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…

4918094114_2fc7ae03b6_z

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: 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 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.

20130317-142714.jpg

(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).

20130317-142925.jpg

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.

20130317-143427.jpg

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: Vancouver

There are LOGS floating downriver. Admittedly, there’s not many and they’re guided by tugs, but I half expect Huck and Tom Sawyer to hop off one. They’re the impingement of Vancouver’s looming hinterland on the carefully-gridded suburb.

When the Sikh cabbie drives me out of the airport, it smells like America. Hot tarmac and grease and petrol. But soon we’re whizzing past candy-dream houses of all styles and pastels shades and the place is GREEN, in a totally English way. An incidental, haphazard greenness, of garden plants spilling over and untrimmed lawns and mossy old walls. The sort of thing you’d associate with cobbles and gents doddering glacially from the cricket field to the pub. Perhaps it’s just the gentle sun but the place is a Cotswold suburb, somewhere the be-snouted denizens of Kensington retreat to bring up the kids (before packing them off to Harrow). Nowhere I’ve been in the US has had that feel.

There’s a lot of spillover from America though – the strip malls are there, but not so egregiously, and there isn’t a hell of lot of ‘taste’ in the building styles, even to colour-blind eyes. Here a the granite apex of a roof stretches to the ground, there a pink and yellow wooden house protudes its porch towards the road.
Yet, the mountains feel like Salt Lake City and the riverside apartments feel like Cologne and the city streets like San Fran. This doesn’t feel like another country, visually, just a continuation of America – the superimposition of Puritan-turned-glutton values on what seems like limitless land.

20120803-054306.jpg
And those mountains. We’d already seen the glaciers of Greenland calving thousands of icebergs into the ocean, so our sense of perspective was newly awry, but these were straight out of the Mountains of Madness.
Flying Westward over the Atlantic, water births icebergs that pull themselves into the great icesheets which turn into glaciers, which crawl up the mountain gullies like immense translucent slugs and rapidly bury the mountains so there is only endless whiteness. Glance away and back and you may be looking at the clouds or the ice, so confused is your perception.

I dozed off. When I woke, the mountains were of Canada, but to me they were the same mountains two hours and a thousand miles earlier. Brown rock pushing through snow, unfathomable scales, then, creeping in, pockmarked lakes, not of water but of shiny mercury, silver and with a heavy meniscus, and trees like dyed sawdust, which gradually take over, so that, as the pilot announces the descent, you’re flying over a great mountain-abutted lake-sea. No animal life visible. A solitary farm running along a valley floor. And then Vancouver, bursting into life on the far shore of the lake, an endless sprawling plain of fields and gridded suburbs to the horizon.

Which is a quite a contrast with the urbane smoothness of my hotel. Fizzy wine on arrival, iPad in the bedroom, exclusive bar… I escaped across the road to another restaurant that was obsessed with provenance, all locally-sourced ingredients and modern, rich combinations. King Prawns with fried sage leaves and pinenuts on Butternut squash ravioli. Posh Bloody Maries with a small skewer of pickles on top.

I’m just getting a feel for this town. I’ve only spoken to service staff so far. But as a location, as a combination of intercontinental influences, as an affluent immigrant city, it’s just stunning.

Image by Grant Mattice

E3 Day Zero: Paranoia

It was when the morbidly-obese man’s armpit started sweating on my shoulder, as the Armenian driver hurled the minibusload of LA entrants around the corners of downtown, that I realised my hands were aching fit to burst. ‘That would be from all the hand-wringing’ I thought, ‘which would be a natural lead into a flas…’

FLASHBACK

I’m sat in the plane. I’m going to be deported

To the tune of: Ennio Morricone – Paranoia Prima

It was when the morbidly-obese man’s armpit started sweating on my shoulder, as the Armenian driver hurled the minibusload of LA entrants around the corners of downtown, that I realised my hands were aching fit to burst. ‘That would be from all the hand-wringing’ I thought, ‘which would be a natural lead into a flas…’

FLASHBACK

I’m sat in the plane. I’m going to be deported. There’s no way around it. I’ve sat here for ten hours, shocked and traumatised, and I’ve come up with a huge range of ideas and excuses. I haven’t moved, I haven’t watched a movie, I’ve just stared at the pixelated plane arcing towards DOOM-LA (on the interactive map which is bizarrely in Spanish) and thought of plans for getting out of it. My hands hurt so much from the endless wringing but at least my fingernails have been chewed a bit shorter, which is lucky as I had to drop my nail-scissors in the sharps bin at security…. anyway, PLANS:

River, Canada
  1. I tell them that I’m not a journalist, I’m a writer, and confuse them with etymology THEN MAKE MY ESCAPE.
  2. (The floes off Greenland are flat like damp sugar, impossibly large and hostile. Glaciers grind over the uninhabitable land.) I grab a guard’s gun and get him to shoot me in the foot, then claim he attacked me, then on the way to the hospital MAKE MY ESCAPE.
  3. (Manitoba is passing beneath, at midday, and the sun and clouds are perfectly reflected in something that might be water or frozen oil. It’s impossible to tell scale from up here.) I tell them honestly that I’m a journalist, but rely on the email I’ve just sent (which I really sent, making me look like a huge dick) telling all my contacts I wasn’t going to do the work for them after all and that I’ve come to LA just to collect assets for Gamespress (which would have been true.)
  4. I walk down the steps from the plane, erroneously assuming they exist, and just keep walking, grabbing a Mexican worker’s dungarees to disguise myself and walk off into LA, MAKING MY ESCAPE.
  5. I try speaking in Greek to them and when a translator turns up, I speak English to him/her, just to confuse them WHILE I MAKE MY…
  6. I admit everything and break down in tears. (This plan almost has me crying on the plane.)
  7. (Flying over Utah and Vegas now, the great stained desert, desolate, mostly uninhabited.) I claim to be a consultant, point out what proportion of my income is from writing (sadly small), and use the contract from Warner Bros, which I inadvertantly brought with me, to prove that I’m a bigwig, ringing Rob Donald if necessary to prove that I’ve worked for them and that I’m not a journalist, oh no no.
  8. If they don’t let me talk, I’ll tell them how beautiful their country is from the air, so clear on this day, and how I regret nothing, nothing! Then GET DEPORTED.
  9. (LA is so huge. How many people are lost in that? I stare and stare and the fear grows as the plane comes into land). I change planes when I get into the airport and sneak in over the border with Mexicanos, disguised as a itinerant Hermanos Rabbi. If I don’t GET SHOT  or GET DEPORTED then everything will be hunky-dory.
  10. Actually, most of the imagined plans ended with and THEN I’M DEPORTED or AND THEN I GET SHOT.

Why am I talking about this? I was going to LA. I was going to LA and…

FLASHBACK

…a nice old man in a brylon British Airways waistcoat took my passport, just as the departure gate was closing, looked up at me and said;

“A journalist are we, Mr Griliopoulos?”
“URK” I gasp, eloquently.
“Doing any work out at E3?”
“No, you’d have to be mad as crabs.” I actually said, reddening.

He started laughing. My passport didn’t mention journalist or E3. He knew. He KNEW.

FLASHBACK

My journalist iVisa has expired. I’ve had it since I left OXM, all those years, the Dorian picture of OXM Grill not ageing as Dan does. It let me go to the USA and write stuff but, finally, it’s expired. Just before I’m due to fly to LA. To write stuff. I ring the American embassy, at great expense. A nice lady on the other end of the phone starts organising me an appointment to get a new iVisa, after I told her my name, passport number and when I’m flying, then pauses and sucks her teeth audibly.

“Can you go to Belfast?” she asks.
“URK” I gasp, eloquently.
“Otherwise you can’t get your Visa in time and you can’t fly.”
“Can’t I just…?”
“I would STRONGLY ADVISE YOU NOT TO FLY, SIR.”
“BUT… I’m not just a journalist, I do other things, like.”
“SIR! I cannot advise that you travel under false pretences. “
“… I have to fly.”

FLASHFORWARD

I’m at customs. I’m sure they’re going to pounce. I think of revealing myself, a new plan, pre-empting them, explaining the situation to catch them off balance, and then…

…I’m talking to the security guy. He’s coffee and blue, lots of numbers and badges. And he’s looking up from my biometrics and passport, and raising an eyebrow and;

“What are you here for?”
“Oh, E3, the games convention.”
“Cool! You games guys. That’s why you’re so tired right, you’ve been up all night?”
“YEAH.” I smile fixedly and rub my hands beneath the counter.
“Well, have a great time!” The smile sticks and I MAKE MY ESCAPE.

Celebration!

And that’s why it hurts so much to type this. GOOD START TO LA, I think as I am forced sideways into the large man’s moobs by the latest lost soul the Armenian driver has crammed into the car as he talks loudly about how much better life was under Communism, under a totalitarian ordered system, where he didn’t have to work a seven day week just to feed his family, where he knew his neighbours…