Smoke gets in your mind

Ah. I didn’t know Vienna was the self-proclaimed Coffee Capital. Marvellous.

Following my fourth delightful caffiene treat of the day, I strolled happily through the Museum Quartier. I was stopped by a woman in her thirties, who looked exremely distressed. She was babbling frantically in German and rummaging in her bag with the jumpiness of someone not all that well balanced, but she looked genuinely upset, so I chose to believe that she was not searching for a firearm.

I’m sorry, do you speak English? I asked in some concern. She switched languages immediately, her hand emerging from her bag, now holding a purse. I need to buy a cigarette from you, she said urgently, fumbling to open the purse. I laughed, relieved. Don’t be silly, you don’t need to buy it! I said as I opened my bag. She shook her head, looking determined, and pressed a Euro into my palm. It must be penalised! she insisted dramatically.

Erm… the cigarette? I asked, removing one from my pack. She nodded, her eyes never leaving the cigarette. Yes, she said edgily, I have quit, so I cannot buy my own packet. But today my boyfriend broke up with me and I lost my job, and if I do not have a smoke I will have to kill myself. Buying one is better than buying twenty.

And almost as good as killing yourself, I agreed with the genuine sympathy of one who has experienced these things, although admittedly not both on the same day. Hastily I gave her the ciggy and lit it for her. She inhaled deeply and almost collapsed at my feet, an expression of relief and ecstacy on her face. There’s a sort of unwritten rule amongst smokers, saying that if someone begs you for “just one” cigarette after they’ve openly admitted that they’re quitting, you must not give in, no matter how much you feel for them. However, I’ve added a sort of sub-clause, because I’ve been at the point of desperation that this woman had reached, and I know that sometimes “just one” will significantly improve matters. Buying that full packet is the clear indication that you have, once again, failed miserably. You want to put that off for as many months as you can, just to prolong the self-delusion and general misery.

We shared a couple of quiet moments together, smoking in solidarity. We are both women. We are both smokers. We have a bond. Then she smiled gratefully at me and moved on, leaving me staring miserably at the cigarette between my fingers. Is it a coincidence that this poor girl approached me on the very day that I had held up my cigarette packet and determinedly declared After this pack, I quit? She really didn’t inspire me with much confidence, in any case.But the decision was already made, and so there are only three more cigarettes to go.


I’m intrigued by the idea of selling to quitters, though. At that rate, I could make a profit of €15 for every pack I bought, rather than a loss of €5! All I’d have to do would be start targeting stressed-looking people on the streets. I bet at least 50% of them are ex smokers, who’d kill (or pay €1) for “just one” cigarette. In days when income is uncertain and the budget is tight, it’s certainly an idea…

Where am I?

I’m suffering from a severe case of haven’t-got-a-clue-where-I-am-itis, which means that the first few minutes upon waking up in the morning are becoming increasingly confused and disorientated. It’s a new ailment to me, since for much of my life it was a safe bet that when I opened my eyes I would be in Ballymena, Northern Ireland. Things are a little less certain these days.

I’ve had to develop a routine upon waking: firstly, don’t just assume that you’re in the last place you remember being, as sometimes the mind simply can’t keep up. Take a moment. Let your brain wake up before you attempt any complicated memory feats.

Next, try to remember which country you’re in. This is an extremely helpful step, and makes the next one much simpler. Which city? Cast your mind back to the day before, and gather all appropriate information: train journeys, names of stations passed through, people spoken to… it’s all relevant. Once you’re reasonably confident of your approximate geographic location, you can try to get more specific.

Open your eyes and look around – do you recognise the room? Initially, the answer tends to be “Erm… no”, but don’t panic: generally you can  retrace your steps from the night before, and at least recall the last person you saw before going to sleep. This tends to help narrow things down (consider what language they spoke, what their accent was like, that sort of thing – grab any stray pieces of jigsaw that you can find).

In the past week, I have woken up in Holland, England, and Hungary, and now sit dazed and confused in Austria. Three mornings in a row found me in three different countries. From a loft room in Utrecht, to a pink bedroom in Cambridge (I have been sternly reprimanded for calling it “London”, but it was close enough. I got to meet up with yet another internet acquaintance, mainly because of the proximity of his house to the airport, and to sleep in a real bed. Hurrah!), to a hostel in Balaton.  Since then, I’ve slept on someone’s couch in Budapest, and am currently in some guy’s flat in Vienna, looking out at the rain with a feeling of utter exhaustion. I do not want to see any more nice buildings. I do not want to ask anyone else if they speak English. I do not want to visit another museum, or climb another hill, or try to figure out how, where and when to validate tram tickets in yet another city.

I don’t mean that I don’t ever want to do these things again, of course. Give me a few weeks to recharge the batteries and no doubt I’ll be wondering which country I can visit next. For now, though, I’m knackered. I have no energy left: only this afternoon I got stuck in a set of tram doors, which rather inconsiderately closed on me as I was trying, in my feeble state, to struggle up the steps with my bags. I do not know the German for Somebody help me, I am going to be killed when the tram takes off with me half in and half out of it!, but fortunately Arrrrghhhh! seems to be universally understood, and a guy on the tram leapt forward to open the doors and haul my bags in with one hand, and me with the other, as the tram went merrily on its way.

No more! I want to wake up in the same bed for several days in a row. I want to spend an entire day sitting in one place. I want to spend some time with someone who actually knows me, and have real conversations. And so, after the weekend, I’m heading back to the familiar surroundings of Tallinn and the comfortable company of Riho. Ah, Tallinn: where everything is cheap, people speak English, and my biggest problem is being unable to identify the ingredients for my speciality dishes in the supermarket.

Just need one final spurt of energy for a whirlwind tour of Vienna, a train ride to Slovakia, a flight to Sweden, sightseeing in Stockholm, a flight to Latvia and a six hour bus ride to Estonia, but sure that’s nothing…

Laundry Day: the “on the road” version

Having had the hostel dorm to myself for two nights, I was last night joined by an Englishman called Dave. Hooray! Conversation that did not necessitate sign language! We went for a few beers and exchanged travel stories at the bar – but not before I’d attempted to find out from the barman if there was such a thing as a tumble dryer on the premises.

I’ve just washed some clothes in the sink, I explained, miming the washing action and indicating my own clothes for good measure. Is there a tumble dryer? Following his blank stare, I continued unabashed. A machine for drying my clothes? I mimed a wringing action, but the barman shook his head, obviously trying really hard to understand, but failing completely. I’m sorry, he said, embarrassed, my English is terrible! I smiled, appreciating his efforts. OK, I said, putting my hands flat on the bar to indicate fresh determination. Let’s take it right back. There are machines to wash clothes, right? I did a spin cycle motion with my hands, and he nodded. Excellent. Well, I continued, there are also machines for drying clothes. Again, I did the spin cycle movements, thinking that at least my arms were getting a good workout, if nothing else. Poor wee barman. He shook his head, puzzled, and I realised that the problem was with the verb “to dry”, which he’d clearly never heard before now. Dry, I persevered, smiling encouragingly, to make them not wet any more. No longer wet. Can’t wear wet clothes – need them to be not wet. Dry!

The barman’s eyes lit up and he slapped his forehead. Ah, of course, of course, I understand! He nodded enthusiastically and repeated my tumble drying mime. You want the machine for to take away the water! We smiled happily at each other. Yes, I said. So is there one here at the hostel?

No, he said.

I returned to the dorm to hang my wet clothes over the bunk beds. C’est la vie. And this morning, to my delight, my clothes were actually dry anyway, thanks to the warmth of the night air. Quickly I packed everything away and trundled off to the train station for another ridiculous not-a-single-word-in-common conversation with a ticket booth attendant. (Although “Budapest” seemed to be sufficient, and we mimed the rest.)

Ticket in hand, I sat down by the railway track and was idly pondering how my luggage expands at every destination without me actually buying anything, when I saw Dave walking towards me. Puzzled, I looked at him. Hello again, he said cheerfully, reaching me a pair of knickers.

How embarrassing is it to have a virtual stranger chase after you to the train station with your knickers in his hand? And the only reason I’d forgotten them was because I’m obviously a little bashful about things like that, so when I’d washed them I hadn’t hung them over the beds with the rest of my clothes, but carefully concealed them from his view at the head of my bed. Honestly – you try to come across as all friendly and interesting when you meet new people, and yet at the end of the day their lasting memory of you is going to concern your knickers.

Still. At least they were clean.

The boy in the tower

Do you see the lengths I go to for you people? Today, I climbed up to a little dot up in the clouds, at the top of a series of very large hills. The dot would turn out to be the Lookout Tower, from which, I had been informed by Nice Hostel Man, I would be able to see for miles and miles and miles…

That climb put the Eiffel Tower and the crazy Lyon steps to shame, I’m telling you. There weren’t even any steps for most of it – just dusty, rocky old paths with dodgy looking wooden rails to hang on to and (in my case) haul yourself up, gasping for breath. The higher you get, the warmer the air becomes – fortunately today was cloudy, for if it’d been as hot as the past few days have been, I quite simply would not have survived.

Anyway, here it is: a photo of my current surroundings, as promised.

I’ve been staying right down at the water’s edge, in a tiny little village. The Portrush of Hungary, if you will – it’s where all the Hungarians go for their summer holiday or weekend break. It is beautiful. I’m nicely rested and relaxed now, apart from the hill-climbing nightmare. And I even made a new friend!

This is Jeosef, who kindly accompanied me up the tower, chattering away in Hungarian and completely unphased by my English responses. It is much easier to communicate with a child than with an adult when there’s a total language barrier, because they don’t give up and go silent when they realise that you don’t have a single shared word in your vocabulary. Jeosef and I developed our own sign language and did the age-old “saying words in your own language very slowly and loudly as if that’ll help” thing. It worked fairly well. He taught me to say Hayley nak hívnak, and I taught him to say my name is Jeosef. An educational trip, as well as a scenic one!

I have a feeling that he and his father actually live in the Lookout Tower. His dad was a scruffy, slightly wild-looking guy, wearing clothes with holes in them and curled up on a pile of old sacks when I arrived. He supervised as Jeosef excitedly counted my entrance money and attempted to give me the right change, and seemed quite content to let the boy go leaping up the tower steps ahead of me as if he’d done so a million times before. I got the impression that father and son are allowed to shelter in the tower in exchange for collecting the small entrance fee from visitors – because let’s face it, that would be quite a hike to work every day.

Nice as the view is, you’d have to pay me an absolute fortune.

Big wheels keep on turnin’…

Oi! Someone prodded me and woke me from my dream about a comfortable bed and a shower that didn’t have clumps of hair in the drain. This is the last stop!

Drowsily, I uncurled from the foetal position in the back of the van where I’d been sleeping for the last hour, and slid out of the door on autopilot in a most undignified manner. The hostel’s shuttle driver looked at me in amusement as he reached me my bag and took a leisurely puff of his cigarette. Do you need directions, or do you know Amsterdam? he asked kindly, watching me attempt to adjust to being upright. I looked around at the masses of tourists and clouds of marijuana smoke. I know Amsterdam, I replied gloomily. With a thank you and a goodbye, I left the excellent Flying Pig experience behind and let the crazed Amsterdam crowd suck me in and push me along. I was very nearly run over by a tram, which didn’t help my already less than favourable feelings towards the city, especially as the driver watched me pausing and checking him out to gauge whether he was stopped for a while or ready to go, and then launched forward with an evil grin as soon as I was in his path, getting my bag’s wheels stuck in the track as I tried to leap out of his way.

I grumpily lit a cigarette outside the train station, and was immediately and predictably accosted by a homeless guy. I reached him my cigarette before he could even begin his story, and lit another for myself. He was very keen to talk, and I was impressed by how polite I managed to force myself to be, despite the gloom, the rain, the noisy construction work all around, and the depressing crowds of ignorant, drunk and stoned tourists all around me. Halfway through the cigarette, he began his appeal, complete with background story and request for money for a hostel (and not, of course, for drink or drugs). I used to be a sucker for this sort of thing, and gave to every beggar I passed on the streets, until a woman at St. George’s Cross tube station in Glasgow called me all the names under the sun one day because I didn’t have any change – despite the fact that I’d given her 50p every day that I saw her for about 4 months.

I’m sorry, I explained to Amsterdam homeless man, I’m travelling around, and I’m broke. I don’t earn a lot of money, so I don’t really have any to spare. Just the cigarette! I’m sorry. His demeanor changed, and he scowled at me. His next sentence was in Dutch, and probably not very nice. And then he walked off in a rage – but not before he spat at me. Spat at me! And still holding my cigarette in his hand! I resisted the urge to swear loudly after him, and instead stubbed out my cigarette and marched very determinedly to the ticket desk.

Utrecht, please, I said to the bored looking guy behind the desk. One way or return? he asked. I smiled.

One way, I said firmly.

The Ignorant Foreigner

The ticket inspector glares at me over the top of my perfectly valid ticket.

You did not stamp it! he says in the tone of voice that a primary school teacher would use upon discovering a small child eating a purple crayon. He is perfectly correct. I have not stamped my ticket.

I’m sorry, I say in a sweet little voice, I didn’t know I had to stamp it. I did know, in actual fact, but I had no idea how to do it, being as I couldn’t find a machine on which to do so, and didn’t want to miss the train by running all over the place looking for one only to discover that I couldn’t work out how to use it anyway. I feel it’s easier just to plead ignorance than to explain this. He is not mollified in the slightest. I must now charge you for a new ticket, he informs me. I shake my head. Erm, no… I have just bought this ticket. It is valid. I didn’t know I had to stamp it!

The instructions are right there on the back! he retorts excitedly, waving it at me. I glance at it.

Well, yes, I agree amiably, but I can’t read Dutch.

His glare becomes even more glarey. You are in The Netherlands! he points out, rather unnecessarily, given that I am on a train and in possession of a ticket that says Rotterdam – Amsterdam. I stare uncertainly at him. Yes… I explain patiently, I know that. But I’m travelling all over the place… I can hardly learn the language of every single country I pass through.

This does not go down very well. Ticket inspector man stamps my ticket and retains possession of it, looking haughty. Have you tried to learn any languages in the countries you have visited? he asks, as if getting my ticket back depends upon my answer to the question. I stare indignantly at him. Yes! I exclaim defensively. I speak some French… and I’ve tried to pick up a few basic Dutch words… and I started learning Estonian when I was there!

Were I a less gullible person, perhaps I would notice a twinkle in his eyes at this point and deduce that he is winding me up. Alas! I am incapable of reaching such a conclusion without a subtle indication, like Zed standing by my side, nudging me and hissing He’s keeping you going! under her breath.

He waves the ticket in front of my nose and says sternly What can you say in Estonian?

I search the dusty, closed file labelled Random Estonian Phrases at the back of my mind, and pull out the first familiar one. Ma ei räägi eesti keelt, I declare confidently. I regret it the second that he says suspiciously What does that mean?

Embarrassed, I hang my head. I want to tell him it’s some sort of clever insult about arrogant Dutch ticket inspectors, but I don’t have the nerve. I don’t speak Estonian, I reply, ashamed.

Ticket inspector starts to laugh, and hands me back my ticket.

Coffee Break

“Did you know there are bees under the lawn?” I ask anxiously as I have a cup of coffee with Keanu Reeves. He has come round to do the gardening again, and I feel that he is an appropriate person with whom to share my recent fears about the current bee invasion in Leopoldsburg.

“Biz?” he asks uncertainly. “I do not know this ‘biz’ you say.”

Keanu does not speak very much English.

“You know, bees,” I explain, as if putting emphasis on the word will make up for its absence in his vocabularly. “Bzzzzzzz!” I continue helpfully, making fluttering gestures with my hands. “Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!”

The gardener looks disturbed and slightly nervous at my best bee impression. I am a little put out. Never one to have the sense to quit while I’m ahead, I draw a bee on the back of the scribbled notes I have been making for some work that I’m doing. “Bee!” I say determinedly, tapping the page. “Bzzzzzz!”

Understanding dawns on Keanu’s face. “Ah!” he says happily, “Bee!”

“What is it in Dutch?” I ask, always keen to add to my already slightly ridiculous mental store of words in foreign languages.

He looks blankly at me. “How do you say ‘bee’?” I ask slowly, pointing unnecessarily at him and then at my excellent bee doodle.

“Bee,” he repeats.

“Yes,” I agree, beginning to regret ever mentioning this, “yes, ‘bee’. But what is the Dutch word for ‘bee’?”

“Bee,” he insists. I give up, smile encouragingly, and make a remark about the weather to indicate that we are through with the whole bee discussion.

Out of curiosity, I’ve just looked it up. The Dutch word for bee is ‘bij’. Pronounced ‘bee’.