Published on August 21st, 2016 | by Boris
EUROPEAN VACATION – PART THE FIRST
In which I consider the cleansing properties of Arab saliva, the power of a white djellaba, some history, some geology, a grit-eyed return to The Continent three decades in the making and only one week in the planning, and what a rotten dickhead
I had been to my father.
I do not travel well on a plane. I do not like flying. I do not like people. And since planes are all about both of those things, I am not a happy munchkin aboard a plane. If you’ve ever sat on a plane beside me you would know what human misery looks like.
Still, it is the most efficient way of getting to Europe from Australia. And with enough sleeping tablets and red wine, even long-haul flights can be made tolerable. Experience has taught me that unconscious people are not miserable.
But my sleeping pills were up against it this time.
I was, and I am not overstating this, overwhelmingly excited. I cannot remember the last time I had been this fizzy.
I was to undertake a great adventure at the age of 56. Certainly, riding a motorcycle 3000km through six European countries cannot be equated to poling a handmade raft down the Amazon, but it’s all relative. Mine is not the age at which people decide that base-jumping is what’s on after lunch.
My excitement stemmed from the fact that I was going to see a chunk of Europe. Not Unzud. Not Queensland. But Europe! The Europe with the millennia-long history. The Europe from which all western civilisation springs. The Europe that has been watered by the blood of my ancestors (and probably yours).
I would walk battlefields, behold ancient structures and wallow in the culture of the truly cultured.
All that and hooking up again with my family in Serbia, which was also no small thing, served to make me positively skittish with excitement.
It’s just as well, for so many people, that I had sleeping pills and red wine for the flight.
I had last been to Europe 30 years ago. It was 1986, Chernobyl had blown up not long before my plane touched down in Belgrade, and Europe was being bathed in the atomic majesty of the Soviet Union.
I was 25 at the time, and in a mad egotistical rush. I had no time for relatives. I had no time for my father, who had paid for my ticket. And I had no intention of spending much time with either him or them. What I had was a backpack, about $2000 in US currency and a guidebook assuring me I could see Europe for $25 a day. So that was pretty much what I did. I traveled to Germany, Austria, Spain, Greece, France, Italy, Andorra, and Monaco from out of the former Yugoslavia, which I was using like a base camp. I saw and did many things. And after almost four months, I came home a different person.
Then I got on with living my life, always intending to return and actually spend more time with my family, because somehow, and despite my arrogant and indifferent 25-year-old self-centredness, in the brief time I had spent with them, these amazing people had touched something inside me that had never been touched before.
And it stayed with me. I thought of them often, especially during the recent Balkan wars, but I contacted them rarely. I always seemed to be too busy. And I was probably a little ashamed of the way I had behaved towards my father when I was there.
When my father passed away in 1992, I didn’t shed a tear. We had been estranged for six years before I traveled to Yugoslavia with him, and our relationship was very strained in the brief time I was with him in his ancestral home.
When I returned home to Australia, my father remained with his family. He was, after all, the eldest son, and as such, the head of the family. There was nothing for him in Australia any more. My mother and he had parted ways some years before, and I was busy being an outlaw motorcycle club member and sitting in harsh judgement on him.
So while the Happy Family paradigm was denied to him in Australia, it was very much extant in his home town of Sabac (pronounced Shah-batz). He had two younger sisters and a younger brother and all of their children to surround himself with. I understand his final years in Sabac were, while heavily tinged with sad regret at what he had lost in Australia, mostly happy. For that I am very grateful.
He loved his adopted homeland of Australia and he raised his small family as best he could, but his experiences during WWII had made him a difficult and conflicted man to live with. When he parted company with my mother, it was bitter. But I was already in my early 20s, so it’s not like I was a traumatised child with separated parents. On the contrary, their separation only cemented my fierce independence and hardened my resolve to never depend on anyone for anything.
Ironically, it’s probably one of the reasons I joined an outlaw club.
I tell you all of this so that you will understand the context and the mindset which informed my journey to Europe. Yes, it is all intensely personal stuff, but it has to be. If you’re to share my journey, then I have to be honest with you and there are things you need to know. If this is all a bit too awkward, then you are free to skip this first bit, and re-join me when I finally throw a leg over a bike in Pfaffenhoffen an der Ilm and head east. But I have to write this the way I feel it needs to be written.
Still with me?
Somewhere over the Indian Ocean I had finally run out of in-flight movies, the pills kicked in and I must have fainted.
Then I was jarred awake by a man speaking rapid Arabic over the plane’s intercom.
My brain heaved into full consciousness and I totally expected to see armed ISIS dudes pointing dusty Russian guns at terrified passengers. Instead, a very glamorous Etihad hostie offered me a hot, scented towel. The captain spoke on in Arabic for a few more seconds, then switched to perfect English and informed us he was commencing our descent into Abu Dhabi.
Its name means ‘the father of the gazelle’ and it is the capital of the United Arab Emirates. And while the city is a gleaming vista of skyscrapers, its airport is a noisy, festering shithole, with toilets so noxious I am almost at a loss to describe them. But I do know one of the worst jobs on this great earth belongs to the poor bastard who lives just inside the doors of the old lavatory in Terminal Three. The floor and the sinks he constantly cleans are awash in poisonous Bedouin phlegm. The squat-shitters are piled with disastrous greasy turds made from bad airline food, couscous and jet-lag. This diabolical excrement accumulates on the squat-toilets and must be pushed into the hole with a pole. So this bloke is on a constant rotation. He mops the floor, wipes down the sinks, then poles the shit into the holes, and then repeats it all. He does this while dozens of people mill around him hacking up more phlegm, backing out more terrifying logs, pissing, and washing their feet, necks, faces and hands.
I had a horrified leak in there holding my carry-on luggage off the floor in one hand, my penis in the other and wondering what would happen to the sniffer dog that had the bad fortune to get a whiff of my saliva-caked boots down the track a bit.
I went straight from the shitter to the duty free perfume shop and used a few of the testers on myself. I could tell by the looks from the sales assistants that I was not the first infidel they had seen spraying Chanel No. 5 onto the soles of his footwear.
Abu Dhabi is a transit airport, so it’s big and chaotically busy. And it’s very alien to someone accustomed to the ordered nannying of Australia.
I spent almost four hours shuffling around its vast terminals while I waited for my connecting flight. It was Ramadan, so the only people eating and drinking were westerners; a surprising percentage of whom were fancy prostitutes. But since I now smelled like an expensive whore myself, I fit right in.
At one stage I paid almost 15 dollars for a cup of shitty coffee and a bottle of water, but I did get to sit next to a fabulous Russian blonde who smelled much like did, and who was clearly returning from a working holiday among the well-moneyed sheikhs of the desert.
These sheikhs were easy to spot. They all wore spotless white djellabas and walked around like they owned the place, which they did. They would stroll past barriers and through security doors offering limp Arab handshakes to various obsequious non-sheikhs. They looked at no-one while seeing everything, especially the goodly amount of tracksuit-wearing Russian prostitutes clutching their jeweled iPhones.
I had propped myself up next to a phone-charging station near my departure gate, plugged in my phone and stared out of the big windows. I could see a big shark-fin-shapped structure in the distance, which I assumed was the control tower, and I could see construction work going on in the heat-blurred everywhere. The rulers were building a new airport for Abu Dhabi, which I understand will rival the wonder at Dubai.
A young well-dressed bloke came and sat down on the ground next to me, plugged in his phone, and left me to marvel at just how bad a human being can smell and not be set upon by dogs. It was obvious personal hygiene was not a consideration for much of the airport’s transitory population (though the whores did smell fine), and I resolved I would spend the next four days chained in an airport holding cell rather than share a plane with this stinking swine. Happily, he got on another flight, so my fellow passengers were spared me losing my shit on the plane to Munich and accessing the emergency oxygen masks the second I boarded.
I got a brief taste of the crushing 48-degree desert heat when the terminal doors opened and I boarded the bus that was to take me to the plane.
I had no idea how the people working outside managed it, but then I remembered the toilet swab inside the terminal, and figured I knew which gig I’d pick if I had the choice.
There were many Arabs on my connecting flight to Munich. Many of the women were clad in burkas and some of them were even sporting a batoola – which is a metallic face-mask apparently worn by older Bedouin women.
And two of these Bedouin women were very upset by the clouds of smoke pouring out of the air-ducts on the plane. They spoke to Allah at length and with great passion about this, and it took three very patient hostesses to explain that this was just what the plane’s air-conditioning does in the desert, Insha’Allah, it was not smoke, Insha’Allah, we were good to take off, Insha’Allah, but they really had to sit down or that could not take place, Insha’Allah.
I was now seven hours away from Europe. It was daylight. There were no clouds, and since the pilot had also spoken to Allah over the intercom just before we took off, I was satisfied that I was as safe as I could possibly be.
I was also transfixed by what I could see below.
The flightpath took me across Iran, Syria, Turkey, the Black Sea, Romania, Hungary and Austria.
I could see the landscape below me very well. I could identify geographic locations I had read about and had always wanted to see.
There were the Alborz mountains that separated the great salt desert of Dasht-e Kavir from the Black Sea. In this range the Zoroastrians believed dwelled Peshyotan, one of the seven immortal rulers of Khandez.
It was just below me that Julius Caesar declared “Veni, vidi, vici” after he defeated Pharnaces II of Pontus in the Battle of Zela.
The Black Sea is also the stuff of song and legend. It was here that Jason and his Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece. On its shores at Yalta, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill set the course of the late 20th century in 1945. It is said to be the source of the Bible’s great flood story.
In 5500BC rises in global sea levels due to melting ice caused 155,000 square kilometres around a much smaller and landlocked Black Sea to become inundated as 42-cubic kilometres of water flowed through the now breached Bosporus each day for more than 300 days. This cataclysm lowered the world’s ocean levels by almost half a metre, and paved the way for myths about Atlantis and Noah’s Ark.
The Black Sea gave way to Romania but I was on the wrong side of the plane to see Bucharest. I could make out patchwork fields and the Carpathian mountains further north. Here Prince Vlad Dracul impaled traitors and fought savage battles against the Turks as they clawed their way into Europe. Vlad was later re-invented as a vampire by an Irish story-teller called Bram.
My forehead was hurting from being pressed against the window for so long, but I persevered. Who knew when or if I would ever behold these places again? Even at 40,000 feet, their historic grandeur and meaning was not lost on me.
I sailed over Hungary, noting that this was pretty much exactly the path I would be riding in a few days’ time, and saw Lake Balaton. Very lakey, it was, and then came the quite sudden the transition into Austria. The landscape was suddenly greener, and while the patchwork of cultivated fields was much the same, I told myself there was more order to them.
After all, Austria and Germany are the very definition of order. It stood to reason their paddocks would be more disciplined than those of the Magyars.
Only we call the Hungarians ‘Hungarians’ and their country ‘Hungary’, due to some connection that area once had with the Huns. The Avars drove the Huns out, and were in turn driven out by the Ongurs who had sex with Bulgars and then settled in Bulgaria, but left the name behind.
As far as the Hungarians are concerned, they are the Magyars and their country is Magyarország. No, I do not know how to pronounce it correctly. Only the Magyars know that. Maddeningly, Hungarian is not etymologically connected to any other language except some kind of primitive Finnish yelling and a tongue used only by savage tribesmen along the Vyatka River near the Ural Mountains.
But I shall come to what that means to a traveler in Hungary in the fullness of time.
At that moment I was dealing with my arrival at Munich airport and the solid belief my luggage was not going to appear on the carousel anytime soon. I had convinced myself it was being strewn across the desert and argued over by stinking goatherds even as I waited for it.
I told you I do not travel well.
Naturally, I was among the last to finally get my bag and make my way to the Customs line. Ahead of me was most of the population of Oman and the Al Khatim desert.
And none of them were getting into Deutschland just like that.
There were many questions that needed to be asked and answered before one of those sandy passports was stamped.
So I endured as many men with several wives, multiple badly-behaved children and big, horrible, naked brown feet clad in filthy sandals, waved their arms around and answered these questions.
Eventually I stepped up to the counter, grinned my best “G’day!” at the superb example of uber-efficient German Bundespolizei and popped my Aussie passport onto the counter.
He looked at me, looked at my passport, then looked at me again.
“What is the purpose of your visit to Germany?” he asked.
“I’m going to ride a motorcycle around the place.”
He grinned, stamped my passport, said “Welcome to Germany”, and I was in Germany just like that.
It was a warm and sunny day. I had all my luggage. Ray had texted me that he was on his way to pick me up from the terminal, and everything had, so far, gone exactly as I had expected.
Which fooled me into thinking that’s exactly how things were going to continue…
THINGS I HAVE LEARNED THUS FAR
At altitude and in a pressurised environment, always double the dose of whatever drugs you might need.
Economy passengers are frowned upon when they use the Business Class toilets.
Batman Versus Superman is a really awful film. So Is Jungle Book.
In terms of becoming a Muslim Caliphate, Australia really has a very long way to go.
The security staff at Abu Dhabi airport treat Muslims and infidels with completely identical contempt. They appear to be favourably disposed towards Russian prostitutes. For which I cannot blame them.