Friday, 28 January 2011

Hills 'n' pills 'n' Turkish thrills

In May 2009, just as I was about to set off on a bike ride from the Isle of Man to Spain, my head popped. I don't mean it went bang and whizzed around the room like a balloon or anything, but something leaked that shouldn't have leaked. I'd been very lucky. My condition can often be fatal. The source of the problem was my blood pressure, and it was high, so high in fact that worryingly it shot off the top of those little graphs that hang from hospital beds. I was the first person in history to have his blood pressure expressed in exponential notation. (That's a maths joke, by a way. Enjoy it, there aren't many.)

I had to go to a brain unit in Liverpool, a setup line so obvious that you can fill in your own punchline. In order to see what was up with my noodle, they carried out a cerebral angiogram. This involved sticking a strange tube thing into my groin. Who'd have thought there was a connection between my gentleman's area and my brain? In the end they discovered I'd had a brain bleed. This is just like a haemorrhage except that it's easier to spell. In fact, I'd had three. To prevent this from happening again I had to lie flat and stay completely still, like a Victorian on her wedding night. After pumping me full of drugs, the doctors managed to reduce the blood pressure, which was nice, but the resulting dizziness meant I passed out every time I tried to stand up. But thanks to the medication, that chart on my hospital bed now looked remarkably similar to an recent LibDem popularity graphic.

The problem with taking blood pressure medication is that once you start you tend not to stop. In addition to the laptop and the tent and the saddle-sore-relieving Vaseline and all the other bits and pieces I'll be carting up and over the mountains of Europe, I also need to take six months' pills. And I'm supposed to take six different tablets each day. You don't need a maths degree to work out this is over a thousand pills. I'm hoping that if decanted into little bottles this won't take up too much space. The problem then comes when I'm crossing an international border and the customs official wants to know why I have enough pills to host a party at Pete Doherty's. I could be hearing the thwack of a rubber glove quicker than you can say Midnight Express. Luckily, in Schengen-flavoured Europe, the only time I should need to show my passport in 2011 is when leaving the UK and when entering Andorra. But if you're still following this journal in 2012 when I travel to Turkey, and 2013 when I reach Russia, that's when the fun will begin. If I go quiet all of a sudden, please give Amnesty International a buzz.

So the moral of this week's blog is that you should get your blood pressure checked. It might save your life. Or I suppose it might mean that, a few years from now, when you go off on a bike ride of your own, you get your bottom felt up by Turkish border guards. Then you'll really be glad of that Vaseline.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Dog food 'n' chips, please!

As well as the 31,000 kilometres and all the Open University courses I need to pass, friends are setting me other challenges for this ride. My favourite one so far is to try something I've never eaten before in each country I cycle through. I assume this refers to food rather than, say, dog shit or traffic lights.

I had a similar experience on a previous ride when, as part of a list of 28 tasks, my girlfriend Nina challenged me to hunt out morteruelo, a dish from the Castilla-La Mancha region of Spain. The closest literal translation I can find for morteruelo is 'pox death' but I'm sure that can't be right. On a menu it might describe itself as game paté but that oversells it to me. If you want to know what it tastes like imagine two Weetabix in a bowl, add lashing of hot milk and leave until the 'bix have gone soggy. Now stir in a tin of dog food. Yep, that's about it.

So in order to optimize my culinary adventure I thought I'd do a bit of research to find out what sort of interesting tasties might await me abroad. It's better to go into these things with your eyes open, like a sheep's head on a Norwegian dinner table.

France is known for its fine food but out of sheer curiosity I'm tempted by something that when cooked supposedly has the subtle aroma of urine and faeces. Yummy! This is andouillette, a tripe sausage stuffed with chitterlings, onions and pepper. I have to admit that it was Mr Google who told me what chitterlings are, or maybe what chitterlings is - I'm still not sure whether it's singular or plural. Apparently it's (or they're) the small intestine of a pig. Now, I've never liked tripe but I thought if it was combined with something even more disgusting then it might slip down more easily. It's the same principle that a quick visit to Basingstoke will make it easier to spend the rest of the afternoon in Slough.

But it's not all poop-flavoured treats. Ukraine actually sounds like fun. Salo is the name of its smoked and aged pig fat. So what, you're asking, loads of countries make greasy crap like that. But what makes it unique in Ukraine is that it's chocolate-coated. Genius! As someone who loves the combination of sweet and salty that sounds like heaven to me. Duncan Bannatyne's already organised a boatload as the centrepiece of next month's Scottish Health Week.

There are tons of other colourful things that might appear on my plate. In Hungary there's the delicious-sounding pig's blood and eggs - not a hundred miles away from a typical breakfast round at Fred West's gaff - and Poland's nozki or jellied cow's foot. In Italy there's even cibreo, a dish of cocks' combs. By the way, that's the flappy bit on a rooster's head and not a grooming aid for blokes with pubic lice. It's hard to imagine eating much of this without Ant and Dec standing by urging me on to win another dinner for camp.

The hardest part of the challenge will be finding something I've never eaten before in the UK. Maybe something that's not over-priced would be a good start, or a supermarket sandwich with the flavour of something other than soggy bread. It doesn't bode well that London's was recently voted the worst cuisine in Europe. Maybe I'll just have to settle for those traffic lights in dog shit sauce.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

In bed with Osama Bin Laden

I'm writing this at Liverpool Airport on my way back to Spain to see the lovely Nina for a couple of months before the ride starts in March. I hate Liverpool Airport. It feels like its managed by two competing teams from The Apprentice, each trying to outdo the other in finding the most depressing way to winkle cash out of me. A series of visits to its check-in area is like a very slow game of Musical Chairs. Each time you turn up, yet another one of the seats has been removed. There are now six left in the whole of Arrivals. The other chairs around the place are in restaurants or bars where you're supposed to be spending. The management don't realise it's just a transport hub. Their vision for the future is Bluewater run by Donald Trump and Al Capone.

No money making scheme is more sinister than its priority security service. For four quid you can bypass their seventeen mile long queue to get speedier access to the airport's high security fondling department, a queue that's only as long as it is because of the extra measures since 9/11, and their only employing about three staff. By charging for queue-jumping, Liverpool Aiport is in effect profiting from the effects of terrorism. It's not quite as in your face as an organised suicide bombathon but it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Which, incidentally, is what you get if you do decide to take a seat at one of their restaurants.

In 2008, when it was the European City of Culture, Liverpool traded a little too enthusiastically on its connection with The Beatles. You would have thought that aside from the Fab Four nothing of cultural value had ever happened there. But wait, there's Stan Boardman from the 1980s, a man whose comic repetoire consisted entirely of mispronouncing the word Germans as Jaymins, there's Scouse foghorn Cilla Black and not forgetting Stock, Aitken and Waterman's fuzzy ginger shite-puppet Sonia. If all a city needs is a half-decent band, singers you'd rather not hear again and a dodgy comedy act, then Inspiral Carpets, Mark Owen and Cannon & Ball should ensure that 2012's European City of Culture is awarded to Oldham.

So, given Liverpool's dependence on all things moptop, it was inevitable the airport would also be given a Beatles flavour. In 2002, it was renamed John Lennon International Airport, which comedian Ed Byrne reckons is ideal because "that's the first place Lennon fucked off to once he'd made some money". There used to be a Lennonesque white grand piano in the departure lounge but it was taking up good space that could be better served with yet another chain selling coffee at four quid a cup and so it had to go. Besides someone had prised one of the keys off it. And it may have been up on bricks at one point but I could just be infusing past memories with Liverpudlian stereotypes. But the biggest reason for moving it was its piano stool. It might have given me the chance to sit somewhere for free.