Category Archives: travel

Ostrava: In the Shadow of History – Geographical

On the edge of Ostrava there’s a sharp-sided hill. If you stood on it, you’d have a view over the old city, and you’d marvel at the number of smokestacks you saw. They’re all shapes and sizes and surround the old town centre like widely-spaced fence posts. If it was wintertime, you’d also marvel at how the hill you’re standing on is free of snow, while all around is white satin. Putting your hand on the ground, you’d find it oddly warm.

Like the old buildings and the smokestacks, this hill – called Ema – is a symbol of Ostrava’s inescapable past. It’s formed of the waste from the ironworks in the town’s centre. The last slag was dumped on Ema in 1993 and despite that 22-year gap, it’s still hot. Beneath the streets of Ostrava lies a massive anthracite deposit that made the area the ideal location for iron smelting, and which had been exploited for more than 200 years.

Source: Ostrava: In the Shadow of History – Geographical

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In Flight: Philadelphia, World Cup Final night

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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.

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.

Charlie Was My Darling

Charlie.

Maria named everything we owned. I’d have to see the objects again to recall their specific pet names, but the one that mattered to me was when she named my car Charlie.

I’d started learning to drive when I was 21 and looking for a job as a journalist. I thought it would give me an edge in job interviews (little realising that I’m just awkward and terrible in all sorts of interviews anyway). When I got a job as a journalist, I stopped the lessons. Which was all kinds of stupid. Continue reading Charlie Was My Darling

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.