguing the attendant about the colour of the car, the fuel tank lid being on the wrong side, wrong shape of steering wheel, and how the country in general had gone to hell in a handbasket since Franco died and the hippies took over, before finally shoving the dusty remains of what used to be the man she married into the driver’s seat while she settled into the back seat and warmed up to nag him all the way to Thessaloniki.
Just as we were figuring out how to start our shiny new car (hint: big round button labelled START) the dense, leathery German girl rocked up and unsuccessfully tried to push her way to the front of the queue. They people ahead of her were sympathetic but unable to oblige.
“I’ve been stuck back there for two and a half hours,” she whinged.
“Good,” they said.
Sorry about getting a bit distracted there. I had intended to describe my holiday as succinctly as possible, but no matter. Here’s a photo of the Cerdanya.