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The wedding

I saw a wedding.

You were there.

But you were not the bride.

She looked good,

With long brown hair.

But you were at her side.

And with her groom,

They smiled a lot

As they waltzed arm in arm.

The whole room watched -

They couldn’t not -

Attracted by their charm

Except for you,

You looked away.

To another wedding day.

And to your hopes,

Dreams, fantasies,

You looked to them, and looked at me.

Categories: Poems.

Boykot Borisov

While the world’s media is focusing on widespread popular protests in Turkey and Brazil, similar protests in Bulgaria have seemingly gone unnoticed by the global press. Bulgarians aren’t particularly surprised; they’re used to being ignored. And that is one of the reasons why they are protesting. After all, if their own politicians pay them as little heed as they have done over the last 24 years (never mind the 50 years before that) why should foreign reporters be any different?

The latest round of protests has seen mass gatherings cause gridlock and basically shut down the centre of Sofia almost daily for the last 10 days now. They have spread, too, to Bulgarian expat communities abroad, who seem to have given up altogether on trying to get through to those in charge at home and focus instead on raising awareness in their new homes. Demonstrations have taken place in the UK, Germany and Austria.

The protests are the, entirely predictable, resumption of demonstrations of mass discontent that took place in the spring, demonstrations which rivalled the 1989 revolution in terms of numbers and support, if not in terms of effecting change. I wrote about this issue back in February, and most of what I wrote then still holds true. The way forward, however, looks even less clear than it did then. The elections, called by the then-ruling centre-right GERB party, after all the protests, returned the same 4 largest parties as before to parliament, in much the same proportions as before*. Rather than allowing the people’s voices to be heard, because of the nature of the electoral system it actually had the opposite effect, by halving the number of parties represented in parliament.

Worse, though, was the nature of the election campaign, in which policies barely featured at all, as the main parties lined up to sling mud at each other to the backdrop of a wiretapping scandal involving leading members of the outgoing GERB government. GERB, led by Communist leader Todor Zhivkov’s former bodyguard Boyko Borisov (it’s safe to say he’s strayed far from any socialistic roots), hit back, claiming that members of the opposition Socialists were behind the revelations, and that he himself had been bugged too. The denouement of a dismal debate was reached the day before the election, with the discovery of an extra 350,000 ballot papers** in a warehouse near Sofia owned by a high-up GERB member. The rules against campaigning on the pre-election ‘day of reflection’ were swiftly disregarded by all and sundry, prompting Borisov to cry foul and attempt to have the election declared null and void in court. In the circumstances, it’s amazing the turnout even scraped past 50%. The indecisive result satisfied no-one. Whether it was actually a fair election or not is a moot point: few of those on the streets of Sofia this week think it was, and one would have to have swallowed 350,000 ballot papers to think it a good example of democracy in action.

So, after the election that changed nothing, the people are back on the streets again, and the question is, where next? There will hardly be another election – Bulgaria is not Italy just yet – as it is doubtful anyone can be bothered to go through the motions again. There is a chance the protests will dissipate and melt away as the summer gets hotter (whereas February’s protests took place during the day, now they tend to take place in the evenings). Mostly, people just want their voice to be heard, and to know that someone is listening. There are many problems with Bulgaria at the moment, that even competent politicians would be hard-pushed to fix, the legacy of 24 years of poor governance. Nobody expects any magic solutions. Nobody is even really offering any. They’d just like a little more: more transparency in government, more jobs, more opportunities, more reasons to hope for a better future for their country and their children, more reasons not to emigrate. And more reasons to believe that democracy actually means something worthwhile.

Like their counterparts in Turkey and Brazil, all three countries with such a fragile grasp on democracy, Bulgarians are insistent on being heard and standing up for the idea of government for the people. They don’t have a World Cup or a Taksim Square to rally people to the cause. Yet. They’ve just had enough of being ignored, and now they are determined: they will be heard.

 

*Bulgaria’s electoral system has a 5% parliamentary threshold, which means a party must get at least 5% of the votes cast to be eligible for any seats in parliament. Because of the fragmented nature of the election – 63 different parties and coalitions ran – the 4 biggest parties shared all the parliamentary seats with only 75% of the votes between them. Three minor parties failed to reach the threshold and lost all their seats. Only the Bulgarian Socialist Party significantly increased its vote.

**This represents over 5% of the total registered electorate, which is probably an exaggerated figure in any case. The total votes cast was 3,541,745.

Categories: Politics.

On Thatcher and football

It was almost fitting, in a way. On the day that Margaret Thatcher died, Manchester United could have all but sealed a record 20th English title by beating near-neighbours Manchester City. Only a forgettable performance from United’s attackers and a less forgettable contribution from Sergio Aguero means they will have to wait until next month to lift that trophy. Never mind. Thatcher’s dead, but her legacy lives on. And to football fans, though many may not realise it, Manchester United are the most visible symbol of that legacy.

It hardly needs to be restated here, but Manchester United are, to use that overused word, legendary. It’s a toss-up between them and Barcelona for Most Famous Club in the World. It’s a matter of opinion whether Manchester United or Liverpool are the Most Successful Club in England. There’s no debate that Manchester United are the biggest club in the richest league in the world, with a global support that beats all comers. They are the most profitable football club in the world. They are also massively in debt, and have to pay millions every year for the privilege of being owned by a group of American investors. To put it another way, thanks to financial rules introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s at the behest of the City (of London) and Wall Street, millions of pounds every year are diverted from ordinary football fans to prop up the Glazer family’s property empire, or car fleet, or whatever else they decide to spend it on. That’s Thatcherism in action right there.

A little history lesson is needed here. In the 1980s, the financial sector in London, and New York, was booming (Michael Lewis, of Moneyball fame, is very good on this). Bankers were making silly money in short time, and, greed begetting greed, were constantly on the lookout for ways to make even sillier money. One of the things they came up with was the idea of a leveraged buy-out. In this, a group of investors could take over a company with no money at all, simply by borrowing the money required. After the takeover, the new rules allowed them to transfer the loans onto the books of the newly acquired company. The theory behind this is that it makes it easier for investors to buy up large but unprofitable companies and turn them round so that they become more profitable and efficient. In practice, it is an asset-stripper’s wet dream. It has never been satisfactorily explained why an investor with absolutely no money of their own invested in the company would run it any better than the existing owners, and probably never will. Anyway, this sort of leveraged buy-out (brought to you by the same people who gave the world futures derivatives trading, source of many a commodities bubble, and subprime loans) is exactly what happened to Manchester United, with one cute transaction turning the richest football club in the world into the most heavily indebted. That it pissed off and alienated so many people in the northwest of England would not have caused Thatcher any sleepless nights, even if she cared about football at all.

Thatcher, of course, didn’t care about football. She did go to a football match once, the 1978 FA Cup Final between Ipswich Town and Arsenal, after which she remarked, “I thought the number 10, Whymark, played well.” Unfortunately, she hadn’t noticed that, although Trevor Whymark was listed in the programme, David Geddes wore number 10 for Ipswich that day. Who knows, perhaps it was the embarrassment of that mistake, but she could never have been described as a friend of football. Her response to the worsening hooligan problems of the 1980s, particularly the Kenilworth Road riot and the Heysel tragedy, was to propose an ID scheme for all football supporters, effectively treating anyone who wanted to watch football as a potential criminal. Yet though those plans were thankfully thwarted, and despite her reported misgivings about the Taylor Report, it was nevertheless implemented, so that despite her disdain for the game Thatcher indelibly left her mark on football, such that the game today is scarcely recognisable from when she left office in 1990.

English football has never had it so good. Or bad. At the top of the English game, the Premier League is awash with money. It attracts fans and players from all over the world – in Monday’s game, no fewer than 13 nationalities were represented among the 28 players who played some of the game (compare that to the 4 – English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish – who played in Ryan Giggs’s first Manchester derby on 2 May 1991). Meanwhile, the English national team is about as likely to win a trophy as at least half the teams in the Premier League – i.e. not at all; a match ticket in the middle of an economic recession costs around eight times the hourly minimum wage; and, thanks in no small part to the Thatcher-inspired sell-off of school playing fields and cutbacks in local government budgets, football at the grassroots level in the UK is arguably as bad as it ever has been. The kid who once would have played football at school, gone with his father to a game at the weekend, is no more across most of Britain. A generation now derives its footballing education almost exclusively from Sky Sports and Playstation.

But the stadiums are full, you say. Who can argue with full stadiums and a globally successful product? Apart from the use of the word ‘product’, it doesn’t tell the full story. The stadiums might be full at the top clubs, but elsewhere, lower down the leagues, financial instability and administration are a fact of life. The lack of rules and regulations for investors in football merely mirrors that in the wider world of business, something that Thatcher was a key proponent of in her day. Football might be of a higher standard than ever at the top level (a subjective measure) but it is less competitive, less democratic, and less likely than ever to meet the needs of ordinary supporters, those who actually go to games.

In an ideal world, football clubs would be part of the community, something everybody in the community could identify with. The number of English football fans who support their national team reluctantly, or not at all, strongly suggests that football at the highest level in England is something many can no longer identify with. A pity, because the national team, like the local club, ought to be a force that unites people, brings them together and is something they can feel proud of. This is why, whatever the results, so many Irish fans are opposed to Trapattoni – who can take pride in such neolithic football? But nowadays the local club has been flogged off to someone from Russia, or the Middle or Far East, whose duty of care to the ordinary supporters nowadays runs so shallow that he can change the team name and colours, and in one infamous case their city, on a mere whim.

Football clubs used to be just one manifestation of that something, back before there was no such thing as society, that made society. There were others, like the post office, railways, the NHS, institutions that people relied on, that served a clear social purpose. Add to that the water company, the gas company, the electricity company, and all those other things sold off to the highest bidder. After Thatcher, profit is the only measure of social worth, and likewise every football game must be reported in terms of how much money it means to the winning club. Similarly, fans must regularly be reminded of how much money top players earn and how wealthy their chairman is, as if these things are somehow as important as what’s going on out on the pitch. Meanwhile, the majority of fans and clubs look on at the Top 4/Champions League hegemony, knowing that, unless they win the lottery (i.e. get taken over by a rich Arab sugar daddy) they will never be able to compete. Of course, they could just change their team. Turn their back on a lifelong tradition, in many cases handed down through the family for generations, a core part of their identity, because the free market has decided they don’t fit in any more. Once again, sport is an apt metaphor for life.

A digression: when, as occasionally happens, certain club chairmen moot such ideas as abolishing relegation, I shudder. People often cite American sports leagues, which operate on a closed-shop basis, as an example, being more competitive, and highlighting the irony that in the US sport works on such a ‘socialist’ model. Well, if a bunch of multimillionaire executives sitting around a table making all the rules together, or colleges exploiting unpaid student athletes for upwards of half a billion TV dollars a year, is your idea of socialism, it’s small wonder people regard it as such a dirty word. The key word in American leagues is ‘closed shop’. It’s an oligopoly. Though their rules on ownership are better than those prevailing in Europe (i.e. they actually have some rules) the idea that the entire country be divided up into geographical markets, and each franchise given a monopoly in a certain market… does it sound like anything Margaret Thatcher might have come up with? Far more competitive and fairer would be a league system open to any club, with promotion and relegation on merit, gate moneys shared between competing teams and TV revenues pooled between all teams. Something similar to, say, what pertained in English football right up until the 1980s*.

Back to the main topic. Thatcher and sport. Already several clubs have announced plans to hold a minute’s silence for her this weekend – mostly rugby union clubs. One somehow doubts their league counterparts will follow suit. And John Madejski, Reading FC’s chairman, has sensitively proposed a minute’s silence for Thatcher before their home game against Liverpool this weekend… on the 24th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. Who says sport and politics never mix? There are precious few grounds for calling for a minute’s silence based on Thatcher’s contribution to sport – any sport, not just football. Therefore, a minute’s silence for her is a nakedly political gesture, of the sort right-wing apologists are usually adamant should be kept out of sport. It is to be hoped UEFA levy their usual nonsensical fines on anyone who takes part.

The debate over this though does confirm a clearer truth, namely what a divisive figure indeed Thatcher was. A great woman, no doubt – she possessed a rare single-mindedness, and was tough as an old boot, to boot – but you don’t have to be good to be great. Nor does one have to be a feminist to admire her for being the first female leader of her country, neither is it sexist in any way to deplore her for what she did as her country’s first female leader. She had some admirable qualities, as well as a seemingly complete lack of empathy, but as a politician must ultimately be judged by her actions. No matter how fervently she believed in her policies, doesn’t make them any more or less correct. She changed football, just as she changed the world, in ways that are hard for those, like me, who weren’t around in the 1980s, to imagine. Whether she made it a better place is open to debate – while her economic disciples loudly denounce the ‘dependency culture’ in Britain, they might like to consider her role in creating this through the mass layoffs, mine closures and rundown of industry in the 1980s, without ever bothering to consider the communities and people affected by her actions. Whether the post-Thatcherite world could be a better place is not open to debate – there’s no question that it could be. Look around you, at all the injustice, greed, inequality, corruption, discrimination and hatred. And that’s just talking about football: the real world is even worse. Yet thousands, millions, mourn the passing of a great woman, fed on the media hagiographies, just as millions continue to lap up the Sky Sports hyperbole about the Premier League – the most vital, important, exciting league ever. I should know, I’m one of them. It just goes to show, we all make mistakes, even Margaret Thatcher. She made one big mistake.

She should have stuck to the chemistry.

 

 

*Admittedly it is probably unfair to blame Thatcher for the abolition of the old system of splitting gate monies in favour of the home team keeping the lot, and the Sky TV deals favouring the top teams. One could certainly blame the focus on commodification and individualism that is a legacy of Thatcherism, however.

 

Categories: Politics, Sport.

All Things Must Pass

In Bulgaria, it is the custom when someone dies to post a notice, usually simply printed in black and white on a sheet of A4, on the front of their home.

Today, I came home this evening to be greeted by such a notice. Petar Dimov Topalov, who it seems is my late neighbour. He passed away on Monday. Isn’t that bad enough? I have no idea who he was, and only on Monday… while I was worried about what to have for lunch, and whether I might be the victim of an inspection, in the flat downstairs an old man was breathing his last.

According to the notice, he was born in 1926. It seems fair to guess that he was Bulgarian, which means he would have been 17 or 18 at the time of the Communist Revolution, when Bulgaria overthrew its monarchy and installed a Communist government. The new regime would stay in power until 1989, when Petar would have been 63. In other words, he spent virtually his entire working life under a Communist, totalitarian government. Did he support the ideals of the first revolution? The second? Neither? Maybe his entire adult life was a compromise, a tacit agreement to cooperate and coexist with a system he, like so many others, despised, in the, ultimately misplaced, knowledge that at least if he played by its rules, this system would look after his children, and he in his dotage. Or maybe he waited all his life for freedom, to do, buy and go whatever he pleased, only for it to arrive when he had nothing left to give, and therefore, under the new rules, nothing at all. Either way, he lost. Life dealt him a twisted hand. Freedom arrived too late to benefit him, and millions of his contemporaries across Eastern Europe. Caught between ages, he lies abandoned.

But not entirely. Government, society may change irrevocably in a moment, but some things remain constant. A life snared by the vicissitudes of time and circumstance, nonetheless there was still someone to put up the death notice: family endures through it all. Family, the roots that nature cannot kill.

Ár dheis Dé go raibh na h-Anam.

Categories: Life.

Balkan Strife

Bulgaria has been in the news quite a bit lately. No sooner had the UK press finished running scare stories about the ‘hordes’ of Bulgarian immigrants allegedly planning to ‘flood’ the UK next year* then Bulgaria itself has become gripped by nationwide mass protests, culminating in the resignation en masse of the Bulgarian government last week. The two stories are not unconnected.

*Four million, according to one of those stories – not bad for a country of 7.3 million people.

The protests started around the beginning of February, in reaction to unaffordable energy prices. For a combination of reasons, electricity bills for January were unusually high. It’s not actually the case that energy is more expensive in Bulgaria – on the whole, it’s slightly cheaper than the UK or Ireland. But the average wage in Bulgaria is €400 a month, and that is for those who are lucky enough to actually earn a wage. Pensioners and the jobless get far, far less. Simply put, people took to the streets initially in reaction to effectively being told they could buy food or heat their houses, but not both.

However, as the protests gathered momentum, they quickly escalated into expressions of general dissatisfaction and anger with the government and the state of the country as a whole. And there is a lot of that. For too long, people have felt ignored or taken for granted. They feel let down and even betrayed, and have long stopped feeling that those in charge of their country can be trusted with their interests. They have had enough, and hardly anyone believes that Bulgaria will improve in its current position.

A brief history lesson is useful here. With the revolution in 1989, optimism was in the Bulgarian air. It didn’t last long. A stiff recession in the mid 1990s saw native industry collapse whilst organised crime tightened its grip on the economic reins of the country. Infrastructure crumbled, investment dried up and mass immigration started. EU membership was seen as the country’s last hope of salvation, and Bulgaria spent the first half of the last decade working towards accession, achieved in 2007. Six years later, the economy is still moribund, the infrastructure is still bad, corruption is still perceived to be widespread, and the benefits of EU membership are few and far between. If anything, its main effect has been to encourage emigration – a mixed blessing for any country.

But why are young people so eager to leave Bulgaria? The city of Pleven, in north Bulgaria, is a handy microcosm. The population of the city has halved from its late-1980s peak. Most of the town’s industry did not survive the 90s recession, so that now the city contains extensive zones of crumbling old factories, as empty and economically irrelevant as the ruined Roman fortress nearby. The last major employer in the city, the local military base (once the largest in Bulgaria) closed in 2006. There are hardly any jobs locally and just one small university, so young people have little choice once they finish school but to leave Pleven, leave their homes and families behind, taking the last vestiges of hope of regeneration with them and go to one of the big cities or, if they can afford it, Spain, Germany or the UK, where those with talent and ambition can find jobs and opportunities for study that simply don’t exist in Bulgaria.** This scenario is not unique to Pleven, but is the same across countless small towns and villages across Bulgaria. They don’t choose to leave, don’t want to leave, but there is literally nothing to stay at home for, other than home itself. And Bulgarians have had enough of having nothing.

**Bulgaria doesn’t have a single university ranked in the Times Top 400 Universities. Or to put it another way, the University of Portsmouth is ranked higher than any university in Bulgaria.

It is partly this, too, which explains why so many Bulgarians took exception to comments like Nigel Farage’s, not least because there is a grain of truth in them. One of the leading protest groups on Facebook is called ‘искам уча, работа, живее в българия‘ – ‘I want to study, work, live in Bulgaria’. Bulgarians are, deep down, a patriotic people, proud of their country and they have plenty to be proud of. They are angrier than anyone, even the Daily Mail, that they have to look abroad for opportunities in life, that are simply not available at home. And they are downright scornful of the notion that anyone would willingly swap Bulgarian climate and cuisine for its British equivalent. In a perfect world, the jobs and standard of living and world-class universities available in the UK (and Germany, France, Spain…) would be available in Bulgaria too. But none of them are. So the people are out on the streets.

The protests had been growing in strength and number until finally, last Tuesday, they turned violent. The country was shocked by TV pictures of police fighting protesters in bloody clashes at the Orlov Most landmark in central Sofia, with 13 people being hospitalised. Within 24 hours, the Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov had announced the resignation of the entire cabinet, stating ‘every drop of blood is a shame for us’.

Borisov’s resignation was a shrewd move on two levels. On a nakedly political level, it was very calculated, allowing him to look democratic and statesmanlike ahead of elections that would have been due in July anyway. It also leaves the tricky task of handling the response to the protest to someone else to deal with. More immediately, it helped take some of the heat out of events just when things could have spilt over and turned really ugly. But the protesters were out in force again at the weekend. The government’s resignation pleased but not appeased them. Their dissatisfaction goes far beyond the figurehead in power, and though it is possible to articulate their grievances (I hope I have done an adequate job) it is much harder to state, with any certainty, what their aims and demands are.

Many are starting to draw comparisons with the Arab Spring protests that spread across the Middle East in 2011. Like with the Arab Spring, this is a pivotal period for Bulgaria. And, similarly, it is anyone’s guess what will happen next.

Categories: Politics.

Off to Plovdiv

Last week I got the best 30th birthday present I could possibly have wanted: a week off work. So i decided to do a little bit of sightseeing around classic Bulgaria, by travelling to Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo, two of the oldest and most beautiful cities in Europe.

My first stop was Plovdiv. I took the train from Sofia. I like travelling by train; I find it more relaxing than a bus, and I can do stuff like read, write or sleep comfortably on the train. Plus, the views are better. Three hours on the bus is three hours wasted, a slice of time you’ll never get back. Three hours on the train, by contrast, allows for three hours of contemplation, meditation, intellectual exploration. Or failing that, you can just work your way through a 2.5 litre pitcher of Pirinsko beer (the finest in Bulgaria) – they don’t let you do that on the bus.

Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities anywhere in the world. I joined the Free Plovdiv walking tour, whose guide, Anton, told us that it has been continually inhabited for over 6000 years. Or since 6000 BC, I’m not sure which. The tour starts outside the Plovdiv Central Post Office, which is also the first stop on the tour. We walked through the post office, which Anton explained was like a social hangout back in the Communist days, a place where everyone came to meet. He pointed out a counter where there were still one or two telephones, and explained that under Communism few people had phones in their homes, and if they wanted to call someone, they had to book a 15 minute time slot at the post office two weeks in advance. I wonder if, in those days, one often had the embarassing experience of waking up one morning to find out last night, in a drunken haze, you had made an appointment to call your ex a fortnight from now?

Next Anton took us through the city gardens and up the main street of Plovdiv, all the while keeping up a lively commentary, and being continually questioned by a Turkish gentleman who was part of our group, and who was anxious nobody get the wrong idea about the positive effects of Ottoman rule on the country. Anton was knowledgeable about Plovdiv, but unsure in the face of the Turkish Inquisition, and maybe a little perplexed that his jokes weren’t getting the generous reception they usually did. Our group was a bit quiet – maybe it was the cold, or maybe we were just a bad audience.

I won’t tell you all of Anton’s stories, in case you are thinking of visiting Plovdiv soon. I will mention though the Roman stadium, which you come across without warning, at the top of the main street. A sign and diagrams show you how big it was, and it’s quite surprising to think that it was underground and completely unknown until the 1950s. One end of the stadium, around 30 metres across, is now uncovered, with rest lying beneath the shops and offices of Plovdiv’s main shopping street, meaning it will probably stay there for some time yet.

From the stadium, we climbed uphill to Plovdiv’s old town. Plovdiv is known as the town of the seven hills, because in the city, located on the wide flat Thracian plain by the Maritsa river, are seven small hills which sit perched on top of the plain commanding a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. None more so than the view from Plovdiv’s Roman theatre, still largely in one piece and a popular location for underage drinking in summer. The theatre is imaginatively located on the side of one of the hills, with the stage in a dip and the seats banked on the slopes above, looking out at the stage and the plains beyond to the towering Rodoppi mountains in the distance. It’s a magnificent view, and must have looked even more so in Roman times, when the view was unspoilt by roads, chimney stacks and apartment blocks. It certainly made me wish I hadn’t left my camera in Sofia…

From the theatre, we continued walking along the stone streets of the old town, past delightful old houses, restaurants and several dance schools. Plovdiv regards itself as the cultural capital of Bulgaria (make your own yoghurt joke here) and the city is home to several art colleges. There was also an old stone arch gate, about which Anton had a rather charming local legend to relate which was immediately disputed by the Turkish fellow. The tour concluded at the top of Nebet Hill, from where there is a good view out over the city. Having spent the last half an hour walking through quiet stone streets from another age, it was slightly jarring to look out from the hill and see a sprawling, grim-looking industrial city crowding out Old Plovdiv. Plovdiv is like Bulgaria in a nutshell. The good bits are magnificent, things you cannot get anywhere else you go, and you wish you could call this place home. The bad parts are dismal and ugly, and just make you want to leave as soon as you can. Plovdiv is either an historic, beautiful and charming city that has stood the test of time, or else (especially north of the Maritsa) it can be summed up by its football team, Lokomotiv Plovdiv. The name is functional, unimaginative, utilitarian and perfunctory, and frequently mediocre. Which one is the real Plovdiv? You decide. But really, anyone who will remember the chimney stacks longer than the Roman theatre has something wrong with them.

After the tour, Anton pointed out to me a good hostel, the Old Plovdiv hostel, and I went there to drop my bags en route to post-tour drinks. I was warmly greeted by the owner, Hristo, who enquired where I was from. When I replied, “Ireland” he burst into smiles, and effusively announced that I was the first Irish guest at the hostel and therefore he would like to offer me an upgrade to a private room for free. Apologies to any Irish people planning to stay there, I beat you to it! You’ll just have to pretend to be from Tuvalu instead. The private room was very spacious and nice, with a bed, a grand old wooden floor and a huge wireless radio set mounted on the wall, one of those old ones with the different bands and frequencies marked on it, and names of cities written in as well, so for example if you wanted to get Radio Moscow, you knew where to tune to. Interestingly, the three English cities I could find on it were London, Droitwich and Daventry. Between the wooden floor and the radio and the space, the room had a grand old-fashioned air, and I liked it straightaway. The bed turned out to be very comfortable as well.

A Belgian, an Irishman, two Lithuanians and two Bulgarians walk into a bar. This was our tour group, or the half of it that went to the pub afterwards at least. The Lithuanians are taciturn, no-one questions the Irishman’s ability to drink, while the Belgian has to assert his. No-one questions the Belgian’s fondness for women, though he asserts it anyway. The Bulgarians are on home ground, and they proclaim their fondness for drink and women too. The group is unanimous in expressing their fondness for Bulgarian women, leading the Belgian to propose a mission to find some that very evening. The others, mostly having girlfriends, demur. The Belgian, having but three girlfriends, announces his intention to enact his proposal regardless. The Irishman is pressed for some examples of Irish humour and can only come up with two of the most tasteless jokes he knows, which will NOT be printed here. They meet with strong approval – even the Lithuanians laugh – prompting the discussion to move on to the alleged fondness of Belgian men for underage girls, a stereotype the one Belgian present does absolutely nothing to dispel. The Bulgarians, however, seem not to want to be outdone for bravado and general manliness, and joke along with stories about the terrors of teenaged Bulgarian girls. I helpfully point out that I used to live in Pleven, which prompts sundry further examples in their minds of their irrepressible and insatiable ways. It seems to be a contest to see who can be persuaded to confess to the wrongest wrong, the winner of which will be subject to increasingly tenuous and predictable one-liners for the rest of the evening. Such is the face of male bonding.

Oooh! He nearly typed bondage! He must be thinking about those Pleven schoolgirls!

They weren’t in school! It was the summer holidays!

Fortunately the contest broke up without a winner – though let me put it on record: I could never have won that contest – and I went back to the hostel. Partly to check I could find my way back, as it’s better to find you’re lost before you’ve gone out for a skinful than after, and partly to see if they could recommend somewhere for dinner. They could: Hristo’s brother owned a restaurant just up the road, so I went there. Being by now used to Sofia prices, everything on the menu looked such a bargain, I wanted to order it all. In the end, I settled for a plate of sach. This is a Bulgarian dish of meat and vegetables, cooked and served on a hot metal plate. It’s a big meal for one person, but needless to say I didn’t mind. The service was impressively laidback though, to the point where I gave up on trying to order desert, and went back to the hostel. There I was greeted by the night porter, Nikolai.

“Ah, you’re here. I’ve been waiting for you!”

I was surprised. “Really? Am I the only guest or something?”

“Yes, you are,” he admitted.

“Well, sorry to have kept you waiting.”

“Are you going out again?” Nikolai asked.

“No, probably not. I’ll just stay here, have a beer and read.”

“Ok. I’ll get you a beer. Are you staying in the big room?”

“Yes, they gave me an upgrade. They said I was the first Irish guest they’d had.”

“Really? I don’t think so.” Nikolai frowned. “There were two Irish guys last week. Nice guys, but they stay out very late.”

“Don’t worry, I’m staying in, as long as there’s beer.”

“Of course.” Nikolai produced a Kamenitza, then went to his duties, whatever they were. I suspected his job was long and dull, and he welcomed any distraction. Later, after I went to my room, the sound of house music seeping up from reception confirmed this.

When I was halfway through my second bottle of Kamenitza, he suggested a game of chess. He was a good player: the first game he won, after I failed to spot a diagonal checkmate move in the corner. The second, I gave away my queen with a silly mistake – I blame the beer, of course. The third game, he gifted me a little too easily – I think he felt it was time I won one, or perhaps he was worried I would go to bed if I kept losing. The fourth, I won more convincingly. The fifth, which we agreed was the last game, he won. He played as white every time, and I kept getting into bad positions, ceding the centre of the board to him with weak openings. He was good enough to see this, and suggested I learn some openings. He was complimentary about my play otherwise, and felt we were fairly well matched. Perhaps I could have beaten him sober!

The next morning was a Bulgarian breakfast at the hotel – tomatoes, cucumber, salami and cheese, with toast, jam and honey on the side. After that, I took my bags and took a walk around the old town again, before following the tour route back down the main street and towards the railway station, to catch a train to Veliko Tarnovo. There was the usual charade at the ticket office. I found that although Bulgarian Railways’s website will tell you all the trains serving a particular route, including connections, if there is a direct train the ticketing system will only find tickets for that train, i.e. It will only look for connecting tickets when there is no direct train at all. Not very convenient when there is only one direct train a day to where you want to go! The ticket machine wanted me to wait an extra two hours for my train, to avoid a five minute change at Dubovo. Somehow, despite my shamefully limited Bulgarian, and the railway staff’s limited English (which is not really shameful, but in a city of so many tourists, would it be so unreasonable to expect at least one person to speak English, or even French or German?), I managed to avoid the wait and so, after a thoroughly bad coffee (five cafés in the station, and I’m sure I picked the worst one) and a carton of chips I was ready to leave Plovdiv behind, coincidentally on the same train I’d arrived on the day before. I was there only a day, and no doubt I’ve missed plenty, but ask any traveller: sometimes he will have enough money, but there is never enough time. It was off to Tarnovo for me, four hours on a train armed with just a book, a pen and a notebook. And a piece of advice: if you come to Bulgaria, spend a day in Plovdiv.

Categories: Travel.

Irish government policies bad value in any currency

Thought I’d share this here, some thoughts on Ireland and the Euro, provoked by this blogpost. If I have time this week or next, I plan to revisit this topic (so I probably won’t…). To sum up, the article mentions the proposed UK referendum on EU membership, and the possible ramifications for Ireland. It has a lengthy diversion on the effects of Eurozone membership/non-membership in the two countries, which I basically disagree with. I’ve reproduced my comment below.*

 

I do not agree with the central premise of this article at all, which seems to be that Eurozone membership was the primary cause of the economic mess the country finds itself in. While it would be nice to blame someone else for our troubles, this kind of economic revisionism is simply unwarranted.

“Had Ireland retained its own ‘Irish Punt’ currency and thus control of its own Central Bank then there is no way the property bubble that has wrecked the Irish economy would ever have been allowed to grow to the proportions it did.”

If you think so, fine. But let’s engage in a bit of counterfactual debate. Suppose Ireland hadn’t adopted the Euro in 2000. Would the government have intervened to prevent the property bubble from happening then? All the evidence suggests no. There was still plenty they could have done to dampen down growth in the property market in the years leading up to the crash. They could have sought to increase stamp duties, instead of decreasing them. They could have abolished mortgage interest relief. They could have considered ways of introducing a property tax ten years ago, instead of now when so many people are in negative equity already. A tax on mortgages would have swiftly stemmed the flow of cheap ECB money flowing into the Irish property market. Did the government ever seriously consider any of those policies? No, they didn’t.

Certainly, Eurozone membership might have limited Ireland’s options in dealing with the crisis AFTER it happened. But the crisis had several causes – not having control of our own interest rates was, given the mindset that prevailed in government and Irish society during much of the last decade, a minor, if not irrelevant, factor. On the other hand, the benefits of Eurozone membership are plain for anyone in Ireland who does business in the Eurozone, or has travelled within the Eurozone, or works for one of the many companies that have chosen to locate in Ireland due to its membership of the Eurozone. Overall, I’d argue that the loss of monetary independence is a price worth paying. The price for incompetent governance, sadly, is one that we cannot afford to pay.

If Britain did leave the EU (a question that might be put to UK voters in 2017, if the Tories win an election they look likely to lose), of course that would raise issues for Ireland. However, I believe the best response for Ireland would be to seek to strengthen our ties with Europe – it’s a simple numbers game: 250-300 million Europeans to trade with, compared to 50-odd million in the UK. Also, if the author does believe that staying out of the Euro has enabled Britain to escape ‘the financial devastation the single currency has left in its wake’, he might like to check out the latest GDP figures for the UK. Across the water, they’re currently coining the phrase ‘triple-dip recession’.

 

*And yes, I do feel for, and would like to apologise to, the poor moderator who got that little essay first thing on a Wednesday morning!

Categories: Politics.

The weather forecast

A heart can change just like the weather,

So who can say we’ll be forever?

But like the sun, for all of time,

My love, somewhere, will always shine -

And tho’ obscured, by cloud or night,

It burns unseen and out of sight.

Its warmth unfelt through winter air

Doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

 

Just as love will wax and wane,

Even Sahara sometimes rains

Categories: Poems.

Best of 2013

So that was 2012… the world didn’t end. But what does 2013 have in store for us? You can wait and see. Or you can read on!

 

In Europe, actually we lost this bit of the preview so we’re just going to recycle last year’s.

The Eurozone will spend months lurching from crisis summit to crisis summit. Action plans, bullet points, agendas and last minute deals will be deployed from Athens to Amsterdam to avert the unspeakable mayhem that may possibly threaten to engulf us all if something isn’t done about it all. Meanwhile for most of Europe’s citizens life will go on pretty much as before – we’re poor, but we’ll survive. We have bread, and when the circus is not in town we have Lionel Messi instead, possibly the most popular and most admired man on the planet, since Lance Armstrong… uh-oh. Meanwhile in Europe, David Cameron will prevaricate on his policy position and equivocate in equal measure too. Eventually he will come up with something about trying to make Europe work better. He will be fooling no-one.

 

At home, the FG/Lab coalition will continue to do exactly as they are told by the troika. The troika will then announce that insufficient steps have been taken and further swift and drastic measures are necessary. By swift and drastic measures, they may well mean selling the first-born son of every Irish couple. Eventually a compromise will be reached whereby only the first-born sons of those earning more than the minimum wage (excluding those in private school of course, for although subsidised by the State their welfare is nothing to do with the State). This will be proclaimed a triumph for Labour’s policy of working with the right.

More plausibly, in Ireland at some point over the next few weeks it will get rather cold, like down around 1 or 2 degrees kind of cold, for a couple of days. You will overhear at least one person say during this time “Ha! And they tell us the globe is getting warmer??!!” Three months later, when it is unseasonably warm for April/May, you will probably hear the same person say “Well if this is global warming, wish we could have more!” You are fully entitled to punch said person in the face.

In the US, somewhere in the year somebody with a gun will go out and shoot a bunch of school-aged kids. Such a tragedy will make headlines worldwide, and serious-looking newscasters and sorrowful bereaved parents will weep and wail “No-one could have foreseen this!” Except me obviously, I just did. The whole gun control debate will start anew, with right and wrong on both sides. Owning a gun doesn’t actually make you want to kill people (does it?). But to argue that these mass shootings would happen without guns is clearly ludicrous. 32% of American households own a gun, and as far as I know, despite all the headshaking and regret, not a single gun has been handed back after any of the USA’s rather long list of mass shootings. That is quite a sizeable minority of Americans who appear to regard the odd mass slaughter of children as an acceptable price to pay for the right to own a gun. 32%: it doesn’t take a lot to figure out that that probably translates to a majority in some states. Mostly swing states, as it turns out. But it seems clear to me that America’s problem with guns goes beyond the cranks and nuts who actually think they need them to keep the Queen of England out of their faces, as Homer Simpson put it. Even a passing acquaintance with the output of Hollywood makes it plain how obsessed the country is with guns. Ultimately, though, if 32% of Americans are adamant in the face of all kinds of outrages and tragedies that it is their birthright to own a weapon, and most of the rest can’t really bring themselves to disagree with them, that is their problem. Best to do as generations of sensible Northern Irishmen have done, and leave the cranks mouthing religious oaths to wallow and drown in their own sordid cesspit of violence, and go somewhere much more pleasant and civilised. Like Canada.

In Asia, North Korea will continue to make headlines by doing very little. Headline: North Korea refuses to talk to anyone! Headline: North Korea talks about (but doesn’t actually) firing a missile! Headline: North Korea does very little about North Korean famine! Headline: North Korea calls South Korean, US Presidents ‘Vile underhand two-faced warmongers’ (they may actually be on to something there…). The world’s media will get very excited. People all over the Korean peninsula will ignore it and continue to go about their business. And Kim Jong-Un will sit in his palace in Pyongyang watching, on his 96 inch wafer thin HD Plasma screen in surround sound, Psy’s latest global pop smash follow up to Gangnam Style, about his second favourite Seoul suburb. Gunpo Style will be a searing indictment of the difficulties and discrimination faced by the underclass of abandoned mothers and children and jobless labourers turned to the drink in this deprived dormitory town south of Seoul, but thanks to its brilliantly ironic (and easy to imitate) sheep dance, Mt. Suri backdrop and colourful tteokbokki vendors, it will make Gunpo an oriental paradise in the eyes of the world.

 

And over to the world of sport… the Premier League, the most open, exciting and unpredictable league in the world!!! reaches an enthralling climax in May with Manchester United crowned champions with a mere three games to play. Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal round off the top 4. The final standings are perhaps misleading about the truly competitive nature of the league, as Man United’s 12 match winning streak is broken by a 1-0 defeat at Sunderland, and Chelsea and Manchester City also drop points to clubs with much less money. The Champions League is much more entertaining, as after a cagey 0-0 in the first leg of their last 16 match at the Bernabeu, José Mourinho confronts his critics by going gung-ho for the 2nd leg at Old Trafford. Real get thrashed, with Iker Casillas’s stand-in letting in two soft goals. Mourinho does not last the week, and responds to his sacking by giving the mother of all press conferences, before being llinked with the Chelsea job, the Man City job, the Man U job, the England job and the newly vacant position at Blackburn, all in the space of five minutes. Man U are acclaimed as the only realistic challengers to Barcelona for this year’s title, before being dumped out on away goals by Schalke, who are in turn immediately acclaimed as second-favourites etc, before being knocked out on away goals by Celtic, who are eviscerated by Barcelona in a final so one-sided the referee blows for full time after 75 minutes.

 

The Championship play-off final in May will be played to a backdrop of media voices reminding us how it is, allegedly, ‘the biggest prize fixture in football’, with untold riches, fame and Premier League glamour awaiting the victors, and drudgery, anonymity and trips to Barnsley for the losers. I won’t predict who will actually win the Championship play-off final (if I told you, it would take away all the excitement), but will predict that the winning manager will promise to ‘keep faith in these honest lads that have got us promoted… they deserve their chance at the top level’, to widespread acclaim from broadsheet hacks up and down the land. This appreciation will not last long: approximately one week after the close of the summer transfer window, with newly-promoted Honest Triers FC still winless, pundits will be queueing up to point out that the players ‘just aren’t good enough for this level’ and ‘it was a bad mistake not to splash the cash over the summer… Manager X, if he is still in the job, badly needs to bring in some experienced big names in January’.

 

Ireland qualify for World Cup in 2013!!! No, not our mediocre soccer players (see below). Actually, this isn’t really a prediction: Ireland automatically qualified for the 2013 Rugby League World Cup. They will come about as close to victory as their Union counterparts, not that anyone will notice. If you do happen to point that out to anyone, expect to be told, “Ah, but only a handful of countries play league.” It’s uninformed and uneducated to attempt comparisons to rugby union at this point, and especially unhelpful to mention GAA at all. Meanwhile, Ireland’s real rugby team will continue to find dazzling and exciting new ways to disappoint us all. With home games against France and England in this year’s 6 Nations, I’ll go for a tame surrender in the opening game at Cardiff costing us the championship.

 

Our soccer players. Yes, we’d rather not think about them at the moment either, but as it is the most popular sport on this island, Irish soccer desrved at least a passing mention. And as the League of Ireland is such a pundit’s nightmare (never mind predicting where the teams will finish the season, predicting which teams will start the season is challenging enough), we’ll stick to the Boys in Green. The inevitable rogering at the hands of Sweden in March will be followed up by a dull 0-0 draw at home to Austria, which will nonetheless give the FAI sufficient evidence to decide that ‘Trapattoni and the team are making progress, and they have our backing.’ A turgid 1-0 win at home to the Faroes in June causes fans to call for Trap’s head, prompting the FAI to issue a statement declaring faith in the manager. A return rogering at home to Sweden is followed by a turdid defeat in Austria. As fans clamour for Trap to be sacked, the FAI issue a statement of support. After Ireland’s mathematical hopes of qualifying are finally extinguished approximately 4 minutes into their game in Germany in October, visiting Irish fans demonstrate, calling for the manager to be changed. The FAI call a press conference immediately after the game, in a five star hotel in Cologne, to publicly back the manager. After Ireland’s campaign ends with a shambolic defeat at home to Kazakhstan, an embarrassed Trapattoni finally declares his resignation in his post-match press conference, only to be talked out of it by John Delaney who publicly backs Trap as ‘the man for 2016′.

 

The FAI are perhaps not actually the most incompetent administrators in the world of sport, though this is a very difficult field in which to excel. Those in charge of cricket, however, have excelled themselves this year. Whereas Sri Lanka have no Tests at all this year, England, as usual, have lots. But only two opponents. Including back-to-back Ashes series for the first time in over 100 years. And England have found the perfect way to warm up for back-to-back series against their old Antipodean antagonists: back-to-back series against the other (awful) Australasians, New Zealand. They say Test cricket is the ultimate test: not just of skill and technique, but of patience, concentration and stamina as well. That will be more true of the fans than most of the players this year, though. Still, it could be an historic year: given the state of New Zealand at the moment, and Australia’s top order uncertainties, James Anderson could be a decent bet to break Dennis Lillee’s record for most wickets in a calendar year. And it’s not all going to be England against them fellas down under: between New Zealand’s visit and the Ashes, England hosts the last-ever Champions Trophy. No doubt Sky have already billed it as ‘the ultimate champions’. Actually they would deserve a bit of credit for that if they did. Certainly more than the bright sparks in charge of the scheduling deserve.

 

Categories: Politics, Random, Sport.

Worst of 2012

If you can read, chances are that everywhere you’ve looked over the last few days, you’ve been exposed to endless tedious lists of ‘The best _____ of 2012′. So numerous are these lists, one could be forgiven for thinking 2012 was the best year ever in the history of humanity. The truth, sadly, is a bit more bitter. And naturally, I am pleased to expose the dirty underbelly of life with this list of

 

The Worst of 2012.

 

Worst Prediction

At first, it appeared the Mayans were a shoo-in for this award. After all, the fact that we’re still here suggests that their prediction that the world would end was somewhat wide of the mark. But a little investigation reveals that they did not actually predict the end of the world. Nor did they do so in 2012 – all the Mayans died years ago, thus rendering them ineligible for this prestigious award. In fact, they merely designed a calendar which would run out in 2012. A little different from saying the world would end. No, it was some fellas on the internet who put that interpretation on it, and the mass media who ran with it to fill space, without bothering to ascertain the veracity of their sources. In fact, it seems the Mayans were only a few days out with their prediction that the calendar would run out on 21st December, 2012 – my advent calendar ran out of chocolate on the 5th of December.

So what was the worst prediction of 2012? The award goes to the people responsible for this. An unoriginal tune, with a laudable attempt to shoehorn every plausible cliché into the lyrics, the chorus of ‘You’ll Never Beat the Irish!!!’ saw the song shifted to bargain bins quicker than you could say “Gola Torresss!!!” It was, nonetheless, a number 1 hit, a triumph for mindless inane optimism. Rumour has it that Damien Dempsey and Danny O’Reilly’s next collaboration will be a theme song for Labour’s next General Election campaign.

 

Worst Excuse

A tough one this, where figures from the world of sport and politics battled it out neck and neck all year, giving the judges a hell of a time deciding. Every plausible and semi-plausible excuse, reason and non-apology was resorted to throughout the year in a desperate attempt by society’s leaders and role models to avoid accepting responsibility for anything. Special mention for managing to combine the two dishonourable worlds of politics and elite athletics goes to Paul Ryan, Republican vice-Presidential candidate, and his impressive marathon times. Pity they were all completely false. When it was brought to Ryan’s attention that he had completed his marathon, not in ‘I don’t remember the exact time, but I’m sure it was under three hours’, but in over four hours – perhaps his watch had just stopped? – his excuse was that he had ‘misremembered’. Unfortunately, two months after the election, a majority of American voters misremember who he is. Or possibly not unfortunately: the devil does his best work behind closed doors.

For sheer chutzpah, Ryan, and most others related to the Republican campaign (“We don’t want this election dictated by fact-checkers”) did very well indeed. But one frail, determined woman topped them all. Korea’s Presidential election in December was fought out between Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in. Park’s father, Park Chun-Hee was the military dictator of South Korea between 1961 and 1979 (South Korea only had her first civilian leader as recently as 1992). In that time, he had, let’s say, a chequered human rights record, and is alleged to have embezzled over a billion dollars in the course of his reign. Moon Jae-in, for his part, was one of those detained without trial, beaten up, tortured and imprisoned by Park senior, back in the 70s. Needless to say, this came up during the election campaign, but Park was having none of it. In a moment that would have done any of John Major’s cabinet proud, she told the voters of Korea, ‘People forget I’ve suffered because of my father too.’ Presumably, if it wasn’t for that horrible father of hers, she’d surely have been elected President by a much larger majority!

 

Worst budget

A toss-up here. Whoever was in charge of Queens Park Rangers’ summer transfer budget provided a sterling lesson in how to spunk away rakes of cash on disinterested defenders, mediocre midfielders and shite strikers. The likes of Jose Bosingwa, Stephane Mbia and Park Ji-Sung were all snapped up for upwards of 70k a week each and no goals. Anybody who is anyone who has an agent and can pass for a Premier League footballer was beating a path to the Loftus Road mint. QPR spent over £20 million on transfer fees over the summer, before even taking the excessive wages into account, and at the time of writing have a princely 10 points. Only Chelsea have shown a worse return on investment so far this season, and they at least can argue that they had to replace the likes of Drogba and Essien, not Cisse and Barton.

Meanwhile, while QPR were showing the football world how to spend money like water, those good caring folk at Leinster House were showing how to save money by taxing things like water. And benefits. And property, and wine. Especially wine. With every entitlement in the book being cut, and all kinds of fees increased – a ‘free’ third level education in Ireland now costs almost €2,000 a year – the government managed to resist raising the top rate of income tax, presumably honouring some pledge or other. Meanwhile, those actually in need of medical or child benefits find them cut. The country as a whole is hurting, but the fact that many Irish Times readers seemed most exercised by the €1 on a bottle of wine suggests that there are still plenty of people who are not feeling the pinch.

 

Worst Hangover

Pleven, a lovely June day towards the end of the school year. It was the last day with my Cambridge First Certificate groups, as they would take the speaking test the next day, so a celebration was in order. After work, I retired with my colleagues to find somewhere for dinner. Eventually we found an underground mehana near the centre that was still open and serving food. There appeared to be an 18th birthday party going on at the next table. The food was ok, the conversation pleasant and the surroundings made one wish one was 18 again, only able to talk to pretty girls this time, unlike when I was actually 18. After dinner, Colin shamefully left on the grounds that he was administering the speaking tests the next day. I, on the other hand, had the day off – the only thing I had on was to go to the test centre to wish my students luck. So in short time I persuaded Kate to adjourn to a heavy metal bar up the road, with the promise of the best homemade chips in Pleven. They also have the cheapest rakia and salad in Pleven, a pleasing proposition which was well tested during the course of the evening. Cheap rakia tastes like wood glue, but good rakia is best for bonding. So it was that I became engaged in conversation with a group of Bulgarians of various sizes, but mainly large, and all enwrapped in large leather jackets. One had been to England, to Preston, and was keen to invite me out again anytime, really. Another, the one who spoke good English through the large gap in her front teeth (she was a shoo-in for the part of Dracula in every school play) took quite a shine to me. When I eventually managed to extract myself from the group, on the grounds that it was so late even my watch had gone to sleep, she begged me to stay; she begged me to accompany her, confessed her sudden new-found love for me. For my part, I had the onerous obligation of telling her her love was unrequited, particularly at 4 in the morning and I so tired, and having abandoned her there in the street like a coward, needed a stop at the non-stop to refresh my step and clear my mind for home and bed. How I made it, I’ll never know.

The next morning, I woke up late, needless to say. The temperature was in the high 30s, at least. My head was here and there and everywhere, spinning and turning, slipping and swirling. Somehow, with the aid of a taxi, I managed to make it to the Gramatik where the speaking tests were, in time to find two of my students still waiting. Sweating pure ethanol, I greeted them as sprightly as I could (i.e. Only a quarter cut). Hopefully my presence was enough reassurance for them; they seemed glad to see me at least. I would have only been glad to see a cool darkened room at that moment, but obviously social circumstance, etc… I had to try not to let on. “What should I do for the test?” asked Stefan. “Umm… let’s go and sit on the grass and look at the clouds,” said I. “Are you nervous?” “A little,” admitted Stefan. “I know how you feel,” said I, white, shaking, stomach churning. “You know, this… um… sun… makes me feel very tired. I could just stretch out on the grass and fall asleep,” said I, preparing to do exactly that. But Stefan had lots of questions, the cruel bastard. Now I realise why we sometimes got to watch Disney films in primary school. I would have given anything for a distraction, as I lay dying on the grass, hoping that intelligent answers to Stefan’s questions would burst forth from my mouth, rather than last night’s rakia. Mercifully, the rakia stayed put, and even the salads, and after 10 minutes of lying on the grass in the middle of a school playground in front of one of my students, I was eventually able to get to my feet again. Perhaps not my best moment as a teacher… But I survived it, and all my students passed their exam. Thanks to my expert help, I’m sure.

 

Categories: Life, Random.