Johnnersintheraw's Blog

May 22, 2010

Pissing Into The Wind

The Only True Thing a Man was Born to Do.

If there is one thing a man loves doing above all the other things a man is supposed to love doing above everything else, it is pissing out of doors.  It is the one activity that a male was built to do, it is the one activity that a male is really good at doing, and it goes without saying, it is the one activity that a male really likes to do.  And this means, of course, that it is the one activity that man is prevented from doing by every single one of those so-called moral guardians who have never done it! And having never done it, and most likely having been punished even for thinking about doing it back when they still could have done it, they therefore feel it is their moral obligation to punish everyone else – by running for political office.  And once they have run for political office and have officially become politicians, they can then make it their business to prevent those who have defied the so-called moral guardians and have gone ahead and done it anyway, from ever doing it again. That is why the words and phrases, “pervert” and “wait ‘til your father gets home” and “you are under arrest” and “indecent exposure” were invented.  As well as stiff fines and lengthy prison sentences.

And all because it is the male animal’s one true talent!          

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am not talking about sexual predation.  I’m not talking about flashing in front of the church’s stain glass window on Sunday the minute the choir launches into the abridged version of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, and I’m not talking about whipping it out in the Mall and watering the begonias in the food court.  And, believe me, the last thing I am advocating is to water your grass in the back garden when your neighbours are holding a barbeque for the vicar (even though, unbeknownst to the neighbours, the vicar does it regularly in the graveyard, right on his late mother-in-law’s headstone.

What I am talking about is the joy of pissing out of doors for the sheer joy of pissing out of doors.  It is as simple as that.

I realise women might have a problem with this, and I can understand their point of view.  After all, pissing out of doors is something they are not designed for.  It is something they do not do very well.  It is something that, when they do do it, they often regret doing.  For very often, when they do do it, they fall over into the puddle they have just made.  But of course, that is when they cannot find a convenient log to squat on, and so they try to squat by simply squatting.  And even when they do find something to support them while they squat, they frequently spray urine all over themselves like a garden hose when you’ve put your finger against the nozzle into order to increase the strength of the spray.  And then they are known to say a bad word.  And forget it when they try to do it standing up, especially if they are wearing their shoes.  Because then, of course, having sprayed all over their shoes, they need about a roll and a half of loo paper, not only to dab themselves and their short and curlies, but also to wipe down their legs.  And then – it goes without saying – they feel they have to curtail the picnic – right at the moment the steaks are perfectly barbequed – in order to run to the mall in the next town to buy a new pair of shoes.  Never mind that they should have thought of going there in the first place – before the picnic even got under way – in order to pee.

In spite of the fact that women are thoroughly incompetent when it comes to pissing out of doors without making a mess, they still managed to get a law passed that permits them to do it.  And in the middle of town.  And in full view of passersby. Of course, according to this law they have to be pregnant, and they can only pee against the rear off-side wheel.  But I ask you, what is there to prevent an otherwise unpregnant woman from merely stuffing an old cushion up her jumper and pissing against any wheel she feels like?  After all, it is not as though a policeman is going to ask her to prove she is pregnant, and it is not as though most women carry around a spare pregnancy test just to prove they really are as pregnant as they say they are.   At least, not without a court order, but by the time one of those is obtained, it will be too late for the woman to funnel the pee she has splashed on to the street back into her bladder.   And as for the off-side business, they only snuck that into the law because there is no woman on earth who can understand the male-invented off-side rule.  And therefore they can plead ignorance.  But just let a man try that!  The whole thing smacks of one of the early suffragettes, who obviously forgot to go to the loo before she chained herself to the railings of the Houses of Parliament.

Which reminds me, what did happen when one of those suffragettes had to go to the toilet?  Did one of the friendly policemen – the one who had been beating her with his night-stick – simply halt his beating, say an apologetic, “Sorry, Madam, will you come this way, Madam,” and escort her into the building and out into the garden where – because of the fact there were no inside lady’s toilets at the time – she peed against the rear off-side wheel of the Prime Minister’s landau?  And afterwards, after she had sullied the upholstery of the landau, as well as her new black dress – for according to the photographs, they all seemed to favour mourning – did she demand to be escorted to the Army & Navy Stores to replace the dress and stockings and shoes she had ruined when she had sullied the upholstery of the landau when she had inadvertently missed the rear off-side wheel?  And after she had been duly escorted to The Army & Navy Stores, was she then returned to the Houses of Parliament, where – after re-chaining herself to the railings and hurling insults at the policeman – the same policeman duly picked up beating her where he’d left off?

But what about those women who snuck off while the policeman was waiting outside the ladies’ changing room in The Army & Navy Stores?  Even though every man on earth knows how long it takes a woman to change her clothes, didn’t it bother him when – after three hours had passed – she still hadn’t returned?  Even if he had been married to the slowest woman on earth – one of those who insisted on having ten dozen microscopic buttons on her bodice and who was obsessed with getting each and every button into its corresponding button hole (even if she had to undo each and every one of them a hundred times and start from the beginning) – wouldn’t he have grown suspicious after a while?  And, if so, wouldn’t he have gone to look in the restaurant, because that is undoubtedly where the woman would have been spending the last three hours – sitting with all the other women who had evaded their friendly policemen, and who had just finished a delightful three course afternoon tea – prior to slipping out the back door?

I once rode across country with a couple acquaintances of the female persuasion, and all it all it was a most enlightening experience.  Whereas usually women don’t talk a lot about their toileting habits, at least not in the presence of men who are not their husbands, these two talked about nothing else.  It seemed that the summer before they had driven across Canada, from the West Coast to the East, and being the rugged, non-nonsense types, they had slept rough during the entire journey – wherever possible avoiding the official campgrounds. It goes without saying that this is not an unusual thing for nature-lovers to do, for as anyone who has ever stayed in official campgrounds at the height of the season can tell you, they can be less peaceful than a pub on one of its monthly ‘Uptown Saturday Night ‘Free Beer’ Striptease Pub Quizzes’.  

Up to a point I enjoyed hearing about the women’s experiences.  But then they got on to the subject of relieving themselves. And after they had thoroughly rehashed every single ‘amusing incident’ that had befallen them on each single occasion when they had stopped to spend a penny, they got on to the subject of toilet paper.  Now, like many campers who are fastidious when it comes to the environment, they had originally discussed the logistics of ‘packing it out’ and carrying the soiled paper to one of the approved ‘dump stations. That plan – in the way of all such plans – went awry the first day.  So after that, they decided to do without toilet paper altogether and (as they put it) employ the good, old-fashioned ‘drip dry’ method.  Then, for the next two hours, I was forced to endure the ‘hilarity’ of their ‘summer of the urine-stained knickers’. 

Personally, I don’t like it when males – who tend to be much more scatological than females – get carried away with this sort of idiocy.  And I don’t like it any better when females resort to it either. After all, was that all there was to the holiday?  Hadn’t they passed through some sort of scenery? Hadn’t they seen any wildlife?  Hadn’t they met any interesting people?  Or was all that merely incidental to the main purpose, which was to experience “Shitting In The Woods Like Bears?”  Anyway, after about two hours of becoming increasingly pissed off, I spoiled their good time by finally opening my mouth.  First of all, I made it clear that I was speaking as a man and, therefore, was not exactly conversant with their problems when it came to peeing in the woods, to which they immediately got huffy and replied that – such being the case – I should shut up and mind my own business.  Well, I ignored that remark, and carried on.  I said that even though I was a miserable man and – therefore – a boor when it came to women in general, I happened to be a fairly experienced camper. I also pointed out that – since men were known to shit at least as often as women (and sometimes more often seeing as how they were gross and depraved) – men also had to deal with defecating in the woods.  And furthermore, when it came to clean ing up, we faced the same problems – except perhaps more so because we had hairier arses.  And without pausing for a breath – because I knew if I let them get a word in edgeways, I would never hear the end of it – I asked why, since they happened to have a car with them, they hadn’t just brought along a bucket?  And also a small shovel or some sort?  And also a few containers of water?  At this point, the driver said something not needing my input. But of course, being in full rant, I ignored her – simply to drive my message home. I suggested – for future reference – that a bucket was a handy place to squat when they had a pee.  And since they were already going to sully the forest floor with their urine, it was an easy matter simply to empty the bucket.  Then, I suggested that they could take the water they had been carrying in their car, and with that water they could wash themselves off.  And after washing themselves off, they could rinse out the bucket.  One of them tried to interrupt me by asking about the times they didn’t happen to have a car with them, to which I replied, “That’s bullshit and you know it! You never go anywhere without your bloody car. You even drive your car into your garage to pick up your other car!” And then they got all stroppy about using leaves to dry themselves off, and about how they always ended up using the wrong leaves – the ones that gave them rashes.  And that was when I opened my mouth one too many times and mentioned buying a guide book for local flora.  At which they said yelled, “All men were alike,” to which I retaliated, “At least a man pisses; we wouldn’t be caught dead wee-ing or tinkling.”

Interestingly enough, I never saw them after that, and they even stopped sending me their tie-dye greeting cards for Christmas.   

But back to the unbridled joy of men pissing in the great outdoors.  Unlike women, who seem to like to urinate in packs, men – at least when indoors – tend to treat it as a solitary exercise.  For example, when standing at a urinal when there is another man standing beside them, they cover themselves and look straight ahead.  Setting aside accepted etiquette, it is a territorial thing. A man urinating is a vulnerable man.

However, get a man outdoors, and man reverts to a more primitive state.  Whereas in a restaurant, two or three men sitting at the same table would never even think about going to the toilet at the same time – which is what women seem to do.  However, get them outside and at the edge of the car park, and they will have a grand old group piss-out.  And (excepting in certain cultures where it is taboo for a man to look at another man’s private parts) it is pretty much universal.  In fact, pissing in the great outdoors seemed to be one of the few activities during which even sworn enemies can call a truce.

In every single country in which I have lived (except for those dominated by Islam) I have seen men – young and old and in between – celebrating this one particular moment together.  No matter whether it’s on the side of a road or on a mountain top or on the edge of a cliff, the scenery is always better if it’s enjoyed while in the company of fellow pissers.

It goes without saying that pissing out of doors can be a risky business.  First of all, right at the point of no-return, when there is no chance of turning it off, the wind is bound to change.  And if you are in a group – all standing in a line in the usual way for you never piss in a circle, all facing inwards – and the wind resorts to the sort cheap whiplash joke it saves for such occasions, you’ll find that all men who have always pissed like men in the great outdoors, can all turn together, as if by some secret signal.  So clever are they that it’s only when the wind double-crosses them that they end up pissing on their neighbour’s breeks.

I know quite a few men who – given the choice – will always piss outdoors.  Even when they are at their own house. Perhaps it’s a throwback to bygone days when we used to mark our territory.  Who knows?  It makes sense to me.

Several years ago, I found myself staying at a small, disused hill farm in the mountains. Close to the shack in which I lived there was a family of foxes.  At the time, I was reading a book by Farley Mowat – Never Cry Wolf – in which the protagonist (I believe based on Mowat himself), decided to see how well the wolves would respect the territory he himself would establish by using his own urine trail.  And so, I decided, why not try it myself.  And so I did.  With the same results.  After encircling my little home with a trail of piss, I went inside and waited and watched.  Sure enough, the next morning, I found that the male fox had marked his territory just outside mine. I was ecstatic!  And I felt that, for once in my life, I had actually done something that mattered, and which was in tune with what nature had intended.

But back to pissing outdoors in more mundane surroundings.  It goes without saying, the minute you get caught out when you are walking alone along a completely deserted road – without a vehicle in sight – the second you open your flies and start to spray the countryside, there will be, not only one car coming from one direction, but ten cars coming from both directions.  And they will all pass each other right at the point at which you’re standing.  It never fails.  Of course, you could always turn around and salute the passengers, but I really would not recommend it.  Because at least four of the cars are bound to have little children riding in the back, the parents of which will inevitably be city dwellers that will look upon any man with open flies as a sex offender – no matter that he happens to be innocently pissing at the time his flies were open.  In this day and age, it is better to play it safe than to see your name placed on the sex-offenders list for pissing in front of a child.

Ah… but pissing into the wind and in the middle of a gale: that is when a clown like me feels most alive. And when I also happen to be standing on a cliff facing out to a north Atlantic sea, I am as close to heaven as I am ever likely to be.  And what about splashing?  What about splashing?  I am standing in a bloody gale, aren’t I!  Or as they say, “Innit!”

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May 19, 2010

The Slurry Wagon

North Atlantic gales and collies and labradors and a moment of ecstasy.

I adopted my doggie sometime late in the springtime.  Along the ridges and through the fields and bogs the furze was cloaked with blossoms of mustardy yellow. And all along the six-foot- high dry stone walls lining the narrow boreen that started at the top of the hill and wound its way to its eventual endgame  in the ocean, blackberry brambles were sprouting pale green leaflets and the sweet-smelling wild roses – tiny, old-fashioned, single-petalled and delicately white – filled the moist, cloud-drenched island air with fragrance.  I lived three quarters of the way down this boreen – a good half a mile below the double farmhouse at the top, with its cluster of barns and tiny fields in which fifteen or twenty calves grew fat and happy grazing on the lush, emerald green grass.  Two hundred yards above me was a small sheep farm; directly below and to my rear was the sea.  And it was here – in a typically squat, determinedly ugly, and utterly sea-worthy, bunker-like cottage – that I had unpacked my bags. For at that particular moment in time, I called it my home.

Like all such bunker-like cottages built within spitting distance of the jagged west-facing cliffs, the eyes of its soul – its windows – looked eastward, towards light and the morning sun and across the endless vista of hills and bogs and faraway grey mountains. Although the view on the western side was more spectacular, no one but summer visitors would think of inserting picture windows into west-facing rooms.  The constant north Atlantic gales that sweep through such islands and which have shaped the peoples since the dawn of time, and which enshroud the hills and valleys and bogs with perpetual mist and dampness and a sense of foreboding, simply laugh at such folly.  For as soon as the visitors move into to the new holiday homes they have built, the waves crash against their west-facing picture windows to drive their point home.  However, those  souls who were born to these gales, and who have lost generations of fisherman sons to the North Atlantic swells, and who have spent half their lives in darkness – for in winter the light comes late and does not linger for more than a few hours – such light as can be had is not a luxury.  It is a blessing and a necessity. Hence, windows face east, away from the storms and towards this life-giving light, as well as towards a gentler, more pastoral landscape; in other words, towards the dawning of the next new day.

Besides, as every islander knows, what good is a window unless it faces the road?  And what good is a window unless the neighbours can see that the window is spotlessly clean, and that the seldom-used front parlour behind it is as spic and span as spic and span can be.  For if it is not, never fear – the whole village and county will soon hear of it.  “Poor dear,” the biddies will lament with glee, as they gather with others to sit in their own back kitchens and hash and re-hash the foul tragedy over plates of scones and cups of black inky tea.  “Did you notice how she didn’t get up for mass last Sunday, and how she had to be helped with her shopping bags when she got off the community bus? There will be tears and a wake within a fortnight, with a Mass on a Tuesday, so you had better be getting yourselves over to Mary’s by the Friday before.  To have your hair set early, so it will be less frizzy, you know.”

In other words, everyone judges you by the state of your front windows.  And don’t think you can avoid the issue by simply keeping the curtains closed.  For to keep your curtains closed means one of only four things:  that you’ve gone away; that you are poorly; that you are dead; or that you are dead drunk.  Now, since I am not the type to clean my windows for the benefit of others, I always kept my front curtains closed.  True, I lived in perpetual gloom – for the windows at the back were so small that what light there was couldn’t find its way into the house – but being the stubborn male creature that I am, I couldn’t see any sense in going out in the middle of a raging storm to wash the windows.  Because, you see, there was always a raging storm in progress, but nobody else seemed to find anything strange about washing one’s windows right in the middle of it.

And speaking of gales and storms and howling winds, not even a hurricane-force howler would prevent even the most desperately ill pensioner from hanging her washing out on the line if that is what she had in mind to do.  And to be perfectly candid, if anyone waited until the weather was less rowdy in order to dry their laundry and not get soaked through to their bones, it would never be hung up at all.  When I first arrived I used to wonder why and how my neighbour would rush out into the fiercest gale and hang her wash and then simply forget about it.  For if we had been anywhere else on earth, all those clothes and sheets and towels would have been blown into the next county within a second and a half.  But not so on the island.   So I asked her how such a thing could be, and she let me in on the secret:  ‘Gale-Proof’ clothes-pegs!  And to think, I had never even heard of such a thing before.  Needless to say, they were by far the most popular item (after window-cleaning supplies) in the local hardware store – a store very much like an old-fashioned general store.    

I had not been there long before I decided it might be nice to be taken care of by a dog.  I didn’t want a sheepdog, simple because they are outside dogs and working dogs and I had no work for one to do.  They are not at their happiest if cosseted on a couch twenty-four hours a day.  Yes, sitting by the Aga and living the life of Riley might please them for a few hours of an afternoon and evening, but Border Collies are not among nature’s born contemplatives.  They grow bored and they grow restive (and, believe me, nothing can look as bored as a bored Border Collie).  They look out the east-facing window towards the fields of sheep and they sigh and they moan and they groan and they whimper, and should you persist in refusing to take the hint, they finally shout, “Please give me some feckin’ work to do!  Give me some sheep that I may take care of them and herd them this way and that and worry them half to death, and if you do what I want I  promise to love, honour and obey you forever and ever. And I won’t even nip you on your heals when you get in my way!” 

But even had I wanted one of these treasures, I had to remember that I was surrounded on all sides by small sheep farms, and on each farm on lived a couple of sheep dogs, none of which would be happy to welcome a newcomer. Of course, I could have made a compromise amenable to everyone – to the neighbouring dogs and to their owners and to myself – by simply adopting a Border Collie pup.  For many of the neighbouring sheepdogs were getting on in years. A puppy can easily be integrated into an existing community; it could simply join in with my neighbours collies in their tasks, and then at such time as one of the older animals died or got too weak, it could take its place.  Also, under this arrangement, if and when I should decide to leave and move elsewhere – for I have notoriously restless feet and little feeling for a settled life if it doesn’t suit me – my dog would have a home and a job.  And everything in the garden would be lovely.

However, as much as I love and appreciate Border Collies, what I really wanted – if I wanted anything at all – was a companion dog, a low-maintenance beastie whose natural inclination was to sit on the sofa and snuggle and be a best friend.  I also wanted a quiet dog, a tidy dog, and a dog that wouldn’t eat me out of house and home.  In other words, the last thing on my mind was a Labrador.  For although when it comes to food I am extremely disciplined and rarely give snacks either to myself or to any pets I may have, a labrador’s natural-born love-affair is not with its owner so much as with the owner’s refrigerator.  They can’t help it; it’s how they are made.  Now, every once in a while every well-behaved Labrador should be taken outside and away from its beloved refrigerator and its jealously guarded food bowl – for as every Labrador owner knows, a labrador’s fulltime indoor job – when not guarding the refrigerator – is to monitor whether, in a moment of inattention, an atom of food might not have made it way into this treasured receptacle; for surely, such a morsel must be there somewhere – just waiting to be slurped up by the labrador’s tongue.  And since a Labrador has a particularly suspicious mind where food is concerned, a speck of food can only mean one thing: that another dog will appear from the depths of nowhere and gobble it up. Right in front of him.  And since he is suspicious on an equal-opportunity basis, and insanely jealous in regards to every edible thing in the entire universe, he is – it goes without saying – profoundly distrustful of the neighbour’s cats.  For all cats – no matter what colour, no matter what shape, and no matter if the cats are never let out of their owner’s house – are always covetous of a labrador’s food bowl; they will stop at nothing to lure the poor Labrador away – possibly even to its death in the bog – so that they might claim that one tiny remaining titbit that is lurking on the bottom of the bowl. And that is the truth.

But as I started to say, every once in a while, every Labrador should be torn away from its beloved refrigerator and food bowl and taken outside.  And this, to every Labrador, means just one thing.  Playtime.  And to a Labrador, playtime invariably means water and mud and poking its nose in the neighbour’s business (which, in turn, often annoys the neighbour’s sheep dogs) and, of course, it also means raiding every neighbours’ refrigerators and cleaning their cat boxes and,  just perhaps, even relieving that one neighbour of her bothersome budgerigar.

 Now, Labradors are not scrappy individuals.  They are not terriers, always spoiling for a fight.  They are simply the canine version of the happy-go-lucky village vacuum cleaner.  From the minute of their birth, they know that no one – except for you, but you don’t count because you are evil-minded, pinch-faced and stingy – can resist feeding a visiting Labrador that extra wedge of cake (the wedge that was absentmindedly left unguarded for a nanosecond); for you see, as far as the labrador is concerned, everything that is within reach of his mouth belongs in his stomach.  And as every Labrador owner knows, a labrador’s mouth is faster than a speeding bullet and able to eat entire picnic baskets without appearing to move a muscle.

Now everyone claims that Labradors are ideal kids’ dogs, for they are patient, long-suffering and they rarely if ever lose their cool.  But the only reason that any labrador assumes this living-cuddly-teddy-bear disguise is that they know that sooner or later – whenever the kid is in the vicinity of food – he (the living-cuddly-teddy-bear) will consume every bite of it.  And if a kid should get upset and end up with a second or third of even a fourth helping, the kid still will go to bed starving. Because where food is concerned, labradors know their stuff.

As regards kids and food and Labradors, we should put aside – for the time being – any thoughts we might have about taking him straight to the vets for a permanent vacation. For, although you might not have given this much thought, Labradors are extremely far-sighted.  They instinctive know if a kid has a future as a high-fashion model. And that being the case, all it is doing is preparing that kid for a life of starvation and deprivation.  And let us never when forget the starving children of Biafra and Somalia and The Congo.  Had their parents not had Labradors at the beginning of children’s lives, those children would not have been as well prepared as they are for a diet of one meal per lifetime.

But are Labradors appreciated for their childhood starvation preparation talents?  Not a bit of it.  And does it occur to any of the stressed-out dieticians and healthcare professions that deal with the issue of childhood obesity that there is an easy and cost-effective solution?  Buy each kid a Labrador, and that kid will lose all its surplus avoirdupois in a day and a half.  Unless, of course, the kid simply turns around and eats the Labrador.  But you can’t win them all.

I will admit, Labradors do have one serious behaviour problem.  Should anyone within two hundred yards happen to be taking a deep breath when a Labrador decides to fart, that person will have no chance at all.  He will be dead.

Come to think of it, with all the problems the American seem to be having with their methods of executing their death-row inmates, wouldn’t it save a lot of time simply by feeding a Labrador two kilos of corn beef and cabbage and baked beans, and then simply locking it into a small, airless room with the condemned man?

It goes without saying that a Labrador is not for me.  Besides, they all seem to wear this perpetually happy-face, and I’m just not a happy-face kinda guy.

Did I finally settle on a dog?  Yes and no, for although I settled on a member of the canine family, she was not only not a dog, but she a bitch.  For if it is a nice clean undoggy canine you want, then I should recommend a female any day of the week.  But, “What was she?” I hear you ask.

 Well let me describe her for you.  She was about thigh high and her coat was dark brown.  She had liquid, almond-shaped eyes of darkest chocolate, and the figure of a supermodel; she could run like the wind, and she was as dainty as a gazelle.  She was completely fastidious in her habits; she was hypoallergenic and had no doggie odour whatsoever.  So polite was she that she would not even enter a room without permission.  She never begged; she didn’t appear to even know what a refrigerator was.  Her appetite was tiny – less than a cup of food two times a day – and being polite, she always left that one little bit on the plate. She was incredibly healthy and always maintained her perfect weight.  She preferred me to be in the room with her while she ate, but didn’t like it if I looked at her while she was eating.  She was also incredible quiet; she never barked.  And if she had to go outside, she would simply give me a certain ‘look’, and make an almost inaudible ‘squeak’. That was her sign that she was in a hurry – and if, in the middle of the night, she heard a hedgehog snuffling about on the grass, she would squeak twice.  It was her, “Let’s go hunt a hedgehog” squeak.  I only ever heard her bark once, and that was when a hare jumped up on the window sill and looked in at her. Otherwise, she never made a sound.  

When I first adopted her, it was during lambing.  It goes without saying I did not want to take any chances that – when I took her out for a run – she might take off after a new-born lamb. After all, she was born to the chase.  And so what I did was to fasten a thirty foot lunge line to her collar and take her as far away from the lambing shed as possible – down to the far pastures on the cliff.  And there she would run.  And run.  And run.  And when she had finished she had a habit of leaping on to the top of one of the great dry-stone walls, as if to say, “Here I am!”  And there she would recline like the lady she was – not even panting – waiting to be escorted home.

The rest of the time she was a complete couch-potato.  And at night, she slept under two duvets on my bed.  She never scratched, never chewed herself, and besides having a natural tendency to sleep right up close to me for warmth – which occasionally left me with only a few inches for myself – she never, ever disturbed my sleep.

The day after I brought her home was the day the farmer was spreading slurry on the fields.  Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this practice, let me explain.  Slurry is usually cow manure that has been left in a vat to ferment for about a year. It is an ancient method of making fertilizer and it is strictly regulated.  

On the island, because of the weather and climate, the fields normally grew at least five cuttings of silage each year.  Each time the silage was mowed, slurry would be spread on to the stubble.

Needless to say, the day the slurry was spread the smell was somewhat strong.  Personally, I like the stink; to me it  smells like the earth and nature and how things ought to be.

Now, on that magical day, my doggie and I happened to be sitting outside the front door the first time the slurry wagon passed.  And the minute the wagon passed in front of us (for the wagons themselves smell very strong), her eyes glazed over; she tilted her head back and breathed in.  It was a very long, very deep breath.  She shuddered.  Her eyes started to water, her whole body started to vibrate.  And then she sighed.

Never before or since have I seen anyone transported like that.  It was – purely and simply – ecstasy.  And when it was over, she put her head in my lap, turned over on her back, and moaned.

Over the months and years that followed, she never paid the slightest bit of attention to the wagon, and since she was very fastidious about where she walked, she didn’t even like walking down the boreen with me on days when slurry was being spread – for, of course, the spreader dribbled when it was closed and left a string of splatters on the track.

It was just that one time. The first time. When life was new, and my lovely greyhound and I were sitting on the grass in front of our cottage; everything in heaven and earth was in its right place, and as a bonus she was given a special welcome to her brand new home.  For one split second, the cosmos held its breath and time stood still – and let the slurry wagon pass and give her its blessing.

May 18, 2010

Lost in Alexandria

Prowling Around the Back Streets and Alleyways of a City of Dreams

I have a real love of public transport.  And although I miss the countryside and all that it has to offer, I do love cities.  I especially love cities that have real people living in them; in other words, cities with a good public transportation system.  Because for me, the minute a city has become sterile and its services consist of private car parks and outlet malls and fast-food franchises and botoxed faces, then that is not a city in which I can breathe.  It might have all the best libraries and museums and theatres in the world, but if there are no buses or undergrounds, I’ll go somewhere else. Because I can drive around in cars anywhere; in a city I want to see and smell and taste the city itself. I want to uncover the street life, and the best way to do that is by walking from one end of it to the other.  And yes, by taking public transport.  And, by that, I mean by exploring as much of each and every route as possible.  Because – after all – every separate route .leads to a different place. Or, if they do happen to end up at the same place, then the route by which they travel is along a different set of streets.

One of the first lessons I was given as a kid – and a lesson that has stuck with me through thick and through thin – is that  upon arriving in a strange, new city  the first thing you do is to sample that city’s sights and sounds and flavours.  And, no, this isn’t done through going to a travel agent or through a faceless concierge in your indentikit hotel or in booking a guide to take you on the ‘official unofficial’ tour – which, it goes without saying, is conducted in the back of a car or in an air-conditioned coach.  And in both cases you are at the mercy of this guide (and in the coach this factotum is certain to have a microphone turned on to ‘full-blast’). That’s all very well if you are on a package tour and have only half a day before you move on to the next city and/or ruins, or if – to  put it bluntly – you simply can’t sand another moment of ‘experiencing the Third World’.  And that’s fair enough, because it’s honest.  On the other hand, if that is all you want out of life, then why bother to visit at all – just stay at home, save yourself a lot of money and discomfort, and watch the travel channel.  Of course, that way you won’t be able to share your travel-related horror-stories with your friends, but you can’t have it both ways. But back to guides and pre-arranged tours.  What you have to understand is that nothing they will show you will resemble the city or country in which they live.  For no matter how conscientious the guides happen to be, their tour will have been designed by some expert or other who ‘knows’ what the visitor will want to see.  And you can be sure that on their list there will be nothing that hasn’t been vetted by the chamber of commerce or the guide books or the ministry of tourism. In other words, you will never even hear about the truly exasperating and shimmering parts of the city, much less the nitty-gritty areas that, for the locals, make their everyday lives come alive.

I will never say that you should not do a certain amount of homework, for every city has areas that are best avoided, just as every city has its own special secrets.  This, however, does not mean you should Google the FBI/CIA websites or stick to the news agencies of your own countries. For contrary to what you might have heard, other countries do report news accurately, and not all of them cover up the negative and the ugly. And no, not all of their news is propaganda.  And if you would rather not believe me, just remember this: every month, thousands of tourists visit dozens of countries and most of them even live to tell about it.  And also keep in mind that you are just as likely to get diarrhoea drinking bottled water in Dallas as you are eating falafel from a market stall in Ibrahimea. 

So anyway, here you are in Alexandria!  You are all squared away in your hotel, having unpacked and eaten a good hotel lunch of over-cooked chicken, and you are ready to hit the streets.  Now remember, the first thing you do is ignore the concierge at all costs.  First of all, many of them really don’t know what’s going on if it’s not already listed in the hotel’s ‘What’s On’ Guide, plus the fact that they will never ever have a decent map.  But in any case, even if all you want the concierge for is to book theatre tickets, wouldn’t you prefer to go to the theatre yourself and see what seats are actually available?  It’s not only an eye-opener to discover how much money you will save, but – and this is a real bonus – you will actually get to know where the theatre is; and wouldn’t it be interesting to discover what else is happening in that particular neighbourhood?  For, as far as I am concerned, the whole purpose of travelling – indeed, the whole purpose of life – is to be constantly surprised by sounds and tastes you have never before even imagined. And as for the theatre itself, there will possibly be other offerings not listed in the hotel’s brochure. For believe me, it is only for the ‘major’ events that the theatre or opera house will bother notifying the hotels. In other words, if the production happens not to target a higher-end audience willing to pay a lot of money, the concierge will never hear of it.  And also – in Alexandria – there is the probability that the production will have been cancelled, but since nobody in Alexandria ever notifies anyone of anything, your concierge would not have been informed. 

Another good reason to check out the theatre yourself is that you can also investigate any bus or mini-bus routes that take you back to the hotel; for believe me, there will be dozens of them.  This, for me, is extremely important.  I’m not being a cheapo here – although I admit to preferring to spend my money on something else besides a taxi. However, let’s be brutally honest; in many countries taking a taxi means one thing:  bargaining, endless whinging, perpetual wheedling, followed by yet more bargaining.  And I’m talking about bargaining that will not stop from one end of the ride to the other.  What you will discover is – yes – you may have agreed on a price beforehand, but from the moment the taxi leaves the curb (and you are deluded enough to believe that the affair of the fare has been satisfactorily settled) that’s when the driver suggests that there is, of course, the matter of the tip. And, from that point on, instead of being able to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of the city, you will perforce listen to a non-stop whine about what a good driver he is, about how the driver has to support his brother’s sixteen children in addition to his own, and about how he has to pay for an operation for this mother. Now, what you have to remember is that the story is always the same; it is, in fact, the same story that ruined the visits of tourists two thousand years ago. And, more recently, it is why “The boy stood on the burning deck” (the boy in question being young Casabianca, the son of one of Napoleon’s admirals) chose to burn to a crisp rather than to swim ashore and risk a taxi to the Cairo Airport. For me – and I am willing to admit that it is personal – on the whole, I would rather leave two hours early and take the most crowded bus  that deal with the average taxi driver.   I’ve been there, done that,  bought the fuckin T-shirt  and, what’s more, I can repeat the spiel back – word for word (in the identical tone of voice) to any taxi driver who dares inflict me with it.  And if you take taxis often enough you will hear it in all its hundreds and thousands of variations.  And you might even hear three different versions from the same driver who picked you up from the airport, who later drove you out to Carrefour, and who – later still – picked you up at Carrefour and drove you back to your hotel.  It’s called one of the seven wonders of Egypt.  And I’m sure it’s why Marc Antony eventually committed suicide.  After all, with Cleopatra dead and unable to bargain on his behalf, he never ever would have been able to set a fare to the airport.  It was simply more pleasant to die.

Needless to say, if you ever ask an Egyptian how much you should pay a taxi to take you – say – to the Greco-Roman amphitheatre (which is has never heard of), he will immediately tell you that you can get a much better deal on a new Nokia phone at Sidi Gaber, and that the tariff to Sidi Gaber is five pounds and not a piaster more.  It is then that you laugh in his face.  Because, you see, you are not Egyptian.  An Egyptian simply gets into a taxi, gets out at the other end, pays the driver the five pounds, and slams the door.  But, as a foreigner, even had an Egyptian settled on a fare on your behalf, the minute you have left in the taxi, and your Egyptian friend is safely back on the street, your driver suddenly doesn’t remember that anything has ever been discussed.  And so the bargaining begins.

Now, I will admit here and now to having sunk to a new level of deceit.  It’s called speaking French. I simply get into a taxi next to the drive, and bark a resolute “Bonjour, Monsieur.” I have found to my great joy that this confuses the driver.  And being confused, he simply accepts whatever sum I give to him (and here, let us be fair:  although I am as skint as a bucket of skinflints, I still have more money than the average Egyptian.  Taxi drivers work very hard.  And I certainly do not expect to pay the same low, low tariff as an Egyptian).  However, I would much rather hear the whinge in French than I would in English. After all, in English I am forced to understand it.

And while we are on the subject of foreigners and bargaining – and let’s face it, there is nothing dearer to an Egyptian’s heart that proving that every foreigner is the idiot that he truly is – I have a story for you.

A couple of months ago, I became acquainted with a young student teacher from Brazil. Now, it so happened he was well-educated, well-travelled and savvy; what’s more he also knew how to use his appearance to get everything at ‘local’ prices. Because, of course, the ethnic mix in Brazil often has more in common with that of North Africa than it does with the rest of Latin America.  And because of his appearance – for let’s face it – the modern Egyptian is an homogenous blend of many different peoples – everyone in the market automatically assumed that he could be either a Nubian or an Egyptian of Sudanese descent or some other mix.  And consequently, just so long as he kept his mouth shut (for he did not speak Arabic) he always paid what the Egyptians paid for everything.  And I do mean everything.   

Now this is where is gets funny.  The other students in his ESL certification class were either Americans of European descent or Northern European themselves.  In other words, the last thing they looked like was Egyptian.  Now, it goes without saying that every one of the students was on a tight budget.  Therefore, the minute they realised the Brazilian could get things for practically nothing – whereas they always had to pay ten times as much – he would invariably end up with their shopping lists.  So far, so good; all’s fair in love and war and in saving a buck or three.

As I’ve already mentioned, this Brazilian guy knew enough to keep his mouth shut when out shopping; he would simply point to whatever he wanted, then pay and leave.  The fact that he hadn’t spoken was irrelevant.

And when he happened to be accompanied by one of his American friends, he still pointed and still said nothing.  And if for some reason, he did speak English to one of the others in the group, the stallholders still assumed that he was Egyptian.  After all, plenty of Egyptians speak at least a little English.  But then – alas – came the day when he actually needed to ask for something.  It was at that moment, of course, when the stallholder – who had been selling items to him at reduced rates for a good three weeks – suddenly saw the light of day.   And, of course, he laughed.  What a wonderful jokester the Brazilian was!  However, to cut a long story short, the Brazilian instantly lost his Egyptian status, as well as the privileges that went with them.  Knowing the Egyptians as I do, he probably ended up paying twice as much as any other foreigner. And to make matters worse, he was never again given any of the choicest fruit. But, of course, he was now a foreigner and all foreigners are stupid; he was simply being put in his place.

Now, you may recall that at the very beginning of this piece, I mentioned that – when I was very young –  I was given an invaluable piece of advice (the only one to which I have ever actually listened).  It is the key to unlocking the mysteries of any city in the world.  And it is this:  the first thing you do, upon arriving in a city – after you get settled in – is to get on the first bus you see.  And once you are on the bus, let yourself be absorbed into the life of the bus, into the lives of the people on the bus, and into the life of the passing streets.  Simply open your eyes and ears, and let yourself go.  And when you get to a place that looks interesting, simply get off and start walking.  And don’t worry about getting lost, because in a city teaming with life, there is no such thing as getting lost.  Yes, you might misplace yourself.  But even should you happen to get totally tangled up, you simply ask for directions (and having asked for directions, you will immediately be invited to eat lunch with everyone within earshot).  

It goes without saying you will have remembered to write down the name of your hotel (I least I hope you have).  And, of course, although I hate to inflict one on you in your very first day in Egypt, there’s always a taxi in case of emergencies. 

Mobile phones may be the bane of my existence, but they really can be lifesavers. And in countries such as Egypt, handsets and SIM cards are cheap.  Plus, since they are invariably pay-as-you-go, you are not going to end up with a large bill at the end of your visit.   Therefore, buy an inexpensive phone; write down the number (as well as the number of your hotel – and yes – your Consulate if you are so inclined – as well as the number of that one person in your family back home in Dundee or Duluth who is most likely to panic).

But anyway, don’t worry about getting lost.  You are, after all, in a foreign city for the sole purpose of discovering that city.  And how you do this is by taking buses – any and all buses – and then by walking and walking and walking.  And whilst you are doing this, you will meet new friends; in fact, if you are in Egypt, by the end of the first day you will have more friends than you’ve ever had in your life.

Before we go any further, here is another thing worth remembering. Each and every one of your new friends will want your phone number, and if they are male, ninety-nine percent of them will be named Mohammed or Ahmed or Mahmud. And all of them will phone you at three o’clock in the morning and invite you out to tea and sheeshah.  For in Egypt, life begins after ten or eleven at night; sitting in cafes until all hours with your friends in an Egyptian tradition.  So don’t get annoyed, and when you enter their names on your contact list, remember to add their second name as well – for in the Arab tradition, each and every person carries four names: his or her own name, followed by his or her father’s name, followed by his father’s name, followed by his father’s name. So if a new friend tells you his name is Mohammed, it will save a lot of embarrassment later on if you ask him to tell you his second name as well. That way instead of being listed as one of thirty Mohammeds, he will become known to you as (for example) Mohammed Sayed (which is easier to remember than Mohammed Number Two).  Otherwise, when you receive twelve different calls from twelve different Mohammeds at three in the morning, you will be able to avoid the usual scenario wherein whichever Mohammed it is will be hurt because you can’t tell him apart from all the other Mohammeds.

One additional suggestion.  Now I know I’ve come down hard on taxi drivers, but when you do meet a good one and he wants to give you his phone number, enter in on your phone.  Because you never know when you might need the services of a good taxi.  And if a rotten drive insists on giving you his number, simply enter it – and after you’ve gone, push the delete button.

Over the past years, because of my curiosity, I have discovered no end of out-of-the-ordinary places in Alexandria. And since the average Egyptian, just like the average Englishman or American or Frenchman or Irishman or (yes, I know, and I’m sorry) Scotsman, won’t have a clue about what’s going on in his or her country – it will be up to you to discover everything for yourself.  Now, I happen to love the local markets in the back streets, as well as the twisty-turny hidden passageways where ordinary people go to shop for special delicacies and bespoke items. I also like to know what sort of cafe is frequented by what sort of people.

For a while I used to suggest to foreign visitors that they might like to visit some of these amazing, magical places, and I always ended on the receiving end of a blank stare.  Because almost none of them ever take buses, they don’t know one district for the other, and when they do go out, it is invariably to Carrefour (which is, after all, a mall like every other mall in the world, and therefore just like home).  Either that, or they go somewhere on a set tour arranged by their school.  Having been burned, I now mind my own business.

At one point (for my sins) I taught one or two evening classes to Egyptian students.  One of the joys of this experience was to have been able to share with them some of Egypt’s cultural icons, of whom they had often heard very little.  For example, none of them had heard of Nass Makan – which is in Cairo and is the Centre for Traditional Egyptian folk music (it is, by the way, on the web – and it also has a page on Facebook). Another name with which to conjure was and is Rahnda Fahmy, who is possibly the greatest female coppersmith in the world, and whose works are displayed in every major museum and gallery and palace (and – yes – mosque) throughout the Middle East, Asia and Europe.  Her sister, Azza, is a major jewellery designer.  The list goes on and on and on… and the maddening thing was not that my Egyptian students knew very little about their own cultural treasures, but that not a single one of the people responsible for running the ESL training centre – which was supposedly guaranteeing foreign students an insight into Egyptian culture – had even heard of any of them.  Nor were they interested.

For what it’s worth, in case you ever do happen to visit Alexandria, here are a couple of places to explore:  first of all, The Friday Market, which is the most outrageously chaotic flea market you will ever find.  It is open Thursdays and Fridays (afternoons to well after midnight) and is located between Anfushi and El Max on Sharia Abaza Oshmann (and which spreads out higgledy-piggledy in all directions).  And then, of course – and this a part of the Friday market, as well – along the canal is to be found the market for new toilets.  And if that isn’t worth more than a visit to the Pyramids, I don’t know what is!  Another little gem is on the rue Nabi Daniel, near Manshea. It is a tiny market chock full of booksellers.  And no, it is not as good as the one in Cairo, nor can it be compared to the Left Bank in Paris, but I have never failed to find at least one long-forgotten and discontinued Penguins amidst the madness.  And yes, just a few minutes from the bookstalls are a couple of legendary cafes.  And while they may be crumbling and the service may be appalling, you cannot sit in their faded and dusty splendour and not be sucked back into the past, to an era when Alexandria was the Alexandria of everyone’s memory.  One more thing:  Across Nabi Daniel (and this is probably the only place in Alexandria where you can actually cross the street and not be run over) is the French Cultural Centre.  Their small exhibitions are truly wonderful, they have a full program of concerts and films (all free), as well as a small French/Arabic bookshop and a mediateque. … and, last but not least, a peaceful garden where you can sit and not be surrounded by noise.  And as a bonus, inside the villa they have well-polished floors.

If there is one thing you should embed in your psyche it is that Egyptians do not have the western concept of service.  So leave any thoughts you have about the customer always being right at home.  If you don’t, I promise you will be miserable.

And one more thing.  Egyptians are not politically correct and everyone yells at everyone else.  So for once in your repressed and frustrated and timid little politically-correct life, go ahead and yell back.  Because nobody will mind at all.  It is the Egyptian way.

Do you want to know one last thing?  I bet you I am the only foreigner in Alex who knows where a certain pet camel lives (and no, it is not the one in the seafood restaurant).  Its home is somewhere near the shipyards.  But if you want to find it, you’ll have to prowl around and find it for yourself.

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