In Flight: Philadelphia, World Cup Final night

The security in Philadelphia is so slow and so badly organised and so repetitive that despite having 90 minutes to make my transfer to Washington I miss it. Now some people reserve their especial opprobrium for American security. That, I can understand. Others pick out American bacon. Or American exceptionalism. Or the infiltration of the American mil-industrial complex into everyday life…

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The security in Philadelphia is so slow and so badly organised and so repetitive that despite having 90 minutes to make my transfer to Washington I miss it. Now some people reserve their especial opprobrium for American security. That, I can understand. Others pick out American bacon. Or American exceptionalism. Or the infiltration of the American mil-industrial complex into everyday life.

But, for me, the bugbear is American cheese. Cheese elsewhere in the world varies from the English plays on cheddar and stilton” to the Spanish “it should be hard and sour enough to counter a ham” to the Italian “it has to go with pasta” to the French “if you can’t smell it from the next town, it’s not ready to eat”. Even in the famously lactose-averse Japan, “where there isn’t grass to feed a cow”, they make good imitation cheddar these days (and have learned to love everything French, even if they can’t digest it.)

But American cheese is… I mean, what can you say. I was brought up on Fungus the Bogeyman, so to me something yellow and runny and salty and body-warm is pus, not cheese. Even the American waitress says that her Canadian mom won’t touch the stuff.

So I’m in Philadelphia. And I’m trying their speciality, the Philly Cheese Steak. Which is neither cheese, nor a steak, nor, according to the friendly Philadelphian oracle I’m sat next to, a normal Philadelphian speciality. He recommends I have a burger instead. But I always have to try the speciality in every area I go. (Which is why I’m dreading going to the Philippines, because I really don’t want to try Balut.)

Let me describe it. First, you have a large, cheap hot dog bun, which means you could confuse it with a Bahn Mi, if you had poor eyesight. Then, inside, there’s… uh. I mean, the inside is sprayed liberally with American cheese, which tastes just like the plastic cheese you get in Heinz Macaroni cheese; that is to say, a little like vomit. Then they put chopped steak on top of it. Again, chopped steak seems to be rough minced meat, presumably delivered in huge frozen bags, then fried. Then you add other toppings, to stop / increase it tasting like acid reflux.

Actually, considering the middling-to-shitty journey I’ve had so far, I wolf it down. It tastes like bile but I eat every crumb, and kind of enjoy it. I’m watching extra time of the world cup final as the two teams fail and fail and fail to score, and the company and beer’s good enough that it just hits the spot.  The tap water tastes like a swimming pool though.

(Five minutes later, I want something else to eat. I suspect it fart-collapses like a balloon when it hits your belly.)

Aside from that, I see nothing of Philadelphia. I was half-expecting for everyone to be an AIDs sufferers wearing a baseball cap, but the bright sunshine outside and the opaque blinds mean I can’t even see the airplanes outside this heaving bar – just the Americans in all their varied whitebread forms. Who groan as a group louder at the ‘kids do the stupidest things’ programme that’s on afterwards, than at the most important football game in four years.

I can’t leave the airport – my flight might be three hours distant, but that’s not enough time to get from an American airport to the city and back again (and I REALLY don’t fancy going through security…) So I’ll just sit here, musing about American homogeneity, and resisting the urge to order another cheese steak…

In Flight: London, 5 a.m.

Streets bare of anything but the orange glow of emergency lighting. Stretched black shadows of key workers (coffee shops, fast food joints) waiting thin and angular at bus-stops. Miles of normally pounded pavement getting a brief respite save for the endlessly-walking homeless and solitary drunks, wearing spirals and curlicues into its surface.

London at 5 a.m. is a different city.

Flowers in the dark

Streets bare of anything but the orange glow of emergency lighting. Stretched black shadows of key workers (coffee shops, fast food joints) waiting thin and angular at bus-stops. Miles of normally pounded pavement getting a brief respite save for the endlessly-walking homeless and solitary drunks, wearing spirals and curlicues into its surface.

London at 5 a.m. is a different city.

It’s a city that’s perfectly balanced in transition. They say a modern city never sleeps. While that might be true of cabbies, who are probably the unhappy few saying that, 5 a.m. is definitely the time at which London settles in its restless insomnia, in which it shuts its eyelids and lets the cleaning fluids have a few seconds of desperate reparation.

The driver of my blacked-out van doesn’t proffer a name. He’s young, Machinist-thin, with uncut brown hair long at temples and back, a growth of stubble that might be called a moustache, but looks more like a receding away of flesh than an outreaching of hair. He is utterly silent as we drive over the flyovers between the aggressively-huddled towers of Westway. The radio blares utterly generic Capital music, insomniacs calling into say that, yes, they can’t sleep either, and that while they stare dry-eyed at the ceiling, the knowledge that someone else is up and awake and communicatible, that someone else suffers as they do, is a tacit comfort, .

There is no talk of dawn yet. The sky is the blue-grey of powdered gypsum as we drive, out over the wastes of Westfield. The air in the van smells of soap and sweet and something more sickly and unwelcome. I think it might be me.

Beneath the van, the tarmac roars endlessly. A soft thump-thump-thump talks of roadworks and Britain’s ad-hoc attitude to pipe-laying. Where in Islington and Kings Cross the workers were awake at the Greengrocer, the Fishmongers, the unhallowed platforms of the station-cathedrals, here the suburbs are still asleep. Only toilet windows betray the dark, talking nervously of nightlights and scared children. A solitary petrol station attendant yawns his way towards the shift’s end without the expected armed robbery.

As we head to the quarter hour, I’ve crossed the whole city and my diver has taken some abstruse private route to the airport, whipping me through Acton, seemingly still dead since the Martians passed through. The radio plays generic-o-pop, mingling electronic high tones with multi-tracked balanced singers and trance beats. Still this town sleeps. One optimistic man trudges up the station steps to join a waiting, confused cluster. In the supermarkets, the lights are on, pumping out power to save on security guards.

My skin is sore and dry from so little sleep and perhaps from the light of the laptop. As we pass Chiswick, my hands ache and ache. I rub them together and they make a noise like sheets of paper hissing across each other. The other vehicles around at this time all seem to be dark and polarised like me, with dim figures sat in the back. 5 a.m. is for cabbies it seems. Even at this time of the morning, empty roads, an idiot still feels the imperative to aggressively cut-up the other cars. Whence a rush at this dead time, in this dead city?

At Brentford / Hammersmith, the tower blocks are lit. This is Monday, 5.20 and there are already tie-clad workers sitting, male and unmoving, in the windows of the tower blocks we fly by, already giving up their lives to the sucking screens. A gust of steam sits above the Glaxo building frozen like a cloud.

The gray is clocking out now, turning the shift over more fully to the blue, which is hazily pulling itself together under gray’s stern tutelage. We are on the M4 now and the roadside signs, which once pointed to far-off Bath and Winchester and other pilgrim routes, now advertise Heston services, with runic incantations telling us that the great demon M&S BK COSTA may be summoned here. We pass our first breakdown of the morning, slowly being winched onto a ponderously-flashing truck.

Off the motorway, down past prefabs and roundabouts. This no-man’s land holds caravan parks and fields. Sleeping truckers grumble and mutter in their parkway lay-bys, thousands of miles from home, ten feet from a real suburban bed. Dark ponies and horses are foraging on the fields opposite the trucks and the semi-detached houses.

We pause at lights. My lips are dry, and my face cracks a yawn. My driver strokes the fluff abandoned by the receding of his flesh and sucks his lips. His suit looks thin and cheap and I wonder how he keeps warm. Billboards float by, then more ponies, their heads down amidst cherry blossom and graffitoed sheds and long car parks filled with identical cars, any colour so long as it’s not fun. On the right, a pointy-nosed private jet dreams of growing into another Concorde beneath a WWII derrick hosting a radar dish.

A squeeze between two affectionate bollards and we’re here. The Terminal. Plastic and metal and concrete and barbed wire and endlessly routed paths and instructions everywhere. We stop and smile goodbye. He wishes me a good trip; I wish him a good day. Inside, I doubt day will suit him.

In Flight: Cloud Palaces

And a puff of cloud beneath, and the world is gone. London, rigid in its rows of suburban houses, grey and brown like a tired corpse, vanishes with a sigh. I look down at the passing clouds and I imagine them opening again, to reveal: flocks of dragons drifting beneath, mammalian muscles rippling beneath scaled shoulders; a 2D sprite landscape, like the top-level of a Mario game; just a descending void, perhaps with the straggly rubble of treetops growing sideways from the clouds; endless dark mountain peaks, sharp like birds’ beaks; a quite-white lunar surface, dust still settling; a face, immensely huge and hungry, looking back at me; a sea of Jorgumundr-scale world snakes, slowly writhing, nomadic peoples living and dying on their slimy backs.

Cloud artefact
Another cloud artefact. This is not the sun. The sun is 90 degrees to the left.

Something that can’t be real swims in front of my dreaming eyes; a single, faint brown straight line, that spans the cloudscape far below (though below, side and above vanish the longer you look at the clouds, along with scale and meaning). Moving my head doesn’t shake the image, nor blinking; it’s not ocular or on the window, but it seems to be tracking us.

Perhaps it’s a contrail from an engine or wing, but it seems to be far below. There are no other lines quite like it elsewhere in view, but there are other straight lines elsewhere on this lead-white lunar surface, cutting into the fluff like stream into foamed milk. This line though, it’s impossible to tell how far away it is. It’s obviously super-imposed on the surface below, but whether it’s close or far is hard to tell. Leaning to peer through another window, I see that it shifts slightly but that’s just an effect of our movement; it is travelling with us. Yet distant clouds do seem to block it; either that or, as we’re progressing, it’s fading.

It must be an optical illusion, yet I’ve never seen anything like it. That moment of incomprehension, of struggling to understand, makes me think of cargo cults, minds blasted by the godmen from the air, of the parodic predatory bird-planes of early Nemesis: The Warlock, and of science fiction heroes contemplating impossibly alien tech. Future shock is a very real thing; as Lovecraft realised, there are scales and structures the human mind struggles to comprehend, that it eventually accepts but doesn’t understand. Think of your feelings on gravity, gravity that doesn’t make sense, that can be approached only by analogy to gravity itself (the ball in the rubber sheet view of spacetime). Your mind has abandoned the struggle early here, stopped asking because it doesn’t understand the question or the answer. I’m getting that with a single brown line.

The landscape of the flight doesn’t help though; shifting codes of interpretation that defy scale. Is that an iceberg or a snowcone? A shrub or a redwood? A boulder, a house or a hill? American flits between snow and desert and mountains and inhabitation so fast, without a sign of life beyond a dusty straight line road, that it’s hard to believe 300,000,000 live here.

In Flight: Berlin

Some cities have a larger literary presence than tangible. Paris balances the two. London weighs towards the real, rather than the page. But Berlin, for me especially, is a city explored first in media, only peripherally in the real. Mr Norris Changes Trains, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold gave me a sense of the shutaway city. The city’s structures and location I garnered from history and politics textbooks. The look from the amazing City of Angels and Cabaret.

Visiting it in the real has always been in passing to me. I think I’ve stopped here maybe three times on press trips. Now the press trip, more so than most business trips I suspect, is a coddled affair. I’ve been on many where I’ve done nothing more than follow instructions, travelling just with my passport. Food and drink are often paid for. Hotels are booked and paid for you. The itinerary has often been decided, from cradle to grave.

So when I’ve been Berlin I’ve had to employ strange tactics. The first time, brought by NamcoBandaiAtariInfogrames was an overnight stopper, if I recall correctly, where after the event bar shut, a couple of us hopped in a taxi to the Reichstag, just to see a little of the city before we left. The next time is even more blurred, but I recall having enough time off to visit the museum at Checkpoint Charlie. This time we’d been offered a night’s stay in a hotel on the Alexanderplatz (a strangey familiar name), right by the great spiked awl that acts as Berlin’s equivalent of London’s post office tower – another great sign of what the future once was.

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Our nailed-in itinerary took us to a part I’d never seen before, the sprawl of bombed-out buildings that houses the nightlife. I’ve often been told that the majority of the life in Berlin happens hidden away, away from the statuesque facades of the West or the relentless identical blocks of the East, and I guess that this was that place. A long strip of buildings that looked like accreted spray paint that happened to have sagged into the form of old warehouses and walls without roofs. Walking through it in the snow, we felt like we were going to be mugged; but Berlin has that joy about it, that the sectors don’t reflect the prejudices of the anglo-saxon climes. Graffiti here isn’t a sign that this is a bad area, but that it’s an artistic area.
Inside our warehouse was a great flat room where a game was being shown. I’ll skip over this quickly, as it was not unusual. Presentations, hands-on and interviews, the old routine. Then we were sent off to our hotel, with a bag of game memorabilia we would have been as happy without in hand. I’d only managed one hour of sleep the night before (working on a StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm review) so I crashed out.

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When I woke, it was suddenly dark. We returned to the graffiti strip gaming warehouse and the rest of the evening was a performance of traditional German drinking, eating, drinking, bagpipes and more drinking. But it was still all molly-coddled. At the end of the night, as the PR was waving us off, he suddenly decided to take us on into the city, imprecating with bright-eyed hesitancy that “you need to see some real German techno.” It was too much for me, exhausted as I was, but the others followed him to an apartment in an old block on Alexanderplatz which had a club in it, playing music closer to Europop than techno.

In the morning, with a head fogged by beer, I snuck out quickly for a very short walk around the block. I was heading for a distant wooden church spire when a man strolling towards me suddenly looked up, cried out and rolled onto his back, before spasming onto his front, twitching. I’d never seen a seizure before and didn’t know what to do. I vaguely recalled that you meant to roll the victim into the recovery position and pull out his tongue, but I could see from the puddle of blood spreading out from his head that he’d started biting into his own face in his spasms. Someone more aware than me ran over to help the man, whilst someone else rang an ambulance, and I was waved, thankfully, away.

Again, this visit was so short, so coddled, so incoherent, that I still have no sense of Berlin. It’s a fragmentary city to me, efficiently small hotel rooms and indistinguishable apartment blocks and odd dead-ended canal-rivers and huge stone buildings and circus tents and the Wall covered in graffiti. It’s also unpeopled; in all my visits, I’ve not spoken to a native Berliner, not penetrated past the famous surface. It feels like I have to come again.

In Flight Istria Day 2: Tito’s Manservant

I’m writing a big article about Istrian food for Time Out: Croatia.

I sometimes feel like the only adult in the world. It’s an arrogant feeling, I’m aware, but it’s more a view of assumed maturity; seeing people making the same mistakes I’ve made before, the same clichéd patterns of behavior cropping up. So here I am in the back of a van driven by an admitted drunk, who’s arguing with the professor about the meaning of life. In the back, our cameraman is being unsubtly romantic to the only girl, an American TV presenter who’s trying to sleep. Occasionally, he pauses to shout directions, or condemn the music.

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Hi-resolution mental snap 1: the face of Miro, the owner of Tomas’ restaurant, as he slumps for a second mid-song, great wrinkled chops and soupsucker moustache sagging onto the pressed-white waiters’ uniform he’s worn since he was (former Yugoslavian dictator) Tito’s personal waiter. In the background, amidst memorabilia, pictures of him show him wearing the same outfit progressively younger, long grey-white locks then black, great truffled nose shrunken to youthful proportions. He waves an arm over the many plates of rare Bosphorin (Istrian Ox) dishes he’s prepared and tells us stories about Tito being a secret drunk.

(The drunk driver is claiming the road ahead is foggy. We point out the road is clear and his eyes are foggy. He tries to clean his glasses.)

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Hi-resolution mental snap 2: The Cave of Pazin. A normal town and Venetian castle, at the end of a normal street. Rounding the castle (small, more like an elaborate town hall), there’s a terrace and balcony. Walking closer to its edge, there appears a pit the area of Grand Central which just drops and drops. Buildings cluster on the rock right to the edge of the hole. Beneath the cliff face, there’s a ten-storey cavern that has whole fallen trees clustered in its maw, looking like twigs from up here. It’s deeper than St Paul’s is high, easily. My head spins looking through the camera zoom and I have to step back from the edge, sharply. To my right, an old building is slowly toppling, abandoned, into the depths; elsewhere a terrifying zipline crosses the shallowest part of the hole.

The driver stops the van suddenly. He’s concerned about the two bottles of wine rolling around his feet while driving, worried that the police will stop him. He talks to himself as he packs them in the boot. The TV presenter observes this, worried. The driver starts the van up and immediately takes a wrong turn into the police station parking lot. We all laugh, sadly, and go quiet as a police car goes slowly past. The romantic is quoting music lyrics as come-on lines.

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Hi-resolution mental snap 3: truffles, everywhere. Truffle prosciutto, truffle pasta, truffle cheese. Walking into the restaurant in Hum, the world’s official smallest walled town, your head is hit by the scent, swamping all other flavours and smells, like the fantastic musk of a bestiary. The mayor of the town brings two jars of truffles that are labelled at unreal prices, just to show, before sloping off for a soup by himself. I wander the streets and take photos of walls, corners, and bricks.

At 2.45am, we’re still driving, this time through Pazin in the mist. I’m terrified that we’ll fall into the Cave. I’m sure they said our farmhotel was close… But then the driver admits we’ve been driving the wrong way for 30 minutes. He starts swearing about Apple Maps in Croat before switching the radio to something like Madness and cranking the volume up.

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Hi-resolution mental snap 4: Miro is singing and has put his arm around my shoulders. It is a sad song so I, all six foot bearded 13 stone, start faking crying, which cracks him up. He tells us more about Tito, when he waited on him on Brione Island in Vanga. What was he like? “A real fucker… The First Lady was too posh… He had a secret room behind the library bookcases. No-one knew what was going on there. I think that was where he went to lie down! Tito was drunk all the time. Loved Martell brandy. Always he had a taster for the food and drink- except for Martell, he trusted Martell. I gave him the last Martell in his life, before he went to Ljubljana to die.” Then the singing and accordion-playing starts and our driver starts drinking…

In Flight Istria Day 1: Agrotourism

I’m writing a big article about Istrian food for Time Out: Croatia.

I barely have a ticket. I don’t really know where I’m going. I’m told it’s Croatia but I don’t know where. I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do when I get there. I do know that it’ll probably be okay, so I’m not really panicking. The mountains beneath the plane loom like alien snowcones, the lake shores are edged with white. The fat Croat behind me snores again. He wakes, aggressive later, and elbows his way a few steps ahead as we line up to get off.

(Later) I got met at the airport by Vedran and his crew. All is fine. Vedran is a worldly Croat who’s doing a PHD in political science on the side. He’s easy to divert onto conversations about philosophy and politics, but his first love is local food. Gastronomy is why I’m here.

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(Later still). We drove for five hours. We drove through the snowy mountains. The houses mainly alternate between newish German-style villas and abandoned local wooden styles, though there’s a smattering of other architectures. As we get up into the mountains, the snow creeps up the walls of the houses, until some of them are simply buried and uninhabited. There’s hours of woods, cliffs, snow, dotted houses with shacks and wood stores. Then we go down, down, down, past a bay of houses, past great craggy mountains (“what’s that one called?” I ask, of a four-pronged peak. “Rocky”, is the rough translation. Similarly, the large town we pass is called “River”.), through tunnels and (I’m sagging now, conversation faded).

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We finally, finally, FINALLY, arrive at agrotourism Ogrone and are mobbed by dogs. The place is based entirely on local produce – everything made here uses only ingredients from the farm itself – chickens, salad, potatoes are all grown here. The lady running it speaks no English and has the charming guileless appearance of a homely, nice middle-aged lady who loves taking in visitors. Signs around the walls testify that she’s more than that; apparently, she won the best rural woman (peasant) prize, amongst many others. And, aside from the roaring fire of Ogrone, where she cooks up a thick luxurious minestrone and a fire-baked chicken stew, she also runs several other businesses around the area. Today, she was approached by one of the big political parties to be their electoral candidate; she turned them down.

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Bed is in a silent house. I’ve no idea where we are but I’m full and tired. Tomorrow, apparently, I’m going to be interviewed by Radio Pazin. God help us all.

In Flight: Cities From The Air

For most cities from the air, the weather takes a more dominant role than any topographical or construction oddities; sunlight bleaches the landscape, snow blanks it out, clouds blank out even that blanking out. Once you’re in the city, the homogenisation continues; you’re lumped in the back of a vaguely-recognisable car marque and hustled through unfamiliar traffic before a dolled-up desk assistant at your hotel takes a credit card number and dispatches you to an internationally-acceptable hotel room, distinguished only by the leaflets on the business desk and the brands of toiletries / beverages supplied.

But there’s a brief window, between weather and hustle, where you see the city for what it is, just as the plane swoops in: Dubai was empty desert punctuated by giant ‘f*ck-you’s built by sheikhs with too much oil; Vegas was a single gleaming street amidst suburbs that stretch out into desert shacks; Vancouver (or was it Toronto?) tastefully stretched into the mountains, demure and quiet, L.A. distastefully sprawled to the limits of its land-mass, London looked like Eastenders, and so on.

Moscow teases you with its size, interrupting endless woodland with fields and estates. The latter vary from tiny collections of shacks on massive allotments to housing estates comprised of country Estates and mansions, to a single gleaming dome of gold I caught sight of looming above the treeline; nearly all are brand new. When you finally get near the city centre, it’s a terrible combination of 70s blocks of flats, amazing monolith Soviet official buildings and weird tasteless new buildings built presumably with oligarchs fattened on fleecing the state. All of these are encircled by a solid steel band of unmoving traffic that fades at night and midday but never really disappears.