Balling and chains

Day 5 - Wrocław

"And I got an engine full of trunk space, I get money three ways, f*****g bitches three ways, seven different foreigns plus no hablé. But I make that bitch walk for some cheesecake."

Tyga's words from early 2015 inspired us to leave Berlin's MyNigga Hotel and take a left turn into Poland. We pointed the ride towards the city of Wrocław where we could live like kings for a fraction of the money Scandinavia had demanded of us, £8 pancakes whaaat? The relative weakness of the country's economy was ably demonstrated when silky autobahn became torn and undulating tarmac. The car bounced and juddered and my pen criss-crossed the page like an etch-a-sketch in the hands of a drunk child. The second demonstration came when a car behind, furiously flashing its lights, got us to stop on the hard shoulder. A balding, middle-aged, be-paunched guy walked to the driver's window and, handing over a business card, proceeded to try and interest us in a deal with his import/export company. I kept a wary eye on his homie still in the car behind lest he decide to join the party. Guy no. 1 seeing our dumbstruck confusion starting removing the chain around his neck, to sell to us? Who knows. That was about enough, James started the engine, we made our apologies (never lose your manners) and we sped away. A strange and disconcerting experience. True players have no time for hostels (unless they hiding out from the five-0) so we'd booked into the 5-star Hotel Monopole. The rooms were more dark wood than plywood, marble replaced Formica, complementary slippers and grooming products replaced absolutely nothing. As we planned to get crunk around town that night, a quick survey of my creased and worn clothes turned up nothing sufficiently fly. I needed to go to the shops to pickup some dope new threads and perhaps, as Tyga recommends, 'a chain brighter than a strobe light' (Import/Export guy would also approve). On the way I happened upon a cheery little chap stood in the street. He was 4 inches tall and appeared to smoking a pipe, probably full of top grade green, gangster. First appearing in 2001 he is one of over 300 dwarfs on the streets of Wrocław that commemorate, in part, the Orange Alternative which was an anti-communist movement from the eighties. After a quick spin around the picturesque city centre I found a shopping centre and purchased some new clothes for a song and a dance and strolled back to our palatial residence.

"Ahh! Aye babe this my new shit
I'm the black Richie Rich with the roof missing."

Me and the crew headed up to party with bitches on the roof terrace of the hotel. Sadly the roof terrace was closed due to a spot of rain so we too, like Tyga, found the roof to be 'missing'. Instead we went and had dinner at a nice little spot in the main square with an authentic menu and red gingham tablecloths, pimping. After a meal which my notes say was sausage and was nice (A.A Gill better watch out) it was time to hit the scene like we big money. Matt wasn't in a scene-hitting mood so left us to it. Two spiced rum and coke for 25 zloty (£4) hard not to like a place with prices like that. Also hard not to like a place whose toilets so closely resemble an old-fashioned brothel, the redness of the walls, carpets and lights stained my eyeballs I think. It topped the facilities in the first bar where we drank crunchy coffee bean cocktails, they were just lit with candles on the floor, it created a real sense of romance at the urinal. Time to get game so based on the recommendation of the hostess at brothel bar we swaggered over to Club Grey. The real realest don't do it by the glass they pop bottles but Grey didn't have any Cristal in so we settled for a bottle of Gentleman Jack (mixers not included). Okay so the only ice was in a bucket but people were definitely feeling us flossin'. Making for the dancefloor jack in hand we busted some big moves to some deep grooves, picture a LMFAO video and you've got the idea. I'd feel remiss not to tell you what the toilet was like in this place too, it was full of guys who had temporarily suspended their steroid intake to cram into cubicles to take other sorts of drugs. We ended the night in a McDonalds, not pimping but man gotta eat right? Somehow managed to get invited to a wedding in Poland next year, looking forward to it Maciek! I'll leave you with more wise words from Tyga -

"This that fly shit, King shit only
Drop top, no roof - ahhh Wrocław"

Blitzing cities

Day 4 - Berlin

A restless night's sleep hadn't left Matt best disposed towards a long drive (my standing offer to take a turn still being rebuked) but I'd wager me and James felt worse. Matt likened the car to a hearse given the state of his two passengers. I drifted in and out of semi-lucid dreams, my consciousness on the melting edge of reality. 6 hours passed until I stepped out, blinking into a dusty car park somewhere in the Mitte district of Berlin. I'd long heard naught but good things about the capital and of all the places on the original itinerary it was the one I was keenest to visit. The itinerary, however, was evolving and we'd set ambitious targets to steam through Europe in a grand arc. Coincidentally it was exactly 5 years since my first road trip through the continent from Istanbul to Italy. How many countries had I seen since then? How many thousands of miles travelled by plane, car, train? On bike, boat or on foot? How many experiences since that first nervous journey into the unplanned? It becomes a habit, an all-inclusive to a Spanish island doesn't satiate the expanded curiosity travel gives. The sort of intrigue that makes an atlas just a list of places you haven't yet been, a dartboard of intention. The wanderlust that finds you saying things like 'yeah but the western part of Iraq is probably OK to visit'. The need for the real that chases those C-beams in the dark.
A small round plaque at my feet marked one of the fallen. A person died here trying to cross from east to west. A doomed attempt to escape the constricting control of the German Democratic Republic and the Stasi. Any country with the words democratic or republic in its name fairly often isn't. It is disconcerting to think this took place during our lifetimes (well not James') and I do have a vague recollection of the wall coming down. I think I remember the news showing people stood atop the brutalist symbol of their oppression feverishly smashing it with hammers, sickles nowhere in sight. We walked around a still intact section of the wall. Here and there parts of it were wreathed with vegetation grown tall in 25 years. The green leaves swallowed the graffitied and eroded concrete and reminded me that nature cares nothing for our perpetual attempts to partition the earth. We can clear it, poison it, burn it but it will ripple our boulevards and creep through our deserted halls long after we've gone. I hadn't realised that Berlin had been a tiny island in East Germany closer to Poland than to the rest of its country. I wonder which side of the wall felt more besieged? The contrast with the present day is stark, where we don't even slow for international borders. I can't be persuaded that distance from Europe is needed, that the EU is a failed idea. I don't pretend to have a comprehensive understanding of the economics of it all but I take the more philosophical viewpoint that when a people strive to define themselves as fundamentally, irreconcilably different from another group of people it opens the way for very bad things to happen. The holocaust memorial is, at first glance, an impenetrable abstraction of that scar on the human race but find your way inside and it becomes a wholly different thing. Grey and remorseless concrete begins to rise on either side and the ground slopes downward as you walk. Faceless and metronomic and utterly without sympathy soon it towers above your head and there is no clear route out. The din of civilisation falls away and voices softly echo between the pillars. You can't see where they come from which gives them an ethereal quality as though from people long gone, lives long extinguished. I found it very evocative, I suspect many will have a different experience, certainly mine was different from the guy stood on the tallest pillar with a selfie stick.
We took in Checkpoint Charlie to round out the evening which was the crossing point from the American part of West Berlin into East Berlin. It is now just a small hut in the middle of a busy road but it was once the limit of the western world and the scene of momentous events including a David Hasselhoff concert. I can't help but feel that Berlin needs a museum of fun or a monument to irreverence to provide respite from the dark chapters you see all around.

Probably the best marketing department in the world

Day 3 - Copenhagen

My first new country on the trip (not that I'm, y'know, counting) and a city that Matt, having passed through on the way up had sung the praises of. The Danes are amongst the happiest people in the world and those that aren't happy tend to commit suicide thus removing themselves from the statistics (or is that Swedes? I'm not sure). Certainly the aesthetic qualities of the city ought to keep a person happy, especially if you happen to be male. It is also a place shot through with cycle lanes and vast numbers of residents take to two wheels, woe betide the unwary traveller straying onto their part of the road. The way to Denmark from Sweden is a curious mix of water traversing structures. A bridge begins on the Swedish side before reaching a small island in the middle of the channel and abruptly diving under the ground to become a tunnel. Did each country take responsibility for half the crossing and simply not communicate their intentions? Does the Swedish word for bridge mean tunnel in Danish? Is it a practical solution that doesn't disrupt the flow of shipping? Only actual research can tell us the answer. James was not enjoying being behind the wheel on Copenhagen's complex road network. Surrounded by eminently crushable riders and pedestrians the car made it to the hostel without so much as a screeching brake. Denmark has a markedly different attitude to the drink than Sweden with no minimum age and a culture of public consumption. The hostel had a promising party feel to it, people reclined with giant glasses of hoegaarden in its open front or rested on the communal bed at the back of the bar, I liked it already.
If there is a sight inimitable to Denmark's capital it is the little mermaid. Gifted by the son of the founder of Carlsberg (much of this city has some connection with that family) 102 years ago she has endured a surprisingly torrid history. Beheaded twice, she has also lost an arm, been covered in paint several times, been knocked into the harbour by explosives, been made to hold a dildo and has recently taken to wearing a burqa, perhaps to protect herself from paint. After all those tribulations a person almost feels bad saying she is a bit underwhelming, you wouldn't be on form either if you'd been so relentlessly targeted. But she is placed in a bland spot, the backdrop provided by cruise ships and miscellaneous low-slung buildings. We'd hired bikes to reach her perch and looked like true locals around town, only with less stopping at red lights, more pavement riding and less consideration for other road users, ding. Matt had clothes to wash so left myself and James to bomb around Copenhagen, as much as one can bomb on a bike with a basket, handlebar streamers and spokey-dokeys (OK not the last two but I can dream). Come the evening we ate dinner in Nyhavn which is a picturesque waterfront area once home to Hans Christian Anderson, he of mermaid fame. I tried a smorrebord consisting of herring 3 ways just in case you can't decide how you like it best. We had a few drinks in the hostel bar over one or two games of 'Presidents and Arseholes', or three or four or however many games it takes before the person whom is losing (and is thus doomed) throws a strop and refuses to play the stupid thing anymore. Matt hit the sack while we hit the booze but tiring of snap we inveigled ourselves into a group of 2 American guys and 2 Dutch girls by critiquing their choice of card-based drinking games. What followed is a blur of cards, buses, kraken, i-have-nevers, ice cubes, bed, whiskey, bed and finally sleep. Good night Copenhagen.

No. Reservations.

Day 2 - Jönköping
We left Stockholm and its scenic if somewhat austere environs for a city 200 miles to the south. Jönköping perches on the bottom edge of the country's second biggest lake, Vättern, and is the the home town of such notable persons as Agnetha from Abba, Nina Persson (Cardigans fame) and a man with whom James and I have much in common - Olympic kayaker Anders Gustafsson. Leaving behind the convenience of an H&M on every corner and an off-license never more than an hour's walk away we began the road trip proper. Urban sprawl gave way to endless coniferous forest, clatter and chatter to 101 Party Classics, a 5CD odyssey charting the highs of pop music over the preceding decades. It also, inevitably, included some lows and to counter this we were each granted 5 vetoes. However these were to apply to the entire CD collection in the car which were to be played back to back in strict alphabetical order. Looking at some of the CDs my vetoes would be sorely needed in future hence the fact that UB40's 'Red, red wine' was played in its entirety, a song that is like nails on the chalkboard of my soul, I still rue the decision. Anyway, the wheels turn, the hours pass and the mind wanders, wanders into the forest, to the empty and frozen north where Ringlefinch bend the pines like matchsticks and Jotnar stalk the mountain,  the forgotten places where the old gods hold sway. The Norse have a wonderfully rich mythology and their pantheon of gods has occupied too little of my interest so far. The polytheistic religions, though largely pushed aside, give such an insight in our early understanding of the nature of deities. I so much prefer them to the drab, one-dimensional monotheistic ideas so popular of late. I like my gods to have, for want of a better word, a human side. Let them fight and commit folly, let them be cruel and be kind. Let them teach us something of the reality of life, if nothing else it makes for the best stories.
We found the sparkling edge of Vättern and followed its eastern shore all the way to Jönköping. We headed for the lobby of The Grand Hotel, its shabby elegance was rather becoming but we were just there to pick up keys to our less grand hostel next door. They gave us a stark but spacious room with white linen from IKEA and brown stains from various places. The town itself was quiet apart from a steady stream of people trooping around wearing green boiler suits and shouting about something. But rather than the protest it initially appeared to be, their regular stops at bars suggested some kind of organised pub crawl. Their t-shirts listed suggested activities for the evening, drinking and beer pong amongst them (vomiting and regrettable sex were presumably a given) - students. We three  gentleman travellers pursued more sedate goals, chiefly dinner. How poorly we understood the complexity of our aim. The first restaurant couldn't accommodate us due to a shortage of waiting staff and from then on our hungry quest became a litany of failure as eatery after eatery either ignored us or couldn't seat us at one of their, sometimes numerous, empty tables due to ostensible reservations. There's the Sweden I know and f*****g hate, where's TGI Fridays? After exploring the limits of the cities dysfunctional dining scene we found a Chinese/Japanese/Mongolian place yards from the hostel that was too empty to plausibly deny us. The many miles travelled had taken their toll on our feet so post meal it was time to retire.

Stockholm to home

Road. Trip. Two words whose constituent parts of car, road, here and there are less than the whole. They don't capture the listless miles, the blurred tarmac, the landscape passing on either side like the  bars of an equaliser. They don't capture the urge to leave, the limitless reach and limited grasp, the, for want of a better word, romance. Kerouac got it, Hopper and Fonda summed the stateless rebellion of just driving, or in their case riding. Is it more about the dots or the lines? The getting there or the getting there? So...road trip, as good a reason as any to be be getting up at 3am on a nondescript Tuesday to catch the night bus to Gatwick Airport and begin a journey back to England via 11 countries, 12 cities and 2550 miles of road.
I was flying with a friend to meet a friend in  Stockholm. Matt had gone over to compete in a Ironman competition which is a physical epic comprising a ride, a swim and a run. That doesn't do justice to over 10 hours of nonstop exertion which, to me at least, sounds beyond the limits of human capacity. Still, some people get a kick from it, and a wristband, so each to their own. Myself and James are more 'beer at 6AM' sort of guys. 6:25AM to be precise, at which point James said "they'll keep the gate open until 7AM I reckon." This prompted my sudden recall that the flight departed at 6:40AM and so the gate still being open at 7 was unlikely. Queue downed beers and brisk walking. Fortunately the gate was not open (in the literal sense) but not closed (in the some-dickheads-were-even-later-than-us sense). The flight departed some 40 minutes late which would have been an ideal amount of time to visit that whiskey bar we spotted.
"Thonk" - it's Swedish for the hollow sound of a boat striking a ship. Okay so we were in a kayak which I'm not sure is a boat and thus we posed little threat to the 1300 ton steel vessel moored in front of us but since we would be sleeping on it that night sinking the thing would probably forfeit our deposit. We had gone from airport to train station to English pub to the af Chapman a full-rigged sail ship built in 1888 in Cumberland (chief exports - ships and sausages), put into service between Europe, the USA and Australia. Bought by the Swedish navy it was used as a barracks during WWII and now as a youth hostel (run by the tourist board not the military). And after dumping our bags we were on the water again, practically in it. Myself and James had taken a two person kayak, Matt and girlfriend Sally another, a pair of Swedish girls the third and their mother shared the fourth with our guide. James was pilot, I was navigator (apt given that I had the  rudder pedals). I was Goose, he was Maverick. And maverick certainly described our interpretation of the guide's instructions but what we lacked in direction we made up for in knots. However far adrift from the group we found ourselves some Olympic quality synchronised paddling soon saw us rejoin the party, usually via the side of Matt and Sally's kayak. It was a thoroughly enjoyable bit of sightseeing and chicken with cruise ships, 2016 Rio Men's Double Kayak - watch out.
So far the trip had entirely contrasted with my previous one in February of 2007, snow/sun, on bridges/under bridges and now the food. I had found it to be a culinary minefield the last time round, pock-marked by veal and sludge, confusion and dismay, and lingonberries,  so many lingonberries. Imagine my surprise and delight, having plunged once more unto the fray of traditional fare, to be given a meal of tasty meatball, potato purée and refreshing lingonberry. And all in a restaurant we found with great ease. My prejudices evaporated quicker than the light beer did. I f*****g love Sweden!
We returned to the boat to shower and change for the evening only to find James's bunk appropriated by some new and absent guest, James had failed to cover it with filthy clothes to secure it. No matter others were free. I was determined to make good use of the dress shoes I had wedged into my backpack given their weight and impracticality. Since we had a car and so little time would be spent with the pack actually on my back I decided such luxuries were permitted. That was after I taken out and left behind my penknife, compass, survival blanket, travel cutlery, collapsible pint glass, hunting knife and kitchen sink (travel size). Car + summer ≠ Bear Grylls time. We strolled through the island of Gamla Stan which is essentially the old town and settled at a restaurant called 'Engelen' which might mean 'England' in Swedish. They had laid their decking with high quality fake grass in homage to the inventors of real grass and namesake of their establishment. I tried the herring and those delicious essentials - potato purée and lingonberries. We had a couple of pints of exceedingly tasty unfiltered beer (Olfilterad Export, try it) before Matt's weary toes (IronMan inflicted) beat a path to their hotel. James and I fancied another one of those beers in a less salubrious venue and spied a likely place. They didn't have the same beer but they did have a large glass contraption on the bar full of a clear liquid that looked intriguing.
"What's that?" say we to the barman with a passing resemblance to Al Murray. "Water" say he
"....for the absinthe"
That nice beer was 5.8% so chasing it with absinthe seemed a great idea. The green fairy charged by the millilitre and while 300 seemed a large shot it was Al's suggestion so we went with it. Patiently we waited as water dripped from ornate taps attached to the contraption through sugar cubes and into our swirling glass of madness beloved of Toulouse-Lautrec, Hemingway, Van Gogh and Wilde. We heaved it down in two mighty gulps. Al returned to our empty glasses remarking "that was meant to be sipped". Classiness 0 British Tourist Stereotypes 1. During the process of preparing our drinks the pub landlord had been distracted by two hot Swedish female customers (disproportionately common here) and hadn't charged us. As as aside he might have saved himself some trouble there as James, pre-trip, had gotten his foreign currency but had asked for krona and krone. Those are the respective currencies of Sweden and Norway and we weren't going to Norway. He should instead have asked for krona and krone, the latter being the currency of Denmark which we were going to. I don't know how someone makes a mistake like that but you could never be certain what form of currency he was going to try to pay with. Anyway we ordered a couple of beers and paid, the cost of the absinthe not having been tacked on. Retiring to the back room which was an odd structure with a pitched roof, dark pine walls and the look of a sauna we debated our options....for leaving without paying. Fortuitously a short while later Al came back to clear glasses and when he got to the rear of the sauna we calmly exited the bar before breaking into a healthy jog through the cobbled streets of the old town, honesty and decency 0, British Tourist Stereotype 2.
Tomorrow the road.