Saturday, August 16, 2014

How could I ever forget Whatsisname?

The things you find when you’re throwing out old books and papers! Somehow, the other day, an old address-book from 1966 surfaced, and I’ve been surfing through it trying to put faces and incidents to the names in it. (I’m talking about a real old-fashioned handwritten address book. Younger readers can ask their grandparents what that is.)

The names are grouped by countries of residence, and some were transcribed from an earlier book. In A for Australia: Ray Hudson of Sydney, met at a Youth Hostel in Hammerfest on 12th August 1963 when I was hitching through Scandinavia on my own. (The Summer of ’63, in the Archives of January 2013.) We met up again in London that winter, apparently. And Ron Winch, also of Sydney, whom Linda and I hung around with on 19th & 20th January 1965 in Damascus. “A v nice bloke”, I noted: unusual praise. So why do I have no recollection of the hanging-around?

On the page for Austria there is an entry for Peter and Herwart Kramer, whom we visited in Vienna on 11th April 1965 for a cup of tea. Peter was the brother of Stefan Mueller of Tirgo Jiu in the Saxon region of Rumania whom we’d met a week earlier. A note says I spoke German with both brothers. That must have been fun for them.

 In The German Lesson posted on this blog in May 2012 I confessed how desperately bad my spoken German was. I can scarcely imagine how I had the cheek to impose myself on strangers in a strange land and language. Did I phone ahead (surely not!), or did we just turn up on the doorstep? “Hello. Your brother said you’d give us a cup of tea. How about it?” I can’t recall.

 Only years later did I read up about the Saxons (Sachsens), ethnic Germans settled in Transylvania from the 11th Century onwards by the rulers of Austria and/or Hungary. They had kept their own language ever since, though it would have been a distinct dialect, and probably not much like the German of the west. The ones we met spoke standard German to me: that’s all I know.

There were 250,000 or so living there at the time of our visit. One man assured us, “Things weren’t so bad during the War”. Probably not. But the community as a whole had looked kindly on the Nazi governments of Germany and Austria, and after the war the imperial Soviets relocated tens of thousands of them to other parts of the Union. The fall of Ceausescu in 1989 triggered the departure of most of the remainder, this time to Germany.

Also in Transylvania we stayed with Alfred & Inge Bauman in Sibiu. “Board & friendship – 3rd-5th April 1965”, I wrote. That was while my car was in the shop (Co-op Tehnica Mona) having a new transmission installed. That incident, I remember: but the accommodation, not at all.

Nor do I recall the pension on the outskirts of Sofia (Bulgaria) where we had stayed 25th-28th March, run by Dmitri Ctaunoh. (I’m not sure about the name; he wrote it in the book in Cyrillic script, and the letters don’t all have exact transcriptions in Latin script.) I have "Rom" beside his name, which must mean he was of Rumanian nationality and not that we spoke Rumanian together. Bulgaria came before Rumania on our itinerary. I have no recollection at all – not only of Dmitri but of the whole city of Sofia. What ingratitude, in the face of such kindnesses!

Some sights are remembered, though not always in the correct context. For decades I claimed to have inspected the stuffed body of Ceausescu’s predecessor in Bucharest, and I can see it clearly. But Wikipedia tells me I’ve been wrong all this time. The body we saw was that of Georgi Dimitrov, sometime dictator of Bulgaria, and the place was Sofia.

We queued up with thirty locals and filed reverently though the mausoleum in the main square. Thirty doesn’t sound many: perhaps there were more. We were much keener to see Lenin’s body - embalmed and entombed - in Moscow when we got there, but there must have been a thousand people waiting in a long line on a hot day, and we didn’t have the patience. If you’ve seen one dead dictator’s mummy, you’ve seen them all, pretty much.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Toothpaste and duty-free gin

We have a good relationship with airlines, in our family. I only fly twice a year – once via London to Oslo and once back. But Linda takes occasional trips on her own as well, mostly to Central America and occasionally to south-east Asia. Ross spends the odd weekend monitoring Wycombe Wanderers’ slide down the Football League rankings in England, and occasionally takes short breaks to someplace warm on the Mediterranean coast.

A few weeks ago we missed our British Airways connection at Heathrow, and the girl at the BA desk invited me to phone Ross in Norway and tell him when to expect us. That was kind. At the Oslo airport one of the greeters called Ross and told him the exact time our train would arrive at the Central Station. (The airport chap wasn’t employed by an airline, but I don’t mind giving them credit for his niceness. The Norskies are like that, anyway.)

The secret of a pleasant flight is to lock oneself into a low expectation. We don’t find in-flight meals bad, really, except the bread rolls are always stale. The hosties are invariably pleasant, and keep us well watered. Even the toilets across the Atlantic are OK, considering the circumstances. Crying babies can’t be avoided every time, but what the heck. Maybe we’re becoming a bit more tolerant in our old age. Or a bit more deaf.

Touch wood, but we never encounter drunks on board. God, I would hate that. Why on earth do airlines allow passengers to board when drunk or to drink their carry-on liquor during the flight? Surely that’s asking for trouble. Is it beyond the wit of man to re-design airports so as to make duty-free liquor available after arrival instead of before departure? No, it’s not. Oslo’s airport sells duty-free items at both ends – which gets things halfway right, at least.

Every published blog or article about plane journeys contains complaints about passengers who recline their seats. “The most offensive thing people can do!” “The person in front should sit up straight at all times even if he has to go without sleep the whole night!” “Selfish buggers!”

Pfffh! I recline my seat (as gently and inoffensively as I can), and have never been chastised for it. Lucky me. Indeed, I protest vigorously if my seat won’t recline to the full extent. If challenged – and it’s bound to happen one day – I might offer to swap seats with the complainant; or I might ask the hostie to arbitrate; or I might just tell the challenger to shut up and live with it, and hope to get away with my defiance.

Surprisingly, every published blog or article about plane journeys does not complain about the so-called security-searches. Those farcical procedures are based on three major premises.

• Every terrorist-group in the world is fixated on destroying planes in flight. Not buses, trains, trucks, vans or boats – not even transport terminals. No. Just planes, and just while in flight.
• While every terrorist in the world is trained to disable planes and crews with eyebrow-tweezers and flip-flops (separately, I mean: either-or, not in combination), he or she has no idea how to use bottles of duty-free liquor as lethal weapons.
• While every terrorist in the world is skilled in making bombs out of a six-ounce toothpaste-tube and a bottle of water from the kitchen tap at home. They are not skilled (mercifully) in making bombs with the contents of two three-ounce toothpaste-tubes and a bottle of water from a shop inside the duty-free area. Or – OR – with the contents of innumerable phials of shampoo or conditioner stolen from a hotel the night before. The bomb-making syllabus is surprisingly narrow, at terrorist training-schools.

Those of us who criticize the Western secret-service agencies must give credit where credit is due. How many million man-hours of overtime must it have taken to discover the danger we face from six-ounce toothpaste-tubes – in such stark contrast to the innocuous three-ounce tubes?

The agencies know all the dangers, of course. But I don’t, and I take no chances. In my family we practice safe tooth-brushing even at home. We don’t mix our toothpaste with water from the tap. We brush and rinse only with duty-free gin, and we carefully decant the paste into three-ounce tubes. There will be no accidental explosions in this house, thank you very much!