24 February 2011

Identifying me

I open the drawer by the side of my bed and absentmindedly, pick up my passport; my gateway into many cultures and my permission to explore them all. I run my fingers over the worn leathery cover, which feels soft and comfortable in my hand. The striking dragon’s blood red, as if stained with a real history of knights, castles and battles won over the land that is my home – is now slightly faded from creasing and wrinkles. Those gold capital letters, proudly splayed across the front, declaring Queen and country, have also worn off slightly, and look positively tired. Sticky splodges of God-knows-what (perhaps some sort of travel sweet or fizzy drink - now unidentifiable and covered in fluff) are splattered up the spine. My eyes fall upon the lion poised proudly on the left of the Royal coat of arms; perhaps he is smiling - or maybe roaring -  but he, more than anything looks faded and old.
The corners are black and dusty; dirty from too many rowdy nights out tucked safely away in my handbag, crushed up against smashed blushers and broken eye-shadow pots.
The book bends easily, and I flick absentmindedly through the pages. Almost all of them blank, leaving just a whirr of pastel-coloured paper and the odd flash of blue, red and black inks stamped towards the back. In flicking I’d created a light breeze, which made me blink a bit and instantly the musty air it aroused brought back memories of long journeys in the back of chicken buses.
There’s a stamp or two from Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras (which, I may add, is the prettiest stamp in the book). Then there was the one I’d got at the Mexican border. The customs officer, in a flurry to pass as many people as possible through his gate had half missed the page and stamped the table instead. I’d walked away really cross, debating at nineteen years old whether I was brave enough to walk back up to him and ask for another one. Needless to say, I didn’t. I remembered the scary-looking official in Orlando, in the US of A, who - much to my horror - randomly picked any old page in my passport to stamp, and did so upside down. Then, as knocking my carefully collected stamps out of chronological order, eyeballed me through his gate, as if daring me to protest. But most of the pages remained bare, characterless and without a story - and from now on, they always would.

I knew exactly how I’d feel as I felt my thumb slide further past the pastel pages flicking forward and stopping right at the back – more specifically the very last page. It opened with ease – exactly as it’s meant to – and I came face to face with my sixteen-year-old-self. The picture was just a little fuzzy, and glittered wildly from holograms of roses and italic writing as I moved it ever so slightly to catch the light. My thoughts walked me back to the day it had been taken - before some school ski trip – if I remember rightly. I’d worn a V-neck black jumper and haematite crystal crucifix on a leather thong around my neck, trying to look distinguished. I recall Mum saying at the time:

“You’ll be using this until you’re twenty-five. In 2011 - now, can you imagine that?”

I remember thinking it sounded light years away, and I’d be so old I’d have a husband, a house of my own and babies by then. So I’d gone all out to look grown-up, just in case they weren’t completely sure it was me once I'd become so sophisticated.

My shoulder-length hair, usually a dark brown, looked black in this photograph, and in contrast, my skin appeared a luminous white. I’d really loved the Gothic look at sixteen; dark eyes, dark hair, dark clothes – all dark, but with this beautiful bright outlook.
I suppose they’d never allow a picture like that now – too much smiling. Plus, you couldn’t see my eyes.
‘Too dark’, they’d say, then send it right back.
I’d queued at the photo booth in Tescos as Mum paid for the weekly shopping. Once inside, I had to twirl the seat around and around, adjusting the height. I carefully applied my ‘nude’ lipstick and dropped £3 into the slot, before posing and adopting a half coy smile as the instructions spoke out from the speaker at the front.
"Hurry up!", Mum had hissed from outside. I hadn't time to take another, even though in my first and final photo, my crucifix was slightly wonky to the left. I'd sighed and pressed the green button, then drew back the curtain before stepping into the bright lights of the supermarket.

I now gazed at my signature in the bottom right-hand corner of the page. I'd been told to sign within the box on the application form. Within the box? Sign? I didn't have a signature at sixteen. So I'd signed the elaborate swirly letters in my name over three pieces of plain paper, before realising it definitely wouldn't fit inside the box, and finally settled for a slightly italic version of my name printed in full.
Shifting slightly on my bed, I took a deep breath and allowed myself a peek at the back cover, mostly it was just a quick indulgence in my sadness, but also I felt that a little of me would be pretending that things were as they were written on that back page.
The words were written in Mum’s distinctive capital font – scribbled, as I remember, as she'd leant over our kitchen table, just before I set off on my first holiday without her.

My Mum and Dad's names. Mr and Mrs.

It was the closest the two had been together in years. You wouldn't get them in the same room now, and there they were, written next to each other on the same page - the same line even. It seemed strange to think of them like that – I’d gotten so used to it being different. Suddenly the memories hit me like oncoming bullets, fired in slow motion. Since I'd asked for it - I just took them all, one by one. My body reeled as I soaked them in, digesting how the scenes of cosy family dinners had turned gradually cold. I relived the Saturday lunches of walks to the market then cheese and pickle sandwiches, the way they'd both cuddle in the mornings, wrapping their dressing-gowns around each other tight with no slippers on cold tiled floors. The rounds of teas under duvet tents, and the overwhelming feeling of being safe. But then came the looks - the crying - then the silence and the letters. And then there I was, sat in a hard wooden court room, biting my lip, waiting for the call of a stranger to decide which of the two people I loved was right, as I watched them both fall apart individually.
I looked back at the official document which lay in my hands, identifying me in more ways than one. The saddest part being the dark-eyed girl with the slightly coy smile, who hadn't the faintest clue sitting in a photo booth in Tescos. Closing the book, I tucked it away in my side cabinet drawer. I wouldn't throw it out when I ordered the new one next week. It still had a few months left before it expired, I think. 

14 February 2011

Praha: 4 - Snapping Saints on the King's Bridge

If you ever go to Prague, you absolutely must visit the Charles Bridge. That is all I heard in the week before I left, and it's what I'm saying to you now. It is an artist's dream, with Gothic copper and stone statues that silhouette against the river, and even on a dull murky day, as it was on the day I crossed it, the religious scenes of moaning sinners and angels with their eyes rolled to heaven sent shivers down my spine. I was so pleased I hadn't stayed in bed, listening to my head telling me to lurk under the dark of my duvet. The brisk walk along the riverside to the Charles Bridge had aired my hangover from the night before, and although I felt slightly nautious, it was nothing a morning coffee and cigarette couldn't handle.

Because the morning was murky, the bridge was clearer than the usual tourist hot spot it becomes in the summer months with people swarming the statues; SLR digital cameras out and flashing them wildly, viewing the sights through the lens, rather than their eyes.

Snap. Snap. Snap.

I thought I'd take full advantage of the fact the bridge was bare of people, and whipped out my three year old Canon digital camera (who's pixels aren't quite as fabulous as they once were). Angling it around, I tried to capture how the statues stood tall, like misshapen street lamps; how they appeared imposing upon the soft pastel coloured roofs of the city behind them. The Gothic figures seemed cold and characterless until you got right up close and saw the expressions carved into their faces.

Street sellers littered the bridge, and there were only a few - the brave few - taking into account how cold it was. Their bandy-legged wooden stalls, covered in multicoloured woven blankets with pictures and knickknacks tied up with string, batted about in the wind as they let go of the tablecloth for a moment to wrap their scarves up and over their heads, pulling them tighter across their faces.

I took my time, wandering further along the bridge, trying to read the many different faces on the statues. I imagined the countless others who'd also walked by slowly and stared, wondering on their stories. I wanted to take time enough to appreciate the way their pleated robes fell so softly, how their eyes looked so longing; even though just carved from stone. I ran my hand over the cold gritty stone and smooth semi-precious metal, all worn away from years of touching. It was the same as when I visited the Avebury Stone Circle in Wiltshire last year. I'd walked around each stone in the circle and said 'hello' - even to the little weird ones that had been rubbed away too much through time, and no longer stood quite upright. Probably, (a little foolishly) I thought that if I missed one out, I might make him feel bad. So I paced from one statue to the next, guided by my senses, as if almost in a ritual.

My favourite of all the statues was of St.John of Nepomuk. It struck me immediately as totally beautiful; the bronze having turned a brilliant shade of green, in stark contrast to the gold palm leave which was held in his right hand. I loved the expression on his face, with his head slightly tilted, but most of all I was drawn to his halo of golden stars, as if illuminated like an aura around his head.

I found out a little later, that St.John is the oldest statue on Charles Bridge and is said to bring luck. You see, St.John was once a parson who refused to betray a secret told to him by none other than the Queen. His lips remained sealed as the King asked him to tell. But to the King and all of Bohemia, St.John remained silent. The King, in outrage had him tortured and thrown to his death from the Charles Bridge into the depths of the river Vltava. It is told that five stars appeared shining above the murky waters of the river exactly where the martyr's body was thrown.

Now, if I think back to when I'd stood at the statue of St.John of Nepomuk, gazing at his starry aura, I remember seeing the people in front of me rubbing his green tinged toes, and at the time, I did wonder why.

8 February 2011

Praha: 3 - Gay bars and birthday queens

Have you ever been to a gay bar?
I have. They are the single (or not so single) woman's hideout for a fun, drink-fuelled night out without the worry of being groped by a lout. They are full of hundreds of men who dress better than Madonna, dance better than her backing dancers, and will openly declare their adoration for Madonna herself. If it's not Madonna, it'll be Kylie, Cher, Gaga, or (who my friend David would swear by), Barbra Streisand.
The gays love the glamour, and flamboyance of such stars, and guaranteed, they will never fail to tell you what they think of your chosen outfit, with complete honesty.

One night I remember, about three years ago, I was walking down Canal Street (the famous street in the heart of Manchester's Gay Village). I'd donned the three inch heels, red polka dot pencil-skirted dress, and backcombed my hair to high heaven, drawing thick black flicks of eyeliner over my eyelids. I thought I looked fabulous. It didn't matter that the slit up the back of my dress perhaps crept a little too close to displaying my knickers - because I was linked arms with two gay guys, and together we rocked the cobbles, strutting our way down Canal Street.
Suddenly from out of nowhere, I heard:

"Oh, my GOD."

I looked to where the shriek had come from. A man dressed in ripped jeans, and a tight white T-shirt was pointing at me and expressing wildly to his friends. His friends were all dressed like him - just in different coloured T-shirts, and all with toned abs and (verging on orange) perma-tans.

"Darling, I can't believe it, it's Amy Winehouse! Look at her face!"

I was slightly taken aback, and unsure whether to be pleased or horrified at his comparison (especially as he'd pointed out my face, not my beehive hair), but I didn't have time to respond, as they had already strutted past me, eyeing up the next person walking towards them.

Apparently there is a gay scene in Prague, and I wasn't at all surprised to hear that Graeme had already found it and was working on where we'd be going that evening for his birthday night out, before I'd even made myself a much needed coffee upon arriving at our apartment.
He had a map of Prague spread out on the table, with his iPhone in his hand, mumbling about roaming charges, and simultaneously asking if anyone had a pen.
Our apartment was modern, kitted out from top to toe in Ikea furniture, and located high up on the 6th floor of an old building, giving us beautiful views of the Vltava river. Having arrived a day later than the others, I was naturally last in the pecking order for choosing rooms. My bed was one of the two singles on the open mezzane, so I dragged my bag up the wooden staircase which rose from the corner of the open plan living room and kitchen. I chose one of the beds, and started unpacking my things carefully on the side table whilst subconsciously aware of Graeme shouting bar suggestions and random locations in Prague to no one in particular.
As usual, I was the one who had the biggest suitcase; the only one of the eight who'd checked my bag in at the airport, rather than carry it on as hand luggage.
This is because I tend to pack 'just in case'. I must make sure I bring enough shoes and clothes to suit all possible situations. So for my long weekend in Prague, I'd packed two pairs of boots (brown and black), two pairs of ballet pumps, my converse (so comfy), and finally, one pair of heels - but after witnessing the amount of cobbles I'd passed on the way to the apartment, I was guessing I wouldn't be needing those. And that was just shoes, never mind clothes.
Laying all my possible 'going out' clothes on the bed, I leant over, and casually asked anyone who might hear me in the living room below, "So, what are you all wearing tonight?"
Considering I was hitting Prague with four gay guys and four girls, I figured only fabulous would do, so my eyes lingered over my new wet-look leggings and a silky black top.
"Something warm!" came the unanimous reply from the living room.
I poked my head over the banisters, just to check they weren't kidding.
Of course. No, it is below freezing outside. Silky won't do.

We had split into two taxis, and Graeme had given both the drivers directions to a location on the opposite side of the city. We drove over one of the bridges and I looked out the window, watching the neon lights reflecting and jumping across the water. The traffic was busy, and the taxi often jolted as the driver braked suddenly, which reminded us to stop laughing too loudly and allow the driver to concentrate on the seemingly free-for-all roads in central Prague. It was only a ten minute drive, but the further from our apartment we went, the quieter the streets were, and the less people we saw walking them. It started to snow - not like the flaky barely-there snow I'd seen at the airport - but really pretty, catch-on-your-eyelashes snow.
The taxi driver nodded at us, indicating we'd reached our destination. "Here. You pay 100 koruna."

I got out of the taxi after handing the driver a handful of coins. We'd pulled into what looked like a residential street. I looked to Graeme, as if his looking at maps all afternoon meant he might have some idea whether we were in the middle of the gay scene, or not. If we had reached gay Prague, it certainly didn't look like it.

There was a bar on the corner, only distinguishable by the Pilsner sign lit up on the side of the wall and various beer mats taped to the window. As my black ballet pumps hit the freshly fallen snow lying on the pavement, I wiggled my shoe to the side, making the new snow squeak beneath my feet, creating pretty patterns along the path. The others in the second taxi weren't here yet. Not a good sign. It was still snowing  and I congratulated myself on ditching the wet-look leggings, and opting for thick wooly tights and a skirt instead. I bent my knees repetitively, doing a little dance in the deserted street to keep warm.

We heard the others laughing and shrieking, their voices getting louder from two streets away. I couldn't believe there was a gay club on this quiet street. But apparently there was, and we found it within five minutes. No one was queuing outside. There were no transvestites on metre high stilts promoting the club, nor jeering at the queue, as they usually do in Manchester. The sign was lit up - but it wasn’t outrageous - propped above a large, heavy wooden door. They had no bouncers standing outside. It looked as if it could have been someone’s home. All eight of us paused outside, shivering into our coats, before Graeme plucked up the courage to enter, and picked up the heavy hooped door handle, and pushed.

The heat blasted our faces, and music from the Black Eyed Peas filled our ears. Coloured lights danced up the walls, and the bouncers (who had in fact sensibly chosen to stand inside) looked stern with knitted eyebrows and black suits. We handed our coats in at the cloakroom and edged down a spiral staircase into the club which was located in the basement. So that’s why it was so quiet outside. The lights got brighter, and I saw those men again in skin-tight T-shirts, edging past us on the stairs, with abs that could have challenged those of Hercules. I wished I’d worn heels – I am hardy small at 5.5' - but these men were huge and I came face to face with biceps, shoulder blades, beers and cigarettes. Edging around them to reach the busy bar was proving difficult. I gave a little poke to the muscles on their backs, took a deep breath, and whilst trying to speak politely over the music, I said; “Excuse me? Do you mind letting me past?”
They didn’t even turn around. So I made like a little rhino and barged my way up to the bar; and (because I didn’t know the Czech for anything other than beer) I ordered a Pilsner.

We charged the dance floor, all eight of us, as the DJ played (true to form) Kylie Minogue’s Dance.  Boy, we showed those Czech’s how to dance. Pints of beer in the air, arms waving, bums wiggling, gays grinding. It was brilliant.
The smoking ban in England has been in place for nearly four years. Four years is long enough to forget how smokey nightclubs can get by about midnight. I’d forgotten all about the cigarette burns you get on the dance floor from those incredibly pissed, over enthusiastic dancers, who express themselves by pointing their cigarettes into your limbs. I’d forgotten how your hair, your clothes, your skin smells of smoke, when you haven’t even had the pleasure of one cigarette. That club was foggy, it was so smoky.
Graeme had been plied with one too many toxic Czech shots and cheap champagne. He was looking starry eyed and was draped over the shoulders of two seriously camp French guys. They were looking him up and down, poking his belly and shrieking “He is GOOD quality!” in time with the music. We were all merry, and Lady Gaga had been played an acceptable amount of times.

It was a better than average night in a typical gar bar. All except for one thing. These gays did not appear to be 100% gay...
The doubts began as I noticed a tall, dark, lurking sort of a man (who sounds attractive, but really wasn't) staring at us girls and generally lurking a little too close to Denise, whilst looking me up and down. I nudged Lucy:

"Um. Is lurker over there, staring at us, or Graeme?"

It was quite feasible that he was staring at Graeme, who was giving people something to look at by spilling  his drink over everyone around him as he whirled and twirled across the dance floor.

"Hmm. I'm not sure. Here, lets move over to Pete - see if he follows."

We wiggled our way over to Pete. Lurker followed. At which point Pete piped up:

"Hey, watch that bloke over there; I think he's after your handbags."

Me and Lucy looked at each other sheepishly - of course. Theft seemed more plausible than a come-on in a gay bar.
Then again, maybe not.
A small, shy Czech guy who had been dancing on the outskirts of our group, plucked up the courage to approach Josie. He grabbed her hand and started dancing with her, then me, then Lucy - a little too seductively for my liking. The not-so shy Czech then turned full circle and started to grind Graeme.
It was at the point of Czech boy kissing Graeme and Lurker trying to buy Josie a drink that I realised we weren't in Kansas anymore. 

I noticed the big mirrored walls around the dance floor, and the space suddenly looked much smaller than it had seemed before. Attributing to this was the fact the club had got busier, with people getting more drunk, pushing to get through and almost everybody trying to check each other out in the mirrors. The smoke was so foggy now, my contact lenses felt like little pieces of glass in my eyes.
Pete grabbed me, noticing my dancing arms were more flailing now it had hit 3am, and hissed loudly in my ear:

 "You ready to go then?"

I was so hot from dancing, and the sheer mass of moving bodies in the room, had made the air stifling. I fought my way through the crowds, feeling suddenly claustrophobic, trying to get to the stairs.
Fumbling for the paper cloakroom ticket I'd stuffed for safekeeping in my bra, I raced up the stairs, and joined a queue of those who looked like they too had finished their night about twenty minutes ago. My top clung to my back with the heat, and my hair was sticky. I felt like ripping my woolly tights off right there and then. With my coat under my arm I passed the bouncer, who nodded sternly, and pushed open the heavy wooden door for me.  Rushing outside, I leant forward, resting my hands on my knees and took in a deep breath of the freezing cold air. The bitter wind shot through my vest top, hitting the bare skin on my arms and racing through my hair. As my head cleared a little, I glanced up to see a long line of men waiting quietly outside the club wearing thick sheepskin coats, gloves and hats and looking at me as if I was crazy. The girls were piling out of the club now, followed by Pete who was telling Graeme to hurry up. The not-so-shy Czech was still very much attached to Graeme, and by the look on Pete's face, looked like he wasn't heading off home anytime soon.
I waved my arms at two lit up taxis who were parked a little way up the road and threw my jacket around my bare shoulders to keep off the wind. As they pulled up close to the kerb, and I went to reach for the door handle, Pete ran up to me looking as if he had something to tell me - that I wasn't going to like. 

"Right. We've got a problem. Graeme wants to bring the Czech home with him, and I am not sharing a room with them."

"No, of course not." I replied. "Why don't you come up on the mezzane with me? There's a spare single bed up there?"

"No. I'm not moving. He's the one who's moving. He can go up on the mezzane, and you can sleep in Graeme's bed."

As much as I love Graeme, there was no way he was going to have sex with a Czech in my bed. I was so looking forward to my little bed on the mezzane, with it's clean sheets, and fluffy duck down pillows. I wanted to wake up in the morning to the skylight window slightly open and sun beaming down on my face, with a clear view of the river from my pillow.

However, the trouble with being a Libran is that the need for peace, harmony and balance in your life can sometimes get the better of you. I was cursing this fact as I balanced my single mattress on my back at 4:30am, grabbing the banisters of the stairs so I wouldn't topple over, with my suitcase hanging from one arm, my duck down pillows tucked under the other, and my duvet wedged between my knees. As I dragged my bed and belongings down the stairs, I squeezed past the birthday boy kissing his Czech lover on the stairs and glared at them both with my meanest look.
Graeme wasn't fazed. It was his birthday. He'd pulled.

Oh, well. He was turning thirty, I suppose. I'll give the boy a break.