A Vignette from the (Un)employment Agency

A Vignette from the (Un)employment Agency

When I discovered that life was tough, that the system was sick and that no ordinary gainful employment could possibly support a single person living alone in a rented flat, I put my self-respect away to join the skeletons in the closet and went to give myself in at the local employment agency. The institution’s building is a fine example of brutalist architecture, probably designed so as to discourage job seekers from seeking support. Lining the entrance are sickly blue boards advertising employment opportunities. Huddled around them are the smoking and spitting unemployed themselves. Running to and fro and screaming at the top of their lungs are unattended children. I joined the queue, conspicuously well-dressed and with my hair and make-up done, and lit a cigarette to blend in.

The crowded hall of the building branched into several corridors and cupboards with desks staffed by the grumpy looking employed. I couldn’t decide if I required employment assistance, social benefits advice, material deprivation aid or a combination thereof. Most people queued at a desk ambiguously signposted as Information. One can never have too much information, so I joined in. Equipped with a file case of filled-in forms which took me about a week to research and complete, I approached the deeply frowning clerk whose substantial upper body protruded threateningly from behind the safety glass. I opened my mouth to speak, breathed in the unhealthy air and fell into a coughing fit. Convulsing with cough, I handed the clerk my paperwork. Unimpressed, she leafed silently through my forms, added a bunch of more on top of them and gestured me away with disgust.

Inexperienced in the inscrutable ways of the system, I failed to bring my own pen. Finding an available pen in the employment agency is even less likely than finding an employment vacancy there. I scurried through the corridors haunted by ghosts of the unemployed past, present and future, and found nothing. Reduced to begging for a pen from the bulky lady whom I coughed at, I humbly curled into a meek ball of wool – since I was wearing my woollen coat – and asked submissively, Could I please borrow a pen? A red vein the size of the Amazon river popped out on the woman’s forehead. BUT.YOU.MUST.RETURN.IT!! she yelled forbiddingly. I carried my prized possession pressed against my woollen heart away into a nook in the corridor, wary lest someone should rob me of it.

I filled in the forms with considerable effort and re-joined the happy hour queue only to notice that the vein woman was kindly filling in forms for a middle-aged male applicant. Maybe she’s misogynist. Or maybe the man is illiterate. Or maybe everything is all right but she just hates me. I re-approached the clerk and returned the pen the first thing, on which she let out a satisfied low grunt. She immersed herself into the mountain of papers the size of Mount Everest. Without looking up, she barked questioningly, Computers? – I stared. Computers? I vaguely echoed, losing it. – Can you work with computers? the woman gave me an impatient deadly look. – Huh, yes, I guess, I ventured. She scribbled into the special skills field: COMPUTERS. I didn’t realise that computers were such a highly marketable skill.

The dog woman handed me the unemployed ID card and forwarded me to another desk. There ensued another happy hour wait in the dimly lit corridor full of coughing people – since the winter is coming. Despite the cold, ceiling fans were on full blast in the building, probably to prevent people from suffocating in the packed place. Then I was admitted to a small office seating two clerks at one table. The unemployed sitting next to me was just in the middle of performing a dramatic story of his severe allergic reaction to the packing material in the business where he worked, for which reasons he quit the job. His clerk looked unsympathetic, but mine looked positively murderous. I think people hate me. My clerk glanced at my papers, dissatisfied. He processed the forms I got and procured another series for me to fill in. Take it home and come on Tuesday at 9:20, he advised. And so I went.

In a Morbid Vein: About Undertakers

In a Morbid Vein: About Undertakers

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain.
–John Keats

Like John Keats, I’ve been thinking about ceasing and expiring a lot these days. After some twenty-five years spent successively at school, college and university, I ceased to be a proper student. It’s not that I’ve become improper. But I handed in my dissertation and am waiting for the board of aldermen to pretend they’ve read it and put me on trial for it. It’s called the dissertation defence. I have also ceased to be a usable workforce at my department. Since I no more figure as a regular student, they would have to pay taxes for my work. That clearly wouldn’t pay off. Now that I’m irregular, I’m paying my taxes myself. That doesn’t pay off either.

Also, as to expiring, the milk in the fridge expired. It brought about a deeply metaphysical experience when I went out with the milk carton to put it in the bin. Otherwise I’m not going out, in the sense of being romantically involved, with a carton. Unless… Forget it. Hand in hand with the milk carton, I went past a somewhat randomly parked black van in the street. Who would paint a van black, I was thinking, it looks like a hearse! Then I noticed the golden lettering on the driver’s door. In this case, mission accomplished, it was an actual hearse that looked like hearse.

Though I’m dead inside, I’m not comfortable around death. Still, I take perverse delight in morbidity, so I examined the van carefully. I suspected it could be undercover cops or a disguised armoury on wheels. I think I watch too much TV. The back door of the hearse was gaping open to confirm that it was, indeed, a hearse. Two narrow metal trays were protruding from the back of it. The dead must be extremely uncomfortable lying in there.

Talking about the dead reminds me of my dad. He’s not dead, but dad sounds like dead. I also used to believe that my father was an undertaker. That’s what happens in beginners English classes at school when one translates the phrase private businessman from my language into English literally. I’m about to become this kind of undertaker myself. I wish I had paid more attention when my father taught me about tunnelling. Not the tunnel digging kind but the fraud kind. While it is somewhat illegitimate, it was a legitimate part of the post-communist culture when I was a kid. I naturally deny any knowledge of such activities.

Another part of my childhood was the advent of commercial TV and of music videos. In keeping with the cheerful note of this post, let’s watch one of the most popular music clips in my country when I was growing up. It might explain a thing or two. It’s called ‘The Undertaker’ and bemoans the arrival of cremation, which takes away jobs from honest grave diggers. It features the characters of an undertaker as undertaker and an undertaker as a private businessman. Here you go.

From Academia to Actual Life; or, The Downward Spiral

From Academia to Actual Life; or, The Downward Spiral

I waited for five years to start serious work on my dissertation. During that time, I became chums with the dean, since I was constantly writing him requests for the extension of my studies. My department was well pleased with the extensions because a student proofreading and editing workforce can be more easily underpaid and overworked than a regular employer. Fair enough. As my fifth year of studies drew to its close, I inquired when the date was set for submitting one’s dissertation. There was no date set, but the committee board was kind enough to contrive a random date for me. This happened to be about a month or two earlier than I reasonably expected. Serve me well for asking.

While I optimistically assumed that there would come the time when I’d be ready to write my 120-page manuscript, it turned out that one was never ready. With the deadline looming in two months, I gathered my research so far and discovered that only my reading notes would provide material enough for several full-length books. Even if boring ones. The idea of a dissertation is to have a main idea called the thesis. It’s rather hard to find a solid main idea in literature, unless the idea is that the writers write. Not much of an original thesis. Equally difficult was to determine the purpose of the dissertation. Besides getting a doctorate, a dissertation in literature obviously has no practical purpose.

To cheer myself up, I paid a social visit to the head of the department to inquire if she’s keeping me as a department member after I graduate. She isn’t, because to get a position in literature, someone has to die to vacate the place, and as to proofreading, the department does not wish to go this way. The latter argument comes across as hilarious: obviously, a proofreader is least wanted at a department dealing with languages and literatures. Perhaps I should try a department of nuclear science. I could proofread their formulas. The news from the department head was slightly in odds with the informal communications I had been receiving from other department members, who expressed their hope that I would like to stay with them in future.

Thus reassured of the pointlessness of my undertaking, I proceeded to painstakingly craft my dissertation. I did not deceive myself in thinking that the examination committee would actually read the piece, but they are sure enough to open it at a random page and tear it into pieces. Not literally, but literary. Curiously, I reached the target page count a week before the deadline. That shocked me out of my senses. I expected to be finishing the morning of the deadline day and having the work bound in hardcover, as required, by using an extra special extra super extra hot extra fast binding service and paying a week’s wages for it. Instead, I casually strolled to the shop and had my order ready three days before the deadline.

Meanwhile, my job hunt wasn’t going well. I applied for several academic positions, all of which required a PhD or a soon completion thereof but for some reason wouldn’t take my promise of graduating soon too seriously. I don’t blame them. Some potential employers abroad were bluntly racist in demanding a previous knowledge of the language of the country, presumably because they wish to teach English literature in a language other than English, so abiding by the laws of logic. It’s not really racist, but it’s languageist for sure. At an interview for an English teaching position in a commutable distance from my home, my academic me was confronted with the actual world. I incurred a few bumps and a lapse back to my smoking habit when I realised that no job in public education would earn me enough to cover the elementary living expenses. This particular job would pay the rent and the commute. But I’m not sure that I can stop eating.

I was chuckling when leaving the interview room because, apart from its being admittedly inconvenient, it’s quite funny how things fail to work. So far, I’m failing to work as well, and I’m looking forward to visiting the labour exchange the first thing in their office hours. Of course, I don’t suspect that they would get me a job, but I expect to have a lot of fun face in face with the clerk. I enjoy not working for a while, but it’s a lot of work to look for work, it’s even more work than an actual work. Besides working on finding a work, I’m working on my own work, which is the implementation of a free-lancing plan. I figure I might just as well be a starving free-lancer in the comfort of my home rather than a starving employee in the friendly and dynamic working environment of a supermarket chain. I’ll keep you posted!

Lost in London; or, I Hate You, Google Maps

Lost in London; or, I Hate You, Google Maps

I begin each of my occasional travel posts with the observation that I hate travelling. Because I do. One of the valid reasons for this hatred is my utter lack of a sense of direction. I lose my way in my very home city whenever I inadvisably venture in a side street, hoping for a shortcut. It’s no wonder then that wherever I go, I get tragically lost.

The morning I set off for my trip to London, I took a taxi in case I strayed off on my way to the railway station. Also, I didn’t want to give my suitcase a headache by dragging it in tow on the cobblestones. I found the right platform by trial and error and with the help of the knowledge that my RegioJet train will be yellow, unlike the discoloured Czech Railways cars.

Later, two hours into my trip, I was well pleased with myself as I hadn’t got lost yet. Perhaps it’s because it wasn’t the mushroom kind of trip when you chase a hallucination off a moving train. I was hallucinating though when I joined a nun in the business class compartment, who helped me to hoist my luggage on the rack and then sat down to WhatsApp some messages and Instagram her complimentary mint tea.

I miraculously didn’t get lost up to boarding the plane, likely due to the fact that it wasn’t my first trip on this route. I congratulated myself on the minor miracle that I performed. My confidence however waned the second I set my foot on the British soil. I got lost on the airport apron and couldn’t find the terminal. I’m not very observant, and how would I know a terminal from a hangar?

I wasn’t shot on the spot, which I probably would have been in America, but was politely escorted to the appropriate exit (Can I help you, Madam?). After an hour of crawling at snail pace on moving walkways, I got ejected in the arrival terminal. I had been put to shame by a person twice my age who speed-walked on the travellator and pulled his suitcase behind him with great agility, but that didn’t bother me enough to walk on it too.

The terminal turned out to be complex, to say the least, or a maze, to tell the truth. It may have been excellently signposted, but I don’t do 3D and can only read basic 2D plans, excluding actual maps due to their confusing complexity. The GATWICK EXPRESS signs pointed in random directions and proved to be impossible to follow. I suspected it was an instance of British dry sense of humour. When I lost track of the signs, I found the train station.

I took great pride at my successful purchase of a train ticket in a machine. There was an awkward moment when I got entangled in the tape that mapped out imaginary corridors to queue in. Eventually, I was forced to crawl under the tape where it said NO EXIT. I swear it was the only exit. The machine had printed out three tickets, which seemed somewhat profligate for a single journey. The explanation occurred when I was trying to insert a receipt rather than a ticket in the barrier gate (That’s not the ticket, Madam!).

The attendant who yelled at me at the gate thought it prudent to usher me on the train. An hour later, I simultaneously got off and got lost at Victoria Station. I switched on my dearly paid data roaming and opened Google Maps. I never read a manual to Google Maps because I always optimistically believed that the navigation would be intuitive. Not only is this a misled idea, but I also always forget all about it. A downpour set on, and my phone was crying real rain tears while it was trying to figure out my current location.

Some time later, my phone suggested that I turn on Wi-Fi in order to be informed about my precise location. This made me cry real rain tears too, as I assumed that if I were at a Wi-Fi spot, I would probably know where I was. An hour later it became clear that Google Maps had no clue where either I or my destination was. This revelation brought about a sharp stabbing pain in my chest. I was thinking a stroke, but it turned out to be a metal bra wire that bit its way out of the fabric. Unabashed, I dived into my cleavage and dug around to push the wire in its place.

I arrived at a random bus station, which made me tentatively hopeful, since I was looking for a particular name- and letter-marked bus stop. My optimism was ill-founded, for it turned out it was a cross-country bus station. I was considering for a while getting on a bus to Glasgow because London was clearly defying me, while in Scotland I feel at home. Then I tried not to be a pussy, kitty up and ask an attendant what he thinks about the G spot aka the G stop.

The poor man was puzzled. So was I when he showed me the way to the desired bus stop. I never get it when people give me directions. It’s clearly their fault. I was considering lying down on the ground and dying in a puddle of London rain when a nice policewoman approached me (Where can I direct you, Madam?). She showed me the way for the next fifty meters. Now desperate beyond being ashamed to ask, I proceeded to ask half a dozen more people. Two hours after getting off at Victoria, I found the spot.

The G stop was tucked away in the middle of I don’t know where and was largely disappointing. I never read the manual to London public transport, hence I discovered first-hand that a bus only stops when someone waves it down. I had an hour to meditate about this fact of life before another bus of the desired number came. I was waving it down like a mad octopus. I emerged as a public threat because I set my suitcase on its wheels when on the bus, and it chose to travel to and fro and punch passengers in their legs. They weren’t chuffed.

The most astonishing part of the day’s trip came when I arrived at the bus stop where I was getting off. I procured a paper street plan and started to follow it, all the while thinking that it might be faster just to walk in increasingly larger circles around the bus stop until I hit the hotel. Before I managed to get lost, I found the place. The entire route took me four hours, though Google Maps estimated one hour. Google Maps have no clue about maps.

The next day I checked Google Maps to see what sights were nearest to my position. As I said, I always forget that Google Maps are like Jon Snow – they know nothing. I’ve seen most of London already anyway when I was searching for my bus stop. The Maps Which Know Nothing suggested that Hyde Park might or might not be in a walking distance from my position. I refreshed myself with a slivovitz shot or two and bravely set out for the hike.

Finding the place was itself the highlight of the day. I grew grumpy several hours later when there was no end to the park – and when the effects of the slivovitz wore off. Determined to find the end of the park because I hate loose ends, I walked past the bridge as far as to the end of Kensington Gardens. How was I supposed to know that behind the bridge it’s not called Hyde Park anymore but Kensington Gardens?

I exceeded my original objective, but my pleasure was tainted by the fact that I had to walk all the way back. After the previous day’s experience, I understandably didn’t trust buses. The whole hike took eight hours. It surprised me not a little that I still lived, since I’m strikingly unfit and unathletic.

I’m also incorrigible and incapable to learn from experience, for I cheerfully consulted Google Maps the next day to see what other sights there were within ten miles, which was apparently a walking distance for me now. There was Buckingham Palace. The directions seemed pretty straightforward, but I defeated them and went the wrong way.

I did find the place, but only after walking a significant stretch past a high wall adorned with barb wire at the top and polite warnings not to trespass. I wasn’t inclined to barbecue myself on the barb wire, so I meekly walked and walked and walked along the very boring road. The palace wasn’t at the end of it and I had to took a T-turn, which is a half-U-turn, to get there.

Once satisfied with Buckingham Palace, I was self-destructively craving for more walls, wires and gates. I ambitiously decided to walk through St James’s Park up to Trafalgar Square. Admittedly, I was originally aiming for the Downing Street, but I wandered off a little. At Trafalgar Square I got lost. I certainly knew I was at Trafalgar Square, what I didn’t know was how to find the Charing Cross station. The inhuman amount of hiking got the better of me and I was determined to take a bus or die in the attempt.

The first piece of advice I received from a local was to go to the Strand, where there’s a pharmacy and a railway station, and Charing Cross. There was some logic to this advice, as it turned out an hour later, when I actually got to the Strand to see for myself. For the directions to be helpful, though, they should have been: Walk round and round and round Trafalgar Square and when you find a street leading from it called the Strand, you’re there.

Still lost, I moved in side streets and was addressed by a bored security guard: Why so sad, Madam? I walked up to him and whined, I’m lost. I thought that was self-explanatory. It wasn’t. The man took greater interest in my facial expression than my welfare and shockingly proposed to trade his directions for my smile. I frowned and was about to walk away when the man gave me his directions after all and added some unsolicited Zen advice.

I found the bus stop, the bus and the hotel. On the day of my departure, I even found the relevant tube station. At the ticket gate an attendant spoke to me. As I don’t speak Londonese, he had to repeat his question five times. After I understood that the question was where I was travelling to and after he made himself satisfied that I was a complete idiot who doesn’t speak English, he announced that I wasn’t getting to my destination from here. I felt a sudden urge to stab him with my bra wire. I didn’t when he showed me to the right platform.

The tourniquet at the train station still hated me and refused to eat the ticket that I fed it. An attendant pulled me over (Come on here, Madam!), scrutinised me and my ticket and then let us go. I went through the last batch of madam-ing at the airport, where I was semi-stripped and put in a sunbed which was really an X-ray. Inadvertently, I promise, I smuggled on board a lip balm and half-drank tube of Speed 8 stimulant. In your face.

Power Blackout; or, Apocalypse Now

Power Blackout; or, Apocalypse Now

I grew up in a one-street village situated (in)conveniently at the bottom of a valley surrounded by woods and wine. Whoever founded the settlement was clearly wasted: while the sunny slopes of the hills did provide a nice site to plant grape vine, rain water tended to flow down the slopes and flood the village on the regular. I also blame said village founder, deceased since about the Middle Ages, for not foreseeing that the villagers of the future will be addicted to electricity and won’t be chuffed with the frequent power blackouts for whose frequent occurrence in the valley there is a scientific explanation which I don’t remember.

The village natives took the blackouts with a stiff upper lip, though they weren’t even British. My mother looms large in my memory as the candle fairy – not to be confused with candy fairy – as she roamed the rooms of the house carrying a lit candle and dripping wax on the carpets. The blackouts weren’t that bad as long as the stove ran on gas, the heating on wood (hence the rapidly thinning woods behind our house) and the TV mostly didn’t run at all anyway. The situation grew worse with the advent of the computer and escalated quickly with the arrival of the dial-up internet (though the latter mostly didn’t run anyway).

Now I would kill for Wi-Fi – though I will deny it at the court of law because my blog was hijacked and I’m not even writing this. I live in a moderately sized small town (provided that a small town can be otherwise than small), large enough to boast a reliable power supply because no one wants TV-less and Wi-Fi-less people taking to the streets each time when there’s a little rain or wind or whatever else upsets the volts and watts. Recently I experienced the first major blackout here. To say that it was apocalyptic would be a gross understatement.

It started – as could be reasonably expected – with a Wi-Fi failure. My email client wouldn’t download my mail. After composing a less than flattering letter of complaint addressed to Microsoft Outlook® (composing mentally, that is, deprived as I was of both email and outlook), it occurred to me to check the Wi-Fi connection. It was down. However, Bill Gates helpfully advised that I search the Internet for help when the Internet isn’t working. What a practical tip – not. Also, I suspect that Bill wasn’t as smart as publicity suggests.

As I averted my eyes from the laptop in sheer frustration, I noticed that the thermostat on the wall grew blank. Does it run on Wi-Fi, as do I? As I stood up to investigate, I saw that the clock of the oven grew blank too. What an odd coincidence. It almost looks as though there was a power blackout. Wait. It is a power blackout! I was puzzled, bemused and sad. What a bloody betrayal of civilisation! I curled up on the floor next to my cat, who was ignorant of the tragedy that befell us, and waited for the renewal of life energy. The wait took a while.

Did I mention I was waiting? I waited until the floor got cold because the floor heating, while it doesn’t use Wi-Fi, still uses electricity. I waited until I grew hungry, which was too bad, because my pantry was only stocked with microwave meals, instant noodles and toast. I wasn’t sufficiently starved out to eat uncooked toast. I couldn’t use the toaster, the kettle, the stove – and I couldn’t use Google to search for a wilderness survival kit (neither could I use Bing, even if I chose to descend so low). I had a vague notion that you should hide under the table in emergency, but maybe I’m confusing it with a nuclear emergency.

Driven by hunger, I descended as low as I could – that is, downstairs. I was pleased to see that the stairway was lit, however creepily, with emergency lights. (I’m aware that I used the word emergency three times in the last three sentences, but it’s an emergency!) I headed to the convenience shop conveniently situated on the ground floor of my block of flats to get some rolls. Alas, the shop was shut due to power cut. Don’t say. This was a relatively cheerful discovery in contrast to the subsequent finding that the house lift apparently runs on electricity too. I live on the sixth floor.

By the time I climbed up to the cold, dark and (most shockingly) Wi-Fi-less flat, I nearly incurred a blackout myself. I’m not terribly athletic, to say the least. My heavy heaving woke up the cat, who yawned, made a yoga cat-cow and casually approached to observe me experiencing a seizure akin to an anaphylactic shock. The cat grew bored and abandoned her dying can- and door-opener after five minutes. I kept on hyperventilating somewhat longer.

Resilient as I am, I decided to test if instant noodle soup can be brought to life with warm tap water when hot water isn’t available. Guess what. It can’t. The result tasted as I imagine a piece of plastic immersed in lukewarm water would taste – nasty. Serve me right for having silly thoughts of food when I had a fridge full of booze. I poured a nice glass of white, curled up with a book and grabbed the cat to sustain my bodily temperature on her heat. At that point the power went back on. Wine solves everything.

Dark Side Thursday: It’s Not My Birthday, and It’s Not Even Thursday

Dark Side Thursday: It’s Not My Birthday, and It’s Not Even Thursday

This is my idiosyncratic (not to be confused with idiotic) contribution to Andy Townend’s Dark Side Thursday challenge. It’s a bright take on my dark side, so it’s no match to Andy’s very own cemetery serial story or Desleyjane’s inaugural contribution describing her own murder.

I woke up to a bunch of birthday wishes today, and it’s not even my birthday. The internet thinks that it is, though, so the reality is irrelevant. It’s all the fault of my dark side. My dark side thinks that my birthday is nobody’s business, so when I registered for Facebook, I filled in a fake date.

Telling the date when I was born isn’t a big deal, but that’s how it starts: you give Facebook your birthdate and the next thing they’ll want your measurements. I didn’t feed Facebook a random date though. I used the other most important date of my life: not my wedding date (which was smart, considering that I divorced), but my graduation date. Graduating is a much more memorable achievement than being born or being married.

Now how to explain it to the mislead well-wishers. I received lovely birthday wishes from a dear fellow blogger the first thing in the morning. When I texted back with a thanks and an observation that it wasn’t my birthday, my poor friend was devastated. I also mentioned that my birthday was actually in July, but I accidentally typed June, on which I corrected myself, and now I think she thinks I wasn’t even born at all.

That much to my credibility. A better informed well-wisher, better informed because he eavesdropped on the previous awkward conversation, proceeded to wish me a happy unbirthday. I suppose it’s better than an unhappy birthday. I unthanked him anyway. I’m just like the Queen in reverse: I celebrate my official birthday in spring while it’s actually in summer.

Singing, Peeing and Drilling; or, the Sounds of People

Singing, Peeing and Drilling; or, the Sounds of People

Living among people has one major disadvantage – namely, the people. Even when one hides in one’s own den of a flat to avoid the sight of people, the sound of them can’t be entirely avoided. The thing is, not all human habitations are properly sound-proof. My experience twists the laws of physics and suggests that instead of absorbing noise, walls of homes tend to amplify it.

I was brought up in an old two-level house and was used to its human and inhuman (also inhumane) noises. My room was surrounded by the kitchen, hence the daily clinking of dishes, and the living room, hence the nightly noise of the TV turned up loud. The inhuman sounds included mostly rats eating through the structure of the building. The most inhumane of all was however the neighbour’s tireless playing of brass music – he must have been the only person left on earth to enjoy the assault on the ears that brass music is.

Moderately old
Moderately old

Then I moved to a moderately old block of flats. The sounds produced by the house and its inhabitants at first felt like living in a combat zone. Doors banging, people yelling and music playing indoors, dogs fighting, cars racing and glass smashing outdoors. It took me some time to accept that it’s not a world war but just people casually existing. Eventually, I came to know my neighbours on all floors more intimately than either of the parties involved ever wished for.

Next to me on the same floor there lived an old gypsy woman. She used to have a husband, but he died under intriguing circumstances which were not publicised in the death notice stuck with duct tape on the entrance door of the house. I dubbed my neighbour Esmeralda for her inclination to Latin American theatricality. She travelled in taxis, partied most nights and was returning home singing and swearing at the lack of a lift in the house.

Occasionally Esmeralda’s family members would come to extract money from her, which provided for either a tragic or a comic performance, depending on whether she gave up the money or not. When the police knocked on my door to inquire about her, I thought it prudent not to know anything. I didn’t want to end up as Esmeralda’s late husband.

15-05-10-people (4)
Living together

Stacked in the bed-sit above me was a middle-aged alcoholic with enlarged prostate. He lived alone, but on and off, fellow female drunkards sought shelter in his place. They would sit together on the miniature balcony, clatter with beer bottles and tap cigarette ashes down on my laundry hung out to dry. The prostatic alcoholic was a great animal lover. He used to feed the birds in all seasons, causing the seed skins and bird droppings to be strewn all over my balcony. Finally I stopped putting the laundry out.

This upstairs neighbour had prostate problems so severe that I considered starting a fundraiser to get him a Prostenal course of treatment on the house. His prostate was very much my business, for he kept on peeing a few drops very noisily each hour, days and nights. I suspect he must have been standing high on a block when doing this, otherwise I have no explanation for the sheer loudness of his urinating. It must have been the same block that he used for drilling training, as with the amount of drilling he did, he couldn’t have made do with just the walls, the ceiling and the floor.

I moved out from this colourful house soon after the local street kids grew up, started to smash windows, doors and cars big time and amused themselves by running up and down the stairs in the house and banging with baseball bats on people’s doors. I got my car vandalised, possibly because I was silly enough to try tell the kids off when they were vandalising something else. So I got rid of the car and moved to a new block of flats, alas in a close neighbourhood.

No people beyond this point
No people beyond this point

The other day I happened to meet a neighbour from the previous house. He lived downstairs and from his flat there always oozed cigarette smoke, dog smell and loud techno. He lived with a noisy wife, an unascertained number of children and several dogs. The neighbour looked good enough now, as he was walking two ancient dogs, and he spoke to me coherently and more substantially than we ever spoke when we lived in the same house. It looks that his wife and the younger kids had left, the eldest youthful delinquent had been put away in a correctional facility, and the man was doing better than before.

I’m hoping for the same for me, as I had left one husband and one cat behind and now live at the top of the world (or on the top floor, at least) with the other cat that I got in custody. The house is so new that some of the units are unoccupied and dead quiet. The walls seem to be made of actual brick rather than cardboard, and nothing can be heard from the inhabited flats either. The silence is so oppressive that it regularly makes me suspect a nuclear catastrophe had happened and everybody died. I hate to say it – but I miss my singing, peeing and drilling neighbours. People make one feel alive.

Fear of Flying; or, Eyes on the Door

Fear of Flying; or, Eyes on the Door

I don’t like travelling in general and travelling by plane in particular. I never had an irrational fear of flying – and I still don’t. What I incurred is a perfectly rational fear of flying as a result of the recent trend of suicidal co-pilots. On my first flight after the Alps accident, I had at least a good chance that I wouldn’t even make it to the airport. It’s not that there has been an upsurge of suicidal taxi, train and bus drivers. Rather, I have no sense of direction (though I’m a leftist), which is a moderate handicap when trying to get from point A (home) to point B (airport).

I parted with my home and my cat to the accompaniment of many tears on my part and indifference bordering on annoyance on the cat’s part. The first stretch of my route was covered by a taxi, as I wasn’t particularly keen on lugging my luggage all the way to the railway station. Also, I’m lazy. The taxi driver proved a shocking prowess when he found my address. This is not a slight task because my address doesn’t exist. Seriously – ask your nearest clerk. The kind young man not only didn’t kill me, but he also got me to the station on the first try and even helped me with my suitcase.

The train station is temporarily (read: eternally) under construction. I don’t really mind the workers drilling through the floors and trapping unaware passengers in the holes, what bothers me is the fluidity of platform designations. Within a matter of a week, platform 5 may transform into 1A and 1A into APPROACH VIA TUNNEL. Is this a train station or a coal mine? The train was delayed (this is Eastern Europe – which is self-explanatory), so I was at leisure to undertake a sightseeing stroll around the station to locate my platform. It was 1C, which was really 3, actually APPROACH VIA STAIRCASE.

Ready to go
Ready to go

Standing at the bottom of the staircase with my suitcase, I wasn’t chuffed at the prospect of the climb. However, an alien being materialised behind my back and before I aimed at his face with my weaponised handbag, he offered to carry my suitcase. I was analysing his offer. Does the anonymous benefactor mean to carry my luggage up to the platform or away to his stash? And would he appreciate its contents, including a hairdryer, a handbook on Marxism and several pairs of woollen socks? After much deliberation, I imperiously waved to the man to grab my suitcase and follow me.

At the top of the stairs, the alien gentleman grew tired and abandoned me and my suitcase. The conductress present for the train seemed to weight forty kilos with her cap and whistle, so I kindly helped myself with the luggage in the train without requesting her help. I tried to will the suitcase to levitate, but the bastard wouldn’t. Since trains bore me to death-near sleep, before the vehicle even left the station, I curled around my luggage to protect it from theft, set the alarm clock for two hours later and collapsed into unconsciousness.

Things got tricky in the train’s destination, from where I was supposed to take a shuttle to the airport. Prior to my ambitious trip, I received an insider’s knowledge that the shuttle stop was located in front of the station. This turned out to be a rather unhelpful information – while it narrowed the area of interest to a few square kilometres, there was no way to tell where the building had its head, its tail and its front. Forgive a small-town dweller ignorant of the ways of the big city.

Up the stairs
Up the stairs

Somewhat sleepily, blindly and hopefully, I trailed a bunch of people with suitcases, hoping they would lead me to the stop. Which they did – lead me to a tram stop. I entered the nearest local business to ask for directions. It chanced to be a tiny kiosk, where, taking down newspaper stands with my suitcase, I inquired and was advised wordlessly with an impatient hand wave in an ambiguous direction. That helped. Not. I found the stop after asking, successively, a fast food employee on a smoke break, a cleaning woman and likely a prostitute (not identical with the cleaning woman).

The shuttle appeared to be the site of a world record attempt in progress at how many people and how much luggage can be crammed in one bus at one time. I wasn’t happy to be part of the experiment. Grateful for my new flexibility and stability owing to yoga practice (minus the Zen), I assumed the Eagle Pose and held it for an hour. Because that’s how brave I am. Also, there was no way to move out of the pose. I got off at Terminal One because my flight was due from Terminal Two. (Yes, I know, that makes all the sense.)

There was little to no fuss at the security check because my Eastern European passport isn’t a source of special excitement in Eastern Europe. It is typically found thrilling by security personnel elsewhere, so I know to wear my best shoes, fancy socks and cute underwear to be ready for the thorough frisking I regularly receive. I always beep in the security frame – it’s my heart of steel. As I happened to have a priority boarding coming with my boarding pass, I was immediately segregated from the herd and chased from place to place enclosed in a fence of tape. Priority boarding never more.

Tram love
Tram love

Strategically seated in front of the plane in the aisle, I scrutinised the crew for marks of mental disorder. The flight attendants seemed sane enough, but the pilot looked Germanic, which didn’t evoke the best associations. Discomforted by the discomforting mien of the pilot and finding little comfort in the uncomfortable seat, I departed to the toilets after take-off. I saw the signs but no toilets – it turned out that while I was looking for a booth, the toilets were represented by a cupboard. In the cupboard I assumed an embryonal position, not because I was performing yoga but because I had just squeezed myself in a cupboard.

One must love the low fare airlines. I returned to my seat crawling along the LED lights on the floor in the aisle. I didn’t buckle myself for security reasons [sic] and kept my eyes on the door to the pilots’ cabin, ready to get my foot in the door, literally, if it should open. It didn’t. The flight lasted for over an hour, the passengers enjoyed recurrent turbulences and I was running out of gods to pray to. I probably didn’t breathe, but no oxygen mask was ejected above my seat. As I say, low cost airlines. The plane landed, eventually, safely, but next time I think I’ll just walk. I don’t have enough Zen for this.

The Real Red Tape: Your Address Doesn’t Exist

The Real Red Tape: Your Address Doesn’t Exist

Had I known the sheer amount and nature of the red tape business to attend to when divorcing and moving, I would have forever stayed poised in the state of separation in the eyes of god and, beyond god, the Institutions. Now, though divorced, I’m suspended in a zone of fifty shades of grey, deprived of my ID, driving licence, permanent address and, effectively, my official identity. I wonder if I’m even legally in my home country, but I’m too scared to ask, lest I should be deported to wherever officially non-existent persons are put away.

The first trial, involving dealing with electricity and water providers for my rented flat, was in retrospective a gentle foreplay to the roughhouse that was to come later. The marathon began with a delightful one-mile walk in biting cold to the seat of the electrical company, situated in a less than convenient distance from my home. I had researched in advance how to operate the six lifts in the modern building: a lift is allocated to each traveller individually, based on which floor you want to go, and she who gets in a wrong lift is lost forever in between the floors.

My impeccable plan was nearly ruined by a gang of noisy, rowdy men who violated my lift, pushed me to the back of the small cabin and then found it inexplicably hilarious when I was trying to get out on my floor through the sheer bulk of them. Since then my errand didn’t go quite as planned. I was the only customer in the large customer centre and clearly disturbed the clerk from updating her Facebook status when I dared to enter her booth. She hated me on first sight. It was mutual. I presented my request with utmost politeness, maintaining a professional smile on my face. Wait. That was what the clerk was supposed to do. Except she didn’t.


I asked to have the electricity bills registered and sent to my name, which is the usual procedure required of renters. The clerk didn’t like my proposal. I can’t say I was particularly thrilled either. I was however sure that the Facebooking official would be eager to dispatch payment reminders the first thing if my registration wasn’t successfully completed. Visibly disgusted, she took my Rental Agreement and copied details from the contract to her Facebook Timeline. She looked at me with a sigh and said, Your address doesn’t exist. I retorted, Are you sure? It existed fine when I left it this morning. There ensued an argument as to whether my home is a real place or not.

Finally, seeing that she is missing important Facebook updates, the clerk admitted that new buildings were not in the system yet and willed my address into existence. She handed me a list of advance payments to be charged monthly for the electricity. It was three times as much as I had reasons to expect. Are you sure, I ventured tentatively, that this amount is adequate for one person in a bedsit? The clerk gave me a look of deep disapproval, That’s none of your business, the payments are set as they are, and we’ll see if it’s enough after a twelve-month trial period. I stared. The woman made to return to her Facebook. Can I offer you telecommunication services? she said by the way. Are you joking? I thought, no-thanked her and left.

Uplifted up by this unqualified success, I proceeded to skid on slippery pavements in a vague direction of where I thought the water supplier building was located. Only it wasn’t. I had to accept that I got it wrong about a mile later, when I found myself walking on a motorway. I condescended to consult Google Maps on my phone. I was informed that the desired destination was four miles away from my position. I didn’t take Google’s word for it and I did right: after much puzzling and freezing on the spot, I found that I had the GPS disabled when I was leaving home to conserve the battery. Google thought I was still at my home address, the one that the electricity clerk thought didn’t exist.

Red tape
Red tape

You could say that it was complicated. With the phone clutched as a compass in my ungloved hand, which was starting to incur frostbite, I trampled across fields, parking lots and private properties for two more miles before I saw a building with a metal sea wave nailed on its façade. Unless it was an ocean centre in a landlocked country, I was there. No one was around, but when I stealthily entered the building, a receptionist materialised out of nowhere. Where to? she interrogated me. The customer centre? I tried. Very well, the receptionist broke into a smile and gave me directions.

I was so astonished by her friendliness that I didn’t listen and went on to bang my head on a glass door that didn’t open. It was the wrong door. Opening the right door for me, the receptionist ushered me to the relevant office. I was struggling with the temptation to ask her to hold my hand while I’m negotiating with the clerk. But I overcame my desire for a touch of humanity, and the receptionist abandoned me. The clerk gave me the familiar look of professional annoyance. I curled up in the chair, recited my request and procured my papers.

But you don’t own the flat, said the clerk after she studied the intimate details of my Rental Contract. No, I know, I admitted, and don’t need to be reminded, I thought silently. So I can’t change the billing to your name, the clerk jumped to a convenient conclusion. But—, I feebly protested, when she added as a side note, And the bills are not registered in your landlord’s name either, but to the “Home on the Hill” company. I was mortified. Does it mean that my landlord is not my landlord and that I rented the flat from a person who doesn’t own it and hence can’t rent it? Also, “Home on the Hill” sounds like a pyramid scheme.


I kept on staring at the clerk. She had meanwhile returned to her Solitaire. That would be all, she observed without looking up. Can I have my documents back? I asked humbly. Ooh! Now the clerk was mortified by her appropriation of my ID and my Rental Contract, the validity of which now came in doubt. Having retrieved my papers, I left the gamer to her cards and left. All done? the super excited receptionist called at me as I was trying to be invisible on my walk of shame. Yes, I white-lied and ran. I wasn’t pursued.

Not precisely super excited about the result of my errands, I dragged my super exhausted self all the way back home. I might or might have not stopped on the way to get the cheapest box wine of the brand Mr Cellarman, popular among Alcoholics Anonymous. I arrived home semi-dead, but glad to find the building still existing. In your face, Facebook clerk. As I was wiping snow, slush and mud off my boots before going in, my eyes travelled to a large plaque above the door. It said, Home on the Hill, 666/21e Hospital Street.

“Home on the Hill” is of course the name of the collective of flat owners in the building. That explains a lot. Such as why the water supplies for the building are registered in this name. It also implies that my landlord can still be my landlord. Or not. I informed my tentative landlord about the water registration situation. He said he knew. But since he knew, why on earth did he send me to re-register with the water company? Was it a loyalty test? Is he a red tape agent provocateur? I’m scared and I started sleeping with scissors in my hand. For the tape.

From a Backyard to a Bedsit; or, Kidnapping My Cat

From a Backyard to a Bedsit; or, Kidnapping My Cat

Two days after I had moved from a house in the country to a flat in the city, I concluded that it was time to move my cat. The poor little dear had remained in the backyard, not unattended but meowing plaintively as she sensed the universal nervousness surrounding my move. The idea was to return for her specifically once the boxes had been unpacked, because the prospect of me and the cat buried among boxes to start with and stressing out in unison didn’t strike me as particularly enticing.

On impulse – the impulse being me missing my cat and having the boxes all miraculously cleared out already – I got on the train back to the middle of nowhere to pick up my pet from our old place of residence. I was hoping I would be able to kidnap aka catnap her smoothly, planning only to say hello to the grandparents living on the ground floor. The top floor, occupied by my ex-husband and ex-occupied by me, should have been empty, as I expected the man to be out. He indeed had been out, which was confirmed when his car pulled up to the side of the road as I was walking from the train station to the house. I got in, wondering what my mother would say if she saw I disregarded her advice not to get in a car with a stranger.

My former spouse assumed by default that I had come to tidy up the minor havoc that was wreaked on his home as a result of me having moved half the household out. First I inquired where the bloody batteries were that used to be in the drawer and that I needed for my new clock. I received an indifferent shrug in response. That sparked in me the angry courage to announce, Well, okay, so cheers, I’ll just grab the cat and I’m off for the train. The man wasn’t pleased by my proposal to get my reward without getting any work done. He still let me catch my cat though, if not the train.


Before going, I stopped at the grandparents’. I fully expected the grandmother to offer me the usual slivovitz shot after I had spent five years of my life cohabiting with them. I wasn’t offered anything. Fair enough, let me freeze to death, you person, you, by refusing to provide me with internal heating in this frost. Shaking with disappointment and cold, I nearly got the wrong cat, the grandparents’ old blackie instead of my tabby kitty. They are obviously so easy to confuse.

My tabby enjoyed her transport box as little as I enjoyed dragging the sheer weight of her and the luggage all the way to the railway station. Just as I managed to the railroad crossing, the familiar formerly family car slowed down at the side of the road. I’m being stalked by my ex, how romantic, I thought as I crossed the road to meet him, reasoning that I might wish to avoid a public scene. On the other hand, we were just in front of the village pub, whose regulars would surely welcome an impromptu theatrical performance. They might even lose some coins as courtesy to the amateur actors.

The ex addressed me condescendingly: Don’t be stupid.
I said irritably: You mean “stop being stupid”.
He glared and glowered: Stop correcting me!
I retorted angrily: See, that’s why I’m divorcing you. You’re so bloody mean.
He stared in disbelief: Don’t be so bloody oversensitive.
I gave up, got in the car, thinking: You mean “stop being so bloody oversensitive”.
Etc. etc. etc. You get the idea.


Apparently, my divorced husband was willing to give me a lift home and was ready to do so even though I left his house in a post-apocalyptic condition. Possibly, the man is not as mean as I believe; but I’m so bloody oversensitive that I wouldn’t know. Focusing my attention on the cat, I stopped conversing pointlessly with the man and started to converse pointlessly with the cat. She had meanwhile turned into a Schrödinger’s Cat: I couldn’t tell if she was alive or dead because she grew quiet and it grew dark, so I could neither hear nor see anything.

After an hour of me worrying for both of our lives (mine and the cat’s, not so much the driver’s, except for considering that he might not drive safe if he were dead), we arrived at my home. Schrödinger’s Cat was carried upstairs and deschröndingerised by being moved from the dark to the light. The divorced man proceeded to take leave from the cat with such unprecedented affection that I needed to remind him that he doesn’t like pets in general and the cat in particular. Hurt, he insisted I was wrong. Offended, I insisted he was a bit late. Precisely one divorce court session late.

When the master left, it was time for the mistress to open the cage, or let the cat out of the bag. She seemed well settled in her box, as she probably already incurred the Stockholm Syndrome. Suddenly she leaped out, sniffing and surveying with her beady eyes, and then very slowly, waddling like a duck on the unaccustomed hardboard floor, she headed under the table to check out my modem. Satisfied with finding that there is a Wi-Fi connection, she retired in the closet and, indifferent to her changed surroundings, dozed off. What a cat.