@

author-photo-lower-res-copyOf Maud Casey’s most recent book, Alice Sebold said, “The Man Who Walked Away cast a spell from which I never wished to wake.”

Indeed, this book is spellbinding. Between the mental patients, the overly-confident doctors who treat them, the women suffering from hysteria, the dazzling acrobat, and the man who simply walks across Europe, this book is like a an eerie, unsettling dream that you cannot shake from your head.

Maud and I shared a fascinating discussion about The Man Who Walked Away, in which Maud brought up “ovary belts,” the difficulty in simply being human, and a “hunger for peace.”

Do you really wish you could’ve gotten out of work sooner? Do you really wish that, or are you just being overly apologetic in hopes that your one-time girlfriend and current pitying host will forget that she ran into you at the Whole Foods bean bar where she felt obligated to invite you to her “Tuesday supper club” because she “knows it’s tough to be in a new town”.  Do you really wish you could’ve gotten out of work sooner? Because your nervous stomach and that fresh bile stain on your collar tell a different story.

Do you really not need your ex to introduce you to any of her friends? Do you really think you’ll be fine navigating the party on your own, or is this just a reflexive attempt to thrust yourself into a situation wherein you might add to your empty arsenal of easygoing guy qualifications? Do you really not need your ex to introduce you to any of her friends? Because while you sat at work, hiccuping back vomit and debating whether or not you’d attend this party, every guest became immersed in conversation about mutual friends whom you’ve never met, would hate you, and are coming soon.

Do you really want to live in Africa? Do you really want to, or is this just something you’re saying now because you’re drinking a glass of Malbec and there’s a good-looking girl with leather bracelets and uncombed hair sitting next to you? Do you really want to live in Africa? Because no one there will care that you “appreciate Infinite Jest more at thirty than at nineteen” or have a friend who works at Google; in Africa, tenuous ties to accomplishment still wouldn’t be fodder for introductions.

Do you really love this obscure bossa nova record? Do you really love it, or do you just feel like unbuttoning your shirt one more notch wasn’t enough to make you seem like an aficionado of all things alternative? Do you really love this obscure bossa nova record? Because the kind of people who love this record didn’t even wear shirts to this party and won’t put one on until they fly to their Peace Corps reunion in Senegal next week.

Do you really wish Alain could’ve come tonight? Do you really wish he could’ve, or do you just want everyone to know that you and your host have a French mutual friend? Do you really wish Alain could’ve come tonight? Because if he came, he’d barely recognize you and comment to your enthralled former girlfriend about New York audiences appreciating bossa nova in a “façon” totally different from the Brazilians.

Do you really hate Mitt Romney? Do you really hate him, or do you just think having a strong negative opinion about a conservative politician will make up for the fact that you wore loafers to a flip flop fest? Do you really hate Mitt Romney? Because if you hated him, you’d be too busy right now to give conservatism a thought; you’d be texting Alain about yoga retreats and Freegan microenterprises in fluent French.

Do you really think dinner is even better than the appetizers? Do you really think that, or have you just not spoken since your Romney comment? Do you really think dinner is even better than the appetizers? Because thinking that would mean you’d eaten one single olive tapenade cracker while precariously fielding questions about why you think Mitt is “worse than Hitler and Bin Laden combined.”

Do you really prefer Italian filmmakers to American? Do you really prefer them, or has Todd Phillips made every movie you’ve seen in the past five years? Do you really prefer Italian filmmakers to American? Because liking the bruschetta and penne alla vodka you’re eating better than the olive tapenade just means you have the palate of a nine-year-old; it doesn’t mean you know anything about Rossellini’s neorealism.

Do you really hope to get back to Europe soon? Do you really hope to, or are you just glad that your time studying abroad in Barcelona has enabled you to seem nostalgic for a place other than Disney World? Do you really hope to get back to Europe soon? Because the locales you’re remembering as “incredible” and “unforgettable” seem to be recollections of landmarks other guests mentioned five minutes ago, during the Italian filmmaker conversation.

Do you really wish you could stay? Do you really wish that, or would one more minute at this dining room table fashioned from unlacquered Balian driftwood cause your restless leg to bob so high it knocks the glasses off your soon-to-be-forgotten face? Do you really wish you could stay?

Because, it’s really fucking okay if you fucking really don’t fucking wish that at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


People like me don’t go to Europe. White trash takes a late model vehicle to all vacation destinations. If you can’t drive there you can forget it, because dad only works summers, unable to acquire a skill set that he can utilize all year round.

Like a boxer finding his feet

Gets off the floor

Or a ship buoyantly climbs

The crest with a groan


An unseen technician

Slides the dial, and here

Comes our plentiful

European light;


No scavenging hyenas

Or roaming hawkers here

To disturb our preening

Stillness. Only swans


Doing their best to glide

Like card cut-outs

Across the perfect stage

Where a man sits


Head in hands, watched

By sleeping strangers

Whilst he declares

“Morning won’t suffice.”



My wife and I recently had a wedding here in Finland. We’d already been married in the eyes of America last winter, but we decided that we wanted more gifts, so we did it again.

Instead of going on a honeymoon or paying the mortgage, we also decided to give gifts to ourselves. For a long time it was a toss-up between a solar-powered hydrofoil or a refurbished Ukrainian tank, but in the end we decided to get two dogs. That way we could stuff them under the blankets to help thaw our feet after walking to the bathroom.

Raisa immediately starting perusing the ads on an online adoption site, but she wasn’t satisfied with your average Canis lupus familiaris bearing two ears, a tail, and fur in all the right places. No, she wanted the ones with bits of tongue missing and prison tattoos where their balls used to be. Within minutes her heart was set on two gnarly looking Russian dogs being extradited for matters of national security.

Desperate for help, I made some hot chocolate, crawled under the sink (it’s warmer there), and wrote a letter to Santa Claus, known in Finland as Yule Goat.* Mr. Goat has an office in Northern Finland, so I figured my request for two fluffy, photogenic, poop-free dogs would be expedited.

Alas, it was not to be. By the time my ink fob had thawed, Raisa had already paid for our dogs via RublePal, rendering the deal all but done. Now all we had to do was meet the dog dealers near an abandoned munitions factory along the Finland-Russian border, sign a non-disclosure/non-litigation agreement, and take our animals and their troughs home.

As we made our long and arduous journey through the Finnish countryside, I mentioned to Raisa that the deal seemed a bit shady. She told me not to worry, since Finland is considered the the least corrupt and most democratic country in the world. However, the closer you get to the Russian border, the grayer the market becomes. As do the trees, the food, and the atmosphere. We drove for hours through rain and fog and icicle storms, and when we got within 10 km of Russia, the GPS told us to turn around and never look back.

Undeterred, we navigated via dead reckoning toward the heavily guarded tower on the horizon. When we finally did locate the meeting point, we found one Cadillac-size dog squeezed into a Fiat and the other chasing his shadow through a poppy field. We managed to lure the animals into our car with hunks of maggoty reindeer flesh, at which point the dogs promptly went about tearing some skin from each others faces (which Raisa said is a custom in their home country).

While the dogs tended to their wounds, I finally asked Raisa why exactly these dogs were being given up for adoption. She told me not to worry about it, but when my wife tells me not to worry about something, it means that something is deeply, truly wrong.

Turns out that when the youngest of our Russian canines is left alone, he tends to rip knobs off doors, shred clothes, and tear pipes out of walls before finally opening a window and leaping to his freedom. At one point there was evidence of these crimes, such as photographs and insurance claims, but he ate those too. The other guy, an older hunting dog with a litany of scars and claw marks decorating his face like tribal tattoos, has never learned basic commands. Or his name, apparently. He mostly just stands there smiling and wagging his crooked, truncated tail while we beg him to climb down from the top of the television.

Luckily, both dogs know not to take their massive dumps in the house. Unfortunately, like many Russians, the dogs have terrible smoking habits** and prefer potato spirits over boring old water. Despite these deleterious traits, the dogs are as strong as Mongolian llamas. They’re also ludicrously competitive: on our daily 100-km jogs, they insist on chasing down every runner and cyclist and tearing the rubber off the athletes’ shoes (or wheels). When we really want to wear out the dogs, we yoke them up with the polar bear and have the trio plow our street.

I personally share a special kinship with these dogs, being a fellow expatriate***. The dogs and I often gather in a drunken heap on the floor and reminisce about our respective motherlands, which have been at war since before the sun was born. Sometimes, when the discussion lands on on current transnational commerce barriers or disarmament talks circa 1988-1993, the mood grows downright ugly. Fur flies. Flesh is ripped. Epithets are hurled. Curses are unleashed. Raisa is forced to send us to our respective cages. After a good nap though, we forget what the fuss was about. Our comradeship survives another day.

Yes, we love our Russian dogs. (If we don’t, who the fuck will?)

 

* Yule goat – a frighteningly ugly little beast – actually demands gifts from children.

**And Finland is increasingly becoming a bad place to be a smoker, even if you’re a dog. Strangely, the Finnish government is striving to eradicate smoking from its borders, despite the fact that marathons, bike races and quilting bees are all conducted while the participants are puffing away. The dogs had better be careful though, as it will soon be a crime to give a cigarette to an underage smoker (seven years old or younger) or to smoke on your balcony (which is strange since 75% of the country is covered in forest and the other 25% is balconies). In the near future you won’t even see cigarettes in stores unless the cashier is getting them out of the kryptonite safe beneath the register. The dogs are worried.

***Whenever I call myself that, I feel like I’ve betrayed my country, or have been fired from a football team.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (from galaxies that are far, far away), I worked in IT.

I supported a massive financial software system at a billion dollar company that spanned several continents and nearly thirty countries.  I was part of a large international team that was constantly fixing, configuring, and testing the accounting system and then training employees on how to use it.*

From time to time, the software manufacturer would release a bigger and better version of the software package and when that happened, the company would ask us to upgrade the financial system to the latest and greatest version.

The accounting systems of billion dollar companies are monitored and maintained with mind-melting precision.  Whenever you change the tiniest configuration in the most insignificant area of an application, you need to present incontrovertible proof that you have tested the change exhaustively and that having done so, you would wager your children’s eyeballs that in making this teensy little change, you have not fucked up everything all to hell.

To change the whole blessed system is NASA-esque in its complexity.  Such an upgrade is a multi-million dollar project that requires roughly a year of planning, testing, re-configuring, data conversions, etc.

It’s a big fucking deal.

***

The upgrade of our company’s system was an international project coordinated from our corporate headquarters on the east coast, where I worked at the time.

After a year of preparation, we were ready to “go live.”  This meant that we would turn off the company’s financial and manufacturing systems at the end of business on a Friday, and then all hands in the IT department would work around the clock and through the weekend to install the new software, configure it, move all the old data into the new system, and then test the bejesus out of it to  ensure that when our European colleagues showed up for work on Monday morning, all systems were error-free and fully-functional.

The database guys would do their thing all night Friday and all day Saturday.  When the new software was installed, it was time for my team and me to do our thing.

On Sunday morning, my two co-workers and I would march into HQ with bucket-sized coffees and boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts and we would run through a series of test scripts over the course of a few hours.  We would have a TV on somewhere so we could watch football, as the test script process was fairly mindless by this point:  “Click this button,” <check>, “Open this window,” <check>, “Enter a transaction,” <check>, etc.

But as anyone who has ever owned a computer knows, shit will always crash at the worst possible time.

***

Brian, Hammer**, and I all performed similar roles within our team, each specializing in a different area of finance.  We had worked together for a couple of years and we were sarcastic, disrespectful, profane, and apathetic.  And that was just towards the employees we were hired to support.

We arrived on Sunday morning at around nine a.m., ready to go.

The project manager greeted us with, “there’s been a little problem guys.”

He advised that late on Saturday evening, a rather significant step in the upgrade had gone quite disastrously.  He further advised that the delay in troubleshooting this issue had pushed the entire project plan back several hours.

He suggested that we go get some breakfast and be back at noon.

***

Upon arrival at the Irish pub down the street, we noticed that the Sunday brunch menu included drink specials.

“What time do you guys start serving,” asked Brian.

“Eleven,” said our waiter.

At approximately 11:00:15 a.m., the pints hit our table, and two subsequent rounds arrived in quick succession.

We were pretty comfortable in the pub, and with the beers going down like water, we decided to check in with the upgrade team and make sure they still wanted us back at noon.  Hammer called in to the office.

“What?  You’re kidding?  That’s horrible,” Hammer said into his phone while smiling and giving us a thumbs up.  “Two o’clock?  Yeah, OK, we’ll see you then.”  He hung up.

“Yeah, they’re fucked.  Let’s get another round.”

***

We finished a few more rounds and then I opted to run home to check in on my dogs.  Hammer and Brian relocated to another pub near our office, and I agreed to meet them there for one last round before we’d all go to work at two o’clock.

As I drove home from breakfast, it occurred to me that I had no business driving.

It was about 12:30 p.m.

***

When I arrived back at the pub an hour later, Hammer and Brian were steaming drunk.  The empty glasses in front of them told a story that their glassy eyes and slurs confirmed.

I had quite a bit of catching up to do.

“Hey, can we get some Jameson’s chilled over here?” I called out to the bartender before even removing my jacket and sitting down.

By the time I had satisfied myself that I was sufficiently caught up with my colleagues, we learned that while some progress on the upgrade had been made, delays persisted.  Nonetheless, we should report back to the office for a team meeting.

This would have been an appropriate time for us to order a couple baskets of fries and Cokes to sober up before returning to work.

Instead, we agreed, “yeah, we have time for one more.”

***

When we arrived back at the office, the rest of the team was gathered in a semi-circle of swivel chairs in a large, open area of the floor.  The project manager’s horrified expression indicated that he understood how we had spent our day.  Certainly the odor of booze was a strong indicator but if anyone harbored any lingering doubts, it was likely removed when Brian kicked Hammer’s ankle from behind as he walked towards a chair, sending all of Hammer’s two hundred plus pounds crashing to the floor in front of the whole team.

Our total inability to stop laughing at this seemed to somewhat irritate our sober colleagues.

We were advised that the issue would likely soon be resolved and that our testing should begin shortly.  However, the risk of failure was sufficiently high that the vice president of our department was driving in from the suburbs to receive a full briefing.  Should the upgrade fail, he would be required to face the CEO in the morning, hat in hand, to explain why millions of dollars had just been urinated out the window.  In such dire circumstances, terminations would almost certainly ensue.

Therefore our inebriation was met with some concern by both our supervisor and the project manager.

It was suggested that we get some food, in the somewhat likely event that we find ourselves in a team meeting with the vice president.

“Hey, what about the pub at the Marriott next door?” I asked.

***

Our boss was a good-natured, quiet type who generally gave us wide leeway to do our jobs, so long as we eventually got our work done.  However, in the throes of a disaster-plagued upgrade, his patience was thinner than the ice on which we were skating.

He enthusiastically discouraged us from visiting the pub at the Marriott for dinner and suggested we repair to our cubicles to come up with a better choice for dinner- preferably a place without a liquor license.

It was on the way to our cubicles that our vice president arrived on the floor, almost bumping into us.

He took one look at us, shook his head, and said, “You guys should go get some food,” before storming down the hall in search of our boss.

***

While we sat in our cubicles, trying to resolve the food dilemma, Hammer and I indulged in a name-calling contest that ended when he abruptly leapt out of his chair and dove into my cubicle, pile driving me out of my chair, onto the floor, and practically folding me in half.

It felt like my spine was going to snap and so I unleashed a torrent of screams and profanity that generally accompany particularly graphic murders.

Our boss soon careened around the corner to see what had happened.  Unbeknown to the three of us, he, the vice president, and the project manager were in the room across the hall from us, with the door open.  They had been listening to the entire incident.

He glared at us, suggesting that we find something to do that didn’t involve wrestling, and retreated back into his meeting, probably five years older.

***

As we sat in our cubicles, twiddling our thumbs waiting for our blood alcohol contents to decrease, we still had no plan for food.  Brian had been asking where we wanted to eat, but we were ignoring him.  Just because.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the huge un-potted plant fly over the wall from Brian’s cubicle into Hammer’s.  It was a volleyball-sized mass of leaves, vines, and a large clump of roots caked by about five pounds of dry soil that seemed to fly in slow motion.

When Brian inherited his cubicle, there were four potted plants hanging along the side.  These plants were likely never watered, and I doubt if anyone had ever paid attention to them.  Until then.

The plant hit Hammer’s bald head with a dusty thud, sending dirt and leaves everywhere- all over his keyboard, his desk, his clothing, and his floor.

Before I could fully process what had just happened, Hammer calmly stood up, walked over to Brian’s cubicle, removed the rack containing the remaining three plants, and hurled them at Brian, point blank.

Dried soil and profanity flew, and Brian looked like someone had just dumped a wheelbarrow full of dirt on him.  He sprung up and advanced on Hammer.

I had just jumped up and ran over to assess the disaster, when our boss again came storming out of the conference room.

“What the fuck are you guys doing?” he demanded as his final nerves unraveled.  We stood there weaving, slurring, and blaming each other.

Then, releasing his hands from Hammer’s neck, Brian, drunk as a hobo and covered in dirt, looked around and replied without a shred of irony, “You know, Chief- I can’t help but feel partially responsible for this.”

We were asked to leave the building until the executives completed their meeting.

We decided that our only viable option was the bar at the Marriott next door.

***

At ten p.m., we had yet to begin our testing, and the three of us were drinking at the hotel bar, waiting for them to call us back to work.

Suddenly our boss stormed in, pointed at the village of empty beer bottles in front of us and inquired why we were not answering our phone.  He had apparently been calling us for the better part of an hour before finally put two and two together and walking over to the nearest bar to find us.

He directed us to put our beers down and get back to the office, toute de suite.

Brian gamely offered that we’d meet him over there as soon as we finished our beers.

To say that this comment did not go over well would be a spectacular understatement.

We weaved back to the office and began working.

***

Somehow the testing was completed without further incident and the system was turned on just in time for our European colleagues to log in on Monday morning.  Despite all of the excitement, the upgrade was ultimately a success and our group was commended for our diligence and perseverance through the challenges we had endured during the weekend.

Our team even threw a party to celebrate going live.

Our boss eventually forgave us, although on his final day with the company, he admitted that the one time that he ever got really mad at us was when he had to go pull us out of the bar to do our jobs and we said we’d be over as soon as we finished our beers.

I think back on that comment from time to time and feel shitty and embarrassed about how selfish and immature we were that day.  We were disrespectful to our boss, to our colleagues, and to ourselves.  I would have to guess that most people in our shoes would have made very different choices that day- ones that didn’t involve 12 hour drinking binges, wrestling during meetings, and office vandalism.   In fact, when I look back on all the problems that occurred that day and take an honest look at my part in everything, I too can’t help but feel partially responsible.





*To this day I have very little understanding of computers, networks, servers, and the like.  Back then, I didn’t know a UNIX script from a movie script.  I could not install printers, and when people would call my desk looking for help mapping to a network drive, I would change my voice, adopt a vague foreign accent, and replied “Joe’s not here.  You call someone else,” before hanging up and going to lunch.

**Names have been changed

It’s midday on a Monday, four days before Christmas.  In typical schizophrenic fashion, the weather has decided that today should be sixty-four degrees of perfect sunshine and brilliant blue.  We mock winter here in the South, so much so that I almost feel like I owe an apology to my friends in the North.  It seems unfair that you should be digging out of a record snowstorm while I wear a t-shirt and crank up my motorcycle.  Of course, I immediately think of the three digit temperatures and sweltering humidity of July and August in Texas and feel instantly less guilty.

It’s a coffee day for me.  I’m on my second pot.  For whatever vices I have or have had, this is the one I am least likely to let go of.  I’ve kicked cigarettes and virtually eliminated fast food from my diet (except for Chik-Fil-A when I’m on the road or the occasional 3:00 am Whataburger run).  There are arguments both for and against the health benefits of coffee and I ignore them all.  I drink it because I love it.

Black and full of sugar.  I’ll leave you to write your own joke there.

It’s almost a ritual for me.  It’s my legal crutch.  It makes me comfortable.  Smoking was always something I had to find a place to do, but not so with coffee.  It’s universal.  Stuck in an airport or wandering the streets of some foreign city or in the green room before a show, it’s always there.  It clears my head and centers me.  Certainly pumping caffeine into my veins every single day can’t be the best of ideas, but it’s definitely not the worst.

I mean I could always be doing crystal meth.

I hardly drank coffee at all a decade ago.  The habit kicked in when I picked up a morning radio gig.  5:00 am every morning, having to be upbeat and alert and aware… you don’t do that without help.  We would load a full brick of dark roast into our coffee pot, courtesy of one of our sponsors, and drink the most delicious caffeinated sludge you’ve ever poured into a cheap Styrofoam cup.  Four hours every morning.  The habit stuck long after the station fired me.

The problem now is that there are a million options when it comes to what you can have.  Starbucks has seen to that.  Coffee is not meant to be run by the massive corporations.  Coffee should remain unique.  Chains have pushed out the small coffee shops I had become so fond of.  Back in my hometown I used to frequent a locally owned place thirty seconds from my house.  Unlimited refills and a faux-Tuscan patio kept me huddled behind my keyboard comfortably enough to churn out pages of writing.  I miss it.  Today I am a half hour away from the closest non-Starbucks.  That’s the big city for you.

Every once in a while I meet a friend of mine for Vietnamese food and we order cà phê sữa đá.  If you’ve never had it, try it.  Clear your calendar for the next few hours though, as it jacks your system up in a way some chain store’s house blend could only dream of.  It has enough sugar and caffeine to get Chev Chelios through a busy day.

That’s a random occurrence however.  For the most part I have to get my fix when I travel, because globally, they haven’t lost what we have.  Coffee still means something in other countries.  There are a few spots I’ve become a fan of in Amsterdam, where I’ve sat sheltered from the cold, wet, winter streets, drinking cafe au lait out of a perfect white porcelain cup.  The Dutch don’t mess around.  That’s the French’s strong point as well.  It’s almost been eight years since I sat in some café whose name escapes me, somewhere between Metz and Paris.  It’s possible that it was the beauty of the French countryside and the perfect weather, but my memory has filed that experience away as an unbelievable shot of espresso that I have yet to be able to recreate here in the States.

It’s more than just coffee.  It’s the experience.

If that is true, then no one understands it better than Ethiopia.  I was in Addis Ababa with my friend Sam a little under two years ago.  It was the first trip for both of us into the Horn of Africa, the area made up of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia.  It is third world to be sure, but they are the greatest caretakers of the tradition of coffee drinking.   After dinner I asked my friend Abrahim if he would order coffee for us and he obliged.  I’m used to having coffee brought to me, not the other way around.

We were led out of the restaurant and into a hut around back, lit by torchlight.  Confused, we sat around a little wooden table waiting for Abrahim to explain what we were doing.  Soon a young woman appeared with a bowl of green coffee beans which she presented us for our approval.  After getting the okay, she started a wood fire and roasted the beans as we talked.  They were shown to us again before she hand-ground them with mortar and pestle.  Three times we were poured tiny cups of jet black divinity.

Over the course of an hour, Abrahim told us stories of his family and his culture and his people’s history.  It’s what the coffee was supposed to do.   Rather than just wire you up and get you through your day, it was intended to bring people together, to get them to communicate, to enjoy each other’s company.   There’s beauty in any group of people that take their coffee as seriously as I do.  As they say in Ethiopia, “Buna dabo naw” – “coffee is bread”.

I couldn’t agree more.

I know the steward is Argentinian. I heard him talking Spanish with one of the passengers up front several hours ago. There is at least some affinity then—albeit unspoken and unacknowledged—when it is he who leans down to ask me to turn off the call light I’ve had switched on for the last fifteen minutes.

I don’t know the Spanish word for ‘smelling salts’. I’m not sure of the English word for the chemical it contains. My eyes are streaming out onto my cheeks like raw eggs. The rubbing together of the surfaces at the back of my throat is like a concert given in particularly coarse grades of sandpaper.

The fear is palpable in the sidelong glances I’ve been getting all throughout this leg of the long journey, all the way back from Asia, towards the influenza-ravaged wastes of Europe. I sneezed at stentorian volume all the way through the swine flu warning—given in hushed tones over the cabin public address loop.

The gummed-up wads of used tissue paper I have stuffed into all my pockets are not much more than germinal smart bombs as far as the other passengers are concerned. An uncovered, red-raw nose and mouth is the equivalent of a diseased cock and balls without a condom, or a used syringe. The lady sitting next to me has been wearing a surgical mask for seven hours.

I’m in so much pain that I can hardly speak, never mind enunciate clearly and intimate demonstratively what the problem is. It feels as if all the liquid conduits in my neck are being slowly injected with nitroglycerin.

I try to explain with a series of arabesques at the shape of the bottle of smelling salts that I remember being given in a similar situation on an Aeroflot flight into Moscow some years before.

This doesn’t help.

The steward suggests that maybe I would like something to chew on. I surmise he now understands I have such nasal congestion that the air pressure is forcing my sinuses to expand across my face and the back of my head to such a degree that they are pressing on my nerves and causing my head to go numb. He suggests I might like some biscuits.

I make an effort to swallow, mainly to confirm just how awful the prospect of a dry biscuit seems to my desiccated epiglottis.

Thankfully, a stewardess rushes back with two plastic drinking cups stuffed with hot towels and I gleefully press the things to the sides of my head, uncaring at the searing of the flesh of my ears against the steaming flannels; oblivious to the fact that I look like a demented child impersonating an air traffic controller, or a radical re-interpretative take on the cup/string telephone.

I stumble off the plane onto the shuttle bus, thanking the stewardess profusely, but aware that I am completely deaf in my left ear. This is something like the twentieth consecutive hour without sleep, so the paranoia levels are staring to jump, and I immediately begin to wonder if, by thanking her, I’ve given the defense some rope in the court case I am already envisaging bringing against the airline for permanent damage to my hearing.


The allergic reaction to the new air redoubles as I enter the tiny, beige terminal. I blindly follow the ‘Transfer’ signs and stagger through another baggage scan even though my connecting flight isn’t for another eight hours. I fail to understand the significance of the strange looks my boarding pass gets from the staff checking my details until well after the last flight of the night—when the scant hotel reps plying their trade on the other side of the airport have all packed up and gone home.

It takes two trips to the clinic and a series of injections of nasal ordinance of increasing potency to feel like I can tackle getting a hotel room, but it’s already well after midnight when I realise that I’ve been shepherded beyond the point-of-no-return, and unless I want to spend the next eight hours in a freezing-cold strip mall, I need to spend US$35 on a visa in order to leave the terminal and enter Qatar.

I try to draw out some money from an ATM for exactly this purpose. The transaction goes through but the money never appears, and I spend another hour online and on the phone to the bank trying to ascertain if I’ve lost the cash.

The verdict is inconclusive.

I remember vague mumblings about some kind of meal voucher for passengers stupid enough to place themselves beyond security with such a yawning delay until their next flight—us sad, solitary individuals, alone on the cheapest possible overnight connections from Asia back to Europe.


I think the wrong word is in inverted commas here…

If the night flight from New York to Los Angeles is the “red eye” flight, then this is resolutely the “dead eye”. The men here, from various European footballing nations, wear an unmistakable—and strangely familiar—expression of grim accomplishment. You see it everywhere in the North of England, from National Express coach waiting rooms to January sales queues. It’s a look that says:

“I’m saving money here, cock and I don’t care what happens to me in the process”.

I walk for twenty minutes and queue for half-an-hour until I find out I’m at the wrong restaurant. Every transaction is expressed in so many different currencies and languages, that it proceeds at a geological pace.

The meal voucher system is organised according to a protracted and esoteric logic that remains a mystery for three-quarters-of-an-hour stood rattling a set of nose pills around in my fist—devoid of the precious lubrication promised by the voucher. An official arrives and an eclectic queue ensues. He writes out each voucher by hand and I finally get my food; sitting down to enjoy it among the lads in football shirts and various stages of depravity. One familiar T-shirt reads: ‘Good Guy Go to Heaven, Bad Guy Go to Pattaya’.


I imagine this is pretty much exactly what every entrepôt station in the world has been like for centuries, from Constantinople to the Cape of Good Hope: A stark confrontation with ourselves as base animals; herded around and scrambling over each other for purchase.

I go and brush my teeth in the brackish Qatari water to try and make myself feel like a human being again.

It doesn’t work.

I add nothing but an additional suspicion of dysentery bacteria swimming around my teeth.

I manhandle my unwieldy luggage through the narrow aisles of the mall, fighting to see anything through a veil of mucus and apnoea—squeezing past the throngs of sheiks, African ladies and Chinese tourists to join the end of an immense queue of people—baskets brimming with muck and tat.

A small boy recoils bodily when he sees my swollen face and oozing cavities, backing up against a cigarette display and edging around in terror. I feel like sneezing on him. I buy some child’s nose balm and some more tablets which don’t work. For tissues, the cashier recommends I try the toilets.

Dithering in the air-conditioned chill knifing down out of the ceiling and straight through the diaphanous layer of my second shirt of the day, I decide to change and put on some more clothes in the stinking bathroom, awash with piss. The most difficult choice is whether to wear my sweat-soaked used shirt against my skin and the new one over it, or vice versa; to put my shorts on over my trousers or on under them; whether to wear two pairs of trousers, or three.

With the legs of some overly baggy bottoms tucked into my socks, I open the lid of the only vacant toilet to find a dozen anaemic flukes of variegated wan shit that won’t flush. I close the thing on its fetid contents, hitch the legs of my trousers out of my socks and up beyond my knees, step up and over my luggage on the trolley I’ve jammed into the cubicle with me; unlace one shoe on the raised surface of the toilet, and then use it squashed-down as an improvised mat in order to shift my weight over and prepare the other foot.

I am gagging so much from the stench that I feel I have to abort half-way through, but find myself standing barefoot, on tiptoes, at full-stretch, on shoes which are already soaking up the piss; laces dangling in the puddles; trousers gathered around my midriff like a bunch of skirts; naked torso shivering in the fluorescent light. I’ve stamped the toilet closed with one foot, so I have nothing to vomit into except a torn plastic shopping bag which sits gaping in the top of the trolley.

It’s when the sneezing begins again that I start to wonder if the increasing number of apocalyptic doomsayers, from George Carlin to Kip Tobin, may actually be right. As a species, I think we might be irrevocably fucked.


I used to think that we would breed out the retrograde, destructive elements eventually; surmount the religio-ethnic differences; trim the population to a level commensurate with the distribution of resources etc. etc. but after eight hours in Doha airport, to bastardise Francis Ford Coppola, I think there are almost certainly too many of us; we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little-by-little we went insane.