Saturday, 26 April 2014

Number 16

I opened my mental folder of 'People I know'. Inside were two mental spreadsheets: 'People I want to go for a beer with' and 'People I have been for a beer with'. I opened them – the lists seemed to be identical. What could I do? My first thought was that I'd have to be extremely brave and approach someone I only knew by sight but had a nice face and blurt out 'Doyouwanttocomeandhaveabeerwithme?' My second thought was that if a fifty-year-old came at me in that way, I would go at them with a garden fork. I re-read the challenge carefully, like a lawyer would. Cleverly interpreting the small print, I worked out that it could be someone I knew, but who I just hadn't gone for an individual beer with. You might say 'But that's not the spirit of the challenge – you're supposed to be brave and leave your comfort zone. That's actually cheating. Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!' My reply would be: a) Why are you speaking in that whiney, high-pitched voice? – it's really annoying, and b) You are not the boss of me.*
It didn't take me long to think of the first possibility – someone I knew from a music night I used to run with a friend a few years ago, but never see now. I had technically drunk beer in the same room as him. I had even spoken to him while we were both drinking beer, but that's not the same thing. It was a long shot anyway, as I needed to do the challenge quickly, and he's away** a lot. I messaged him, he messaged back, and within minutes it was all set up. I drove the half hour to where he lives, checked the rules one last time before knocking on the door, and we were off for a Guinness in a country pub.
So as it turned out, it was not so much a challenge as just a really nice evening out. It was great to catch up with Sefton. He's a sound man, in every sense of the word, and a very funny one. He also happens to be the spitting image of Jesus. I didn't tell him this, but in the pub, I was secretly pretending to be God, out for a Friday night Guinness with his only begotten son.
What's a 'shelfie'?

*I want to reassure anyone with OCD, who's probably feeling quite angry by this point, that I did close the mental spreadsheets. I just didn't think it was worth mentioning.
**Mainly for non-violent offences

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Number 15

Perfect – slows things down nicely. The only thing I've ever successfully* grown from a seed and watched and nurtured is Fred. Everything else I've tried to grow has either got going a little bit then died, or just not got going at all. I really admire people who grow stuff, but it's just not in my bones.  Whenever I turn on the car radio, at whatever time of day or night, Gardeners' Sodding Question Time is always on, taunting me: 'Celia from Surrey is wondering whether to transplant her triceratops meconium to a pot.' I understand as much of the programme ('Celia ...Surrey ... pot') as a cat would of a documentary on the Cold War, and yet I never turn it off immediately. I get a combination of nausea from listening to something that's completely uninteresting to me, but also a strange pleasure from listening to something that's in my language but meaningless to me. I get the same feeling from reading yachting magazines ('This month: Which asymmetric spinnaker furler is right for you?') or reading bridge columns, which would be ruined if I knew how to play bridge, or what a spinnaker even is. 
I really do like the idea of growing something to eat, though, and am going in with determination. Well-worth-it's two for a pound offer has a limited range, and the choice was easy:
basil – because herbs are expensive to buy, and probably quick to grow (guessing – could take five years for all I know)
·        chilli – because I'm going to do my own spin-off challenge of making Caroline Mackintosh's Chilli Jam.

*not based on a survey of his teachers

Monday, 14 April 2014

Number 14 update

I had no idea how this would work out in practice, but I prepared by learning 'Do you speak English?' and 'May I take your photo?', and by keeping my camera uncased and ready for action. On our first expedition outside the apartment, we were walking across a park when I saw four nuns in brown habits hurrying along in a tight group. Before I could think, I was running across to catch them. The adrenaline was pumping. 'You sorry!' I shouted. Their heads snapped round and they skittered like a nervous, four-headed religious foal. 'Your thank you speak English?' Without their feet moving, they slid into formation, three of them moving to the back and shoving forward the smallest (far left in photo), who went very red and said 'Little'. 'What type of nuns are you?' I asked. I wasn't sure how to speak to nuns, but thought this would be safe. 'We are Franciscan. We dress brown'. I told them I hadn't seen brown nuns in England. 'We're not popular here too', she said, sadly. I pictured them being jostled and pinched in the street, only realising later that she probably meant they weren't common. That was all the nun small talk I had – it was time to strike. 'Can I shake your mushroom?' I said, holding up my camera. They looked at each other, and decided a photo wouldn't break any taboos. For a few moments, they went quite giddy, giggling and nudging each other into position. I took their picture and could see they needed to get on. I thanked them, said hello, and left. I was pleased to be off the mark, but wished I'd studied enough Polish to be able to say 'OK girls – on the count of three, show me your tattoos.'
Every part of Eastern Europe has its unique style of Gypsy music. In Warsaw, it's the five-piece brass band. This was the first we saw in action. They put a huge amount of physical effort into their ancient instruments, and the music is fantastic – the two on the left working together to make the complicated bass rhythms, the two trumpets playing together or in harmony on top, and the chap in the middle filling it out in the middle with his own harmonies and rhythms. The music is is occasionally embellished by the guy second from the right with some shuffling dance steps, a whirl of the hat in the air, or some random shouting. Note the paper coffee cup – there seems to be some kind of bye-law in Warsaw, as all buskers had either one of these or a friend going round with a hat actively pestering for money. These guys weren't making money very quickly, and as many people were putting their fingers in their ears as they walked past as were putting money in the cup. I watched a few numbers and gave them some money, and they were happy to squeeze up for a photo call.
On the tram home I was following our route on the map when the man next to me asked where we wanted to get to. He told us where to get off, and I asked him where he'd learnt his English. He had spent thirty-five years working as an architect in Melbourne. He'd come back to Poland because it was his home, but seemed unsure whether he'd made the right decision because all his friends are in Australia, and he feels cold all the time.  We talked about Sydney Opera House for a stop, then I pounced. He was delighted to have his photo taken, and whipped his glasses off. His name is Chris. 
Next morning we were looking for our tram stop, and found ourselves walking behind a young guy with an accordion. When he turned out to be getting on the same tram, I decided to pull out my accordion player's union card. I asked him if he spoke English. He just shook his head slowly without any change of expression, so I shrugged and smiled and left him to it. A few seconds later he called after me 'Italian?', so I told him I also played, found out he was Romanian, and was hoping to make 100 złotis – about £20 – busking that day. He didn't mind having his photo taken at all, and tried to help us find our way to the zoo. His name is Ale, and that's A minor he's playing.
Warsaw Zoo is like I remember zoos from my childhood. The animals are in simple enclosures, with little effort put into recreating their natural environment. You can get really close to the animals, and Health and Safety doesn't feature highly (I swear I remember riding a lion when I was four). Some of the animals looked pretty depressed, but not the gorillas. The gorilla house  was empty apart from a young man with a timer and clipboard. On the other side of a worryingly thin window, two adolescent gorillas were play-fighting, baring their fangs and crashing into the glass in wrestling holds. We asked the young guy what he was doing. He was a student researching gorilla behaviour, it turned out, and he had to spend 15 hours with these two, recording absolutely everything they did. We were witnessing a particularly interesting bit of action, he explained, as the younger one was starting to assert himself against the boss. We stood and watched the display for twenty minutes in awe and terror, feeling like the puny primates we are. (A shame, because I'd just come out of the pygmy marmoset section feeling enormous and powerful). The young man, whose name is Radek, reluctantly agreed to a photo, but seemed too awkward to pose.

As we were walking round the zoo, we kept glimpsing a smartly dressed young chap learning bits of script. When I saw him with a cameraman near the lion enclosure, I went to investigate. He was very friendly. He was making a television program about the Polish national symbol – the eagle – and was going around other animals exploring whether they had any connection to Poland. I asked him if he was famous, and he went very bashful and said, 'You could say, a little'. His name is Radek Kotjarski – but maybe not spelled in that way. This could have been a great photo, as I lined him up with a lion lying majestically to the side of his head. But then I absent-mindedly stepped to the side as I clicked, and the majestic lion is now behind his head.
In Warsaw's most famous park the next morning, through the trees I caught a glimpse of some strange goings on, and went over to find out what was happening. A dozen or so men in very convincing American Civil War outfits were gathered around a tent. I asked them if they spoke English, and they said no, but told me to wait while they got Mateusz. He eventually appeared, and explained that they were a society that reenacted the Louisiana 14th regiment, which was a Polish unit in the civil war. They are not history specialists, but a range of 'ordinary' people (I had my doubts about this). They normally got together once a month, but were holding a recruiting day today, and had marched twelve miles the evening before and slept rough in the woods. Only one of the group had been to America, but Mateusz (the tall one in the middle) went quivery and misty eyed when I asked him if he hoped to go – 'That's my dream,' he said.
OK – so it's another gypsy accordion player. But that's my thing, and I was over-excited, especially after finding out that Romanians speak Italian. I thought this was an old lady until I got right up to her, and saw that she was only about fifteen. She was very sweet and smiley. She said she couldn't make much in a day – about 50 złotis – and had been playing since she was five. She was very happy to have her photo taken. Her name is Cosmina. Warsaw is one of the few places I've been where just about everyone is white, so I wish I'd had the courage to ask her what it was like to live there as a gypsy, and whether she'd prefer to be in Romania. 
We were in the main Sunday market, and I was admiring a rabbit-skin jacket with Lola. The lady on the stall told us that she made them out of skins her friend in Italy sends her. She also made very unusual hats from discarded clothes. She'd spent a long time in Amsterdam and had friends all over the world – 'I love people too much' – but had decided to come back to Poland, because it was her home. She seemed extremely warm and pretty eccentric – I couldn't imagine anyone except her actually wearing the homemade hats and rabbit-skin coats. Her name is Miriam.
By the last day, I still needed at least one more to fulfil the challenge, and I was starting to flag. It was the Warsaw Marathon, and there were quite a few competitors milling around. I wanted to buttonhole someone and ask them about the experience, but the opportunity didn't come to me, and I didn't quite have the energy to create it. I also missed out on the chap on the tram who'd been in the US army for two years, the toyshop owner who went wild at a boarding-school in Bury St Edmunds, the old man who does one painting of Warsaw every day of his life, the young man sketching squirrels in the park, and many more who I couldn't summon up the nerve or the energy for. The challenge was great, though. It added a layer to the holiday which made it more memorable, and got me looking at things through a different lens. Just by making a small extra effort I felt I was stepping out of the normal tourist experience, and all the subjects seemed very pleased to be asked. I'm going to try to do this wherever we go to some extent – try to winkle the backstory out of people that come my way. So this is the tired last effort – the nice lady who helped us get back to the airport. She was the information desk in one of the major stations, but only seemed to know the word 'down' in English. Claire helped things with her mime – the two movements she does are her hand shooting through the air (accompanied by a dramatic 'Pshoooosh!!') and a sudden bending of the knees. Neither of these, as far as I can see, has any connection with what she's trying to say, but the two women connected somehow as humans. She was extremely surprised to have her photo taken, and seemed flattered. I thought it would be too weird to ask her name.

Number 13 update

I opted for the simplest form of trick there is – 'knock and run' as we used to call it in 1970s Timperley, or 'knock-down Ginger' as some southern fools insist on calling it. So in this version, I would knock on someone's door and leave a treat. I had very little time, as we were going away, so I bought a couple of nice things to eat and drink and chose my victims, who I can't reveal. One of the houses has a glass door and no cover for sneaking up or away. I crawled in and put down the treats, then knocked hard, slammed myself into reverse crawl, and got up and legged it round the corner. They would have had to be looking out of the window at that exact moment to spot me. Next morning a car stopped next to me and the two victims got out and gave me a big hug. 'That means a lot,' one of them said. It was unexpected and a sweet moment. One of them had been looking out of the window at the exact moment, and glimpsed my blue jumper, which I still had on. I didn't have time to explain that I'm not actually kind, but was just doing a challenge. It showed me that tiny efforts like this can be quite powerful – I'll try to keep dropping them in randomly when I see the chance.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Number 14

Ha ha - interesting and fairly scary challenge. We're going to Warsaw for three days. I've never been there before, and speak no Polish. I might pop into the local Polski Sklep tomorrow and find out how to say 'Can I take your photo?' and 'My one phone call will be to my solicitor'.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Number 12 update update

Done it! For someone who can dance at all, going to a dance class probably seems like no big deal, like having an interview in a sausage shop wouldn't bother someone who doesn't have a lisp. I dance with a lisp.
So I got there on the dot of eight. Kidlington (as every Inspector Morse fan knows) has a tiny centre. I was picturing a candle-lit village hall. The handful of people would smile and nod when I went in. They have kindly and helpful expressions. Inspector Lewis would hand me a pint of Guinness – 'This'll settle yer nerves, son.'
But Exeter Hall is the size of an aircraft hangar, and far more brightly lit. Scattered around the hall were about twenty stony-faced people. The most stony-faced sat at a table next to a cash box. I sidled up. 'I've just come to try it out,' I said. 'No need to pay, then,' she didn't reply, friendlily. 'That's eight pounds,' she did reply, stony-facedly. 'Plus two to join.' I didn't want to 'join' – I didn't know if I'd like it. 'What if I don't like it?' I said. She didn't have time for this. 'Well you'll be a member ... for life.' I took the clipboard and form she handed me, and tried to work out the logic of this as I headed for an empty table. There were more people now. I felt they were all looking at me. I could tell that they knew. I started to become aware of my movements. How do you walk naturally? I tried to picture my legs like ribbons so that they wouldn't look wooden. Mm ... no, that didn't feel right – my foot went too far forward in the air. Now people were looking at me. I reached the table and busied myself with the form. Name ... job ... OK. Pets ... blood group ... mother's maiden name ... done. That's good – it didn't ask anything about dancing. That would have been irrelevant and intrusive.
The place was filling up now. A man was sitting at my table. 'Been before?' I said, willing him to nervously say 'No.' 'For about three years,' he said expressionlessly, and looked down at his phone. I wished I was him. I made my way back to the desk in short bursts, using knots of old ladies as cover. The stony-faced woman had my life-membership card ready. I wondered what the magnetic strip was for – what could I swipe with it? Did it literally open doors?
Things were starting to happen quickly now. A man and a woman had hopped up on the stage. Crowds of people (where were they coming from?) were pouring onto the dance floor. I joined them. 'Men on one side, women on the other,' said a booming voice from the stage. Before I could move, I found myself facing a smiling middle-aged lady, about my mother's age. (I now realize that I am not 27, as I always imagine myself. No doubt, she saw herself facing a middle-aged man, about her father's age.)
'Hi, I'm Meg,' she said. 'Hi, I'm Meg,' I replied, extremely nervous now. 'Man's left hand to lady's left hand, back a step, forward a step, and spin her anti-clockwise,' boomed the stage. Before I could work out what this even meant, Meg was off, pushing me back, pulling me forward and spinning herself anti-clockwise.  We stopped. 'You were supposed to do that,' she said. 'Ladies all change! Six ... seven ... eight!' Someone else was there! We were off. This time I did it, and she – no time to exchange names from now on – looked relaxed about it. 'Ladies all change ... next step!' ordered the bully. I concentrated as though my dignity depended on it. Two partners later, I'd almost grasped the man-spin. No time to be pleased with myself – the third and last step was being demonstrated. This one looked impossible. Spin, step back, open and close your lady, spin, step back. After five minutes with rotating expert partners, I wasn't far off. 'Freestyle!' commanded the voice, and the lights went down. People were asking each other to dance. I spotted someone who was almost as hopeless as me, and asked her if she wanted to dance. We struggled our way painfully through fragments of the routine, but our combined hopelessness was just too high. 
The music stopped. Keen to master this now, I scanned the room and spotted someone who was good.  'Dance?' She nodded and said, 'I'm Gwen, by the way.' She was tiny – about up to my top rib if she jumped. We did the three moves a few times. 'I can't believe it's your first time,' she said, 'I thought it must be at least your second.' Wow. She had mistaken me for a second timer! My head swelled. I suddenly saw myself as a modern-jive god. 'At least your second' – the words were echoing round my head. I put a little more panache into a spin. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Gwen's head snap back. I had myself in a neck hold. I had spun Gwen the wrong way, hard. 'It's OK, we were all beginners once,' said Gwen, rubbing her neck. 'I'll just sit down for a few minutes,' she said, as I apologized. I sat down too.
It was the beginners' recap now anyway. A depressing affair in a bare, brightly-lit room, where they break down the moves so much that they don't seem like dancing any more. I'd crushed my own high spirits with my assault on Gwen, and I was just going through the motions as we ... erm ... went through the motions. After half an hour, my knowledge had gone backwards, and it was time for the closing freestyle.
My confidence was shot. Someone asked me if I wanted to dance. I wanted to say no, but instead said 'Yes' with a cracking voice and twisted smile. The music started – country rock. The moves were flashing through my mind randomly, interspersed with images of Gwen's head snapping back. I could see my partner was confused by my random movements. My dancing self-esteem had gone. I was deliberately dancing with stiff legs. 'Look who you asked to dance,' I challenged my partner mentally, 'Mr Wooden Legs.' I did a random spin, with my arse deliberately sticking out. The song went on and on – Don't you break my heart, my achy breaky heart ... My movements became more frantic and disconnected. Images whirled in my head ... the man on the stage... Miley Cyrus's giant tongue flapping ... President Kennedy's head snapping back... the Kikuyu circumciser guffawing ...
At last it stopped. 'Thanks,' I said to my partner, who was standing open-mouthed. I turned sharply, for the first time all night, and headed for the car. As I wiped the sweat, or perhaps tears, from my face and started the engine, I could hear some Britney Spears starting up. 
The next morning, when I realised it hadn't all been a dream, I surprised myself. Modern jive, I thought – I wouldn't mind trying that again.