Friday, 24 July 2009

Paris in Pieces


Just got back from Paris.

I love Paris. It's my favourite city. Steeped in history, shrouded in romance, Paris is, as I may have mentioned before, a city made for lovers to walk hand in hand through its streets...

I first visited France's capital city with my Mum, Jackie, and my brother, Mark, back in 1998. I returned very briefly in 2003 and met a very nice boy from Kazakhstan who I sadly lost touch with some years later. I told myself that one day I would return. It's taken six years for that day to come, but at long last I have finally returned to the city that I love.

I have just spent four days in Paris with my friends, Carl and Craig.

Carl and Craig stayed at a Parisian hostel, very popular with Algerian immigrants and Romanian asylum seekers, while I lived it up at a four star hotel. Ah, the benefits of capitalism. I did however remember to send over my shoe shine boy and I gave C & C permission to whip him mercilessly whenever they felt the need.


I can't say I did that much during those four days in that fine city.

I ended up spending a total of about five hours with Craig because (a) he left earlier than us and (b) he kept wandering off. I told him that he would eventually get lost and wouldn't find us again. Well, surprise surprise, he did just that. He wandered off and never returned which was more than a little annoying as part of the reason I headed to Paris when I did was to spend time with him.

It wasn't all bad though.... I headed to a restaurant with Carl where, for the second time in my life, I tucked into a serving of frogs legs (the first time was in Romania seven years ago). I can't say that I see the appeal of le legs of ze frog... there's just no meat on those suckers.


I haven't really spent enough time in France to form a proper opinion of the French people.

One thing I will say however is that the French are much more polite than the English... though us English do have a reputation for being overly polite, which we're not, really.

I have always admired the French for standing up to the Americans during the invasion of Iraq. Jacques Chirac saw through Bush's lies and told him where to get off... something that Tony Blair didn't have the guts to do. Unfortunately, Sarkozy, who is a wanker (and crap at jogging), models himself on Blair and is banning burkas. Oh dear.

Still, better to be in France than the police state that is the United Kingdom (police in the UK now have the right to stop you if you take a photo of them and they deem that your photo might aid terrorism. Of course, the rules aren't clear and many police officers are arresting people for any old reason and invoking the anti-terrorism act).

If I hated this country anymore than I do, I would say that the British, along with the Jews and Americans, are on a slippery slope to Hell. But of course I am not so consumed by hatred and so would never say anything like that. I will just close my eyes and walk blindly into the future, ignorant to the injustice, unfairness and evil that surrounds me...


I climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Well, I didn't actually climb it. I'm not Philippe Petite. But I did queue for 45 minutes to buy a ticket, then climb a few flights of stairs, then wait another hour and a half to get a lift to the top, then wait another 15 minutes to get a lift down which only took me halfway down which meant more stairs and then another lift which resulted in me finally getting away from the Eiffel Tower two hours later, by which point I hated it and never wanted to see it again and just wanted to eat some frogs legs.

Named after its designer, Gustave Eiffel, the Eiffel Tower opened on 6 May 1889. It was the world's tallest tower up until 1930 when New York's Chrysler Building was completed.

If you ever visit Tour Eiffel, go there in the evening. The tower is lit up and it looks rather beautiful. Quite magical. Just don't go there on a hot day in July... unless you like snotty-nosed kids, cans of Coke costing three euros, overcrowded metro stations and lots of queues.


So that's it. Paris in five easy pieces.

On our last night in Paris, there was actually a riot. Hundreds of cars were burnt out. I missed out on all of it... I was too busy in my hotel room, watching my wide screen TV and eating strawberries out of the bellybutton of a 25-year-old blonde Swedish virgin named Inga, who spoke only one word of English: "Yes".

Ah capitalism. Gotta love it.

P.S. Au Revior, Paris. See you next year, I hope.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Memories of Michael Jackson

It's difficult for me to remember a time when Michael Jackson was not a part of my life.

I remember watching the Thriller video for the first time, and the excited conversations I had with my school friends about this young black man who had just taken music video to a whole new level.

I remember sitting in school assembly, bored out of my brain, imagining I was up on stage, dressed in a white suit, tipping my fedora, strutting my stuff, as the kids went wild and screamed my name.

I remember when Michael Jackson performed in front of a sell-out crowd in Liverpool in 1988. I remember watching Michael Jackson at Wembley stadium four years later. A friend and I managed to get within two rows of the stage. At one point, as Michael performed Beat It, he swung from a crane above me. I was looking up at him; he was looking down at me. I remember thinking: My God. Michael Jackson is looking at me!

I remember being 18 years old and listening to Michael Jackson's first new single in two years, Black or White, on a crappy hi-fi system in a crappy bedsit near Liverpool. I remember standing below Michael Jackson's hotel room in Prague in 1996 as he threw signed pillow cases down to the adoring crowd.

Later, I remember where I was when Michael Jackson was accused of abusing a child. I also remember where I was when he was acquitted of child abuse in 2005. And, of course, I will always remember where I was on Thursday 25 June 2009 when I heard the news that the world's brightest star was shining no more.

I was in a caravan in Blackpool playing Scrabble with my family. This is strange enough in itself: I am not close to my family (we live on different planets). When we were younger, we were all huge Michael Jackson fans. This was our first family holiday for 15 years and the first time we had been together in years. Strange that Michael Jackson should die on the last night of our holiday when we were all together like that.

It's difficult to put into words the effect Michael Jackson had upon my life. I have never been a fan of celebrities; I am not like many of the people in this country, who mindlessly read gossip mags and follow the lives of the rich and famous because they have no lives themselves. But when I was a kid it was impossible to ignore Michael Jackson.

It is a testament to his fame that, in the house of a poor family who had no carpets, no phone and no TV, a family who were in many ways detached from what was going on in the world outside their front door, the most popular topic of conversation was Michael Jackson. Like millions of people the world over, we were fascinated by this all-dancing, all-dancing, crotch-grabbing, moonwalking phenomenon.

It was Michael Jackson's remarkable talent that initially drew me to him. Later, when the songs and albums started to dry up and Michael began to lose his creative spark, it was his trials and tribulations that kept me fascinated. I've always found myself drawn to people who have suffered (often to my cost) and Michael Jackson suffered more than anyone.

Yes, Michael Jackson squandered a huge fortune and was prone to a spot of baby dangling. Yes, he was an American, and I've made clear my feelings for those people and that country. But Michael Jackson was also victimised by America: loved, and then hated, in equal measure.

I knew more about Michael Jackson and understood Michael Jackson better than the majority of people who have been writing about him since his death. The truth is, I loved Michael Jackson. He was a constant source of strength, and an inspiration. I probably would never have gone to work in an orphanage in Belarus if it were not for him.

The fact that Michael Jackson was able to get out of bed and face the day, despite all he was going through, gave me the strength to carry on during my terrible teenage years and turbulent twenties.

Between the ages of 18 and 22, when I was a total recluse, going for weeks without leaving my flat or speaking to another human being, Michael Jackson was there. When I was 21 and suffered a minor nervous breakdown, due mostly to my isolation, Michael was there.

Our childhoods were both abusive. I never had a father, and was never called "big nose" or whipped with an iron cord, and, unlike Michael, I never woke up to find my father standing at the end of my bed wearing a ski mask and carrying a kitchen knife. But I was told by my mother that I was stupid, that she hated me, that she wanted to kill me in my sleep. And there were the beatings. All of this does lasting damage to a child, and defines the adult.

Michael Jackson went through it all during his short life. Though some of that pain was self-inflicted, it was pain nonetheless. Lesser men would have blown their brains out. He plodded on and, with the exception of a handful of interviews, he suffered in silence, rarely complaining.

Imagine helping a 15-year-old boy through cancer, only to have that boy and his deranged mother turn against you and try to get you sent to prison for child abuse. Imagine sitting in court and watching as a parade of former employees tell lies about you in an attempt to destroy you. Imagine if you had fired those employees after they stole from you; they sued; you counter-sued, won and they ended up penniless. Then they took their revenge...

Imagine if almost everyone you met took advantage of your wealth and passive nature and stole from you or stabbed you in the back.

Imagine if you ended your life deeply in debt, homeless, moving from one rented home to the next, lost, unable to put your life back together and unable to find your place in life.

When I was going through my own trials and tribulations, I had Michael Jackson; his strength was an inspiration. But who did Michael Jackson have? There was no-one, because no other star has been through what Michael Jackson went through during the last 15 years of his life.

Michael Jackson's death was as tragic and bizarre as his life. He was on the verge on a comeback, days away from a run of 50 sell-out shows in London, his first proper live shows since the HIStory tour in 1997.

The world's press were all asking if this frail 50-year-old was up to doing 50 shows. Rumours were rife that he would cancel the concerts, pretend he was ill or come up with some lame excuse not to go on stage. Most pundits reckoned he just couldn't do it, he'd gotten in over his head. Then 12 hours after one of the last rehearsals, the guy drops down dead.

One month ago, the man who gave the world the moonwalk disappeared off the face of the planet. A massive part of popular culture went with him. There will simply never be another Michael Jackson.

For that to happen, an 11-year-old boy would have to become famous as part of a popular dancing group, have a string of hits, go on to become a popular young star in his own right, release the biggest selling album of all time at 25, revolutionise music video, break down racial barriers, embark on some of biggest tours in history, create some of the most memorable pop songs ever written, release more multi-million selling albums and still be a source of fascination decades later.

Even if someone were to do all of that, he would just be copying Michael Jackson. It ain't gonna happen. The King of Pop was truly a unique individual, a one-off; and we will never see his like again. If fame is immortality, then Michael Jackson will truly live on forever.

On 25 June 2009, the planet lost its most famous star. I lost a man I admired, a man who was a role model for me when I was a troubled and lonely child, who gave me strength and brought me happiness.

I have long dreaded Michael's death. I always felt that he would never be allowed to grow old and fade away. I imagined that his death would be sudden, with rolling news programmes and blanket TV coverage. That happened one month ago, in exactly the way I imagined it would.

I will never again write a blog entry like this about the death of a celebrity. I will never again grieve for a man I never met.

Being a Michael Jackson fan, I was often subjected to a roller coaster of emotions, as his life lurched from one crisis to the next. Strangely, I never felt gratitude. Perhaps I didn't realise I was grateful. Today I understand that I am eternally grateful to him, for the years of happiness that he gave me.

I couldn't have allowed Michael Jackson death to pass without doing something, however small, to remember and celebrate him. This blog entry will help serve that purpose.

It will take some time for it to sink in that this weird, wonderful, troubled and immensely talented individual has moonwalked for the last time. It seems unreal, this chain of events that I played out in my head time and time again, which finally came to pass a month ago. I am trying to find inspiration from his death, as I did from his life. My book, when it is published, will contain a short dedication to Michael Jackson.

For now though, this simple blog entry is for the lonely and troubled man trapped inside the body of a child, the man who was a constant source of strength and inspiration, the man who taught me how to dance, the man who helped me through the worst times of my life.

Goodbye, Michael.

God Bless.

And Thank You.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Dreaming in Dublin

A few months ago, a Belarusian girl I am no longer in touch with asked me to tell her about the best day of my life.

I had to think for a while, as I searched my mind and sifted through my memories. Eventually I came up with an afternoon from my childhood that I spent with two boys, play fighting on a big grassy hill next to the place where I went to school.

We must have all been about eleven or twelve at the time. We spent the day there on this hill, as the sun beat down and we played and shouted and tumbled, covering our jeans in grass stains, before climbing to the top to do the same thing all over again.

That afternoon probably took up less than five hours of my life. Yet at the time, that day seemed to go on forever, as our lives stretched out before us and tomorrow seemed like a lifetime away. That single day became a metaphor for the childhood that I wished I could have had.

Those boys never made it out of their twenties: both were killed in road traffic accidents before they hit 25. I'm the only one left to tell the story of that wonderful afternoon of grass stains, sunshine and laughter.

We all have lives made up of good and bad days. There are those days that we recall with great fondness: days of wonder and beauty, which are always with us. And then there are those days that we try to forget, but which are simply too painful for us to ever truly put out of our minds.

The past ten years of my life I have spent travelling, I have been searching for happiness. I travel much less now than I did (the next few months are, however, an exception) because I can no longer find the energy to spend hours on trains, planes and automobiles. I guess it's a sign of growing older. I will, after all, turn 40 in five years time...!

I have also been searching (albeit unsuccessfully) for those most mundane and yet seemingly elusive of things: a wife, a child, a place to rest my hat and call home. There is, however, a little bit more travelling left in these tired bones, and so a few days ago I got my bones in motion and set off to visit Ireland's capital city.

A Man From Mogilev in Dublin

I did not visit Dublin to see Ireland or meet the Irish. I didn't like the Irish before I travelled to Ireland, and I like them even less now. My grandfather came from Ireland (my Mum always tells me that I am 25% Irish) and so I have wanted for a long time to visit the place that helped give me life. But that was not the reason I went.

I visited Dublin to meet a Belarusian friend of mine, Serosha (that's Sergei to you) who studies in Limerick. When the people of Mogilev were stealing from me, Serosha (along with two other boys) was there for me. The least I could do was go and visit him for the kindness he showed me during those two terrible months in Mogilev.

I don't have many real friends. In fact, I can count the number of real friends I have on the fingers of one hand (and still have my thumb left over). But Serosha has been a true friend to me, and when my book is published later this year, I will finally be able to repay him.

I hate to say it, but the young people of Belarus have become real beggars. They are always playing "let's see how much money we can take from the foreigner." They can't help it; they can't stop themselves.

When I first visited Belarus ten years ago, nobody took my money. Now everybody takes my money. The only reason I can see for this is the influence of capitalism. If generation after generation grew up kind, warm and generous in the Soviet Union, but then one generation has become scheming and deceptive in ten years, I put it down to capitalism.

It pains me to say it, but Belarus has started embracing capitalism in earnest. As we nationalise in the West, Belarus privatises. There are two reasons why the President, Alexander Lukashenko, is converting to a free market system: disputes with Russia and the financial crisis.

In late 2006, the Russian government began charging Belarusian consumers more for gas than it charges its own people. This offended Belarus a great deal; a relationship based on friendship and a shared history suddenly became one based on economics.

Russia uses gas as a political tool, but not only gas: angry at Belarus's westward drift, Russia recently banned Belarusian milk products. (Russia has in the past banned Moldovian wine, Polish meat and Georgian mineral water). It's a catch-22 situation: the more Putin gets angry and the more he punishes Lukashenko for looking West, the closer Lukashenko moves to the European Union, which makes Putin angrier.

The other reason why Lukashenko is encouraging investment, selling 500 state controlled enterprises to the highest bidder and putting in place plans to privatise the Belarusian rail network, is because the financial crisis has seen Belarusian exports drop by around 40%.

So, almost 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the finest people in Europe are changing and changing quickly. It won't be long until the country is crammed full of McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC and the like, and those good people living in the last Soviet republic become more and more like the spoiled bastards in the West.

Back Out of the USSR

For me, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy.

I'm not talking about repression or Stalin or gulags - I'm talking about the end of socialism. In South America, socialism is making a comeback thanks to Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa (the latter was sworn in as the President of Ecuador when I was in the country two years ago. His Vice President is called Lenin, ironically enough). But while socialists can be turned into capitalists in, oh, about ten years, it takes generations for a capitalist society to become a socialist one.

Weapons Of Mass Deception

The West, especially the USA, is so hypocritical. Condoleezza Rice once branded Lukashenko 'the last dictator in Europe', but there is a fine line between a dictatorship and a so-called democracy.

In my own country, Tony Blair, that mass murdering democratically elected former Prime Minister, who was re-elected by the British people even after he invaded Iraq and murdered hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, used the terrorist threat (which he created) to bring in a series of curbs on personal freedom.

This means that if you read out the names of dead soldiers near the cenotaph, or you heckle a Labour minister at a party conference, or you protest against climate change, you can be arrested under anti-terror laws and released at an unknown location without phone or money.

This is a country where police officers recently attacked anti-globalisation protesters in London, in one case actually killing a man. This is a country where the same police force shot dead an innocent Brazilian student on the metro. This is a country where, a few days ago, police in Nottingham used a taser gun to electrocute a man lying in the street. This is a country where Metropolitan police officers are currently being investigated for 'water boarding', a form of torture where the victim thinks that he is drowning.

This is a country that invented the concentration camp (the Germans simply 'perfected' these camps) during the Boer War, when more than 26,000 women and children died in South Africa between 1900 and 1902. Similar camps had existed before (in the USA, the Cherokee and other Native Americans were interned in camps during the 1830s) but it was during the Boer War that the term 'concentration camp' was first used.

Having learned nothing, this country recently took capitalism to its limit when it helped the USA invade Iraq and take control of its oil supply. This is a country where every adult has the blood on his hands of thousands of Iraqis. This is a country where the hapless current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced a few days ago that an inquiry would be held into the war, but "it will not seek to apportion blame."

Another whitewash. An inquiry by Gordon Brown's chums. And when Brown announced in Parliament that the inquiry would be held in private, in an unbelievably cynical move, he quickly went on to pay tribute to all the dead soldiers (killed by Bush and Blair), knowing that the shouts and protests of the Liberal MPs would fall silent out of respect.

The UK and the USA can never redeem themselves for Iraq. I remember when the bombing began, George W. Bush talked about "saving the world from grave danger" and "the fight against tyranny", echoing the words that Lyndon Johnson used when he ordered soldiers into Vietnam forty years earlier. When the first missiles began to rain down on Baghdad, Bush took time off and went to his ranch in Texas. The guy didn't give a damn.

The rape of Iraq could never have happened without the support of the American people. As the Germans were held responsible for the crimes of the Third Reich, so the Americans and the British should pay a heavy price for the crimes committed by their democratically elected leaders.

As Iraqis were being blown to pieces, the Americans were watching the Oscars. The war was presented as an infomercial; 'shock and awe' was the name given to the opening campaign. The same term was later used to market a video game. With the Republican foot soldiers at Fox News in the USA and Murdoch's ragmag The Sun in the UK leading the way, there was a call for war, a demand for war, a lust for war. The Americans and British could smell blood and they were revelling in it.

The UK is on the road to hell and there is no turning back. This is a country where, a few weeks ago, I went out for the first time at night in a long time, because I was sick of having problems with the British. In one hour, I interfered when an old woman told a homeless man that he should 'FUCK OFF' and got a mouthful of abuse. Minutes later, a man I had never met before tried to pick a fight with me.

When I caught a taxi to Dublin airport on Sunday, I was ripped off by the driver. The same day, I was walking through the streets of Bristol to catch a train back to Exeter and watched as a middle aged white woman shouted to a Middle Eastern woman that she and her young son should "get back to their own country". Within minutes of arriving in Exeter, I walked past a man who was threatening passers-by and talking to his friend about how he was going to "knife somebody in the kidneys."

Scumdog Millionaires

A few days ago, I watched a film called Slumdog Millionaire. The stars of the film are a couple of Indian kids. The British director, Danny Boyle, wanted the film to have an authentic feel, and so rather than employing professional child actors, he went to the slums of India and found a few kids who knew how to act well enough to appear in a feature film.

The film cost $15 million to make. It has grossed over $360 million to date. Yet, the stars of this film still live in their slum. Worse still, they were taken on a worldwide promotional tour, and then dropped off in a silver mercedes back in their slum. It completely beggars belief.

Recently, the kids lost their home and were living on the streets. More than a year after the film was completed, and only after criticism in the press for doing sod all to help them, Boyle finally stepped in to give the kids and their family a flat (by which time it was too late as the Indian Government had already given them a new home). He said about these children a few weeks ago: "It's natural they want their lives to change, but these things take time."

This film has made a profit in excess of $340 million. This British bastard, who sums up just about the entire British population, couldn't even take a few thousand dollars out of that $340 million and get three children out of poverty. It reminds me of when I was in Ecuador and surrounded by Western lowlifes who were completely oblivious to the poverty surrounding them.

Dreaming of Destruction

I think that the British, along with Westerners as a whole, are a people who have lost their way. I no longer even see them as being human as they lack the qualities that make up warm, good hearted human beings.

The West does so much harm, both to the planet and to people's souls. The countries of Western Europe are built on the backs of colonisation, slavery and suffering. And forms of slavery still exist.

The clothes on our backs are put together by people working in sweat shops from Asia to South America. Fat, repulsive British females, with rolls of flesh hanging from underneath their t-shirts, gulp down litres of designer lattes and cappuccinos in Starbucks, while Ethopian coffee farmers get paid a pittance to fund our indulgent lifestyles.

Western corporations outsource and so when you call your local bank, you get diverted to a call centre in Mumbai where young people get paid pennies for listening to whingeing bastards all day.

It is these Western 'values' that are corrupting - no, contaminating - the good people of Belarus. It is a European parliament made up mainly of centre-right and far right MEPs that Lukashenko wants to get closer to.

I began this blog entry writing about dreams and happiness, good days and bad days. I dream of a better world, a world where countries and peoples that do harm to the world no longer exist. I am, however, a realist. And so it is my dream to get out of this country, out of this part of the world, and to a place where the people are warm, where I do not have to live in shame of my country's foreign policy.

Soon it will be time to go, time to leave these people to their fiery fate, never look back, as the time for dreaming will be over.

Friday, 11 July 2008

This One is For My Nan


It's hard to for me to believe that seven years have gone by.

Time is going by so quickly. Days are turning into weeks and weeks into months and now those months have turned into seven years.

Seven years since my Nan passed away.

I remember when I got the news. I was sitting in my flat, in Belarus, and I telephoned my sister Emma and she told me that my Nan had died a few days earlier.

I missed the funeral. I simply didn't have the time or the money to get back to England. And yet I have thought about my Nan, Pat Hawkins, every day since I received that telephone call.

I didn't want the seventh anniversary of my Nan's death to slip silently by. That's why I'm writing this today. I originally sent this as an email on July 11 2002 and I'm adding it to my blog today.

I know that sending an email or adding an entry to a blog isn't much, but it's one of the most personal things I can do.

I can only hope that you will read my words and let me share a few precious memories of my Nan with you today.

My Nan lived in a place called Trearddur Bay on Anglesey, an island in Wales. I would go and stay with her about once a year.

My Nan was sometimes quite nasty to me as a child and each time I was visited her I promised myself that it would be the last. And yet, every year, when she asked if I would like to return to Trearddur Bay, I would always say yes without a moment's hesitation.

Anything was better than being at home and, besides, I really did enjoy those summers in Trearddur Bay. Now that those days are gone forever, I look back upon them with a mixture of nostalgia and awe.

My Nan left Trearddur Bay two years before she died. She moved back to Cheshire in England to be with my aunt Annette who was suffering from breast cancer.

When I think about my Nan, I don't remember her in Cheshire - I always think about those summers in Trearddur Bay. Summers when my whole life was ahead of me and anything seemed possible.

Some of the memories from Trearddur Bay are so fresh, and seem so recent, it's hard to believe that nine years have passed since my Nan last lived there.

I can remember so many things, like going to play bowls with my Nan or climbing rocks, skimming stones and then returning home to my Nan's big house on the hill to find a hot dinner waiting for me.

The first time I fell in love was in Trearddur Bay. Of course it wasn't real love - that came later - but it was very real for a sensitive little boy who didn't know anything about girls or the world.

It's funny, I don't remember the girl's name. I remember we went hunting crabs together. I remember that she was very pretty. And I remember that she and her family stayed at a local caravan site.

I must have been about twelve years old when I met this girl and yet I've never forgotten her. It was only a few months after I left that I realised I had fallen in love with her.

Of course, being twelve, I never thought to ask for her address. I was more interested in crabs, conkers, catapults and climbing rocks. And yet, every few years I return to that caravan site, hoping to see her again. As the years go by, the caravan she stayed in becomes more and more disused and neglected. Still, I continue to go back there in the hope that I might one day see her again.

Even a few years ago, when I returned with my brother David to Trearddur Bay, I went back to that caravan. It's still there, but the windows are smashed and the caravan covered with ivy.

I wonder if that girl ever thinks about me.

This is just one of the memories that I have from Trearddur Bay. There are so many more. I realised after my Nan died that she gave me a great deal of my childhood. I have lots of happy memories from those summers spent in Trearddur Bay and my childhood simply would not have been a childhood without them.

I never thanked my Nan for that. Just as I never told her that I loved her. The truth is that I really didn't believe I did.

I was angry at her because she had often been nasty to me and I never told her those three simply words. She told me she loved me - I just never told her in return.

Since my Nan passed away I have come to realise that I did love her very much. I also realise that she loved me too and cared about me deeply. I truly wish that I had been a better grandson because I know that in that role I failed miserably.

My Nan died of blood poisoning on July 11, 2001.

The fact that my Nan had blood poisoning wasn't diagnosed until it was too late. My grandfather - who I wasn't close to - died a few weeks earlier and the doctors simply thought that she was grieving for him. In reality, she was dying. If they had only prescribed antibiotics she would be alive today.

And now here I am, seven years on.

I am glad that I got the chance to share a few precious memories of my Nan, Pat Hawkins, with you. I will remember her today in my own private way, but I wanted to share something of her with you, too.

I may not write about my Nan very often, but this doesn't mean that I have forgotten her.

I am learning to live with the guilt of knowing I was not a good grandson. I could have visited her more often - she often asked me to. I could have sent her a card after she lost her husband, I could have helped her more, asked her how she was, been less stubborn.

I am learning to live with this in my own personal way by realising that I was wrong.

I can only hope that, somehow, my Nan, wherever she is today, knows that I did love her very much. I can only hope that she knows that I carry the memory of her with me wherever I go.

I will always be very grateful to her for everything she did for me, everything she gave me, and especially for those magical, endless summers in Trearddur Bay.

Today is not a day for grieving but it is a day for remembering and I will always remember this fine, giving, dignified and wonderful old lady for the rest of my life.

My Nan was wonderful, she touched my life with her presence, and she was one of the most important people in my life. I will never forget her and I will never stop thinking about her.

I will tell my children about her and I hope, with all my heart, that one day I will meet her again and I will be able to tell her how special those days in Trearddur Bay will always be to me.

Goodbye, Nan. Take care. I miss you.

And I love you with all my heart.

Lots of love,

Your Grandson .

Monday, 17 September 2007

Love from Ljubljana

I find myself surrounded by dead animals.

I am writing to you from Pension Zaplata in Slovenia.

Pension Zaplata must be the place that vegetarians and animals rights activists who have led unwholesome lives go to when they die. Just about every animal from Slovenia can be found here, stuffed, mounted and proudly displayed, welcoming visitors with cold, dead eyes.

From the birds and deer in the hallway to the imposing Croatian bear that greets you as you enter, this place is a Republican's dream.

At first I thought I didn't mind it too much, but waking up this morning to be confronted by the bare white skull of a deer, antlers still attached, is more than a little nauseating. (Eat them, sure, but don't decorate your house with them).

Still - and I feel a touch of hypocrisy coming on - I did tuck into a hearty meal of deer medallions in cherry sauce earlier, followed later by tender young boar. Perhaps that's why a bull charged me today.

That Bulls Got Balls

Slovenia truly is a beautiful country.

A few hours ago I rented a bicycle and took a ride to a nearby village called Kranj, travelling down little used roads and past green meadows, fast flowing rivers and towering, cloud covered mountains.

After visiting Kranj, I hid my bicycle and made my way into the hills on foot to explore this beautiful landscape further. After a short walk, I came to a wire fence and, mindful of the fact that I was entering private land, I hopped over and began making my way across a field.

I soon ran into a couple of cows, who started giving me the daggers, so I stared back, being sure to give them a wide berth. Don't bother them and they won't bother you Andrew, I thought to myself. With that thought barely finished, there was suddenly a great crashing noise and moments later a huge bull appeared from nowhere and came charging towards me.

I turned and ran, jumping the wire fence, and began making my way down a steep slope, going as fast as my legs would carry me. Inevitably, I slipped and started sliding down the slope, ass first.

With the bull now completely forgotten, my only concern was to stop myself falling. I was grabbing at branches and small trees but I was moving too quickly to get a grip. After sliding about 30 feet, I went - quite literally - crotch first into a small branch.

Looking back, and at the time, it was quite comical. I was sliding so quickly, there was no time to be afraid. The fall wouldn't have killed me, but that little branch saved me from a few cuts and bruises.

Surprisingly, I experienced no pain at all and my crotch came out completely unscathed. I suspect, however, that Emily may now need to wait a little longer for the child that she so desperately wants.

Smiles and Sadness in Semic

Being in Slovenia, and writing this email, brings my life full circle.

This is my second visit to Slovenia; I was here two years ago today, in a small town called Semic, working with paraplegics.

Tomorrow I head to Kranj again, leaving the stuffed animals and my friend the bull behind. I will catch a train to Ljubljana and then head to Semic where I will spend time with the same Slovenian people I first met in 2005.

Being in Semic two years ago was very intense. There was me, a dozen Slovenian paraplegics and a few other international volunteers. We spent nearly all of our time in a house not unlike the Big Brother house. There was no TV, no Internet, just us in the house, talking, eating, playing chess and other games.

On the one hand, it was a great experience. The Slovenians were great people and nice to be with. But I had problems with the other volunteers. There was a man in his late seventies called Howard who was fine. My problems were with a Swiss girl, an Irish girl, an American girl and a French-Polish girl. They were nasty, small minded people, who should have been appearing in an episode of Big Brother rather than volunteering to work in Slovenia.

They spent most of their time gossipping (about me, unfortunately) and were all obsessed with sex.

At one point - and it's embarrassing for me to relate this but I will anyway - I walked into the room to find them engaged in a conversation about how they would refrain from eating a day before having anal sex so they don't open their bowels before doing the deed. This is the type of girl we are talking about here. They said some very nasty and hurtful things about me and ruined my time in Slovenia.

That is part of the reason I am going back, to banish the memory of those awful people.

But more than that, I am going to spend time with the Slovenian people again. Wonderful people like Rok, Stefan, Damjan and Joe Rabbit. Tomorrow I will return to that small village and history will repeat itself as my life comes full circle.

More Smiles and Sadness in Semic

Thursday 20 September 2007

I am writing to you from Semic. Its a little after eleven in the evening on Thursday 20 September 2007. Two years ago, to the very day, to the very minute, I was here, in this house, almost certainly in this room, with the people who are sitting across the table from me right now.

Rok is here, and Joe Rabbit, and Stefan and Damjan and many of the people I met two years ago. Very often, when I visit a place and then go back in an attempt to recapture the past, I am met with disappointment because things always change.

In the time that has passed since I visited Semic in 2005, nothing has changed.

The house is the same. The kitchen, the decor, the beds, the crappy TV, the trolley we used to wheel the food around on. Even the neighbours dog that barked all night long and kept us awake two years ago is still here, still barking.

The church bells still rings. The same clock still ticks. Sitting here, writing this, it is like those two years never passed at all.

I arrived in Semic from Kranj on Tuesday and the past two days have again been filled with smiles and sadness. There have been visits to the pub, games of chess, meals, conversations, laughter and moments of reflection.

Tomorrow the camp ends and I will leave Semic once again. But for now, for this moment, I am back in the place of a thousand memories.

My life truly has come full circle.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

More Kisses from Kiev

First Kiss - From the Capital of Craziness

One year ago, when I last wrote from the Ukraine, I mentioned that Kiev was a very westernised city, much like any other European capital.

My experiences during the past eight days have encouraged me to revise that opinion.

Indeed, in the past week I have witnessed much Eastern European craziness, experienced real Soviet backwardness and encountered such absurdity, such outlandish stupidity, that 24 hours ago I was standing in the centre of Kiev shouting obscenities at strangers who couldn't understand a word of what I was saying and who were continuing to go about their lives blissfully unaware that, in simple terms, this is just not the way that things are done.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Second Kiss - The Great Ticket Adventure

This particular adventure in Eastern Europe began on 4 September 2007 when I made my way to Liverpool John Lennon airport and boarded a Ryanair flight to Riga.

After a 3 hour wait in the capital of Latvia, I boarded another flight with Air Baltic which took me to Kiev where Emily was waiting for me, hugs and kisses at the ready.

That's where the craziness began.

From Borispol International Airport we headed to the central railway station where Emily attempted to buy tickets to Simferopol.

We were told that there were no tickets available and that we should return a few hours later at 6pm. So we searched for a place to sit and rest but, as a testament to the genius of Soviet planning, there are no seats on the lower level of the railway station. The seats are two floors up, where there is nothing but seats.

Unfortunately, the lifts were out of order, so we had to struggle up two flights of stairs with our suitcases. When we eventually made it, we were approached by two shady looking individuals who told us they could sell us two train tickets to Simferopol on the 'black market' for twice the usual price. We declined their kind offer.

Later, we realised the reason there were no tickets was because shady individuals like this had bought them to sell to needy travellers like us.

So, we waited. At 6pm we returned to the ticket office but were told that there were still no tickets available for that evening and so we bought two tickets for travel the following day.

With nowhere to stay in Kiev, we remained at the railway station for a few more hours. Just before we were about to leave, Emily and I joined another queue to ask again about tickets to Simferopol.

After a 30 minute wait, the woman behind the booth told us that there were indeed tickets to Simferopol available for that same evening but we would first have to cancel the tickets we had bought some hours earlier when we were told by another woman behind another booth that there were no tickets available.

So, we joined another queue, spoke to another woman and she cancelled the tickets. Then we returned to the first queue and after about ten minutes of waiting in line the woman put a sign in the window and went off for her twenty minute break.

These twenty minute breaks occur at regular intervals during the day and give the overweight women who work behind these booths the chance to go and use the toilet, fart, eat a sandwich, whatever. All people can do is remain in line and wait.

Eventually the woman returned and, after much fussing, fighting and farting, we purchased our tickets and at about 10pm we boarded a Soviet train that would take us to Simferopol in the Crimea.

But this was to be just the very beginning of our adventures in the Ukraine. Things would get much worse from this point on.

Third Kiss - Kisses from a Man in Kiev

For the duration of our 13-hour journey to the Crimea we shared a compartment with a young man called Roma. Roma was energetic, talkative and well on his way to becoming an alcoholic.

An hour into our journey Roma produced the customary bottle of vodka, and more to keep him quiet, I agreed to one drink.

One drink soon turned to five and hours later we were drinking to my health, to his health, to Emily's health, to love, to the memory of his dead cat, to his shoelaces, to the woman he had met on the metro in Kiev who had held the door open for him.

He was calling me his brother and kissing me on the cheeks (not altogether an unpleasant experience) but by 1am I was tired and ready to sleep. But there would be little sleep for me that night.

Roma went on and on, like Ariston, and even when I turned out the light and crawled into bed he came in and out of the compartment, called me his brother and told me jokes that did not translate.

At 4am we pulled into a station and Roma jumped off the train and somehow managed to buy a small blue teddy bear. He shook us awake to show it to us.

By 6am even he was starting to become tired and after spending forty minutes trying to remove his jeans, he clambered into the bed above me and quickly fell asleep, only to begin snoring minutes later.

At 1pm we arrived in Simferopol and, after more kisses, we bid farewell to the unforgettable Roma and made our way to Sevastopol and then on to a small town called Balaklava where Emily's aunt Olya and uncle Slava and their son Sergei where waiting for us.

Fourth Kiss - Memory of a Crisis in the Crimea

We arrived in the Crimea nearly one year to the day since I last visited this sunny spot in the Ukraine. I almost lost my life in Balaklava, when I became stuck on a cliff for more than 24 hours before being rescued by Ukrainian mountain rescue.

Thankfully, there were no such adventures this time round, just five days of sea, sun, sand and shashlik.

The Crimea is a beautiful place, bordering the Black Sea, with Turkey on the opposite side.

Balaklava is a town many tourists never reach. It was a nuclear submarine base during the Soviet era and was closed off. Even today, many local people simply don't know it exists.

I spent those 5 days in Balaklava staying with Emily's relatives. They are very nice, hospitable people and a real contrast to the Westerners I meet every day.

They live in a very small, cramped two room flat. For the duration of our stay, Sergei gave us his bed and slept on the floor in his parents room. This is normal in Belarus and the Ukraine. Can you imagine some Brit doing something like that?

Emily's Aunt looked after me, fed me, gave me presents and treated me like a son. One day we visited Olya's mother in Sevastopol, an eighty year old woman, and she was just as hospitable.

She prepared borsch for us and gave me some home made liquor (made from mixing vodka and rose petals) to take home to my Mum.

We sat and talked about the Ukraine, the negative impact the USA has on every country around the world, her life and her health problems. When it was time to leave, Emily was close to tears, and I was too, not knowing if we would ever see this kind old lady again.

We left the Crimea on Monday. Just before leaving Balaklava, I returned to the cliff where I spent the worst 24 hours of my life. When I was rescued last year, I tied my towel to a branch I had sheltered under during my ordeal.

On Monday I climbed down a little and was able to make out my little branch below but my towel was gone, perhaps taken by the wind, or perhaps by an intrepid climber who may have wondered why on earth there was a towel tied to a tree half way down a cliff in Balaklava.

Late Monday evening we left the Crimea behind once again and returned to the capital of the Ukraine where more Soviet kisses, more madness, awaited us.

Fifth Kiss - Crisis in Kiev

We arrived in Kiev at 11.30am yesterday and should have been met at the railway station by a woman from a flat agency who was to take us to an apartment I had arranged to rent.

Of course, this being the former USSR, she wasn't there, so we phoned her. We were told by her partner that she wasn't home and we were asked to call back in 20 minutes.

We waited and then called back. The phone was engaged. We called again and reached her. Through a mouthful of food, the woman asked us to call back in 5 minutes.

We called back and she told us to go and wait outside McDonald's near the railway station and that she would come and collect us in 20 minutes and take us to the apartment. So, we went and waited.

After an hour, it was clear that she wasn't coming. We phoned her again. From that point on she simply didn't answer the phone. The apartment was not available. The bitch had lied and lied.

With nowhere to stay, we headed to a local Internet cafe to try to find somewhere but there was nowhere and nothing available, other than hotels that were well out of my reach financially. We phoned hotels, flat agencies, hostels, everywhere, but there was nothing.

Eventually, we found two options. There was a hostel at the railway station where we could take a room after 7pm for $20 per night and one flat agency had a flat available for $120 per night.

We decided on the hostel, and went back shortly before 7pm, only to find that there were no longer any rooms or beds available. Everything was taken. So in desperation, we phoned the flat agency and asked to take the flat but were told that someone else had taken it less than thirty minutes earlier.

It was shortly after this that I started shouting obscenities at strangers in the street in Kiev.

I admit that in my own country I encounter stupidity, incompetence and a lack of common sense fairly regularly. But in the former USSR things like this happen almost every day and there are times when it all becomes too much to bear and something just snaps.

There was however a happy ending late last night when I managed to find a 2 star hotel (for $140 per night) far from the centre of Kiev.

But for now I have just about had my fill of the Ukraine. As I wrote when I began this entry, people just don't seem to understand that this is not the way that things are done.

Last Kiss - Kisses from Kiev

So this is my final night in Kiev. Tomorrow I will say goodbye to Emily's kisses and head to Riga where I will stay for one night before returning to the UK for ten hours and then travelling on to Slovenia.

I am not sure if or when I will return to the Ukraine. I have no plans to do so. I will however return to Minsk in Belarus again in November or December, and that's pretty close to the Ukraine, geographically as well as politically and ideologically.

Until then, and until Slovenia, it's goodbye and a kiss to Emily, and goodbye to the craziness and madness of the former USSR.

Onward to civilisation.

Take care all.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Messages from Minsk

Message 1 - Message in a Bubble

This entry comes to you from a city at the end of the world.

To reach this forgotten and isolated place, I had to travel thousands of miles by land and air. I also had to travel back in time, back to a time when the hammer and sickle ruled Eastern Europe.

I am writing from Mogilev, a small city of a few hundred thousand people close to the Russian border.

This is not my first visit to Mogilev; I have visited this off-the-map place many times. In fact, I lived and worked here for six months in a nearby orphanage when I was 26 years old. Now I am back, back at the end of the world, back in the USSR.

A few days ago I had a party in this flat with a Mexican, a dozen 19-year-old Belorussian girls and plenty of Soviet vodka. Written on the bottom of the cups we were drinking our vodka from were the words: Made in the USSR. On a shelf in this room are an assortment of books dating back to the early days of the Soviet Union. Believe it or not, there are also a number of magazines, dated 1990 - 1991, which appear to glorify Stalin (the covers show photos of Stalin meeting The Workers, Stalin hugging a little girl).

A few days ago I said goodbye to the Mexican as he boarded a train to Moscow at a station which has changed little since the days when Khrushchev and Castro were sharing vodka and missiles.

Perhaps this country's Soviet past is not so much in the past after all.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let me get back to the very beginning, back to where it all began.

Message 2 - Condoms for Breakfast

Picking up from where I left off, I departed Quito, the capital of Ecuador, on 15 February. I managed to have more adventures and misadventures during my final hours in South America.

I arrived at Quito airport with $25 to pay the necessary departure tax, only to find that the $25 tax had become a $32 tax.

I had a grand total of $31.75 in my wallet and my Visa Electron cash card which would not work in the airport cash machines. I was 25 cents short and the airport staff would not let me proceed through security until I had paid the departure tax in full.

I was facing being stranded in South America because of a tiny sum of money, and could well have been, had an American tourist not learned of my plight and stepped to give me 25 cents.

This little episode made me angry and so when, after proceeding through security, I was approached by a young woman who started asking me questions about why I was in Ecuador, I was more than a little rude with her. I was in no mood to explain I had been living with Indians in the Amazon rainforest for the past four weeks.

With a smile, the young woman asked me to follow her into a nearby room. She was going to exercise the little bit of power that she had and she was going to teach this angry Englishman a lesson.

She pointed to a sign on the wall, written in Spanish, of which I could understand just one word: NARCĂ“TICO. That one word was enough.

After putting my signature to a sheet of paper, I was instructed to drop my trousers and place a protective sheath over my private parts. I was then x-rayed to see if I was carrying any illegal substances in my stomach.

Of course there was nothing of any interest in my stomach, other than plenty of boiled and fried bananas, a liquidised Mars Bar, a rusty licence plate, the remains of a young female bather and a small wooden puppet going by the name of Pinocchio.

After an apology from the young woman, my stomach and I were allowed to go on our way and I finally boarded my flight and left Ecuador and the Amazon far behind.

Message 3 - Trials and Tribulations in Toronto

After another pit stop in Panama and a few days in Mexico City with my friend Cesar, I flew on to Toronto where I had a ten-hour wait for my connecting flight to London.

I had intended to spend the day discovering Toronto, but it didn't quite turn out that way. In fact, it didn't turn out that way at all.

I arrived at the airport with no cash. I planned to use my Visa Electron card but I could not find a cash machine that would accept it.

I spent five hours walking around Toronto, through slush and snow, in freezing temperatures, searching for that elusive cash machine, but I could not find a single ATM that would give me cash.

After almost being stranded in Ecuador, I could have been stranded in Canada too. Luckily the airport bus driver accepted my Visa Electron and so I was at least able to get to and from the airport.

After walking the streets for the afternoon I headed to the CN Tower where I had arranged to meet the infamous David Shakespeare, the star of many of my mass emails.

But David turned out to be just as elusive as that cash machine and we did not meet. (I found out some days later that David was waiting for me on the opposite side of the tower).

After an hour I headed into the tower. They accepted my Visa Electron card and so I was able to reach the top of the CN Tower.

Standing 553 metres tall, attracting around two million visitors every year, the CN Tower is an icon of Canada and currently holds the title of the world's tallest freestanding structure on land.

Near to the top of the tower is a glass floor which I stood upon and looked at all of the cars and crowds far below, smaller than ants, wrapped up in their lives, thinking about money and sex and family and money and sex, most of them unaware that the foreign policy of the world's major powers is endangering all of our lives.

Next to the glass floor is a sign which states that the glass is strong enough to hold 14 hippos (or three average-sized American teenagers) but despite this many of the people around me were still too afraid to walk onto the glass. People are such wimps.

After scaling the tower I made my way back to the airport to catch my flight to London.

Looking back, I did not enjoy my brief stay in Canada.

After a month in South America and a few days in Mexico, returning to a capitalist country was not pleasant and I found the people of Toronto to be rude and insincere. In fact, I saw little difference between Toronto and any US city, with people hanging around on street corners selling hockey tickets and the awful Support Our Troops posters scattered across the city.

A Canadian told me that Toronto is possibly the worst city in Canada to visit, and perhaps I am being a little too judgemental, but I really did not like Toronto or the people and I have no desire to return.

Message 4 - Perchance to Dream

I arrived at Heathrow the following day and boarded a coach that took me from London to Liverpool.

I arrived at my Mother's house around midnight and after unpacking and repacking I set my alarm and fell asleep at two in the morning. A little under two hours later the alarm woke me and at 4.30am my Mother, my brother and I made our way to a local bus stop where we boarded a coach that would take us to Ostend in Belgium.

By this point I was exhausted. I could barely think, let alone speak, and all of my energy was spent just trying to keep my eyes open.

In the past three days I had been to Ecuador, Panama, Mexico, Toronto, the UK and now I was on my way to Belgium. I had barely eaten, barely slept and had gone from unbearable heat in Ecuador and Mexico to six below zero in Canada to rain in the UK.

In a word, I was tired.

A day later my family and I arrived at our hotel in Ostend and I was finally able to get my head on a pillow. I closed my eyes and slept for more than fourteen hours - and woke up feeling tired.

Message 5 - Feeling Old in Ostend

Exhaustion aside, I enjoyed my time in Belgium and I was glad that I got to know my Mum, Jackie, and my brother Mark a little better.

I am not close to my family; we are very different people I think, and this was our first family holiday for years and years and a chance for us all to enjoy ourselves and spend some quality time together.

I enjoyed the holiday too, though spending my days with a bus load of people twice my age is not normally my idea of fun.

Still, they were pleasant days. I got to explore the beautiful city of Bruges and, after my ordeal in the Amazon rainforest, a short holiday in Belgium was a welcome prescription for rest and recovery.

My family and I returned to the UK on Friday and on Sunday I packed my bags once again and headed to Liverpool John Lennon airport where I boarded a flight to Riga in Latvia. Once there I made my way to Belarus and to the Soviet Union.

Message 6 - Back in the USSR

The Republic of Belarus really is an anomaly.

It is hard to believe that in the year 2007 this throw-back to the Soviet Union still exists.

Everywhere you go in Minsk there are reminders of the past: Statues of Lenin, Soviet symbols, the KGB - still called the KGB - driving around in their 4x4s, silently observing the population.

Belarus is stuck in a time-warp; it's not that things in Belarus aren't changing, they are, they are just changing very, very slowly.

A black hole in the centre of Europe, the Republic of Belarus is trapped, trapped in the past, perhaps a little afraid of the future.

Life is different here, different to any other country I have visited. Belarus is cocooned, protected by a bubble.

There is almost no unemployment, no risk of terrorism and very little crime. The problems we face in the West don't apply here. Life is safer, different, unique and a little detached from reality.

It's difficult to put into words, but this is similar to what life was like in the Soviet Union. Simply, people felt protected.

Unfortunately, because Belarus is still pretty much the same as when Gorbachev was in power, life can be frustrating. Nothing works and when things do work they mostly work badly.

Common sense could not get a visa for Belarus; bureaucracy rules, the transport system is a mess, things are old and getting older.

Belarus does, however, have one redeeming feature: its people. Belarus is home to the finest people in Europe, possibly the finest in the world. Warm, friendly and sincere, these are good people and they have not yet had their souls corrupted by capitalism.

But things are changing. But we'll get to that later.

Message 7 - Message from Minsk

Undoubtedly the most surreal moment of this visit to Minsk occurred when I went with Emily to the funeral of her uncle who had died some days earlier.

Emily had just buried her beloved hamster Pushok and she asked me to accompany her to her uncle's funeral to give her support. It was a bizarre experience.

It started with Emily and I meeting her uncle's grieving relatives outside his flat. After a long wait, his coffin was brought out and placed in the street on four wooden chairs. The lid was taken off and we took it in turns to place flowers on his body.

I had never met this man before and the first time I saw him he was lying in a coffin, his skin a horrible yellow colour, almost translucent.

I placed a red rose on his chest and the coffin was sealed and placed in a funeral car. We clambered into a Soviet bus and followed the coffin to the cemetery where Emily's uncle was cremated.

After the cremation, we made our way to a cafe where I sat for four hours, surrounded by the man's wife and daughter and grieving relatives, a stranger in their midst, as everyone took it in turns to stand up and make a speech about the dearly departed.

My God it was so awful! It was such a depressing experience and so weird, being there when I didn't know any of those people.

I hope that when I die my funeral is nothing like that; I don't want people to cry and tell sad stories about me, I want people to celebrate my life and the fact that I lived.

Other than that, that month in Belarus was one that I enjoyed; basking in Emily's love, visiting the kids at the orphanage, eating in restaurants, losing money at the casino and doing the normal things that I do when I visit the last surviving remnant of the USSR.

After the month was up I returned to the UK and tried to make some money. In early May I boarded another flight and made my way back to Belarus once again.

Message 8 - Message from Mogilev

On April 26, 1986 there was a huge explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine. A plume of radioactive fallout drifted over Europe. Most of the fallout fell over Belarus.

Mogilev - along with Gomel - was one of the cities in Belarus most affected by the accident at Chernobyl. When I first visited Mogilev in 1999, I was told not to drink the milk or eat the mushrooms.

Eight years later here I am back again in Mogilev and yes, I am drinking the milk. I try not to, but faced with a calcium deficiency or possible radiation poisoning, I usually opt for the radiation poisoning.

Besides, the girls of Mogilev drink it and they are beautiful, so I think I will take my chances with the milk.

It's just a shame it's in those damn bags.

Message 9 - A Mexican in Mogilev

Until a few days ago my friend Cesar was here with me in Mogilev.

He flew to Belarus a couple of weeks ago and we spent our time visiting classes at a local university so that the language students could hear native English and Spanish speakers in action and ask us questions about England and Mexico.

We invited most of those students back to our flat and have had lots of parties, spent lots of money, drank lots of vodka and played lots of drinking games.

My time in Mogilev has been enjoyable enough. The people in this part of Belarus are friendly, warm and communicative. But they seem to have changed since I first arrived in September 1999.

Back then if I visited a cafe with someone they would insist that they pay for themselves. Now people are more than happy to let me pay for them and, to be honest, I have gotten pretty sick of it.

It is not nice to go out with someone - both men and women - and have them order things from the menu and then just assume that I will pay for them. On the whole, the people I have met have been very nice, but because I have met so many, I feel now that a few have been taking advantage of me.

I guess it was inevitable simply because Cesar and I met dozens of people. Nonetheless, it has put on a dampener on what otherwise would have been a nice time. It never use to be like this; like everyone else, the Belorussian people are changing.

When I return here later in the year I will not be so foolish with my cash. I have been a little stupid, and next time I will be much wiser and more careful because these incidences have almost ruined what otherwise has been a nice fortnight in Mogilev.

Message 10 - Putting My Passport to Sleep

So, this is my final message.

I have just re-read this entry and realised that there was nothing much to report.

No getting lost in the Amazon rainforest, no great cliff adventures. I didn't even get arrested in Latvia.

Cesar is back in Mexico now, no doubt drinking his USSR vodka and, I hope, remembering the days he spent with me in this crazy country in a flat in a little city at the end of the world.

There are no lessons to be learned from this entry, no great wisdom shared. Just a tale of an Englishman who went to the USSR and came back a little poorer and a little older.

It's time to put my passport to sleep for the next few months. But it won't be resting for too long. There are many more people to do and things to see.

Until next time, take care, Emily. Take care, Cesar.

Thanks for reading this.

Skyler Black.

About Me

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London, ENGLAND, United Kingdom
This is me. Read a few entries and they will tell you more about me than I can fit into these few paragraphs. Many of these entries started their lives as mass emails. That was before I discovered blogs. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for visiting my blog and reading about my life. Both a work in progress.