Part 14 – Copacabana, Kidnapping and Arnold Schwarzenegger

I feel that a preface is necessary, since it is now almost two years since my last update. The primary inspiration for the renewal of my blog is that I will spending my next semester in Brazil.

Originally, I had an ERASMUS exchange set up in Austria for my last semester. Austria, a country where the most dangerous thing that could happen would be questioning the greatness of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or returning to Scotland with an Austrian accent, that would make my German girlfriend want to punch me in the face every time I spoke with her in German (assuming that she doesn’t already want to punch me in the face, irrespective of accent or language). Instead, I swapped a piece of tranquil, picturesque, Alpine Europe for Brazil. A country with its dedicated own crime article on Wikipedia. This impression has hardly been helped by the frenzied coverage during the World Cup, with seemingly every cross section of Brazilian society seeming to decide that a few good riots were exactly the right ingredient to spice up the World Cup.

My new home in January?

My new home in January?

Of course, there is a simple reason I chose to forsake Austria for Brazil. Generally, for myself at least, the more awkward/dangerous/downright crazy an option is the more attractive and logical it seems at the time. Doubts and common sense seem to be a delayed function of time in comparison, useful and present only after a decision has been made. And for exactly these reasons can I not wait to go to Brazil. A land of binary states: the beauty of the Amazon and Copacabana beach, juxtaposed with crack cocaine caused crime and poverty. I will be living in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo or Belo Horizonte, the smallest city of which, Belo Horizonte, still has a population that exceeds that of my homeland, Scotland.

A map of where I could be living in Brazil

A map of where I could be living in Brazil

However, before I head to South America, I’ve been living somewhere even stranger for a Scotsman…England

More specifically, London. A city which, in truth, is not dissimilar to an independent country within the UK. On about every conceivable economic statistic London is a massive outlier. Today I read that the average rent in London is over £1400 a month. The rest of the UK is £650 a month. The average house price in London is approximately £400,000, compared to £180,000 for the rest of the United Kingdom.

There is, of course, a very good reason that I know these statistics. I’m currently working at the Financial Conduct Authority, which is the regulatory agency for the financial sector in the United Kingdom. I could talk more about my work, but then they’d probably have to kill me. What I can say is that I’m working within mortgage regulation, giving me a horrifying insight into the lives of grown up problems. Y’know, those people for whom doubts and common sense is not a delayed function of time, but a constant companion.

I must say that I’ve found London to be disappointing. Now, I’m not some country bumpkin from the north of Scotland who’s missing his croft and cuddling up to his beloved sheep during those harsh hours of northern darkness. I’ve lived in Singapore, Berlin and Glasgow and I can, without a doubt, say London is my least favourite of this exquisite selection. Singapore is as expensive, but at least is a wet dream for anyone who has OCD or craves organisation, while Berlin is infinitely cheaper, more welcoming and blessed with a unique sense of craziness that simply makes it my favourite city.

The one unique attribute from the selection that London possesses is its sense of power. Since I’m working at Canary Wharf, I’ve been working in the same place as all those nasty bankers you’ve been hearing about. Y’know, those guys that caused that little financial Armageddon that you may have appeared on the news once or twice… Compared to my normal life as a penniless student, this contrast is rather marked and bizarre. Going to work in a suit everyday feels about as unnatural an addition to my body as that of wings or a second head who insists on being addressed as Hugo. I think the one experience that I’ve had that sums this up, was when I was waiting in line for the cash machine outside work. The guy in front of me’s bank balance was more than the worth of my parents’ house.

Canary Wharf - Where I'm currently working

Canary Wharf – Where I’m currently working

Anyway, I’ll leave this here for a first effort at restarting my blog, and leave you with some Portuguese that I’ve been learning

Por favor, não me raptem!” – Please don’t kidnap me!

As you can see, I’m well prepared.

[DAS ENDE]

Part 13 – Religion, Chainsaws & Bangkok

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L-R: Linn, Kayne, Kush, Me, Anne, Wesley, Joey, Dirk, Vivian, Liz, Julia, Heather

Chaotic and seedy, yet simultaneously cultured.

Bangkok in Thailand was a breath of fresh air, acting as a pure antithesis to the rigidity of the westernised womb of safety that is Singapore. Hundreds of street food dealers yelling. The foul smell of durian. Haphazard stalls with various juxtaposed wares… A cauldron of chaos.

In total a group of 11 of us made the turbulent journey across to Bangkok. 11 is a very difficult number to co-ordinate. Much like atomic elements, when groups hit a certain mass they are often unstable and usually decay into more stable components.  The more people you have the more compromises each individual has to make, hence for a lot of the weekend we existed constantly diffusing between various combinations. This made it all the more fun though.

Now, we all know Thailand is famous for one thing in particular.

Nope. Not temples…guess again?

That’s right!

Ladyboys!

We encountered this phenomenon of genitalia in a café, firstly. A woman came over to take our order. Upon arrival “she” proceeded to ask what we wanted in a voice so low that it probably measured a healthy 7 on the Richter Scale. What was better was my friend Dirk’s reaction. He simply froze, seemingly unable to comprehend the mismatch of information that was flooding his brain. Like his brain was trying to shove together two wrong pieces of a puzzle.

>WOMAN’S APPEARANCE

>MALE VOICE

>COMPILING

>RUNTIME ERROR

Cue steam and smoke ferociously exiting the overburdened system.

The next encounter involved another friend of mine, Kushal. A complimentary part of our trip was a Thai massage.   Kush enjoyed his so much that he decided to go back later for another. It would be fair to say that his next masseuse was a tad more “rugged”.

To be fair to Kush, he was as unflappable as ever, his response being “but she did a good job”. What job? I’ll leave that clouded in ambiguity for the benefit of everyone’s mental hygiene.

Moving to the more cultured aspect of the trip…

I really enjoyed the Buddhist temples that I had the pleasure of visiting. I’ve never been a religious person and I never will be, yet I have always appreciated and loved visiting places of worship. Religion, as harmful as it has the possibility to be, has been the catalyst for some of the most beautiful and inspiring achievements of humanity. When I was in Strasbourg during summer I visited the cathedral there.

What a masterpiece it is. And what inspired it?

Religion.

It is definitely my second favourite cathedral after the Sagrada Familia* in Barcelona. It’s inspiring to think that many of these constructions predated such technologies as concrete and scientific aids like calculus. Faith is a powerful forcing function; everyone needs a vein of inspiration to achieve a life of value. For some people religion is the obvious fit.

* [That Gaudi was a crazy bastard. I’d love to reanimate his from the dead so he could design my house]

The Buddhist temples were beautiful and I enjoyed the contrast to the more solemn and sincere monuments of Europe. Their Buddhist equivalents were a riot of colour that exuded such energy and life. Bangkok is also the home of the world’s biggest Buddha statue. There was one fact that I particularly loved about it; that it took decades to build because they could only construct when they had enough donations from worshippers at the temples to continue construction. I thought that was incredible and must bestow upon the locals such a sense of ownership since they’ve paid for it as a collective. As a community.

Wesley in front of the world’s biggest Buddha statue

I could wax lyrical for hours about Bangkok, but so I don’t tire you all here’s some pictures.

Joey and Heather on an elephant. They’re strangely hairy.

Amazing buffet on the 81st floor of Bangkok’s tallest building.
Left, front to back: Heather, Wesley, Me, Kush
Right, front to back: Anne, Dirk, Joey, Linn

Me overlooking Bangkok from it’s tallest building. Balcony of where we had our meal.

L-R: Kush, Joey, Me
Eating grasshoppers on Khao San Road. Very crunchy.

Back at NTU (my university here) I’ve picked up Arabic language as an elective. The best part about this so far has been doing my homework on the plane Bangkok to worry the passengers around me. Arabic, from my extensive knowledge of 5 lessons, is a great language to listen to. It’s so guttural that it can sound like a conversation between a blender with gravel in it and a chainsaw (1), which is one of the reasons I like it. I much prefer German to the French I learned in school because it feels like a much more powerful language when it’s spoken. And damn scary. I think the Simpsons (2) summed it up best when discussing Russian. I couldn’t find the video, but it basically consists of Lisa asking some Russian men for directions. The gesticulation and sound appear very angry while the subtitles contrast to show helpful they’re actually being! My Arabic lecturer from Morocco does this too, wildly gesticulating so much that I’m sure that if I connected his arms to a turbine I could solve the world energy crisis. Now, another bit of linguistic satire with regards to German for y’all, before I retire from procrastination for the good of my future

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(1) – Speaking of chainsaws, I remember when I used to work in Argos when we sold two chainsaws in one day. On Halloween. Creepy as fuck.

(2) – Rule 1 of Life: Any act that occurs within the universe can be referred back to The Simpsons

[DAS ENDE]

Part 12 – Fireworks, Durian and a T-Rex

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Greetings Earthlings from Singapore!

So I’ve managed to survive almost 2 weeks now without being caned or having melted into an orange puddle of Irn Bru in the ferocious heat. Though with such a plethora of tasty, cheap food available coronary disease will surely succeed as the new favourite for the mechanism of my demise. 

Singapore lives up to its reputation as a culinary paradise. Hawker centres (think an Asian food court) are amazing, affordable and such an incredible range of cultural cuisines. Everything from chicken’s feet to crab to frog to fish that look like a Chernobyl speciality. All delicious. I’d still quite like to try dog. Just to create that awkward moment.

“Awww your dog is so cute. Dog tastes great y’know?”.

In the same way I’d love a picture painted by Hitler so guests would ask:

“That’s a lovely painting, who’s it by”

“Oh it’s a genuine first edition Hitler piece, gorgeous no?”

One culinary object that is rarer in Singapore than a dancing, golden unicorn with four heads are knives. You can get spoons, you can get forks, but finding a knife in Singapore will probably be the focus of Indiana Jones’ next mission (after the plot of the last one, doesn’t seem so ridiculous…). I’ve also tried chopsticks and my prowess wielding these weapons for my assaults on Asian cuisine is improving. My original attempts were as graceful and co-ordinated as a one legged Tyrannosaurus Rex in a tutu trying to perform ballet.

N.B. In Singapore, in culinary terms, “not too hot” translates as “will still give you third degree burns”. “Hot/spicy” translates as ” a degree of burns that scientists have been unable to classify because they’re still too petrified by the horror of witnessing its effects”.

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Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Where I will be studying for the next 9 months.

One thing that I almost immediately bought as a necessity was a guitar. Everyone has certain things that keep them sane. Things they don’t feel complete without. Like a Glaswegian jakey without a bottle of Buckfast.

Mine is a guitar.

Whenever some frustration, happiness, sadness needs expressed there is no better way for myself. Completely amazing how much you can express yourself with only 12 notes. It’s why I think John Frusciante is my favourite guitarist. He improvises so much live. It’s not a matter of playing a song back that he’s written, but expressing what he feels then. It’s personal. It’s pure expression. Though, admittedly, his face expressions when he plays do look somewhere between trying to pass a kidney stone and an orgasm…

Case in point.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gG7YDCJ8Ad8

I was present at the Singapore National Day where I witnessed the best fireworks display I’ve ever seen. My description at the time was that it “was like a declaration of war on epileptics”. Was amazing to see all the Singaporeans outside watching messages about how great their country is, all dressed in red. (A friend here, Joey, made the mistake of wearing a red t-shirt this day, making it almost impossible to locate him at times!)

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L-R: Ann, Armanda, Kush, Me, Joey and Eva

In Singapore you can be fined for anything. I’m going to assume this is why the Asians have such a prowess for mathematics and that their textbooks go something like this

“If Qing Bo smokes twice on the train, £1000 fine, while eating a big mac, £500 fine, while smearing durian all over his face, £500 fine, how much does he owe the government?”

It is quite intimidating seeing these signs everywhere reminding you of the penalties. Singapore has so many fines for things that could be considered petty that you’re often never sure which side of the line of legality you inhabit. One I am totally in favour of, however, is that of durians on the subway. Durian is an extremely smelly fruit they have here. The effect they have on your breath is similar to that of a small rodent crawling into your mouth and dying there.

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Finally I think I’ve unearthed my first signs of homesickness.

Over the past few days I’ve been desperately craving a burger. Not a McDonalds “burger” where the main meat is most likely from some sort of arachnid but a proper one, basically a cow enshrined in a roll. Something like the one Graham and I made before I left Scotland…

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Go on. Take a bite. Y’know you want to.

[DAS ENDE]

Part 10 – Geography, Exploding Falafels & Al Qaeda

Since my last entry I’ve been to 3 more places:

  • The Bavarian Alps, where, at 31 Celsius, my only probable souvenir in the post is aggressive skin cancer
  • Bretten for a mediaeval festival, where I felt right at home with archaic technology, coming from Elgin in north-east Scotland (putting that in there before Graham does…)
  • Finally, and most recently, in Heidelberg for a massive meeting of all the students in Germany.

One thing I’ve learned is that nothing promotes friendship like a mutual need. Being in a country where your knowledge of the local linguistics is poor means that any other native speakers of your language are welcomed with open arms.

They have a bad odour? Doesn’t matter.

They have links to Al Qaeda? Will you shut up? I’m trying to speak English again, at last!

They love Justin Bieber? OK, maybe I’ll reconsider…

Of course, I could speak English with the Germans that I’m not so familiar with, but that promotes guilt far too easily and establishes an obvious linguistic hierarchy.

In fact, the only comparable ecstasy to finding another native English speaker is getting a straight line in Excel for your experimental results. This is a clear indication that you, despite whatever divine force it is that likes to bully academics, have carried out the experiments successfully.

The United Kingdom has always had that advantage within Europe of being an island, that geographical veto it can use when it’s convenient. If we want to interfere in the EU, we’re European, it’s our continent too! However if we want to avoid it, oh no, we’re an island, we’re not really European.

Anyway here are some pretty pictures of Fellhorn, the peak in the Alps where I was.

It is glorious axioms of life that standing at the top of a mountain makes anyone feel more awesome. So here I am feeling awesome.

My favourite photo because I took it and managed to get the cow and the beautiful panoramic landscape…only to discover, to my hilarity, that said beautiful cow had taken a massive, wet shit in the bottom of the photo.

Also I’ve had a valuable lesson reinforced in the last week: never become a vegetarian. I was cooking for a vegetarian, so I decided to cook falafels. This was borne out of the Scottish philosophy of “everything tastes better deep fried” , so at least it was unhealthily vegetarian.

So I threw the first falafel in the pot of oil.

It exploded with the synthesis of a large volume of black, possibly carcinogenic smoke.

Graham assures me this is due to the black magic that is involved in the production of vegetarian cuisine.

Never again.

I may get a few extra exotically named vitamins by following a vegetarian diet but I’d probably blow off my arms while making a salad.

The following weekend I was in Heidelberg for the RISE Conference. It was a fantastic weekend. I have also acquired a new name: Seamus McMotherfucker. Cheers Derek for that one. Now, some pictures.

Myself, M for “Milne”. Or “Moron” as my brother kindly suggested. Wee bastard that he is.

L-R: Derek, Kevin, Myself, Ruben, Sara and Vishal. Audrey had deserted us by this point.

View from the castle of “Der Philosopher Weg” – “Philosopher’s Way”, where some of the most important philosophers of the day used to come to think.

Derek with the funniest sign I’ve ever seen.

Heidelberg is the oldest university in Germany (1386 gegründet). The Americans I was with found this pretty amazing, a university that predates the discovery of America by Columbus, let alone the colonisation of their country!

For anyone that has done a chemistry class ever also has Heidelberg University to thank. We all know that most of the more interesting lessons always involved a Bunsen Burner and hence the ability to BURN SHIT JUST BECAUSE WE CAN.

And there, pyromania, I believe, is an excellent place to finish.

Next Time: Amsterdam & Switzerland

[DAS ENDE]