Saturday, 25 August 2012

Albania, Land of Mountain, Fire and Serenading Tweens

So I cycled up the steep, steep hill from the lovely lake Ohrid near Struga in Macedonia, surrounded by clear, mountain air and dense, lush forest, and eventually, after a few swear words and a lot more sweat, I reached nearly a thousand metres above sea level, where lay the border with Albania. I got through the officialdom in minutes - there was hardly anyone else there - and I was in Albania. Finally, Albania! Of all the places on this trip, Albania was possibly the one I most wanted to see because you never hear anything about it. It never wins anything. I'm not even sure it ever enters anything. What was it going to be like?

Normally when you cross a border you don't really notice a change in your surroundings. OK, the houses might become a little shabbier or a little grander, the people a little better or worse dressed, the prostitutes fitter or fatter. But cross into Albania and suddenly the thick forest was replaced with yellowing fields with the odd shrub, as though I'd jumped a thousand metres higher and I was now above the tree line. And the air was bluer, and not in a good way. It couldn't be the heat haze; it was still only eight in the morning. Was it pollution? All the photos I took looked like a crisis-abandoned travel agent's window display. Everything had gone cyan.

Coming down the hill from the border I noticed a large dog in the road. That's fairly normal. You always see the odd dog. Then I turned to my right and saw what must be ten or fifteen of 'em in a pack. Luckily they were all looking in the opposite direction, maybe devouring the last cyclist who came this way. I pedalled on and whizzed past before they could notice me.

Down and down I went. Eventually I came to people. The first person I passed was a twelve year old boy. At the top of his voice he sang out to me in English: "I love you sooooooo much!" He even did X-Factor wannabe arm gestures. I laughed. He laughed. But I kept cycling. Freak.

And then there were the hoses. If you know an Albanian and you're wondering what to get him or her for Christmas then my advice would be to buy a hose. They bloody love them. I must have counted twenty or thirty in a minute or two, erected nozzle up, pointlessly spraying water. Never into a field, mind. No, just on to a bit of tarmac, making a big, unnecessary puddle. My mum loves a water feature. I think that's what it was. Oh, you could watch a hose for hours! Sometimes they even held the hoses and sprayed them randomly at things that never needed water - like a kerb - just for the hell of it. Crazy Albanians. Maybe there was nothing on telly today. Or maybe it was another soddin' Norman Wisdom film.

I'd heard the road surfaces here were awful but so far they've been at least as good as Greece's. A bigger problem is that the roads aren't wide enough for the amount of traffic. The road from Elbasan, a major town, to Tirana, the capital, is no wider than a British country lane. And after descending back to nearly sea level it rose up again to near one thousand metres. Driving in Albania is slow going. Or it should be. They just gun it, the mad fuckers.

Once I'd got to the top of the hill I noticed a burning smell, and then I noticed smoke and bits of ash in the air, and then I noticed forest fires just metres from the side of the road. In fact, I think the road was acting as a fire break in some places. There were tons of 'em. Only little ones as yet but still. If only there'd been loads of people with hoses.

And then I descended into Tirana. There's nothing much I can say about Tirana that might make you want to come. I mean, it's not awful. Not really. The river that's marked on the map is only three metres wide and is of a similar composition to the liquid that escaped from the burst drains in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar after a sudden downpour when I was there. But if you are going to blow your disposal income on a city break then my advice would probably be - oh, I don't know - Barcelona or Prague or, well, anywhere. I'm glad I came but I will be happier to leave. Not Albania - the countryside is lovely, if bluish - but Tirana is a traffic-filled hole with little to stare at and go 'Ahhhh!' You can always watch the cars dangerously overtaking each other and go 'Arggggh!" but that's not the same.

Did you know that beards were banned in Albania for a long time? Apparently, Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator who ruled this place for about forty years, didn't like 'em. He could probably only grow a weird, patchy, diseased-inmate one like my brother. (Just to be clear, my brother can't grow a beard. He's not a diseased inmate. Or maybe he is. I mean, I haven't spoken to him for a month or two.) And I've now got a great, big, stupid beard again. Apart from the odd bit of stubble, no one else here has a beard. I feel like a rebel.

I'm not a rebel. I'm just a pink-headed, podgy, forty-two year old who Albanian boys like to serenade. Saddo.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Stop Or The Plastic Dinosaur Will 'Ave Yer!

Some countries have been predictable. That's not necessarily an insult. Italy gave me predictably tasty pizza eight times a day. Turkey gave me predictably amiable blokes offering me glasses of tea every fifteen seconds. On the other hand, British drivers predictably wanted to drive within millimetres of me and my panniers, the inconsiderate bell ends. Other countries though are not predictable at all. In fact the only predictable thing is that something weird is about to happen.

I'd like to do a little survey. Have you ever gone through the front doors of a single hotel to find yourself in the reception of three different hotels and then had the women in charge of their respective desks start a banshee-style slanging match with each other to win your custom? Have you ever met a boxer-sized bloke with the voice of a Monty Python woman and then, ten minutes later, an old woman with the voice of Frank Bruno, clearly the outcome of some voodooistic vocal swapover? Have you ever met a man who lives under a table by a lake for half of his life, has a penchant for plastic crowns, has an underground fridge and an electronic till - though no actual electricity - and a small, plastic dinosaur as household security? I bet you said no to each of those questions. I hope you did. Well, I experienced them all in one long weekend. Welcome to Bulgaria!

You know all you need to about the pugnacious receptionists and about Mr Helium/Mrs Barry White and so I won't bore you with the details. The real star of this story in Mario.

I stopped at a tiny café near a lake fifty kilometres from Sofia. Two blokes were sat outside together, one of whom, a bearded man of about sixty, was enjoying a beer in the sun. He turned to me and asked me if I spoke English. That was odd. That's usually my question, especially in Bulgaria for which I'm lacking an MP3 language course. When I told him that not only do I speak English but I *am* English it was as though I'd given him a sudden shot of amphetamine. He stood up and danced around. He loved England, he gushed. By this point, about twenty seconds into our conversation, I'd already worked out that this beer he was slurping probably wasn't his first of the day. It might not even have been his eighth.

He continued. "I love everything about England!" Really? The weather? Nick Clegg? TOWIE? I let it slide. Y'see, Mario is a private English teacher, among other things, and wanted to practise on me. So I sat down. He bought me a coffee. And later, after our chat, when I asked if I could take a photo of him and his mate, he told me that he had better things for me to snap. And he wasn't lying.

So we went for a walk, me with camera in hand and Mario with a hole in the back of his shorts so large that I could clearly see his royal blue, bikini-style underpants. During the warmer months, he told me, he lives in Sofia for three days and then cycles the fifty kilometres to this 'house' by the lake for the rest of the week. Later I hope it will become clear why I've crowned that word with scare quotes. But we haven't got to his 'house' yet.

First we went to the hotel and bar around the corner from the café. He showed me a painting of his that he'd presented as a gift to the owner of the hotel. It was a boat on a sea and the cunning part was that the sun was a mirror. He particularly liked that bit.  He danced around a bit more. He liked dancing around.

"Look, the sun is a mirror. Look!" Yes, I've seen it.

Then he showed me his collection of windsurfing boards stored nearby. Windsurfing is his thing, y'see, and the reason why he comes to the lake. But probably also for the beer in the café.

"That's the first letter of my name, that is."

At long last we set off to his 'house'. On the way, as we walked along a country road, he told me that he would like to sing and that he was quite a good singer. But he wasn't. He launched into Rod Stewart's "We Are Sailing". If I'm honest, it's unlikely that we are going to see him in the Over 25s category of X Factor. Unless 25 is the number of bum notes you must hit per verse.

We took a turn from the road into dense woods, then down a steep banking towards the lake. "All these houses are illegal," he pointed out. We walked along a narrow path. "And here it is!" Guarding the entrance was a miniature pirate flag and a small, plastic brontasaurus.

As good as a guard dog.

OK, I thought, that's completely normal. And then we entered what I guess might be called his living room. Except that we didn't really because his house had no doors or walls or a roof or any of the things that a house usually has. What it did have was a washing line pegged with various tattered garments, a collection of tables containing the stuff that charity shops would sift and discard from their donations and a big mat, all sitting on a bit of flattened earth about ten metres up from lake shore. The assorted junk included a plastic telephone, a pretend musket and, obviously, a full-size till. "There's no electricity or running water here," he said, as though this was some sort of explanation.

"Don't forget your receipt. Oh, I'll have to plug it in. Have you got an extension lead?"

Descartes is the father of modern philosophy because he questioned the limits of what we can know. How do I know that what is happening is really happening? I could be asleep, for example. It could all be a dream. This thought occurred to me too that afternoon. If this was a dream, it was definitely a cheese dream. This was utter stilton!

Mario ran through the highlights of his abode like an estate agent hoping for a sale. He ordered me to take a photo as each feature was unveiled. I obliged, only too happy to document these events, if only to prove to myself tomorrow that they really happened.

Next to the aforementioned mat on the floor was a table. "I sleep on the mat when the weather is nice. When it's bad I sleep here." He crawled under the table exposing even more of his arse and switched on a little radio to show the entertainment system contained within. "Lovely," I said. Music was clearly important to him. He tows a small inflatable containing his radio behind him while windsurfing so that his toons aren't submerged even if he is. That's quite a good idea for a madman. I can imagine him breezing along in the summer gusts engulfed by the mellifluous tones of Patsy Cline's "Crazy".

Mario gives a tour of the master bedroom. 

Then he showed me his fridge. Remember, there's no electricity. This was another mat, under which was a lid, under which was a polystyrene box containing bottles of water, bits of fruit and vodka. He threw me an apple. It was pretty cold. His fridge was an environmentalist's dream. Even if it was Aggie MacKenzie's nightmare.

"I also have a freezer but it's on the top of that mountain over there."

Next up was a small cupboard where he kept his valuables. It contained, he said, his ID. He opened it up. It also contained a soft porn calender. I'm assuming that the porn calendar wasn't his ID otherwise he looks pretty hot with his shirt off.

"What do you mean I look nothing like my passport photo?"

Finally, he reached into the pocket of a suit jacket - for, yes, one such jacket hung from the washing line, obviously for when he was entertaining - and removed two novelty hats, one a pirate's (he clearly liked the pirate thing) and the other a small plastic crown. He modelled them both for me. As I focussed my lens on an old man with a drunkenly crooked smile and a golden, plastic crown lopsided on his head, I wondered if I might have chosen a sachet of something other than honey for my toast from the hotel buffet that morning. A sachet of LSD perhaps.

King Lear or 'King Mental?

It was all over. The demonstration was complete. In truth, Mario came across as a complete nutjob. But I've got to admire a man of advancing years who cycles a hundred kilometres each week and spends his nights under the stars, or under a table - whether that's the table in his 'house' or the hotel bar - just so that he can pursue his passion for windsurfing. As with other people I've met recently, he's living a - erm, let's call it - different life but he's clearly enjoying himself. Mario is utterly, glue-sniffingly bonkers and yet, in reality, he isn't bonkers at all. The really bonkers person is the bloke sat in his office, staring out of the window, wishing he was somewhere on a lake rather than preparing this bloody spreadsheet.

I like it that the world has Marios and I like Bulgaria by extension. I'll be very sad to leave this country tomorrow. These six days have been a lot of fun. So, guard your house with freebies from Jurassic Park Happy Meals if you like, maintain a collection of novelty plastic headwear if you must, sleep under a table if you have to but please indulge your passion, whatever it is. Good luck to you, Mario, you utter fucking fruitcake!

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Black Bag of Shame

I've mentioned in one of my recent blogs what a wizened old prune I've always been. Even as a seventeen year-old I could pass for fifty-five. Nearly. Well, I could easily buy bottles of Martini for my then-girlfriend and her mates, who were all fifteen at the time. It felt furtive but drinking the sickly sweet shite felt oh so good. Well, not drinking it, obviously, but its effect. I didn't know any better. It was the summer of 1987. My family had gone to Malta and left me alone for two weeks. What the hell else was I supposed to do with a houseful of fifteen year old girls?

Now that I'm 637 (and a half), I thought that this furtive feeling was just a distant memory. But in Turkey, "the system" reduced me to clandestine pickups of bags of booze just like the olden days. I took to downloading some vintage Terence Trent D'Arby tracks from YouTube just to make it all feel genuinely teenage again.

As far as I can see, Turkey has an odd relationship with alcohol. Although the country itself is officially secular, the vast majority of Turks are Muslims and, according to the Koran at least, Muslims don't drink. Now, Turkey is known in the west for offering a fairly relaxed sort of Islam, certainly not the kind of place that's going to stone the missus if she looks suggestively at a donkey, but does this relaxation extend to alcohol?

There are lots of establishments in Turkey that advertise the fact that they sell their expensive booze. Outside of Istanbul, restaurants rarely seem to sell it. Even those outdoor cafés that do sell it, like those in Bandirma, never had anyone visibly drinking it. Supermarkets almost never sell it either (I've seen only two that do in the whole of Turkey and one of those was in Istanbul) and neither do most corner shops. But if the bright blue logo of Turkish brand Efes or the easier-to-miss gold of Tuborg is shown around a corner shop's logo, then it's an off licence. And yet I seem to be the only person who goes into these places. Here's the procedure:

1. I walk in. The shopowner looks guilty. He never smiles (which is unusual for a Turk).

2. I walk to the beer fridge. The shopowner has already located and opened a black - always black - carrier bag.

3. If there does happen to be anyone else in the shop, especially someone under eighteen, he is now sniggering, as though I am buying a stack of Gusset Munchers porn mags or something worse, like Model Train Enthusiast.

4. The beer quickly goes into the black plastic bag and the financial transaction is carried out with the utmost haste. I leave feeling guilty for reasons I can't fathom.

The black bag

As a side note, during Ramadam (or Ramazan in Turkey) even this is not always possible because some of the off licences stop selling alcohol entirely, which sort of makes you wonder why they don't just take a month's holiday.

And so I'm puzzled. If I'm the only person buying from these shops, then how do these shops make any money? They can't just have set up with the knowledge that I'll be passing through town, lovely though that thought is. If they have, they've certainly overestimated how much I can drink, although if they reduced their price I'd be prepared to give it a go. Like I say, I'm puzzled.

UniCycle50's Facebook page now has at least five Turkish Likers. If any of you can give me more information on this topic (without incriminating yourselves if that's a possibility) then I'd love to know.

The black-bag-as-cloaking-device in itself is odd. While cycling I've popped into such an off licence and bought only a can of Coke and then you get an innocent white carrier bag (that is, if you don't tell them in time that you don't need a carrier bag for a single can of Coke), a white carrier bag that is probably hand-stitched from the hymens of a thousand virgins. So the black bag doesn't hide that you've bought some naughties; it merely highlights the fact. But maybe that's the idea. Maybe it's the black bag of shame, the mark of Cain, the Judas sack.

None of this affects me now. I've moved on to Bulgaria where the opposite is the case. This afternoon I was sat on a lovely, sunny terrace drinking a decent pint for 66p. Whereas Turkey usually sold a bottle of rubbish blended whisky for €50 (I kid you not), here a large bottle of schnapps is a tenth of the price. Alcohol here is so cheap and so plentiful that I might just end up dead in a gutter. If that happens, please would someone pop around and cover my face with the black bag of shame.