Friday, 29 June 2007

Thonons les Bains

Ok, where do I start?

I hate it when people say things like "We're going back to X again this year" - where X equals, for example, a caravan site in Devon, a hotel next to a fun-pub in Corfu, a mud-hut in Angola, a kibbutz in the Lake District, or Butlins just on the outskirts of Fiesole.

In that respect I feel like I'm in danger of becoming what I hate. Although I'm not the most well-travelled person you might meet - far from it - its been rare that I've gone to the same place twice. When that has happened its been down to purely arbitrary circumstances, or there's been a gap of several years since the previous visit. I've never fully understood the need to keep returning to the same place regardless of what it has to offer, when there are so many other places in the world - or even just Europe - to go and see.

Not so in this case. I last/first went to Berlin last November, and its impact on me was such that I was determined to go back there at the earliest feasible opportunity. Which is what I suggested to my best friend, via text, before I returned home on that occasion: that he needed to go out and see the place too, so we should make a week of it. Now, having returned from my second visit, my main thoughts are of going back there again. At the earliest feasible opportunity.

Is this sad? Will I, in Y amount of years time, be saying to people who frankly couldn't give a flying fuck what I think, "Oh, I've been going to Berlin for Z amount of years and I wouldn't think of going anywhere else?"

Maybe. I hope not. But if that does happen, I hope its for all the right reasons.

I'm about to skirt off the point here - well actually I'm not because it serves to emphasise the general thrust of the impact of my stays in Berlin, although the specifics are different.

There's a small town (if not a large village) on the south shores of Lake Geneva, called Thonons les Bains - in France, but a short enough distance away from Geneva itself. I first went through there the day after the wedding of some good friends - which was itself a couple of days after the funeral of someone very close. Something which I might write about soon enough, but which was a significant, life-defining event.

Anyway. We had been driving along through gorgeous, scenic Swiss countryside for several hours, only for that to be replaced by gorgeous, scenic French countryside. I was full of beautiful, bitter-sweet, life-affirming and heartbreaking memories - death and life - all of them very current. All swimming round in my head, as we went on our car journey around Lake Geneva back to where we were staying. Amplified in no small degree by the hangover I had accrued at the wedding reception the night before - an amazing multinational affair which I'm sure will also arrive here as a topic in its own right fairly soon.

On our right, as we drove, was Lake Geneva itself. On its far side, incredible snow-capped mountains. The lake appeared beautiful, shimmering, sparkling, and warm enough for a paddle at various junctures. On its near side, between us and the shore, a little railway line. Either side of us, some houses, shops, little bars dotted here and there. In terms of time and distance was the romance of passing through from place to place - nowhere of significance in itself perhaps, but all adding up to a memorable travelogue as we headed back to Geneva.

Somehow, on this journey, Thonons les Bains stayed in my mind. For reasons I can't quite define, it summed up the (for me) quite unique and special quality of the moment. Not at the time, so much, but in the residue that remained, and remains, in my memory. In the aftermath of the funeral and of the wedding, somehow that little place was the point where something clicked. A collision of circumstances is the best way I can describe it. A silence, albeit a plangent one, after months of anxiety and disquiet.

Years later - 8 years - I was Best Man to someone, a very very good friend. The brother of the bride who got married in Switzerland above. So in another collision of circumstances, we found ourselves driving along the same road towards Geneva. A very long journey, since many of the stag festivities happened in Chamonix. But somewhere amidst it all we passed through Thonons les Bains, again on our way to Geneva. As we did, the feeling I had, the lump in my throat and the immediate connection to the circumstances of my last journey through there, were indescribable. The intervening years only added to the impact.

A lightning strike.

The best way I can describe it, is that it felt like I was home again. That I had left some part of my existence there and I was now unexpectedly rediscovering it. Not to mention rediscovering all the pain and poignancy of loss as well as joy. All intensified by the gap of nearly a decade. Almost like meeting a lost love.

It left me breathless and silent.

It left me feeling that home and familiarity can be anywhere, circumstances permitting.

It left me feeling that distance (and proximity) is no object.

It is something I won't forget.

Berlin gives me this feeling too. Forgive me if I do keep going on, please.

Thursday, 28 June 2007


Alright alright, here's proper picturesque. Looking from atop the Reichstag over Tiergarten in central Berlin. Originally a hunting ground for Friedrich III - the road which bisects it from east to west was used (if I have my facts right) as a landing strip at the end of WWII. Its now a beautiful and huge stretch of parkland following much replanting of what was destroyed - not only through bombing but also being used as farmland in the aftermath of the war, and the trees being used for firewood.

This was taken on my lovely Pentax SLR camera (non digital). Call me a nerd, but I love the picture quality and the colour saturation I can get with it. Strange then that today I bought a digital camera - also a Pentax - just days after my holidays. Something to cheer me up I think. I'm tired after my first day back at work and I need to get my head together before I start any writing. Maybe the weekend will give me the time and space to do so.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Draussen ist feindlich

Fair enough, the last picture wasn't, erm, picturesque. I do love pictures with graffiti which says things like "Saxon Aristocracy Is Governing The World With Radar" though - so I think its of extreme fortuity that I found a piece of wall which had exactly those words scrawled on it.
Ok, so by way of contrast, here's a picture of me relaxing. Which reveals the title of this post to be a barefaced lie.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Radar (2)

I'm back. Some things have changed, some haven't. More soon.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Hello me

Yep, that's the other reason I keep banging on about going away - I'll get some of ME back (cos this is all about me, obviously...). A change from the everyday, externally imposed routine and restrictions should give me enough space for my own normality to return, even just for a short while.

See if you can spot me strolling/staggering down Unter den Linden on here sometime between Thursday and Tuesday. For those of you who don't know what I look like, I'll be wearing a black T shirt, probably.

Be good, in the meantime.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Dry ramblings of a weekend

Or, the joys of a teetotal weekend. No big deal in itself, but its like salad (bear with me on this): the idea of it seems dull and unappetising, but when you get stuck in, you remember how nice it is.

In fact I wish I did it more often. Knowing I'm going to bed on Friday and Saturday night and that I won't be waking up the following morning with even the most subtle after-effects of alcohol. Full, refreshing sleep. More energy. More relaxed. And a good few hours en velo which does wonders for me. I'm fit and (fairly) healthy again in the aftermath of a mountain biking accident last September which saw me have a violent disagreement with a cattle grid.

Part of my collarbone - or part that connects to it (I'm not into anatomical correctness) is still about half an inch out of joint, and will stay that way - but I can do most things without any real pain now, whereas a few months ago it was a very different story. I'd get up in the morning, limp into the kitchen (my collarbone and shoulder weren't exactly my only injuries), and just lifting the kettle up to fill it was agony. Then into the bathroom, where washing and putting deodorant on was a similar ordeal. And so on throughout the day.

To add insult to injury, I found out that I was allergic to Ibuprofen, which would have been the most effective palliative while I waited for physiotherapy. I've never knowingly had an allergy before. Stupid me as well, I only took one afternoon off work, and that was to go to A and E to make sure I hadn't broken my ribs.

Anyway! Before I digress too far - last time I went away, I was completely and utterly frazzled. Feeling pretty down, worried about my health, and doing a lot of soul-searching after a failed relationship.

So in the calm and stillness of a couple of weeks of complete sobriety its useful for me to look back, just before I have another short break, and see the contrasts between then and now. There's still a lot I need to do to get my life the way I want it. There's a lot that I'm not happy about. But I'm far, far happier with myself, and getting away should hopefully give me that boost and a little more inspiration. Mind you, to put all this in perspective, take a look at this post by prada pixie.

Bear with me while I ramble on just a little more. I've read an astonishing book this weekend too. Much has already been written about it, so for the time being I'll do no more than sincerely recommend that you get yourself a copy.

Lastly, the sobriety will go out the window come Thursday when I head out to Berlin with my best friend. I sent him a text this afternoon.

*Do I need a passport?*

His reply:

*Just draw a picture of yourself and get your mum to write 'this looks a bit like my son' on the back. Sorted*

Fun times ahead.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Wet and dry

My job entails me going to visit people in different parts of the city. I don't drive, which means I rely on public transport and a good deal of walking. In these last couple of days of extreme (for this country) weather, I've worked out a system of accurately predicting when its going to start raining, and when the rain is going to become torrential.

Here is my system.

When it will start raining: just as I'm about to head out of the office on a visit to one of my clients.

When it will get torrential: just as I'm far enough away from the office for it to be too late to turn back.

I suppose you could summarise this system as Sod's Law. However, tonight its been the other way round. I'm having a quiet time tonight. I decided that I would go out for a walk for a couple of hours, regardless of what the skies threw down at me.

Not a drip, apart from when I walked under a tree. The atmosphere was one of post-storm freshness which really brought the smell of the grass and the trees to life. It was beautiful, especially in the calm of the late evening. I've just got back indoors, settled down, and only now has the patter of rain begun against the open window. It's very soothing, relaxing and very conducive to the reflective mood I'm in.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

The Daddies

Amidst a rather manic week, I was able to have a bit of quality time last night. A bit of culture.

I went to see Faust. No, not that one, nothing to do with Goethe et al either. Faust the band - the anarchic, chaotic krautrock musical legends. The daddies.

I'd like to see them again tonight, then tomorrow night, then the night after...

A tiny, intimate venue, holding between two and three hundred people, was the setting. Two hours of pounding motorik beats, experimental jiggery-pokery and a delicious disregard for health and safety regulations (example - Jean-Herve Peron using power tools on an old oildrum which showered those of us lucky enough to be right at the front with sparks) was the result.

Bands who have a reputation for being experimental or avant-garde are often seen as pretentious, overly serious or po-faced. Faust were definitely experimental, but the overwhelming feeling I was left with was just how warm an experience this was. If Faust are out there, they wanted us, the audience, to be out there with them. Between the two core members (multi-instrumentalist Jean-Herve and drummer Zappi Dermaier) and a couple of guest musicians, they effortlessly managed to make the venue their own playground with a sound that was huge and expansive, yet which simultaneously served to bring everyone closer toward them and create a rarefied, inclusive atmosphere.

You don't get to see many gigs these days where a band member (again, Jean-Herve) stands atop a cement mixer in the middle of the audience playing a French Horn, or does some ironing for some lucky audience members. It all made sense during the concert but I won't try and put it into some kind of context here. Except to say that it was all part of the experience, woven into the performance, a set of seemingly random happenings which all came together in a surreal but beautiful way.

What was refreshing as well was the sheer glee with which they went about their business. They've been around in one form or another for a long time but had the enthusiasm of kids with new toys. Far from being old and tired, they're on amazing form.

But before my prose starts to get even more purple, I'll just say a few more words about the music itself.

They played, they delighted and, to devastating effect, they rocked.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Banging on about Berlin

Its where I'm heading at the end of next week, which is one reason I don't mind about not going to Sonar. When everyone else has come back from Barcelona, I'll be getting myself ready to head out to Berlin.

If you compiled a list of comments I've made on other people's threads, I'm sure an inordinate amount of them would feature me going on (and on) about the place. Well I love it, and I'm really glad to be going back. It's the sort of place which gets me inspired, gets me thinking. For example, after the last time I went - last November - I decided I'd write some notes about it, just to keep as a personal memoir. A few evenings later, I'd written 35000 words.

Well I'm sure I'll be going on about it much more before very long, but the primary reason for this post was to have an excuse to publish another photograph. There haven't been many yet because I don't have a digital camera, and I have to get the films transferred onto cd at the developers.

No prizes for spotting that the image in question is the Cupola atop the Reichstag, during a dramatic hailstorm which really added to the occasion.

So near, Sonar.

Apologies for the dreadful pun above. Be warned - it won't be the last. As I'm sitting here in an oasis of calm and trying not to contemplate being swept back up tomorrow morning into the raging torrent of madness* that is work, I remembered that in a few days time Sonar Festival gets underway again in Barcelona.

I'm not going, although I would like to be there - whether for the festival itself, or just to soak up some more of the wondrous city which acts as its host. I last went there in 2003 and had a very memorable time (not least because I was sober throughout).

The main memory which springs to mind right now (bearing in mind the final sentence in the first paragraph) is of the last morning I was there. I'd just checked out of the hotel and was walking up the Rambla towards the Placa de Catalunya, from where I would be boarding the connecting bus for the airport.

I was walking quite slowly and, for a moment or two, I ground to a halt. I looked around me.

At the time, I had a few spare quid in the bank. Not a huge amount, but enough to keep me going for a little while. At that point I was unhappy at work (this seems to be a common theme on this blog) - I had loved the job but something had knocked out of me my enthusiasm for it a few months beforehand.

I had no dependents, no property. No overwhelming desire to go back to work, to small mindedness, to so many things which, when away from England for just a few days, seem to reflect on it very cruelly.

I was working out in my head how long I might be able to afford to stay in Barcelona, and reckoned I could be ok for a few months at least.

I was starting to think what I'd be able to do during that time, where it might take me. It was vague, unformed, but that was part of the excitement. Tantalising stuff. All in an instant, frozen on the spot halfway up La Rambla. Willing myself to turn round and head back down there.

Then I heard my name called by one of my friends up ahead. It broke me out of my reverie, and I continued onwards towards the bus, and ultimately back home to England.

I'm not one for sitting around thinking "if only" about things in life. At times like this, though, this is definitely the exception. What could have changed if I'd acted on impulse in that one moment?

I'll never know.

*I'm not using the term "madness" in relation to my clients, by the way, I'm talking about work itself.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Two pairs of trousers

So. Following on from my previous post, I met troUSers again, twice. First time, on Friday night at a club in another part of the country where he was due to play.

Second time, he came down here yesterday evening and we had a few beers and a good old chat.

How fitting that the weather has been warm and glorious for the events of the last few days, its provided the ideal backdrop for some golden moments on both occasions.

The Friday was hectic, quite an adventure, involving a lot of driving (thanks to a good friend who was willing to share the adventure), map reading, navigating through a relatively unfamiliar city, checking in and all the rest. Its one of the first times I've been on the guest list at a club - and how nice to confuse the people working the door, by having the same name as one of the performers.

I'm not going to describe the whole thing - I wouldn't know where to start. Definitely the best night I've had in a good while though, and very gratifying to be sat on a settee watching troUSers doing his stuff in front of an appreciative audience. He's got an amazing voice and his music was great stuff. Later on, after quite a few cans of Red Stripe, there we were dancing manically to a rather bizarre assortment of tunes, which makes me chuckle every time I think about it.

But I couldn't begin to do either meeting justice. I was sat on the bus back home last night after he got on the train back to where he was staying (he'll be back in LA now), and I sat there shaking my head in disbelief and wonderment. A little choked up, actually - at how a friendship which started as an oddity, a curiosity (see the previous post), was able to be sustained beyond the spurious but novel circumstances of its inception.

Years and years of letters, emails, tapes, cds, ideas, stories, opinions being exchanged. At times, months of silence - and then, a resumption of the contact.

Once, we hadn't spoken for about a year - then he split up with his boyfriend the same week I split up with my girlfriend, and we were back in touch, recounting our woes. We're very different in many ways and yet always able to get on - at least, within the confines of emails and the rest. I was a little nervous about meeting him again though. Twelve years had passed since I last saw him, and many things have changed during that time of course - what if, in real life, the conversation dried up, things fell flat?

No chance. Far from falling flat, it feels like our friendship has deepened, and blossomed. We could have great fun on Friday, well into the early hours. We could also slip easily into wide-ranging, mutually interesting conversation over some quality beer last night. I was genuinely sad to see him go last night - but we both promised that the gap between this and our next meeting will be much smaller.

Thing is, its really my turn to go over there to see him now. I'd better start saving for the air fare. That way, I can be sure that more golden moments lie ahead.