Volume 6 036 No Frills Flying
No one called for Christmas of 2008. Gays were becoming a rarity in our circle. I couldn’t drink between the short hops back and forth to Fulwood lodge each time Bubble needed a wee. Pete doesn’t do Turkey, baby Jesus, Christmas pud’, the Queens speech or wearing silly hats. All in all, I recall a very festive season replicated exactly in 2009 with the exception that the Fulwood Lodge “wee runs” had become increasingly frequent and that Pete had “jumped on the wagon”.
The burden of the recession and Pete’s bar bills were beginning to take their toll by 2009. For our first anniversary of our civil partnership on April 1st I bought two, one-pound ahead Ryan air tickets for a week in Barcelona. Since when has the Barcelona airport used by Ryanair been so far south you have to cross the equator?
Reus airport had retained its old-world charm of stained economy ceiling tiles and kids called Shane and Whitney. The train from Reus to Barcelona takes almost as long as the Flight from Birmingham to Reus. We passed Sitges paying homage in the tunnel that over the decade had scared the shit out of idle “queens” making their way for a dip on the Gay beach by taking a short cut under the cruising area on the hill. From Barcelona central station, a twenty-minute walk took us to a charming hotel in a tenement at the back of nowhere.
Pete got pissed. I had pictured our first anniversary to be romantic white table linen and candle light with a bottle of Faustino VII sharing a Fresh Fish Paella to the sound of Flamenco. Instead I got a Pizza slice after mid-night standing up in a fast food joint down a back-alley frequented by junkies suffering the munchies. On the single occasion we ate smart, the Tapas included elvers, baby eels, so young they slid down like worms. I have a worm phobia! I wretch to this day at the memory!
I really didn’t get Barcelona. Brighton was much more fun for the “lanes” or York for the “Shambles”. A reverence to Gaudi and particularly “That Church” simply represents self-indulgence. The map gave no sense of scale. Miles of uphill walking eventually got us to the tramway ride to an ancient amusement park that contradicts any amount of European health and safety regulations. Mediterranean’s aren’t terribly adept at applying rules.
Metal fish are greatly over-rated.
Three times we crossed town to do the “Berlin Bar”. Friday night was bear night with a dress code. An Alfred Dunhill checked shirt doesn’t count. To make the most of the taxi fare I sat at the bar topless. False modesty was unnecessary. During the entire evening, as with previous visits no one else joined us. A botched strip tease by an otherwise fairly handsome maître di sent us quickly back into town. We must have visited the odd normal Gay bar but I have absolutely no recollection of so doing.
We ate lunch mostly with the locals in spite of each of the multiple courses being punctuated by clouds of dense tobacco smoke omitted by the copious cigarette consumption.
Pete and I had stopped smoking well before moving into “123”. In the early days of abstinence we both thoroughly enjoyed the second hand carcinogenic pollution.
Stopping off at Sitges on the way back to the airport was a poor idea. Dragging a suitcase into a cocktail bar in the middle of the afternoon is largely uncool. We reminisced about seeing the “ginner” flaunting a pair of swim trunks in a boutique where Pete bought some smart black slacks and the style that exaggerated an arse resembling a sack of baking spuds in a bin liner colour clashing violently with his native New-Hebridian skin tone. Not since Carla’s wedding and the dress her cousin ran up on her foot pedalled Singer sewing machine had turquois looked less attractive. A suntanned six foot Spaniard strutting his stuff on the Corniche showed how turquoise speedos should be worn. It was nothing like what was on offer from a rusty nail with a minute package and a lumpy arse the shape of a giant cauliflower.
Receiving service so typically poor, we missed the express rail resulting in us having to change trains down the line. The connection didn’t come. Spanish speak exclusively Spanish when they sense a “buck” to be made. The upside of a fifty Euro cab ride is arriving so late at the airport that you don’t have to queue at check-in with anyone remotely called Whitney.
It was a quiet summer in 2009. I had lost the appetite for away-days. Brighton Pride was no exception. The Saturday event was a wash out. Taking refuge in the Pavilion we spotted a poster for “Pam-Ann” , securing the last two available seats for the early evening performance. Subsequent shows in Manchester and Buxton revealed an amazing lack of versatility. On the Sunday, we met a couple for lunch who had managed the Affinity Bar in Sheffield before returning to take over a similar business in Bournemouth. In the outside world we had absolutely nothing in common.
They thankfully, gave us the slip somewhere in the crowd just beyond a tea shop that boasted having on display an example every type of Royal ceramic memorabilia since the reign of Queen Victoria. Attempts to dodge the “Affinity” pair by diving into a gay pub later in the afternoon resulted in us coming face to face with a “Jean-Paul”, a former aficionado of the Sheffield Gay scene now dressed in a very thick home spun knitted grey roll-neck sweater, and who alleged himself to be the head of housing for Brighton and Hove. The stench of bull-shit was over-whelming. The very thick home spun knitted grey roll-neck sweater worn in the Middle of August seasoned the aroma.
What was the point in spending thousands of pounds on intercontinental travel for the privilege of steering a comatose partner from one drinking hole to the next after wasting half the day sitting silently in a hotel bedroom in the dark waiting for him to sleep off the effects of the night before?
Ryan air offered one pound tickets to Oslo. Norway is renowned for its liberalism, fresh air, wholesome lifestyle but primarily its expensive booze.
Ryan air flights to Oslo landed on a Norwegian peninsular just North of Barcelona, closer to Copenhagen than the Capital of Norway. Facing a minimum one-hour drive when arriving at eight in a dark September evening was not a pleasant proposition. After first buying half a dozen bottles of Pinot Grigio from the duty-free shop in arrivals, we collected an automatic Toyota hire car. Somewhere between the terminal building and the car park located in a remote corner of the airfield, the carry-on with all of the cash and travel papers disappeared from the luggage trolley. Pete had left me to deal with the defiant fully laden luggage cart, quickly disappearing into the gloom ahead. Abandoning the trolley I sprinted back to the terminal in the hope that Norway lived up to its humanitarian reputation. In the middle of a pedestrian crossing lay the bag silhouetted against the headlights of a fifty seater service bus. I got to the bag before the bus.
“Baggies” had rendered Pete oblivious. Brandy sold in plastic bags was Ryanair’s answer to the doubles sold in plastic bottles for tiny people by every other airline. You could buy baggies by the strip at three pounds fifty a bag. In flight, Pete consumed roughly thirty centimetres of Brandy bags an hour equating to roughly a gallon of Stella Artois per hour on the ground.
The sea-side town where we planned to stay the night was virtually deserted. Instructions with the booking said to head for the town square. A three-metre-deep trench excavated for a new sewerage system formed a moat around the entire centre of the village. Guests, leaving a wedding party practised their English by telling us to fuck-off when asked for directions. Two old ladies on a pedestrian crossing simply peered into the car, giggled and went on their way without responding, when asked how to cross the great divide.
If we turned around immediately we could have been back at the airport just in time for the return flight. We persevered, and as a last resort, shouted to an old man licking an assistant locking up a pizza parlour for the night. He gesticulated towards someone’s driveway. Venturing onto private property we discovered that a section of pale green lime wash picket fence at the bottom of the garden had been removed to allow access into a small car park at the rear of the very hotel we had booked. Very traditional, typically clean, Ikea modern, lots of pine and run by a family of South Koreans who didn’t speak English, the hotel was temperance. The journey had been fraught! Fast approaching midnight on a Friday night, I was in serious need of a beer. Elbow pointing skyward with a right hand clutching a phantom glass sent the message loud and clear. The Koreans pointed us down-hill towards the fiord. A log cabin with open rafters and a tiny bar accommodated alcoves of couples sipping “white-beer” listening to continuous loop eight track John Lennon albums. Two pool tables filled the centre of the room. The “white-beer” was as equally grating as the John Lennon tapes. Short blasts of real music interrupted John each time the entry door opened.
Trailing the unmistakable sounds of revelry and the drift of freshly barbecued rain-deer we found our way to a dockside boardwalk terraced with party places, heaving with party people of an average age in the early twenties, the average height about six feet and the average colour, blond. A bouncer took pity on me by forcing passage through the dense throng to the bar, for quick service. A pretty blond boy and his girlfriend volunteered to relieve us of the seven pounds a pint, “white-beer” we had already purchased before we spotted the eight pounds a pint Stella, on tap, at the far end of the counter. The raucous activity explained why the town was so quiet. All life was sandwiched into this short stretch of manmade Sodom and Gomorra. At precisely midnight it was all over! Shutters down and customers banished into the, by now cool night air. This was early autumn yet the quilted bubble jackets were already out in force. There had been no time for a second top up.
We headed for bed.
The Koreans had locked up after us and couldn’t quite understand why we were knocking them up again less than an hour after “giving them the Elbow”. We skipped breakfast having only a rudimentary understanding of the workings of chop sticks. The road to Oslo began in reverse through the neighbour’s picket fence and throwing a “U” turn in a newly harvested cabbage patch.
Pines trees and more pine trees before we found ourselves, an hour or so up the motorway at Oslo’s main railway station. By astute deduction we surmised that the map faxed over by the hotel was upside down. Within fifty yards of the hotel another sewer pipe excavation flung us back onto the ring road. Unlike Barcelona, Oslo is much smaller than it appears on a map. With holes in the road to rival the Grand Canyon bounded by precipitous pavements and precariously balanced tram lines, cars can’t stop any longer than it takes to dump a suit case and seek directions to a thirty Euros a night twenty-four-hour public car park. The car was hired to bridge the gap between the airport and the hotel with little expectation of using it during the week. The thirty Euros a night on top of hiring a car hadn’t formed part of the ever escalating budget based on flying Birmingham to Oslo “Torp” for a pound plus taxes.
Six nights in a three-star hotel with a view across a three metre courtyard into the bedroom opposite on the sixth floor with a dodgy lift cost a little under a Thousand pounds. Each morning a plastic bag containing a shop-bought pre-packed sandwich, apple, orange and small carton of juice was left on the door knob in lieu of a buffet breakfast in a dining room. The Japanese visitors appeared to appreciate the sentiment of these nose bags but not as eagerly as the numerous drop-outs huddled into closed-down shop doorways receiving a daily food ration. Pete became quite pally with a number of the self-proclaimed drug addicts and socialist rebels with studs, pink hair and little respect for Norway’s Socialist principals or work ethic.
Oslo has only one attractive street with maybe a couple of interesting off shoots. The city is grey. The people are grey. As youngsters, they have relative fun and freedom through their University years before disappearing into obscurity to breed and become model citizens. By the time they are fifty the kids have gone through their college days and take their turn to hibernate in suburbia leaving the older generation time to re-join the living. This genuinely accounts for their being no one out in public between the age of twenty-four and at least forty-four. Restaurants are for tourist and the old. Bars are for the degenerates who lost the plot and occasionally the young who aren’t degenerates.
A half day cruise ship stop-over is enough to see all the city has to offer. A new shopping mall and apartment complex built over the old docks livens up the lunar landscape surrounding the Nobel Hall.
Trees brighten up the linear strip between the University and a Parliament building less impressive than a private house on Holland Park. Something new east of the university delivered less joy than it promised. An old fort has a café and cannon overlooking the fiord. Nordics may like their saunas but the one we found on a side street, up-town was downright seedy, sandwiched between a Lebanese green grocers and Moroccan Coffee shop.
“Scream” being stolen from the National Museum a week before we arrived was the biggest thing to hit Oslo since the Nazi invasion.
To while away the day, we ate. A lively open air restaurant at the opposite end of the street from the hotel became a favourite. We soon got the hang of which of the many excavations it was necessary to pole fault actually carried the live cables. An Italian restaurant was the most posh. A hundred and thirty pounds for a two course meal for two was not the exception. I had no guilt in leaving without paying for the wine they had accidentally omitted from the bill on the last night. Unlike the USA, tipping is not mandatory. The absences of a tip dose not lead to public denunciation or a humiliating life time ban.
A couple of metro-sexual bars showed promise however, we soon tired of watching the gentry nursing a single glass of house red for most of the millennia.
Liberal Oslo has a gay bar. The “London” bar, conveniently located within a hundred yards of the hotel, was the only place to be after dark. Submerged in a half- basement the entire complex is wall papered in London newsprint rendered sepia by years of cigarette smoke. We arrived in the city in time to sample Saturday night. Sunday night was equally busy. For the rest of the week we enjoyed almost sole occupancy sharing the bar with only a couple of regulars, a five piece barbershop “quartet” on karaoke night and an old man who looked suspiciously like Santa Clause enjoying his summer sabbatical complete with a full bush of snowy-white hair and beard. It transpired that on the Friday night we had landed for the stopover in the sea-side village we had witnessed the worst excesses of pay-day. By Sunday all beer tokens had been expended. For the majority of locals, Monday to Friday was dry.
We met a set of seriously mad identical twins who were also both gay. One brother lived in Chicago and the other at home in the outskirts of Oslo with his parents and working as a mechanic. The one from Chicago was on summer vacation trying to persuade his brother to join him in the land of the free. Neither were “out” to their family. A picture rapidly emerged of a society where drink is expensive because the young grabbed as much as they could before reaching the age of being transformed into the responsible citizens who rather than embracing diversity made everything legal so that minorities would stay under the table with no excuse to complain, no justification to remonstrate and no reason to celebrate their differences since all “were equal” and therefore everyone should tow the party line. Far from being tolerant, the grey people skilfully avoided grey areas in social dialogue.
Norway is awfully “Stepford”.
Lillehammer is a decent drive from Oslo. Heading inland to the site of a winter Olympics gave the opportunity to explore. Rigorously controlled speed limits enable full appreciation of the mile after mile of monotonous Pine forests. Thankfully, stopping on the highway is prohibited.
Lillehammer itself needs something of an update. Pretty enough, but reminiscent of a one street, gold rush town from a Hollywood “B” rate movie. Taking a beer during the day was much frowned upon. With little else to do except explore the hand knitting and toy troll shops we drove back down the mountain to arrive in Oslo for the thrill of rush hour.
Travelling South along the fiord to waste another day we discovered the Viking fort featured in guide books as a place of great historic interest. After a two-hour drive, a grass hump marks the spot surmounted by a couple of Dickensian cast iron cannons clearly much later than the Viking heritage. A single storey, Clapper Board Township laid out on a regular grid of wide cobbled streets resembling a rehabilitated concentration camp, carries the name of the former fort. Ours was the only car in a parking area the size of Hyde Park. A tiny pottery shop opened its doors to welcome our arrival. The local baker laid on a cold buffet recommended by the guy in the restaurant opposite. Cats predominated. Pete could hardly contain his excitement. We arrived back in Oslo just in time for the exhilaration of yet another Rush hour. Rush hours last about thirty-five minutes but due to the scale of the city are impossible to avoid.
Another day and another tour. Unprecedented blackmail coaxed Pete on board a ferry to visit the Viking Long-Ships museum located on an island some way down the fjord. The museum is housed in a large bungalow on a neatly manicured private housing estate surrounded by smaller private bungalows which one can only assume do not house Viking Boats. The walk from ferry to the long-ships is poorly signposted, taking about twenty saturated, “fun-filled” minutes. You’ve seen one long-ship, you have seen them all and with only three rowing boats to go at, the souvenir shop, back at the dock displayed greater appeal, not least due to offering shelter from the persistent, pouring rain and delayed return ferry. A slow moving, single line procession of saturated kagools mesmerised by the extortionate prices into a whispering, almost eerie silence usually reserved for places of worship flooded the floor as if overtly demonstrating their disdain.
For Thursday, Pete got to legitimately sleep-in while I sought medical assistance for the severe swelling that followed a night of midge bites. My protestations regarding sleeping with the window open, not least due to the proximity of the room opposite went unheard. After finishing off the last of the duty free, Peter declared open-season on a juicy bed partner by unlatching the three two-metre-high windows. I awoke resembling a remake of the elephant man, unable to verbally respond to the tourists mouthing good-morning in Japanese from the room opposite, not ten feet away! Ohayu gozaimasu
Industrial strength anti-histamines dispensed by a local pharmacist soon had me swallowing. Regaining the power of vaguely intelligible speech took a little longer. In the meantime, although having contained the drooling my speech impediment became less like a Klingon translation of a Norwegian folk song and more of a Geordie piss-take of an inebriated troll on Halloween.
I bought Pete a model troll because it reminded him of Gayle Okes-Voysey. The dogs got their very own troll bowls. Apart from warm, grey coats, slabs of smoked salmon and heavy knit, Christmas “Santa” jumpers, there is little else worth buying.
I explored the University, investigating a strange sculpture depicting a gigantic vagina from which emerged a children’s play slide, got caught up in a classic car parade, visited the Parliament and Nobel Hall and reconnoitred the bay side shopping mall where, when extracted from his bed, Peter and I later enjoyed a late lunch.
It was a late flight home. To save another thirty Euros we un-parked the Toyota and set off mid-morning planning to take a leisurely drive along the mountain road arriving back in that village by the sea for a late lunch. Contrary to the drabness of the street that passed the Lebanese grocers and its seedy next door neighbour, the plaza at the top of the hill was surprisingly cosmopolitan. It was only brunch, yet the cafés were buzzing. Young professionals sipped espressos. There were news-papers. On the very same day that we were leaving town we appeared to have found the place that we should have been visiting all along. Had the Oslo we uncovered been the preserve of the cruise ships, grey Lithuanians, Latvians and Poles and the deadbeats and drop outs and not the real Oslo?
Back at the “village”, the sea-side board-walk that sold pints of Stella on draft was as deserted as the town square had been the night we arrived. All was closed and barred. The “Stepford” wives were all at home. But it was only Friday afternoon. By Dusk the refuelled party people would no doubt be out to repeat their weekly ”lash”.
We were early at the airport for a flight that was delayed. We sat apart. Like bad wine Peter doesn’t travel well. After 11 years I am still awaiting compensation for the non-existent priority boarding that added five hundred percent to the price of a one-pound ticket. Half a meter of “baggies” later we rounded off a disturbing week by landing at Birmingham Airport in the early hours and being entertained by a family of unruly Somalian asylum seekers playing football with a teddy bear on the baggage carrousel during an interminable wait for our further delayed luggage.
My enduring memory of Norway is unfortunately of Somalians who, unlike the majority of Norwegians, didn’t give a shit.
Peter didn’t return to work after Norway. “Flue” worsened. A spell of Detox and Christmas of 2009 was not only boring but dry-and-boring. Un-be-known to granny we had sold the house in Cromford leaving me to house-hunt for a local replacement over the Christmas break. We bought a bungalow in the Sheffield suburb of Brincliffe. The recession was in full swing.