Cherrypicked stories

Cherry

L) Italy v South Korea... from Verona to Milan

It is quite a journey from Stockholm to Rome, but I felt confident that I could cover it in the forty-eight hours available. I felt happy and with good reason. I had arranged to meet up with my partner, Deb, in Berlin. Deb is a seasoned traveller and had agreed to join me for some of my madness. I looked forward to her sweet smile and some much needed sympathy. I have developed sciatica. I know it as something Deb once had, common to overworked bodies made to sit for too long, say in trains, for example. It is an affliction of the nervous system, not especially dangerous, but extremely hard to shake and with an armoury designed for one thing: the infliction of pain. Sciatica garrisons in the back, which is where it likes to launch its most frequent attacks. However, the garrison is extremely mobile and moves effortlessly to the hip, thigh and calves and, in the culmination of creativity, under the foot. The pain is sudden and sharp, like being stuck with a knife. Mediterranean muggers, do your worst. I have found myself growling and muttering in the manner of a madman as I fight my way from the latest A to the new B (which always so soon and so cruelly becomes an A in itself). Fortunately, I am equipped with an unusually high pain threshold, an evolutionary necessity for the hopelessly clumsy, especially the slightly manic and bald headed kind. I am the king dope of dopamine, even finding the dentist chair quite relaxing, a perverted result of my folks teaching me to meditate to handle my extractions (which now number eleven). Still, even a masochist requires a little affection, even if just to sharpen the rediscovery of pain, and it was with excited anticipation that I cleaned myself up to meet Deb. "You look like shit!" "That's not even the half of it! Here, take a whiff!" We boarded our train from Berlin to Munich, a service so popular one has to fight for their seats. Deb was forced to sit next to me. "C'mon, its really not that bad." "For once, I'm just glad to be sitting in the smoking section. That's all I'm saying." Yes, things were going well until we hit a little place called Bemberg. We heard announcements in German and half of the carriage gathered up their things and left. Deb and I, still intoxicated with each others' presence and scents, ambled about in asking for help and fell for the trap of taking "Yes" to mean "Yes" instead of "I'm sorry I don't understand English, would you please piss off". It took quite some time before we discovered that our train had broken down and we had to run for another if we were to make our connection in Munich. Shoes in our hands, backpacks smacking innocent heads, we bolted out of the train and into another, itself due to leave. Puffing and sweating, we took our seats and recounted our luck as I studied my timetable to check our connections. Then, I shocked even myself. "We need to get off this train! NOW!" We forced our way back the through the isle laden with old ladies and made the door just in time to hear the conductor's whistle. "Are you sure??!" I was not! I stood fumbling through my thick book of timetables, all in font six. I felt the train rumbling to life. I needed more time. More time! Then, in a master stroke of idiotic genius, I stood, one foot on the platform (where my sciatica took refuge) and one foot on the train, the door shutting through my chest, the conductor screaming and running towards me. Deb stood behind me aghast until I made my call, grabbed her hand and threw us both to the platform. The train pulled away and we both sat in stunned silence for quite a long time. Shaking, near crying. It was the most frightening moment of our lives together. "See, isn't this fun?" I said trying to make light. "Are you hurt?" "A little." "Good." We would never have made it to Italy on that train. As it turned out, we struggled on the one that followed. Rome was now out of the question. We set a new target: Verona, the city of lovers. Deb could be Juliet and I her Romeo, though more likely to kill each other instead of ourselves. Saint Christopher must have taken some leave, as more trouble started as soon as we crossed the border. We wore endless abuse from Italian train conductors, for what we never really found out. Perhaps our tickets, from Germany, were a little too clear or accurate or perfectly printed, but we received bouts of sarcasm so practiced we grew to feel every part of the 'stupido Americanos' we had become. We became the bane of the train and were doubtlessly held to blame for all of the stops and delays that saw us in Verona a mere half an hour away from the game. Normally, half an hour would be fine, but our schedule demanded that we book onward tickets before watching the football. I was determined not to screw up Italy again, but we needed those tickets. We went at it with fire and with more than twenty minutes to go we were looking very good. Deb had checked our bags, located a local bus to the main Piazza and secured open train tickets. All that remained was for me to check the scheduled departure time. A simple question requiring a 'yes' or 'no' answer. But a simple answer to a simple question was just too much to ask. I sat at 'Informazioni' pleading for some. I queued again and again, dealt with English speakers and non, watched a database I had seen all over the continent sit idle while half photocopied pieces of paper were thrust at me in anger. I prayed to God for help, but he was probably settling in for the football, not watching me pointing to a train in the timetable, begging to know whether it would appear on the tracks later that day. I watched the minutes tick past to herald in my worst nightmare. My plans foiled and a game to be watched in a station. My bitterness seethed and there passed but a moment at kick off when I hoped South Korea would win. A complete loss of perspective to wish that a whole nation should suffer for the petty inconveniences of one little man. I sat outside the fishbowl of a waiting room observing the group within. The glass contained all the sound, but I had the crowd's generous gesticulations to keep me alive to the game. There was some early aggression and the room's extra silent silence marked a South Korean penalty, missed to the quiet delight of those near the screen. This was crap! I swore things could not get worse, but one must never tempt such a fate. I still did not know whether our train was to leave and so moved away from the game to start quizzing again. This time I blew it! My desperation showed as frustration and, to the muffled sound of a goal being celebrated in the distance, I was thrown out of the office, deprived of the 'informazioni' that was not really there. This left only one choice. Deb and I had to ditch the game and the station to connect with another train which we knew to exist. We left at half time with Italy leading one-nil. I admit it sounds pretty hopeless, but there is always an option and I had prepared one for such an instance as this. A radio. I stood at the platform trying to tune in to a commentary in a language I could not understand. I could only judge the game by others' reactions and slowly they gathered around this fool with a radio wasted on his ears, but not in his hands. We boarded in first class. I felt like the Pied Piper and revelled in taking the game through the carriages back to where we lower classes sit. As we moved down the train, along came a goal. South Korea had scored, or so I reasoned watching an old gentleman slamming his head on a door. We sat down and a small group of locals huddled around, hanging off every scratchy word and sound. Others pretended to read or just stare out the window, squirming all the while with the play of the game. Conductors lingered with faces of fear as if awaiting a train they thought may never appear. Full time, or primo time, came with the scores still tied, or so I was informed. Perspiration abounded. People shuffled in seats. The smokers smoked double time. Those trying to look cool most certainly did not. I desperately tried to keep a decent reception as we moved along on our train. Extra time started and by the look of things, things were not sounding good. There were annoyed bursts of 'pssssssst!' and sharp waving of hands. All of a sudden, I did not like being the messenger of what was looking to be bad news. And it was such very bad news. I knew South Korea had scored by all the sounds of disgust and storming away. Everyone was in shock. No World Cup for Italy. No more chances at Italy for me. It ended for us all in that hot airless place. We were caged in like animals on such a rarely moving train with far too much time to pace the isles and contemplate what did not lie ahead. The incessant delays ensured that Deb and I never made our next train or the one after that, if it ever existed. But I will tell you something amazing... the day of 'disasters' meant we were able to share a night in a bed and side step a train strike which we later learned would have most certainly frustrated my journey to my next destination: Spain...
Cherry

If I were truly alive

If I were truly alive, then these good dreams of bad things wouldn't jolt me awake through the night Or worse still - aware that i dream escape is...
Cherry

K) Sweden v Senegal... from Stockholm

My train dragged me into Stockholm well after midnight, the witching hour, the hour which it was supposed to get me there. I was content, but terribly tired and struggling not to fall asleep on the train. I did not know where the train went after Stockholm, but as the crow flies it would have just gone plowing straight into the ocean. I did not see any crows flying about, so that was probably what happened to them too. And if there was one place I did not want to wake up, it was in an ocean full of crows. For once, I had done a little research and located a hostel to stay at. It was the biggest and most central in Stockholm. I looked forward to a good night's sleep, maybe even sleeping in, and getting out to watch the game in the afternoon. I felt hungry and fatigued, but my spirits were high. I studied the map at the train station and set off giggling to myself at street names the likes of Kungsholms Hamnplan, Oxtrogsg and Slojdg. I decided I liked Stockholm already. I found the hostel and buzzed getting ready to give my best Australian 'G'day!'. No response for a while and then a recorded message: 'all beds taken for the night'. I had not even considered the possibility! I had no back up plan and it was just not one of those times that I could implement the excellent strategy of staying up all night. I was in trouble. Suddenly, Stockholm did not seem like such a great place. I thought about just trying to catch a train to somewhere, anywhere, but then I remembered all those crows and (confirming the sky to be clear) decided I would be better off on the streets. I started wandering around looking for hostels or hotels, but all had no vacancies and gave no response. I had yearned for sleep a lot over the past week or so, but had always been in control of it at least in some measure. It was me who set my timetable. I booked my tickets and I picked my games. I knew my limits and I had pushed myself to them, leaving very little room for this kind of error. I felt very, very vulnerable. I was a walking victim, but at least I was still walking. If that was to continue, my body needed propping up fast. I felt weak from lack of food. I had been living off cheese salad baguettes, vegetarianism precluding most real European food. I knew I was low on protein and was ever on the search for nuts and legumes. I had taken to guzzling warm soy milk by the carton, oh what a treat, but the opportunity so rarely arose. Eating had become a purely pragmatic pursuit, the great joys of eating thus excreting and of course having sex had long been stripped from me. I half hoped that something would drop dead around me so I could snaffle it up, but had a sneaking suspicion any such things were viewing me in the same grizzly light. I started on my emergency rations. A box of dry cereal handed to me in a promotion. It was like pouring down a full bag of sugar. Though, artificial stimulants were definitely called for and I sought out some caffeine from a late night snack bar. Then, another fatal moment in poor preparation. I realised I had no local currency, the Swedes sharing the Brit's fear of the Euro and still wanting to play with their own little notes. How very quaint. The snack bar yielded no coffee, but proved to be a minor boon as I secured directions to another hostel. I hiked there and buzzed. "Sorry, no more beds" said the voice, but at least a real person and a chance to talk my way in. "I'm desperate, I'll take anything, I'll sleep on the floor!" There. That should about double the price. "Come on up, I'll see what I can do." Upstairs, we played a funny little game of ambiguity as to whether there was a free bed or not. The overweight, sack scratching, man sat at the counter smoking, ashing without aim, enjoying his little dick and his little power game. It was there that his job satisfaction lay. Surprise, surprise, he found me a bed and not one to be shared with him, which was nice. He had satisfied himself at his job on that day. I groped around in the dark dorm room trying to find my bed, assuming the role of the arsehole who comes in at two in the morning and makes far too much noise. Coughs rose up to say "Yes, I'm here and you've woken me up". Little did they know what I was just about to find out... I would be doing it all again very soon. The game was first thing in the morning! My schedule showed that I had things mixed up and, once again, eight hours sleep became four. A cold rain drizzled down from a dark crowless sky on that summer morning in Stockholm, the day of the game. I had made my way to the teeheely named 'Anders Limp Bar', near the nasty hostel from the night before, and was heartened to see a great number of Swedes forming an orderly queue. They looked exquisite. A beautiful people even at that cruel hour and every one of them proudly sporting the most stunning colours of the international football rainbow. I had solved my financial crisis by finding a 'Bankomat' and, not yet having come to terms with the Swedish Crown, withdrew a ridiculous amount of money. I was loaded and could have bought the bastard hostel next door. A little too loaded in fact and feeling vulnerable once more. I need not have worried because by the time I left Sweden it was all but gone. Little power games proved popular during my visit to Stockholm, the bouncers leaving us queuing until about ten minutes before kick off. I mingled with the crowd, scoring a Sweden hat and some 'snooze' off a funny little fellow who was rolling around holding his belly and saying that he wanted to puke. I soon found out why. 'Snooze' is a type of tobacco in a small sort of tea bag. One puts it under one's lip and then does one's best not to throw up. After a good dose of 'snooze' and a pull on a dubious smoke doing the rounds, my empty belly burned of tobacco. There was only one thing for it and once inside I immediately rushed for an ice cold 'Pripps Bla'. It was like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. My stomach nearly exploded. I had no time for the petty objections it wanted to bring up. Sweden's anthem was playing, the game set to begin. "Stand up! Take off your hat! That's the Swedish national anthem!" I complied, trying to look dignified, holding my hat to my palpitating heart. "Now sit down! Put it back on! That's Senegal's." The Swedes are a madly patriotic bunch and had had a bad sporting year. Bjorn Borg got married, but that was about it. All their dreams now lay in the hands of their fine football team. The match began and I joined the locals sitting in silence staring at TVs scattered around the little front room. Sweden went out on attack early and a near goal inspired a great round of Scandinavian 'oooooooohs'. Senegal hit back. It started out one hell of a rough game, something that continued throughout. Having been brought up on a diet of Aussie Rules Football, I was suitably impressed. Someone might actually get hurt. For real! It was about time, I thought to myself smiling and sipping my beer. The locals did not seem to be enjoying the match so much as abiding it like a disagreeable operation to remove a troubling Senegal. Then, ten minutes in, their team produced a goal! The room cheered and relaxed. Unintelligible chants rose up. They were happy now. I judged by the numbers that there was more to the place and found a section outside where the real action was. Hundreds sat at trestles, golden and blue, watching a lovely big screen. It was like a beer-fest, but with prettier colours (and faces). And then I saw it! My heart skipped a beat and went down to my stomach to say what it saw. A table full of food! I approached and cowering with uncharacteristic hesitation checked whether it was alright for me to eat. It was, the food was included in the ticket price and I shoveled with glee. Bread, cheese, hash browns and baked beans. Baked beans! Oh God, precious protein. I could not help but feel embarrassed by the way I ate like a deprived animal, but I could not help that either. It was a revealing sensation to be so miserably hungry and then at once to finally have food. It was really quite humbling and struck me as something I should consider more often as I watched Senegal doing Africa so proud. And they did. Towards the end of the half, they scored a goal of their own. The scores were now tied. The half ended with the Swedes feeling flat and disappointed. Baked beaned with renewed vigour, I decided to go for a run to another bar. I was hustling towards it when I happened across a large group of people standing outside smoking and toeing the gutter. I knew at once what it was. Unmistakably a cinema and what else but a radio station promotion. 'Rock Klassiker' presenting the game to its most valued of listeners. I slipped in quietly, the way anyone can during the half time break of most any show. Finding a free seat, that is always the hard part and I spent quite a long time slinking about the cinema until I could settle down with my 'extra mammoth bigger than Abba' sized coke to watch the show. The second half started and the thousand odd punters displayed the sort of vocal enthusiasm of any crowd feeling safe in the dark. They laughed and clapped at a Senegalese taking a blow to the groin like the mostly teenaged crowd that they were watching some bad Hollywood flick. It really was an exciting game, fantastically rough with some of the most tantalising play, the adolescent crowd prematurely ejaculating again and again. Full time came with the scores still tied. I was secretly pleased because - and this really demonstrates what a fool's errand I am on - I honestly expected penalties. I moved to the front of the screen to soak up the reactions. I felt like a schmuck when the players ran on. Oh, of course, extra time. The mood was unspeakably tense. The players twisted and turned, weaving a saga so gripping one could not bare to look and yet never looked away. There was a moment when but a taste of victory swept across everyone's tongues escaping just in time for them all to scream out in pain. A near Sweden goal which bounced off the post. The crowd was in agony, some cast themselves on the floor, begging for mercy from the torture on the screen. And, soon enough, they were put out of their misery. Senegal scored. Senegal won. Stunned silence. Some sat. Others left. Just watching them all made me feel sick. It was the saddest thing I had seen on my tour to date, the gloriously painted Swedes filing out in dismay. Their hearts had been stolen, or rather won, from them. I joined the shuffle out, looking no one in the eye. I felt grossly voyeuristic in the face of such pain. It was a sad day for Sweden and I was not altogether unhappy to leave. After seven countries in seven days, my schedule showed a free day. And what better way to spend it than travelling all the way down to Italy again to watch their next big game...
Cherry

Huv A Wee Drink Hen&;#063;

Scottish Hospitality
Cherry

Paint

my desire's for aubergine but it's your kitchen, we settle on the blues - my shade more intense than you'd have chosen for yourself mine's a high hot...
Cherry

Lost In A Thread

reykjavik
Cherry

Just

wherever, whatever,
Cherry

Husband "Cinnamon and the Husband"

second cinnamon story - cinnamon gets to play at being Thomas Magnum
Cherry

Orange

Orange is not a colour I feel completely comfortable with. I think of garishness, of supermarkets and fast food chains. I feel attacked by marketing...
Cherry

The Threesome

A tragic story of how alcohol ruined a life and almost ruined more....
Cherry

A is for First Date

As he prepares to meet the woman of his dreams Tam Goth suffers a crisis of confidence
Cherry

Autumn The Cruel

Autumn
Cherry

Breathing Together

No wrong or right way...
Cherry

The Hanged Woman

Two young children make a horrifying discovery in the woods.
Cherry

A bulb story

bulb story he didn't much like the look of the 60-watt bulb beginning to glow above her head. it smacked of haloes and obligations, of some divine...
Cherry

Boat story

boat story the waterways seduce them - canal desire. they find themselves a boat and spend nights of narrow love nosing like otters. he grows...
Cherry

The mink &; the fox

an anti-fable
Cherry

J) Denmark v England... from Copenhagen

I woke up covered in blood. I could taste it in my mouth, feel it in my ears, on my face, all around. I forced my eyes open, stuck shut by the sticky black stuff now on my body instead of within. I could make out shadowy figures around me. Slowly, their contorted faces came into focus. They were as disgusted and surprised as I was to find me there lying in my own blood. I knew what had happened. It was just my nose. An affliction since childhood, it bleeds with such regularity that, well, it just makes me wonder about things sometimes. At one stage, it was such a problem that I went to hospital and they gave me pure cocaine (cocaine!) to help fix it. An ineffective remedy, but one I highly recommend. Well worth the price of a punch in the face. The fields between Berlin and Sczczecin had ravaged me with hay fever all the day prior and continued to do so even under the sea. I was lying in a couchette on a train deep in a ferry en route to Copenhagen. Unpleasant surrounds for anyone bloody messed or at best. I grabbed some clean dirty clothes and headed to the 'WC' to join the queue for the morning ablutions. My bloody face allowed me to jump ahead of my place. I took the opportunity to strip off and have a full body wash. I had not seen myself naked for some time and it gave me rather a shock. I looked a wretched figure, as if covered in blood because someone had just carved a few kilos of flesh from me. I had not had a proper look at my willy for a while either. He looked sad and small and unfairly unloved. While washing, I had great trouble getting him caught up with the bags that now hang from my eyes like balloons left hanging up after a children's party for far too long. If only a little prick could take them away. I mused at the mouthwash, the one free product that the railway saw fit to give us. It looked like pot noodle and made me miss my mother's home cooking. I used the stuff and noted down the ingredients for dear Ma. I was pleased to have caught up on a little sleep. Cleanliness was now my prime problem. Counting back, I realised with alarm that it had been about seventy-two hours since my last shower. That may not come as a shock to those who know me well, but I bet it did to those whom I slept near on the train. My little bloodletting stunt completed my masterpiece in filth. I reminded myself of a chap I once sat with on an unforgettable overnight bus ride. He stunk with such enthusiasm that I retched whenever he talked and had to wash myself and all of my clothes, including those sealed in my bag, to try and remove the man from my life. To this day his stench remains seared in my brain. I was brought back to reality by what I thought was a knock on the door, but it was only one of my socks trying to make a break for it. I laughed, dragged the scared slimy little sucker back and slid it onto my foot. I could feel that the ferry was stopping at Malmo. I rushed to a window. I had never seen a train pull out of a ferry before and thought it quite a neat trick. I felt like a flea on a rabbit in a hat. I changed trains and an hour later arrived in Copenhagen. It was raining a little, the first I had seen for a while. It did not take me long to learn that the city had a big day planned. There was to be a screen in the square in front of the Town Hall. Perfect. I had a few hours to kill and so saw to a few jobs at an Internet cafe. At this point, I would like to give my thanks to the staff at Boomtown Internet Cafe for their attentiveness, helpfulness and patience, especially Chris Larson who saved my life. In fact, my brief experience in Denmark led me to believe that, when it comes to great service, there is nothing like a Dane. Nothing in the world. There is nothing you can tame that is anything like a Dane. As always, I spent a little too long on the net and found myself running to catch up with the masses of people flooding into the centre of town. One could really tell that the preliminaries were over and the important stages of the World Cup had started. There were easily a hundred thousand people there. It was by far the biggest group I have seen on my European tour to date. I was dragging my backpack around the crowd looking for a decent spot when the Danish national anthem started up. The crowd joined in, but if anyone knew the words it did not show. They moaned and groaned their way through it making the sorts of noises that one unfamiliar with the noises of whales might imagine be the sort that they make. I had not reckoned on the difficulty of finding a decent viewing position. I really could not get a proper feel for the crowd on the ground, so tried to join the mayhem those climbing tall structures. They seemed to have the right idea, but they did not have twenty odd kilograms (until recently about a quarter of my weight, now probably getting close to a third) of backpack strapped to their back. For a short while, I tried valiantly to climb onto a ship's container, but my travel insurance does not cover overt acts of stupidity, so I gave up. Not something I do lightly. Then, inspiration! Up above, on a swanky third floor balcony, was a small group of people having a nice little party, enjoying a perfect view. I lumbered over and begged to be let up. "I'm a journalist" I cried. It really is a good line. "Are you English?" They eyed me with suspicion. "No, I'm Australian? I hate the English" I lied, gritting my teeth, betraying my year living in London and many fine English loved ones and friends. And you know what? By the time kick off was upon me, I was sitting on a balcony with the best view in the house sucking down a cold 'Tuborg'. I was stunned. I revelled in the moment for a short while, but then Danish disaster struck. England scored. I suddenly felt terribly guilty up there on that balcony. And, if anything were to be thrown off in frustration, the obvious choice would be me. I sunk down lower into my seat hoping that, with my pale skin and bloodshot eyes, I might be able to fade away into all the Danish flags below. A haze grew on the horizon. There was a storm moving in. And sure enough, along came another England goal. Things were really was dark now. "Are you sure you're not English?" "I am certain" I said, fumbling for my passport, more scared than at any border patrol. Someone had killed the sound on the big screen. It really is amazing the way so many people can make so little sound if the circumstances are right. It felt like a state funeral and after a third England goal, Denmark was dead. The half ended and I said my farewells. I was grateful for the experience (thanks Mikkel), but the mood had grown heavy and I wanted to see what was going on down at ground level. I was able to move more freely now, the crowd having thinned out. With the rain coming in and England looking a sure thing, it was hardly a surprise. There did not seem to be much fun about, just a lot of people getting upset and drunk. Earlier, on my way to the square, I had seen 'the Old English Pub' and thought it might be worth a quick look. There was an angry mob of Danes camped out on the doorstep and the bouncers were not letting anyone in, so I flashed my press credentials (!) and was escorted inside. Here they were: England's ex-pat community boldly wearing their colours and having a right royal time. The second half started and they were happy and loud, chanting in full voice. Just a snippet of what I suspected was going on across the North Sea. The place was also full of English press. I chatted with some of them (always good to mix with one's contemporaries) and even picked up a free beer from a fellow from 'The News of the World'. Two for the day. I was pleased with my score, but concluded that the place was not really my angle and headed back to the square. This time, I positioned myself directly under the screen. Right in the line of fire. And it was. Bottles rained down from the frustrated crowd. I hung around for a while just to see if I would get hit on the head to give me something interesting to write about, but soon thought better of it. I had to catch a train in a few hours and could not afford any injury time. The match crawled along to the sky's thunders and groans. I ducked into the fancy 'Palace Bar' and the 'Abralen'. The mood was sombre all around. The game ended. The sky opened up and dropped monstrous amounts of rain on everyone just to remind them that life in Denmark was to go on as usual. The locals were of course desperately disappointed and though some were aggressive, I would have to say that most took it pretty well and were going to make a good time of it anyway. I paddled towards Sweden, soaked to the skin, ever so grateful for such a fine day and for picking up that much needed shower after all?
Cherry

I) Poland v USA... from Szczecin

Things are really starting to get interesting. Unintentionally, I have been conducting my own little experiment in sleep deprivation. I have had less than twelve hours sleep over the last three days. It is beginning to show. Today, I missed my stop on a train. I knew it was time to get off, I just could not seem to get everything together in time to detrain. I stood at the door as the train pulled away from Berlin's Zoological Gardens, desperately looking for a passing monkey to call to my aid. Damned German efficiency! If I was still in Italy, I might have had a few minutes grace. It was probably for the best. I really felt like a nice early morning run. Lost. At the wrong station. Desperately doubling back. An excruciating journey on the local train network returned me just in time to catch my connection, releasing me from the self-chastisement I had gripped myself in. I have also lost some of my things, or had them stolen, or given them away. I will never know which. Nothing crucial I think, but it has helped the paranoia to set in. I have found myself sitting extra close to, or far away from, train guards, depending on the swings of my moods. It no longer matters which country I am in. Everything is foreign anyway because I live in some sort of dream world where even English is barely intelligible. I have been slavishly trying to follow the path I sketched out a few days ago, checking everything thrice, thrice, thrice. Nine times sometimes. I have lost all sense of time, the batteries in all my electronic devices having run dry. I feel like I am stuck in some sick solo game with no beginning or end. Earlier today, I watched a child, so happy and confident, speaking the language, getting back rubs from his mother. Awestruck, I was so alien and alone, I felt as if I never had one of my own. There is of course only one way to deal with sorrows. Drown them! Vodka the best medicine, ask any Pole, and I planned to get down to some drowning just as soon as I crossed the border. I was en route to Sczczecin. It was a town I knew nothing about, but it was the only Polish place I could get to in time for the game. I watched the landscape change as I headed further and further east. Pine trees grew into forests, gathering together to watch over the grey farm land. The train took me over the border and closer to the moment I had been dreading. Polish passport control. Despite having a Polish heritage and being raised with its traditions, I needed a visa to enter Poland. I had secured a forty-eight hour transit visa for my visit. Everything was legitimate, or at least substantially so, because I was not really in transit, rather just coming and going. A little visa mismatch designed to save a few pounds. It gave me reason to fear the questions, or more so my answers... "Yes, I'm coming into Poland to drink vodka and watch football only to turn around and leave the same way I came in straight after the match." It just does not wash. An armed green officer descended upon me. In my panic, I could not remember the Polish greeting taught to me by my Babcia (my grandmother) in happier, well rested, times. I offered a wan smile as the officer perused my passport. "Where are you going?" That was one I could handle. "Szczecin" I mangled "where the train stops." Here it comes. The dreaded 'Why?'. I lacked the moral fibre to know whether to, or indeed how to, lie. "Because you only have two days." "Yes" I agreed. Two days. If one had only two days in Poland: Warsaw, or Krakow perhaps, but Szczecin? Please. I knew I would not buy it. And then, the magic stamp came out. A click! I was in! I arrived in Szczecin with no language, no map, no money and no idea. No worries. I had over an hour until kick off and a thirst for vodka to pull me through. Szczecin presented one of my most significant challenges yet. No one could speak English, or at least no one would speak English. What I thought were universal gesticulations for football, television and booze also gained me no ground. The Polish people were simply not very forthcoming, but I knew to expect that. Centuries of being picked on by one's neighbours does not give one a rosy outlook on visitors. For a time, I feared that I would have another Venice on my hands as there seemed to be plenty of alcohol about, but nothing to suggest any interest in football. Signage was no help, with the term 'bar' used to mean anything that served alcohol, which meant pretty much everything. I struggled my way into what seemed to be central Sczczecin. The streets were truly bustling and I attracted a great many long stares hauling my backpack through the cosmopolitan city. I found endless underground premises, each of which had the seediness of a good football watching dive, but sold benign objects such as stationery, flowers or toys. I took one hell of a long shot and sidled into a church only to confirm that, yes, Polish people are as religious as reputed and, no, they do not like to watch football in church. It would have been a spectacular find if they did. I bet they do in Argentina. Eventually, I developed some fallback options: a near empty restaurant with disposable tablecloths and a soulless Irish bar that was part of a chain. Neither inspired me, so I pushed on and bought some milk, or what I believed to be milk, along the way. I gulped from the 'milk' and nearly puked on the spot! It was lumpy and putrid. Although, something told me it was one of those weird dairy products that is supposed to be terribly good for you, so I drunk the whole lot, retching up and down gulps. It was truly horrid, but had a pleasing after taste in that I was pleased after I stopped tasting it. Now, I really needed a vodka. I had about fifteen minutes until game time when a boisterous group of young men in immaculate suits caught my ear and my eye. They were heading to 'the Rocker Club'. I spied a World Cup poster on its door and my hopes ran wild as I took the stairs underground. The lights were so dim that I could only barely see. Yet there was so much to see. About a hundred Poles sat in plush overly comfortable booths that looked like they had soaked up quite a few liver-lifetimes of drink. Others sat at wooden tables in the centre of the room. All were watching a mighty big screen. I approached the bar, cleared my throat loudly, and ordered with true Polish pride... "One vodka please!" "No vodka." Matter of fact from the barman. "No vodka?!" Terribly, visibly, disappointed. "Oh... okay... perhaps a beer then?" I felt I needed a stiff drink to recover from the shock of finding the only licensed room, probably one of the only rooms, in Poland with no vodka in it. Nevertheless, I settled into a back booth with my cold pint of 'Tyskie' only to be promptly kicked out. Reserved for some higher class of customer I gathered moving off to a side table. It was more humble and really better suited to me, or at least so someone thought. The game was about to start when a small group approached me and asked me which team I thought would win. "Poland" I declared proudly raising my glass with that Canadianesque keenness to dispel any misapprehension that I was American. Once more, louder, for the whole room's benefit... "Poland!" "Polska!" came the reply. "Oh, yes, Polksa" I said quietly, eyes down to my beer. The game started, yet the talking did not subside, especially from the suit gang that sat behind me, talking and jeering, yelling at all the wrong moments. Amazing, the way a suit really brings out the sound of one's voice. Suddenly, there came a moment for all Poles to yell. Their team... oh screw it I'm claiming them... OUR team scored a goal! I leapt up from my chair as did everyone else, even the plush-seated suits. The dark room was lit up by the rarity of beaming Poles. There was a short lived chant in the vein of "Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole", but with the word "Polska". I joined in with gusto, keen to try out my 'Polskas'. The chant was only short lived because the Americans quickly replied with a goal of their own. This brought us all back down for a moment until we saw that the goal had been disallowed. We all celebrated again and had barely settled down when Poland itself scored again! Two nil! My body found a final store of adrenalin. I was bursting with joy. The pain of the last few days completely dissipated. The train journeys, the lack of sleep, the devastation of finding no vodka, all fell away. There was a festival atmosphere in the room now. The Poles dropped their guards and I became everyone's friend. Women rushed over to me, speaking so rapidly, I could hear the tears on their tongues. The little Polish I had learned as a child came trickling back. "Dobrze! Dobrze!" I cried. It was all so very good. The US responded well, dominating the game, but producing very few scares. There is a certain confidence that comes with being two goals up within five minutes. It showed in the room and in the team who produced an attack so titillating and near that I spilt my beer on my trousers, much to the delight of all onlookers. I poured a little more on. We were all having such fun. Half time arrived with Poland still up by two goals. I went over to the bar, noticing that the room had now grown to contain many more back corner lurkers. Hundreds now. There was no way I was leaving. It might be a bad omen, I thought to myself in the common manner of punters with a misplaced sense of personal relevance. As I returned to my seat, I noticed the guy who kicked me out of my booth now shared it with his mates. A minor scam I sensed, but surely I was due for a few and this was one I could wear. I smiled at him. He simply raised an eyebrow and nodded towards the wet patch on my trousers. I left it at that. I spent the rest of the break flirting with some young girls who had skipped class to watch the game and drink beer through straws. Yes, even without sleeping, showering or shaving for days, you have still got it Mr Jucha, you have still got it. At least with Szczecinian schoolgirls anyway. I tucked into my new beer. A 'Lech'! The second half started with a yellow card being given against a Polish player for, it seemed, taking such a poor dive. It was received by the room with laughter. We did not care. We were going to win this game. I took a quick toilet break. On hearing rumbling outside, I rushed out still hitching up my damp strides to witness another fine goal! We were now up three-nil! The rapture was brief with the US quickly responding to make it three-one. Most pretended not to notice. One of the schoolgirls mentioned to me that Poland's goalkeeper lived near Szczecin. He was very popular, but she did not like his long hair. "Really, is that so?" I asked giving a Freudian stroke to my stubbles on top before excusing myself to again fetch a Lech. The game was drawing to a close and I felt wonderful. The three goals. The three pints. The three hours sleep. I felt at home in Poland. My Poland. My Polska! The final whistle blew. I was ready to celebrate a fine Polish victory, but then a very curious thing happened. Everyone just stood up and left. The room was cleared within seconds. No goodbyes. No do widzenias. Nothing. I had turned the full circle from being alone, to sharing togetherness, to being alone again. Except, I no longer felt alone. I was feeling very together and strode to the train station to move on to Denmark. And I only fell over once...

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